Miami-Dade County

Escoto convicted in murder of new bride for life insurance money

After the verdict, Myriam Benitez squeezed her teary eyes shut, slipped to her knees in the back of the Miami-Dade courtroom and clasped her hands in prayer. After 12 years of agony, Benitez finally heard what she always knew to be true:

Michel Escoto is guilty of the vicious murder of Benitez’s daughter, Wendy Trapaga.

Jurors deliberated less than three hours Tuesday before delivering the verdict against Escoto, Trapaga’s husband of only four days back in October 2002, when she was strangled and viciously beaten with a tire iron — all in a plot to collect a $1 million life insurance policy.

“The truth triumphed over over the lies,” said Benitez, who throughout the trial wore an elegant gold pendant adorned with Trapaga’s image. “God accompanied us throughout this whole process. May my daughter rest in peace.”

As Escoto, who has been in jail since 2005, was fingerprinted by jail officers, Trapaga’s family, some holding hands, lined up in the gallery directly across from him. “So he could see we are united for justice,” said cousin Claudia Camargo.

Escoto, 42, will not be sentenced until May 7, but the prison term is already set: By law, he must serve life behind bars on the first-degree murder conviction.

Trapaga’s relatives, who always suspected Escoto murdered the 21-year-old brunette, will have the chance at the sentencing hearing to address the judge as well as the killer himself. Tuesday’s conviction ended a month-long trial that featured Escoto frustratingly acting as his own lawyer — at one point, he drew a contempt-of-court conviction for threatening a key witness in front of shocked jurors.

At trial, prosecutors portrayed Escoto as a womanizing deadbeat who met Trapaga at beauty school classes and pushed her to marry him, even convincing her to lie to her family about being pregnant.

“Wendy had no life after you,” prosecutor Gail Levine told Escoto during closing arguments, turning to the jury. “He took her life, boldly, brazenly, for money.”

The original plan: drug her with a powder made of Percocet painkillers, then drown her to make it look like an accident.

Escoto initially tried to drug Trapaga during an impromptu honeymoon in Key West, but her drink tasted “too chalky,” prosecutors said.

Days later, Escoto succeeded in drugging Trapaga, trying to drown her inside the “Egyptian Room” of Miami’s Executive Airport Motel. But when her head would not stay under water in the Jacuzzi, he wound up beating her to death with a tire iron outside a warehouse later that night, the state said.

Prosecutors had a key witness: Escoto’s ex-girlfriend, Yolanda Cerrillo, who admitted to jurors she helped him plan the murder, ground up the Percocet and even practiced with the defendant how to drown the young woman.

Cerrillo, who received immunity from prosecution, also admitted to whisking him away from the crime scene and taking him to dispose of the tire iron in Biscayne Bay.

Escoto initially told detectives he and Trapaga got into an argument, left the motel and that she dropped him off at their South Beach apartment before driving off. But Miami-Dade homicide detectives were immediately suspicious about the sincerity of his grief and about Trapaga’s life insurance policy — less than two months later, Escoto filed a claim to get the insurance money.

Escoto eventually filed a lawsuit to collect the money. But during sworn testimony at the trial in 2005, he gave conflicting versions of what happened that night, leading to his arrest.

He has long insisted on representing himself and the lack of experience and a cohesive defense cost him at trial. He delivered a rambling, scatter-shot opening statement in which he never denied killing Trapaga.

Escoto also grew increasingly frustrated as prosecutors levied objection after objection to his improper questioning. Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Marisa Tinkler Mendez also gave him patient but stern warnings throughout, and she found him in contempt for threatening Trapaga’s civil lawyer on the stand.

Escoto finally allowed his “stand-by” counsel, Terry Lenamon, to deliver his closing argument. Lenamon immediately attacked prosecutors, saying they overdramatized the evidence for the “vilification of Michel Escoto” – then attacked Trapaga’s character and suggested perhaps she was killed by some unknown boyfriend she ran to after her argument with her husband.

The effort did not pay off.

Said Miami-Dade Detective Gus Bayas, the original lead investigator on the case: “It means a lot for the family, to have the correct justice after so many years.”