Husband on trial in death of his newlywed wife in Miami-Dade

03/20/2014 8:07 AM

03/21/2014 3:33 PM

The prosecutors laid out their case in a crisp, dramatic narrative:

Wendy Trapaga, vibrant young newlywed, was drugged, then strangled and beaten to death with a tire iron — by a husband who schemed to collect a $1 million life insurance policy.

“Left to die in a pool of her own blood, Wendy Trapaga had no idea she was the victim of this defendant’s scheme to get rich quick,” Miami-Dade prosecutor Rebecca DiMeglio told jurors.

The defense’s story line unfolded far less smoothly — because the accused, Michel Escoto, chose to represent himself at trial, which began Thursday morning 12 years after Trapaga’s bloody body was discovered outside a Northwest Miami-Dade warehouse.

The result was a rambling, scattershot opening statement that drew objection after objection from prosecutors and patient, if stern, admonitions from a Miami-Dade judge.

At times excruciating to watch, Escoto never quite professed his innocence.

“I would like to think I’m not a complete moron,” he began, insisting only an “imbecile” would concoct a plan to kill for insurance money.

When Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Marisa Tinkler Mendez urged him to stick to what the evidence would show, Escoto honed in on minutiae — he met Trapaga in February, not May — and delivered facts left floating before the jurors.

“There are key players. One is Jake. Jake is a dog,” Escoto said. “You’ll learn more about him later.”

At one point, Escoto seemed to suggest that he was tough enough that he wouldn’t need to drug Trapaga. Then, he mentioned that he had been arrested two years before the killing, an admission most defense lawyers would not suggest volunteering to jurors.

It’s going to be a long trial. The proceedings are expected to last six to eight weeks.

Escoto, 42, has rejected the services of court-appointed lawyers Terrance Lenamon and Melissa Ortiz, who nevertheless are observing the trial as “stand-by” attorneys.

Miami-Dade homicide detectives long considered Escoto their chief suspect in Trapaga’s slaying.

The two had met at a beauty school, quickly moved in together at a Miami Beach apartment and married in a rushed courthouse ceremony. DiMeglio said Escoto persuaded the 21-year-old Trapaga to lie to her parents about being pregnant, in order to speed up the nuptials.

Prosecutors did not charge Escoto until 2005, when he dropped an effort in civil court to obtain a $1 million insurance payout 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.

Prosecutors said they later learned that behind Trapaga’s back, Escoto turned to his ex-girlfriend, Yolanda Cerrillo, to help execute his murder plan.

The Homestead accountant told prosecutors that Escoto brought over powerful painkillers to her home — and she also allowed him to dunk her own head into a bathtub, to practice how to drown Trapaga.

The plan to drown Trapaga during a honeymoon in Key West failed when Trapaga refused to down a Percocet-laced drink, Cerillo said.

Instead, she told prosecutors, days after the wedding, Escoto had Cerrillo book and pay for a room at the Executive Airport Hotel, where he drugged Trapaga, then wound up beating her to death.

Cerrillo, who was given immunity from prosecution in exchange for her testimony, told prosecutors she drove Escoto to Biscayne Bay to dump the weapon.

“Sometimes, the government has to make a deal to get to the truth, but that deal doesn’t diminish or change this defendant’s participation in that horrific crime,” said DiMeglio, who is trying the case with prosecutor Gail Levine.

While Cerrillo can’t be imprisoned for her role, she has since been found liable in civil court as part of a lawsuit filed by the Trapaga family. In September, a jury ordered Cerrillo to pay $44 million to the Trapaga family for the wrongful death claim.

Escoto, on Thursday, didn’t address Cerrillo’s story head on, but insisted mostly that he had served as a good father figure to her young daughter.

“It is my hope that the evidence will trump sensationalism and I think it will,” he said. “I hope it will.”

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