Miami-Dade County

‘Like a dagger through the heart’ — Miami lawyer recounts ex-client’s plot to kill him

Adam Barnett, right, sits next to his attorney Elio Vasquez, as he appears in court accused of trying to hire a hit man to kill his underage sex victim as well as his former defense lawyer David Seltzer.
Adam Barnett, right, sits next to his attorney Elio Vasquez, as he appears in court accused of trying to hire a hit man to kill his underage sex victim as well as his former defense lawyer David Seltzer. cjuste@miamiherald.com

When the collect call came in from jail, Miami criminal defense lawyer David Seltzer thought nothing of it.

But the inmate on the other end that night in October 2014 wasn’t asking for legal help. Instead, the inmate told him that he and his family “were in no danger.”

But what the man told Seltzer next was more chilling than reassuring: “That Adam Barnett had hired him — and paid him — to kill me and my family.” Barnett was Seltzer’s former client, a 43-year-old Miami businessman with a checkered past whose original 2012 charge of having sex with an underage girl has since morphed into darker stuff still — charges of conspiracy to murder not only his own ex-lawyer but his teenage accuser and another witness.

Barnett’s trial opened Wednesday with the unusual sight of an accomplished defense attorney on the stand, answering rather than asking the questions, about a plot that left him shaken. “After all the hard fought legal battles ... to get that call, was like a dagger through the heart,” Seltzer told jurors: “I fight hard for my all clients.”

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CARL JUSTE cjuste@miamiherald.com

Barnett has never been convicted of a major crime and he was not charged in a federal indictment a decade ago that targeted his associates and several of his shell companies believed to have cost penny-stock investors more than $70 million. But in court documents, former associates painted him as part of the financial scam. State and court records also document numerous stalking allegations by former business associates and even an ex-stylist. He was convicted on one misdemeanor stalking charge, records show, and put on probation.

But he landed in jail on more serious charges of sex with an underage partner in 2012. Prosecutors say that Barnett set up a fake Facebook page — purporting to be a Hooters waitress named Janet Rodriguez — with the aim of befriending a 17-year-old Broward County girl known as “J.E.”

Through Facebook messages, “Janet” later arranged a sexual tryst with a “wealthy friend.” “He promised me a $20,000 Rolex,” J.E., now 21, testified on Wednesday.

The young woman said she had met several “sugar daddies” online, but Barnett was the first time she explicitly had sex for money. She wanted the money to help her mother battle cancer.

The teen, given alcohol and a Molly pill, said she had sex with Barnett at the Richmond Hotel on Miami Beach. Afterward Barnett gave the girl a key card and told her to retrieve her money from the hotel room safe, police said. But the key didn’t work and Barnett split — without paying.

‘I felt ignorant,” J.E. said. “I just accepted the fact that he played me.”

Afterward, J.E. became despondent, telling police several stories before coming clean. Barnett was charged with sex crimes and human trafficking. A judge ordered him held without bail.

But behind bars, prosecutors say Barnett began scheming to get rid of J.E., hiring a fellow inmate named Roman Thomas. The plan was to kill her on New Year’s Eve 2013.

“The fireworks were supposed to mask the sounds of bullets tearing into her body,” cybercrimes prosecutor Tom Haggerty told jurors.

In all, prosecutors say Barnett paid about $40,000 to have J.E., Seltzer and another former business associate killed or wounded, money paid to the inmate’s family through Barnett’s assistant.

But Thomas insists he never planned to follow through. In December 2013, Thomas told Barnett that the girl was dead, even showing him a photo of a fake tombstone — photographed at a real cemetery — to prove the hit happened.

And in court on the sex charge, Seltzer thought he had worked out a plea deal with the prosecutors for minimal jail time and probation. But Barnett repeatedly refused, insisting cryptically that J.E. would never show up for a trial.

So Seltzer and then-prosecutor Jane Anderson asked that the girl show up in court in June 2014. She walked into court and faced Barnett.

“Shock,” Seltzer recalled of Barnett’s reaction that day. “He looked like he couldn’t believe it, like he’d seen a ghost.”

Seltzer soon got off the case, which apparently angered Barnett. Months later, after the inmate called to tell him of the plot, Seltzer notified prosecutors and a new investigation was launched.

Thomas later told detectives he convinced Barnett not to kill Seltzer. The plan, instead, was downgraded — to beating him up and stealing his glasses.

Barnett has remained jailed pending trial on the additional conspiracy charges — and because he changed lawyers several times after Seltzer. He is now represented by Elio Vasquez. The trial continues Thursday before Circuit Judge Alberto Milian.

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