Charlie Adelson trial Day 4 Part 1: Exactly 10 years ago, Adelson first solicited Magbanua to kill Dan Markel

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Cool, calm, collected Corbitt.

On Monday, prosecutor Sarah Kathryn Dugan and Sargeant Chris Corbitt engaged in what one legal expert, Carl Steinbeck, described as the “most brilliant and effective prosecutor-witness dialogue I’ve ever seen on something so complex.”

Corbitt analyzed an extraordinary trove of evidence detailing the whereabouts and communications patterns between various conspirators including this defendant in this case, Charlie Adelson, his sister Wendi Adelson, parents Donna and Harvey Adelson and the three people they allegedly hired — Sigfredo “Tuto” Garcia, Katherine Magbanua and Luis Rivera.

On cross-examination this morning, defense attorney Dan Rashbaum began by asking Corbitt why the state had waited so long to arrest Charlie if they had all of this data available for years. He then went on to suggest alternative theories for why these individuals would be talking to one another extensively overall and on specific days of interest, such as the first hit attempt in June, the day of the murder, and the next day when money was exchanged.

It was the filibuster equivalent of a defense strategy, yielding little. Corbitt was unflappable, responding to defense questions with details and a disposition that clarified what the defense had seemingly attempted to confuse.

Bumping Donna

The initial encounter between Donna and an undercover FBI agent has been talked about since 2016, and the video of their exchange has become familiar to those following the case over the years. That undercover, Oscar Jimenez Jr., appeared as a witness today. Jimenez had been a Special Agent with the FBI for over two decades. At the time of the bump, he was working in the violent crimes squad. Under direct examination by prosecutor Georgia Cappleman, Jimenez shared how “bumps” are used by law enforcement to solicit information or generate discussion for wiretap.

When asked what his specific task was in this case, Jimenez replied he had been instructed to approach Donna on the street and hand her a flyer that included a photo of Dan Markel within a newspaper article about his murder. Handwritten on the flyer was a request for $5,000 and a phone number, his undercover line. Upon approaching Donna, Jimenez presented himself as a “brother” of Rivera and says that Rivera needs the Adelson family’s help, saying he knows they have been helping Katie and Tuto in exchange for their role in Markel’s murder.

While the testimony by Jimenez was straightforward, the sequence of events that ultimately followed the 2016 bump were lively and significant, including the notorious recordings captured by FBI at Dolce Vita and Matsuri.

Enhanced audio

The next witness, Keith McElveen is a forensic engineer. Over his 35-year career, he has developed a specific expertise to “take audio, video, computer data, and try to restore it or enhance it.” This is what McElveen did with the audio captured by the FBI at Dolce Vita and Matsuri, a sushi restaurant where Charlie and Harvey met shortly after the bump.

In the “Dolce” recording, McElveen attributed the poor audio quality to a few factors: distance, noise and the configuration of the equipment. One device had been propped against a bench, creating interference. Music was playing in the restaurant and kitchen noises were intruding. To adjust for that, McElveen’s methodology was designed to get a “lock” on a particular voice and learn to read for those rather than other sounds.

Rashbaum’s cross-examination of McElveen first focused on the first 20 or so minutes of the recording, which he characterized as “missing.” McElveen pushed back, saying he didn’t know how long the “conversational participants” had been engaging with one another before the recorder began but that nothing was missing. Then, Rashbaum asked for clarification about why Katie’s voice wasn’t as audible as Charlie’s.

“The female participant talked very seldomly,” McElveen replied. “She seemed to talk less.”

“The male voice was stronger,” McElveen had told jurors in Katie’s trial in 2022, “He (Charlie) was talking toward the general direction of the device that was capturing the audio” compared with Katie who was talking softly and away from the device.

It wasn’t only the FBI agents who had trouble hearing Katie’s voice. McElveen pointed out that at multiple times in their encounter, Charlie asked her, “What?” suggesting that even right next to Katie, he was straining to hear.

A terrible 10-year anniversary and other family drama

Special Agent Patrick Sanford returned to the witness stand today to provide testimony regarding voluminous intercepted conversations between Charlie Adelson and other members of the conspiracy.

Before the wiretap discussion began, Cappleman wanted to clear a few things up through Sanford.

Most poignantly, she asked Sanford about the difficulties that the Markel family have experienced in seeing their grandsons. Wendi blatantly lied in her testimony last week, claiming that the Markels have easy access to Benjamin and Lincoln, and are permitted to visit the boys whenever they ask to — which is patently false.

In reality, Wendi cut off contact between Dan’s parents, Ruth and Phil and Dan’s two sons, immediately after the first set of arrests happened in 2016 when her family was implicated publicly by law enforcement. It wasn’t until the Markels succeeded in advancing legislation to change Florida law — which coincided with what was about to be Katie’s retrial in 2022 — that Wendi opened the door for a visit between the Markels and the boys.

“After Wendi got skewered at the first trial for not allowing any visits, she allowed some visits?” Cappleman asked to which Sanford agreed, over defense objections.

Indeed, Sanford shared, authorities even delayed the grand jury indictment of Charlie so that the Markels would be able to complete this visit — the first they would have had in six years — thinking that Charlie’s arrest might lead Wendi to retract the offer. This concern was well-founded. After Charlie’s arrest, Wendi quickly uninvited the Markels from attending Benjamin’s bar mitzvah.

Cappleman then asked Sanford why it was important for Corbitt to note the timing of a specific text message between Charlie and Donna, where Charlie says that he got Wendi to agree to “pull the plug” on buying a house in Tallahassee.

Was that same “date that Charlie Adelson first approached Katherine Magbanua about harming Dan Markel?” Cappleman asked.

“Yes,” Sanford explained — it was exactly 10 years ago from today, Oct. 31, 2013, when this solicitation began and when Wendi decided she wouldn’t need to buy a house in Tallahassee after all.

“Obviously, don’t talk in the apartment or any place …”

Cappleman and Sanford then moved on to the wiretaps.

While most wire recordings of note occurred after the FBI bump, one call occurred just prior on April 15, 2016 — a time when the family had no reason to believe they were being listened to. In this call, Donna and Charlie are talking with one another about Wendi’s then-boyfriend David Aitel, and how they were both attempting to intervene to encourage Wendi to stay in that relationship.

In this, Charlie refers to Wendi as having “won the lotto” and describes his sister as a “trust fund baby” who hasn’t had to work for what she has, while Donna says that David could be “the father they [the boys] never had.” Charlie tells his mother he’s uniquely suited to influence Wendi, despite also saying, “I feel like punching her and then hitting her over the head.”

Listening to this exchange, the jury also got a small taste of this defendant’s character, at least when it comes to women. “Why would I date a 37-year-old when I could date a 25-year-old?” he states to his mother. This call, and one other between Charlie and Donna about a job offer Wendi had, contradict Wendi’s account that her mother and brother weren’t meddlesome in her life. 

Moving on to the bump, Sanford provided insight on why it was Donna the FBI chose to approach.

“We had noticed the pattern of calls,” Sanford explained, “We wanted to start on one end and see if it would travel that same line.”

Jurors were then shown a video of the bump itself, in which the undercover references “Katie” — a choice investigators made in order to let the family know it wasn’t “random” but from someone who really knew what happened. The undercover never says “ex-girlfriend” and actually never says Charlie’s name or anything about Donna’s son.

Even so, Donna’s first call after the bump was to Charlie — who proceeded to call her back two more times after, for a series of three sequential calls. In these, Donna tells Charlie she was approached on the street, given paperwork, and that it related to “the two of us” and an “ex-girlfriend.”

When pressed by Charlie about whether she was being blackmailed, Donna replied that it was possible — and that “this TV would be about five” — meaning $5,000 — a coded phrase that refers back to Charlie having bought Wendi a TV as a divorce gift because it was “cheaper than a hit man” and the fact that this very TV was being repaired on the morning of the murder.

Charlie also advises his mother, “Don’t talk in the apartment or any place …” and Donna repeatedly suggests she’s uncomfortable talking on the phone.

In none of these first three calls does Donna ever mention Dan Markel’s name, “Jibbers” or anything to do with the case. And most importantly, Donna also never says the name “Katie” to Charlie.

Nevertheless, Charlie only calls Katie, telling her in basic terms what Donna had shared with him. He says he was only calling her because she was his “last ex-girlfriend” — which is false, as Charlie had multiple relationships following that with Katie. The two then made plans to meet up the following day at the Dolce Vita restaurant.

In prior trials, the transcript from this meeting was not provided to the jury — as no participant in the call was willing to review it and attest to its accuracy. In this trial, however, Katie did just that. Jurors were able to see a transcript of the conversation while listening to McElveen’s enhanced audio. Here’s a few things the jury heard and saw:

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 …

Katie: “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: “Hey, you know who this is coming from? Inside.”

And, quite telling, considering what we know about how the killers rented a car for their fateful drive to kill Markel, Charlie said this to reassure Katie:

Charlie: “You’ve got to understand, in order to prove it, you have to put that person at the scene at the time; not in the car. Because the fact is, it’s, like, even if, let’s say you just sat in the car, right? And then I go ahead, and I commit a crime. And then I go but your DNA is in the car. And I go, Yeah, Katie was in my car, and she got out and she did this horrible crime. OK, so then they come and get the DNA in the car and go, oh, Katie was in the car. No, Katie sat in the car for two minutes and they got in the AC and then they got out of the car. Katie has nothing to do with me robbing the Burger King. So even if I can prove that, yeah, Katie was with me, can you put Katie at the Burger King? I can put Katie … I can say that she sat in the car, yeah. What you need to do is get that little bit of evidence from you having been in the car and then they bring you into an interrogation; they’re, like, Listen, we know that you were in that fucking car, and you were in that car such and such day. We know we’ve got your DNA    even if your DNA, your fingerprints, your fucking hair is all over that fuckin car, umm, that proves, yeah, congratulations, you were in the car. It’s not a crime to sit in the car, OK? You know what I mean? My mom could have sat in the car, too. It’s not a crime. They have to prove … they have to put you at the scene at the date.”

Sanford sat calm and humble, listening as intently as the jurors were despite his deep familiarity with the case. The FBI veteran was stoic even while hearing Charlie tell Katie about who might come knocking if anyone goes to the authorities about the bump:

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 instructed Katie to call the phone number that the undercover gave his mother, telling Katie to say that his family was willing to pay up one time to “help” the man as “charity.” This request set into motion an extensive series of calls between Katie and Garcia, Katie and Charlie, and Charlie and Donna.

___

Florida Politics provides ongoing coverage of the Markel murder case, which is drawing international media attention to Florida’s capital city. Our reporting draws from sources including contributor Karen Cyphers of Sachs Media, who, with attorney Jason Solomon, advocates with the grassroots group “Justice for Dan” to draw attention to the case and provide analysis relevant 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.


One comment

  • Earl Pitts "Earl Knows Best" American

    October 31, 2023 at 8:00 pm

    Again – had this been a “B” on “B” crime this side-show would have been shut down and swept under the rug of history eight years ago.
    All you Black & White Democratic Lock-Step voters know the above statement is true. But you plan to vote Democrat again. Sigh …. Sigh
    EPA

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