Crime

Who paid for hit on FSU prof? In lurid trial, a Broward dentist’s name keeps coming up

Katherine Magbanua, charged in the 2014 murder of Florida State law professor Dan Markel, mimics with her hands an incident involving Sigfredo Garcia cutting off her and Charlie Adelson with his car.
Katherine Magbanua, charged in the 2014 murder of Florida State law professor Dan Markel, mimics with her hands an incident involving Sigfredo Garcia cutting off her and Charlie Adelson with his car. Tallahassee Democrat

Hours after Florida State University law professor Daniel Markel was shot and killed in his car at his Tallahassee home in July 2014, his ex-wife Wendi Adelson sat with an investigator at the Tallahassee Police Department, shaking, crying and burying her face in her hands.

When the investigator told Wendi the shooting was intentional and they needed to find out who murdered the father of her two children, she blurted out a name: Charlie Adelson, her older brother and confidant.

“[Charlie] knew that Danny always treated me badly and it was always this joke,” Wendi Adelson, also an FSU law professor, told police. “He said: ‘I looked into hiring a hit man and it was cheaper to get you this TV so instead I got you this TV … but he would never … it’s such a horrible thing to say.’”

Charlie Adelson, a Tamarac periodontist, has not been charged in the case and denies any involvement, but his name has come up again and again during a five-year investigation — and repeatedly during an ongoing three-week trial of two South Florida residents facing murder charges in Leon County for Markel’s death. The jury is expected to begin deliberations after closing arguments on Thursday.

This week, a state prosecutor called Charlie Adelson an “unindicted co-conspirator” during an interview with the Miami Herald. And the Tallahassee Police Department has done little to hide its suspicions that he organized the hit. Three years ago, police even released a draft of a probable cause affidavit against Adelson that the local state attorney rejected as insufficient to file charges.

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Charlie Adelson has not been charged in the murder of Florida State University law professor Dan Markel. But his name has come up repeatedly at trial. LinkedIn

The two people now on trial in Tallahassee are Sigfredo Garcia, who prosecutors say shot and killed Markel, and Katherine Magbanua, who had romantic relationships with both Garcia and Charlie Adelson and is accused of being the go-between in the alleged murder-for-hire.

The prosecution’s case depends in large part on the testimony of Garcia’s friend and confessed accomplice, Luis Rivera, also of South Florida, who said Magbanua hired them for the job. Rivera, a convicted ringleader of the North Miami Latin Kings gang, has already pleaded guilty. Garcia and Magbanua are charged with first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder and solicitation of murder. They have both pleaded not guilty and are being tried together.

Although prosecutors never produced a witness who could link Adelson or his family to either Rivera or Garcia, they have spent much of the trial attempting to persuade jurors of abundant circumstantial links — with Magbanua as the cog.

“Charlie Adelson had a sister in Tallahassee, Wendi Adelson — and Wendi Adelson had a problem,’‘ lead prosecutor Georgia Cappleman told jurors in her opening statement. “Her problem was named Dan Markel. The solution to that problem was Magbanua, Garcia and Rivera.”

Magbanua took the stand Wednesday, where she denied involvement in a conspiracy but pointed the finger at a man far away in South Florida. Based on the evidence presented at trial, she told jurors she thought Markel’s brother-in-law — her former boyfriend Charlie Adelson — was behind the murder.

The trial, which began Sept. 26, is the result of a five-year probe involving the FBI, undercover cameras and wiretaps. The investigation and trial has transfixed Tallahassee, more accustomed to seeing itself in the news for goings-on at the state Capitol than violent crime. Markel’s murder has even been the subject of a top-rated true-crime podcast, Over My Dead Body.

The attention is hardly surprising: The tragedy — featuring a family riven by deadly discord — has the makings of a Euripidean drama.

For her part, Wendi Adelson, who has since moved back to South Florida, testified in the first week of the trial that she had no knowledge of who had plotted her husband’s murder.

But prosecutors say they believe Charlie Adelson financed the scheme to kill Markel, giving $100,000 in cash and gifts to the two hit men. The suggested motive: to end a court order and the emotional strain that had barred Wendi from relocating her children to South Florida after her bitter divorce from Markel.

While no charges have been brought against him, that could change if a jury agrees with the state’s theory of the case and finds Garcia and Magbanua guilty. Prosecutors would then have powerful leverage over the pair: Provide us evidence against Charlie Adelson or face life in prison — or even, in Garcia’s case, death.

Up to now, however, their lawyers insist they have no information to offer. And Adelson’s attorney, David O. Markus, said the state’s theory about his client is horrendously wrong.

“For five years, the state has picked through every piece of Charlie’s life — every phone call, every email message, every text, every relationship, every possible witness — looking for any excuse to charge him,” Markus told the Miami Herald. “But there is nothing there.”

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Sigfredo Garcia watches as Assistant State Attorney Georgia Cappleman poses questions for Katherine Magbanua to answer Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019. Alicia Devine Tallahassee Democrat

If, on the other hand, Garcia and Magbanua are acquitted, prosecutors will have to decide if they want to charge Adelson with what they already have: Evidence that former State Attorney Willie Meggs decided in 2016 was not enough to win a conviction.

Wednesday, the final day of testimony, was Yom Kippur, a day of atonement and the most important Jewish holiday of the year. It was also the devout Markel’s birthday. He would have turned 47.

Charlie Adelson has naturally stayed far away from the trial. He was missing, too, from Markel’s memorial service in July 2014, which was attended by Wendi Adelson and her parents.

‘It depends on the day’

Charlie Adelson, 42, grew up comfortably in Coral Springs.

His father, Harvey, is a successful dentist. His mother, Donna, is a teacher who stopped working to raise her family. Growing up, Charlie was a tennis star at J.P. Taravella High School. He attended the University of Central Florida and, in 2003, graduated from Nova Southeastern University’s College of Dental Medicine. He joined his father’s practice and now works at an office in Tamarac.

Adelson worked long hours and went on medical missions to Jamaica. On the side, he displayed an entrepreneurial spirit, running a New York-style Jewish deli in Tamarac with a childhood friend and starting up a South Beach consulting firm and a company called Energy Shots LLC. He became a residential landlord, amassing enough wealth that by 2015 he could pay $790,000 for a 10-unit apartment building in Fort Lauderdale.

In his free time, Adelson dated often but usually not for very long. In her testimony to police, Wendi described meeting her brother’s “many, many girlfriends.” Adelson is now the father of a child — and the target of a paternity suit in Broward County. Asked if Charlie was still together with the mother, Wendi answered: “It depends on the day.”

His cars were just as fast as his relationships. He drove a Mercedes and a Ferrari, Wendi Adelson’s ex-boyfriend, Jeffrey Lacasse, said.

But the dentist seemed comfortable anywhere.

“He’s a dentist and he’s very wealthy but he kind of hangs out with people from both sides of the tracks,” Lacasse testified during a deposition. “You know, he goes boating in South Beach with his rich buddies and he also goes to his gym with some other kinds of characters.”

Adelson’s life seemed charmed — until his beloved younger sister, the baby of the three Adelson siblings, filed for divorce from her husband Dan Markel in 2012 after six years of marriage.

Wendi Adelson and Dan Markel, both respected legal experts, had a short partnership but a long and litigious separation. They fought over assets and money, but mostly their two young sons. Before the divorce was finalized in 2013, Wendi moved the couples’ sons to her parents’ home in Coral Springs. Markel objected in court and a judge denied Wendi’s motion to relocate the children.

After that court decision, Wendi’s parents repeatedly tried to change Markel’s mind. Charlie Adelson and his parents discussed paying Markel $1 million to allow his children to relocate to South Florida, according to emails cited by prosecutors.

The Adelsons never made the offer and the couple went about building separate lives in Tallahassee.

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Daniel Markel was shot in the head at his home in Tallahassee in 2014. AP

Then, on July 19, 2014, Markel was shot twice in the head in broad daylight while sitting in his car in his own garage — a shocking, seemingly senseless murder in Tallahassee’s Betton Hills neighborhood. Markel had taken his two young sons to daycare earlier, gone to the gym and returned home. He had been on the phone with a local teacher when killed, and the keys were still in the ignition.

A neighbor heard what he believed to be a gunshot, and looked out the window to see a small, light-colored car backing out of Markel’s driveway. He called the police, and Markel died 12 hours later at Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare.

The small car the neighbor saw was a rented 2008 Toyota Prius, which police tracked down using surveillance footage from local buses and businesses. The Prius followed Markel from the gym to his home and drove off after the murder.

SunPass transponder records pulled by police show the car traveled from Tallahassee to South Florida using Interstate 75 and ended up at a rental facility in South Florida. The car had been rented to Garcia, Magbanua’s boyfriend and the father of her two children. Cellphone records also linked Garcia and Rivera to the area.

Rivera, one of the hit men, pleaded guilty in 2016 to second-degree murder in the case and is serving a 19-year sentence at a federal prison in Arizona for his cooperation. He said the hit had been arranged by Magbanua. He testified in exchange for a plea deal that would allow him to plead guilty to being an accomplice to the murder while accusing Garcia of pulling the trigger. He and Garcia were longtime friends.

His statements to prosecutors led to the arrest of Magbanua on Oct. 2, 2016, in Broward County. And Magbanua led them — indirectly — to Charlie Adelson.

Magbanua, who worked part-time at a South Beach dental office and at several Miami nightclubs as a “bottle girl” serving alcohol and entertaining guests, started dating Adelson in 2013, a year before the murder.

Going undercover

In the spring of 2016, police organized an elaborate undercover operation in which they tapped the mobile phones of Magbanua, Garcia, Adelson and his mother, Donna, while using decoys to apply pressure in an attempt to get them to talk.

On April 20, 2016, an undercover agent hand-delivered to Donna Adelson a printout of a newspaper story on Markel’s murder and wrote his phone number on it and a request that the Adelsons pay $5,000 to allegedly compensate Rivera’s family.

“We want to make sure that you take care of what he’s going through like you’re taking care of Katie and Tuto,” the agent said in the secretly recorded video referring to Garcia by his nickname.

The tactic, which law enforcement referred to as a “bump,’‘ was designed to scare the Adelsons and get them to engage in conversations that could expose what the state believed was a conspiracy to cover up the murder. Federal agents testified that they filmed the exchange from multiple angles, including a high-altitude plane flying overhead as the agent handed Donna Adelson the paper.

In the next few days, they tapped the phones, recorded conversations and planted hidden cameras on the boardwalk on Miami Beach and at the Dolce Vita restaurant at a Sunny Isles Beach strip mall to capture Charlie Adelson’s conversations with his mother and Magbanua.

Detectives then tracked calls from Charlie Adelson, his mother and, Garcia — who called at Magbanua’s request — to the undercover number. A month later, Garcia was arrested at a Hallandale Beach gas station and charged with first-degree murder.

While investigators tapped one of Charlie Adelson’s phones and two of Katherine Magbanua’s and knew of their close relationship, they could not find a link between Adelson and either Rivera or Garcia, the alleged killers.

Rivera also had no evidence that Adelson had asked Magbanua to set up the murder.

While lead prosecutor Cappleman prepared a probable cause affidavit against Charlie Adelson in 2016, her former boss — now-retired state attorney Willie Meggs — concluded they didn’t have the evidence to convict him. Meggs told the Tallahassee Democrat the cops simply hadn’t collected enough evidence.

“If they believe they have probable cause then they should go make the arrest. They don’t need me,” Meggs said. “I would say to Chief (Michael) DeLeo go make the arrest and get ready for your civil suit from whoever they have arrested without probable cause.’”

Still, Tallahassee police released the unexecuted affidavit to the Tallahassee Democrat in 2016. That turned what had been a whisper of suspicion against Charlie Adelson into a continuing conversation.

During the trial, prosecutors never produced a witness who could link Adelson to either Rivera or Garcia. But they did show that Magbanua’s finances improved dramatically after the murder.

Prosecutors produced evidence that, days after Markel was killed, Magbanua started receiving checks for $407.58, handwritten and signed by Donna Adelson, from the Adelson Institute for Aesthetics and Implant Dentistry.

While Magbanua said she worked at Adelson’s dental practice, two dental assistants who worked at the institute testified they knew her as Adelson’s girlfriend and only saw her at the dental office as a patient. The state also said Adelson paid for half of a $4,000 breast implant surgery done by Dr. Leonard Roudner, a plastic surgeon also known as “Dr. Boobner.”

Surveillance records and phone logs show that Magbanua never showed up for work — but her bank accounts ballooned anyway. She would receive more than $56,000 over 16 months, with cash deposits accounting for 70% of Magbanua’s income in 2014 and 2015.

Magbanua’s attorney Chris DeCoste pointed out that Magbanua was working at several Miami clubs as a bottle girl who was paid in cash tips.

On Wednesday, Magbanua took the highly unusual step for a criminal defendant in a murder case of taking the stand.

She testified that she asked Adelson for a job so she could afford health insurance for her two children, and he allowed her to work as a personal assistant, dealing with tenants and medical clients. Even after they stopped seeing each other romantically, he continued their professional relationship, she said. As for her breast enhancements, Magbanua told the jury she paid for the procedure herself in cash, from her nightclub tips, and got a discount. That surgery occurred in October 2014, after she said she began seeing Adelson less frequently.

Tara Kawass, her attorney, told the jury her client had been offered immunity to testify against Charlie Adelson and asked Magbanua to explain why she turned it down.

“I wish I could because I wouldn’t be incarcerated — and I’d be free and I’d be with my children,’‘ Magbanua said.

“Why haven’t you done that?’‘ Kawass asked. “Because I’m telling the truth,’‘ Magbanua answered.

“Do you think Charlie Adelson was involved in this?” her attorney also asked her. “And that he was lying to you?”

“Yes,” Magbanua replied.

Magbanua’s lawyers say Garcia is guilty and Adelson should be arrested. They argue that Garcia was bitter and jealous of Adelson, so in July 2014, he approached the dentist and agreed to murder Markel without telling his girlfriend.

“If you stay away from Katie Magbanua, I’ll do this,’’ Kawass suggested was his offer.

For their part, Garcia’s attorneys argued that the state has tethered its entire case against their client on the testimony of Rivera, a career criminal and gang member serving a 19-year sentence in federal prison. They said Garcia would never have helped Adelson, whom he bitterly disliked for dating Magbanua, the mother of his children.

“They want you to believe that this man, whose heart was broken, decided: ‘You know what? I’m going to help out the guy who’s with my wife,’‘ said Garcia’s attorney Saam Zangeneh. “The only person who said Sigfredo Garcia killed Dan Markel is Luis Rivera.”

Cappleman, the prosecutor, also brought up other members of the Adelson family during trial. She told jurors Donna Adelson “despised Dan Markel” and read from an email in which Donna called her former son-in-law “a religious zealot” “and “a bastard.” Prosecutors accused her of scheming to gain leverage over her son-in-law with threats that they would convert the children to Catholicism, an affront to Markel because “he was observant in his faith.”

Donna Adelson declined to comment Wednesday.

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Katherine Magbanua, Wendi Adelson and a friend pose for a photograph. Magbanua is on trial for her involvement in the murder of Adelson’s ex-husband, Dan Markel. Leon County State Attorney's Office

Cappleman never linked Wendi Adelson to the crime except to say “she had an alibi” when the repairman who fixed the TV her brother bought arrived at her home the morning of the murder.

John Lauro, an attorney for Wendi Adelson, told the Miami Herald that both the prosecution and the defense have shown that Wendi “had absolutely nothing to do with these tragic events.”

“She has complete confidence in the criminal justice system and we’re all waiting for the results of the trial,” he said.

A world away in Tamarac, Charlie Adelson continues to see patients.

His attorney, David O. Markus, believes the trial will vindicate his client. Markus pointed to Magbanua turning down the lifeline of immunity to testify against her former boyfriend.

“She won’t lie, even to save herself,” Markus said. “As much as the state has tried to make this a case against Charlie and his family, it doesn’t have the evidence to go forward.”

Miami Herald staff writer Daniel Chang contributed to this report.
Samantha J. Gross is a politics and policy reporter for the Miami Herald. Before she moved to the Sunshine State, she covered breaking news at the Boston Globe and the Dallas Morning News.
Mary Ellen Klas is the capital bureau chief for the Miami Herald, where she covers government and politics and focuses on investigative and accountability reporting. In 2018-19, Mary Ellen was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University and was named the 2019 Murrey Marder Nieman Fellow in Watchdog Journalism. In 2018, she won the Sunshine Award from the Society of Professional Journalists. The Herald’s statehouse bureau is a joint operation with the Tampa Bay Times’ statehouse staff. Please support her work with a digital subscription. You can reach her at meklas@miamiherald.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas.
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