Before the jury entered Courtroom 3G on Monday morning, state prosecutors and defense attorneys squared off in front of Judge Robert Wheeler with a few wins and losses for each side in the process.
The first issue was regarding the admissibility of dozens of recorded jailhouse calls by convicted hitman Sigfredo Garcia, recorded over the past week, following jury selection. Some were between himself and defendant Katherine Magbanua, and others were between himself and Magbanua’s attorney, Tara Kawass who was “preparing him to be a witness” on her client’s behalf.
Kawass argued that these calls should be kept from the jury and prosecutors alike, as they represent her “work product” and “defense strategy.” Assistant State Attorney Georgia Cappleman argued that there’s no attorney-client privilege and no expectation of privacy for these conversations, citing case law affirming that the definition of work product doesn’t include witnesses, and that code expressly requires defense attorneys to disclose to the state any statements by witnesses. However, Wheeler ruled that calls between Kawass and Garcia would not be admissible.
The calls between Garcia and Magbanua are another story and include a substantial amount of Spanish or Spanglish that require translation and transcription. To Wheeler, “it’s too late in the game” and “too prejudicial to the defense” to include the Spanish language calls, but the conversations in English would be allowed.
The jury also didn’t get to hear a battle waged by defense attorney Christopher DeCoste on a secondary phone number for Luis Rivera — one that had been saved in his client’s iPhone under Rivera’s nickname, Tato. DeCoste insisted that the state had never provided this evidence in discovery, and that evidence of communication between his client and this number would change defense theory and strategy.
But Assistant State Attorney Sarah Kathryn Dugan prevailed. Wheeler ruled that no discovery violation had occurred and that if there had been an omission, it was not willful or substantial.
Cellphone and location data deepens case against Magbanua, over challenges by defense
“Let’s start off Monday morning with some technical data,” DeCoste said after TPD Sergeant Chris Corbitt was sworn in for his second day of testimony, this time under cross-examination by the defense.
On Friday, Corbitt had testified to voluminous communications and location evidence tying Magbanua to the center of the conspiracy to kill Dan Markel. For a case with at least six co-conspirators, many of whom had burner phones in addition to their official ones, there’s a lot to sift through.
“Corbitt’s analysis revealed distinct patterns between conspirators, illuminating the role Magbanua played, tying members of the Adelson family to the killers she introduced them to,” said Karen Cyphers, who is with the grassroots group Justice for Dan and contributing to reports on the trial. “The data also back up one hitman’s confession that Katie made a conscious choice to kill a man for a paycheck. Why? Because he was a wonderful father and had become inconvenient to his ex-wife.”
DeCoste disagrees in the interpretation of the cell records. Through his questioning of Corbitt, DeCoste suggested to the jury that cellphone data is rife with errors and inconsistencies, undermining the ability for investigators to accurately portray where his client was at different points in time.
Corbitt was steadfast, explaining how his analysis can’t confirm the location of a person — just a handset, and how location estimates are more precise for data generated by GPS compared with cell towers.
The defense took specific aim at data placing Magbanua’s handset near the Miami airport where the Prius was rented. DeCoste asked Corbitt how many times her phone had ever pinged nearby cell towers, to which Corbitt identified only four days within June and July 2014, and March and April 2015. This didn’t appear to be what DeCoste wanted to hear, as he wanted to suggest that Magbanua visited that area frequently to see friends.
Corbitt also denied seeing any evidence that any altercation had happened between Garcia and Charlie Adelson — a key assertion of the defense theory.
DeCoste tried to elicit this reaction from the witness in multiple ways, without success.
“There’s also evidence of direct communications between Mr. Adelson and Mr. Garcia,” DeCoste led — not so much in question form.
“There is not that I’m aware of,” Corbitt replied.
DeCoste’s “evidence” of this was a text exchange, before the murder, where Magbanua asked Charlie, “did Tuto call your phone?” Charlie said not, and Corbitt’s response again frustrated the defense: “With the remainder of text messages it’s clear, communication did not happen.”
The questioning then moved on to discussing the choice by investigators to attain wiretap “intercepts” on just two conspirators — Magbanua and Garcia. To DeCoste, Magbanua’s purchase of a burner phone following the “bump” was due to the intercept — but not because she didn’t want to be overheard. DeCoste contends that the intercept had caused Magbanua’s phone to experience background noise, connection issues, and extreme heat. But Corbitt disagreed. “That should not happen,” he replied.
DeCoste then fought to imply that when Magbanua did buy a burner phone, her choice to do so at Walmart suggests she was not involved in a criminal conspiracy, as the megastore is under constant surveillance. He also said that Magbanua’s continued use of her own phone after the murder further suggests her innocence.
The defense wasn’t done poking holes, even if the holes were into their own arguments. DeCoste suggested that Charlie was planning to dump Katie right after the murder and that there was a significant drop-off in communications between the two of them after the homicide.
But Corbitt again returned to the data.
“From carrier records, we do see that there are periods of limited communication, and periods when they communicate more frequently,” he said, noting that spikes in their calls and texts happened following that point.
Corbitt acknowledged that Adelson and Magbanua’s relationship status did change about a month after the murder. But “ghosting” it was not.
Under redirect by Dugan, Corbitt revealed that in August, Katie told Charlie, “Go on with your life.”
With few options left for using data to validate their own theory, DeCoste returned to one that is harder to disprove.
“Your analysis can’t protect against whether Luis Rivera is lying,” DeCoste pressed on to Corbitt.
“The analysis is the analysis,” the Sergeant replied. “The records are what they are, and we can’t change them.”
Magbanua’s old friend spills some T
Yindra Velazquez Mascaro, a lifelong friend of Magbanua, took the stand next. She testified to Katherine’s employment history and their personal lives, including how Garcia was jealous of Charlie.
Nevertheless, Mascaro said the only exchange she knew of that occurred between the two men happened on the road — Garcia briefly blocked Charlie and Magbanua as they were leaving a parking lot on the way to a date.
One other communication was also attempted, Mascaro said, when Garcia found what he thought to be Charlie’s number in Magbanua’s phone. Garcia called and left a “very nasty voicemail,” only to later learn it was to the wrong man. He had actually called Charlie’s father, Harvey Adelson.
Perhaps more telling, Mascaro watched Magbanua’s children on night following the murder — July 18, 2014 — a favor that wasn’t common for her to do. The next day, “She told me Charlie’s brother-in-law had gotten into an accident — a car accident,” said Mascaro.
Mascaro testified how she and Magbanua met Wendi Adelson on Father’s Day weekend of 2014, and how Charlie had given Magbanua a Lexus “in really nice shape” — “pristine” — when her own vehicle was having trouble, well after the two had broken up.
“Were you aware of her giving him any money for the car?” Dugan asked.
“No,” replied Mascaro.
When asked how Magbanua and Charlie’s relationship ended, Mascaro said, “She broke up with Mr. Adelson.”
And when asked if Magbanua had any relationship with Charlie’s parents, Mascaro said, “Harvey would do her cleanings, and I believe he also did pull some teeth.”
Dugan asked her witness to clarify, “Nothing other a patient-dentist relationship?”
“No,” said Mascaro.
“Did she ever mention to you that she worked for Adelson Institute or Charlie Adelson?” Dugan followed.
“No,” said Mascaro.
And with that, multiple threads of the defense theory were undermined.
Kawass conducted Mascaro’s cross-examination. She asked Mascaro if she were aware that Magbanua had multiple other good friends, insinuating that perhaps others, not Mascaro, would have been more privy to Magbanua’s personal or professional experiences.
Kawass asked about “bottle service” jobs — something both she and Magbanua did at the same time. Mascaro said that such jobs can be lucrative in South Florida, and that some clubs would hire girls with no applications and pay only in cash.
Mascaro knew Magbanua had asked Charlie to provide “employment records” so she could get approved for insurance for her children, but even under cross-examination Mascaro attested she knew of no legitimate work that her friend had done for the Adelson family.
Redirect by Dugan was pointed. She had Mascaro clarify that the nightclub she and Magbanua worked at together was a “local Haitian spot” not one of the elite clubs on South Beach where bottle service workers earn serious cash and had her clarify that her “payroll” with the Adelson Institute was for insurance fraud purposes, not actual employment.
Most importantly, Mascaro said that upon learning of Garcia’s arrest, she “immediately knew” the connection between Garcia and Markel was Magbanua.
A former (actual) employer clarifies pay details
Ramzi Naber was called next. Naber was the prior owner of Club Fate, where Magbanua briefly worked in Hallandale Beach inside the Gulfstream Casino plaza. Naber was responsible for doing “cash outs” — but noted that 90% of their revenues came from credit cards, not cash.
“It’s a very transient place, people come in and out,” Naber said, “It wasn’t a popular destination.” While some “white collar” guests such as horse owners would be in the Gulfstream complex for races, Naber said these were not the patrons of his club.
Naber said the club never did well compared to their expectations, fizzling out after the initial few weeks of operation. Their earnings each night “barely covered the cost of the DJ,” he said. Bottles cost about $150 to $200, but Naber didn’t have his own “girls” doing liquor promotions. Those, he said, if they happened at all, would’ve been handled by the liquor companies themselves through hired models. They never had more than six servers at a time, and he doesn’t recall any working more than three or four nights. As far as earnings, “$200 per shift was a good night,” he said.
Naber described Magbanua as a “shooting star” working for only about three months as a cocktail server, but that her records along with all others from that time were destroyed by water damage following a storm.
DeCoste handled Naber’s cross-examination. He wheeled the podium closer to the witness, and showed Naber and the jury a photo of Magbanua from the time she worked at Fate, scantily clad and nearly unrecognizable from the defendant sitting next to Kawass. DeCoste insinuated that staff were being paid under the table by either the business or customers directly, but Naber only conceded that he wouldn’t have known what servers got paid in tips.
Charlie’s ex-girlfriend, a reluctant witness, till can’t decide how she feels
June Umchinda was dating Charlie Adelson in 2016 at the time the FBI bump rattled his family and led to multiple arrests. In the line of more “serious” girlfriends, she followed a woman named Whitney, who had dated Charlie after he was with Magbanua. Umchinda’s relationship with Charlie was complicated, and was “on and off again” for seven years.
Her first 2018 interview with FBI agent Patrick Sanford and TPD investigator Sherrie Bennett, was during an “off” period. In this, Umchinda described their relationship as being “fairy tale perfect” before when “the whole thing blew up. And then that was like No. 1 priority instead of us.”
She saw a future with Charlie, and public photo albums suggest deep affection, which perhaps led Umchinda to endure or forgive significant maltreatment by the now-incarcerated dentist. Umchinda told Sanford and Bennett about Charlie’s cheating, lying, and displays of anger. She lamented how he had gotten another woman pregnant, and knew he traveled to the Philippines and elsewhere to see other young women.
“And you still describe him as perfect?” Sanford challenged.
“The only thing bad about him, was he’s supposedly a murderer …” said Umchinda. “Well, yeah, the murdering and cheating.”
But it was something else Umchinda said in that interview that really stands out. She offered that Charlie stapled his money.
“So, I was always like who staples money and stuff? Like use a paper clip or something,” she said to the pair of investigators.
But by the time Umchinda testified in the 2019 trial, things between her and Charlie had changed again. She was less angry and more sympathetic toward him. Umchinda admitted she had spent the night before her court appearance talking with Charlie. He was being kind to her. She seemed to feel bad for him. And shortly after her testimony, June posted on Instagram a poolside photo of the two of them together — which was quickly taken down and replaced with more vague references to romance.
This time around, however, the night before Umchinda testified was not full of pretrial advice from her ex-boyfriend. He was only miles away, but behind bars in Leon County Jail.
Nevertheless, Umchinda appeared to remain conflicted about her ex-boyfriend.
In the past year, June told this jury, the two have had less contact. He wanted to see her often, but she tried to stay away, because of “this whole thing going on,” referring to the murder case. Charlie did reach out to June the night before his arrest, but she didn’t try him back until “he was already gone.”
June admitted to seeing Charlie with “thousands and thousands of dollars” of cash in stacks of hundreds and reluctantly acknowledged to the jury that these stacks of hundreds were stapled together.
This wasn’t the only detail Umchinda seemingly tried to walk back from. She claimed to not quite recall details, but Cappleman steadily reminded. For example, Umchinda previously shared that after the bump, Donna Adelson was very upset, and quoted Donna as saying, “Dan’s back from the grave, like, haunting her.” But on Monday, to the jury, Umchinda hesitated.
Kawass’ cross-examination pushed Umchinda to say a bit more. They talked about how Charlie had gotten “Wendi’s boyfriend’s nanny pregnant” which led to her breakup with Charlie, about how Charlie had a preference for Asian women, and about how she later learned Charlie had kept in touch with Magbanua behind her back throughout their relationship.
Specific to the murder, Umchinda told Kawass that Charlie didn’t want to talk about who did it, and she didn’t want to press. She said he began acting strange immediately after the FBI bump, being paranoid and more consumed with his family than usual, but never told Umchinda why.
Umchinda said she watched the 20/20 special on the case with Charlie, who claimed that the show “got it wrong.” She said Charlie said he didn’t play for Magbanua’s full breast augmentation, but rather, just “one of them.”
But when it came to the killing, June says, he expressed no curiosity about who — if not his family — had done it.
Adelson Institute in the house
Two former employees of the Adelson Institute, Clariza Lebredo and Erika Johnson, appeared next. When each testified in 2019, they were active employees working directly for the Adelson family. The practice sold less than one year ago — with a notice about the sale going out the very day this trial had been once scheduled to start — but loyalties may remain. Lebredo, a dental assistant, had worked for the family for close to 40 years and remains an employee of the practice to whom it was sold.
Dugan asked Lebredo about who else worked at the Institute during the years 2014-2016. She listed Erika Johnson, a woman named Amy, and Harvey, Charlie and Donna Adelson. Lebredo said that only the Adelson family had access to patient records. When the FBI met with Lebredo in June 2016, she claimed she had no knowledge of Magbanua working with the practice — only knowing her as a patient.
Unlike Magbanua, who received multiple batches of sequential paychecks from the Adelson Institute paid in advance of the date they were for, Lebredo said this was not usual for her.
Lebredo said there were times — maybe once a year — when she would get paid in advance if the family was set to go away on vacation, but that she never got four, five, or six checks in advance as Magbanua had.
Further, Lebredo claimed no knowledge of any Institute employee who was paid for exclusively remote work before the pandemic and said that she was familiar with the actual cleaning service that the Adelsons employed — “a husband-and-wife team” that did not include Magbanua.
On cross-examination, Kawass pushed back. She suggested Lebredo would have no knowledge if someone had gone into the practice on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday. Adding, “you’re not really in a position to ask what the Adelsons are writing checks for, are you? Lebredo agreed.
Johnson’s testimony was similar.
She had worked at the Adelson Institute for 11 years and, like Lebredo, stayed on with the practice that bought it. Johnson handles the front desk, making appointments and processing insurance. She confirmed that the Adelsons offered discounts for patients who paid in cash and confirmed what Lebredo said about the names of other employees and the hours of operation.
Donna was the office manager, Johnson said, responsible for payroll and checks. Johnson said she herself was responsible for checking voicemails collected after hours and confirmed that she knew Magbanua only as being Charlie’s girlfriend and a patient in the office, nothing more. Like Lebredo, Johnson was familiar with the practice’s janitorial service and said that it never included Magbanua.
Also consistent with Lebredo, Johnson said she would only get paid for a few weeks in advance if the Adelsons were going on vacation, and that it would be only two at a time, not more. She was never aware of any employee who worked exclusively by phone or remotely.
In 2016, Johnson was present when the FBI went to the practice seeking records about Magbanua’s employment, but Johnson couldn’t provide any. She didn’t have access to those files, and despite acknowledging that Donna would be the one to handle such things, she called Charlie instead. That call was captured by FBI wiretap. At the end of the call, Charlie tells Johnson that he’ll call her from a landline instead.
Kawass again took on cross-examination, reminding Johnson that in prior testimony, Johnson said she wasn’t sure about Magbanua’s employment status, and that she wouldn’t have known if or why anyone came into the practice on Fridays, weekends, or evenings. Johnson then conceded that when the FBI came knocking, she called Charlie, not Donna, because she knew of Magbanua only as Charlie’s girlfriend.
Tomorrow will be just as dense …
Tuesday is expected to include forensic financial records, audio and video of the FBI bump and more, and testimony from Rivera’s wife.
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 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.