Crime

Torture-murder case takes a new turn as former MMA fighter pleads guilty and will testify

Ariel “The Panther” Gandulla, the former Miami mixed-martial arts fighter implicated in a brutal kidnapping and torture murder, has thrown in the towel.

Gandulla, 51, pleaded guilty on Friday to kidnapping and agreed to 36 months in prison. He said he will testify against his cohorts, including the supermarket magnate accused of orchestrating the killing of Camilo Salazar in June 2011.

The guilty plea unfolded two days after Gandulla, who had been a fugitive in Canada for years, voluntarily returned to the United States to face justice.

During a brief court hearing on Friday morning, he pleaded guilty to kidnapping. Prosecutors dropped charges of murder and conspiracy to commit murder.

Salazar’s body was discovered in a rural area near the Everglades. He had been severely beaten, his throat slit, his genitals torched. Police say the mastermind was Manuel Marin, a former owner of President supermarkets, who targeted Salazar after learning the man was sleeping with his wife.

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

Two others, former MMA fighter and Cuban boxer Alexis Vila Perdomo, and his associate Roberto Isaac, have been charged and will go to trial next month.

In April 2018, prosecutors charged Gandulla after he was linked to the crime by a fingerprint on the victim’s car, and cellphone records, according to an arrest warrant.

Gandulla, a native of Cuba who came to Miami in the mid 1990s, had a glimmer of success in mixed martial arts.

He trained in judo and Greco-Roman wrestling, and started his career 4-0. 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 prosecutors had been looking to arrest Gandulla for months. But U.S. authorities initially resisted his return from Canada because if he was acquitted, Cuba would not accept him back on a deportation.

He was living freely in Vancouver.

Then in August, state prosecutors Gail Levine and Justin Funck, court-appointed defense attorney Jay Kolsky, and Miami-Dade homicide investigators Doug McCoy and Chris Vilano, all traveled to Canada to meet with Gandulla.

In Canada, Gandulla agreed to the plea deal, and detailed his involvement in the case. He 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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