Thursday featured four significant witnesses in the state’s case against Katherine Magbanua for her role in the 2014 murder of Dan Markel: Wendi Adelson, Officer Bill Brannon, Jeffrey Lacasse, and Luis Rivera. One additional non-witness also addressed the court, although not in the jury’s presence — Wendi’s lawyer, John Lauro.
Testimony from each of these witnesses wove together to address key points about the conspiracy and its aftermath. To tell this story, we’ll have to do the same — introduce key points and share testimony from each Thursday witness that relates.
For background context on the overall story of the murder and the main people involved, you can learn more here.
“This is all about you, isn’t it?”
Wendi Adelson entered the courtroom wearing the identical outfit she donned in the 2019 trial of Magbanua and Sigfredo Garcia, raised her right hand, and swore to “tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”
That isn’t quite what happened.
Wendi has not yet been charged with anything in this case and told the jury there’s no reason she ever would be. Yet that confidence didn’t stop prosecutors, defense attorneys, and multiple witnesses from sharing evidence that points directly back to her in terms of the motive for the killing, if not its planning as well.
Perhaps that is why Lauro was present at the start of the day to remind Judge Robert Wheeler that his client is only to testify under the state subpoena which confers use and derivative use immunity. In such a deal, the witness cannot be prosecuted for truthful statements they make on the stand. However, defense subpoenas confer no such protections.
State prosecutor Georgia Cappleman opened her questioning of Wendi by asking her to explain her understanding of the immunity deal, asking if it was special or different from what other people would get. Through these questions, Cappleman let the jury know that even with immunity, Adelson could indeed be prosecuted for her role in this crime.
Defense attorney Christopher DeCoste began his cross-examination of Wendi sharply: “This is all about you, isn’t it?” Wendi disagreed. She denied that her contentious divorce led to Markel’s killing.
She appears to be the only one who thinks that.
The motive and the divorce
Case watchers are already acquainted with various aspects of the “extremely contentious” divorce Markel and Wendi were locked in, including the court’s denial to allow Wendi to relocate with their children to Miami, and Markel’s motion to forbid unsupervised contact between Wendi’s mother Donna Adelson and the two boys.
But when asked about these things, Wendi was nonchalant. She would not confirm that her mother “despised” Markel despite calling him names such as “asshole,” “bully,” “religious extremist,” “jackass,” and “jibbers” — a name Wendi denied in the first trial having ever seen in writing, and couldn’t spell, prior to Cappleman reminding her that she had saved Markel in her phone under that moniker.
Wendi also claimed that nobody took Markel’s motion to limit Donna’s time with the boys seriously — not she, nor her mom — and that she could barely recall that such a motion had been filed. Yet Wendi’s boyfriend at the time of the murder, Jeffrey Lacasse, attested otherwise. Lacasse told jurors how Wendi would react “badly” to every filing Markel made, and the one about Donna’s access to the children was no different.
“Fair to say she took that filing very seriously?” Cappleman asked.
“She took every filing and every point in every motion very seriously,” Lacasse replied.
Wendi told jurors that she didn’t talk incessantly about Danny or the divorce, but Lacasse also challenged that. DeCoste asked him, “Did she constantly complain about Danny?”
“Endlessly,” Lacasse agreed, continuing that Wendi would complain about Danny to anyone who would listen, fellow law school colleagues included. “She despised living in Tallahassee … she blamed Markel for her being stuck in Tallahassee,” Lacasse said, adding that Wendi had told him that if “anything ever happened to Danny,” she would return to South Florida.
That comment was made on July 13, just five days before such a thing would in fact occur.
A possible framing attempt
Lacasse — one of the people closest to Wendi during the months leading up to Markel’s murder — may have been more than a person Wendi was “stringing along” or passing time with until her ultimate goal of relocation was achieved.
Lacasse’s testimony suggests Wendi may have even attempted to frame him for the murder itself.
Wendi was the only local person who knew that Lacasse had travel plans to Tennessee on the Friday of the shooting. A few days prior to his departure, Lacasse shared with the court how he and Wendi had gone on a final date — “the most awkward yoga session in history” — immediately after which he perceived Wendi was breaking things off. In the parking lot afterward, he turned to walk away, but Wendi called after him, taking a “deep interest” in his Friday plans and asking whether he was still leaving for Tennessee on Friday at 11 a.m., along with a series of other questions that struck him as odd, especially considering the new status of their relationship.
More disturbing, Wendi knew Lacasse would be traveling within miles of Markel’s house at the time of the murder in a 2004 four-door metallic sedan, similar in appearance to the Prius the hitman would be in at the crime scene.
Lacasse’s description of Wendi is one of a pathological liar who was superficially charming and would put on a deceptive public persona with ease, sharing that she “adopted a victim role” as her default, “as a way of getting attention and sympathy,” he said.
Years later, Lacasse would ultimately learn for certain that Wendi had pointed fingers at him after the killing, suggesting to law enforcement he may have been involved. He was ruled out almost immediately, but the daggers of that accusation remain sharp.
A joke, and a chilling statement
Lacasse was one of at least three witnesses who Wendi told her brother’s hitman “joke” to — that Charlie Adelson had looked into hiring one, but it was “cheaper to buy a TV.” Lacasse said that Wendi repeated this line to him at least twice.
A joke is one thing, but what Lacassee said next was unmistakably serious. On July 13, 2014, Wendi asked Lacasse if she could tell him something in confidence: the prior summer, after Wendi’s motion to relocate was denied, Charlie had “investigated multiple ways” to eliminate the problem of Dan Markel, “including hiring a hitman.” Wendi added that such an arrangement would cost $15,000 or $50,000 (the numbers sounded alike).
Unlike what Lacasse had previously assumed was a “bad and off-color joke” about the relative costs of a television or murder-for-hire, this revelation was “chilling,” he said, “It wasn’t funny. I found it disturbing, and it made my stomach flip.”
Dan Markel was killed 5 days later.
Morning of the murder and a drive by the crime scene
Before July 18 rolled around, Wendi had already made clear that she absolutely must be in Tallahassee on that day. She and Lacasse had planned a trip to visit his family in California from July 11-17, but Wendi canceled saying that “she was concerned we wouldn’t get back on time to get the kids on the 18th, which didn’t make sense.”
And in Tallahassee on the 18th, Wendi was.
That morning, Wendi was visited by a Geek Squad technician to repair a broken television — the same TV her brother Charlie had given her as a divorce present. Cappleman asked Wendi who had made the appointment. “I did,” she said. But that may not be so. Text exchanges between Donna and Wendi reveal that Donna had in fact been in contact with Best Buy about the appointment.
After the TV repair visit, Wendi corresponded with a few friends and then headed many miles south to visit ABC liquor, where she purchased bourbon for a stock-the-bar party she was scheduled to attend that night.
“What type of bourbon?” Cappleman asked.
“It was Bulleit Bourbon,” Wendi said.
Despite multiple liquor stores near Wendi’s home in Killearn and near the Market Street restaurant she was heading to next, Wendi chose the ABC store on Betton Road near Markel’s home to make her purchase. To get there, she chose a route that put her onto Trescott Drive, Markel’s street, rather than staying on Betton. In doing so, she encountered crime scene tape.
“On the way to run your errands, did you drive by the crime scene?” Cappleman asked.
“No,” Wendi said.
Wendi did admit seeing the road blocked off, saying she thought it was due to an “electrical storm” or that a tree had fallen, saying this was common during the summertime, and that she turned around and took a different route.
But according to Officer Bill Brannon, who was in charge of securing the crime scene and maintaining the roadblock, the scene Wendi would have encountered would in no way resemble a downed tree. And, it was unmistakably centered around the house that her ex-husband lived in and had been in that very morning with their two shared children.
“There were several law enforcement vehicles, three to four marked patrol cars, one crime scene van marked police, and three or so unmarked units,” Brannon testified. Police lights were on, and crime scene tape was up.
Cappleman asked him where these police vehicles were located, to which Brannon made clear they were around the residence including the driveway.
Brannon also witnessed a vehicle, assumed to be Wendi’s minivan, pull up to the scene, and abruptly turn around and leave. To Brannon, this struck him as unusual compared to the behavior of other vehicles, which typically pause, look, and consider what route they’d take next. In contrast, this minivan turned around quickly and peeled away.
Wendi didn’t call to check on her boys at preschool, or on Danny himself, after seeing a flood of sirens and lights at their residence.
“Did you call the day care?” Cappleman asked, “Did you call Dan Markel?”
Wendi denied doing either.
“Did you do anything to reach out to any of the players that we’ve talked about in this case? Did you communicate to anyone that there was a roadblock?” Cappleman followed.
“I didn’t,” Wendi said, “I would have no reason to do that.”
Finances, across the board
A big piece of this case relates to money: what Magbanua, Garcia, and Rivera earned for the killing; how Charlie keeps his cash; and what financial gains Wendi may have garnered as a result of Markel’s death.
Rivera, in his testimony, confessed that he was paid $37,000 for his part, and received the money on the Saturday morning after the shooting.
“Do you see anyone in this courtroom who came to bring you the money?” Cappleman asked Rivera, who then identified Magbanua.
Rivera offered that he had been paid with cash delivered in a brown paper bag, and that the origin of the money was “the lady — Wendi was gonna pay.”
“Why?” Cappleman asked.
“To get her kids back,” Rivera said.
Wendi, in her testimony, said she didn’t know about much cash being in Charlie’s house, and said she had no idea whether her brother ran a cash business. Yet Lacasse recalls things differently.
“Wendi mentioned that he stored a large amount of cash,” Lacasse said, adding that Wendi had previously told him that Charlie ran a cash business.
Perplexingly, Wendi also had difficulty recounting the money that she herself came into following Markel’s murder. When asked by Cappleman if she had benefited financially from her ex-husband’s death, Wendi emphatically denied it.
That led Cappleman to read off a list of assets that Wendi had either inherited or would gain access to for the benefit of their children following his death: $1 million per child summing $2 million in life insurance; a 401(k); a significant pension; a deferred compensation fund valued at $217,000; social security survivor benefits for the children totaling $4,800 per month; an IRA worth $100,000; and a checking account with $15,000 in it.
Perhaps this is what Charlie was referring to in a wiretap with Donna, complaining that Wendi had essentially “won the Lottery” and didn’t have to work for the many millions she had in the bank.
In addition to recounting the extraordinary closeness of four of the Adelson family members (all but the oldest brother, Robert), attorneys took turns challenging Wendi on whether family members were protecting each other in the aftermath of Markel’s murder.
Wendi was emphatic that she has told everything she knows. “I have been nothing but helpful since this started,” she said.
To which DeCoste retorted, “You came here because you were subpoenaed and had no choice … You understand that until you expose your brother and what he did, everyone will consider you guilty … A witness in this case, a convicted hitman, implicates you.”
And the plea for her cooperation didn’t stop there. DeCoste followed: “You understand you can’t protect your brother Charles and protect yourself at the same time … End the madness and share the truth with this jury. You know what happened here.”
Cappleman, at the end of her direct examination of Wendi, asked a question that may imply why that will never happen.
“Do you want the culpable parties in this murder held accountable?
“Absolutely,” Wendi said.
“Even if it involves your own family?” Cappleman asked.
“Absolutely,” Wendi said.
But Cappleman reminded the jury of a solemn remark Wendi made to law enforcement the day of the killing.
“You wanted the culpable parties held accountable … unless it was your family,” Cappleman said to Wendi, “No further questions.”
Katie as the conduit — to be continued …
But let it not be forgotten, Katherine Magbanua is the one being tried in this trial. To that end, Rivera’s testimony — which will continue into Friday — corroborated the state’s theory of how the conspiracy was organized, with Magbanua at the center.
DeCoste, on cross-examination, didn’t earn his client much ground on discrediting the prosecution. Rivera was adamant that Katie was “the mastermind” from his perspective and the one person who connected the Adelson family to himself and Garcia.
Rivera’s testimony will be thoroughly reviewed tomorrow when it is completed.
Florida Politics is providing daily coverage of Magbanua’s retrial for the 2014 murder-for-hire of FSU law professor Markel. The case has drawn international media attention to Florida’s capital city, and we’ll share with readers the top things to watch for and discuss as proceedings unfold. Our reporting will draw from many sources, including contributor Karen Cyphers of Sachs Media, who with attorney Jason Solomon advocate with the grassroots group, Justice for Dan, to draw attention to this case and provide analysis of relevance to Florida’s political, advocacy, and legal communities.