Markel Trial Day 9: Defense tries stoking sympathies, Magbanua on the stand, resting its case
The Dan Markel murder trial is settled. Image via Tallahassee Democrat.

markel
Motion for judgment of acquittal is denied

Prior to the jury arriving, defense attorney Tara Kawass stood before Judge Robert Wheeler, renewed all her team’s prior motions, and added a big one – a motion for acquittal.

Kawass argued that the State didn’t present sufficient evidence against Katherine Magbanua. Kawass cited an overturned murder conviction against Denise Williams in the death of her husband, alleging (incorrectly) that there was “more evidence in that case as it relates to principal for first degree murder” than in this one.

“There’s zero evidence before this court,” Kawass said, that ties Magbanua to a conspiracy with any member of the Adelson family, adding, “The state’s own witness, Ms. (Wendi) Adelson, said her family had nothing to do with this.” Kawass then asked the court to acquit her client on all charges.

Assistant State Attorney Georgia Cappleman countered. She provided two significant differences between their case against Magbanua and the one against Williams, concluding “the court will find there is sufficient evidence” for all three charges to go to the jury.

Wheeler agreed with Cappleman, saying there was “sufficient evidence” proved by the State that Magbanua’s role in Dan Markel’s murder was premeditated, and that the defendant “acted as a principal, and did some act to assist in the murder.”

So, the trial continued, and the jury was allowed in.

Four investigators pressed by defense, strengthen state’s case

First up on the defense roster was TPD Investigator Sherrie Bennett, who readers will recall played a significant role in gathering evidence and interviewing witnesses. One of these interviews was with Jessica Rodriguez, then-girlfriend of Luis Rivera. Defense attorney Christopher DeCoste wanted to expose some inconsistencies in Rodriguez’s testimony regarding what happened the morning of the money drop. But through Bennett, DeCoste only reminded the jury of a fact the State agrees on: Rodriguez wasn’t sure precisely when it happened, just that it was one or two months after the June birth of her daughter. However, this witness reinforced that the meeting did happen, and Magbanua was there.

Next was TPD Investigator Michael Dilmore, who serves in the technical operations unit under supervisor Chris Corbitt. Dilmore was tasked with going through various electronic devices to obtain evidence, including Sigfredo Garcia’s phone, post-arrest. In this, he found evidence of Garcia and Rivera communicating in mid-May 2016, a time when Rivera would have been incarcerated, and found evidence that Garcia shared a contact in common with Charlie Adelson – an auto place called Eco Friendly Shop, owned by Charlie’s friend “Sully.” This is easily explained, but largely irrelevant.

Then came retired detective Craig Isom, calm, serious, and earnest as ever. The routine was similar.

DeCoste made shielded accusations that law enforcement purposefully ignored certain avenues of investigation, but Isom denied that.

“If you were told it was important, you would have investigated it?” DeCoste asked.

“Yes,” Isom said.

“I’m gonna get laser-focused on this one,” DeCoste followed.

“Good,” replied Isom.

DeCoste asked the detective about various inconsistencies in Rivera’s recollection – such as on which trip they had been pulled over for a speeding ticket. Isom confirmed that Rivera misremembered which trip this happened on. But Cappleman, on redirect, made an excellent point: if Rivera had been spoon-fed information by the State, he wouldn’t have gotten small details like that wrong.

One notable question of Isom related back to Rivera’s account of seeing “the lady” walking on Trescott the day before Markel’s murder. Again, as noted previously, it is irrelevant to prove whether Wendi Adelson herself was walking on Trescott that day – only that the hitmen saw a woman they believed to be her. Rivera had asked Garcia why the woman was looking suspiciously at their car. Garcia tells Rivera that it was “the lady” – minutes later clarified by Garcia to be “Wendi” – who he said, “hired Katie to have her ex-husband killed.”

DeCoste followed, “Has Wendi been arrested?”

Isom replied, “No.”

A fourth investigator, Jason Newlin, was called next.

Newlin assists prosecutors including Cappleman with follow-up investigations. “Law enforcement puts the puzzle together,” Newlin explained, “We kinda put the glue.”

DeCoste pressed Newlin hard on the process of Rivera’s plea deal, suggesting repeatedly that the government had planted a storyline in Rivera’s mind about Magbanua’s involvement, forcing the gang member to implicate her to get a deal. “What evidence do you have that Rivera didn’t untruthfully say Katie’s name to get a deal?” DeCoste asked, circularly.

“There’s a whole lot of evidence,” Newlin said.

“Do you think someone becomes a boss of the Latin Kings by being stupid?” DeCoste challenged.

“I would say he listened to his attorney’s advice,” Newlin said.

“You wanted Rivera to cooperate” against Magbanua, DeCoste pushed.

“We wanted to get to the bottom of it,” Newlin pushed back.

“Let’s talk about Facebook, Instagram, and owls. You know what I’m going to ask?” DeCoste asked.

“I’ll let you do it,” Newlin replied.

“Is there a difference between an owl and a lion?” DeCoste asked, referring to Rivera’s error in his testimony about which animal he had posted on Instagram, followed by a series of questions about why investigators didn’t ask the social media company for evidence of this.

“If you don’t send a preservation letter within 7 days, you don’t get it,” Newlin said, “It’s gone,” noting that they learned of the Instagram issue a good two years after the fact.

“I’m not trying to tell you that you told him what to say,” DeCoste said, before insinuating just that. “You would agree with me there’s times… you reviewed his testimony.”

“Prior to appearances, yes,” Newlin said, later adding, “He’s not fitting his story to the facts.”

Cappleman’s cross-examination of her colleague was straightforward. She first asked about when their office had been invited out to Leon County Jail to talk with Magbanua.

“It was a joke, right?” Cappleman asked. “We were invited out there so the defense could tell the jury we were invited out there.”

“Yes,” he affirmed.

Cappleman followed, asking Newlin to say if there had been anything unethical or unusual about any of their interactions or process with Rivera.

“No,” Newlin said.

Charlie’s former buddy shines light on ‘Maestro’

Ryan Fitzpatrick was called next, a former friend and business partner of Charlie Adelson. The two had known each other for 15 years, first meeting through mutual friends. Fitzpatrick knew Charlie’s parents and sister well. He has met the Markel’s grandsons, too. He acknowledged that Charlie was “very close” to Wendi, and protective of her. He called his former friend “brilliant.”

“After the murder, how did Charles express his feelings about Dan Markel?” Kawass asked.

“Nobody talked good about him,” Fitzpatrick replied. “I really didn’t pay a lot of attention to it, it was insignificant to me at the time, but you could tell it wasn’t someone they were fond of.”

“Would you describe Charlie Adelson as the marrying kind?” Kawass asked.

“He wasn’t my type,” Fitzpatrick joked, and then seriously answered about how Charlie had multiple girlfriends, overlapping, and that he could barely keep track of them.

“To be honest, I really didn’t pay a lot of attention to girls that he saw,” his buddy said, but affirmed he had met Magbanua in passing, and was aware of her relationship with Charlie.

Fitzpatrick affirmed that Charlie liked being the center of attention, saying that it became overwhelming and repetitive to listen to him. To Kawass’ question of whether Charlie talked a lot, Fitzpatrick said, “When doesn’t he talk?” Despite excessive talking about anything and everything in his life, Fitzpatrick said that Charlie didn’t talk about Markel’s murder.

Kawass asked the witness whether Charlie regularly threw around various hypothetical scenarios, talking excessively and essentially manipulating people into agreement — and Fitzpatrick agreed that some would do so, just to get him to shut up.

Fitzpatrick described Charlie as “paranoid” with cameras around his home, always suspicious of everyone, and a regular user of marijuana and steroids. And this only got worse after the bump, Fitzpatrick said. He and their “large group” of friends noticed how Charlie’s behavior changed. The ‘Maestro’ (as he called himself with friends) became more erratic, more paranoid. They never confronted Charlie about Markel’s murder, but Charlie did tell his friends he was innocent and that the case was “nonsense.” At the same time, however, Charlie made comments that sounded less than innocent. “You can get away with murder,” Fitzpatrick claimed Charlie had told him, “You just have to keep your mouth shut.”

When the 2019 trial was approaching, Fitzpatrick said Charlie “pulled the rug out” from under him in their common business, even above Fitzpatrick’s attempts to “placate the friendship.”

And Fitzpatrick corroborated one of the more peculiar facts of this case: Charlie paid him directly using stacks of hundreds stapled together in sums of $1,000.

On cross-examination, Cappleman asked Fitzpatrick to share anything Charlie had told him about any direct encounter with Garcia – and there was only one. Fitzpatrick’s telling was consistent with Rivera’s account of the “jet ski” incident when Sigfredo tried to block Charlie’s car while he was on a date with Magbanua.

“A lot of eyes” – Kawass leads Magbanua through lengthy testimony

“How are you feeling?” Kawass asked her client, already sworn in.

“I’m freaking out,” Magbanua replied.

“A lot of eyes you haven’t seen before,” Kawass said.

“A lot of eyes,” her client repeated.

“Let’s start at the very beginning. When was the first time you laid eyes on Charlie Adelson?” Kawass asked, and Magbanua recounted how they met at a dental office, working the front desk. Adelson, a traveling dentist, had come to perform work at that practice. He tried to put his phone number into Magbanua’s phone and was persistent in asking her out.

She and Garcia met as teenagers, just after Magbanua graduated high school and before she left for college at UCF. He moved up to Orlando to be with her, and their life at the time was good, she said. He was working reliably. Soon, they welcomed a son and moved back to Miami to be closer to family. Their relationship stayed positive for some time in Miami but began shifting after the birth of their daughter in 2012. Garcia would disappear, drinking frequently. They fought, “argued back and forth, half the time it was probably me screaming at him,” Magbanua said. She alleges at the time she was unaware that Garcia was engaged in criminal activity but is “seeing a lot more now.”

They broke up in 2013 after Magbanua saw evidence that Garcia was cheating on her. She kicked him out of the apartment. It was a serious separation, their first major break up.

Enter Charlie.

Magbanua denied having known much about his sister’s divorce, but did recall the night that she, Charlie, Wendi, and Jeffrey Lacasse went on a double date. She and Charlie drove separately. “Anything that stood out to you?”

“Not that I can recall,” Magbanua said.

“Did you have anything to do with the murder of Dan Markel?” Kawass pivoted to, about halfway through direct examination.

“No, ma’am,” the defendant said.

“Did anything stand out to you about Charlie’s behavior?” Kawass asked, referring to the night of July 18, 2014, when she had spent the night there.

“No,” Magbanua said.

“Did Charles Adelson ever give you $100,000 in stapled money” to give to your ex, who you weren’t even with? Kawass asked.

“No,” she said.

Kawass moved onto Magbanau’s alleged employment with Charlie and the Adelson Institute. “I asked him to do me a favor” to be put on record and get paperwork, Magbanua said, which made it possible to get insurance for her children. She claims she helped him with a website, appointments, and did “odd jobs.”

“You wouldn’t ask to be put on payroll for your role in a murder, because that would be really stupid,” Kawass coached.

“No,” laughed Magbanua.

“Did you ever go to his office?” Kawass asked, referring to Charlie’s wiretap statement regarding Magbanua going to “clean up” at his office.

“I lied about it,” Magbanua said, “I told him that I did, but I really didn’t.”

Even after the two stopped having a physical relationship, Magbanua and Charlie remained friendly, in touch weekly if not more. This was an interesting line of questioning for Kawass to pursue, directly contradicting the defense’s prior assertion that Charlie had “ghosted” Magbanua.

After Garcia’s arrest in late May 2016, Magbanua quickly moved in with her brother in Tamarac. She claims she has never had a chance to talk with Garcia about his involvement, as everything is monitored from jail. Magbanua says she helped Garcia find an attorney, Jim Lewis, who encouraged her to get a lawyer for herself. Magbanua claimed to the jury that she didn’t understand why she would need one.

Not mentioned about this call with Lewis, however, is that he said a few more things that day. Lewis told Magbanua that he spoke with Charlie’s lawyer, Michael D. Weinstein, who advised that no members of the Adelson family would be talking with law enforcement, so she was safe to stay quiet herself.

Kawass asked her client to describe her arrest – a story that may have gained Magbanua some sympathy in the prior trial – including multiple officers and a SWAT team, causing her to urinate on herself. Kawass recounted how immediately after Magbanua’s arrest, she encouraged her client to cooperate if she was able to, as “now would be the time.” But Magbanua never did.

“What do you think they want from you?” Kawass asked, regarding possible cooperation. “Did you know they wanted to arrest Charlies Adelson?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Magbanua said.

“Do you believe he did this?”

“After seeing everything, yes,” Magbanua repeated.

Under cross-examination, Magbanua recalled almost nothing

Assistant State Attorney Sarah Kathryn Dugan owned cross-examination, unrelenting in her approach and attempts to solicit the truth. Here’s a list of things that Magbanua claims she could not recall or could not explain:

  • Having heard anything about Markel’s murder prior to Garcia’s arrest or having heard anything about Wendi’s divorce or custody troubles.
  • How often she talked with Charlie when she became his “personal assistant” – phone records and texts show their contact was very sporadic during the time she claims she was working for him, and Dugan introduced evidence that Magbanua – over more than a year’s time – asked Charlie, “how’s life?” “how’s work?” including a text that says she never knows when he was on vacation or working.
  • What she did for him to earn more than $17,000 from the Adelson Institute in paychecks, other than booking one appointment for a website contractor. She admitted she did not talk to patients or actually go to the office to clean. She could not recall any other service she provided.
  • Whether she actually collected rent from tenants living at Charlie’s properties. She first claimed to Dugan she had done so but was reminded of her prior testimony where she made clear that she had not done this. Magbanua conceded this had been a lie.
  • Why would Charlie put her on the payroll as his assistant if he was “ghosting” her after their romantic relationship ended, per what the defense had claimed he had done.
  • What favor she was referring to when texting Charlie, “don’t be such a dick to someone who has done something for you.”
  • Why she had deposited unusually large sums of cash following Markel’s murder at different banks, sometimes multiple times a day. Nor could she recall the source of the money surplus. She said she could not even recall that she had experienced such a major spike in her income during that time.
  • What made her so special as to receive lavish gifts from Charlie, long after they had dated – including trips overseas, cars, prescriptions, cash loans or gifts, car repairs, meal service, and more – when other girlfriends, like June Umchinda who had dated him for 7 years, received nothing at that level.
  • How much she was earning while working at various nightclubs, or when she worked at each – a topic that she was inconsistent about between her two testimonies.
  • Why she quit working at a nightclub that she alleged had been so lucrative, to begin working at a nightclub that had less earnings.
  • Why she never asked what Charlie was referring to in the Dolce Vita conversation when he talked about an event that made international news, or what Charlie was referring to when he asked Katie, “the next day, did anyone take money?” followed by saying that nobody had bought anything extravagant. There were about a dozen other questions about things Charlie said in that conversation that Magbanua said she couldn’t interpret or recall – references to rented cars, included.
  • Why she had been the only ex-girlfriend Charlie called after the bump. She had claimed she was the “last ex-girlfriend” of Charlie’s, but text messages between her and Charlie make clear that was never her impression.
  • Why she only called Luis Rivera during times when Rivera and Garcia traveled to Tallahassee in June and July of 2014, and on the morning of the money drop the day after.
  • Why she was talking in code to Charlie and Garcia after the bump. She said she didn’t want to be overheard by coworkers or her children, but if not for a crime, why would that be a concern?
  • Why her “husband” committed murder for her boyfriend.

At Dolce Vita, Dugan pointed out, Charlie tells Magbanua that he wanted the “undercover” killed because he could be a big problem and that he’s willing to pay anything for it.

“Did he say that to you before, when he wanted his brother-in-law killed?” Dugan asked.

And yet, “I don’t recall” or “I don’t remember what was happening in 2014” was Magbanua’s response again and again.

Dugan ended the cross-examination with a litany of “coincidences” that jurors would have to believe were “bad luck” in order to view Magbanua as innocent. Dugan asked Magbanua if she was angry or mad that Garcia and Charlie had done this “to her” – and Magbanua said she was. And yet, Dugan shared with the jury, even recently, Magbanua was heard on a recorded line telling Garcia how she missed him, how sad she was that she couldn’t touch him or feel him.

“I see why I’m in the middle, I’m smack in the middle,” Magbanua conceded. “That’s why I’m fighting for my life.”

Following a brief, repetitive cross-examination in which Magbanua was able to stoke additional sympathy regarding her mother’s death and two bouts with COVID-19, the defense rested its case.

Tomorrow, jury deliberates

Despite Kawass making a final attempt to get the case dismissed after the jury left the room, Wheeler again denied their motion for acquittal. On Friday morning, the jury will receive instructions and then get the case to be deliberated, with a verdict possible prior to the long weekend.

___

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.

Peter Schorsch

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises Media and is the publisher of FloridaPolitics.com, INFLUENCE Magazine, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. Previous to his publishing efforts, Peter was a political consultant to dozens of congressional and state campaigns, as well as several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella. Follow Peter on Twitter @PeterSchorschFL.


2 comments

  • Ned Ryerson

    May 27, 2022 at 6:04 am

    Thanks for the clear and detailed synopsis.

  • Jane America

    May 31, 2022 at 6:59 am

    Thanks for the detailed report!

    Curious to see if Katie flips on Charlie, if the state can offer her a deal at this point.

    Please also keep us posted on the grandparents visitation stuff… A shame that Wendi got the south Florida life she wanted, but still felt the need to erase the boys father from their lives with the name changes and excluding the grandparents from their lives.

Comments are closed.


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