October 05, 2016 - 6:18 AM
A man accused of killing a prominent Canadian legal scholar in Florida pleaded guilty in a U.S. court on Tuesday, marking a major development in a case authorities have called a murder for hire motivated by a bitter divorce.
Luis Rivera pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the shooting death of Dan Markel — a law professor at Florida State University who was born in Toronto — and as part of the plea deal he will testify against two co-accused and will co-operate with investigators.
Rivera, who is already serving a 12-year sentence in federal prison for an unrelated charge, was sentenced to an additional seven years behind bars.
"He's going to testify for the state," Florida State Attorney Willie Meggs told The Canadian Press after the plea deal hearing. "We will continue to investigate the case."
Tallahassee police have alleged that Markel — a law professor at Florida State University who was born in Toronto and was well known in national and international legal circles — was the victim of a murder-for-hire plot triggered by his 2013 divorce from his ex-wife and fellow lawyer Wendi Adelson.
According to court documents, before the couple's divorce was finalized the two fought over Adelson's push to move her two small children to South Florida to be closer to her family. At the time of Markel's death, the two were battling over money, with Adelson contending that Markel did not pay her as much as he was supposed to under their divorce agreement. Markel also complained that his mother-in-law was disparaging him and wanted the court to prohibit her from having unsupervised visits with his children, court documents have shown.
Markel was gunned down in his Tallahasee garage in July 2014.
Adelson and her family have denied any involvement in his death and she has not been charged, but her brother, Charlie Adelson, and a woman he was romantically involved with have both come under police suspicion.
That woman, Katherine Magbanua, was arrested Saturday, and Meggs said statements Rivera made to investigators "most certainly" played a role in that development. Another man, Sigfredo Garcia, has also been charged with murder in Markel's killing. He has pleaded not guilty.
Police have alleged the hit was arranged by Magbanua, who had been romantically involved with both Garcia, with whom she has two children, and Charlie Adelson.
Police allege Magbanua is the only link between Rivera and Garcia, and Markel. They also allege that Magbanua's only connection to Markel is Charlie Adelson.
Georgia Cappleman, chief assistant state attorney, told reporters after Rivera's guilty plea that the deal with the man was a "necessary evil."
"Otherwise you're looking at the possibility of culpable parties not facing any ramifications for their role in the crime," she said. "Mr. Rivera has agreed to co-operate and testify truthfully in all proceedings that may come in the future."
But Adelson's lawyer said Rivera's plea deal was indicative of a desperate prosecution.
"The prosecution admittedly didn't have enough evidence, so it went out and bought some by giving away the farm to a murderer," said David Oscar Markus. "This convicted gangster knows the game and would have said anything not to come out of prison in a box. The prosecution literally threatened him with the needle to get this testimony. That's not a search for the truth. That's a deal with the devil."
Tallahassee police have alleged in probable cause affidavits that Markel's ex-wife told investigators during an interview that her brother had joked about hiring a hit man to kill Markel, but indicated her brother made a lot of jokes in bad taste and that she did not think he would actually commit such a crime.
Investigators say in the weeks leading up to Markel's killing and immediately thereafter, there were hundreds of calls between Charlie Adelson and Magbanua and between Magbanua and Garcia, often moments apart.
Police documents also allege that shortly after the killing, Garcia bought two cars and a motorcycle and Rivera bought a motorcycle. They further allege that Magbanua received cheques from a dental practice run by Charlie Adelson and his parents, though she allegedly never worked there.
— With files from The Associated Press
News from © The Canadian Press, 2016