Six years ago, on July 18, a gunman approached Dan Markel and shot him twice in the head. A Florida State University law professor and attorney, Markel had just pulled into his own garage. He died the following day at the age of 41.
Three people were charged in his murder; two found guilty. The third is due to be retried sometime next spring, or even later, depending on the state of the pandemic.
But Markel’s friends and family say justice has still not been served, because Florida’s state attorney has not adequately pursued the Adelson family’s role in the murder. Markel had recently been through an acrimonious divorce and custody battle with his wife, Wendi Adelson. At the murder trial, the lead prosecutor made closing statements that appeared to lay blame at the feet of Markel’s in-laws.
Now, Markel’s friends are concerned that momentum on Markel’s case is slowing — that delays in the legal system due to the coronavirus pandemic might mean prosecutors won’t take the next step, and investigate the question of who paid for the killing.
For this reason, they have formed a group called “Justice for Dan” and launched a petition — signed by more than 900 people so far — to try to push the state attorney to prosecute Wendi Adelson’s older brother and mother, Charles Adelson and Donna Adelson.
“As time passes, we worry that people will forget that there were leaders in this plot, and that the people who are most responsible for this murder, specifically the Adelson family, won’t be held accountable. There will be people who will say, ‘We’ve gotten some justice and we have to move on,’” said Jason Solomon, a friend of Markel’s who is spearheading the effort.
The murder of Markel, of a Harvard-educated legal scholar, sent shock waves through the Florida capital, and also reverberated in South Florida, where Wendi Adelson, also a lawyer, grew up in a well-established Jewish family: Her father and brother, Harvey Adelson and Charles Adelson, are in a dental practice together in the Fort Laurderdale suburb of Tamarac. Days after Markel’s killing, Wendi Adelson, now 41, moved their young sons to South Florida.
About two years after Markel’s murder, as the investigation developed, Wendi Adelson made it impossible for Markel’s parents, Ruth and Phil Markel, to see their grandsons.
The man who police say shot Markel, Sigfredo Garcia, was found guilty of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder in a trial last October. Luis Rivera, a former Miami gang leader who drove Garcia to Tallahassee to murder Markel, took a plea deal and agreed to testify against the other two people involved, receiving a second-degree murder conviction to avoid the death penalty. Jurors were unable to reach a verdict on Katherine Magbanua, who has two children with Garcia — the third person charged with Markel’s murder.
Solomon believes that the part of the reason the jury couldn’t agree on a decision was their sense of being baffled about who was being tried for the crime — and who wasn’t.
“The jurors were confused or unhappy that she was being prosecuted and the Adelsons were not. There was a sense that they should,” said Solomon, adding that he based his conclusions on media interviews with jurors he saw afterwards.
Magbanua, two people testified at her trial, was widely known as Charles Adelson’s girlfriend. But why did Garcia and Rivera rent a Prius in Miami and drive hundreds of miles north to Tallahassee to kill Markel? Part of the custody battle involved Wendi Adelson’s desire to move back to South Florida — a nearly seven hours’ drive away from Tallahassee — with their two young boys. A court order barred her from doing that, so that the divorced couple could have joint custody.
“What enemy or enemies had Mr. Markel made that set into motion such a brutal act?” asked Georgia Cappelman, the lead prosecutor at the trial, in her closing statements. “The answer? His own family. What offense had Mr. Markel committed against these people? Wanting to be a good father, refusing to let his children be taken away from him.”
“What enemy or enemies had Mr. Markel made that set into motion such a brutal act? The answer: his own family.”
PROSECUTION CLOSING: State delivers closing argument in the #MarkelMurder Trial. Tune in NOW: https://t.co/tnYdPcDRMUpic.twitter.com/xdI5qgWWuY— Court TV (@CourtTV) October 10, 2019
The process of getting to a murder trial is always complicated, and the coronavirus crisis has only slowed the wheels of justice further, with most trials suspended.
Magbanua is scheduled to face retrial in the spring of 2021 at the soonest, and the judge on the case, James C. Hankinson, retired at the end of June, expressing disappointment and frustration that he didn’t see the end of this important case.
“It’s quite possible that they decided on going after the lower people on the totem pole on a criminal enterprise first, with the hope that they will flip and cooperate and testify against the people who are at the top of the criminal enterprise,” said Solomon, who befriended Markel when they started their careers as law professors in Southern states — Markel in Florida and Solomon in Georgia. Now in California, Solomon said that he and others in the campaign were concerned that an overloaded state attorney’s office might just move on to other cases.
In an op-ed in the Tallahassee Democrat, published last month at the height of nationwide reckoning last month with systemic racism in America, Solomon wrote that this seems to be yet another case in which people of color are prosecuted, but people who are white, wealthy and in positions of power are not.
“We thought that it would be important to enlist friends in Tallahassee and around the country and around the world to say, police have already presented evidence of who is responsible for Dan’s murder,” Solomon added. “The evidence against Charlie and Donna Adelson has already been presented at trial and it’s been overwhelming. I think it’s important for the Florida state attorney to say that we don’t just let white wealthy people off the hook. ”
In media interviews during the trial last fall, lawyers for the Adelson family maintained their innocence.
On the “Justice for Dan” Facebook page, which has more than 4,000 followers, a posting shows a screenshot of Wendi Adelson’s Facebook page in which she had encouraged people to sign a Change.org petition calling for the police officers who killed George Floyd to be brought to justice. Commenters on that post noted the irony of her calling for justice for Floyd but “taking the Fifth” — a reference to the Fifth Amendment right not to not incriminate oneself — multiple times during the trial, at which she testified after having been subpoenaed. After numerous comments calling on her family to face justice in the case, Wendi Adelson deleted the post.
In a separate effort on behalf of Markel, advocates are working to change Florida law in order to allow grandparents greater ability to access courts to petition for visitation rights. The effort received support from Florida lawmakers this spring, including unanimous passage through the Senate Committee on Children, Families, and Elder Affairs; advocates say they are working on revised bill language for the 2021 session.
On the anniversary of the murder, Ruth and Phil Markel, Dan Markel’s parents, released a statement thanking the police and prosecutors and hoping that they persist.
“We understand that due process takes patience,” they wrote. “We pray that this next phase of the legal process moves quickly, and that all those responsible for Dan’s murder are held accountable. And we pray for the chance to see and know Dan’s two boys — our beloved grandsons — again.”
Ilene Prusher, a journalist in South Florida, is a regular contributor to the Forward and the author of the 2014 novel “Baghdad Fixer.”
Ilene Prusher is a journalist, author and lecturer. For nearly 20 years, she was foreign correspondent based in Jerusalem, Istanbul, Tokyo and Kabul. She joined the multimedia journalism faculty of Florida Atlantic University in 2015. Her most recent work has appeared in the Forward, TIME, FiveThirtyEight and the New York Times Book Review.
Dan Markel friends: charge ex-wife family, Adelsons