Ruth Markel talks about her search to find meaning after the murder of her son, Dan

Eight years after her son Dan Markel was murdered in Florida. Toronto's Ruth Markel writes a new book to catalogue her journey from grief to hope as they continue to seek justice for the killing.

Just days after the eighth anniversary of Dan Markel’s murder, his Toronto family is now gearing up for another emotional milestone. Next Friday, July 29, they’ll be watching via Zoom when the woman who was convicted of helping to arrange the murder appears in a Florida courtroom, for a sentencing hearing.

In May, a jury found Katherine Magbanua guilty of murder and conspiracy charges in the assassination of Markel. The 41-year-old Canadian law professor was found shot to death in his car outside his Tallahassee, Fla. home on July 18, 2014. He had just come back from the gym, after dropping his two young sons off at daycare.

Two hired gunmen were convicted of carrying out the murder, which prosecutors allege was done to benefit Markel’s ex-wife, Wendi Adelson, who was in a custody battle with him over where the two boys would live: Tallahassee or Miami.

One of the killers is now serving a life sentence, while the other received seven years in prison in exchange for cooperating with the authorities and pleading guilty.

Magbanua was found guilty—after her first trial ended in a mistrial—of acting as the go-between with the ex-wife’s family: she had worked for the Adelson family’s dental practice, and briefly dated dentist Charles Adelson, Wendi Adelson’s brother.

The trio split the $100,000 payment in a series of cheques that came from Adelson’s clinic.

In Toronto, Dan Markel’s mother Ruth Markel is preparing what she will say to the court when the judge asks the family to read out a victims’ impact statement.

“There’s fast cars, there’s all kinds of arrests. There’s anything you want to find in this story, even things like Peyton Place, who has relationships with who and so forth,” Ruth Markel told The CJN in this exclusive first Canadian interview on the anniversary of her son’s death. “But what is not in the real story at all, and all of the people who are suffering now, is what is it like to be a homicide victim? What does it feel like? What is the family going through?”

dan markel

Dan and Ruth Markel. (Photo courtesy of Ruth Markel)

Ex-brother-in-law arrested for murder

It’s not the first time the Markel family has gone public with their anguish over losing their son, and with their fight for justice. Ruth Markel, Dan’s father Phil (the couple is separated) and Dan’s sister Shelly have spent eight years travelling back and forth to Florida since the murder.

Aside from dealing with the immediate aftermath of the crime, the Markels have been closely involved in the subsequent investigation, arrests, trials, and three convictions to date.

Now they’re anticipating the next step in the legal journey: Magbanua’s sentencing.

The woman faces a life sentence for the murder, and 30 years for the other charges. The prosecutors did not ask for the death sentence in her case. She has two children together with one of the killers.

Meanwhile, the investigation has also taken a crucial turn: police arrested Charles Adelson in April of this year, and charged him with masterminding his former brother-in-law’s murder. He is also set to appear in the same Tallahassee courtroom, on July 29, as part of his pre-trial process.

Markel’s ex-wife Wendi and their mother Donna Adelson have been named as co-conspirators, although Wendi has always maintained she didn’t know anything about the plot to kill her ex-husband.

Grandparent alienation

Wendi Adelson had wanted to move to Miami with the couple’s two sons, Benjamin, who turns 13 on July 29, and Lincoln, born in 2010. Her parents live there. But the judge sided with Markel and ruled the children were to remain in Tallahassee.

Two days after the murder, Wendi Adelson packed up her house and did move with her sons to Miami. She also changed the boys’ last names from Markel to Adelson. 

After 2016, she cut off access for the Canadian grandparents to see the boys.

“And that became the hardest thing for me. It was difficult to lose Dan, but here you have living children, living family members and important ones that you were cut off from, and that was exceptionally sad,” Ruth Markel said, referring to the span of six years without seeing the children.

In June, Florida governor Ron DeSantis signed a new law named for Dan Markel, which covers grandparent alienation in specific cases where one custodial parent is convicted of murdering the other. The Markels worked with lobbyists and Florida politicians and also her sons’ friends in the Florida legal community to introduce the draft bill and see it pass.

While this law doesn’t apply to them at the moment, Ruth Markel believes the law had other important benefits for her personally.

“There is hope, there is resilience. And the important part is to, at some point, define yourself again and find meaning, which is what I did through the advocacy work with the grandparent legislation,” she said.

New book ‘The Unveiling’

Another important part of Markel’s journey has been the writing of her new memoir The Unveiling. The book is set for release on Sept. 20.

The book tells what it’s been like for her and for her family behind-the-scenes since the murder, as the pieces fell into place about who killed her son and why.

It is based on notes she kept beginning after her son was killed, including during the first three arrests and all the trials. She wrote the main draft during the pandemic, but added an update this spring after Adelson’s arrest.

The book paints a portrait of Ruth Markel’s own journey with grief, and also about dealing with the criminal aspects of the investigation, including learning unfamiliar legal jargon, and how to handle reporters. She hopes other families who find themselves in similar situations can learn from her experiences.

“There’s the beginning, the middle, and the rest of your life,” Markel said, citing a favourite quote from the founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. “The book doesn’t end the grief. The book is a way of finding some meaning.”

The Unveiling is a new book by Ruth Markel about the grief journey of her family and their struggle for justice, and hope in the death of Dan Markel. (Submitted photo)

The title of the book is symbolic to her, because it was only after arriving for the unveiling ceremony for Dan’s gravestone at Pardes Shalom cemetery in Vaughan, Ont., did she confront the reality of his untimely death.

After the murder in 2014, she felt “sad” and “in a daze”, but seeing the piece of fabric wrapped around the fresh gravestone ready for the unveiling ceremony, was shocking.

“It was at that point that it just hit me like I could have collapsed and gone underground myself, and that’s the reason why I chose the title,” she said, explaining that the finality of his death was the beginning of her grief journey.

The book takes readers through the Markels encounters with Florida police and with his ex-wife, as early as a day or two after the murder. She describes walking through Dan’s home looking for important papers, and seeing the boys’ toys, which they would never use again.

She has mostly praise for the Florida police, the prosecutors, court officials, and with Dan’s law school colleagues and his friends, who set up a Justice For Dan organization. The family also was grateful to the victims services workers who helped them understand their legal rights to participate in the court cases and investigation.

She also received advice during the trials from Abe Anhang, the father of slain Winnipeg real estate millionaire Adam Anhang. The Jewish man was killed in Puerto Rico in 2005 at the request of his ex-beauty queen wife, after a dinner to discuss their divorce. She was later convicted, along with her sister, and an ex-boyfriend, after an international police manhunt to Israel and Italy.

Dan Markel seen here at a Passover seder in Montreal. (Submitted photo).

Harvard trained lawyer

Dan Markel was born in Montreal, but grew up in Toronto, and then moved away to do undergraduate work at Harvard University. After stops in England and Israel for further studies, including a law degree from Harvard in 2001, Markel moved to Washington to work as a lawyer. After meeting Wendi Adelson , the couple moved to Florida, where Markel became a professor at Florida State University’s law school in Tallahassee. They married in 2006.

The book delves into the couple’s differences over living an observant Jewish life: Markel wanted the boys to keep kosher. His mother describes how Dan was on the board of a local synagogue and also had ties to a Chabad community. Adelson and her family didn’t respect his wishes, and would often feed the kids non-kosher food.

Ruth Markel’s estrangement from her grandchildren is also covered in detail, beginning in 2016, when the three conspirators were arrested. Markel breaks down how a chance meeting with another client at a Florida hair salon—“I am a hairdresser junkie”—prompted her to set her sights on improving the rights of grandparents to visit their grandchildren in that state.

House Bill 1116, unofficially called the Dan Markel act, was formally adopted on June 22, 2022.

Markel is convinced it was the pending ratification of the bill that prompted a surprise invitation in April from her former daughter-in-law, Wendi, to attend Benjamin’s coming bar mitzvah. After six years of no contact, the Markels hoped they could at least spend a little time alone with the boys, the day before the celebration, to get to know them again.

It was arranged they should fly down in April and spend the day.

“We saw the children. They’re not children anymore, they’re big boys. And it was amazing. And that was the best experience that we could have,” Markel said.

They could not have known that at the exact same time, on April 20, Florida police were arranging to arrest the boys’ uncle, Charles Adelson. He was picked up the next morning, and charged with the murder for hire plot, with the boys’ mother Wendi and their American grandmother, Donna Adelson, named as co-conspirators.

The break in the case came after forensic experts were able to enhance a surveillance recording of Adelson having a meeting with Katherine Magbanua in a Miami restaurant in 2016, to discuss the murder.

Impact on the grandsons

After Adelson’s arrest, and the implication of his mother, the Markels were told not to come to Benjamin’s bar mitzvah. Ruth Markel worries about the impact of the whole bizarre case on her grandchildren, who are now adolescents.

“Do they know anything? It’s hard to tell. I don’t think they’ve been naturally given any information,” she said, when asked what the kids know about their father’s murder. “We want the children to have as much of a normal life as they can have.”

Which is why petitioning for custody of the boys is not in the cards at present.

Ruth Markel and her family observed the eighth anniversary of Dan’s murder in several ways: there were services held at two Toronto synagogues, and she also intended to pay a visit his grave.

Marking Dan Markel’s 50th birthday

Dan Markel would have turned 50 this year, in October. In his memory, his mother launched the Dan Markel fund through Hillel Ontario to help support the fight against antisemitism on campus.

As part of the commemoration, in 2023 the family will sponsor a gathering of Jewish university students at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. It is likely to be a Shabbaton at Queen’s, where her other two (Canadian) grandchildren attend.

While American news outlets have been devoting gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Markel case, less attention has been paid to the story north of the border, Ruth Markel lamented.

She hopes the launch of her book will pique the interest in her home country, especially in Toronto, and in Montreal, where she was raised and worked for years with that city’s Jewish Family Services, now part of Ometz.

Meanwhile the case will be high profile on July 29, with the two court appearances. There is also an upcoming Apple TV series in the works, based on episodes of a 2019 Wondery true-crime podcast into the case called Over My Dead Body.

The CJN Daily extended interview with Ruth Markel, recorded on July 14, 2022.