In 2011, Alexis Vila and Ariel Gandulla were at the height of their MMA careers — despite having taken part in the brutal murder of a man sleeping with the wife of a friend of Vila, according to charges leveled against the pair in Florida.
On June 1, 2011, the burned and mutilated body of Camilo Salazar was discovered on a dirt road in Miami-Dade County, Florida. A brush fire had caught the attention of law enforcement officers; almost immediately, a murder investigation was underway. Salazar was found with his hands bound behind his back, his body partially burned. His throat had been slit, blunt force trauma injuries to the head were also pin-pointed postmortem. Burns were observed in the pelvic area. Salazar had been 43 years old at the time of his death.
Miami-Dade County Deputy Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Emma Lew, who performed the autopsy on Salazar, ruled the death a homicide.
Just under four months later, Bellator MMA bantamweight Alexis Vila knocked out Joe Warren in the quarterfinal of the promotion’s season five bantamweight tournament. Vila would go on to appear in the final round of the tournament that season, beating Marcos Galvao along the way before losing to Eduardo Dantas in the final.
All three men faced by Vila would wear gold in Bellator at some point in their career, Warren in two separate weight classes. Alexis Vila, a former bronze medal winner for Cuba in freestyle wrestling at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, never would. For Villa, 2011 was the peak of his MMA career.
It was also the year he allegedly took part in the brutal murder of Camilo Salazar. Details on the case were provided to Cageside Press by the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, in an affidavit detailing the investigation. Vila was arrested April 17 on a sealed warrant for second degree murder and other charges, as Cageside Press previously reported. It was the culmination of an investigation spanning years.
The body of Salazar, back in 2011, was quickly linked to a missing persons case filed a day after his body had been discovered. Salazar had met with his wife, Daisy Lewis, on the morning of June 1, bringing with him their three week old daughter. Lewis fed the couple’s baby girl while Salazar took his leave, with his wife believing he’d return forty-five minutes later to pick up the child. Salazar never did; calls to his cell phone went unanswered. Friends of Salazar later located his vehicle a short distance away from Daisy Lewis’ place of employment.
Within a day or so of the body, and car, being discovered, a Miami-Dade Crime Scene Detective had processed Camilo Salazar’s vehicle, a 2002 Chevy Trailblazer SUV. That led to the discovery of a latent fingerprint, allegedly belonging to Ariel Gandulla. Gandulla, like Vila, was an MMA fighter, though with a career record of 7-9 (1NC), he never hit the same heights. Scattered among his journeyman’s record are losses to Kendall Grove and Doug ‘The Rhino’ Marshall, the latter coming under the WEC (World Extreme Cagefighting) banner. Still, 2011 was a good year for Gandulla in the cage, as the middleweight went 2-0.
Like Vila, who defected to the U.S. after his bronze medal win in Atlanta, Gandulla was Cuban. Unlike Vila, who was able to make his way to the U.S. off the back of Olympic glory, Gandulla arrived in America the hard way. A 2007 interview with Kevin Iole of Yahoo Sports recounts his escape from Cienfuegos, Cuba in the dead of night in 1994. Gandulla left his family behind, and set off for a new life in the U.S.
A Cuban refugee fighting on the regional circuit, trying to live out the American dream, and his countryman with an Olympic medal and a solid run in both Bellator and the WSOF. How did the pair go from the MMA circuit to murder?
The center of the case involves an affair between one Jenny Marin (who came forward as a witness), and the victim, Camilo Salazar. Salazar was an ex of Marin, who had married wealthy supermarket owner Manuel Marin while the pair were apart. She’d given birth to two children while married to Manuel; sometime after the birth of her second child, Salazar got in touch. E-mails led to in-person encounters, and soon, the affair was in full swing. Jenny went out of her way to hide her tracks, even obtaining a TracPhone to talk to Salazar (a TracPhone is a prepaid cell phone).
Despite her precautions, her cheating was uncovered by Manuel Marin by February of 2011. A confrontation between Jenny and her husband after a rendezvous with Salazar made it clear that the cat was out of the bag. A second confrontation between Manuel Marin and Salazar also ensued, with Manuel Marin threatening the man who would be found dead later that year.
Despite Jenny Marin’s infidelity having been uncovered, she and Salazar continued their affair, right into May of 2011. Towards the end of that month, the Marins departed on a family yacht trip to Bimini, in the Bahamas. Their return was delayed due to conditions at sea, with the couple not making the voyage back to Florida until June 1 — the same day the body of Camilo Salazar was discovered. Upon their return on the first, Manuel and one of his employees, Antonio Hernandez (who had accompanied the family on their trip), immediately left the docks in separate vehicles.
Crucially, Jenny Marin would later tell investigators that she witnessed her husband making an unusually high number of phone calls during the voyage. Back at the docks, with her husband suddenly and unexpectedly absent, she attempted to call Salazer, but was unable to reach him — something she chalked up, at the time, to him being busy with his wife and baby daughter.
Eventually, Manuel Marin’s vehicle (a Mercedes Benz which had been towed while events were unfolding) was examined. Blood was discovered in the car, but did not match the victim’s. Phone records were also obtained for Manuel Marin, which led to the identification of Vila, Gandulla, and another man, Roberto Isaac, as suspects.
Through interviews with the men, a web of relationships emerged. Vila, according to detectives, saw Manuel Marin as a father figure. The pair had known each other since the early 1990s, dating back to their time in Cuba. Marin was an integral part of Vila’s defection to the U.S. from Cuba, by way of Puerto Rico, following the Atlanta Olympics.
After an incident in 2004 in which Alexis Vila crashed his car into the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, Vila was jailed. Upon his release in 2007, he pursued an MMA career. He also met Roberto Isaac, who helped him out financially upon his release from prison. Isaac reportedly worked as a promoter and trainer at various times.
Gandulla and Vila, meanwhile, met in Florida, with Gandulla cornering Vila on a couple of occasions. According to Vila while being questioned by authorities, neither Gandulla nor Isaac knew Manuel Marin.
Using cell tower data, detectives were later able to pinpoint Isaac and Gandulla’s cell phones as being in the vicinity of Daisy Lewis’ place of employment on the morning Camilo Salazar was murdered. Isaac’s phone was found to have called Manuel Marin several times that morning; Gandulla also called Vila a number of times. In short, all four men were blowing up each other’s phones during the same time frame in which Salazer went missing. Then, later that day, the victim’s phone was found to be in the same area as Marin and Isaac’s. That was around 4:30PM. By 6:30PM, the body had been discovered.
Days after the murder, Manuel Marin dropped out of sight. By 2013, his wife had reportedly not seen him since shortly after the murder of Salazar, hearing from him only by phone on a handful of occasions, including their son’s birthday. His passport had vanished along with him. Manuel Marin’s children from a previous marriage eventually collected a number of his belongings from the couple’s home. It was believed he had fled to Spain, though he remained owner of a number of Presidente Supermarkets, at least on paper.
In the end, police opted to finally close the net on the suspects earlier this month. The fingerprint belonging to Gandulla, and cell records, tie the foursome together, and all four — Manuel Marin, Alexis Vila, Roberto Isaac, and Ariel Gandulla — are facing charges. In a statement to Local 10 News in Miami-Dade, Presidente Supermarkets said that Manuel Marin had not been involved in the company since his disappearance. “Mr. Marin was not the founder of Presidente Supermarkets,” the company said, “and has had no involvement whatsoever in the company since 2011. The Presidente family stands with the community and is hopeful of a quick and just resolution to these claims.”
Vila remains at the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center, with his next court hearing on May 10. Isaac has also been arrested, while Gandulla remains on the run. Marin’s whereabouts remain unknown. It’s important to note that the allegations against the men have yet to be proven in court. Via the Miami Herald, Vila’s defense attorney said that his client was in Las Vegas on the day of the murder. Vila and Isaac have pleaded not guilty to the charges, per the Herald’s report.
Gandulla never made much of a mark in the MMA scene, but for Vila, an Olympic medalist and Bellator/WSOF fighter who had a decent career, it’s a rather stunning downfall. As recently as 2016, Vila was attempting one last comeback in the sport. He told MMA Fighting at the time that he planned to show that “everything you want to reach in life you have to work for, and when you work, everything can be accomplished.” Now, everything the man accomplished is in ruins, and should the charges against him be proven, the horrific killing of a man he didn’t even know will be what Alexis Vila is remembered for.