The State of Florida’s case against Katherine Magbanua ramped up Friday, building out a solid foundation of motive, data, and corroboration.
A reluctant redemption and a gutted defense
“Do you enjoy having to testify against your friends?” Cappleman asked Luis Rivera, a former high-ranking leader of the Latin Kings gang.
“No, ma’am,” he replied.
“Would it have been easier for you if your testimony could have been against someone else, a stranger?” Cappleman followed.
“Not at all,” Rivera said.
“Was it particularly hard that you have to testify against your best friend and his wife?” she followed.
“It’s hard. It hurts,” Rivera said.
But in his two-day testimony in Magbanua’s trial for her role in the murder of Dan Markel, that’s exactly what Rivera did. He flipped on Magbanua and his lifelong friend — more like a brother, really — Sigfredo Garcia.
To the defense, the only important part of Rivera’s cooperation is what he gained through it — a 19-year sentence for murder rather than the possibility of life in prison or the death sentence. But it was also the personal cost of this cooperation that struck courtroom observers.
Before his plea deal, Rivera had high status with the Latin Kings gang — the only life he had ever known — and this meant adhering to a strict code that forbids cooperation with law enforcement. By doing so, his own life has been threatened by the very people he had always aligned with, even while in the more controlled setting of federal prison.
Rivera told the jury that because of his cooperation, “I go through a lot. People try to hurt me.”
It’s a somber reflection for a man whose role in a murder deserves little sympathy, but whose cooperation since has the potential to redeem justice for other conspirators who are yet to be held accountable.
Once Rivera broke the code, it appears he put it all on the table.
“What was your plea in reference to this murder case?” Cappleman asked.
“Nineteen years,” Rivera said.
“And what did you have to do in exchange for the 19 years?”
“Cooperate,” he answered.
“Cooperate. What does that mean to you?” Cappleman asked.
“To say nothing but the truth,” Rivera replied. “To tell. Snitch.”
Though he could not recall all the details immaculately, Rivera’s testimony did come across as truthful, hiding nothing. Under direct examination by Assistant State Attorney Georgia Cappleman, and under cross-examination by defense attorney Christopher DeCoste that left both the witness and observers often struggling to follow, Rivera disclosed the following:
— Rivera and Garcia had taken more than one trip to Tallahassee with the goal of murdering Markel. Two things thwarted the first, in early June — Markel was with his children and Rivera said he wouldn’t commit the act in front of them, but then once Markel was alone, they lost his trail. The hitmen returned to Miami and drove back up just over a month later, at which point they were able to carry it out.
— Rivera joined Garcia in renting the Prius in June but wasn’t there when Garcia rented the car for their initial June trip. Rivera also admits to buying a .38 revolver off the streets — the weapon ultimately used to end Markel’s life.
— On both trips, Rivera and Garcia met a local man named Shoddrick Nobles, who jurors will hear from in this trial. Nobles sold cocaine to the duo and aided them with car trouble after Garcia accidentally shot a bullet through the floorboard of the rented Prius. Law enforcement had already tracked down the Prius by the time they’d arrested Rivera but didn’t notice the hole in the car as it was obscured. After hearing Rivera’s account, investigators revisited the Prius and found it had the exact damage Rivera described. This type of detail provides confirmation of Rivera’s ability to recall specifics from their trip and proof that his account wasn’t a fabrication “scripted” by law enforcement, as Magbanua’s defense claims.
— Rivera snapped a photo of an animal outside their hotel room in Tallahassee and posted it on Instagram — another piece of physical evidence — but shortly afterward, he said Garcia got a phone call from Magbanua telling him to take it down. “That’s too much evidence,” she reportedly said. She knew they were there “on a job.”
— Rivera recalls being with Garcia on a night the defense contends is important to their theory. In her opening statement, defense attorney Tara Kawass said that Garcia had been stalking Magbanua, angry about her relationship with Charlie Adelson — “the dentist,” as Rivera knew of him. On this night in question, Kawass asks the jury to believe that Garcia was observing Magbanua and Charlie on a date at a restaurant and then approached Charlie once Magbanua left. Kawass contends that the two men had a confrontation that began their plot, behind Magbanua’s back, to kill Markel. However, this is not what Rivera recalls. He said he and Garcia were watching Katie from their truck, and Garcia was upset seeing his ”wife” and Charlie together. But Rivera convinced his best friend to leave, and the two remained together the rest of the night. At no point did Garcia ever confide to Rivera that he had made direct contact with “the dentist” whether that night or any other. “Is that something he would have told you?” Cappleman asked him, above defense objections. “Yes, ma’am.”
— Rivera contends that while scoping out Markel’s house the day before the killing, a woman with two young children was walking on Trescott, looking suspiciously at their car, and then getting on the phone. Rivera asked Garcia, “Why is she looking at the car like that?” to which Garcia replied, “It’s her — it’s the lady,” referring to who Garcia told Rivera had hired them because she “wanted her kids back.” Cappleman asked Rivera to clarify that he believed “the lady” to be Wendi Adelson, and Rivera affirmed.
— It was that same day, Rivera says, that Garcia received word from Katie that they “had to get the job done because he (Markel) was leaving on a trip” soon. There are two possibilities in interpreting this account. The first possibility is that Wendi was, in fact, walking on Markel’s street with their children on that day. The other interpretation is that the hitmen saw a woman who Garcia believed to be Wendi, whether it was her. Rivera has been consistent in asserting that Garcia believed the client of their job to be the dentist’s sister. The actual identity of the woman seen on Trescott has not been confirmed, and may not matter.
— The hitmen were paid on the Saturday morning following Markel’s murder, meeting at Rivera’s wife’s house to make the exchange. Rivera attested that Garcia, Magbanua, and his wife were present. Rivera shared that the money was delivered in a brown paper bag and that it carried a strange signature — the stacks of hundred-dollar bills were stapled together.
— Rivera testified that Garcia and Magbanua didn’t get back together as a couple until 9 or 10 months after the murder, a far more distant reconciliation than the defense asserts happened. Kawass told the jury that Garcia killed Markel as part of a secret agreement where Charlie would stop dating Magbanua. To Kawass, once the terrible act was done, Charlie “ghosted” Magbanua and made room for Garcia to move back in — but that timeline is unsupported by evidence and doesn’t match with what Garcia had told his very best friend.
The defense worked hard to discredit Rivera, suggesting that he had seen a good deal and taken it, in part to punish Garcia and Magbanua for having put him in this position. But the more DeCoste pushed, forcing circular and confusing exchanges, the more it appeared to watchers that Rivera was sincere — even if not perfect in his recall. The jury had already heard that Rivera has limited literacy, and considering that fact, DeCoste’s approach could strike one as manipulative.
DeCoste seemed to grasp at straws, testing numerous ways of discrediting Rivera, which included suggestions that Rivera was the actual shooter among other facts that were previously established.
Even so, Rivera was unwavering in his assertion of how the conspiracy was organized, calling Magbanua the “mastermind” and as guilty of this crime as he and Garcia.
DeCoste didn’t relent either, though it may not have ended as he wished.
“You read the theory that Katherine was involved, right?” DeCoste asked.
“I knew she was involved,” Rivera replied.
“And you named names that you know they wanted to hear to get a reduction,” DeCoste accused. “That’s what you did, right?”
“I gave the names, yes,” Rivera answered.
“You gave the two names that was in the reports and was in your discovery: Wendi Adelson and Katherine Magbanua, right?” DeCoste pressed, “You took it and ran …. agreed to the government’s facts, whether truthful or not.”
“That’s true, but yes,” Rivera answered.
“You agree that you agreed to untruthful facts?” DeCoste said to cap off what seemed to be an intentionally confusing exchange.
“No,” Rivera asserted, “Everything I said was true.”
‘Historical communications record analysis’ corroborate Rivera’s claims — and more
Tallahassee Police Department Sergeant Chris Corbitt — a sworn law enforcement officer for nearly 30 years — is an expert in forensic photo data, mapping, and ‘historical communications record analysis.’ His testimony adds significant data to support the State’s case against Magbanua. Corbitt’s analysis of cellphone records, including both location and communications data, touches nearly every part of the conspiracy.
On Friday, under direct examination by Assistant State Attorney Sarah Kathryn Dugan, Corbitt shared the following:
— The morning of the murder, Corbitt says that Wendi Adelson took a route that was not “optimal” when leaving her Killearn rental home seeking liquor for a party. Even while running late for a lunch date in Market Square with friends, Wendi drove an extra 6 miles down Centerville, turning onto Markel’s road — Trescott Drive. Encountering the police roadblock discussed Thursday, complete with a slew of sirens and crime scene vehicles, Wendi turned around abruptly and took another route to ABC liquor. To Corbitt, it was odd that Wendi chose this store to begin with, noting that there were multiple other stores she could have shopped at much closer to her home and lunch destination. Corbitt confirmed that after seeing the crime scene, Wendi’s phone records show no calls to check on her children at daycare or confirm they had actually made it there, or on her ex-husband. She did, however, find time to log an 18-minute phone call with her brother Charlie on the morning of Markel’s murder.
— Magbanua’s cellphone records show a few peculiarities of their own. For example, her location is consistent with having joined Garcia to rent a car in June in advance of their first trip to Tallahassee at a company located “a significant distance” from her home. Immediately after leaving the area of the rental agency, Magbanua calls Charlie.
— The first call made by either hitman after the murder was from Garcia’s phone to Magbanua. This lines up with what Rivera testified had occurred — the hit men turned their phones off while committing the crime, and powered back on once they were a distance away. At 12:30 p.m., Garcia and Magbanua spoke. In Rivera’s account, Garcia said, “Job is done,” to which Magbanua replied, “I know.” Corbitt says the call duration was just 20 seconds long — consistent with a conversation as short as the one Rivera claims happened.
— Magbanua and Charlie were communicating on the evening of July 18, with text messages from Charlie saying they should meet at his house that night. Her phone then turns off. The next phone pings from Magbanua’s phone were along the route traveling south from where Charlie resides back toward her home. Rivera — and authorities — contend that this is when Magbanua picked up the payment from Charlie, which was then distributed among the conspirators the next day.
— Magbanua’s cellphone data from July 19 was also found to be consistent with Rivera’s account of the Saturday morning money drop. Corbitt affirmed that their cellphone data placed all of them together at that time and was consistent with the location Rivera described.
— Corbitt noted another interesting break in pattern that occurred that day. Magbanua’s records show she had been trying to contact Garcia repeatedly, and when she didn’t get through, she tried to reach Garcia through other channels, including their mutual friend Anthony Ortiz. After Magbanua contacted Ortiz, Ortiz contacts Rivera. Then Rivera calls Magbanua, and the two exchange back and forth. Corbitt shared that this number for Rivera was not stored in Magbanua’s phone and was one of only a few records of the two ever being in direct contact with one another, rather than speaking through Garcia. The other instances of Magbanua contacting Rivera fell at unsettling times: during the June and July trips to Tallahassee.
Coming next week …
On Monday morning, Corbitt will return to the stand for cross-examination. The roster of witnesses will also include Jessica Rodriguez, the mother of Rivera’s children, as well as a forensic financial analyst.
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 supply analysis of relevance to Florida’s political, advocacy, and legal communities.