How investigators quickly keyed in on Jared Bridegan’s ex-wife, husband following ambush murder in Jax Beach

Inside 800 pages of reports from prosecutors obtained by News4JAX on Tuesday lie new details on how the Jared Bridegan murder investigation unfolded.

Bridegan, a 33-year-old father of four, was ambushed and killed in Jacksonville Beach two years ago in what’s been described by investigators as a murder-for-hire plot.

Bridegan’s ex-wife Shanna Gardner and her husband Mario Fernandez now face first-degree murder charges and the death penalty in the case.

The reports released Tuesday revealed that investigators locked onto Fernandez and Gardner from the start.

Police talked to Gardner the night of the murder and she admitted “the divorce was not amicable,” and they only communicated by text. Gardner said she “did not know if the victim had any issues with anyone which would lead to his death.”

Police also talked to Kristen Bridegan, Jared’s wife, that night.

“Shanna and Mario lie to the kids and try to make Jared look bad to them. They only person who had ill will toward him is Shanna and Mario,” she told investigators. Two days after the murder, police had subpoenaed the cell phones of Fernandez and Gardner.

Police also spoke to the father of Gardner and he said that Bridegan was “set on making Shanna’s life miserable” after the divorce and that he was preoccupied with money.

The documents also said Gardner’s father was willing to pay off Bridegan to get rid of him.

Bridegan was gunned down outside his SUV on Feb. 16, 2022, after he stopped to pick up a tire that was in the road. His 2-year-old daughter Bexley was in the car and wasn’t hurt.

The report said the shooter fired four shots, two hit Bridegan and two hit the SUV.

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When police arrived, Good Samaritans were already there and were taking care of the little girl. She later told police, “Daddy opened my car door and I heard a boom.” Then, after she saw Bridegan lying on the ground, the daughter said, “Daddy was sick.”

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Police not only had surveillance audio from neighbors, but they also obtained surveillance video of the ambush murder. The video showed the muzzle flashes and the shooter running off, the reports state.

Gardner details marriage, contentious divorce

On March 1, 2022, police brought Gardner and Fernandez in for the first interviews separately.

Gardner talked about how she had dated Bridegan for only two months before they got married. She said the first date wasn’t that great, but he still pursued her. She said she was “desperate,” but began to wonder if Bridegan had ulterior motives because her family had money.

After their twins were born, and the boy had serious medical issues, it put a strain on the marriage, Gardner said. She said Bridegan was not an involved father and “drained their accounts.”

The divorce proceedings began a year after they moved to the Jacksonville area.

Gardner said the divorce was “traumatic” because Bridegan refused to move out of the house. She said Bridegan wanted half the money from the sale of the house.

Gardner said when she met Fernandez at the gym, their relationship quickly deepened emotionally, and that was “the beginning of the end” of her marriage to Bridegan.

Fernandez concurred that the romance with Gardner went quickly, and told investigators she’d told him he could only have a relationship with her children if they got married. When asked about Bridegan, Fernandez told police “You need to get in line if looking for people who didn’t like him,” including at his church.

Police talked to multiple neighbors of Fernandez, and got similar feedback: they believed he was involved in Bridegan’s death somehow. One said he didn’t think Fernandez killed Bridegan, but “could be responsible for planning Jared’s death.”

On March 8, police started sending subpoenas for Fernandez’s and Gardner’s bank records. Meanwhile, investigators were following leads on the shell casings found at the scene, and cross-referencing them with the owners of Ford pickup trucks. They ran cellphone tower traces and sent samples from the tire off for DNA analysis.

Friend’s damning statement, Tenon becomes focus

On June 28, investigators interviewed a friend of both Fernandez and Gardner. She recounted a conversation in which Gardner told her, “Mario offered to get four guys and break into Bridegan’s residence…to take care of him, and nobody would ever know.”

The friend also told investigators that Fernandez once told her, “You know I’ve killed people before.” She took that as a threat.

She said Gardner told her she only married Fernandez for child custody reasons, so that it would look good in court, and her parents would give her more money.

Investigators also interviewed a college friend of Fernandez, who dated him. She said Fernandez called her the night after the murder and said he knew who did it, and characterized it as a “hit and run.” She acknowledged that Mario had never made threats toward Bridegan.

On July 18, 2022, police went to a rental house in Jacksonville on Potomac Avenue owned by Fernandez and there they talked to the current occupant. There they saw a spare tired leaning against the house. The renter said he’d found it on the curb and told police they could have it if they wanted.

As the detective was loading the tire into his truck, Henry Tenon drove up. There was a brief conversation about unrelated things.

Police later tested the tire and it matched the tire found at the murder scene, so they went back to Potomac Avenue. The current renter told police Tenon went to Georgia to get his father’s blue Ford pickup truck after he died.

The investigator’s focus then narrowed on Tenon, especially after police got hits on the truck all over Jacksonville.

Cell phone records put Tenon in Jacksonville Beach the night of the murder and he was arrested on unrelated charges in August. Police pressed him about Bridegan’s murder and he said a friend borrowed the truck that night. He said he didn’t know anything that would “put him away,” while pointing to a photo of Fernandez, and asked for an attorney.

On Oct. 14, police obtained Tenon’s bank records, and found three checks totaling $10,000 from First Choice Home Rentals LLC, which is owned by Fernandez and Gardner. There were checks for $2,000 and $3,000 that cleared on March 28 and a check for $5,000 that cleared on April 4. The State Attorney’s Office said the checks were signed by Fernandez.

Cases continue

Tenon later pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the Bridegan case.

Tenon has agreed to testify against others involved in the purported murder-for-hire case, including Gardner, and Fernandez.

Fernandez was arrested in March of 2023 and is accused of orchestrating the murder conspiracy that ended with Bridegan’s death.

In August of 2023, Gardner was indicted by a grand jury in Florida and later arrested in Washington state.

The couple faces charges of first-degree murder with a weapon, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, solicitation to commit a capital felony and child abuse.

Fernandez pleaded not guilty to the charges against him when he was arraigned in July, and prosecutors have said they are not offering him a plea deal in the case.

State Attorney Melissa Nelson said she plans to pursue the death penalty in the cases against Fernandez and Gardner, who are co-defendants.

Gardner’s lawyer on Monday filed a motion for a bond to be set.

In the bond motion, her lawyer acknowledges a person charged with a capital offense can be held without bond if the burden of proof of guilt has been met. Her lawyer contends the state “cannot meet this extremely high burden of proof. Further, she has every expectation of being found not guilty at trial.”

The defense said Gardner knew she was going to be arrested and did not flee the U.S., and did not fight extradition after her arrest in Washington state. The defense said if granted bond, she will not flee to avoid prosecution and appear for all court hearings and is not a danger to the community. The state has yet to respond to the bond motion.

The bond motion is expected to be argued at Wednesday’s status conference.

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