Criminal courts

State rests case in Escoto murder trial

 

dovalle@MiamiHerald.com

Twelve years after first confronting a man suspected of murdering his new bride for a $1 million life insurance policy, Miami-Dade Detective Maria Mederos remembered his distinct lack of grief during a police interrogation.

“I told him, if he couldn’t muster up a tear for his wife of four days, maybe he could muster a tear for the $1 million he was never going to see,” Mederos told jurors on Monday.

Mederos served as the final witness Monday in the state’s case against Michel Escoto, who is accused of strangling and savagely beating Wendy Trapaga immediately after their rushed wedding in October 2002.

At her barb, she recalled, Escoto simply leaned back in his chair, folded his arms and smirked.

Her testimony about Escoto’s behavior just hours after Trapaga’s body was found capped a prosecution case that featured over 20 witnesses. The state rested its case and Escoto – who is representing himself – will begin to call his own witnesses on Tuesday.

Miami-Dade prosecutors say Escoto, now 42, drugged his 21-year-old wife, originally planning to drown her. After a stay in an airport area motel, he wound up beating her to death with a tire iron and dumping her body outside a Northwest Miami-Dade warehouse, according to the state.

Investigators long suspected Escoto, but he was not charged until 2005, after he gave inconsistent testimony – during a failed lawsuit to claim the insurance money – about what happened that night.

Through witnesses over more than two weeks of testimony, prosecutors have portrayed Escoto as a greedy, loafing philanderer with a host of girlfriends, eager to cash in on easy money.

A bouncer for Miami Velvet testified about Escoto’s membership in the partner-swapping swingers sex club. One ex-girlfriend told jurors that she was madly in love with Escoto, and gave him money and even paid for his beauty school classes – where he eventually met Trapaga.

The key witness, however, was another ex-girlfriend, Yolanda Cerrillo, who admitted in chilling testimony that in an effort to win him back, she helped Escoto meticulously plan and carry out Trapaga’s murder.

Cerrillo, who received immunity from prosecution, also admitted whisking him away from the crime scene to dump the weapon in Biscayne Bay. She did not admit her full involvement in the case until 2011.

“I knew there was an evil plan,” Mederos told Miami-Dade prosecutor Gail Levine. “I didn’t know how evil.”

A cell phone company representative also presented records that showed Trapaga’s phone – prosecutors believe Escoto was using it – was traced to areas near the crime scenes. An assistant medical examiner also showed jurors graphic photos of Trapaga’s brutal injuries.

But the trial of Escoto, who is representing himself, has been marked as much by dramatic testimony as his own courtroom missteps and antics.

Day in and day out, his fumbling questioning of witnesses has lead to a torrent of objections from frustrated prosecutors. At one point early in the trial, after the judge repeatedly upheld the objections, Escoto muttered to himself loudly: “This is harder than I thought.”

He has also clashed with his “stand-by” lawyer, Terry Lenamon, who sits by his side ever day in court and whom he has called “lazy” during proceedings. At one point last week, Lenamon grew so aggravated that he loudly chewed out Escoto in front of courtroom staffers, after jurors had left for the day.

Then last week, the judge held Escoto in contempt of court after he threatened a witness, Trapaga’s family lawyer Jorge Borron, who made no bones about his belief that Escoto was a killer.

“If you say that again,” Escoto snarled, motioning to the white-uniformed jail officers. “You say that again ... all of those guys in white, it’s going to take all of them and more .... ”

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Marisa Tinkler Mendez sentenced him to 30 days in jail for the outburst before stunned jurors.

The threat spurred prosecutors to convince the judge to allow increased security and switch courtroom tables, for their own safety. Levine called Escoto a ticking “time bomb.”

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