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Police investigate Florida State law professor’s death as murder-for-hire plot with ties to divorce

Tallahassee Police Department public information officer David Northway reveals an image of Sigfredo Garcia, a suspect in the slaying of Florida State University law professor Dan Markel. (Joe Rondone/Tallahassee Democrat via AP)

When police found him, Florida State University law professor Dan Markel was slumped against the steering wheel of his black Honda Accord, a gunshot wound to the head, keys still dangling in the ignition as the car sat in the garage of his Tallahassee home.

The 41-year-old father of two didn’t make it through the next day, succumbing to his injuries at a hospital. But it was just the beginning of what has become a drawn-out mystery, with Markel’s case having all the makings of a crime novel.

Markel, a prominent Florida State criminal law professor who had degrees from Harvard and Cambridge, had been living out an otherwise normal summer day in July 2014: He had dropped off his kids at daycare and spent an hour exercising at a nearby gym before heading home. But as detectives dug into the case, Markel’s death drew deeper scrutiny, eventually attracting the attention of the FBI, according to the Tallahassee Democrat.

It quickly became apparent that the cause of death was not suicide. Police found he was shot through the driver’s side window as he was talking on a cellphone and that the bullet entered his head from the side. Investigators also ruled out the possibility that he was killed as a result of a botched burglary.

Police this month — nearly two years after the shooting — announced that the two lead suspects in the case are convicted felons and that one was a North Miami Latin Kings gangster with a history of violence. Markel did not appear to detectives as a likely random victim of gang violence: He was killed midday in an affluent neighborhood and he had been a white-collar criminal defender in a D.C. law firm, a federal court clerk and became a noted criminal scholar before joining the Florida State law faculty in 2005.

Detectives listed in court papers that they believe the motive in his slaying instead was rooted in something intensely personal: a possible murder-for-hire plot connected to a bitter divorce and custody battle with his ex-wife, Wendi Adelson, a lawyer who also taught at Florida State.

Markel had written in court filings related to his divorce that he had returned from a business trip to find that Adelson had spontaneously moved out, likening it to a “Visigoth-like sacking of the marital home.” He also compared the departure to a “Pearl Harbor style separation,” according to reporting from the Democrat.

Police found that on the day that Markel died he was followed by two men in a rented Prius. Investigators tracked the men through ATM transactions, a motel receipt and phone calls and determined that they were Sigfredo Garcia and Luis Rivera, better known as King Tato and First Crown of the Latin Kings gang in North Miami, according to the Sun Sentinel.

Police wrote in court documents that Adelson’s brother Charlie — Markel’s brother-in-law, a periodontist — was a close associate of a woman who was the mother of two children fathered by Garcia. The investigators found that the woman had spoken more than 2,000 times to Garcia in the weeks leading up to the slaying, and detectives wrote in court papers that they believe Adelson’s brother is the link between Garcia and Markel.

Police wrote that Adelson’s family did not like Markel and had sought to coerce him to allow his children to move near the Adelson’s in South Florida. A family representative reached by The Washington Post declined to comment.

“Investigators believe the motive for this murder stemmed from the desperate desire of the Adelson family to relocate Wendi and the children to South Florida,” they wrote in an affidavit.

Both Garcia and Rivera are charged in the Florida law professor’s death, and Garcia’s lawyer told the Associated Press that he plans to plead not guilty and that there is no physical evidence linking him to the crime. Garcia’s lawyer did not return a request for comment. Wendi Adelson has not been charged; in an email to the AP, she wrote that she hoped Garcia’s arrest “will finally bring some closure” to the case.

This story has been updated.