A Miami woman must pay $44 million in damages for her role in helping carry out the murder of her ex-boyfriend’s new bride in a scheme to collect a lucrative life insurance policy, a jury decided Wednesday.
The civil jury made the ruling in a wrongful death lawsuit against Yolanda Cerrillo, who has admitted to prosecutors she helped Michel Escoto in the slaying of Wendy Trapaga, 21, of Miami Beach.
Trapaga’s family and detectives had long suspected Cerrillo helped in the murder of Trapaga, whose body — bloodied, beaten and strangled — was discovered in October 2002 next to a trash bin at a warehouse parking lot between the Palmetto Expressway and Miami Springs.
But there was never enough evidence to charge Cerrillo, a Homestead accountant who had dated Escoto for more than a year starting in early 2000. Miami-Dade prosecutors wound up giving her immunity in exchange for the damning details against Escoto, who is awaiting trial for first-degree murder.
“This verdict is very significant,” Myriam Benitez, Trapaga’s mother, said on Wednesday night. “She didn’t deserve immunity. We always knew there was an accomplice and we knew she was involved.”
Miami-Dade homicide detectives long considered Escoto their chief suspect. But there was not enough evidence to charge him until 2005, after he dropped an effort in civil court to obtain the insurance money — $1 million — on Trapaga.
During sworn testimony in the civil case, Escoto offered glaring inconsistencies about events the night of the murder, leading to the charges against him, Miami-Dade police said.
Trapaga’s family had filed the wrongful death suit against Cerrillo, 40, several years ago. But it was not until August 2011 that Cerrillo, subpoenaed by prosecutors, admitted the extent of her role.
Cerrillo said she helped Escoto crush up Percocet pills into a powder to knock out Trapaga. She allowed him to dunk her own head into a bathtub, to practice how to drown the young woman.
And when the murder was done — Trapaga was beaten to death at the Executive Airport Hotel, police believe — Cerrillo said she drove Escoto to the bay to dump the bloody tire iron he used to beat his wife to death.
“He told me that he loved me, that ... he didn’t love her, that it was a plan, that he was going to get an insurance policy on her and that she was going to die and that we were going to be together,” Cerrillo told prosecutor Gail Levine during a sworn statement. “That we were going to get married.”
A Miami-Dade judge last year found Cerrillo liable for Trapaga’s death but left the decision about any damages up to a jury. A jury was selected this week to rule on damages only, said the Benitez family attorney, Jorge Borron.
During the two-day trial, jurors heard testimony from an assistant medical examiner who performed the autopsy on Trapaga, and Maria Mederos, the Miami-Dade homicide detective on the case.
How much of the judgement Cerrillo can ever pay remains to be seen, but Borron said the judgement allows her future wages to be garnished. Cerrillo did not show up for the trial, and her lawyer had withdrawn from the civil case, Borron said.