Just one week after her son was convicted in the hitman murder of her ex-son-in-law, Donna Adelson was taken into custody at Miami International Airport on charges of orchestrating the 2014 killing amid a contentious child custody battle.
Ms Adelson, 73, appeared in court on Tuesday where she was charged with arranging the murder of Dan Markel, a 41-year-old Florida State University law professor who was shot and killed outside his Tallahassee home in 2014.
Last week, Ms Adelson’s oral surgeon son, Dr. Charlie Adelson, 47, was found guilty in Leon County of first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder, and solicitation to commit murder. He faces a mandatory life term when sentenced next month.
The killing was arranged through a girlfriend, Katie Magbanua, who hired her ex-husband Sigfredo “Tuto” Garcia and his friend Latin Kings leader Luis Rivera to carry out the murder. Magbanua and Garcia are serving life sentences and Rivera is serving a 19-year sentence after pleading guilty to second-degree murder and testifying against the others.
Then in a wild twist on Monday night, Ms Adelson became the fourth person to be arrested in the plot, with authorities taking her into custody just as she and her husband were about to board a flight to Vietnam by way of Dubai with one-way tickets. The two countries do not have an extradition treaty with the United States.
The family matriarch had been on prosecutors’ radar for some time, according to Leon County State Attorney Jack Campbell, who told the Associated Press that while he believes his prosecutors already had enough evidence to convict Ms 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,” Mr Campbell said. “The arrest was not just based on the flight, but that played a part in the timing.”
As of Wednesday afternoon, Ms Adelson was being held Tuesday at the Miami-Dade County Jail without bail pending her transfer to Tallahassee.
Prosecutors have repeatedly said Ms Adelson “hated” her former son-in-law Markel, who had been in a bitter custody battle with his ex-wife, lawyer Wendi Adelson. He had a court order barring her move from Tallahassee back to South Florida with their two young sons.
Authorities say the Adelsons offered Markel $1m to let his ex-wife and sons move, but when he refused, Charlie Adelson and other members of the family began plotting his death.
On 18 July 2014, the father of two was gunned down outside his Tallahassee home.
Just 48 hours later, Wendi Adelson and the two boys moved to a house that was within walking distance of the Adelson family home, prosecutors said. She later changed her sons’ last name from Markel to Adelson.
Neither Wendi nor her father, dentist Harvey Adelson, have not been charged, and have always denied involvement.
The Adelsons immediately became suspects following Markel’s murder. Wendi Adelson told detectives that the killing could have been arranged on her behalf, because her parents - including her mother Donna Adelson, were “very angry at Markel.”
An investigation was launched and in 2016, an FBI agent, impersonating an extortionist, approached Donna Adelson outside her home and demanded $5,000 to not turn information about the shooting over to investigators.
This sparked a slew of calls and meetings between Ms Adelson and her son. In the first call, she told him they needed to discuss “some paperwork” and that “you probably have a general idea what I’m talking about.”
And in a key email sent in July 2013, she told her daughter “It’s time to take control of your life and not let Jibbers think he’s just ‘won’ anything by having you remain in Tallahassee, eight hours away from the only family you have, and lose out on what will be a job that will afford you and your children advantages that they will never otherwise be able to enjoy.”
“Let’s show this [expletive] what will make him absolutely miserable,” the email continued. “You know his weak points; money, religion, control.”
“You have 5 weeks before your court date,” she wrote, underlining that text. “I know you have a hob that keeps you very busy. However, the rest of your life, and consequently, dad’s mine and yes, even Charlie’s, will be affected by how well you can perform/act before July 31st.”
During Charlie Adelson’s trial this year, it was revealed in court that he had paid the girlfriend - Magbanua - $138,000 for the hit, which she split with the hitmen. She had also been given a used Lexus, a job at the family’s dental practice, payments totaling more than $56,000.
Magbanua, had previously joked about hiring a hitman to kill Markel as a divorce gift, but he bought her a TV instead.
Charlie Adelson was arrested last year after he was spotted on video inside a Mexican restaurant with Magbanua, as they discussed how she would need to meet with the extortionist and agree to a one-time payment.