How Donna Adelson sparked her own arrest for helping her son commit murder

From Left to Right: Donna Adelson, her son-in-law Dan Markel, her son Charlie Adelson  (AP)
From Left to Right: Donna Adelson, her son-in-law Dan Markel, her son Charlie Adelson (AP)

Days after Charlie Adelson was convicted for orchestrating the 2014 killing of his brother-in-law amid a contentious child custody battle nearly a decade ago, his mother called him in jail and revealed that she was about to flee the country.

Donna Adelson, a 73-year-old Miami Beach grandmother and matriarch of the wealthy Adelson family, told her son on the recorded calls that she was “getting things in order and that she was making sure her grandchildren would be taken care of.”

She talked about suicide on the call, according to an arrest affidavit, but then admitted her plans to flee to a non-extradition country. That country was Vietnam with a stop in Dubai. The two countries do not have an extradition treaty with the United States.

With a one-way ticket to Vietnam in her hand, Donna and her husband Harvey Adelson arrived at the Miami International Airport – but were stopped by the authorities before they could leave.

Donna was taken into custody and now faces murder, conspiracy, and solicitation charges in the murder of her son-in-law Dan Markel, a 41-year-old Florida State University law professor who was shot and killed outside his Tallahassee home in 2014.

Prosecutors argue that the Adelsons conspired to get rid of Markel after a bitter custody dispute between Markel and his ex-wife, Wendi Adelson, Donna’s daughter.

State Attorney Jack Campbell told the Tallahassee Democrat that the state did not have the evidence to arrest Harvey, but had enough to arrest Donna.

Her attempted flight overseas sped things up and pushed law enforcement “to make a decision quickly,” Mr Campbell said.

“That’s what forced our hand,” Mr 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.”

The charges are the same that her son Charlie Adelson, 47, was convicted of just last week. He faces a mandatory life term when sentenced next month.

Charlie Adelson rubs his face as he waits for his verdict in his murder trial (AP)
Charlie Adelson rubs his face as he waits for his verdict in his murder trial (AP)

As of 15 November afternoon, Donna was being held at the Miami-Dade County Jail without bail pending her transfer to Tallahassee.

Donna is the fourth person to be arrested – an update that marks the latest twist in the 2014 killing that was arranged by Charlie Adelson’s former girlfriend, Katie Magbanua, who hired her ex-husband Sigfredo “Tuto” Garcia and his friend Latin Kings leader Luis Rivera to carry out the murder.

Magbanua and Garcia are serving life sentences and Rivera is serving a 19-year sentence after pleading guilty to second-degree murder and testifying against the others.

Here’s what to know about the case:

Disturbing jailhouse calls led to Donna Adelson’s arrest

The family matriarch had been on prosecutors’ radar for some time, according to Leon County State Attorney Jack Campbell, who told The Associated Press that while he believes his prosecutors already had enough evidence to convict Donna before Monday, her arrest had to be accelerated when investigators learned of her plans to leave the country.

Those plans were discovered in jailhouse calls made following Charlie’s guilty verdict last week.

The calls involved Donna telling her son that she was “getting things in order, creating trusts, and making sure her grandchildren are taken care of.”

“Donna discusses plans for a suicide, but also discusses plans to flee to a non-extradition country,” according to the affidavit.

“Donna Sue Adelson has considerable financial resources to accomplish this,” the affidavit continued. “On Nov. 7, 2023, Donna and Harvey Adelson booked flights to Vietnam with a stop in Dubai.”

“It was going to be complicated and really difficult trying to bring them back, depending on where they ended up in the world,” Mr Campbell added. “The arrest was not just based on the flight, but that played a part in the timing.”

What happened to Dan Markel?

On 18 July 2014, Dan Markel was gunned down in the driveway outside his Tallahassee home. He was 44 years old.

Just 48 hours later, his ex-wife Wendi and their two boys moved to a house that was within walking distance of the Adelson family home, prosecutors said. She later changed her sons’ last name from Markel to Adelson.

The Adelsons immediately became suspects following Markel’s murder. Wendi told detectives that the killing could have been arranged on her behalf, because her parents - including her mother Donna, were “very angry at Markel.”

Wendi, who has denied involvement with the murder and testified under immunity at several trials, has not been charged. Neither has her father, Harvey Adelson.

Emails reveal Donna Adelson ‘hated’ her son-in-law

Prosecutors have repeatedly said Donna “hated” her former son-in-law Markel, who had been in a bitter custody battle with Wendi.

He had a court order barring her move from Tallahassee back to South Florida with their two young sons.

Authorities say the Adelsons offered Markel $1m to let his ex-wife and sons move, but when he refused, Charlie Adelson and other members of the family began plotting his death.

In a key email sent in July 2013, she told her daughter: “It’s time to take control of your life and not let Jibbers think he’s just ‘won’ anything by having you remain in Tallahassee, eight hours away from the only family you have, and lose out on what will be a job that will afford you and your children advantages that they will never otherwise be able to enjoy.”

“Let’s show this [expletive] what will make him absolutely miserable,” the email continued. “You know his weak points; money, religion, control.”

“You have 5 weeks before your court date,” she wrote, underlining that text. “I know you have a hob that keeps you very busy. However, the rest of your life, and consequently, dad’s mine and yes, even Charlie’s, will be affected by how well you can perform/act before July 31st.”

An investigation was launched and in 2016, an FBI agent, impersonating an extortionist, approached Donna outside her home and demanded $5,000 to not turn information about the shooting over to investigators.

This sparked a slew of calls and meetings between Donna and her son. In the first call, she told him they needed to discuss “some paperwork” and that “you probably have a general idea what I’m talking about.”

Wiretaps of the phone calls between Charlie and his mother played a role at his trial.

A sting operation called “The Bump,” revealed there was a pattern of phone calls leading up to and around the time of the murder, calls “were always” made in this order: Donna Adelson to Charlie Adelson to Katherine Magbanua to Sigfredo Garcia, only for those calls to be returned in reverse order.