TORONTO — A feared gangster who was the "pointy stick" for the Montreal Mafia's expansion into Ontario has been deemed too dangerous to release from prison.
Despite Juan Ramon Fernandez spending much of his sentence for drug and murder conspiracy in maximum security, he still managed to arrange hash shipments from Jamaica, tamper with a witness testifying against him and orchestrate an attack on an inmate at another prison, all while behind bars, authorities alleged.
He is also considered a "person of interest" in a recent murder after the man he was convicted of ordering killed in 2002 was shot outside a halfway house in Brampton in 2008.
In deciding that Fernandez remain in prison despite him reaching his statutory release date, the National Parole Board faced three volumes of in-prison security files against him, outlining muscling, intimidation and threatening of staff and fellow inmates. And yet, at his parole hearing, Fernandez, 51, insisted he stands among the wrongly convicted.
"You tend to minimize the severity and connections with prominent organized crime figures despite persuasive and reliable evidence of enduring ties with the underworld," the parole board said in its decision, released yesterday.
"Your firm stance that you have been wrongfully convicted and your limited acceptance of responsibility only serve to illustrate your lack of insight, appreciation or understanding of the severity of your criminal behaviour."
The board pinned him as having "psychopathic tendencies," "egocentricity, narcissism, grandiosity," and "callousness."
That scathing report keeps him in prison for at least another year, but also builds his reputation as one of the country's toughest gangsters.
The many twists in the life of Fernandez, known on the street as "Joe Bravo," are already an important part of underworld history.
The police probe that rose around him revealed the delicate power dynamics between crime groups across Canada, the pre-eminence of Montreal in the underworld and the important role that traditional rules still play in the modern Mafia.
The probe, codenamed Project R. I. P., led by York Regional Police, also directly led to a much larger operation in Quebec, Project Colisee, that hobbled the Mafia in 2006.
At the centre of the hurly-burly is Fernandez himself.
Handsome, well dressed and strong, he attracts and frightens people in equal measure.
Women swoon over his Latin good looks, including, sources say, female prison guards during his incarceration. Such attraction was not always healthy; he once punched his 17-year-old girlfriend so hard that she died.
Similarly, fellow gangsters liked being seen with him but were often terrified. One normally robust gangster was shaking so much when meeting Fernandez in a cafe that the ceramic espresso cup in his hand rattled loudly against its saucer.
Much of his power stemmed from his ties to Vito Rizzuto, the boss of the Montreal Mafia. Fernandez was a senior envoy of Rizzuto's, even though his Spanish, rather than Italian, linage prevented him from being an inducted member of the Mafia.
"He was sitting at the right hand of God," a police investigator said of Fernandez's ties to Rizzuto.
The rest of his reputation was earned with flair and daring. "He is a perfect gangster," a police officer said.
Born in Spain in 1956, Fernandez came to Canada with his parents at the age of five, but never achieved citizenship here. By his teens, he was an athlete and martial arts aficionado who was breaking into houses and stores for jewellery, money and credit cards to support a flashy lifestyle. An avowed materialist, he turned to crime merely "to buy things," he told parole officials.
He admitted he was a "somewhat rebellious and hot-headed young man," while growing up in Montreal. By 20, his persona was established; a police report from the time noted he was "an idol to many and feared by all."
When he was 22, he was charged in the death of his young girlfriend, an exotic dancer, and ultimately sentenced to 12 years in prison.
When released, he was ordered deported, but remained in Montreal, selling luxury cars and running a juice bar. In 1991, police photographed him walking respectfully behind Rizzuto. He had clearly been promoted.
Drug convictions followed -- for quick financial gain, he told parole officials --and when released in 1999 he was finally deported, although he slipped back into the country within months. He was re-arrested in 2001 and again deported but, two months later, police were astounded to find him back.
"They think 'cause the cat leaves there, the mice they, they gonna dance," Fernandez said, laying down the law with a mixed metaphor that was caught on a police wiretap. "I'm gonna show them how I dance."
And dance he did, drawing together bikers, Mafia associates and high-volume drug dealers.
Fernandez coming to Ontario is now seen as a cold plan to have him learn the ropes of the group's drug routes from its Toronto boss, Gaetano Panepinto, before he was killed.
Panepinto ran a discount coffin store and imported cocaine. Like Fernandez, he was close to Rizzuto. Panepinto, however, broke a cardinal rule -- he killed two mafiosi from Italy without getting permission from his boss, police believe.
Officers had marked Panepinto for surveillance and the first shift started at 8 a. m. on Oct. 3, 2000, but just as officers gathered, Panepinto climbed into his Cadillac, pulled out of his driveway and was shot dead in an ambush.
"Had we arrived earlier, maybe we would have witnessed the murder or been able to intervene," an investigator said.
Fernandez quickly filled the void. One of the men now answering to Fernandez was Constantin "Big Gus" Alevizos, said to be one of the country's largest movers of Ecstasy. "Gus was a money-making machine," said an investigator. He was also a mountain of flesh, weighing 460 pounds.
Alevizos enraged Fernandez, partly because he loathed Alevizos's flabby frame, but mostly because he thought he stole two bags of his cash.
Fernandez asked a hitman to kill Alevizos, handing him a handgun and ammunition hidden in a dirty work sock. Unknown to Fernandez, the hitman was a police agent.
Officers arrested Fernandez and 31 others in May, 2002. Fernandez and his girlfriend were pulled over while driving on Highway 407. A wiretap hidden in his car recorded it.
"Put your hands up. Put 'em up. Put 'em up high," an officer shouted. Fernandez, ever cool, reassured his girlfriend. "They're just cops, babe; just relax," he cooed.
He knew that in his world there are worse fates than arrest.