Gil Fernandez, a former cop and champion body builder, known as “The Hulk,” was the most intimidating man I’ve ever met. He was so scary that he’d make The Godfather cry for his mother. He owned Apollo Gym in Davie, Florida, which I belonged to in 1989, the year he became a born-again Christian and transformed the place into a center for worshiping and working out.
Jesus signs were placed on the gym’s walls and no sane person objected. Standing 6’0,” 275 pounds, Fernandez embodied “muscular Christianity.” A martial arts expert, he would occasionally host revivals in his gym’s parking lot, where he and other Biblical brutes would karate chop cement blocks in half. The goal was to mesmerize wide-eyed children and teach them that any feat was possible through Jesus Christ.
I belonged to this gym because it was across the street from my father’s pizza restaurant, where I worked as a delivery boy. Fernandez would occasionally call in, and it was one order we triple checked. After all, no one wanted to mistakenly put sausage on a vegetarian pizza and see The Hulk turn into, well, The Hulk.
Underneath that strained Christian façade we sensed a very angry man who came across as a ticking time bomb. We weren’t at all surprised when he was convicted in 1991 for three murders he committed in 1983. His victims, all drug dealers, were blindfolded, bound, gagged, shot point-blank in the head, and dumped into a ditch on the edge of the Everglades. To boot, he heisted their cocaine.
I thought of this story because it reminded me of a man with a similar profile who is in the news: Former New England Patriots star Aaron Hernandez who stands accused of cold blooded murder.
The signs that Hernandez was a bad dude were obvious – from the gang tattoos to college fistfights he had while attending University of Florida. However, he was foolishly presumed, by some suckers, to be a transformed man. According to the New York Times:
“By his junior year, Coach Urban Meyer was saying that Mr. Hernandez had been rehabilitated with daily Bible study sessions that the coach conducted personally.”
After fooling Meyer, Hernandez apparently hoodwinked Patriots owner Robert Kraft into believing he was redeemed. Although Jewish, Kraft recruits religious athletes under the false assumption that they are morally superior. (The latest is Tim Tebow, although I am not equating him with these bad guys: “We’re blessed to have a lot of people like that, but the fact that spirituality is very important to him is very appealing to me,” said Kraft.
This irresponsible religious delusion, shared by a college coach and an NFL owner, led indirectly to the murder of Odin Lloyd, who Hernandez allegedly shot gangland style in an office park. Instead of getting this human grenade professional counseling, they foolishly let Scripture take the place of a shrink. And now an innocent man is dead.
I’m not claiming that religion helps no one become a better person. However, fundamentalists appear so desperate to have their beliefs validated, it seems they’ll believeanyone who tells them what they want to hear.
A perfect example is David Berkowitz (aka The Son of Sam) a psychopath who claims he is on a new path. He has become a cult hero in some Evangelical circles. How easy they forget that in 1977, Berkowitz was arrested for using a .44 caliber pistol to kill 6 people and wound 7 more in New York City. He apparently took orders from a demonic black Labrador retriever owned by a neighbor. While these Christians preach “New Life,” they seem to conveniently forget Berkowitz’ lifeless victims.
By nature, violent criminals are con men who are adept at looking for targets to snooker. It seems that Evangelicals are often easy prey, because they aren’t suspicious of the high number of convicts who are suddenly “convicted by the spirit.”
Might some of these people have an agenda, such as trying to impress a parole board with religiosity in order to serve less time? Or, maybe they are already on death row and simply working to improve their legacy?
For instance, in 2012 Jesse Hernandez was lethally injected in Texas for killing an 11-month old boy with a flashlight. His final thought while strapped to the gurney was, “Continue to walk with God. Go Cowboys!” (Somehow, I think he was placed on the “down” escalator and will be forced to watch an endless loop of Washington Redskins games)
Evangelicals are often too willing to see “success stories” in people who are actually scoundrels, which places us all in danger. While some people deserve a second chance, misplaced faith can lead to fatalities. Psychiatrists are the experts who should be diagnosing and treating violent criminals, and their “redemption” should be decided on the couch and not the cross.
Wayne Besen is a columnist and author of the book “Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth.”