A Professor's Murder in Tallahassee Was a Contract Hit, Prosecutors Say

A Professor's Murder in Tallahassee Was a Contract Hit, Prosecutors Say
Illustration by Jon Proctor

"Hold on a second — there's someone I don't recognize in my driveway."

Dan Markel, a Florida State University law professor and one of America's most eminent legal scholars, was chatting idly on his cell phone as he drove up to his Tallahassee home. The morning was bright and a humid 85 degrees. The magnolia trees drooped over the winding street as Markel drew near.

In the driveway of 2116 Trescott Dr., Luis Rivera and Sigfredo Garcia waited in a rented Toyota Prius. They had come from Miami. Garcia fingered the trigger of a black .38 snub-nose that Rivera had scored a week earlier for $150 from a trailer-park gun dealer.

They were there to make $100,000.

Markel pulled up in his Honda Accord, clicked the remote to open the garage door, and passed the Prius in the driveway as he entered the garage.

Garcia exited the driver's seat, his right hand nestled against his stomach. Rivera jumped out as well, and they both walked briskly to the garage, where the Accord idled. Garcia approached the closed driver's-side window and fired two shots, shattering the glass and striking Markel on the bridge of his nose and left cheek.

It was 11 a.m. Friday, July 18, 2014. Markel died 14 hours later. He never regained consciousness.

In the 15 months preceding what investigators say was a "murder for hire," Dan Markel's ex-mother-in-law, Donna Adelson, had sent her only daughter a flurry of emails. They were pointed and vitriolic, filled with hatred for her son-in-law.

She called the man with two Harvard degrees an "idiot," a "fucker," and a "bastard."

"You suffered under his 'reign,'" Donna wrote to her daughter, Dan's ex-wife Wendi, in May 2013. "Narcissistic personality disorder causes major problems in a marriage."

Donna continued by derogatorily calling Dan "Jibbers" for his habit of talking incessantly and "Elvis" for what she perceived as his swollen self-regard.

She concluded the email, "I'm too angry to write any more. I'm going to shower, wash my hair, and get ready for you and the boys to come home."

The email is one of hundreds of thousands of documents, CDs, and photos of evidence in a file in the Leon County Courthouse in Tallahassee, where Sigfredo Garcia, age 37, and Kathy Magbanua, his 34-year-old, on-again, off-again girlfriend and the mother of his two children, will soon face trial on first-degree murder charges.

"Law enforcement is alleging a conspiracy, but only some members of that conspiracy have been charged."

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Cops say Donna Adelson and her son Charlie, Wendi's older brother, paid $100,000 to have Markel killed. According to law enforcement, they hoped to free Wendi to move with her two pre-school-aged sons to South Florida, where she grew up. But almost five years after the murder, neither has been criminally charged.

"This is such an unusual situation, in that law enforcement is alleging a conspiracy but only some members of that conspiracy have been charged," says David Lat, a New York lawyer who has tracked the case from the beginning on his blog, Above the Law.

Three suspects from Miami were arrested in 2016. One of them was Luis Rivera, AKA "King Tato." By the time of the indictment, Rivera was already serving a 12-year federal sentence on criminal conspiracy charges for his role as a leader of the Latin Kings' North Miami operation. Rivera received a reduced sentence of 19 years to run concurrent with his federal sentence in exchange for his confession and cooperation in the case.

If Garcia or Magbanua are convicted in Tallahassee, they might be inclined to cooperate with the state — if they have information, that is. "If they implicate the Adelsons, the case will be much stronger," Lat says. "So I don't think the Adelsons are out of the legal woods yet."

The case has been roundly dissected and discussed on legal blogs, in law journals, in true-crime internet hangouts, and on most every TV network, major and minor. A six-episode podcast, Over My Dead Body, held the top slot on iTunes in February. The already sad drama of the broken family, one in which the Markel wedding was feted in the pages of the New York Times, is a tragedy for all involved.

The emails between Donna and Wendi are part of the state's contention that the family was more than simply hoping for the courts to get it right. Donna encouraged Wendi to lie to the court to get her way and disparaged Dan at every turn. "You would never want to think that you didn't do EVERYTHING you could," she wrote.

click to enlarge Sigfredo Garcia - LEON COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE
Sigfredo Garcia
Leon County Sheriff's Office

Wendi and Dan reportedly met on JDate, an online dating site for Jewish singles, and were married in February 2006 in Boca Raton. Wendi, 26 years old, spoke three languages and was finishing her law degree at the University of Miami. Dan, age 33, was an ambitious legal academic who had collected scholarly plaudits for his essays and articles in legal journals , the New York Times, and The Atlantic. Markel had just begun teaching criminal law at Florida State University. In 2007, months after passing the bar exam, Wendi moved to Tallahassee and became director of FSU's Center for the Advancement of Human Rights. Babies soon followed: Benjamin in 2009 and Lincoln 14 months later.

Wendi's feelings for her husband unraveled shortly thereafter. She moved out of the house in September 2012 and filed for divorce. Wendi, who won a Truman Scholarship for public service in 2000, later described what she felt in an alumni entry in 2014 on the group's website:

"I screwed up fantastically and ended up with a dream job as a clinical law professor. I fell in love with the wrong man, and he got a job in Tallahassee. I had wanted to be in DC or become a foreign service officer, or in the previous few years, live close to my family in South Florida. So, ill-fated romance took me to Tallahassee, and love for my children keeps me here... Much of the last 4 years has been a giant blur."

The divorce was finalized in July 2013. Dan would pay $841 per month in child support and a lump-sum payment of $180,000. He got the house. She got the minivan.

But it wasn't over. In the months after the settlement, Dan and Wendi quarreled over payment of the kids' expenses as well as drop-off and pick-up times. They also argued over Wendi's desire to move to South Florida, where her family ran a dental clinic.

"Let's show this f***** what will make him absolutely miserable."

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Donna Adelson claimed that Dan had become a "religious zealot" since the couple's sons were born and that he was "indoctrinating them, not teaching them." If he really cared, he would allow the kids to move to South Florida with Wendi, where they could study at "one of the 37 Hebrew Day Schools in Dade, Broward and Palm Beach County," she wrote in an email to Wendi in May 2013.

Donna pushed her daughter to be more forceful in the court hearings. She continually blamed her son-in-law for the demise of the marriage and accused him of brainwashing the children. And she insisted her daughter let everyone know. "It's super important for the judge to get the message that this guy is a big bully," Donna wrote at one point.

In advance of a July 2013 court hearing in the divorce, Donna wrote an email to Wendi with the subject line "Please read — very important."

"It's time to take control of your life and not let [Dan] think he's just 'won' anything by having you remaining [in] Tallahassee, eight hours away from the only family you have...," Donna wrote in the three-page missive. "Let's show this fucker what will make him absolutely miserable."

click to enlarge Kathy Magbanua - LEON COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE
Kathy Magbanua
Leon County Sheriff's Office

Donna laid out a plan to deceive Dan into believing the children would become part of a Catholic church if they remained in Tallahassee. She advised Wendi to tell him: "You wanted me in Tallahassee. My children are going to 'fit in' in this bible belt."

Donna said pretending to convert the kids to Christianity could sway Markel and appeal to the judge, Leon County Circuit Judge Barbara Hobbs. "There were multiple donations from her church pastors & ministers on her financial contributions," Donna wrote. "She's a Southern black lady. How do you know it won't be music to her ears to hear this?"

Donna ended the note telling Wendi the family was prepared to offer Dan $1 million to allow Wendi to move to South Florida.

"Everyone has a price," she said. "It is about winning or losing."

In an email reply, Wendi rejected the plan and called it "crazy."

"The whole divorce, and the proceedings, are not something to be won or lost," Wendi wrote. "It makes the whole thing unnecessarily competitive."

By March 2014, four months before Dan's slaying, Wendi had begun seeing a therapist. The combination of pressure from her mother and caring for her two children after the divorce weighed on her. "I am really struggling, " she told a friend in an email sent April 29, 2014.

In an email exchange with her college roommate, Brenna Ferrick, in April 2014, less than three months before the murder, the two discussed the ongoing fallout from the divorce. After some small talk, Ferrick asked, "How are your parents? Are they involved and helping?" Wendi responded, "My parents and Charlie have been very supportive, but they are so angry!! at Danny that I don't involve them in most of the details."

After trying in vain to set up a phone conversation with Donna, another friend, Renae Griggs, emailed Wendi: "The truth is, Wendi, your mom's anxiety rises to the level of a therapeutic intervention."

In May 2014, Wendi petitioned the court to allow her to move to Miami. She attached with her filing a job offer for $115,000 as a staff attorney with a Miami immigration law firm. The judge refused her request. She would have to remain in Tallahassee.

Wendi also faced an allegation from Dan that she had failed to disclose a retirement account in her statements to the court. It was small, $50,000, but for a lawyer who should know better, it constituted a substantial legal breach if true.

The account would have affected the formula for determining Dan's child support and lump-sum payment.

On July 11, 2014, Donna emailed Wendi to confirm a Best Buy appointment to fix a broken TV set. It was scheduled for between 8 a.m. and noon July 18, 2014.

Dan would be shot dead in that time frame.

click to enlarge Luis Rivera - LEON COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE
Luis Rivera
Leon County Sheriff's Office

After an investigation of almost two years, prosecutors in June 2016 charged North Miami gang leader Luis Rivera, who was already serving time for criminal conspiracy at a federal prison outside Orlando, and his childhood friend, cc. Detectives had connected the pair to the rented Prius they alleged was used in Markel's murder.

The cops claimed that tollbooth and other public surveillance cameras showed the car had been driven to Tallahassee from South Florida and back on dates that coincided with the crime. They also said video from a North Miami ATM showed Garcia and Rivera sitting in the Prius.

The police affidavit for Garcia's arrest implicated Charlie and Donna Adelson. The motive for the slaying, it stated, "stemmed from the desperate desire of the Adelson family" to bring Wendi and the couple's two young sons home to South Florida.

After four months of negotiations between Rivera's defense team and prosecutors, Rivera pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. Based on his confession, police in October 2016 arrested Magbanua, a woman with no criminal record who moved to the United States from the Philippines in the early '90s.

Citing cell-phone records and FBI surveillance audio, police alleged she arranged the murder.

Like Garcia's arrest warrant, the probable-cause affidavit in Magbanua's case suggested Charlie and Donna were involved in Markel's killing. It noted a flurry of cell-phone calls between Charlie, Donna, and Magbanua around the time of the murder. It went on to describe cash deposits Magbanua had made to her bank accounts over the next year of up to $2,000 at a time, about $44,000 total. Magbanua had also begun to receive checks from the Adelson dental practice in September 2014. The checks were signed by Donna Adelson.

Daniel Rashbaum, a lawyer on the team representing Donna and her husband Harvey, declined to comment and referred an inquiry to an August 2016 statement regarding the case. "We understand why the government has put the Adelson family through this type of severe scrutiny," the statement reads. "But nothing has turned up that supports this fanciful fiction that the Adelsons were involved. The investigation has gone so deep that it employed FBI agents, undercover agents, and a tip line. There is a reason that the police have not arrested any of the Adelsons — they weren't involved in Dan's death."

The probable-cause affidavit suggested Charlie and Donna Adelson were involved in Dan's murder.

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Magbanua and Garcia have pleaded not guilty to charges of first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder, and solicitation to commit murder. They have been in the Leon County Jail since their arrests and will be tried together. The trial was scheduled to begin June 3 but was delayed in May when prosecutors said they had unlocked Magbanua's cell phone and were analyzing the data.

A case-management conference is scheduled for June 18.

The witness list for Magbanua's defense includes Dan's parents, numerous friends of both Wendi and Dan's, and individuals who, according to police, Rivera and Garcia contacted while they were in Tallahassee in July 2014.

The defense has also interviewed an electronic evidence expert, who is expected to refute phone communications that cops have used to link Magbanua and Garcia to the crime.

Wendi has been subpoenaed by the state and is also expected to testify.

The Adelsons — Donna, Harvey, and Charlie — will not be there, a lawyer for the family said. But their names will certainly come up.

"It will be impossible for the government to make the case against [Magbanua] and Sigfredo without heavily mentioning the Adelsons," says Lat, the attorney and Above the Law blogger.

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Steve Miller