Crime

Ex-MMA fighter ‘The Panther’ returned to Miami to face trial in torture murder

After seven years on the lam in Canada, a former mixed-martial arts fighter known as “The Panther” has been returned to Miami to face trial for his suspected role in a high-profile torture murder.

Ariel Gandulla was booked into a Miami-Dade jail late Tuesday, after he arrived on a flight from Canada accompanied by law enforcement. He made his first appearance in Miami-Dade court on Wednesday, and was ordered to be held in jail before another hearing on Friday.

Gandulla, 51, is accused of taking part in the June 2011 murder of Camilo Salazar, whose body was discovered in a rural area near the Everglades. He had been severely beaten, his throat slit, his genitals torched.

Investigators believe Gandulla participated in the kidnapping and murder at the behest of supermarket mogul Manuel Marin. Salazar was targeted because he had been having an affair with the wife of Marin, who owned and operated several Presidente supermarkets and was once listed as co-founder of the grocery chain.

In April 2018, prosecutors charged Gandulla with second-degree murder and kidnapping. He was linked to the crime by a fingerprint on the victim’s car, and cellphone records, according to an arrest warrant.

Marin himself was a fugitive for years, living in Spain before he was captured and extradited to South Florida.

Miami-Dade police detectives also have arrested another former MMA fighter and Cuban boxer, Alexis Vila Perdomo, and his associate Roberto Isaac. Both are jailed, and their trials are set to begin next month.

Gandulla is expected to plead guilty and testify against Vila and Isaac, lawyers revealed in court earlier this month.

A native of Cuba, Gandulla came to Miami in 1994. As an MMA fighter, he started 4-0, a promising beginning for a fighter trained in judo and Greco-Roman wrestling. But his career fizzled and he wound up with an 8-9 record.

The year after the Salazar murder, Gandulla fled to Vancouver, Canada, where he also fought MMA bouts.

Miami-Dade homicide detectives had been looking to arrest Gandulla for months. But U.S. authorities initially resisted allowing him to return from Canada because if he was acquitted, Cuba would not accept him back on a deportation.

Eventually, Gandulla agreed to return to the United States voluntarily, and federal authorities allowed him into the country under a special parole program.

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