Throughout a tense murder trial and for years afterward, Myriam Benitez wore an elegant gold pendant imprinted with the image of her murdered daughter, Wendy Trapaga.
The pendant was still around Benitez’s neck when she was buried Tuesday in South Miami-Dade.
She died Sunday of cancer, three years after her daughter’s killer was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for a notorious murder for insurance money. Benitez, 69, lost a long battle with cancer, which she was diagnosed with not long after the 2014 trial.
“She’s wore it constantly,” Rita Stephan, Trapaga’s half-sister, said of the pendant. “It gave her strength to keep moving forward.”
Said Benitez’s niece, Claudia Camargo: “She wanted to have Wendy over her heart.”
Benitez had been in the public eye since her 21-year-old daughter, a photogenic beauty-school student who lived in South Beach, was found beaten to death near a warehouse in Northwest Miami-Dade in October 2002.
Miami-Dade police detectives zeroed in on her new husband, Michel Escoto, who quickly filed a claim for $1 million in insurance and later filed a lawsuit trying to obtain the money. But authorities did not arrest him until 2005, after Escoto testified in a civil trial and gave conflicting versions of what happened the night of his bride’s death.
Trapaga met Escoto while the two were taking beauty classes in early 2002, and they quickly moved into a South Beach apartment.
During the highly publicized 2014 criminal trial, prosecutors portrayed Escoto as a manipulative loafer who kept several girlfriends on the side and enlisted an ex-paramour 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.
Benitez, who spoke to her daughter three hours before the murder, testified at the trial, helping prosecutors establish a timeline of Trapaga’s final days. She also watched the proceedings from the gallery, proudly showing off the pendant — which was given to her by a member of a church support group she started for mothers of murdered children.
“She helped a lot of women who suffered the same pain as her,” Camargo said.
During Escoto’s sentencing, Benitez held a weathered bible and an album of photos of her daughter.
“Wendy was my life, my joy, my reason for living,” she said. “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.”
Benitez was born on March 23, 1947, in Cali, Colombia. She came to the United States in 1979, where she met and married Ernesto Trapaga, a cargo pilot who died in a plane crash in Egypt in 1988. Wendy was their only child.
After his death, Benitez joined Miami-Dade Schools, first as a secretary, working her way up to become a supervisor of the after-school program at E.W.F. Stirrup Elementary in Northwest Miami-Dade. She retired in 2014 after 17 years with Miami-Dade Schools.
Benitez, who is survived by her mother, second husband and four siblings, was buried Tuesday at Caballero Rivero Dade South.