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Katherine Magbanua faces a jury again in the murder of acclaimed Florida State law professor Dan Markel. The second week of trial testimony starts today.
In the retrial that began on May 18, Magbanua faces charges of first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder and solicitation of murder in connection with Markel’s broad-daylight shooting in July 2014.
She is suspected of being the conduit between the hitmen and Markel’s former in-laws who have been implicated as the masterminds and financiers of what investigators say was a murder for hire.
What follows is a regularly updated reporter’s notebook account of the day’s proceedings from Karl Etters, who has covered all the twists in the case for the last seven years. Follow him on Twitter here.
6 p.m.: Adleson employees and Charlie’s ex-girlfriend take the stand
Testimony in Katherine Magbanua’s murder trial Monday centered around employees of the Adelson family’s once lucrative dentistry practice and Charlie Adelson’s ex-girlfriend.
Prosecutors spent the day trying to lay out what employment Magbanua held around the time Markel was murdered and afterward to explain an influx of cash deposits into her bank account they say were payments for the hit.
But Adelson’s ex-girlfriend June Umchinda described how the wealthy dentist’s demeanor changed in 2016 when people started to be charged for Markel’s murder and an odd conversation with his mother, Donna Adelson.
Umchinda, who said she has at times been mistaken for Magbanua, told jurors she noticed Adelson with large stacks of cash. She was hazy on the details but said the bills were stapled together. They dated seriously for roughly two years starting in 2015.
That’s significant because prosecutors are relying on the testimony of Markel killer Luis Rivera, who said Magbanua delivered $100,000 in stapled $100 bills the day after Markel was murdered.
But Umchinda said after the case began to appear in the media, particularly in summer 2016 when Rivera and Sigfredo Garcia were arrested, that Adelson “was never the same.”
He became angry. He kept clothes by his bed on the chance police raided his house at night and began acting secretive, Umchinda said. All the while, she had no idea he was suspected of being involved until she was approached outside his house by a reporter.
“That’s how I found out about this,” she said. “I was shocked he didn’t mention it or didn’t tell me what was going on because I had no idea.”
She said Adelson was “shocked and surprised,” when Magbanua was arrested. The two had watched a 20/20 television special about the case which named him as a suspect.
She told jurors Adelson had told her Markel had been murdered in his garage but nothing else when she lightly inquired.
“He said he didn’t know who did it and I didn’t want to press more,” Umchinda said. “It was a moment of silence, and I didn’t want to go deeper.”
During questioning by Assistant State Attorney Georgia Cappleman, Umchinda recalled an odd comment by Donna Adelson when she met Charlie’s parents one evening.
She said everyone was upset and Donna Adelson seemed unhappy. Later in the evening she complained about not sleeping.
“Did she say ‘it feels like Dan’s back from the grave haunting her?” Cappleman asked.
“I don’t know if it was those exact words,” Umchinda replied. “She was so stressed and upset that’s how it came out.”
She said around the time undercover FBI agents approached Donna Adelson to try and stimulate conversation among suspects in the case – what is known as “The Bump” – Adelson began acting strange and met secretly with Magbanua.
“The night he met with Katherine he lied to me about where he was that night,” she said.
“He had no problem being with you and keeping all these things?” Magbanua’s defense attorney Tara Kawass asked.
“He did tell me after the fact when it all came out, but I put two and two together,” she responded.
That was the night of the so-called Dulce Vida recording, taken in 2016 by FBI agents at the Miami restaurant of the same name. The surveillance stakeout captured a conversation between Magbanua and Adelson in which they allegedly discuss undercover agents approaching his mom about Markel’s shooting.
The Adelson arrest:
The final time Adelson reached out to Umchinda was the day before he was arrested, April 20, in connection with Markel’s murder. She never replied.
Prosecutors put two employees of the Adelson Institute on the stand. Both said they knew Magbanua as Adelson’s girlfriend and a patient at the clinic.
Both said they never saw Magbanua work there, nor did the practice at the time employ anyone who worked remotely.
Magbanua’s work history was detailed. Her childhood friend, Yindra Valazquez-Mascaro, told jurors she worked at several clubs, another dentistry practice and in a real estate office.
She testified that Magbanua was put on the Adelson payroll so she could seek insurance for her children and that detectives misrepresented her statement about Magbanua’s breast enhancement, long believed to be paid for by Charlie Adelson.
She noted that when Garcia and Rivera were arrested and it was widely known that Magbanua was a suspect, she never fled.
She also provided an explanation for a phone call between Garcia and Harvey Adelson weeks before Markel was killed.
Garcia had recently confronted Magbanua and Adelson by parking in front of a car they were in and screaming at them. Garcia retrieved what he thought was the dentist’s phone number from Magbanua’s phone but was instead Harvey Adelson’s.
“It wasn’t Charlie’s number,” Valazquez-Mascaro said. “It was actually his father and he leaves a voicemail. He thought it was Charlie he was calling, but it ended up being Harvey. She (Magbanua) was really embarrassed.”
12:30 p.m. Defense looks to show disconnects in cell phone records
Katherine Magbanua’s attorneys looked to poke holes in the cell phone data prosecutors point to as a web of evidence connecting her to the killers and Dan Markel’s former in-laws.
In a lengthy and detailed cross examination of Tallahassee Police Department Sgt. Chris Corbett, defense attorney Chris DeCoste pointed to what he said were inconsistencies in the state’s evidence and hypothetical points where they could cast doubt over the theory of the murder conspiracy.
Corbett agreed with DeCoste that cell records can’t accurately pinpoint a person’s location, only which cellular tower site their handset is communicating with.
DeCoste contends that reports Corbett compiled, which would have shown a series of communications between convicted gunman Sigfredo Garcia, Magbanua, Luis Rivera and Charlie Adelson on the day Markel was killed and the next day, were provided to Rivera after his arrest six months before Magbanua was taken into custody.
He said communications the day after Markel was killed, which prosecutors say was the killers and Magbanua coordinating to divvy up $100,000, cannot definitively say the trio were together at Luis Rivera’s girlfriend’s house. Details of the phone calls would have been included in Rivera’s arrest documents.
“Rivera could have looked at the reports and made all this up?” DeCoste said, asking if Rivera would have an incentive to lie to get out of a murder charge.
“He could have,” Corbett said. “I can’t speak to his motives.”
DeCoste also asked Corbett about cell tower data which the sergeant testified put Magbanua in the area of a rental car company near Miami International Airport where the Prius Garcia drove to Tallahassee was rented.
Magbanua’s phone communicated with the tower, however, Corbett testified there were no records of Garcia’s phone doing so.
“It’s consistent to her going any number of business around the airport. Picking up a friend?” DeCoste asked. “It’s consistent with a lot of other things is what we’re getting at.”
“It could be,” Corbett responded.
Prosecutors specifically point to a series of calls the day Markel was killed in which Garcia and Magbanua spoke then Magbanua spoke with Charlie Adelson in close succession just after the shooting. The state contends this shows Magbanua in the middle of coordinating the crime.
Although they are a snapshot of just their communications, Magbanua was in contact with others during the time.
“This is consistent with Katherine Magbanua speaking to the guy she’s dating at the time then at other times speaking to the father of her two children,” DeCoste said. “When we compare an insignificant day to a significant day this pattern is not unusual.”
“Correct,” Corbett replied.
The morning after Markel was killed, Magbanua called Garcia six times and Rivera three times. By that time, Garcia had turned off his phone and the call records, DeCoste asked, could be his client looking to get in touch with Garcia who had been out of town — in Tallahassee to murder Markel — for a number of days.
“That’s consistent of the mother of two children trying to find the father of her two children who has been out of town for a few days,” DeCoste said. “Something happened that morning, but we have to take his word for it.”
Rivera and Garcia disconnected their phones and never used them again. Magbanua did not.
DeCoste contends that Garcia and Charlie Adelson knew each other and communicated about the plan to kill Markel. He points to a text message from Magbanua to Adleson in which she asks if Garcia called his phone and says that is consistent with the two men knowing each other or communicating.
Adelson replied that Garcia asked him to go deep sea fishing, which Corbett said he perceived as a joke.
“I think it’s clear communication did not happen (between Adelson and Garcia),” Corbett said. “I don’t know ‘did he call your phone’ necessarily means there was a communication.”
Jurors will return to the courtroom in the second week of Magbanua’s murder trial to hear her attorneys cross examine Tallahassee Police Department digital forensics Sgt. Chris Corbett.
Corbett last week detailed the web of phone calls between Magbanua, her longtime boyfriend Sigfredo Garcia and Charlie Adelson the day Markel was murdered and the day after.
Also coming to the stand Monday for the first time is Jessica Rodriguez, Markel killer Luis Rivera’s one-time girlfriend. Prosecutors will also delve into Magbanua’s finances.
Those day-of communications not only show the movements around Tallahassee of Garcia and his friend Rivera as they stalked Markel, but also what prosecutors say was them relaying information that murder had been completed to Magabanua.
She spoke with Garcia at about 12:30 p.m. when his phone was turned back on for the first time since Markel was killed just after 10 a.m.
Cell tower data showed Garcia and Rivera were on their way back to Miami. Rivera testified he overheard Garcia saying “the job is done,” to which she allegedly replied. “I know.”
Rivera took a plea deal for his cooperation with prosecutors. He got a 19-year sentence, though it runs concurrently with a 12-year sentence he was already serving in an unrelated federal case. Garcia was convicted of Markel’s murder in 2019 and is serving a life sentence.
Corbett testified the calls continued the next day when Rivera said he met with Garcia and Magbanua to split the $100,000 prosecutors allege was paid for the murder.
Corbett also noted that Rivera contacted an associate to get in touch with Garcia so they could divvy up the money.
Corbett told jurors that he cannot say with certainty where people are based on the data, but instead where the nearest cellphone tower would be located.
But he said, based on analysis of cell data, that Rivera, Magbanua and Garcia all met up at Rivera’s house the evening of the murder and again the next morning.
After that, Magbanua never contacted Garcia’s number again, indicative of him ditching the phone, Corbett said. Throughout, Magbanua is communicating with Charlie Adelson and Garcia.
Prosecutors will call financial analysts in the hopes of portraying a spike of cash deposits they say were payment for the murder.
Police found between Markel’s killing in July 2014 and Nov. 2015, Magbanua deposited more than $56,000 in cash into her bank account. The deposits, according to arrest records, were made mostly through ATMs in increments of $300 to $2,000.
But her attorneys have contended that Magbanua worked jobs as a bottle girl in a Miami club that would account for the influx of cash.
Contact Karl Etters at email@example.com or @KarlEtters on Twitter.
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