Who is Donna Adelson? Evidence against latest person charged in Dan Markel murder-for-hire
Affidavit claims Adelson spoke of suicide, fleeing to non-extradition country
C. A. Bridges
USA TODAY NETWORK – Florida
On Monday night in Miami, one week after Fort Lauderdale periodontist Charlie Adelson was found guilty in a murder-for-hire plot to kill his ex-brother-in-law Dan Markel, his parents Donna and Harvey Adelson were stopped at Miami International Airport before they could board a one-way flight to Vietnam.
Donna Adelson, 73, was arrested on charges of first-degree murder, conspiracy and solicitation in the 2014 killing of the renowned FSU law professor in the latest bombshell twist in a nearly decade-long investigation that captured the attention of the nation.
Donna Adelson was indicted by a grand jury on Wednesday on the same charges.
In the arrest affidavit, investigators said that Donna was complicit and a flight risk, citing jailhouse calls she made to Charlie after he was found guilty saying she was putting her financial affairs in order and planning to leave, either through self-harm or by getting out of the country.
“Donna discusses plans for a suicide,” the affidavit says, “but also discusses plans to flee to a non-extradition country. Donna Sue Adelson has considerable financial resources to do this.”
Here’s what we know.
Who is Donna Adelson?
Donna Sue Adelson, is married to Dr. Harvey Adelson, retired dentist and founder of the Adelson Institute for Aesthetics and Implant Dentistry in Tamarac, Florida. She has three children.
Adelson is the second member of her family and the fifth person to be charged in connection to the Dan Markel contract killing.
What happened to Dan Markel?
Daniel Eric Markel, 41 at the time of his death, was a Canadian-born Florida State law professor, author and prominent legal scholar. He was married to fellow FSU professor Wendi Adelson and they had two young sons, but they separated in 2012 and battled through an extremely acrimonious and bitter divorce in 2013. Wendi and her family were determined to move her and the boys to South Florida where the rest of the Adelsons lived, prosecutors said, but Markel refused and successfully fought it in court.
Over nearly ten years of investigations, wiretapping, and testimony, prosecutors have said Markel’s killing was the result of a murder-for-hire plot involving Donna Adelson, her son Charles, a.k.a. Charlie (a periodontist at the family business), Charlie’s girlfriend at the time Katherine Magbanua, and the hitmen Luis Rivera and Sigfredo Garcia, who is also the father of Magbanua’s children.
How it all began:FSU law professor dies in shooting
How many people have been found guilty in the Dan Markel murder?
To date, four people have been found guilty in the conspiracy. Rivera, who was already doing time on an unrelated charge, took a deal and received a 19-year sentence. Garcia, who Rivera said pulled the trigger, was sentenced to life in prison in 2019, as was Magbanua in her 2022 trial. This month Charlie Adelson was found guilty and is awaiting sentencing.
Dan Markel murder:Walkthrough of witnesses making the case for, against Charlie Adelson
What was Donna Adelson charged with and was she wearing an anti-suicide vest?
Donna Adelson was charged with first-degree murder, conspiracy and solicitation in Markel’s murder, the same charges her son Charlie was found guilty of by a jury in just three hours.
A grand jury on Wednesday returned an indictment of Donna Adelson on the same charges.
Adelson was booked into the Miami-Dade Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center, where she is being held without bond. She is expected to be transported to the Leon County Detention Facility, where her son is incarcerated while he awaits sentencing, within the next couple of weeks. The U.S. Sun reported that Adelson appeared in court wearing an anti-suicide vest.
A court date has yet to be set for Adelson’s sentencing.
What is the evidence against Donna Adelson?
The Tallahassee Police Department suggested that Donna Adelson was a prime suspect in the Markel murder back in 2016, when TPD initially presented probable cause affidavits to the State Attorney’s Office. At the time, State Attorney Willie Meggs dismissed them as speculation. Investigations over the next 9 years revealed:
- Prosecutors say Donna and Harvey Adelson repeatedly tried to convince Wendi to coerce Markel into allowing her to move their sons to South Florida, with Donna suggesting they offer Markel $1 million to change his mind.
- Donna suggested that Wendi threaten to enroll the children of the devoutly Jewish Markel in a Catholic school, according to Donna Adelson’s arrest affidavit. Markel also filed a motion to prevent Donna from having unsupervised time with the children after hearing about disparaging remarks she was making about him to the children.
- According to the arrest affidavit, cellular records show “numerous contacts” between Magbanua, Charlie Adelson and Garcia before and after the killing, and contact between Garcia and a phone registered to Harvey Adelson. Charlie also frequently contacted Donna before and after the death.
- Wendi Adelson told investigators the day of the murder that her brother had joked it would be cheaper to buy her a TV as a divorce gift than hire a hitman. From roughly 460 miles away, Donna arranged a television repair appointment for Wendi the morning of the homicide.
- At Charlie Adelson’s trial, Magbanua testified that when she went to his home the night of the killing he told her his parents had just left, leaving behind money “that his mom had washed,” the affidavit said. She said the money was damp and moldy.
- After the murder, Magbanua received more than $17,000 in paychecks from the Adelson’s practice, handwritten and signed by Donna, from September 2014 to at least April 2016, prosecutors said, on top of her portion of the money for the killing and over $56,000 in cash. She also was sold Charlie Adelson’s Lexus, which was registered to Harvey Adelson, for $1,700.
- In 2016, an undercover agent contacted Donna Adelson with a letter about the murder and demanded $5,000. She contacted Charlie to discuss the threat. In a later call, when Charlie asked what the letter was for, she said, “This TV is probably about five,” meaning $5,000, according to the affidavit. After he visited both his parents for a huddled conversation, Charlie took Magbanua to the Dolce Viota restaurant where their conversation was recorded to complain about the would-be blackmailer, what he knew, and what Charlie would do about it. That recording became key evidence in Charlie’s trial. One of the things he told Magbanua was “if they had any evidence we would have already gone to the airport.” After the meeting, Charlie called Donna to report that he was handling everything.
- After another letter and a text was sent to Donna Adelson by investigators, there were multiple calls and meetings between Charlie and his parents. Donna called the agent and denied all knowledge.
- Another of Charlie Adelson’s girlfriends, June Umchinda, told the FBI that after Rivera and Garcia were charged with murder Charlie and Donna Adelson both seemed more stressed, and Donna told her that she felt “Dan Markel was haunting her from the grave,” the affidavit said.
- After Charlie Adelson’s guilty verdict, Donna called him in jail several times and told him she was “getting things in order, creating trusts, and making sure her grandchildren are taken care of,” the affidavit said. She also discussed plans for a suicide and plans to flee to a non-extradition country.
- On Nov. 7, Donna and Harvey Adelson booked flights to Vietnam with a stop in Dubai, less than 48 hours before a grand jury was scheduled to meet that might have taken up her case. The U.S. does not have an extradition treaty with Vietnam. The grand jury returned an indictment of Donna Adelson on Wednesday.
Have Harvey or Wendi Adelson been charged?
Wendi Adelson, who has denied involvement with the murder and testified under immunity at several trials, has not been charged.
State Attorney Jack Campbell told the Tallahassee Democrat that the state did not have the evidence to arrest Harvey Adelson, but had enough to arrest Donna Adelson. Her attempted flight overseas sped things up and pushed law enforcement “to make a decision quickly,” Campbell said.
“That’s what forced our hand,” Campbell said. “We started talking to some of our law enforcement partners about the complexities of trying to bring someone back from either Dubai or Vietnam. And that might be a very complicated and lengthy process. So that’s why we had to make a decision quickly.”
Tallahassee Democrat reporter Jeff Burlew contributed to this article.