During a heart-wrenching hearing in Miami-Dade court, Wendy Trapaga’s too-brief life flashed by in the tearful memories of her family and friends.
Her first bike. Her curiosity about her father, who had died in a plane crash when she was young. Her rescue of stray animals, including the dog still by her mother’s side today. How, tired of high school classmates bullying a poverty-stricken friend, she had helped buy the girl a dress and give her a makeover for prom.
The 21-year-old was “innocent and gullible” and believed in the “intrinsic good of all living things,” her sister Tiare Trapaga told a judge Wednesday.
“Unfortunately, that was her downfall,” Tiare said.
The man responsible for that downfall, Michel Escoto, sat just feet away, dressed in a red jail jumpsuit, staring at her relatives and occasionally scribbling notes.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Marisa Tinkler Mendez sentenced him to life in prison — but not before Trapaga’s her relatives vented their anger on Escoto. He had coldly wooed and married Trapaga only to strangle and beat her to death with a tire iron days later in a scheme to collect a $1 million life insurance policy.
“This life is not the end for you,” said her sister, Rita Stephan. “You will continue to pay long after your body is six feet under.”
Said her brother, Ernie Trapaga, in a letter read aloud to the court: “You are as insignificant as roadkill or spit on the sidewalk.”
Escoto, for his part, was remorseless and defiant as he sat handcuffed in court Wednesday, lashing out at the police detectives who arrested him. He told her family that while their pain was “logical,” an “innocent man was convicted in this case.”
Miami-Dade jurors last month convicted Escoto, 42, of first-degree murder for the slaying of Trapaga, whose bloodied body was found dumped next to a warehouse in Northwest Miami-Dade in October 2002.
She met Escoto while the two were taking beauty classes in early 2002, and they quickly moved into a South Beach apartment.
At trial, prosecutors portrayed Escoto as a manipulative loafer who kept several girlfriends on the side and enlisted an ex-paramour named Yolanda Cerrillo to help him plan and carry out his murder plan. After an impromptu wedding and honeymoon in Key West, Escoto drugged Trapaga and tried to drown her in an airport-area motel in an attempt to make her death look like an accident.
But the plan went awry, jurors heard, and Escoto wound up strangling and beating her to death outside a Northwest Miami-Dade warehouse. Cerrillo herself provided the most damning, chilling testimony.
Miami-Dade police detectives had long zeroed in on Escoto, who quickly filed a claim for the money and even filed a lawsuit seeking to get the $1 million. But it was not until 2005 — after Escoto, during the civil trial, gave conflicting versions of what happened the night of his bride’s death – that authorities arrested him.
Throughout most of the trial, Escoto represented himself, bumbling his way through his opening statement and frustrated, legally improper questioning of witnesses. At one point, the judge sentenced him to 30 days jail for contempt of court after he threatened a witness.
Escoto’s defense suggested that the couple had gotten into a fight after leaving the motel, and that Trapaga was murdered by an unknown person after dropping him off at their South Beach home.
The jury deliberated less than three hours in convicting Escoto. Wednesday’s sentencing was a foregone conclusion – by law, the judge was bound to sentence him to life in prison.
“Wendy’s life was short but her road to justice was long,” prosecutor Gail Levine told the judge on Wednesday. “Today is going to be final statement to this defendant. He’ll be told by your sentence that what he did can not be tolerated.”
Wednesday’s hearing served as a release for relatives who had waited 12 years to address the man they always suspected of Trapaga’s demise.
A dozen relatives wore white T-shirts adorned with Trapaga’s photo, a cross on the back with the words “God thank you for justice.” Some held large photos of her in a royal blue dress, holding flowers, smiling broadly.
Relative after relative addressed the judge. Even Miami-Dade Detective Gus Bayas, the original investigator on the case, took to the podium, saying he hopes the verdict gave some “small measure of satisfaction” for the family.
Myriam Benitez, Trapaga’s mother, spoke holding a weathered bible and an album of photos of her daughter.
“Wendy was my life, my joy, my reason for living,” she sobbed. “Many of you have daughters and sons and they will give you kisses this Mother’s Day. I will have to go to put flowers on my daughter’s tomb. She didn’t deserve this.”