A Florida dentist was convicted of having his brother-in-law killed. His mother was charged in the plot days later.

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A Florida dentist was convicted of having his brother-in-law killed. His mother was charged in the plot days later.

In November, days after her son was convicted in a sprawling murder-for-hire plot over a custody dispute, authorities arrested Donna Adelson at Miami International Airport.

Adelson, 73, had participated in the plot, authorities alleged, and now she was at the airport with a one-way ticket to Vietnam — a country with no extradition treaty with the United States.

In an exclusive interview with NBC’s “Dateline,” Adelson’s lawyer rejected the possibility that she was trying to permanently flee the country and described her as “absolutely innocent” of first-degree murder and other crimes.

Dan Rashbaum described Adelson — a bookkeeper at her family’s dental practice — as a distraught parent who was furious with the justice system about her son’s murder conviction and life sentence. She hadn’t done anything wrong when she booked the ticket, he said.

“She was a free citizen like you and me,” he said.

To learn more about the murder-for-hire case, tune in to “Family Matters” on “Dateline” at 9 ET/8 CT tonight.

Charlie Adelson, a Ferrari-owning periodontist from South Florida, was convicted Nov. 6 of first-degree murder, solicitation and conspiracy in the 2014 killing of his former brother-in-law, Florida State University law professor Daniel Markel.

Markel was gunned down on July 18 while parking at his Tallahassee home.

Prosecutors said Charlie orchestrated the killing, which hinged on a dispute between Markel and Wendi Adelson — Charlie’s sister and Donna’s daughter — and involved three people outside the Adelson family: a former girlfriend of Charlie’s, Katherine Magbanua; the father of Magbanua’s children who authorities said pulled the trigger; and the shooter’s close friend.

Magbanua and the father of her children were convicted in the killing in separate trials and sentenced to life in prison. The friend cooperated with authorities and pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. He was sentenced to 19 years.

Charlie Adelson profile court murder trial
Charlie Adelson during closing arguments in Tallahassee, Fla., on Nov. 6, 2023.Alicia Devine / Pool via AP file

At his trial, Charlie acknowledged paying Magbanua after the murder — but he said he did so because he believed he was the victim of an extortion scheme and Magbanua could pay off the people who killed Markel. If he didn’t pay one-third of $1 million within 48 hours, he said she told him, he’d be dead too.

 In his testimony, Charlie recounted telling Magbanua that he only had enough money to pay her $138,000. She asked if he could pay the rest in $3000 monthly installments, he testified.

During the trial, Magbanua denied that she tried to extort Charlie and said the payment was for Markel’s killing.

Donna was convinced the extortion scheme was real, Rashbaum said, and went along with her son’s plan.

“She’s a good mom, a loving mom, and that’s why she’s in the predicament she’s” in, he said.

An ugly custody dispute

Authorities said Markel’s killing was linked to the dispute over the children he shared with ex Wendi Adelson. After she filed for divorce in 2012, Wendi asked a judge to let her move with their two boys from Tallahassee to South Florida, where her parents also lived, according to the affidavit in support of Donna’s arrest.

The judge rejected the request, but Charlie and Donna Adelson were “determined” to see Wendi relocate, the affidavit says. During Charlie’s trial, Magbanua testified that Charlie had called Markel a “terrible” man who had put his family through an ordeal and came up with the idea to kill his former brother-in-law.

Rashbaum, who represented Charlie Adelson in his criminal trial, blamed Magbanua for orchestrating the extortion and the murder, saying she was motivated by Charlie’s refusal to marry her.

According to the affidavit, Donna also repeatedly sought to have her daughter “coerce” Markel into allowing the move with an offer of $1 million, and she told her daughter to “threaten” to convert the boys to Catholicism — “knowing Markel was very observant in his Jewish faith and that the religious practices of the children were of the utmost importance to Markel.”

Rashbaum said that Wendi never actually presented Donna’s financial offer, which was intended to pay expenses related to a potential move to South Florida. Among other things, it would have paid for an apartment for Markel, Rashbaum said, and it would have allowed him to commute to Tallahassee. Wendi Adelson has denied involvement in Markel’s killing and has not been accused of any crimes.

The lawyer downplayed the conversion comment, saying it came in the context of an acrimonious custody dispute and was designed only to push Markel’s buttons.

“Were they ever gonna convert these grandchildren to Catholicism or baptize them?” he said. “Never.”

Authorities also alleged that Donna had the means to finance the killing. The day after Markel’s fatal shooting, the affidavit says, she allegedly delivered a bag of cash to her son that authorities said he used to pay Magbanua.

And in September, Magbanua was put on the dental practice’s payroll, earning roughly $407 every two weeks, the affidavit says. Donna signed her checks.

Rashbaum said the cash Donna is accused of giving to her son didn’t come from her — it was Charlie’s. The allegation that Donna delivered the money came from Magbanua, who testified at Charlie’s trial that he told her about his mother delivering the money. Rashbaum said this claim was false. 

“The cash came from his safe,” Rashbaum said, adding: “He had no reason to lie about that.”

Rashbaum said that Donna wrote the checks because she was the practice’s bookkeeper. Asked if she helped plan or pay for the killing, Rashbaum said: “No, absolutely not. Zero chance.”   

An undercover sting

Rashbaum rejected another piece of evidence that authorities pointed to during Charlie’s trial and in Donna’s affidavit.

More than a year after Markel’s killing — and before anyone had been arrested — law enforcement launched an undercover sting operation to try and determine who was involved, Georgia Cappleman, the prosecutor who later tried Charlie’s case, told “Dateline.”

In April 2016, an undercover federal agent posing as someone seeking to blackmail Donna over the murder approached her outside her Miami condo and handed her a news article about Markel’s murder. Written on the piece of paper was a dollar amount — $5,000 — and a phone number.

matriarch professor murder plot
Donna Adelson listens to Judge Mindy Glazer at Miami-Dade Circuit Court on Tuesday, after being arrested at Miami Int’l Airport Monday evening.NBC South Florida

The agent told Donna that she was “taking care” of Magbanua and the father of her children, but not the friend who later pleaded guilty, Cappleman said.

“It’s designed to give Donna the impression that she’s being blackmailed for $5,000 on behalf” of the friend, Cappleman said.

In a conversation the FBI intercepted afterwards, Donna called her son about “some paperwork” that had been hand-delivered to her, according to the affidavit. When Charlie asked if it was about him, she whispered: “Well, probably the both of us.”

“You probably have a general idea what I’m talking about,” she added, before saying she didn’t want to discuss the matter further over the phone.

Rashbaum said the situation had played out exactly as you’d expect it to — for someone who believed her son was being extorted.

“She doesn’t want to talk about it because he’s told her, ‘Never talk about it,’” Rashbaum said. “And so, when she’s describing it to him, he’s asking, ‘Is it about me?’ And she says, ‘No, it’s about the both of us. I think it’s about the two of us. Meaning you were extorted, and now I’m being extorted.’”

“I think it proves her innocence,” Rashbaum said.

A ticket to Vietnam

During a news conference after Charlie’s conviction, a reporter asked Cappleman if anyone else in the Adelson family would face charges.

“I don’t know the answer to that,” Cappleman said. “Stay tuned.”

To Donna, Rashbaum said, the comment seemed directed at her.

“She’s just been told by the prosecutor immediately after her son’s conviction that she’s next,” Rashbaum said. “Her thought pattern is: They’re gonna arrest me. I’m 73 years old, and I’m gonna be in the same predicament of not having a fair trial in Tallahassee.”

“I think the thought pattern was: Let’s get away for some time, let’s see what the situation’s like,” Rashbaum said, adding: “They were gonna come back.”

Donna’s husband had also booked a ticket to Vietnam and was with her when she was arrested. He was not taken into custody and has not been charged with any crimes in connection with Markel’s murder.

Rashbaum said the couple had obtained visas for either two or three months and planned on returning to the United States when those expired. At the time, Rashbaum said, there were no warrants for Donna’s arrest and she was free to do as she wished.

“Was it a smart move?” he said. “One can debate that.”

In the weeks before her arrest, authorities had captured Donna in a recorded call from the jail where her son was being held discussing countries without extradition treaties with the United States, according to a recording of that and other calls obtained by “Dateline.”

The Nov. 7 conversation appears to have disconnected on Charlie’s side early on in the roughly 25-minute recording, but his mother continued talking to others who were with her at the time. It isn’t clear who she was speaking to. 

“We’ve been looking it up over and over, ‘cause things change, if there is extradition from Vietnam,” Donna says after the line appears to disconnect. “We’ve looked at all the places. I mean, I could go to Korea and China, but there’s no extradition. But looking for places where there’s no extradition.”

Rashbaum said the legal status of the call wasn’t clear because Donna didn’t appear to know she was still on the call and being recorded. The state’s attorney’s office declined to comment.

Donna was also recorded commenting on a discussion she said she had with her lawyer about her travel plans.

“After speaking to Dan this morning and knowing what they’re thinking up there, I don’t know if we’ll make it out in time,” she says in the recording. “Because Dan said, ‘You might. Or you might do all of it, get to the airport and … that could happen. It could happen, I don’t know. But it’s worth a try.’”

Donna did not specify what she meant by “up there” and parts of the call were muffled, so it wasn’t clear what she said. Asked if he was helping his client flee to a country with no extradition treaty with the U.S., Rashbaum said: “The short answer to that is no.”

Rashbaum was limited in what he could say because of attorney-client privilege, he added, “but I can assure you that it’s nothing illegal.”

Tim Stelloh

Tim Stelloh is a breaking news reporter for NBC News Digital.

Michael Nardi

,

Bradley Davis

and

Brenda Breslauer

contributed

.

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