The Dan Markel Case: An Interview With Steven Epstein
A litigator turned bestselling true-crime author, Steve Epstein has written the definitive work about Professor Markel's remarkable life and tragic death.
On the morning of July 18, 2014, Dan Markel pulled into his garage in the upscale Betton Hills neighborhood of Tallahassee, where he was a law professor at Florida State University. Seconds later, the 41-year-old father of two was shot twice in the head. Taken to the hospital, he was pronounced dead less than 12 hours later.
Dan Markel was a friend of mine. We worked together as editors of the Harvard Crimson in the 1990s, and we reconnected in the early 2000s as the founders of two prominent legal blogs, PrawfsBlawg for him and Above the Law for me.
As both a friend of Dan’s and a journalist covering the legal profession, I have closely followed the years-long quest to bring his killers—all of his killers—to justice. And so has litigator turned bestselling true-crime writer Steven B. Epstein, author of Extreme Punishment: The Chilling True Story of Acclaimed Law Professor Dan Markel's Murder. As I write in the foreword, “Meticulously researched and beautifully written, Extreme Punishment is now the definitive account of Dan’s life and death, the standard against which all future tellings will be measured.”
I invited Steve to join me as the third guest of the Original Jurisdiction podcast. We talked about what inspired him to tackle the Markel case, how he went about researching and writing the book, his email correspondence with Dan’s ex-wife Wendi Adelson (who some suspect of playing a role in the murder), and his predictions for what might happen next in the case. To listen, please click on the embed at the top of this post.
Extreme Punishment: The Chilling True Story of Acclaimed Law Professor Dan Markel's Murder, Amazon
Extreme Punishment: The Chilling True Story of Acclaimed Law Professor Dan Markel's Murder, Barnes & Noble
Steven B. Epstein: True Crime Writer, author website
Steve Epstein bio, Poyner Spruill LLP
Prefer reading to listening? A transcript of the entire episode appears below.
Two quick notes:
This transcript has been cleaned up from the audio in ways that don’t alter meaning—e.g., by deleting verbal filler or adding a word here or there to clarify meaning.
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David Lat: Hello, and welcome to the Original Jurisdiction podcast. I’m your host, David Lat, author of a Substack newsletter about law and the legal profession also named Original Jurisdiction, which you can read and subscribe to by visiting davidlat.substack.com.
You’re listening to the third episode of this podcast, recorded one week ago, on Wednesday, October 12. My normal schedule is to post episodes every other Wednesday.
For the first episode, I interviewed Alex Spiro of Quinn Emanuel, one of the nation’s top trial lawyers. For the second episode, I interviewed Paul Clement of Clement Murphy, one of the nation’s top appellate and Supreme Court lawyers.
At the end of the second episode, I mentioned this third episode would be a bit different, and it is. Like my first two guests, my latest guest is a friend, but he has made his name outside the realm of practice.
Steven B. Epstein is a lawyer turned bestselling true-crime writer. After earning his bachelor’s and law degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, both with highest honors, he clerked for Judge Earl Britt in the Eastern District of North Carolina. After a few years in legal academia, Steve turned to civil litigation, practicing for more than 30 years and handling dozens of trials and appeals in federal and state courts. Since 2010, he has been a partner at Poyner Spruill in Raleigh, North Carolina.
But I had Steve on the show not to chat about his legal career, but his career as a writer. In 2019, he published his first true-crime book, Murder on Birchleaf Drive: The True Story of the Michelle Young Murder Case, which became a #1 bestseller on Amazon in the true-crime genre. In 2020, he published his second book, Evil at Lake Seminole, about the murder of Mike Williams in Tallahassee. And this month, October 2022, Steve published his third book, Extreme Punishment: The Chilling True Story of Acclaimed Law Professor Dan Markel’s Murder.
As many of my listeners and readers know, this is a case to which I have a personal connection. Dan Markel was a friend of mine from college, when we worked together for the Harvard Crimson, and we reconnected as early entrants to the field of legal blogging, when he founded PrawfsBlawg and I founded Above the Law.
In 2014, Dan was brutally murdered, shot in the head after pulling into his garage. Dan’s murder—and the years-long quest to bring all of his killers to justice, which is not yet over—is the subject of Steve’s book, Extreme Punishment. As I write in the foreword, “Meticulously researched and beautifully written, Extreme Punishment is now the definitive account of Dan’s life and death, the standard against which all future tellings will be measured.”
Without further ado, here’s my interview of Steve Epstein.
DL: Welcome to the podcast, Steve, and congratulations on the publication of Extreme Punishment, which I think is some of your best work yet. And on behalf of those of us who knew and cared about Dan, thank you for writing it. Before we dive into the book, can you introduce yourself to the readers—or listeners, I should say?
Steve Epstein: Sure—and thank you for those kind words, David. For those who don't know, you've been along this ride with me for the last couple of years. I appreciate all of your encouragement. I appreciate the foreword to the book, which is beautiful, and I’m thrilled that that’s the introduction my readers are going to have to my writing, so thank you for all of that.
I'm a native of New York. I grew up mostly on Long Island. I then went south to go to college at the University of North Carolina and decided to stay there for law school. I clerked for a federal judge in the Eastern District of North Carolina. A couple years later, after I was done with the judge, I was off to the University of Illinois, where I was actually teaching on the University of Illinois law faculty for just two years. I've been back in North Carolina ever since 1996, when I finished up at Illinois, and I've been practicing law ever since then at two different private law firms. And as you said, I've also written three books.
DL: And what is the focus of your legal practice, or what has it been over the years?
SE: I was a civil litigator. I started as a personal injury lawyer and then became more of a commercial civil litigator, mostly on the defense side, mostly working for self-insured large corporations. Then over the years, I drifted into actually doing family law, which is about two-thirds of my practice now, and has been the majority of my practice for the last eight years.
DL: As I mentioned in the foreword, you have multiple connections to this story, which we'll explore in a minute. But before we do that, for those of my readers who are not familiar with the subject of your book, Extreme Punishment, which is the murder of law professor Dan Markel—many of my readers are familiar with it, but for those who are not—can you give a quick overview of what this case is about?
SE: Sure, and we'll start with the subject of the book, Dan Markel. Dan was a young, very hungry, very intellectually gifted law professor when he joined the Florida State faculty in 2005. He had two Harvard degrees, undergraduate and law school. He had a master's degree from the University of Cambridge. He was also somebody who took his Judaism very seriously, so that was part of his DNA. And he was very successful as a law professor.
He was married to a woman named Wendi Adelson, who was from South Florida. Dan himself was from Canada, which is where he grew up—he actually never became an American citizen before his death, he was a Canadian. Wendi Adelson grew up in South Florida in a town called Coral Springs, which isn't too terribly far from Miami, and they wound up becoming a couple while Wendi was still a law student at the University of Miami, while Dan was practicing law at a boutique firm in Washington, D.C.
Wendi actually went to Florida State with Dan when he got his gig as an assistant law professor, and Wendi finished up law school at Florida State University. Even though her degree says University of Miami, she actually finished up in classrooms in which Dan was teaching law school at Florida State.
On July 18th, 2014, which is when my book actually begins—in fact, that's part of the title to chapter one—Dan was murdered by a gunman who showed up in his garage, shortly after he had dropped his two young boys off at preschool and gone to the gym for a workout. Two bullets penetrated the front window of his car and went straight into his head. He was pronounced dead at the hospital, Tallahassee Memorial Hospital, about one o'clock the next morning.
So this is a story about Dan's life, Wendi's life, and how that all led to that fateful morning, and then the march to justice that has literally been going on now for eight-plus years, with four different people involved in this crime now behind bars—three convicted, one awaiting trial—and a significant possibility of more arrests and convictions later on.
DL: That's an excellent overview of this really tragic, horrific event. And for those of us who knew Dan, it was just insane. As I write in the foreword, he was a law professor. He was part of our legal-nerd circles. I knew him from college because we worked on the Harvard Crimson together. I reconnected with him in the mid-2000s because we were legal bloggers.
I remember the morning, that July morning, where there was just furious calling, texting, Facebook messaging among his friends, saying, did you hear what happened to Dan, did you hear what happened to Dan? And we just could not, for the life of us, figure out who would want to kill our friend who was a law professor. It just seemed so crazy….
SE: And it was. And so investigators who started investigating this crime, literally within an hour of the shooting, were faced with this very puzzling dilemma: why would someone want to kill this 41-year-old, extremely successful law professor, who had made hundreds if not thousands of friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, across the legal academy and across the world? He was enormously popular. He was extremely well-known. Who would want to kill him?
DL: What I would add there is—as I've written in Above the Law and Original Jurisdiction covering Dan, as your biographical portrait of him makes really clear—he was a very complex guy. He wasn't boring, he wasn't vanilla, some people he didn't rub the right way. He had strong opinions. He was outspoken. But again, to us it just seemed that there was nobody who'd want to kill him. It just seemed like such a crazy thing.
I will pause here for any listeners whose interest has been piqued by the discussion so far. Feel free to hop off the podcast at this point and get the book, Extreme Punishment by Steven B. Epstein, and you can always tune back in after you've had the chance to read the rest of it.
Now, for those of us who are familiar with the case, let's take a deeper dive. We talked about or alluded briefly to your personal connections to this story. What inspired you to tackle the Dan Markel murder for your third?
SE: Well, it's a story I really didn't initially want to write because I had just written a book about Tallahassee. I'm not from Tallahassee. I've been there a few times. My daughter was actually very interested in attending Florida State University. We visited Florida State University. She wanted to be a theater major. She wanted to audition there, and she was crushed to not be invited to give a live audition at Florida State University. She wound up at the University of Alabama.
But you know, even then I noticed some things about Florida State. We actually did go down there when a friend of hers was in a play in production down there, and it's very interesting how seedy it is. It's almost like Yale, which you have a little familiarity with—it’s odd that a university of that stature is in a town where, literally once you walk off campus, you don't feel safe. And that's definitely true about Tallahassee. It's got this very unique vibe to it for a capital city of the third-largest state.
So I didn't want to write another story about a murder that happened to somebody who lived in Tallahassee. But the mother of the victim of my second story, Cheryl Williams, who is a fantastic human being—and I encourage you also to read my second book, Evil at Lake Seminole, where you’ll learn a whole lot more about this incredibly courageous woman—we continued having conversations long after I finished that book. She's been a fan, she's been a friend, and she's been a confidant. And we were talking about what I was going to write next, and I was literally searching for the right true-crime story to write next when she encouraged me to think about writing about Dan Markel.
At that point, all I knew about this story was stuff I gleaned from reading the pages of the Tallahassee Democrat, which I was doing as part of my research for Evil at Lake Seminole. And so I knew just a little bit about this law professor who was killed, and there was a suspicion that maybe his wife's family was involved, and I knew that there had been a trial, and that's literally all I knew.
And then mysteriously within a couple of days of speaking with Cheryl and her encouraging me to write this story, on my DVR—we have Direct TV—on my DVR in my saved shows, a Dateline appeared, a Dateline about the Dan Markel murder. I don't know how it got there to this day, but I was like, okay, this is a sign, this is a sign from God. I'm going to watch the Dateline episode.
I watched it, and I was mesmerized. And the thing that led me in the next direction was one of the talking heads, a guy named Matt Shaer. Matt did a podcast, which a lot of your listeners probably have listened to, called Over My Dead Body—sort of like the Serial podcast that is now getting a lot of attention because the person who was convicted of that crime in Serial has just been exonerated, released from jail after nearly 20 years. Well, this podcast sounded a whole lot like it had the production value of Serial, Over My Dead Body, and I listened to all eight episodes, and I was absolutely at that point convinced this was a book that I was meant to write.
And so I started, and I reached out to Matt Shaer to get some assistance, I reached out to you because you were also interviewed in that podcast, and then I literally just started figuring out who was involved, sending emails. I made a visit to Tallahassee. I met with Dan Markel's next-door neighbor, Jim Geiger, who was the person who found him slumped over behind the steering wheel of his Honda Accord, the fateful morning of July 18th, 2014. I started realizing the enormity of Dan's circle of friends, and I basically had to start picking and choosing who I was going to talk to because there were far too many to interview. I wound up interviewing probably three dozen or so of Dan's friends, and then all of the lawyers involved in the case, and on and on and on.
DL: One thing people will be curious about is did you reach out to or hear from Wendi Adelson, Dan's ex-wife—who some have suspected of involvement in the murder, other people have disagreed—but did you ever hear from her?
SE: Yes, I did. So I actually have [these emails] in front of me, because I want to get it exactly accurate. At some point I wanted to reach out to Wendi's circle of friends, which was a lot smaller [than Dan’s], and easily identify who the people were who I needed to talk to. The first person I reached out to is a woman named Jane McPherson, who was a Ph.D. candidate in the school of social work at Florida State. Why did I want to talk to her? She actually wound up in the interrogation room with Wendi the day Dan was shot, and she was there for about half an hour, and some of what happened during the time she was there was very significant, so I wanted to talk with her.
I also wanted to talk with somebody who was a professor on the main campus named Daniel Sack. Ironically, Daniel Sack became Wendi's boyfriend not long after she broke up with Dan Markel—so the two Dans. And so I reached out to both Daniel Sack, who by that point was a professor in Massachusetts, and Jane McPherson, who I think at that point was a professor in Georgia, because their emails were easily accessible from their faculty websites.
I began both emails—and this is significant—“My apology for this intrusion.” Each of the emails I started that way, and I explained who I was, explained I was working on a book about Dan Markel. I didn't hear from either of them. This was March 20th, 2021, it was a Saturday.
So that Monday morning, at 10:53 a.m., I had this surprise email in my inbox, and all I could see in my inbox was only the name of the person sending me the email and the subject line, I saw the name was Wendi Adelson and the subject line was “Central character.” And it began, “Dear Steve,” and here are the magic words: “My apology for the intrusion”—which right away I found to be somewhat passive-aggressive.
It's quite clear she was literally stealing my words that I used in the emails to her friends, Jane McPherson and Daniel Sack. She continued, “My apology for the intrusion, but my friends”—and I knew who they were—“have contacted me about your interview requests. As a central character in your writing, I am curious why you haven't contacted me. Most sincerely, Wendi.” As if we were on a first-name basis.
I had never had any communications with her up until that point, and the reason I didn't is I knew full well she wasn't going to talk to me. She is implicated, certainly her family is implicated, in the murder of Dan Markel. There's no way she's going to talk to me. So I didn't reach out to her, and I literally said in response to her email, calling her bluff—and I knew it was a bluff—I said, “I didn't think you would talk to me, but if you are interested in talking to me, of course I would love to talk to you, and I won't talk with you about anything related to the murder. I'm interested in your background. I'm interested in growing up in Coral Springs, the relationship you had with your brothers. I'm interested in your appearance on The Weakest Link. So if you're interested in talking to about those things, by all means, let's chat.”
And not surprisingly, I never heard another word from Wendi Adelson. But for some reason I decided, you know what? I'm going to reach out to her again. And I did in October, so some seven months had passed since my interaction with Wendi that she instigated, I didn’t instigate, and I decided to push her a little bit and said, you know, I hadn't heard from her and I was wondering if she had actually gotten my email. And she responded within 15 minutes, and within 15 minutes she said, “Steve, you do not have my consent to use my identity and trauma for your own profit. Best, Wendi.”
DL: “Best.” And I totally agree with you about the wording, the replication of “apologies for the intrusion.” She's trolling you. She's saying, I've got your number, and the people you're reaching out to, they're loyal to me, and I know what you're doing. She's yanking your chain, isn't she?
SE: Yes. And if you pay close attention to her testimony in both trials [of Katie Magbanua], she does that quite a bit. She has little words and little phrases that just, you know, they're needling. She has this habit of needling.
In talking with people who were mutual friends of Dan and Wendi's, that's what they said about her, is that she would needle them about little things. Like one of Dan's friends was a little bit short, and she would needle him about his height—not really appropriate, but as her way of one-upping him, she would bring up his height. And she was friends with him.
I don't think she considers me a friend, and she was doing more than needling me. She was effing with me, in my view, with her emails and reaching out and calling herself the “central character.”
Yes, she is a central character in my book. There's tons of information about Wendi Adelson in my book that I learned from all kinds of sources, not the least of which is Wendi's own writing, Wendi's own CV, which I was able to find, and then friends of Wendi's that I was able to talk with. So you'll learn a whole lot about Wendi Adelson, and you'll learn a whole lot about growing up Adelson in this book.
DL: I thought her veiled threat was really a bit disingenuous because she's a smart lawyer, she knows you're a smart lawyer, she knows that this story is in the public domain, she knows the laws about privacy and defamation, and so the notion that you had to get her consent to write about something that is already out there—as long as you're writing stuff that is true, and your work is very heavily researched—that struck me as a bit rich.
SE: Yeah, but it tells you a lot about Wendi Adelson, that it doesn't matter that I would've recognized right away that her threat meant nothing—which of course I did, I chuckled when I read it and then reread it to my wife and reread to all kinds of other people who also chuckled—that of course she knew that I didn't need her permission in order to write about her, as zillions of other publications have. I’m very careful and very diligent, and I’m confident that everything that I've said in this book is true and well-researched
DL: It's interesting—I will say also, just as a testament to the book, I think that the biographical chapter of Wendi is very fair and does not paint some negative or nasty picture. It's not a hatchet job. I think that you are trying to get inside her world, just as in the earlier biographical chapter about Dan, you tried to get inside his world. I think that later things develop, and we learn more about members of her family who are, shall we say, problematic. But I thought your chapter was very fair. I did not think you were out to get her or something.
SE: If Wendi Adelson was a hideous, despicable monster, why would Dan Markel have fallen in love with her? Why would Dan Markel have married her and had two kids with her and have been beside himself with grief when she left? The notion that she's this horrible, despicable person, or this completely unintelligent person, doesn't make any sense. You have to understand why Dan was so head-over-heels in love with her in order to understand this story.
This story is a love story about the two of them. And when that love fell apart, it's a story about what happens from there and why this becomes not just Wendi's mission, but her parents' mission, and her brother's mission, to do something about the fact that she lives seven hours apart from where she really wants to be and where they want her to be.
That's what this story's really about. As a family-law attorney, we call that relocation. And Wendi tried her very best, mostly at the urging of her family, to relocate with the children to South Florida, so that they would have more access to both Wendi and the boys. And she failed. And the question then became, well, what now?
Now we know the answer. Extreme Punishment is all about the answer, but you have to know the antecedents. You have to know the seeds of what happened, both in terms of the good and the relationship that was good for a long time between Dan and Wendi, and then how that relationship soured, and why it soured, and why the in-laws started getting involved.
And understanding about Rob Adelson, Wendi's older brother, and how his parents got involved in his relationship, is a really telling part of this picture about how those parents of the Adelson children couldn't help themselves from being involved and completely overly involved in what was going on in their children's love lives.
DL: One thing I'm curious about… when I talk about this case to people, they say, “Well, this sounds”—again, I've used this term multiple times in our conversation, but—“this sounds insane.” This is a family of well-to-do dentists, they're well-educated and they have significant assets and real estate investments, and they have lot to lose. And sure, divorces and custody battles and relocation battles can get acrimonious, but would a family that is this well-established and well-respected and well-to-do, would they really hire hit men to take out their former son-in-law? I think your book does a brilliant job of explaining how things came to that point, but can you give a short overview just to anyone who says, “I can't even believe this story, Steve, you're pulling my leg. This is ridiculous.” How did it come to this?
SE: Well, the most telling pieces of evidence, if you're trying to follow the line from, okay, it's a simple divorce, and Dan and Wendi are going their own separate ways, and they're trying to figure out what to do with the boys and custody and all of that, the line from there to two bullets in Dan's head, you can't get there without really understanding four emails that were sent from Donna Adelson to Wendi Adelson, both before and after the relocation battle.
[They make] very clear that Donna believed that there was no limit to what needed to be done in order to make sure that Wendi was able to move to South Florida with those boys—convert the kids to Catholicism, put them in church, have a Christian tutor, teach them about Jesus, make your Facebook photo, Wendi, a picture of the boys and you in front of a church. The goal was to get into Dan's head and make him believe these boys were going to be taken away from him one way or another. And his best bet was to do it amicably and peacefully by allowing them to relocate to South Florida, and he could deal with it then. There were places he could go there. He had a great uncle who lived there. He could stay with him. And Dan actually gave a little bit of thought to that from friends I talked to. Dan didn't consider that completely out of the question. But ultimately he decided this is my life, I've built a life here in Tallahassee. I like my life here in Tallahassee. Wendi actually has a good life here in Tallahassee. She's also on the Florida State faculty, albeit as a clinical faculty member. There's nothing wrong with both of us living here and raising these boys together. And I want to do that in a loving way, and my goal is to do that with Wendi and co-parenting with her.
But the Adelsons didn't see it that way. The Adelsons saw Dan standing in the way of what they wanted. They were willing to spend a million dollars to bribe him to bring the boys to South Florida. And what's notable is that every time they were trying to do these despicable things, it was Wendi who had to play this role, and Donna told her, “You need to do this great acting job. You're a great actress when you want to be, you need to do this for us. It's going to be best for you. It's going to be best for the kids. Put on the best acting job of your life, sweetheart.”
And what's notable is Wendi refused. She didn't do that. She wouldn't go along with the bribe. She wouldn't do her acting job. She lost the relocation battle. And now you're getting closer from just a simple divorce to two bullets in the head of the person standing in the way of the relocation.
DL: She lost the relocation battle. The judge denied her motion to move six, seven hours closer to family. The other ploys that were suggested by Donna, [Wendi] didn't attempt or they didn't work. And so I think then you do get a little bit closer. You can kind of see how it got to this situation.
SE: And let me add one more thing. Dan was doing his own legal writing. He had two different lawyers, and they literally were signing their names to the briefs that he was preparing. In family law—and I can say this because I'm a family law attorney—you don't write briefs to judges that have 47 footnotes that basically are half of each page, or dense footnotes underneath the line, which is what of course you do in law review articles. But that's the way these briefs were written to this family court judge who had, by the way, just recently been appointed as a family court judge.
[Dan] was writing these vicious, scathing attacks on Wendi and on Donna and Harvey, telling the judge that the parents were footing the bill [for the litigation], they were interfering, and telling [the judge] that Wendi was being dishonest, that in fact she should be sanctioned for all of her dishonesty. He came up with every adjective in the book to describe her and her lawyer, even at one point getting the point of suggesting to his friends that he was going to seek to have them disbarred.
So all of these things he was saying about the Adelson family, not surprisingly, the Adelson family clearly took very personally. And then the last straw, which has been widely reported, is that in his final motion before he was killed, Dan asked the judge to take away visitation between Donna and her grandchildren, and that the only visitation she should be permitted to have would be supervised.
Wendi testified at both trials [of Katie Magbanua] that nobody took that [threat of taking away Donna’s visitation] very seriously. That is impossible for me to believe—having read Donna's attacks on Dan, and also knowing that Donna was losing at every turn, lost the relocation battle, there was a battle over whether Wendi would have a second deposition taken, she lost that battle—Donna was watching, and she was pissed at Wendi's lawyers for not doing a better job. So the notion that Donna Adelson was not concerned about this motion that would result in restricting her access to the grandchildren I find completely farfetched. And that was the last thing that was on the table and never got resolved because, again, two bullets wound up in Dan Markel's head and he was killed.
DL: A lot of us who knew Dan, who were his friends, often wonder what could have averted this, or what [other] paths could have been taken. For example, you talk about how Dan came close to getting positions at other universities, including maybe universities closer to Wendi's family, and they didn't work out. And I think that'll be of interest to a lot of my listeners who are legal academics. You also talk about how this battle was litigated. Do you think that if he had not taken such a scorched-earth approach in the divorce or relocation litigation, maybe this wouldn't have happened? And again, I'm not victim blaming—I'm trying to figure out [if] there were off-ramps to avoid this tragedy, maybe in just different worlds.
SE: Well, certainly if things had worked out differently. In his first year teaching at Florida State, Dan was offered a position at the University of Miami Law School and wound up teaching there in a look-see visitor position in the fall of 2006. By a whisker-thin vote against him, he was denied a position on the permanent faculty. It's interesting, Wendi had a full-year position there. She stayed. Dan went back to Tallahassee to teach at Florida State, licking his wounds and moving on, not having gotten that job. And the person that I spoke to at the University of Miami and remembers that vote vividly, he wakes up at night in a cold sweat because he knows that had that vote gone differently, this awful tragedy probably never would've happened because those grandchildren would've grown up within an hour's drive of Donna and Harvey Adelson. But because they were seven hours away, that was a game changer.
And Donna—I haven't even mentioned this—Donna was driving up after Dan and Wendi broke apart. Donna was driving up, sometimes with Harvey, sometimes on her own, every other weekend. Every time Wendi had the kids, Donna was there. So she was living basically both in Tallahassee and in South Florida, and yet she was the office manager for the dental practice, and Charlie now owned the dental practice, and she didn't think that was fair, and she wrote in her emails that she wanted Wendi's lawyer to say how unfair it was that Donna had to drive up and Harvey had to come, and that the family had to spend all this time in Tallahassee when the easy solution was just to move the children down to where their loving family was. So that was one of the things that could have happened differently.
Dan had three offers, actually, during the first five years he was at Tallahassee. He had three different offers. Take it back four years—he was there for four years, and within those first four years he had three different offers: one at the Washington University in St. Louis, one at Miami, and one at the University of Houston.
Washington University in St. Louis wound up revoking his offer, and that story is told in the book. University of Houston occurred while Wendi was pregnant with Benjamin, and a very pregnant Wendi got on the plane with Dan to explore the University of Houston. Wendi actually described the position she was offered in the immigration law clinic as her dream job, but the timing just wasn't right.
So there are all kinds of things that could have transpired differently. But certainly Dan getting under the Adelsons’ skin—he basically was getting almost as vitriolic in his writing in those legal briefs and legal filings as Donna had been in her emails to Wendi—the acrimony was reaching a level that would've, I think, had a lot of people very upset on both sides. But no one could have predicted that this was how it was going to end.
DL: No. Absolutely. Absolutely. And again, I think in some ways this was a story, terrible as it is, that you were just born to write, having been a matrimonial lawyer, having been a law professor, having been the author of two prior true crime books, one of them set in Tallahassee, the Mike Williams story. So again, I urge readers to check it out.
SE: Yeah. To any of your listeners who have ever been to the “Meat Market” [academic job fair], I'm a three-time veteran myself. I describe the Meat Market in all of its gory detail. And what most people would not even suspect is that Dan was an abject failure at his first Meat Market. He had over two dozen interviews lined up and literally struck out, got nothing. And he learned about himself a lot through that process. And the second time he went through the Meat Market, he actually had a callback interview at Berkeley and came close to getting a teaching position at Berkeley.
So there's a lot in this book about Dan. Dan had many facets to him, some weaknesses, and I don't try and hide Dan's weaknesses. Dan was well aware of his weaknesses and relied on Wendi as his wife to help him through some of his own social quirks—and Wendi did for a while. But that was one of the thingsthat chafed at her, along with how Jewish Dan was compared to the way she was brought up, and many other things. It got to the point where it was clear this marriage was not going to work, and then the thing in the divorce that really set the tone was they had very different ideas, not only about how to be married, but how to be divorced.
Dan felt that the lines between them should be as blurred as possible. Dan felt that the more he was able to see the kids during Wendi's time, the more she was able to see the kids during his time, the more contact that they had with each other, the better off it would be for the kids. And Wendi didn't want that more than she wanted to be hit by a speeding train. She wanted nothing to do with Dan Markel. She realized she had to have something to do with him because they were raising their kids together. But the idea he had, the concept he had about what divorce should look like, could not have been more diametrically opposite as to what she thought divorce should look like. And that was one of the things that was also causing heightened acrimony between the Adelson family and Dan.
DL: You have such incredible details in the book that capture these things. Take the scene where she is thinking of taking the kids to Whole Foods and it's during her time, and then she sees Dan inside and then she says, oh, I don't want to go in there because then we're going to see him and then he's going to want to talk, and then it's going to be like our shared time, and she goes somewhere else.
SE: That was two days before he was shot. That was the Wednesday before the Friday of the shooting.
DL: It's just amazing. One thing I'm curious about—and you do this so well in your other books too—you do all this research, but then what I love really about the writing, and I guess it's also true of the genre of true crime, is it's told in a narrative nonfiction way. It’s told as if we are inside the heads of these protagonists. Is that difficult? And at times, do you find yourself having to take some poetic license to imagine what was going through people's heads? I remember you talk about Wendi putting her hair in a messy bun. And again, I know you can look at these things, you can look at the interview footage from her police station interview, and you can see her hair or what have you. But how do you do this? I think it's amazing.
SE: There is definitely creative license that has to be taken to fill in very small, inconsequential gaps where I, as the writer, clearly don't have access to what was happening in Wendi's home the morning that Dan was shot. I know what she described in her interview with the police investigator, but I have to obviously fill in those gaps a little bit. So I do take creative license with very small things like that. And to the extent that there's dialogue that happens that there's no recording of, there's no transcript of—for instance, when Wendi called Dan when he was up in New York at a colloquium and she said, I'm leaving you, the exact words that were said, there's no written recording of that. So I'm obviously ad libbing the exact words that they said to one another at the time before Dan got on a plane and flew back to Tallahassee. So little things like that. As a writer, I do have creative license to manufacture. But important facts and things about people that are documented, I have to get those things right, and I work very, very hard, I kill myself trying to make sure I am getting those things right.
DL: And I know it took you a long time to write and you interviewed 50-plus people for it. How long did it take you from when you started your research to the completion of your manuscript, roughly?
SE: There was a little bit of waiting because I was waiting on the second trial and then I got a gift from God when they decided to indict and arrest Charlie Adelson. And I know I got the facts surrounding his arrest right, because I worked very hard to get the right interviews with the right people. That's an interesting story of itself, the arrest of Charlie Adelson. So there was a little bit of a gap there while I was waiting for that trial to occur. And then there was obviously Charlie's arrest. But I finished writing at the end of June, and I had started writing in December of the prior year. So it was a full 18, 19 months of writing.
DL: It's interesting, the scene of Charlie [getting arrested] in his underwear, stoned probably, is… people just need to read it. But let me ask you this. I heard about this in a different podcast, your interview with Judy the YouTube Lawyer, and I thought it was a really interesting point you made. The first trial for Katie Magbanua, the go-between connecting the Adelsons and the hitmen, ended in a mistrial. And for those of us who've been following this case, it really saddened us and angered us to see how that first trial shook out. But can you explain how this might, totally counterintuitively, have been a good thing?
SE: It was a blessing in disguise, as it turned out. So the juror who actually hung the jury, I met with that juror in person in Tallahassee and had an extensive interview. The juror was unabashedly, basically nullifying the judge's instructions, deciding that these two children—not the Dan Markel and Wendi Adelson children, but the children of the hitman, Sigfredo Garcia, and Katie Magbanua, the go-between between the Adelson family and the hitman—that those children shouldn't grow up without two parents. And so although she agreed to convict one, Sigfredo Garcia, she wouldn't agree to convict the other. And that's what hung the jury. And that story is told in the book, in the chapter called Civic Duty.
But as it turns out, between that and Covid, that bought the State Attorney's Office a couple of years to try and figure out how to put on a better case. You've been a prosecutor, I'm sure you've been part of mistrials before, and as a prosecutor, you want to learn from your mistakes and do better the next time and put on a better case.
The one thing in the first trial that left the prosecution unable to put on the case that they wanted to was not being able to use the Dolce Vita video and audio to show that Charlie Adelson and Katie Magbanua, two years after the murder, were basically discussing what had happened in the murder and how to deal with the fact that this perceived gang member was shaking Donna Adelson down as part of the so-called “bump” [undercover operation], and how to deal with that.
There was a lot of valuable information in that dialogue, the State Attorney's Office believed, but it was a noisy Italian restaurant, and if they were going to play it for the jury, the jury wasn't going to be able to make out a thing. So they got the lead FBI agent to literally, on his own, over the course of a hundred hours, prepare a transcript by listening with noise-canceling headphones and using some proprietary FBI software.
And lo and behold, he comes up with this great transcript, and the judge in the first trial, Judge James Hankinson, says no, you can't give the jury that transcript, because that's basically taking the FBI agent's own interpretation of what these people are saying, and the jury's just going to substitute that for the voices that they're hearing in the actual recording. So they put on one minute basically of the audio of the meeting in Dolce Vita between Katie Magbanua and Charlie Adelson, just to show the jury we don't really have anything useful here.
In between the two trials, with all this extra time afforded by Covid, they reached out to several different audio forensics experts and eventually landed one in South Carolina named Keith McElveen, who had spent about 10 years working for the CIA dealing with this whole issue of how to hear individual voices in noisy, what he calls “cocktail party,” environments. And he came up with 12 different patents for proprietary software, and he was able to get a fairly clear recording for 41 minutes. He missed the first 25 or so minutes of the Dolce meeting between Katie Magbanua and Charlie Adelson, but the last 41 minutes he got pretty darn well, especially what Charlie was saying, and it was very clear they were talking about the murder and at one point—this is why Charlie was arrested at one point—Charlie literally says, “Why didn't they know it was me? Why didn't they know it was me?” And at another point he's talking about the money drop, and he asked Katie, “When everyone was there the next day, did anybody take any money? I mean, it's not like you're driving around in a Bentley, you know, riding around in a mega yacht on the seas.”
And there were many other things. I actually have an entire chapter toward the end of the book that is devoted solely to how incriminating Charlie Adelson is in that Dolce Vita record—Katie not as much, because her voice is much softer, and you can't hear a lot of what she's saying.
Why the Dolce Vita audio was so effective for the prosecution at the [second Magbanua] trial was because Katie didn't do anything like run away or say “what the hell are you talking about” or “I don't want to be involved in this.” She participated in this conversation, she chimed in, and you can hear her chiming in several times, basically accepting all of the premises in Charlie's rambling through the course of 41 minutes, and it was used extremely effectively during Sarah Kathryn Dugan's cross-examination of Katherine Magbanua on the witness stand. If anything, that cross-examination is what sealed Katie's fate with the second jury who unanimously found her guilty.
DL: And then, of course, that Dolce Vita enhanced recording was used as the basis for arresting Charlie….
DL: …. which I know Georgia Cappleman in the state prosecutor's office had been resisting for a while because, understandably, they wanted to take their one best shot at Charlie if they were going to go after him.
SE: And they wanted Katie to flip. They thought all that time that Katie… you know, who's going to spend six years in jail, when they have information that can land a much bigger fish with the prosecutors? Surely at some point they thought she's going to flip. But after six years she never did. And now she's convicted and sentenced to life in prison. At this point, she's made some horrible miscalculations. Maybe she believed her lawyers were so good, they were going to get her off. I don't know.
DL: So you don't really have a theory on what I view as one of the huge questions to this case: why the heck didn’t she cooperate? I know Georgia Cappleman at one point said [Katie] holds the keys to her own cell, or something along those lines. And yet here we are. She's been convicted. She's looking at life in prison. She has two kids. Her husband, or the father of her children, is also looking at life in prison. And yet she still has not said anything, right?
SE: I think that the operative word there is “still.” So I posit at the very end of the book that it's not too late, and I spent some time on the phone with some big wigs, some stalwarts in the Florida criminal bar, to confirm that it is never too late for someone in their position, even after they've gotten a mandatory sentence of life in prison, which first-degree murder is in Florida, that there are ways around that mandatory life-in-prison sentence, and if they wanted to deliver the goods, it's never too late for them to approach the State Attorney's Office. And certainly somebody like Georgia Cappleman and Jack Campbell, the elected State Attorney, would be interested in hearing from Katherine Magbanua about all the stuff that they've been waiting for her for six years to tell them.
What kind of deal she can get now, post-conviction, post-sentence, would certainly be a very different deal than what she could have gotten back then. And even Sigfredo Garcia, you wouldn't think that he's got something valuable to offer. But the reality is that Luis Rivera is not a terribly good witness after having already testified about a dozen times now. There are so many inconsistencies in his testimony. Sigfredo Garcia has never testified, so even if he just repeated the same sort of things that Luis Rivera has said at two different trials, he would be a much cleaner witness than Luis Rivera. So there probably is a deal there even for him, even if he can't point directly at Charlie Adelson.
The obvious reason why he didn't come forward before Katie Magbanua’s second trial was because anything he would've said would've implicated her. She's the mother of his children. She's the love of his life. It makes sense that he was never going to throw her under the bus. And even Katie during the first trial wouldn't let her lawyers say horrible things about Garcia. They had permission in the second trial to do that because he was already convicted and sentenced to life. And they did. They tried to make it seem like this was a direct conspiracy between Charlie and Garcia—they're the bad people, Katie knew nothing. And that never made any sense because the very first thing Sigfredo Garcia would've done upon his arrest, if in fact he had the goods on Charlie Adelson, is he would've run to the State Attorney's Office just like Luis Rivera did.
And even though he didn't have the goods on anybody named Adelson, if Sigfredo Garcia had the goods on Charlie Adelson, especially after Katie Magbanua was arrested, if she knew nothing about it, he would've sprinted with his lawyers by his side to the State Attorney's Office to make a deal, and he never did. Because he didn't know they walled Charlie and the Adelsons off through Katherine Magbanua. That was her whole point. The whole point of Katie being involved was to wall the killers off from the people hiring them.
DL: So you mentioned it's never too late. People are now looking at Charlie Adelson. He's sitting in jail. His motion for bail after the so-called Arthur hearing under Florida law was denied. He's looking at a trial early next year. Do you think he could cut some kind of deal? Any predictions about what will happen next if he goes to trial? Does he have any viable defense, especially in the wake of the enhanced Dolce Vita recording?
SE: Well, according to Daniel Rashbaum, his attorney, his saying five or six times during the enhanced recording “and I had nothing to do with this”—that's his defense. The fact that he fit those words into that conversation, even though there are about 45 incriminating things that he said that belie the notion, such as “why didn't they know it was me”—how do you square those two together? Daniel Rashbaum has his work cut out for him.
And besides that, Charlie Adelson is a very unlikable guy. If he takes the witness stand, the notion that he's going to charm this jury, I mean, they're going to hear all of these conversations that he's had with his mother, with Katie Magbanua, and they paint him in a horrible, horrible light, as does the Dolce Vita recording. So the notion that he's going to charm this jury into believing that he's an innocent victim or that he was only trying to hire these hit men not to kill Dan Markel, but just to scare him and intimidate him, none of that makes any sense. He really has his work cut out.
That said, would the State Attorney's Office make some kind of a deal with him so they didn't have to try this [case]? We're just talking about the number of years, and would he accept 30 years instead of life? Would they do that? That's a possible deal that could get done. As you know, as a former prosecutor, most cases end in a plea bargain, not because the person being convicted is ratting somebody else out, but just because the most economically efficient thing for a prosecutor to do is to see if there's not a way to get somebody to agree they did the crime and accept a lesser sentence than their maximum sentence.
So that's always possible. There are people speculating, you know, is he going to give up his sister? Is he going to give up his mother, his father, in exchange for his own freedom? A, it's hard to believe that anything like that happens, but B, would that even be something that the State Attorney's Office would consider? You’re the person who paid a hundred thousand dollars to get this done. You're the person who had the relationship with Katie Magbanua. The fact that you might also be able to give us your mother or your father or your sister—that's not going to get you a better slice of bread. So at the end of the day, if Charlie's making a deal, he's making a deal to get a lesser sentence, not because he's going to give up one of his family members. And the likelihood of him making a deal increases exponentially if Katie Magbanua or even Sigfredo Garcia flips and turns state's evidence.
DL: Looking at his family members, I agree with you. I don't think that [the government] would give him a good deal just because he can give up somebody else in his family. But do you think that the authorities will eventually move against Donna, who the evidence strongly suggests was involved?
SE: If you remember back to the time that there was a turf war between the Tallahassee Police Department and the State Attorney's Office, even though they had drafted a probable cause affidavit and leaked it only for Charlie, that affidavit points the finger at Donna every bit as much as it points the finger at Charlie.
And remember, Charlie's signature isn't on any important piece of evidence in this case. Donna's signature is on 44 pieces of evidence, the checks that were written to Katie Magbanua to keep her quiet from literally just after the murder happens until just before Sigfredo Garcia is arrested. And those checks stop the instant Sigfredo Garcia is arrested, and Donna is the one who stroked every single one of those checks, and there's no dispute. Both trials made clear that Katie didn't work for the Adelson Institute. There's no reason the Adelson Institute would've been paying her, but Donna was in on that.
And then if you watch what happens in the bump and Donna's reaction to that, and all of the communications that Donna has with Charlie, and then Donna's communication even with the undercover agent who orchestrated the bump as she speaks to him for eight minutes, even that is quite entertaining, hearing Donna protest that she didn't know anything at all about what happened to Dan Markel and is as torn up about it as anyone. So yeah, there's tons of evidence against Donna and the very first thing she says after the bump to Charlie, “who does it involve,” he asks her, “who does it involve”? And she says, twice, “the two of us.” And then she says, “I think you know what I'm talking about.”
SE: Those are incredibly incriminating words. And then you add that to the other evidence. You take the emails that she wrote, all of the checks that were written. I would hate to be Donna Adelson's defense lawyer as well.
The only thing she has going for her is that she's in her seventies and she's not the most attractive target because she's got some sympathy on her side because she's in her seventies, she's a grandmother. But when you think about the role that she has played, she was the one who selected Danny for Wendi off of JDate. She was there at the beginning, and the evidence seems to suggest very strongly she was the one who decided not only that it was time for Wendi to leave him, but that it was time for his place in Ben and Lincoln's life to end as well, because Wendi needed to come home with the boys. And Donna Adelson was there literally every step of the way. And if you're the State Attorney's Office, you have to have her within your sights because of the very significant role she played in Dan Markel being part of this tragedy.
DL: Absolutely. I totally agree with you.
I'm so grateful to you, Steve, for taking the time and for writing this remarkable book, which as I say in the foreword is going to be the definitive account of this tragic event and its aftermath. So again, thank you for devoting so much time and energy to giving people an idea of who Dan was and telling the world about this crime and the quest to bring folks to justice. I believe this would've been, this month, Dan's 50th birthday?
SE: The book was released on October 9th, and it was released on that day to be a further tribute to the late Dan Markel—that would've been his 50th birthday. Yes, and we are speaking, I don't know when this is going to drop, but we are speaking on Ruth Markel's birthday, so happy birthday to Ruth. She has her own book out, The Unveiling, and it comes straight from her heart, everything she's been through since that awful day in July of 2014.
I've gotten to know her very well. She's an incredible human being. Two of my favorite people in the world now are Cheryl Williams and Ruth Markel, and I actually connected them at one point because they have so much in common. They've lived through so many similar things, and they're both incredible, incredible women.
And that's one of the things that I love about true crime, is that you learn about just incredibly tenacious human beings who care so much about justice. And Ruth and Phil and Shelly [Markel] are not done getting the justice that they so richly deserve. Stay tuned. There's a lot more to be written even after folks turn the last page of my book.
DL: That's an excellent note to end on. I agree with you that Ruth Markel is amazing and I urge people to check out her book, The Unveiling, just to see what she has endured and how she has tried to turn it into something for good, to protect the rights of grandparents who wind up in horrific situations like the one that she's faced. Again, it is a testament to the human spirit.
So again, Steve, thank you for writing the book. Thank you for joining me, and we will continue to hope and pray for complete justice in the case of Dan Markel.
SE: Thank you, David. Thank you for having me on. I really, really appreciate it.
DL: Thanks again to Steve for joining me. As I wrote in the foreword to Extreme Punishment, “I wish nobody had to tell this tale. But since it is being told—and should be told, to honor Dan’s legacy—I am thankful to Steve for doing so with such thoughtfulness, understanding, and skill.”
As always, thanks to Tommy Harron, my sound engineer here at Original Jurisdiction, and thanks to you, my listeners and readers, for tuning in. If you'd like to connect with me, you can email me at email@example.com, and you can find me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, at davidlat, and on Instagram, at davidbenjaminlat. If you enjoyed today's episode, please rate, review, and subscribe to Original Jurisdiction. Since this podcast is new, please help spread the word by telling your friends about it. And if you might be interested in sponsorship opportunities for either the podcast or the newsletter, please reach out to me.
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