State: Miami man planned new wife’s murder to collect $1 million in life insurance

04/21/2014 6:47 AM

04/21/2014 7:08 PM

A Miami man was a “controlling, manipulative schemer” who planned his new wife’s brutal slaying to collect a $1 million life insurance policy, a prosecutor told jurors Monday.

But Michel Escoto’s plan to drown 21-year-old Wendy Trapaga in October 2002 fell apart when he could not keep her head under water at a Jacuzzi inside a rent-by-hour motel. He wound up choking and beating her to death with a tire iron outside a Northwest Miami-Dade warehouse, prosecutor Gail Levine told jurors in the closing arguments of Escoto’s murder trial in Miami-Dade Circuit Court.

But Escoto could not keep his lies about that night straight, to police detectives — and three years later, on the witness stand during a failed lawsuit to collect the insurance. “He sinks his own ship,” Levine told jurors. “He can’t shut up.”

The closing arguments came Monday after a month of testimony that included more than 20 witnesses and hundreds of pieces of evidence. Jurors will begin deliberating Tuesday.

Escoto, 42, who represented himself for most of the trial, is charged with first-degree murder. He faces life in prison if convicted.

The trial has been a slog — featuring a steady stream of objections from prosecutors because of Escoto’s inexperienced, improper questioning of witnesses, plus stern admonitions from the judge. His opening statement was rambling and incoherent.

At one point, Circuit Judge Marisa Tinkler Mendez sentenced Escoto to 30 days in jail for contempt of court. The reason: In front of jurors, he threatened Jorge Borron, the civil lawyer for Trapaga’s family, who was testifying and proclaimed Escoto a murderer.

“For a moment, you got to see the real Michel Escoto,” Levine told jurors. “The one we hope Wendy was not coherent enough to see. Those are his true colors.”

Despite the outburst, Escoto repeatedly insisted he wanted to continue to represent himself. But Monday morning, he surprised courtroom observers by allowing his “stand-by” counsel, Terry Lenamon, to finish the case.

In the afternoon, Lenamon attacked the prosecution’s case, saying the state exaggerated and over-dramatized the evidence during the “vilification of Michel Escoto.”

“This is not community theater,” Lenamon said. “This is a court of law.”

Escoto was long the suspect in Trapaga’s death.

Prosecutors described him as a womanizing loafer who kept several ex-girlfriends even as he planned Trapaga’s demise, persuading her to go along with the life insurance policy while pressuring her to marry him in a rushed courthouse wedding.

Just days after the wedding, Escoto and Trapaga had partied, then checked into the Executive Airport Motel, 6700 NW 12th St. To police, he initially claimed the two left the motel after getting into an argument, and she stormed off on her own after dropping him off at their South Beach apartment.

The defense speculated that Trapaga, who has “multiple boyfriends” and “was going to sex clubs,” met up with someone who was the real killer.

“We don’t know what occurs after she left the apartment,” Lenamon said.

The attack on Trapaga’s character prompted her mother, Myriam Benitez, to leave the courtroom.

Prosecutors shot back, citing the medical examination of her body — Trapaga was simply too drugged-up to have been able to drive Escoto home that night.

The state, during trial, had a powerful witness: Escoto’s ex-girlfriend, Yolanda Cerrillo, who admitted to jurors she helped him plan the murder, ground up powerful painkillers to knock Trapaga out, and practiced with the defendant how to drown the young woman.

She also admitted to whisking him away from the crime scene and agreeing on a cover story. The details were intimate: Cerrillo described how the smell of blood made her so ill she had diarrhea and had to defecate on the side of a causeway as Escoto flung the murder weapon into Biscayne Bay.

“You don’t make that up,” Levine said.

Cerrillo, 40, a Homestead accountant, began cooperating in 2006, but admitted she failed to tell investigators the full extent of her involvement until August 2011. The state attorney’s office, with little evidence against her, had no choice but to grant her immunity from prosecution.

“One sorry, pathetic soul. Evil. Selfish,” Levine told jurors, adding: “I can’t charge her. I’d love to. But I can’t.”

Last fall, a civil jury ordered Cerrillo to pay Trapaga’s family $44 million in a wrongful death lawsuit. The defense, however, insisted that Cerrillo concocted the entire story only after she believed Escoto might have implicated her.

Said Lenamon: “She is a liar, folks.”

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