The execution-style killing five years ago of popular Florida law professor Dan Markel led police to point a finger at the family of his ex-wife, alleging they participated in a murder-for-hire plot hatched in the wake of an acrimonious divorce.
On Monday, two of the accused — although none of the ex-wife’s family members, who insist they’re innocent and have never been charged — are scheduled go on trial in a Tallahassee courtroom.
Sigfredo Garcia is suspected of firing two bullets at Markel’s head as he sat in his Honda Accord in the garage of his home July 18, 2014, shortly after Markel dropped off his two young sons at day care. Katherine Magbanua is accused of being the go-between who set up the alleged murder by Garcia and another man, Luis Rivera, who already admitted his role in a plea deal.
Garcia and Magbanua have pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder. Rivera, who received a seven-year prison sentence for second-degree murder, will be a key witness, after telling authorities that he, Garcia and Magbanua allegedly split a $100,000 payment for the hit.
On Friday, Magbanua’s attorneys asked that she be given a separate trial from Garcia, reports WCTV. A judge did not immediately rule on the request.
But all eyes during any trial will be on Wendi Adelson, Markel’s ex-wife and a fellow former law professor at Florida State University, who is expected to be called to the stand. Adelson has not talked to investigators since the day of Markel’s murder, when she allegedly told police “someone may have done this for her benefit without her knowledge,” according to 2016 testimony by Tallahassee police detective Craig Isom.
Among Adelson’s alleged comments then, said Isom: “She made the statement that her brother had joked the previous summer about hiring a hit man, but instead decided to buy her a television.”
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At the time the nationally known Markel was killed, he and Adelson were engaged in a post-divorce battle over their sons, Ben and Lincoln, then ages 3 and 4.
Markel had gone to court to successfully block Adelson’s move with the boys from Tallahassee to South Florida, where her family lived, after the divorce sought by Adelson was granted in July 2013. Markel was murdered while waiting for a hearing to be set on his motion to limit the boys’ contact with Adelson’s mother, Donna, whom he claimed had “made disparaging remarks about him to his sons,” according to a 2016 probable cause affidavit obtained by PEOPLE.
“Investigators believe motive for this murder stemmed from the desperate desire of the Adelson family to relocate Wendi and the children to South Florida, along with the pending court hearing that might have impacted their access to the grandchildren,” the affidavit states.
It adds: “Email evidence indicates Wendi’s parents, especially her mother, wanted Wendi to coerce Markel into allowing the relocation to South Florida. Additionally, Wendi’s brother Charles reportedly did not like Markel and did not get along with him.”
The alleged link tying the Adelsons to the accused killers was first revealed in that same affidavit, in which investigators said Adelson’s brother, Charlie Adelson, “was involved in a personal relationship” with Magbanua, who is the mother of Garcia’s children and was described as a business associate of Garcia’s.
Two weeks before Markel was killed, Magbanua and Charlie had been together in Key West, Florida, according to phone records, Detective Isom testified in 2016. Police say cell phone data, ATM records and a Tallahassee eyewitness allegedly tie Garcia and Rivera to the case. And Garcia’s first call after the murder was to Magbanua, they said.
As the two men drove back to South Florida from Tallahassee on the day of the shooting, Garcia told Magbanua over the phone, “It’s done,” Isom testified, adding: “Once he had uttered the words, ‘It’s done,’ she replied with, ‘I know.’ “
Attorneys for the Adelson family swiftly dismissed speculation about the family’s involvement as “fanciful fiction,” adding in a joint statement, “To be clear, none of the Adelsons – Wendi, her brother Charlie, or their parents Donna and Harvey – had anything to do with Dan’s murder.”
In 2016, then-State Attorney William Meggs pointedly declined to charge Charlie Adelson or any others in the family, telling the Tallahassee Democrat: “We kind of believe they were involved according to the police. But what we believe and what we think doesn’t count. What evidence do we have?”
Police have said the investigation into Markel’s murder is continuing.
The trial of Garcia and Magbanua was expected to last several weeks and be attended by Markel’s parents, who have been battling the Adelsons for access to their grandchildren as the criminal case inched forward.
“Five years ago Dan was murdered in cold blood outside his home — only hours after saying goodbye to his two young boys for what would be the last time,” attorney Orin Snyder, representing Ruth and Phil Markel, said in a statement to PEOPLE on the murder’s July 18 anniversary. “Five years later, his friends and family are still waiting for all of his killers to be brought to justice.”
“Now, as they prepare to return to Tallahassee for the trial of some of Dan’s alleged killers, they will be forced to re-live the nightmare of Dan’s murder all over again,” said the statement. “They are counting down the days until justice is done.”
It added: “More than anything, the Markels want to reunite with their beloved grandsons — Dan’s young boys — whom they have not been allowed to see in more than three years.”
A call by PEOPLE to Wendi Adelson’s attorney, John Lauro, was not immediately returned. Adelson left the FSU law school faculty in 2015 and most recently worked as executive director of the South Florida-based Immigration Partnership & Coalition Fund, although she is no longer listed on its website.
But in a statement to the Tallahassee Democrat through Lauro, Adelson said: “Our boys and I continue to mourn Danny’s loss for each day of the five long years since he was taken from us.”