South Florida gets plenty of mention during opening statements of Daniel Markel murder trial

Ex-mother-in-law plotted to convert children to Christianity, prosecutor says

By Peter Burke - Local10.com Managing Editor

Wendi Adelson and Daniel Markel were in the midst of a bitter custody battle when the Florida State University law professor was fatally shot in July 2014.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - The estranged mother-in-law of Florida State University law professor Daniel Markel was so desperate to move her daughter and grandchildren to South Florida that she plotted ways to make his life miserable, including converting his children to Christianity, before he was shot to death at his Tallahassee home in 2014, a prosecutor revealed Thursday during the murder trial of Sigfredo Garcia and Katherine Magbanua.

Garcia and Magbanua are charged with first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder and solicitation to commit first-degree murder in connection with the July 2014 fatal shooting.

Another man, Luis Rivera, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and agreed to testify against Garcia and Magbanua.

Police said Garcia and Rivera traveled from South Florida to Tallahassee to kill Markel. 

A Tallahassee Police Department affidavit said Markel's death was the result of the 2013 contentious divorce from Wendi Adelson, a lawyer who has since relocated to South Florida.

Investigators learned that, at the time of the shooting, Adelson's brother, Charlie Adelson, was in a relationship with Magbanua, whom he regularly called. Garcia is the father of her two children.

Markel had been involved in a bitter divorce with Wendi Adelson. After she filed for divorce in 2012, Markel later learned that she and their two children had moved to her parents' home in Coral Springs.

In June 2013, a Leon County judge formally denied Adelson's motion for relocation with the children.

During Thursday's opening statements, Assistant State Attorney Georgia Cappleman said Donna Adelson "despised" her ex-son-in-law and "was desperate" to find a way to bring her daughter and grandchildren back to South Florida.

Assistant State Attorney Georgia Cappleman speaks to the jury during opening statements in the murder trial of Sigfredo Garcia and Katherine Magbanua, charged in the 2014 fatal shooting of Florida State University law professor Daniel Markel.

In emails with her daughter about a year before Markel's death, Donna Adelson referred to him as a "religious zealot" and a "bastard," Cappleman told the jury. She said Donna Adelson wanted to do whatever it took to make Markel's life "absolutely miserable" and proposed a plan of action to "threaten and-or bully and-or bribe" him into agreeing to let Wendi Adelson and the children move.

"These plans included converting the children to Catholicism, even though the entire family was Jewish," Cappleman said. "All the Adelsons were Jewish as well. But this suggestion was a way to gain leverage against Mr. Markel, because Dan Markel was very observant in his faith and it was very important to him that his children be raised in an environment that observed and was committed to the Jewish faith."

Cappleman said one of Markel's last legal moves before his death was to ask the court to stop Donna Adelson from having unsupervised time with her grandchildren and to limit the amount of time she spent with them, claiming she was making "disparaging" remarks about him. 

But Markel was killed before the issue could be decided.

Cappleman repeated to jurors a quote from Wendi Adelson's interview with police after Markel's death. She claimed her brother "looked into hiring a hit man but decided that buying her a TV as a divorce present would be cheaper."

What was Wendi Adelson's alibi when her ex-husband was killed? She was at home having that very TV repaired, Cappleman told the jury.

"An appointment that was set up by her mother, Donna Adelson," Cappleman said.

Investigators linked Garcia and Rivera to the crime after tracing a Toyota Prius that was seen on surveillance videos following Markel's car to his home. Cellphone records and other evidence established that Garcia and Rivera, both convicted felons, were in Tallahassee on the day that Markel was killed.

Police said Garcia's cellphone was used to call Magbanua about 2,700 times between May 1 and July 19, one day after Markel was killed.

Katherine Magbanua and Sigfredo Garcia have been charged in the fatal shooting of Florida State University law professor Daniel Markel in 2014.

The Prius that was seen in the surveillance videos was rented by Rivera in North Miami, and the SunPass transponder in the car documented its trip -- at the westbound Interstate 75 toll plaza in Broward County at 2:18 p.m. on July 16 and at the westbound I-75 toll plaza in Collier County at 5:23 p.m. on July 18, the affidavit said.

Police said there was no connection between Markel and the suspects.

"So Wendi's brother, Charlie Adelson, has made references to hiring a hit man to kill Dan Markel," Cappleman told the jury. "And now hit men have murdered Dan Markel."

Cappleman said Rivera agreed to a plea deal with the state in exchange for a 19-year prison sentence to run concurrent with an unrelated federal charge.

"Rivera will tell you he was hired by his lifelong friend, Sigfredo Garcia, who was hired by his longtime girlfriend and children's mother, Katherine Magbanua, a.k.a. Katie, to come to Tallahassee and to kill Dan Markel," Cappleman said.

Cappleman spoke about Rivera's on-again, off-again relationship with Magbanua, who was seeing Charlie Adelson at one point.

"Charlie Adelson had a sister in Tallahassee, Wendi Adelson, and Wendi Adelson had a problem," Cappleman said. "And her problem was named Dan Markel. And the solution to that problem was Magbanua, Rivera and Garcia."

Miami defense attorney Sam Zangeneh, who is representing Garcia in the trial, told the jury during his opening statements that prosecutors gave Rivera the "deal of the century."

Defense attorney Sam Zangeneh speaks to the jury during opening statements in the murder trial of Sigfredo Garcia and Katherine Magbanua, charged in the 2014 fatal shooting of Florida State University law professor Daniel Markel.

"It's clear from the government's opening statement that their focus of this case is on the Adelsons," Zangeneh said. "Donna Adelson. Charlie Adelson. Wendi Adelson. That's who their real targets are."

The Adelsons have not been charged.

Zangeneh claims Rivera made up the story so that he would only have to serve seven more years behind bars.

"The government has hitched their wagon to Luis Rivera," Zangeneh said.

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