JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The man investigators say helped orchestrate a conspiracy to kill a St. Johns County father of four in February 2022 plans to plead not guilty to the charges against him, his attorney said in a statement to News4JAX on Thursday.
Mario Fernandez Saldana was arrested in Orange County last week on charges of first-degree murder with a weapon, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, solicitation to commit a capital felony and child abuse.
“This is a capital felony punishable by death or mandatory life in prison,” State Attorney Melissa Nelson said last Thursday.
Fernandez, 34, was transferred to the Duval County jail on Wednesday and appeared before a judge in Jacksonville on Thursday morning. She ordered him to continue to be held without bond. He’s due back in court April 4.
His new Duval County mugshot was released Thursday.
Fernandez’s charges stem from the Feb. 16, 2022, murder of Jared Bridegan, 33, who was shot at close range several times on a dark stretch of road near the Sanctuary neighborhood while his toddler daughter was still strapped into her car seat in the back of his SUV. Police said bullets fired at Bridegan went inside the car, inches from his daughter’s car seat.
Bridegan is the ex-husband of Fernandez’s wife, Shanna Gardner-Fernandez.
The man who says he pulled the trigger in the Bridegan shooting -- 61-year-old Henry Tenon -- pleaded guilty last Thursday to second-degree murder with a weapon in the ambush killing. Tenon was arrested last month.
Nelson said in a news conference that when Tenon pleaded guilty, he agreed to testify against Fernandez, who investigators say was behind the months-long conspiracy to kill Bridegan that began Nov. 1, 2021, according to Fernandez’s indictment.
Fernandez’s attorney, Jesse Dreicer, gave the following statement by phone to News4JAX:
Mr. Fernandez has been brought and transferred to Duval County and we are in the very early stages of the process. We will be filing a plea of not guilty at his arraignment. Mr. Fernandez learned along with the public at the State Attorney’s press conference that Henry Tenon was responsible for the death of Mr. Bridegan and we understand that he entered a plea of guilty at his arraignment for that crime. It is Mr. Fernandez’s intention to litigate this case in a courtroom and not in the court of public opinion and we don’t believe it’s proper to comment on pending litigation.
Dreicer declined to comment on Gardner-Fernandez, saying he does not represent her.
Hank Coxe, the attorney for Gardner-Fernandez, previously told News4JAX: “I think it is inappropriate to comment publicly about a pending matter.”
Gardner-Fernandez’s parents own a multi-million dollar crafts company called Stampin’ Up based in Utah that does business across the U.S. They released their first public statement on the case in a message to their multi-level marketing partners, which was posted publicly online:
“As a Stampin’ Up! leader, we feel it’s important to communicate with you regarding a Gardner family matter.
Stampin’ Up! is aware that Mario Fernandez, Shanna Gardner’s current husband, has been arrested in conjunction with an ongoing investigation. Shanna (Shelli and Sterling’s daughter) and Mario have been separated for an extended period of time. We have no further details about the situation other than what has been reported by the media.
We understand that some demonstrators have received troubling comments about this matter on their social media platforms. Please feel free to delete comments of an inappropriate nature and block/report those commenters on your personal accounts.
You may also share this email with your teams if needed.
Stampin’ Up!’s longstanding commitment to you, and all of our demonstrators, is unwavering, Thank you for your concern and continued support.
Fernandez’s arrest warrant said Gardner-Fernandez (then Gardner) met Fernandez at her CrossFit gym in 2018 after her “highly acrimonious divorce” from Bridegan in 2015. Fernandez worked at the gym as a maintenance man.
There’s been a lot of public interest in Gardner-Fernandez, who has proclaimed her innocence in interviews with other outlets.
According to sources, Gardner-Fernandez moved with her children across the country to Benton County, Washington, where her family has a home.
The Daily Mail reported in January that Fernandez was staying with his brother in Orlando. He was arrested in that area last Thursday.
Untangling a conspiracy
Tenon’s original court records said he became involved in the murder conspiracy on Jan. 4, 2022 -- just over a month before Bridegan was killed.
Investigators said when Tenon was arrested on an unrelated felony driving charge in August 2022, they questioned him about Bridegan’s murder and a Ford F-150 truck they had been searching for since the shooting.
Tenon was later arrested in January 2023 for Bridegan’s murder. Investigators said the single link between Tenon and Bridegan was Fernandez.
The News4JAX I-TEAM had previously uncovered records confirming that Tenon rented a house owned by Fernandez in Northwest Jacksonville, about 25 miles from the scene of the Jacksonville Beach shooting. Nelson confirmed this information last Thursday.
According to the arrest warrant for Fernandez, bank records showed three handwritten checks that Fernandez wrote to Tenon. The amount of the checks was redacted from the document.
“We know Henry Tenon did not act alone, and Tenon has confirmed this to be true. His cooperation has both corroborated evidence collected during the investigation and provided additional evidence against Mario Fernandez Saldana for his role in the planning and execution of Jared’s murder,” Nelson said.
Investigators said they also discovered that the two men had more than 70 interactions via phone in the months before and after Bridegan was killed.
Fernandez’s warrant reads: “phone records show that Tenon and Fernandez had 35 phone contacts in February, 30 contacts in March and five to nine contacts in May and June, 2022.”
Gene Nichols, an attorney not affiliated with the case, Tenon’s testimony against Fernandez and others will be important -- and may lead to even more arrests.
“Henry Tenon has admitted to taking another person’s life. He has committed a murder. He pulled the trigger, and he’s admitted to it,” Nichols said. “It’s not going to be very easy to believe somebody who’s willing to go as far as he did. That being said, you can expect that if the words that he presents are corroborated by evidence, if what he is telling is truthful, and they can prove that by statements, witnesses, phone records or anything along those lines, then what he has to say is going to be a benefit to the state.”
According to the warrant, Bridegan had been on a routine “date night” with his children the night he was killed and had dropped off the two children he shared with his ex-wife before taking the typical route he traveled home.
“This road, unlike the nearby commercial area, is dark and mostly residential with no businesses in the immediate area,” the warrant reads.
The weapon from the shooting has not been recovered.
The state attorney did not give details on a possible motive, but the arrest warrant notes Gardner-Fernandez’s contentious divorce from Bridegan, who had also had a contentious relationship with Fernandez.
Gardner and Bridegan were married in 2010 and divorced in 2015. They shared custody of their 9-year-old twins. The arrest warrant also makes note that “up until the murder, Gardner shared equal custody of her children with Bridegan.”
Nelson said the investigation continues and many details are still being withheld because of that.