Will Mario Saldana's wife testify in Jared Bridegan murder case?

Murder charges against Mario Fernandez Saldana in Jared Bridegan’s killing raise questions about the limits of spousal privilege.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The man now accused of killing Jared Bridegan met his ex-wife through CrossFit. Shanna Gardner fell in love with the intense, martial workouts at CrossFit Black Hive in Jacksonville Beach and, eventually, with an employee there, Mario Fernandez Saldana.

The pair met three years after she split from Bridegan in a bitter divorce that lasted from 2015 until four months before his death in Jacksonville Beach. Bridegan was gunned down Feb. 16, 2022 just blocks from her home, right after dropping off the couple’s children.

Now that Fernandez Saldana is charged with Bridegan’s murder, there is increased attention on Shanna Gardner-Fernandez and what, if anything, she might know about the allegations her husband faces. She has not been charged with anything and has publicly denounced any insinuations as harassment and sensationalism.

But could she be a witness for the prosecution?

A legal provision known as “spousal privilege” could foreclose any communications between the couple being used in court. Sometimes called “pillow talk,” the law prevents conversations between spouses from being used against the other. Even if a couple is discussing a crime, their conversations – including texts, emails and social media messages – are presumed confidential.

“When a husband and wife communicate, it’s the communicator who holds the key to the privilege, and the other spouse is required to honor that,” says Jacksonville criminal defense attorney Mitch Stone. “If there’s litigation or something where they’re trying to find out if a husband said something, and the wife might have been present and knows what he said, they can’t force her to tell what was spoken.”

The law does have a few, narrow exceptions: If the communication was revealed to a third party, if one spouse is suing the other (including a divorce), or if one spouse is charged with a crime against the other spouse or one of their children.

In addition to the first-degree murder charges against Fernandez Saldana, he is charged with conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, solicitation to commit a capital felony, and child abuse. The latter charge is due to the fact that Jared Bridegan’s toddler was in the car when he was killed.

Bridegan and Gardner-Fernandez had two children together, but the girl in the car is from his second marriage, to Kirsten Bridegan. 

However, there is a separate stand-alone Florida Statute that removes the privilege from any conversation — including attorney/client, doctor/patient, or between spouses — “in cases involving child abuse, abandonment, or neglect.”

The statute says, “The privileged quality of communication between husband and wife and between any professional person and his or her patient or client … shall not apply to any communication involving the perpetrator or alleged perpetrator in any situation involving known or suspected child abuse, abandonment, or neglect.”

“One of the nuances of this case is that there was a child in the backseat when [the murder] occurred,” says Stone. “And so I suspect they could try to bootstrap the crime into some type of child abuse, and thereby circumvent the privilege if that becomes an issue.”

The first defendant arrested in the case, Henry Tenon, pleaded guilty Thursday to being the shooter in the Bridegan murder. Prosecutors say he will testify against Fernandez Saldana.

In recent months, Fernandez Saldana has been living in Orlando, while Gardner-Fernandez has been living in Washington state. They have separate Jacksonville attorneys. It’s not clear what the state of the relationship is, but spousal privilege remains intact until a marriage is legally ended. Even then, the communications shared in the context of the marriage remain confidential.

Regardless of what the spousal privilege provides, Stone says the circumstances suggest a limited set of possibilities.

“Unless [Fernandez] Saldana was just super aggravated with her ex-husband, for the child custody issues that were going on, and wanted to do this as a favor to her without her knowing about it, then obviously, that’s one scenario. The other scenario is that they conspired together to hire this guy [Henry Tenon] to do this for them. And obviously, the other scenario is that they had nothing to do with it, and this guy [Tenon] who’s in jail, who was the first one arrested, who did the killing, is just trying to get out of his own mess by claiming that they had something to do with it. And that’s where things like cell phones and communications and GPS, and all of the above, all of the evidence that kind of supports what somebody’s saying comes into play.”

How much of that evidence exists is not known; the arrest warrant released in the case is heavily redacted.

Tennon is expected to be brought to Jacksonville early next week.

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