JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — A man was indicted on first degree murder charges Thursday in the death of Jared Bridegan, a father of four who was shot to death in front of his 2-year-old child in February 2022.
Prosecutors announced the arrest of Mario Fernandez Saldana at a 12:30 p.m. press conference. It followed a tightly orchestrated series of events in the high profile case, beginning at 9:45 a.m., when Fernandez Saldana, 34, was taken into custody at his home in Orlando and taken to the Orange County Jail.
His arrest came shortly after a man previously charged in Bridegan's death, Henry Tenon, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the case. As part of his plea agreement, Tenon will testify against Fernandez Saldana and anyone else who conspired in Bridegan's murder, according to State Attorney Melissa Nelson.
While Fernandez Saldana was being arrested, a grand jury indicted him on charges of first degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder, solicitation to commit a capital felony and child abuse. At 11:20, the State Attorney's Office sent out an email announcing a "significant update" in the case.
Fernandez Saldana is married to Shanna Gardner-Fernandez, Bridegan’s first wife, with whom he had two children. State Attorney Nelson pointedly noted that fact in announcing the indictment. The pair split in an acrimonious divorce followed by a years-long custody battle -- something also noted in an otherwise heavily redacted arrest warrant.
"One in every five domestic murders like this are murders similar to this if the victim knew the person, and sometimes they're related to them, right? Through marriage through blood, whatever it may be," First Coast News Crime and Safety Expert Mark Baughman said.
Gardner-Fernandez faces no charges in the case, but previously felt compelled to speak out after what she called 'sensationalistic media coverage and harassment' related to Bridegan’s murder. She is currently living in Washington state.
"We all remain committed to seeking the truth"
State Attorney Nelson said she would not disclose if more arrests were coming, but emphasized the case is far from over.
"Our investigation remains active and ongoing. And it has not stopped today with the arrest of Mario Fernandez Saldana. We all remain committed to seeking the truth -- and that is the entire truth -- and holding accountable every single individual involved in the murder Jared Bridegan."
Nelson says Tenon used to rent property from Fernandez Saldana but declined to provide factual details, like what evidence connects Tennon to Fernandez Saldana or what the motive for the murder may have been.
"Mario's relationship with Tenon is greater than what we know. I don't know what it is but it's more than a landlord tenant relationship. Its got to be more than 'I use you as a handyman, to come to you to you to seek out' to commit such a heinous crime on somebody and then count on them keeping their mouth shut," Baughman said.
The sworn testimony provided by Henry Tenon about Fernandez Saldana's involvement in the murder is redacted in the arrest warrant. Nelson said Tenon's statements both confirm what they knew and provide additional evidence. Additionally, she said that Tenon admitted he was the shooter.
"They're not closing the investigation. It's still ongoing. As far as I know the reward is still out there for anymore information. What does that tell you? Is there another co-conspirator involved? Possibly," Baughman added. "It's safe to assume that maybe there is some digital data that was saved and or implicates another individual other than the two now that had been charged."
She said if the state decides to seek the death penalty, they will file that notice within 45 days of his arraignment, as required.
No court date has been set for Fernandez Saldana. He was initially taken to the Orange County Jail, awaiting extradition to Jacksonville.
Calls and an email to his attorney were not immediately returned.
"We are still angry"
Jared Bridegan's widow, Kirsten Bridegan, also spoke at the press conference, saying her family was experiencing "many emotions": Relief knowing two people have been arrested for her husband's murder, but much residual anger.
"We are also still angry," she said. "Angry that they were walking free while we were grappling with the reality that Jared wouldn't be here for any future memories, vacations or tender moments with our kids. Angry that our youngest, who was six months at the time of his death, will have no memories of her father. Angry there will be no new memories for Liam, Abby, Bexley, London or anyone who knew and loved Jarrett."
She said her family has "fought hard for the truth," and will continue to do so.
"Justice for Jared will not be stopped, and we will not be silenced. We know there's still a long way to go before all all those responsible are truly held accountable. But today is a very significant day for our family."
One piece of a conspiracy
On Feb. 16, 2022 Bridegan, a father of four, was murdered in the street just outside the Sanctuary neighborhood in Jacksonville Beach.
In January, an arrest was announced. "Just under an hour ago, this man, Henry Tenon, was arrested," Jacksonville Beach Police Chief Gene Paul Smith told a room of reporters.
"We know Mr. Tenon did not act alone," said State Attorney Melissa Nelson at the time, describing Tenon as one piece of a wider conspiracy to kill Jared Bridegan.
On the night of the murder, Bridegan had just dropped off his twins, Abby and Liam, at his ex-wife's home. Still in the car with him was his two-year-old daughter, Bexley.
Police say as he was turning out of the neighborhood onto a narrow, dimly lit section of road, he encountered a tire in the street. "He opened his door to presumably move the tire out of the road, and it was then he was gunned down in cold blood," described Chief Smith.
Bridegan was shot multiple times, his daughter still strapped into her car seat. From the beginning, Jacksonville Beach Police said the shooting was a targeted ambush, not a robbery or random violence.
The first clues to be publicly released were pictures and video of a blue pickup truck seen in the area around the time of the murder. Much of the rest of the investigation has been kept under wraps. A reward of $55,000 has been offered for information in the case.
As national and even international interest in the case blossomed, so did speculation about his first wife, Shanna Gardner-Fernandez. Numerous stories focused on the couple's bitter divorce. One tabloid article claimed she'd once complained about her ex-husband to a Jacksonville tattoo artist, and asked if he knew someone who could "shut him up".
In an interview with the Florida Times-Union, Gardner-Fernandez called the implications that she was in any way involved in Bridegan's murder "sensationalist" and "inaccurate."
As they waited for answers, Bridegan's family members continued to keep the story in the spotlight, asking for tips. His brother described the grief and pain of the last year like a rollercoaster of emotions.
"Every day it is up and down and just gut-wrenching, as most victims can attest to," said Adam Bridegan. "It feels like a life sentence of a burden, and you don't know what's next."
In January, the first answers finally came: the arrest of Henry Tenon for murder, conspiracy to commit murder, accessory after the fact and child abuse. He initially pleaded not guilty. Soon after his arrest, First Coast News learned Tenon had previously rented a property from Fernandez Saldana.
At Thursday's press conference, State Attorney Nelson said the "investigation has revealed a single link between Jared Bridegan and Henry Tenon -- and that is Mario Fernandez Saldana."
But even before that Bridegan's widow said she wasn't shocked that the murder involved someone close to his ex-wife.
"I was not surprised that there was a connection," said Kirsten Bridegan at the time. "It's tragic. My immediate thoughts were for Liam and Abigail [children of his first marriage], and what they are going through right now because of what that could implicate. But I was not surprised with that connection being made."
First Coast News Crime and Safety Analyst Mark Baughman says he is also not surprised by Thursday's announcement. "I don't believe in coincidence," he said.
"Whether or not Fernandez Saldana has any information to share with prosecutors, Baughman says, will surely be tempered by the fact that the death penalty is on the table".
"That's a motivator for sure," he said. "If you think that, potentially, they're gonna stick a needle in your arm and finish you, that's enough to get you probably to think, 'Hey, look. I can't roll the dice here. I'm not gonna roll the dice here for anybody."