Matriarch is charged with arranging her ex-son-in-law's death, 1 week after son convicted of murder

The matriarch of a wealthy South Florida family has been arrested on charges that she arranged her ex-son-in-law's murder

Terry Spencer
Tuesday 14 November 2023 20:14 GMT

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Louise Thomas

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The matriarch of a South Florida family who made their fortune practicing dentistry has been arrested at Miami International Airport on charges of orchestrating the hit-man murder of her ex-son-in-law, one week after her oral surgeon son was convicted on the same first-degree murder charge.

Authorities said Donna Adelson, 73, was arrested Monday night as she and her husband were about to use one-way tickets to board a flight to Dubai and Vietnam, countries that do not have an extradition treaty with the United States. She is charged with arranging the 2014 murder of Florida State University law professor Daniel Markel, who was shot in the head inside his Tallahassee garage.

Leon County State Attorney Jack Campbell said in a Tuesday phone interview that while he believes his prosecutors already had enough evidence to convict Adelson before Monday, plans for her arrest had to be accelerated when investigators learned of her plans to leave the country.

“It was going to be complicated and really difficult trying to bring them back, depending on where they ended up in the world,” Campbell said. “The arrest was not just based on the flight, but that played a part in the timing.”

Adelson was being held Tuesday at the Miami-Dade County Jail without bail pending her transfer to Tallahassee. Jail records do not show if she has an attorney, but she has long denied involvement in the killing.

Her son, Dr. Charlie Adelson, was convicted last week of arranging Markel's shooting through a girlfriend, Katie Magbanua. She employed her ex-husband and his friend, both members of the notorious Latin Kings gang, to murder Markel, 41.

Magbanua and her ex-husband, Sigfredo Garcia, are serving life sentences after being convicted earlier of first-degree murder. His friend, Luis Rivera, is serving a 19-year sentence after pleading guilty to second-degree murder and testifying against the others.

Charlie Adelson, 47, faces a mandatory life term when sentenced next month.

Markel had been involved in a bitter custody battle with his ex-wife, lawyer Wendi Adelson, and had gotten a court order barring her move from Tallahassee back to South Florida with their two young sons.

Authorities say the Adelsons offered Markel $1 million to let his ex-wife and sons move, but when he refused Charlie Adelson and other members of the family began plotting his death.

During his trial, it was shown that Charlie Adelson paid Magbanua $138,000, which she split with the killers, and the family then gave her a no-show job at their dental practice and other payments totaling more than $56,000. Charlie Adelson also gave her a used Lexus.

Wendi Adelson and her father, dentist Harvey Adelson, have not been charged, but Campbell said the investigation remains open. They have denied involvement.

Markel was shot while parking in his garage after he dropped his sons off at daycare and visited the gym.

The Adelsons immediately became suspects in Markel's slaying after Wendi Adelson told detectives that the killing could have been arranged on her behalf, saying her parents were “very angry at Markel.” She told them that her brother had joked about hiring a hit man to kill Markel as a divorce gift, but he bought her a TV instead.

Still, the investigation involving local and state agencies and the FBI proceeded slowly.

Investigators were able to track phone records showing numerous calls between Charlie Adelson and Magbanua, her and the killers and Charlie Adelson, his mother and his sister in the hours before and shortly after the killing as well as large monetary transactions between the family and Magbanua. Garcia and Rivera were then linked to a rented Toyota Prius the killers used.

In 2016, an FBI agent, impersonating an extortionist, approached Donna Adelson outside her home and demanded $5,000 to not turn information about the slaying over to investigators. The ruse had been concocted in hopes that it would trigger a reaction from the Adelsons.

She contacted her son, telling him they needed to discuss “some paperwork” and that “you probably have a general idea what I'm talking about.” They led to several calls and meetings between her and her son.

Charlie Adelson was arrested last year after technicians enhanced a recording made of him and Magbanua inside a Mexican restaurant in 2016 while they were under surveillance discussing the extortion attempt.

In the conversation, Adelson told Magbanua that she would need to meet with the extortionist and agree to a one-time payment.

He also told her he wasn't worried about being arrested, but if he thought police had any evidence proving the family orchestrated the slaying, “we would have already gone to the airport.”

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