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​Who Put the Hit Out on a Florida Criminal Justice Professor?

A nasty custody fight ended in an assassination allegedly orchestrated by a woman with ties to the family of slain scholar Dan Markel's ex-wife. But who actually wanted him dead?
October 27, 2016, 5:00pm
Officer David Northway reveals an image of Sigfredo Garcia. Joe Rondone/Tallahassee Democrat via AP

In the hours before and after Dan Markel was shot in the head outside his home in Tallahassee, Florida, two years ago, his former brother-in-law Charlie Adelson called a paramour, Katherine "Katie" Magbanua, at least nine times. While the conversations were not recorded, the phone calls are among several key pieces of evidence cops believe connect Adelson and his lover to the two men they've formally accused of actually killing Markel, according to a recent probable cause affidavit charging Magbanua with orchestrating the Florida State professor's murder.

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At the time of his death on July 19, 2014, Markel, a prominent criminal justice scholar, had recently gone through an acrimonious divorce with Wendi Adelson, Charlie's sister and the director of Florida State's Public Interest Law Center. The motive for killing Markel, cops suggest in the affidavit, was that his ex-wife and their children wanted to move back to south Florida despite a family court judge ruling in Markel's favor to keep the kids in Tallahassee.

"I believe and investigators believe that at one point [Magbanua] called Charlie to tell him the deal is done," Leon County County state attorney William "Willie" Meggs told me recently over the phone. "What proof do we have? None at the moment. It will probably come, but we are not there yet."

Sigfredo Garcia, the alleged triggerman who has two children with Magbanua, and Luis Rivera—an ex-leader of the Latin Kings who allegedly drove the getaway car—were arrested for Markel's murder last May. But Meggs's comments reflect the intricate and meticulous approach he and investigators have taken in unraveling the web behind Markel's homicide, even as criminal defense experts canvassed by VICE say the veteran state prosecutor has the goods to criminally charge Adelson.

Interest in the case picked up again recently when, after Rivera pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in exchange for his confession, Magbanua was arrested early this month for her alleged role as the intermediary between the hitmen and whoever wanted Markel dead. In addition to avoiding the death penalty, Rivera—who was sentenced to 12 years in federal prison this past January after pleading guilty to racketeering and other crimes committed as a Latin King —will only get seven years for his role in killing Markel. (Magbanua's attorney, Tara Kawass, declined to comment for this story.)

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"Many murder cases go forward on far less information that Tallahassee police have obtained in the Markel case," said Melissa Hamilton, visiting criminal law scholar at the University of Houston Law Center. "There is significant evidence against the [ex-wife's] brother and one of the parents to bring charges. A lot of it is circumstantial, but that is OK."

David O. Markus, a criminal defense attorney retained by Charlie Adelson, scoffed at law enforcement's theory. "Charlie is innocent and hasn't been charged with any crime," the defense lawyer told me via email. "Just a few weeks ago, the state attorney [Meggs] explained that they didn't even have probable cause that Charlie was involved."

Nevertheless, the Magbanua affidavit suggest some questionable interactions on part of the Adelsons before and after the Markel assassination. For instance, on July 1, telephone tower location records show that Charlie Adelson's and Magbanua's cell phones were in the vicinity of his Miami residence between 10 AM and 1:20 PM, possibly indicating they were together, the affidavit states.

Beginning at 11:47 AM, Magbanua appears to have attempted to contact Garcia nearly 50 times, finally reaching him at about 5:05 PM. The conversation lasted six minutes. The rest of the evening, Magbanua had numerous phone conversations with both Adelson and Garcia. Seventeen days later, phone tower records show Garcia's cellphone was in the vicinity of the gym Markel frequented the morning he was killed. "Investigators believe this pattern is consistent with Magbanua being the conduit during the planning of Markel's murder," the affidavit states.

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After the murder, Magbanua received paychecks from the Adelson Institute for Aesthetics and Implant Dentistry that were handwritten and signed by Donna Adelson, Wendi's and Charlie's mom. She received about $13,000 in paychecks from the Institute and made cash deposits totally approximately $44,000 during the 12 months following Markel's death, the affidavit states. However, her cellular phone location records do not show Magbanua was actually going to the Adelson's dentist office with any frequency during the same period. Instead, investigators tracked her going to a dermatology office that was her true place of employment.

On April 20, undercover agents eavesdropped on a meeting between Charlie Adelson and Magbanua at a restaurant in Sunny Isles Beach in which they allegedly discussed a male who was trying to blackmail them by threatening to go public with evidence of their involvement in the murder caper. The blackmailer was actually another undercover cop; according to the affidavit, Charlie said, "Paying someone off is not an admission of guilt" and he allegedly instructed Magbanua, "I give you the money, you call him on the phone."

The combination of the phone records, the money going into Magbanua's account and the undercover surveillance work should be enough to press charges against Charlie and Donna Adelson, according to law scholar Hamilton. "There is no single piece of evidence that's a smoking gun, but all together there is plenty," she told me. "And now they have a confession [from Rivera] that connects the dots even further."

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(Michael Weinstein, a lawyer who represents the broader Adelson family, did not comment, though his secretary referred to an August statement sending their "deepest condolences" to the Markel family and insisting "nothing has turned up that supports this fanciful fiction that the Adelsons were involved.")

Meanwhile, Mark Geragos, a Los Angeles criminal defense lawyer whose past clients include singers Chris Brown, Usher, and Michael Jackson, said prosecutors agreeing to a plea deal that allows a murder suspect to go from facing the death penalty to only seven years is unheard of. This suggests to him that Meggs has confidence Rivera is a credible witness.

"I'm surprised they haven't filed charges against the ex-wife's brother," Geragos said. "My guess is they are moving cautiously and sequentially. Obviously, they have a boatload of evidence against the two who were initially arrested."

Markus, Charlie Adelson's attorney, criticized Meggs for cutting an "offensive deal" with Rivera, a man he described as a convicted gangster who would say anything to avoid capital punishment. "The prosecution admittedly didn't have enough evidence so it went out and bought some by giving away the farm to a murderer," Markus said. "That's not a search for the truth. That's a deal with the devil."

Meggs acknowledged Rivera's credibility will be attacked by the lawyers representing the other suspects. "We don't believe Rivera was the triggerman, and yes we did make a deal with him," the prosecutor told me. "Did we like it? Nope. Is it the reality? Yep."

Follow Francisco Alvarado on Twitter.