How investigators say they untangled conspiracy to kill Florida father of 4

Husband of slain man’s ex-wife is now charged in his ambush murder after shooter pleads guilty

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – When deadly shots were fired on a dark stretch of road near the Sanctuary neighborhood on Feb. 16, 2022, investigators say it was the culmination of a months-long conspiracy to kill Jared Bridegan, according to News 6 partner WJXT.

The St. Johns County father of four had just left the home of his ex-wife in Jacksonville Beach and stopped to move a tire out of the road, according to investigators. A tire they say was placed there intentionally.

Bridegan, 33, was then shot at close range several times 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.

The man who says he pulled that trigger — 61-year-old Henry Tenon — pleaded guilty Thursday to second-degree murder with a weapon in Bridegan’s ambush killing. Tenon was arrested last month.

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State Attorney Melissa Nelson said in a news conference Thursday that when Tenon pleaded guilty, he agreed to testify against a second person investigators say was involved in the murder plot: Mario Fernandez Saldana.

“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.

Fernandez, 34, is the husband of Bridegan’s ex-wife, Shanna Gardner-Fernandez. He was arrested Thursday morning in Kissimmee and was being held in the Orange County jail.

Mario Fernandez Saldana (Copyright 2023 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

He appeared Friday morning in Orange County court and will be transferred to Duval County to face 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,” Nelson said Thursday.

Investigators said the conspiracy to kill Bridegan began Nov. 1, 2021, according to Fernandez’s indictment.

Tenon’s original court records said he became involved in the 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 on 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.

Investigators also discovered that the two men had more than 70 interactions via phone in the months before and after Bridegan was killed.

The 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.”

Reganel Reeves, an attorney with Esquire Litigation Group who is unaffiliated with the case, said the calls are important.

“The 35 calls could be argued that it was preparation and planning, and it appears that the shooter knew the victim’s schedule, knew where he would be at, setting up a trap possibly,” Reeves said.

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, but according to criminal defense attorney Curtis Fallgatter, who is also not affiliated with this case, prosecutors might not need it.

“The absence of a gun or other evidence should not affect the ability of a jury to see that connection,” said Fallgatter, a former federal prosecutor. “We know that Tenon had absolutely no reason to murder this gentleman, and nothing was taken. So it wasn’t a crime of any robbery.”

Reeves said Tenon agreeing to testify is “damaging.”

“I think it’s very damaging to the ex’s husband in this case, the defendant, to have somebody very connected to him to testify to say that he was involved,” Reeves said.

Fallgatter said it’s now unlikely Tenon will be facing the death penalty, but Fernandez might.

“It is a very heinous crime and a contract murder deserves the death penalty in appropriate circumstances,” Fallgatter said. “But second of all, if the wife was involved, they would want to bring her to justice. So that would put pressure on him, rightfully so.”

The state attorney did not give details on a possible motive, but the arrest warrant notes Fernandez’s wife had a highly acrimonious divorce from Bridegan, who 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.”

The arrest warrant said Gardner met Fernandez at her CrossFit gym in 2018. He worked there as a maintenance man.

There’s been a lot of public interest in Bridegan’s ex-wife, who has proclaimed her innocence in interviews with other outlets.

According to sources, Gardner (now 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 Thursday.

Bridegan’s widow, Kirsten, said in February that the news of a conspiracy had only confirmed her suspicions.

She spoke again at Thursday’s news conference.

“We have fought hard for the truth, and the world now knows what we’ve known all along — that Jared truly was an innocent victim,” Kirsten Bridegan said at the news conference. “We’re here today feeling many emotions. We have great relief knowing that two of the people behind my husband’s murder are now behind bars and are no longer a threat to our family. We’re also still angry, angry that they were walking free.”

Nelson said the investigation continues and many details are still being withheld because of that.

Duval County court records don’t show any prior arrests for Fernandez; just a few traffic tickets.

Fernandez is represented by Jesse Dreicer. He said he is prepared to represent his client. Dreicer confirmed before the arrest that he represents Fernandez and said he does not know when his client will be moved to Jacksonville.

Hank Coxe, the attorney for Gardner-Fernandez, told News4JAX: “I think it is inappropriate to comment publicly about a pending matter.”

The Public Defender’s Office is representing Tenon. News4JAX also left a message with Chief Public Defender Charlie Cofer after the guilty plea was announced Thursday.

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About the Authors:

I-TEAM and general assignment reporter

A Jacksonville native and proud University of North Florida alum, Francine Frazier has been with News4Jax since 2014 after spending nine years at The Florida Times-Union.