South Florida

Divorce, gang ties, murder: Professor’s death case fit for a movie plot

Sigfredo Garcia, left, and Wendi Adelson
Sigfredo Garcia, left, and Wendi Adelson

A bitter divorce, a contentious fight for child custody, a renowned professor gunned down in his garage in daylight. Could they be connected? Investigators think so.

The first unsealed document in the 2014 slaying of Florida State University law professor Daniel Markel lays out what investigators believe was a hit called for by the family of Markel’s ex-wife, South Florida native Wendi Adelson.

The Adelson family’s “desperate desire” to move Adelson and her sons to South Florida sparked the killing, prosecutors allege.

The two killers are believed to be the North Miami head of the Latin Kings gang and a Miami Beach felon, whose children’s mother is now in a “serious relationship” with the ex-wife’s brother.

Markel was shot in the head in his garage in the middle of the day in July 2014, shocking his upscale Tallahassee neighborhood.

Wendi Adelson and Daniel Markel married in 2006, while she was a third-year law student at the University of Miami and he was a criminal law professor at FSU. The New York Times wrote about their marriage.

Six years and two children later, it ended.

“Markel reportedly returned home from a business trip to find his family gone, a majority of the contents of the house missing and the paperwork for dissolution of marriage displayed on his bed,” according to the warrant.

Investigators said Adelson took her sons to her parents in Coral Springs, but at Markel’s protest returned to Leon County to wait out the legal proceedings. The fight over custody turned nasty, investigators contend, with emails from Adelson’s mother, Donna, encouraging Wendi to “coerce Markel into allowing the relocation to South Florida.”

Markel fired back, asking a judge to stop his ex-mother-in-law from unsupervised contact with the children.

“Markel claimed Donna made disparaging remarks about him to his sons,” read the warrant.

The couple was due to duke it out in court over the motion when Markel was murdered.

The first break in the nearly 2-year-old case came on May 25 at a gas station in Hallandale Beach.

Sigfredo Garcia, a 34-year-old Miami Beach man with a long rap sheet, was arrested over cocaine possession and first-degree murder, although he was not formally charged with murder at the time.

Police announced he was connected with Markel’s killing but gave no other information and got a judge to seal the records for the case.

On Thursday, the warrant for Garcia’s arrest was unsealed, spelling out what investigators think happened in the days surrounding the killing of the 41-year-old law professor.

It all rests on a light green Toyota Prius, which investigators said was rented from a North Miami rental car agency and carried Garcia and his partner on the more than 450-mile journey up Interstate 75 to Tallahassee.

Garcia’s alleged partner, Luis Rivera, is also considered a suspect and will also be charged with murder, Tallahassee Police Chief Michael DeLeo said at a news conference. No one has said the pair were paid, but the chief told reporters there was “good information” they were hired to kill the professor.

“It was not a random act that they came up here,” DeLeo said.

Rivera, also known as “King Tato,” was the leader of the North Miami branch of the Latin Kings gang, according to federal court documents He was one of the 23 gang members swept up in a 2015 crackdown. In January, he was sentenced to 12 1/2 years in prison.

The car rental was under Luis Rivera’s name and listed the cellphone numbers of Rivera and Garcia as contacts. Investigators tracked the Prius to Tallahassee and back using data from Garcia’s cellphone and the SunPass transponder in the rental car.

Video from Tallahassee buses, a bank, a county government facility, a store and a gym parking lot show a car that looks like the Prius following Markel the day of the murder as he dropped his young sons off at daycare before heading to the gym, investigators said.

Markel was sitting in his car on his phone in the garage, keys still in the ignition, when he was shot in the head half an hour later.

A neighbor reportedly heard a gunshot, saw a Prius back out of the driveway and called the police. The ambulance brought Markel to the hospital, where he later died.

Investigators said the Prius’ next stop was a motel, booked for Garcia and Rivera by a witness known to police.

The pair’s cellphone locations constantly placed them along the path investigators said Garcia and Rivera traveled, but it also revealed the connection between the South Floridian felons and the FSU professor.

Garcia’s cellphone stopped all activity the day after the murder, but in the three months before the killing he called South Florida woman Katherine Magbanua about 2,700 times, according to investigators.

Magbanua is the mother of his two children — one of whose name is tattooed on Garcia’s right arm — and according to state records a vice president in Garcia’s company.

Investigators said Magbanua is also in a “personal relationship” with Wendi Adelson’s brother, Charlie, and that she was one of his top contacts in his phone.

Charlie Adelson and his father run the Adelson Institute for Esthetics and Implant Dentistry, a successful practice in Tamarac.

Authorities haven’t identified who they suspect hired Garcia and Rivera but said more arrests are imminent.

Garcia’s lawyer, Jim Lewis, said his client will plead not guilty when charges are filed. Garcia is being held without bond in Leon County Jail.

“From what I’ve seen,” Lewis said, “it looks like a very weak case.”

SOCIAL ACTIVISTS

Wendi Adelson is a South Florida native, leaving only to pursue her undergraduate degree and teach at FSU. Adelson, now a law clerk for a federal appeals judge in Miami, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

As a teen, Adelson won an armful of awards (including a Miami Herald Silver Knight) for “Starting Blocks,” a charity she began to give toys and educational material to underprivileged children.

“I was thinking about the advantages I had, “ Adelson told the Herald in 1995. “All kids don’t get the same start and I wished everyone got the same educational opportunities as I had.”

She left South Florida for Brandeis University but returned to attend University of Miami law.

As a second-year law student, she was a clinical intern at the Center for Ethics and Public Service at University of Miami Law School. She wrote editorials in the Herald about injustice in the treatment of immigrants and asylum seekers.

One year later she married Markel and became a law professor specializing in humanitarian immigration. She got a favorable score on ratemyprofessors.com (plus a chili pepper for “hotness”).

Both lawyers kept blogs. Markel’s ‘PrawfsBlawg’ was popular enough to spawn an international following soon after his first post in 2005. His last post, the night before his murder, mused on the death penalty. The blog continues on, filled with legal posts from a network of influential lawyers and legal scholars.

Adelson’s ‘Human Trafficking Law Blog’ is less renowned but bolsters her influence in the human trafficking activism world. The most recent post was in September.

At FSU, she was director of the Human Rights and Immigration Law Project, which also dealt with the influx of sex trafficked teens brought to Miami for the 2010 Super Bowl.

She took her advocacy experience with human trafficking and turned it into a 300-page E-book — “This is Our Story.” It follows two young women who are tricked into sexual slavery in the American Southeast. In 2014, FSU first-year students read the book together.

Now she’s a corps member of One Billion Rising Miami, which works to combat sex trafficking. Last month, Adelson was named one of the Miami Foundations new Miami Fellows.

This article was supplemented with material from The Associated Press.

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