Witty, engaging and empathetic, Florida State University law professor Dan Markel forged lasting bonds with all he met.
“That he had a hundred best friends was true,” says one with whom Markel first crossed paths 17 years ago at a student at Harvard.
So who might want him dead?
One year after Markel’s execution-style murder in the garage of his home in Tallahassee, Florida, it’s a question that police, former students and longtime colleagues of Markel continue to ask.
Around 11 a.m. on July 18, 2014, Markel was shot in the head while in his Honda Accord in the garage of his suburban home, according to Tallahassee police. Markel, 41, died the next day.
Police shared an image of a gray or silver Toyota Prius seen in the area – for months, it was the only clue they made public – then delivered a further shock by announcing that he’d been targeted.
On Friday, police narrowed that vehicle description. They are seeking a suspect Prius from the years 2006 to 2009, with a “silver pine mica” paint color that appears metallic to light green, with tinted windows and three distinct characteristics: A missing tow bolt cover on the driver’s side bumper; a black passenger side mirror housing; and a toll transponder in the center of the front windshield.
But still, there are no named suspects.
“We have nothing to show that this was anything else than that he was the person they were attempting to locate,” Tallahassee Police spokesman David Northway tells PEOPLE.
Douglas A. Berman, a law professor at Ohio State University and friend of Markel’s, tells PEOPLE: “I do know it’s not unheard of for mysterious murders to go unsolved. But it is, needless to say, dispiriting to have this be one of them.”
“The sadness,” he says, “is deepened by the mystery.”
Markel, who recently had endured a bitter breakup in his marriage to a fellow professor, had climbed quickly to prominence in his criminal law field, largely through the PrawfsBlawg legal blog that he co-founded, and which attracted wide notice among both junior and senior faculty with its discussions of criminal justice topics.
“He was very much a man of new ideas – fresh, vivacious, stimulating,” Florida State Law School Dean Donald Weidner told PEOPLE.
Michelle Dempsey, an associate dean at Villanova School of Law, first engaged Markel online, and later at frequent conferences.
“He was relentlessly positive,” she says. “And he made you feel good about your work.”
His insight, intellect, and kind manner even when delivering harsh critical analysis “made him much beloved,” she says. “He just really loved engaging with people’s ideas.”
His students felt the same embrace, rising to the challenge of his “old-school, tough-as-nails” classroom presence, according to recent grad Ryan Wechsler, while also basking in his paternal side.
Indeed, Markel loved the Crayon drawings by his young sons, Ben, born in 2009, and Lincoln, born in 2010, that filled his office and home, to which the devoted dad invited small groups of students for home-cooked salmon dinners followed by academic debate. “His living room was like a playpen,” says Wechsler.
He also was devout in his Jewish faith. His boys called him “Abba,” the Hebrew word for father.
“He was a shamelessly proud and involved Abba,” his longtime friend and former Harvard classmate Tamara Demko shared in a written tribute she posted online. “From before birth, through bris, learning Hebrew, swimming, bike riding, preschool, taking them to shul and celebrating holidays, and every single moment in between, Danny glowed with love and pride in his boys.”
Although the 2012 breakup of his six-year marriage caught Markel blindsided, according to colleagues, it never seemed to slow him or his joy as a father; his ex-wife, Wendi Adelson, a fellow Florida State law instructor, spoke with investigators but after the targeted attack was “deeply concerned about the safety and well-being of her children,” her attorney Jimmy Judkins said in a statement to the media.
She has since resigned her position on the Florida State faculty.
The absence of information has produced only speculation among those still seeking answers.
A few point to his online critics. Commenters on PrawfsBlawg included skeptics who complained the forum failed to challenge the legal establishment. In 2012, an anonymous commenter on another blog, Inside the Law School Scam, alleged that Markel was deleting anonymous commenters on his own blog.
“Bullies like this need to be made radiative,” the writer posted. “Their arrogance and imperiousness speaks for itself. All means necessary must be employed.”
“Was it something in his professional life? His personal life?” asks Berman, the Ohio State professor. “It’s always a hidden fear, gosh, what if we give a bad grade or deliver some criticism in a way that a student isn t prepared to receive? Could that trigger some kind of violent reaction?”
Adds Dempsey: “The radio silence coming from the Tallahassee police is frustrating. I suppose they have their reasons,” she says. “We all just sort of expected we have some answers by now.”
“It’s impossible to believe that anybody could want to target Danny Markel. It doesn’t make any sense.”
In the immediate aftermath, more than 200 donors raised $50,000 in four days for his sons, a sum that has continued to grow.
“As a professor, I would say he was one of our best,” says Francisco Zornosa, who worked with Markel in Zornosa’s role as editor in chief of the Florida State University Law Review. “Pound for pound, I don’t know if there’s a better law professor out there than Dan Markel. He was just at the top of his game, which is one of the reasons why this was so shocking to everyone.”
“He was such a great person, a great influence on his kids, a smart person, a great role model, someone who really, really tried to lead by example, and his kids are so young,” he says. “That really is the biggest shame of this whole thing.”
Police have offered $25,000 reward for information leading to an arrest, and a private source has offered another $100,000 for information given to police that leads to an arrest and conviction. Contact the police tip line at 850-891-4462.
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