Criminal court

Ex-girlfriend testifies in case of bride murdered in Miami in scheme to collect $1 million in insurance

 

dovalle@MiamiHerald.com

Throughout her testimony, Yolanda Cerrillo came across as a pathetic shell of a woman, unlucky in love and desperate to hold onto a charming but lackluster, philandering ex-boyfriend.

Despite her tears, Cerrillo could not escape detailing the reason she took to the witness stand Tuesday:

She admitted, in chilling detail, how she helped Michel Escoto plan and carry out the murder of his new bride, Wendy Trapaga — all for the $1 million insurance policy Escoto had taken out on Trapaga.

And Cerrillo, granted immunity from prosecution for her testimony, acknowledged she will not go to prison for her role in the October 2002 murder.

“Happy with yourself?” Miami-Dade prosecutor Gail Levine asked.

“I’m worthless,” Cerrillo sobbed. “That’s how I feel right now.”

“But it’s not about you, is it?” Levine said.

Cerrillo erupted into tears: “It’s about a mother who lost her daughter and I had something to do with it.”

Cerrillo told jurors how she helped Escoto prepare drugs to knock out Trapaga, showed him how best to drown her — and, ultimately, whisked him away from the crime scene.

In the gallery, Trapaga’s mother, hearing the details directly from Cerrillo for the first time, tearfully buried her face in her hands.

Escoto is on trial, charged with first-degree murder. Cerrillo is being punished in another way: Last fall, a Miami-Dade jury awarded Trapaga’s mother $44 million in a civil suit against Cerrillo for wrongful death.

Trapaga’s battered body was discovered outside a Northwest Miami-Dade warehouse in October 2002. She had been drugged, strangled and beaten.

Prosecutors say Escoto beat his 21-year-old bride to death just days after their rushed wedding and impromptu honeymoon in Key West.

The night of the murder, Escoto and Trapaga had partied, then checked into the Executive Airport Motel. To police, he claimed the two left the motel after getting into argument, and she stormed off on her own.

He was not charged until 2005, after giving inconsistent versions of what happened during a lawsuit he filed for the insurance money.

Cerrillo, 40, a Homestead accountant, began cooperating in 2006, but admitted she failed to tell investigators the full extent of her involvement. It was not until August 2011 that she came clean.

“The secret was too much,” she told jurors Tuesday. “It was too stressful.”

In 2002, Escoto had been living with Cerrillo but abruptly moved out. She melted down. “It was downhill. He left me. I couldn’t handle it very well,” she said. “All I could do was cry in my room.”

When she learned that Escoto had moved into a South Beach apartment with Trapaga, she met Escoto in a restaurant parking lot to cuss him out.

That’s when he told her of the plan to kill Trapaga, she said. Among her revelations:

• Escoto initially wanted to kill Trapaga during Mardi Gras in New Orleans. But he sped up the plan by several months. “He was running out of money,” Cerrillo said. “Wendy needed to die sooner.”

• The defendant tried drugging Trapaga’s drink in Key West but it tasted “too chalky.” Instead, he called Cerrillo and instructed her to book the room at the motel. She even gave him $80 to pay for it.

• A 3 a.m. page to Cerrillo’s beeper that morning was preplanned. “That would be the message that it would be done,” Cerrillo said.

Escoto then showed up at Cerrillo’s home. She could see what appeared to be Trapaga reclined in the front passenger seat of the car he drove. In her car, she followed Escoto to the Northwest Miami-Dade area where the body was ultimately discovered.

Cerrillo testified that she drove around to give him time to finish the killing. She found him walking on a street, bloody and holding a tire iron. Escoto reeked of blood, Cerrillo testified.

She drove him back to Miami Beach, but not before she stopped at Dodge Island — because she suddenly had diarrhea and had to relieve herself behind a tree. At that moment, she saw Escoto hurl the tire iron into the water.

A police officer pulled up to them, but merely shooed them away from the water’s edge.

In the ensuing months, as suspicions mounted and two spun their lies to police, Escoto moved back in with Cerrillo, but the relationship remained sour. At one point, Escoto choked her during an argument, but she stopped short of calling police because he reminded her of her role in the murder, she said.

“I had no way out,” Cerrillo said. “He either kills me or I go to jail.”

On cross-examination, Escoto — who is representing himself — tried to suggest that Cerrillo had embellished her story. He also tried to suggest that her whole statement was suspect because she admitted confusion about whether he had left his dog, Jake, at her house the night of the murder.

His repeated questions drew Cerrillo’s ire.

“I'm not an attorney, but I don't see the relevance of the dog being there or not,” she said.

The trial will continue Wednesday, and is expected to last several weeks.

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