Crime

MMA fighter turns witness in sordid kidnap and murder tied to ex-Presidente supermarket exec

For aspiring mixed martial arts fighter Ariel “The Panther” Gandulla, his involvement in a sensational murder case started at a Kendall gym in the spring of 2011.

While training, he heard some gym associates talking about a “job” offered by Manuel Marin, a wealthy fight fan who owned South Florida Presidente supermarkets. Within days, Gandulla said, he’d been unwittingly roped into helping kidnap Marin’s romantic rival — who wound up murdered in an isolated West Miami-Dade field, his genitals lit ablaze, his throat slit.

Gandulla’s firsthand account of the kidnapping, revealed publicly for the first time in a sworn statement released on Tuesday, has now become key evidence against the others charged in the gruesome death of Camilo Salazar in June 2011. Two of the men, Roberto Isaac and Alexis Vila Perdomo, start trial on Oct. 15 in a murder case with a distinct Miami flavor.

The star witness insists he never witnessed the actual murder and only participated in the kidnapping, a claim prosecutors believe is corroborated by cellphone records that show he was not on the scene where Salazar was tortured and killed.

Still, Gandulla’s testimony significantly strengthens what had been a largely circumstantial case — built on exhaustive cellphone records — against Marin, Isaac and Vila Perdomo, a former Cuban Olympic bronze medalist boxer.

The State Attorney’s Office released the sworn statement of Gandulla less than a week after he voluntarily returned to Miami from years on the run in Vancouver, Canada, pleaded guilty and agreed to spend 36 months in prison in exchange for his testimony. Gandulla is a former professional MMA fighter who wound up with an 8-9 record.

Marin, 65, who spent years on the lam in Spain before he was extradited last year, is set for trial in November 2020.

Marin and Isaac, 63, are charged with second-degree murder with a deadly weapon, conspiracy and kidnapping. Vila, who was in Las Vegas training for an MMA fight on the day of the murder, is only facing a conspiracy charge for allegedly setting up the plot.

Isaac’s lawyer, Michael Walsh, said Gandulla cut a “sweet deal.”

“He’s going to say what he has to say to save himself,” Walsh said. “But he’s lying.”

Vila’s lawyer, Ted Mastos, said Gandulla’s statement does not change that his client was not even in town when Salazar died.

“My client was in Las Vegas and really had nothing to do with it,” Mastos said.

Gandulla voluntarily gave his sworn statement at the Vancouver police headquarters in August. Miami-Dade prosecutors Gail Levine and Justin Funck, county homicide investigators Doug McCoy and Chris Villano all flew to Vancouver to take his statement. Miami-Dade defense lawyer Jay Kolsky, appointed by a court, was also on hand.

A businessman, Salazar lived in Coconut Grove with his wife and newborn baby.

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Mixed martial arts fighter Ariel Gandulla, pictured at a Miami gym in 2008, is charged with the murder of Camilo Salazar in 2011. El Nuevo Herald

He was last seen alive on June 1, 2011, after he dropped off his 3-week-old child at the office of his wife just before 10 a.m. He was supposed to return 45 minutes later but he vanished and stopped answering his phone. That night, friends found his Chevrolet Trailblazer where he had parked it, less than a block away from his wife’s office.

According to an arrest warrant, detectives quickly discovered that Salazar was having an affair with Jenny Marin, an old girlfriend. She was, at the time, married to Manuel Marin, who then was the vice president of Presidente Supermarkets, a well-known chain of Hispanic grocery stores.

Gandulla, 51, knew Vila, 48, from the Young Tigers gym, where the two trained together. He told prosecutors the following story:

His involvement began in late May 2011, when Gandulla was at the gym and overheard Vila, Isaac and another unidentified man talking about the “job” for Marin. Everyone knew Marin, a wealthy boxing and MMA fan, who often hung around in local fight circles.

Gandulla said he didn’t ask them for details. But he found out more when, a few days later, on June 1, 2011, Isaac called him just before 8 a.m.

“He wanted me to go with him to cash a check, because somebody owed him money,” Gandulla said.

Within a few minutes, he said, Isaac showed up to Gandulla’s Kendall apartment driving a white four-door pickup truck — which he said had been rented by Marin.

Gandulla agreed to go along. The two drove to the 2400 block of Inagua Avenue in Coconut Grove, where Salazar lived. Isaac claimed the man owed him money. They parked and watched the house for a bit. Isaac said he’d been watching Salazar for a few days. Isaac knew the Salazar family’s routine — and that Salazar drove his wife to work every morning.

Then, the two drove to where Salazar’s wife worked, an office building on the 2800 block of Southwest 31st Avenue. They parked down the street and waited. Eventually, they saw Salazar walking out of the building toward his SUV, Gandulla said.

“Roberto drives fast and goes right beside him,” Gandulla said.

Isaac, he recalled, grabbed some plastic zip ties and clipped a walkie talkie on his waist — to pose as a police officer. Isaac jumped out of the truck, approached Salazar and cuffed the man, his hands behind his back.

Salazar seemed confused, Gandulla recalled, but didn’t put up a fight. “He was saying, ‘What’s going on?” Gandulla said.

Isaac took Salazar’s car keys and gave them to Gandulla, who put them in the kidnapped man’s SUV. That’s when Gandulla touched the outside of the SUV — leaving a critical fingerprint tying him to the crime.

Phone records corroborated that Isaac and Gandulla were together near the victim’s home in Coconut Grove and from where he was kidnapped, according to evidence in the case. With Salazar bound in the back seat, the men drove away. Gandulla said he repeatedly called Vila, who was in Las Vegas.

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Camilo Salazar - Family photo

“I wanted to ask him what was going on,” said Gandulla, who said Vila kept blowing him off, saying he couldn’t talk.

They arrived at Isaac’s home in Wynwood. Gandulla said the unidentified man from the gym emerged, and helped Isaac carry the kidnapped man into the house.

Gandulla insisted he stayed in the rental pickup truck for at least two hours, repeatedly calling Vila, and Isaac, to press him on what was going on inside the house. Miami-Dade homicide detectives believe that’s true — phone records corroborated Gandulla’s calls, including the one to Isaac, who was in the same place geographically.

“What did Roberto say?” prosecutor Gail Levine, asked.

“To wait for him, that nothing was going on,” Gandulla said.

Finally, Isaac and the mystery man came out, carrying Salazar, who was now bound by the feet too, and shoved him into the back cab of the rental truck.

Phone records showed they drove north. By that point, Isaac had admitted their hostage had “had a problem with someone else’s wife.” Near Fort Lauderdale, in a warehouse district, they met Marin, who was driving a blue SUV, Gandulla said.

Salazar sat up and saw Marin. “He looks at the other vehicle and he starts saying that he had problems with that man. He became upset,” Gandulla said.

(Months earlier, Marin had confronted his wife and her secret lover at a cafe in South Miami-Dade).

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Ariel Gandulla, center, with his defense attorney, left, listens to the judge as the court interpreter translates in Miami-Dade Criminal Court on September 27. Gandulla pleaded guilty to kidnapping charges. Jose A. Iglesias jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com

Isaac and Marin opened up the truck, pulled Salazar out and shoved him into Marin’s SUV, according to the witness statement. A white plastic tarp covered the back seat.

“He was struggling, and he was saying, ‘Why are you doing this? Why are you doing this,” Gandulla recalled.

Isaac said they were going “to give the man a beating,” Gandulla said. “He thought I was going to participate.”

But Gandulla told prosecutors he wouldn’t go that far. While the others put the hostage in Marin’s SUV, Gandulla fired up the rental truck and abruptly drove off, back home to Kendall. “I was scared,” he said.

Prosecutors believe Isaac and Marin drove off to a rural area east of Okeechobee Road, near Northwest 137th Avenue, where they tortured the hostage, slit his throat and set his body ablaze. That night, their phones were tracked to the area where the body was found — and Florida SunPass records also placed Marin’s SUV in the area at the time of the murder, according to court documents.

Phone records obtained by the police backed up Gandulla’s claim. His cellphone never appeared where Salazar died, and was instead tracked back to his Kendall apartment.

Back home, Gandulla kept calling Vila in Las Vegas. Vila later apologized for getting him involved, and warned him to stay quiet.

Later that night, after dark, Isaac and Marin showed up to Gandulla’s apartment to get the rented truck. Isaac didn’t appear to have blood on him. But something was off.

“He smelled of gas,” Gandulla said.

Before driving off, Isaac claimed Marin paid him $20,000. Gandulla never saw him again, or anybody associated with the gym.

Gandulla later moved with his wife to Vancouver. More than a year ago, Vila messaged him on Facebook to tell him that police had issued him a subpoena.

He’ll face Vila in person next month, from the witness stand.

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