Colleagues of the popular Florida law professor Dan Markel, who was fatally shot execution-style in July 2014, say they long feared the recent revelation by authorities who said his death was tied to a bitter divorce with his ex-wife, a fellow law professor.
“A number of people here – and that includes myself – had some suspicions about her family because of a number of things that Danny had confided,” says Fernando Teson, another law professor at Florida State University who counted Markel and his then-wife Wendi Adelson as friends before she filed for divorce in 2012. “I see now that my instincts were right, but it’s still just incredibly shocking that this would happen.
“I don’t want to accuse anybody,” he says, “but I always had a funny feeling that this had to be connected to the custody battle somehow.”
Another friend of Markel’s, Jason Solomon, an associate dean at Stanford Law School, says Markel and Adelson had amicably agreed to a co-parenting role for their two boys, who were ages 3 and 4 when their father was killed.
“There was no dispute about the fact that they were going to split the kids more or less 50-50, half the time with him, half the time with her, and I think they both recognized the importance of each of them being a big part of their children’s lives,” he says.
But Markel had subsequently returned to court seeking to restrict access to the boys by Adelson’s mother, alleging the grandmother had made “disparaging comments” about him to the boys, according to a court document.
Investigators in Tallahassee, Florida, confirmed that tension last week in an affidavit that says Markel’s slaying allegedly sprang from the “desperate desire” of Adelson’s family for her to move away with the boys – a move Markel initially blocked – along with the pending court hearing on the grandmother’s access.
The May 26 arrest of accused killer Sigfredo Garcia was followed by allegations that Charlie Adelson, Wendi’s brother, “was involved in a personal relationship” with Katherine Magbanua, a business associate of Garcia’s, according to the affidavit. Magbanua is also the mother of Garcia’s two children.
• Want to keep up with the latest crime coverage? Click here to get breaking crime news, ongoing trial coverage and details of intriguing unsolved cases in the True Crime Newsletter.
Nothing said by police has connected the killing, or knowledge of it, to Wendi Adelson. In a news conference, Tallahassee Police Chief Michael DeLeo did not identify any members of the Adelson family as persons of interest, but he noted that more arrests are expected.
Because Markel and Adelson already had reached a personal agreement over the children, “I think that it is quite likely that Wendi is more devastated than anyone to learn that her own brother appears to have brought this horror upon her, her children, and Dan’s family,” says Solomon.
Garcia, 34, has pleaded not guilty. A second man named by investigators, Luis Rivera, 33, has not been charged in the case; he is currently jailed in a federal prison in Florida on unrelated charges.
Markel, 41 – whose devotion to his sons was well-known to students and colleagues who saw the boys’ Crayon drawings displayed in his home and office – was shot July 18, 2014, as he sat in his car in the garage of his suburban home after dropping his boys at school.
Investigators who reconstructed the movements of Garcia and Rivera say they tracked Markel that morning before he was killed.
Friend: ‘The Ugly Divorce Was the Most Logical Explanation’
The murder occurred as Markel’s motion to restrict access to the boys by Adelson’s mother, Donna, was pending, according to the arrest affidavit. That document also notes that Charlie Adelson “reportedly did not like Markel and did not get along with him.”
The couple had been married for six years before Markel returned home from a trip in September 2012 to find “his family gone, a majority of the contents of the house missing and the paperwork for dissolution of marriage displayed on his bed,” the arrest affidavit states.
After police said they believed Markel had been targeted, “the ugly divorce was the most logical explanation,” says Douglas A. Berman, a law professor at Ohio State University and friend of Markel’s. “A lot of people hoped that the most logical explanation wasn’t the most accurate, because it seems so horrifically tragic that as part of a fight over the custody of two innocent children, one side of the family would seek the demise of one of the parents.”
Berman, speculating that Markel’s brother-in-law had something to do with it, says, “The one thing I continue to wonder about is, was this the brother-in-law’s kind of own deeply misguided way to help his family? Was there really a very consciously formed desire to truly execute Dan? Or was it just an effort to scare him?”
“What the particulars might be are among the questions that I think everybody in the community might still have, along with a deep sadness that a contentious domestic situation turned into such a tragic homicide.”
Wendi Adelson has not commented since the allegation about her family’s involvement. Her attorney, Jimmy Judkins, did not return calls from PEOPLE. But in the immediate wake of Garcia’s arrest before the alleged motive came to light, she sent an email to the Associated Press saying she hoped Garcia’s arrest “will finally bring some closure” to the case.
Markel’s parents and sister Shelly also have not spoken publicly, except to issue a statement following Garcia’s arrest that reads in part, “although it does not diminish their immense pain, Ruth, Phil, and Shelly are grateful to local, state, and federal authorities for their tireless work resulting in today’s arrest.”
Ryan Wechsler, an attorney and former student of Markel’s who now practices in West Palm Beach, Florida, says earlier theories about the murder – for example, that Markel’s politically liberal blog posts on the high-profile Prawfsblawg he co-founded, had incited a critic to violence – never made sense to him.
“You knew there was no robbery,” he says. “And you knew that there was nothing in the crime itself to explain why he would be murdered.”
“People knew that there was this custody battle going on,” Wechsler says. “The only thing you can look at is this one ugly part of his life. From that respect, it isn’t surprising, because everything else was ruled out.”
“I did not know her,” he says of Wendi Adelson, who left the Florida State faculty in January 2015 and is now a federal court clerk in South Florida, “but she had an outstanding reputation amongst all my classmates.”
He adds: “I hope to God that she wasn’t involved, and whatever took place was without her knowledge.”
Says Markel’s friend and former colleague Teson: “Everybody knew about the tension between the two. But actually Danny told me that the worst influence there was the mother. From the beginning the mother was instigating the divorce. There was a lot of influence on her side of the family to leave him. And also subsequently on the custody battle. That’s what Danny told me.”
“He was annoyed with them – that they were meddling, he thought, in the divorce,” he says. “But I never sensed that he was fearful.”
Given the sudden turn of events, many who knew the pair are keeping quiet. “People are very, very tight-lipped,” says Teson. “They don’t want to say anything. Many people were pretty close friends with Wendi.”
“I assume that my colleagues, of course, are now keeping quiet out of prudence. You do not accuse people. Nor am I,” he says. “I just think that to me, it was less of a surprise.”