“If you want to arrest me, fucking arrest me,” said a defiant Charlie Adelson in April 2016, covertly recorded by the FBI in a noisy Miami restaurant, talking with co-conspirator Katherine Magbanua about the murder of his former brother-in-law, FSU law professor Dan Markel.
“Come back with a warrant.”
That challenge was finally accepted last week, almost six years later to the day.
Adelson’s arrest followed a grand jury indictment that came, in part, due to audio extracted from that very recording. Enhancements provided by a forensic audio expert allowed prosecutors to hear clearly for the first time bits of conversation previously obscured by background noise.
The long-awaited arrest has drawn renewed international attention to the Tallahassee murder-for-hire and has cracked open possibilities for the resolution of a case that has become woven into Florida’s political landscape in various ways in the years since. FloridaPolitics.com has followed the case extensively, diving deep through the aftershocks of a murder that rocked Florida’s capital city and left a trail of victims in its path.
“Charlie’s arrest is a major milestone and reflects the tireless work put into this case by law enforcement and prosecutors,” said my friend, and Markel family friend, Karen Cyphers on behalf of the grassroots group Justice for Dan.
But how did this arrest come to be, nearly eight years later? And what does it mean for the pursuit of justice moving forward? Cyphers walked me through some details of the case that are public but often left undiscussed.
An FBI sting, wiretaps and codewords
Adelson and Magbanua’s conversation at the Dolce Vita restaurant happened the day after an undercover FBI agent approached Charlie’s mother, Donna Adelson, on the street, posing as the brother of Luis Rivera — a man who had driven with now-convicted killer Sigfredo Garcia to Tallahassee to carry out the hit in July 2014.
At the time of this FBI sting operation, also known as the “bump,” nobody had been arrested, but investigators had gathered enough evidence to identify members of the conspiracy — the four named here (Charlie, Magbanua, Garcia and Rivera), plus two (possibly three) other members of the Adelson family including Wendi Adelson, Dan Markel’s ex-wife and Donna Adelson, their mother.
To corroborate what investigators had uncovered, the bump was intended to generate new conversation about the murder between conspirators. In this, the undercover FBI agent surprised Donna, handing her a flyer about Markel’s murder, with a request for $5,000 to help Rivera’s family. The agent told Donna he was aware that the Adelsons had been helping Magbanua and Garcia for their roles in the murder and that Rivera deserved help, too.
Donna’s first flustered call after the bump was to Charlie. Over the course of a handful of conversations between them captured on wiretap that day, the following gems were heard:
Donna: “I got some paperwork hand-delivered to me.”
Charlie: “Does it involve me or other people?”
Donna: “Well probably both of us… probably the two of us. You probably have a general idea what I’m talking about.”
Charlie: “If it’s a threat you go to the police.”
Donna: “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
Charlie: “Obviously, don’t talk about things in the apartment or any place.”
Charlie: “What did they ask for?”
Donna: “This TV was probably about five.”
Charlie: “They asked you for five thousand dollars?”
Donna: “And mentioned an ex-girlfriend.”
Charlie’s next related call was to Magbanua, one of many women he had dated in his prolific bachelor lifestyle. She wasn’t his most recent ex-girlfriend, but even without Donna mentioning Katie by name, Charlie understood what and who his mother was talking about.
Further, Donna’s use of the code word “TV” reveals more than it may at first glance. Without context, it seems benign, even if odd considering that the undercover FBI agent never used this word. However, “TV” appears to have played a central role behind the scenes of this plot, stemming back to the contentious divorce Wendi initiated from Dan Markel a few years prior.
A divorce, a relocation denied, a motive, a TV and a hit
In a devastating move described by Markel as his “Pearl Harbor,” he had returned home from a work trip to find that Wendi had all but cleared out their marital home and safety deposit box, leaving divorce papers behind. She had called to tell Markel she wanted a divorce, but he was shocked to find that she had already moved out.
Records show Wendi had planned this departure for some time, enlisting the help of her parents to do so, but had kept up the appearance of working on the marriage in the meantime – even going so far as to email Markel’s friends to plan a surprise birthday party for him – seemingly knowing all along that by the time his birthday came, she’d be gone.
After leaving Markel, Wendi began petitioning the court to move to South Florida with their two young sons, to be nearer to her parents. Dan was happy in Tallahassee and at his job teaching law at FSU and was active in the local Jewish community. He didn’t want to leave or be apart from his kids, and the court repeatedly denied Wendi’s petitions.
Despite Wendi’s 2019 testimony, under oath, that she was “relieved” when forced to stay in Tallahassee, these rulings were clearly devastating to her and her parents. Emails produced by the court show Donna floating multiple ideas to Wendi about how to manipulate Dan to let the kids move.
This included offering to pay him $1 million in a three-way split of funds between herself, Wendi and Charlie, and having Wendi threaten Dan that if the boys remained in Tallahassee she’d enroll them in a Catholic school – an act that wouldn’t sit well with Dan given his observant Jewish background. There were other “unhinged” mentions of dressing the boys in Hitler Youth costumes, and disparaging remarks about local judges and lawyers, making clear that relocation was the paramount goal for Wendi and her parents alike.
But Wendi must have known that these plots would never work – Dan loved his sons dearly and would never accept money in exchange for time with them.
Compounding their frustrations about relocation, evidence shows Wendi and her parents were at the center of other divorce dramas. In one motion, Dan claimed that Donna had been disparaging him to the boys directly and asked the court to limit her unsupervised time with them. In another, Dan claimed Wendi had failed to accurately disclose financial records — an accusation that could carry serious consequences for Wendi’s legal career. These motions were never heard by the court, however. Dan was killed before that could happen.
On that fateful morning of July 18, 2014, just before her ex-husband was gunned down by a stranger in his driveway, Wendi was home awaiting a scheduled visit from a Geek Squad technician to repair a “damaged” TV. She told the repairman that the TV had been a “divorce present” from her brother Charlie because buying her the TV was “cheaper than hiring a hitman.” It could be a coincidence that Wendi’s TV was truly broken, and that the TV repair provided one alibi for the morning of Dan’s murder, but the timing has left many wondering.
This wasn’t the first time Wendi revealed that her brother talked about hitmen. In fact, a week before the murder, Wendi told her then-boyfriend Jeffrey Lacasse the same — that Charlie had looked into all options for solving the Danny “problem,” including murder-for-hire.
In her recorded interview with Tallahassee Police Department investigator Craig Isom immediately after the murder, Wendi again repeated that her brother had “joked” about hiring a hitman but expressed disbelief that he would actually do so. Wendi further complicated people’s views of her activities by admitting she had driven past the crime scene on her way to purchase Bulleit Whiskey at ABC Liquor in Betton Hills that same morning. Later, under oath, Wendi would deny driving past the crime scene, but inexplicably claimed that she could see the crime scene tape from almost a mile away.
In that same interview with Isom, Wendi strangely asked whether anybody had been caught running away from the home after the shooting and asked a few times whether Dan had died yet. She claimed that she had made the TV repair appointment for that morning, but authorities would later reveal her mother Donna had in fact done so. The family’s involvement in an issue as seemingly benign as a TV repair adds to speculation: when Donna told Wendi ‘your TV repair is scheduled for Friday morning,’ what other meaning did that convey?
Two years later, Donna and Charlie were still using “TV” as a code word for describing the murder, this time referring to the bump.
First string of arrests, a confession and trials
Weeks after the FBI sting, Sigfredo Garcia and Luis Rivera were arrested. Rivera quickly cooperated with authorities, confessing to his role in the murder and sharing that the Adelsons had hired the duo through their common connection, Katherine (“Katie”) Magbanua — the mother of Garcia’s children, who was dating Charlie Adelson at the time.
Rivera’s confession included content not previously released by authorities. He offered details about the rented Prius they used to drive to Tallahassee, where the two men stayed overnight, and who they encountered while there. He shared the motive for the murder, saying the two here hired because “the lady wanted her kids back.”
Rivera attested that he and Garcia had driven to Tallahassee once prior — a month before the murder — but weren’t able to carry it out on that trip, and he confirmed how much the three were paid for the hit ($100,000), and that they were paid in part in stapled hundred-dollar bills. Charlie’s girlfriend at the time of the murder, June Umchinda, had also told authorities that Charlie had the peculiar habit of stapling his cash.
“One thing I did, like, I thought was weird was I had one time like he was giving money to count or something, and all of his money is like stapled together. The hundreds in bundles,” Umchinda told FBI and TPD investigators. “So, I was like who staples money and stuff? Like use a paper clip or something.”
Following Rivera’s plea deal, Magbanua was arrested. She and Garcia were tried together for first-degree murder in 2019. Prosecutor Georgia Cappleman led the state to a guilty conviction and life sentence for Garcia. Magbanua faces retrial in May.
Heading toward trials, enhanced audio at center of debate
Magbanua’s anticipated retrial is currently scheduled for May 16. It had been scheduled for Feb. 14, 2022, but both defense attorneys and prosecutors agreed to a delay in order for the forensic expert to complete his enhancements of the “Dolce Vita” restaurant audio.
Since the enhanced audio’s release, Magbanua’s attorneys have issued somewhat contradictory statements. On one hand, her defense claims that the contents of the audio are vindicating for Magbanua and prove her innocence, and on the other hand, her defense claims that the audio transcript is incomplete and possibly erroneous and should be blocked from the jury.
Judge Robert Wheeler will have to rule on the admissibility of the transcripts, as well as another large question: should Magbanua and Charlie Adelson be tried together? The state has said they want the two trials joined, but Magbanua’s defense disagrees.
Whether together or separately, the enhanced audio is pivotal. Here’s a few finds from within the recording:
Charlie: “If they had any evidence, we would have already gone to the airport.”
Charlie: “When the fucking police show up, and there’s a doctor… there’s an oral surgeon standing there with a dead gang member in his fucking driveway, they’re not gonna come down too hard on me. And I’m not gonna talk anyway. I don’t know; I don’t trust them.”
Charlie: “What I’m saying is, is that this person is not going away. They came very equipped with details. Where did the details come from? I don’t know. The details…
Magbanua: “And there’s not a lot of people that know much about…”
Charlie: “They didn’t mention my name, which makes me think… makes me think that they don’t… these people only know part of the story or they think they know part of the story.”
Charlie: “Let me ask you a question. When everybody was there the next day, did any of you take any money?”
Charlie: “Then what you do is you wear a wire, get this person talking, and if you can get the person to confess on wires, then you have something that you’re charging; you have a confession; you have an admission of guilt. Outside of that, there is no evidence, OK? You have a car and you can link this person to renting that car that’s used at the scene of the crime. OK. But, you know, you have to also prove that they were also driving that day, too. They didn’t rent it and then lent it to a friend.”
Charlie: “But let me explain something to you. If we go to the police, this is gonna put a spotlight on the investigation. The FBI. The FBI. We’re talking about a bigwig in the FBI; not like the first-year rookie. You’re gonna have a 20-year vet with the FBI knocking at your door, wanting to speak with you, and wanting to speak with your attorney.”
Charlie: “Hey, you know who this is coming from? Inside.”
Charlie Adelson’s past, family connections, and political interconnections
The picture painted by the Dolce Vita recording as well as hundreds of now-public wiretaps reveals a man with feet in two very different worlds — a Ferrari-driving periodontist and real estate investor who speaks freely with family and friends about steroid peddling, tax evasion, and traveling overseas to cavort with very young women. He bragged about lying to law enforcement when getting pulled over, claiming he was a surgeon heading to Broward General, and talked with others about his collection of automatic weapons. Many of these conversations were captured before the bump, when Charlie did not suspect he was being listened to, while those afterward were full of coded language.
Other evidence submitted to the courts suggests a history of conflict and anti-social behavior. One witness, interviewed after the murder, places Charlie at the center of blackmail attempts and questionable business dealings. Another such story alleged that Charlie had cheated in dental school, and had to turn to powerful family connections to avoid consequences.
One particular family connection — the former chief judge of Broward County and longtime State Senator — is Wendi’s godfather, Peter Weinstein. And his son, Michael Weinstein, was not only Charlie’s lifelong friend but also his lawyer at the time of the murder, providing advice to Charlie following the bump and defending the family on local and national television shows.
Those details may not have come into public attention so soon were it not for Michael Weinstein entering the race for Florida House District 81 in 2020, leading case followers including the organization Justice for Dan to question what, role, if any, Peter and Michael had played in protecting the Adelson family after Dan’s murder.
Charlie and Wendi have other powerful connections, too, no doubt. At the time of the bump, Wendi was working as a clerk in a federal court. Charlie and Donna discuss this on a wiretap, revealing that Wendi’s judge was getting information from a Tallahassee judge to share with her about the case. Other current and former state legislators, local judges, and political advocates are in Adelson circles, too.
Just two months ago, Wendi was seen in a video with her current employer, Jason Feldman of Vault Health, and Miami Mayor Francis Suarez. She has received public support from her former employer, Miami billionaire Mike Fernandez, and has been seen mingling with billionaire Mike Bloomberg.
The Markel family has the backing of allies, too. Indeed, their story inspired the Florida Legislature to pass HB 1119 by Rep. Jackie Toledo and SB 1408 by Sen. Keith Perry in 2022, creating a new access point for grandparents to petition courts for visitation with grandchildren in unique, tragic cases.
Karen Cyphers worked for many years with Jeff Johnston and Amanda Stewart to advance this effort, ultimately winning the support and leadership of House Speaker Chris Sprowls to find a path forward. The bill’s passage marked a milestone toward justice for the Markel family, who Wendi had cut off from all contact with Dan’s sons after authorities implicated her and her family for his murder.
Wendi moved to Miami only days after Markel’s murder, fulfilling her longtime goal of relocating to South Florida. And, shortly afterward, she changed their sons’ last name from Markel to Adelson, saying she had to do so for their “safety.” Records reveal Wendi indicated to the court that she was “restoring” their last name to a former name, a falsehood that may have afforded a smoother or more efficient transition. This move, in addition to alienating the Markels from the children, was traumatizing to a family already deeply grieving.
Justice for Dan, and Markel family reacts to arrest
Still coming off the legislative win for Florida grandparents, Justice for Dan — founded by Jason Solomon after his friend’s killing and drawing thousands of supporters worldwide since — celebrated once again when hearing the news of Charlie’s arrest, sharing, “Charlie, along with his sister Wendi Adelson, and mother Donna Adelson, have all been named as co-conspirators in this case. We are hopeful that they, as well as Katherine Magbanua, are soon among those held to account for their role in Dan’s killing.”
Their statement alludes to the Jan. 21, 2022 motion where the State Attorney’s Office wrote: “The evidence will show that the Adelsons, specifically Charlie Adelson, Wendi Adelson, and Donna Adelson, are co-conspirators to the murder and the ones who had the motive, and initiated the plot, to kill Mr. Markel.”
This was the first time Wendi herself had been publicly named by law enforcement as implicated in this crime.
In a statement issued by their attorneys Orin Snyder and Matt Benjamin of Gibson Dunn, the Markel family was gracious.
“The Markel family is deeply grateful to the State Attorney’s Office, the FBI and all members of law enforcement for their tireless pursuit of justice,” the family said. “Nearly eight years after Danny’s tragic murder, these dedicated public servants continue to fight to honor Danny’s memory and to hold accountable all those responsible for his horrific death. On behalf of Danny’s family and friends in the Tallahassee community and all over the world, thank you.”
Dan’s mother, Ruth Markel, was asked what message, if any, she would want to send to the Adelson family following Charlie’s arrest. Her response is chilling.
“I wouldn’t send them a message, but I believe this is a time for reflection,” Ruth said. “I would ask them, “Was it worth it? Was it worth it to kill my son?”