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Fla. detectives solve 37-year-old cold case murder of former firefighter-paramedic

Miramar Police Detective Danny Smith identified a suspect — Harry Van Collier, who was 28 when he, too, was murdered in the 1980s

By Grethel Aguila
Miami Herald

BROWARD, Fla. — For decades, the brutal slaying of a bodybuilder in his Broward townhouse left investigators with more questions than answers.

The lengthy search for answers in the murder of William Halpern partially ended when Miramar Police Detective Danny Smith announced Tuesday that he cracked part of the case.

On Oct. 21, 1986, Halpern, a 28-year-old known by loved ones as Billy, was found in his home with his neck slashed ear to ear. The former Hallandale firefighter-paramedic turned art and coin dealer had been bound and beaten.

Smith identified a suspect — Harry Van Collier, who was 28 when he, too, was murdered in the ‘80s.

The detective, however, believes Collier was just one of several people who are responsible for Halpern’s death, as it would’ve likely required more than one man to subdue him during a struggle. He said he will continue probing the case to identify the other perpetrators.

“If Harry Collier were alive today, we would be charging him with murder and he would stand trial,” Smith said. “We’re able to exceptionally clear the case on death of offender.”

A killer gym?

Smith told reporters in January that investigators had a “99% completed puzzle” and needed “one puzzle piece” to solve the slaying. Halpern’s death is tied to The Apollo Gym & Fitness Center in Hollywood, a front for sketchy dealings like loan sharking, drugs and murder for hire.

Anywhere from 12 to 30 killings in the 1980s across Miami-Dade and Broward were affiliated with the gym, the Miami Herald archives show.

The gym was owned by Gilbert Fernandez Jr ., a former Miami-Dade police officer who was convicted in 1991, alongside associate Hubert Christie, of a 1983 execution-style triple murder. Fernandez and Christie, who was a manager at the gym, are suspected of also being involved in several killings of gym members.

Fernandez was also a police officer when the 1983 slaying took place.

Smith said investigators were able to develop the lead because witnesses, who were fearful of coming forward after Halpern’s murder, ultimately spoke to police. He urged anyone with information to call him at 954-602-4113.

“There were so many murders associated with this group, associated with the Apollo Gym in Hollywood that people just didn’t want to talk,” the detective said.

Tangled web of murder

Collier was already a suspect at the time of Halpern’s slaying. According to the Miami Herald archives, Collier hid cash around his house on the night of Halpern’s killing — and told his wife: “We finally got our man.”

He was identified through fingerprints found at the scene of Halpern’s killing — and that of Charles “Mitch” Hall, 26, and his girlfriend Charlinda Draudt, 23. Hall and Draudt were murdered in Tamarac seven months after Halpern’s death.

The scenes at both killings shared many similarities, Smith said.

There were no signs of forced entry. The victims were bound with black electrical tape. Sharp weapons were used. And Hall, according to the Herald archives, told friends he knew who killed Halpern shortly before his death.

The string of slayings didn’t end there. Collier was shot to death in Pembroke Pines on May 14, 1987, just days after the double murder.

Fernandez had lead removed from his eye the day after Collier’s death, according to the Herald archives. Police found a machine gun and shotgun in Collier’s house, both of which belonged to Fernandez and were linked to other crimes.

Back in the 1980s, investigators believed Halpern may have been involved in dealing drugs, according to the Herald archives. Halpern’s father told a reporter then that his son was a trusting person. He had even advertised his business in several local newspapers, including his address in the promotions.

But Smith maintains that Halpern, an avid bodybuilder, only witnessed or heard something about the illicit activities — and ended up being killed so he wouldn’t talk.

“Closure won’t bring Billy back,” his sister Lori Halpern told reporters in January. “But to be without your brother for that long is terrible.”

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