The Dan Markel Case: Charlie Adelson, Arrested
Enhanced audio recordings featuring Adelson are very, very interesting.
Welcome to Original Jurisdiction, the latest legal publication by me, David Lat. You can learn more about Original Jurisdiction by reading its About page, you can reach me by email at email@example.com, and you can subscribe by clicking on the button below.
Yesterday Charles Adelson, long suspected of hiring two hit men to kill his ex-brother-in-law Dan Markel in 2014, was arrested and charged with first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder, and solicitation of murder. As reported by the Tallahassee Democrat and WCTV, among other outlets, the 45-year-old Adelson was taken into custody at his home, without incident, by the FBI.1
Under Florida law, murder is a “non-bondable” offense, so Charlie Adelson is being held automatically without bail. His lawyers will have to move for bail and ask for what’s called an Arthur hearing, which won’t be held until the judge has time and the matter is fully briefed. So Adelson will remain in jail for the foreseeable future—a remarkable change in circumstances for a wealthy dentist and real estate investor who used to tool around South Florida in a Ferrari.
In a prepared statement, State Attorney Jack Campbell wrote, “The law-enforcement team behind this continuing investigation will not rest until justice is delivered to every person involved in this terrible crime.” Through their attorneys, Orin Snyder and Matt Benjamin of Gibson Dunn, the Markel family also issued a statement: "Nearly eight years after Danny’s tragic murder, these dedicated public servants continue to fight to honor Danny’s memory and to hold accountable all those responsible for his horrific death. On behalf of Danny’s family and friends in the Tallahassee community and all over the world, thank you.”
As for Charlie Adelson, his lawyer, prominent criminal-defense attorney David Oscar Markus of Markus/Moss, declared in a statement that “Charlie is innocent, and the prosecutors have no new information that led to this arrest. The timing sure does stink, doesn’t it? On the eve of a long-awaited trial of Katie [Magbanua], this move has the smell of desperation.”
Yes, that’s right: the long-delayed retrial of Katherine Magbanua, Adelson’s ex-girlfriend and alleged co-conspirator, is scheduled to get underway on Monday, May 16. The trial date, which has already been moved multiple times, should not be affected by Adelson’s arrest. Why? Yesterday Magbanua’s lawyers, Christopher DeCoste and Tara Kawass, filed a demand for speedy trial, which should cause a severance from Adelson’s case and keep the current trial date.
The arrest of Charlie Adelson came as a surprise to many. Observers of the Markel case have been pushing for one or more of the Adelsons to be arrested for years, but State Attorney Jack Campbell and the lead prosecutor on the case, Georgia Cappleman, have resisted such calls, also for years—until now. What changed to prompt Charlie Adelson’s arrest? Might there be new evidence in the case?
In his statement, Jack Campbell cited “new audio of the restaurant recording,” specifically, surreptitious recording by law enforcement of a conversation between Adelson and Magbanua at a Miami-area restaurant called Dolce. The recording has been in the possession of law enforcement for years, but it is “new” in the sense that it has been enhanced by James Keith McElveen, a former CIA operative with expertise in audio matters.
According to lead prosecutor Georgia Cappleman, the enhanced audio is significant: “A new piece of the puzzle was added, which was the clarified audio of the restaurant recording. This recording includes statements by Charles Adelson which can be heard clearly for the first time.”
Magbanua’s lawyers, Chris DeCoste and Tara Kawass, addressed the new audio in a statement: “The enhancement—which they’ve had for six years—proves Katherine Magbanua is innocent, while this last-minute move by the government to frustrate her approaching trial date proves that they’re desperate.”
The prosecution has prepared a transcript of the enhanced audio, and in pretrial motions for the Magbanua retrial, they asked Judge Robert Wheeler to rule in advance that jurors can see this transcript, as well as a demonstrative aid that combines the original video, the enhanced audio, and subtitles from the transcript. Not surprisingly, Magbanua’s lawyers oppose this request.
“We’re ready for trial and embrace the audio enhancement, but not their inaccurate and inadmissible subtitles,” DeCoste told me, when I followed up with him last night. “It’s like a bad translation of a foreign film.”
Adelson’s lawyer, David Oscar Markus, sounded similar notes about the new and improved audio.
“The State Attorney is right that the tape is devastating… but it turns out it really devastates his position, not ours,” Markus told me. “There is nothing incriminating in this transcript. It quite clearly exonerates Charlie.”
Let’s take a look at the transcript and listen to the audio. I excerpt and discuss some of the passages that I found most noteworthy below; please feel free to review the transcript and listen to the audio yourself, then share any observations in the comments to this post. Again, the discussion below assumes familiarity with the facts of the case, which are detailed and complex; if you haven’t been following it, you might want to stop reading here.
For all transcript passages, I include page references, and for some passages, I include what I think the prosecution might say, based on what the prosecution has alleged. Of course, Charlie Adelson and Katie Magbanua are presumed innocent until proven guilty; as noted above, they both maintain their innocence; and these are simply my personal opinions based solely on information that has been made public, whether by prosecutors, news outlets, or otherwise.
Charlie Adelson (“CA”): “If they had any evidence, we would have already gone to the airport.” (p. 1) Prosecution (“P”): What is the innocent explanation for a comment like this? Why would Charlie be thinking of heading to the airport?
CA: ”Listen, if that's what it [the ‘bump’ operation] was [an attempt by the police to get the Adelsons and Magbanua talking in order to record them], it's very smart, because that means my mom hasn't told my dad anything. My mom knows my dad is gonna flip out when he finds out. But my mom hasn't told my dad anything.” (p. 3) P: Charlie’s mom, Donna Adelson, hasn’t told his dad, Harvey Adelson, about what, exactly?
CA and Katie Magbanua (“KM”) discuss their ownership of guns, and Charlie talks about how he’s going to start carrying a firearm on him. (p. 4) P: With all due respect to Second Amendment rights, why are people like Charlie and Katie, a dentist and an employee of a dental clinic, toting guns? Unless, say, they had dealings with some dangerous people, like gang members hired to carry out a hit.
CA: “When the f**king police show up, and there's a doctor—there's an oral surgeon standing there with a dead gang member in his f**king 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.” (p. 5) P: Why would a dentist like Charlie be having any dealings with gang members—unless he had hired gang members to carry out a hit on his former brother-in-law?
CA: “Listen, if they want to charge me with something, charge me; if not, I don't talk to cops…. If you’re gonna charge me, charge me.” (p. 6) P: What’s the innocent explanation for this? Charge Charlie with what, exactly?
CA discusses the difficulty of proving that a person committed a hypothetical crime, and he outlines a hypothetical in which someone comes forward to tell law enforcement “that my brother did it.” (pp. 7-9) P: As previously alleged, Charlie Adelson ordered a hit on Dan Markel because Charlie’s sister, Wendi Adelson, wanted to leave Tallahassee and relocate to South Florida with their two sons—a plan being obstructed by Markel. So this reference to “my brother did it” should be viewed in that context.
CA: “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.” (p. 13)
CA: “When everybody was there the next day, did any of you take any money? It's not like you're driving around in a Bentley, cruising around in a mega-yacht, ya know? Someone—he must—(unintelligible)—at some point. Because otherwise, he would have no idea that I had anything to do with—(unintelligible).” (p. 13) P: As previously alleged, the two hit men, Sigfredo Garcia and Luis Rivera, were paid off the day after the murder in a “money drop.” What is Charlie referring to here if not the money drop?
CA continues talking about how tough it can be to prove someone committed or was involved in a crime, especially when you don’t know “where's the weapon at” or “who pulled the trigger”—and the crime also involves a rental car driven to a different part of Florida. (pp. 14-15) P: In the Markel case, the gun was never recovered, the two hit men disputed who pulled the trigger, and the two hit men drove from South Florida to Tallahassee in a rented Prius.
CA: “If it was a cop playing games or an investigator playing games—and they didn't mention me. They did mention your son's girlfriend, Katie—not mention me at all—(unintelligible) and my family. And I think if they thought I had something to do with it, they would find me and they'd talk to me. You know what I'm saying.” (p. 16) P: Something to do with what, exactly?
CA engages in more thinking out loud about why investigators would approach his mother rather than him, concluding that “this person obviously doesn't even know that we [CA and KM] dated.” (pp. 16-17) P: The relationship between Charlie Adelson and Katie Magbanua is a critical link here, since it’s what connects Adelson with the two hit men, Sigfredo Garcia and Luis Rivera. Magbanua has two children with Garcia, but she dated Adelson during a time when she and Garcia were broken up (because Magbanua and Garcia have had an on-and-off relationship over the years).
CA: “Like, yeah, you work for the office now because the checks are from there. And that's just because you come in and work on the weekends, which I trust that you're doing because I'm never there when I see you; you tell me you do it and the place looks clean, so you get your checks. You clean up, whatever.” (p. 17) P: As previously alleged, one of the ways the Adelsons paid Magbanua for facilitating the murder is by paying her for working at their dental office, when in fact she did little or no work.
CA: “My point is, I don't want this coming back. I don't have a problem helping the community out, but I don't want this community to come back next month. And what I think happens if I pay the money, they’re gonna be back again and again and again.” (p. 17) P: Charlie thinks aloud about paying off the person who spoke to his mother, but expresses the concern that “they’re gonna be back again and again and again.” If he and Donna Adelson are innocent, why are they even thinking about paying off this random person?
CA: “This made, not only national news. This was on the—this was in London. My family in London was calling. You know what the BBC news is, the British Broadcasting News? This was on the BBC news…. This made the BCT news. This was on Good Morning America. This was on the New York Times. This was a big story. So, well, listen, you didn't do anything. I didn't do anything.” (p. 19) P: What exactly is “this,” the “big story” that Charlie is referring to? Could it be the murder of a prominent law professor named Dan Markel, which did receive coverage on Good Morning America and in the New York Times?
CA: “If you want to arrest me, f**king arrest me. I'm not gonna sit here and show you the photos of all of the dick pictures I took of myself…. If you think I did something, arrest me, charge me, and that's it. That's it.” (p. 20) P: Arrest Charlie for what, exactly?
CA: “I want to give them the money, but what I don't want to get involved in, is next Tuesday he's asking for 10,000. So this was my idea: I give you money, you contact….” (p. 22) P: Charlie reasons through trying to pay off the man who approached his mother, but without having a recurring problem—and suggests that Katie handle the payoff. What does Katie have to do with any of this, if she didn’t play the role of intermediary?
CA continues talking through how the payoff might be handled and what Katie might say. (pp. 23-26) P: Why is Charlie even considering paying off this stranger, unless the stranger actually presented him with information that could be threatening to him? Shouldn’t Charlie—or his mother, the person who was actually approached—just go to the police?
CA: “He doesn't have any bad feelings towards me, does he? Our paths never crossed. I didn't know that the two of you would be working out.” (pp. 26-27) P: This sounds like Charlie talking about Sigfredo Garcia, the father of Katie’s two children, whom she was with before and after her relationship with Charlie.
CA continues to talk about how to handle this situation. (pp. 29-32) P: Again, this is not the type of conversation that Charlie and Katie would be having if Charlie’s mother was approached by a random man who asked her for money while alluding to the Markel murder, and the Adelsons had no involvement whatsoever in that murder. Instead, you’d expect the Adelsons to go directly to the police, claiming that some stranger is trying to blackmail them in connection with the murder of their former son-in-law, which they had nothing to do with and know nothing about.
So what is the bottom line? In my opinion, the enhanced audio recording is not good news for Charlie Adelson, Donna Adelson, and Katie Magbanua.
To be sure, despite the enhancement, significant portions of the audio remain inaudible, especially on Magbanua’s side, and the conversation can be hard to follow at times. Expect defense counsel to seize upon these ambiguities to cast doubt upon the prosecution’s theory of the case—or even to construct an alternate narrative. In fact, David Oscar Markus flagged for me what he views as exculpatory statements by Charlie Adelson:
“My point is, I don't have any knowledge of what went on—(unintelligible)—” (p. 15)
“Like, go talk to the person who's involved; not f**king people who aren't involved. And I'm not involved.” (p. 16)
“If it's a cop, I'm happy because I've got nothing to hide.” (p. 18, p. 21)
“So, well, listen, you didn't do anything. I didn't do anything.” (p. 19)
How might the prosecution respond? I think they’d tell the jury that listening to the recording is better than just reading the cold transcript, and if they listen, paying attention to things like tone of voice, they’ll realize that many of the supposedly exculpatory statements are all “wink wink nudge nudge,” not meant to be taken literally. E.g., Charlie thanking Katie for all the work she was supposedly doing in the dental office on the weekends, when they both knew she was doing little or nothing.
So there you have it: the evidence that appears to have gotten law enforcement to finally move on Charlie Adelson, after all these years. But an indictment, of course, is far from a conviction. And Charlie’s lawyers, David Oscar Markus and Margot Moss, are two of the best defense lawyers not just in Florida, but in the country.
Most defense lawyers consider it a win if they can get a good deal for their client at sentencing. Markus and Moss regularly go to trial—and win. But in light of the evidence, my opinion is that they have their work cut out for them in defending Charlie Adelson.
This July, eight years will have passed since the brutal killing of Dan Markel. Let us hope and pray that the people responsible for his murder—all the people responsible for his murder—will be brought to justice before then.
UPDATE (2:55 p.m.): Thanks to Matt for pointing out (in the comments) that there’s a part two to the transcript. It’s only twelve pages and much of it overlaps with part one, but here are the noteworthy parts:
CA: After her encounter with the stranger, Donna Adelson “had diarrhea all night. She hasn't been eating and she's been up since 2:00 in the morning with diarrhea.”
CA: “If you're blackmailing somebody who potentially had the ability to get something like this done, you've got a f**king set of balls, because they may make you shut up real quick, which makes me think without a doubt he's not the only—he didn't come there alone. He came there with somebody else.You know what I'm saying.” P: What exactly is “something like this”?
CA (in comments that his lawyers might cite as exculpatory): “Well, guess what? I don't have anything to do with what happened down there; you don't; I don't know anyone who does; I don't know who Tuto even f**king is, okay? Like, I don't know these people.”
Thanks for reading Original Jurisdiction, and thanks to my paid subscribers for making this publication possible. Subscribers get access to Judicial Notice, my time-saving weekly roundup of the most notable news in the legal world, as well as the ability to comment on posts. You can reach me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or comments about Original Jurisdiction, and you can share this post or subscribe using the buttons below.