Bill would let parents of murdered FSU law professor see their grandkids

Mary Ellen Klas

The bitter family feud between the parents of murdered law professor Dan Markel, who have been denied visitation rights with their grandchildren, and his estranged wife, has prompted a state senator to file a bill to allow a court to intervene.

The bill would allow a court to let children of murder victims see members of their deceased parent’s family when the living parent tries to block access. Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, filed the bill Monday on behalf of Phil and Ruth Markel.

Current law does not allow a deceased parent’s family access to courts to petition for supervised visitation or telephone calls, and Markel’s friends and family say the impact of breaking those ties has the potential to further traumatize children already grieving their parent’s violent death.

Markel’s former wife, Wendi Adelson, has changed the name of their sons from Markel to Adelson and has prohibited his family from having telephone or visiting access.

Markel was murdered in 2014 and, although state prosecutors have not made any arrests of family members, they have identified the brother and mother of his ex-wife as “persons of interest’’ and contend that Markel’s former wife, Wendi Adelson, financed the murder-for-hire hit on her former husband. They say the investigation remains open.

Sigfredo Garcia, the alleged trigger man, was convicted of first-degree murder in October. A mistrial was called for Katherine Magbanua, Garcia’s longtime girlfriend who had a relationship with Charlie Adelson, Wendi Adelson’s brother, and whom prosecutors consider the go-between who arranged the murder.

Unlike Markel’s parents who have not been able to interact with their son’s children for more than five years, Adelson’s family has unlimited access to the young boys.

“Following the horrible murder of our son, Dan Markel, our goal has been to embrace his children, our grandchildren, and preserve the loving relationship they have had with us and the rest of their father’s family,” Phil and Ruth Markel said in a statement. “Care and support from a loving family will help heal children subjected to violent crimes. Legislation such as this will ensure their best interests are protected.”

Markel’s parents sat in the courtroom nearly every day of the three-week trial as prosecutors alleged that Adelson’s family financed the murder-for-hire hit on Markel with a promise of $100,000 in cash and gifts. The money was to be divided between Garcia, Magbanua, and Garcia’s childhood friend Luis Rivera, the head of North Miami’s Latin Kings gang, now in federal prison for racketeering.

The state alleged that the motive for the murder was to allow Wendi Adelson to relocate her children to South Florida after her bitter divorce from Markel. But the state has come up short in its quest for enough evidence and the case remains open.

Wendi Adelson said Tuesday her decision to keep her children from her former in-laws is about safety.

“As a mom, my number one concern is to make sure my boys are safe,’’ she said. “This is not about family separation; instead, this is a personal family matter about a mom protecting her children and doing what is in their best interest, to keep our family unit safe and secure.”

Case of murdered FSU prof goes to jury, but focus remains on South Florida in-laws

Brandes said the legislation attempts to close a gap in the law that limits access to courts.

“I think it’s very tailored to these types of situations,’’ Brandes said. “We need to revise the law we already have to better match its original intent, and reopen the conversation about what it means to have the best interest of children at heart, particularly when it relates to violent crime.”

“The ability for grandparents to petition courts is no guarantee of visitation,” he said. “Rather, courts must remain strongly deferential to the living parent’s authority and must take into consideration the relevant factors prior to determining what is or isn’t appropriate.”

The legislation was proposed by a group of Markel’s friends who have formed the committee, Justice for Dan, after seeing Markel’s family treated differently than families of other murder victims in Florida.

“Florida has extremely strong victim rights protections, unless those victims are the minor children of murder victims,” said Jason Solomon, founder of Justice For Dan. “In these cases, the living parent can unilaterally limit all access to the deceased parent’s family, leaving traumatized children without the full emotional support and sense of identity needed to lead healthy lives over the long term.”

In 2015, the Florida Legislature passed legislation to provide grandparents with the right to petition courts for visitation in cases where one parent is deceased and the other parent has been convicted of a felony. But that language did not anticipate circumstances in which criminal investigations and proceedings remain open for years, or where members of the living parent’s family are implicated or suspected in the deceased parent’s murder and remain active in the children’s lives.

Proponents say the proposal is intended to close a gap that leaves minor children vulnerable to additional trauma and victimization.

Florida courts have overturned previous grandparent visitation statutes based on privacy rights of parents but, while the legislation does not guarantee visitation, it affirms the right of grandparents to ask a court to intervene.

Advocates for the measure say they are also motivated by the desire to create a disincentive for other families who may see murder as a way to gain total control of children.

“Someday, the Markel boys — whose mother changed their last name after their father’s murder — will Google their names, and will learn that their grandparents and extended family didn’t abandon them, and that they tried everything they could to be in their lives, including attempts to change Florida law to do so,” said Jeremy Hockenstein, Markel’s friend.

Miami Herald staff writer Samantha J. Gross contributed to this report.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@miamiherald.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas