Advertisement

From mom of a ‘five-star family’ to murder-for-hire charge: Donna Adelson’s dark fall

Donna Adelson wanted nothing but the best for her children.

A former teacher, she worked part-time in her husband Harvey’s busy dentistry practice while juggling the demands of three children, community volunteering and active membership in her Coral Springs synagogue.

Her driving goal — said family friend Ben Graber, a gynecologist and former state lawmaker — was to raise her kids to be academic achievers, humanitarians and upstanding citizens.

“They are what I would call a ‘five-star’ family.”

That makes it hard for Graber, who knew the Adelsons for 40 years, to fathom how a family he considered pillars of the community would be at the center of the most notorious murder-for-hire plot in Florida in the last decade.

Both Donna Adelson, a 73-year-old grandmother, and her son, Charles, 47, are behind bars. Donna is charged with first-degree murder and solicitation of murder – and her son has already been convicted – in the 2014 Tallahassee slaying of Dan Markel, a Florida State University law scholar once married to Wendi Adelson, a fellow legal professor who is Donna’s only daughter..

Donna Adelson was arrested Nov. 13 at Miami International Airport as she and her husband, Harvey, were about to board a one-way flight to Vietnam. That short-circuited trip to a country with no extradition treaty with the United States came just one week after a jury had convicted Charles Adelson of hiring two hit men from Miami to kill Markel amid a vicious battle with Wendi over custody of their two children.

Harvey and Wendi have never been charged with any crime in a plot entangling a disparate cast of characters, including a hit man with Miami gang ties. The sensational case has riveted a state capital that still has small-town sensibilities and been pored over by newspapers, podcasters and true crime shows for nearly a decade.

Exhibit from Charles Adelson’s murder trial, adapted by the Miami Herald.
Exhibit from Charles Adelson’s murder trial, adapted by the Miami Herald.

But for all the court hearings and attention, it still seems almost incomprehensible why a mother and son from such a respectable, successful family would launch what prosecutors have described as a cold-blooded but sloppily planned killing to win a child-custody fight. The risks were immense for Donna — she could end up in prison for the rest of her life and destroy the family she so treasured.

It’s the question few who knew the family have been willing to address. Former neighbors won’t talk. Donna’s friends seemed to have disappeared. Their former rabbi, who was contacted by the Herald, also declined to speak about a family that was part of their temple for years. The Herald was unsuccessful in reaching her defense attorney.

Graber — who served as a state lawmaker, Broward commissioner and mayor in a long career — seems the only person who has gone public with support for the Adelsons as the charges and convictions mounted. He just doesn’t buy the plot line that police and prosecutors have laid out.

“I’ve been watching this from afar and waiting for someone to speak up. Finally, I felt I had to say something,” said Graber. “This is just impossible. They would never have done this.”

A smart, successful suburban family

Graber said he first met the couple when he moved to quiet Coral Springs in the 1970s and opened his gynecology practice.

“We were among a lot of young families from the Northeast who found Coral Springs, a city in the country, with a lot of promise,” he said. “We would open our practices, and our wives would run the front office. It was not unusual back then for a professional to have a wife in the front office assisting.”

Donna and Harvey Adelson both grew up in New York City. Donna went to Queens College and became an elementary school teacher and Harvey graduated from the University of Buffalo before earning his doctor of medicine in dentistry at Temple University. The couple had married in 1971. In South Florida, Donna left teaching to help Harvey and to spend much of her time at home caring for their three children, Robert, Charles and Wendi.

The Adelson family in happier times when they lived in Coral Springs. From left in an undated photo: Robert, Charles, Harvey, Wendi, Donna.
The Adelson family in happier times when they lived in Coral Springs. From left in an undated photo: Robert, Charles, Harvey, Wendi, Donna.

Family was Donna’s focus. In 1986, she was a contestant on the game show Wheel of Fortune, describing herself as a “domestic coordinator responsible for the activities, classes and lessons” of her three kids, her husband and their dog, Sam.

Harvey’s career flourished. By the late 1980s, he was running big ads in local newspapers for his new “cosmetic and restorative dentistry” practice which touted “free smile evaluations” and new technology “as seen on ABC’s Extreme Makeover.” He changed the name of his practice to the “Adelson Institute for Aesthetics and Implant Dentistry” as he quickly made a name for himself in the lucrative business of cosmetic dentistry.

The couple bought a five-bedroom home on a cul de sac in Coral Springs. When their son Robert expressed an interest in tennis, Harvey installed a tennis court in the backyard. Newspaper photos caught the couple dancing at charity balls and fundraisers. Harvey acted as a treasurer for one of Graber’s election campaigns, and was also involved in supporting a new school of dentistry at Nova Southeastern University.

“They had a lot of friends and a lot of parties,” Graber recalled. “The kids all had manners, were courteous and very polite. Nobody got in trouble. I used to call Donna, ‘Donna Reed’ – the perfect mother.” Reed was the namesake star of a popular TV sitcom about a wholesome homemaker and family that ran in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Growing up, daughter Wendi was keenly aware of how fortunate she was to be in a well-to-do family focused on success and education. At 16, while a top student at Taravella High School, she won awards for creating a non-profit that collected toys and educational materials for poor children.

“I was thinking about the advantages I had,” Wendi said in an interview with the Miami Herald in 1995. “All kids don’t get the same start and I wished everyone got the same educational opportunities as I had.”

Dr. Ben Graber — a gynecologist who also served as a state lawmaker, Broward commissioner and mayor in a long career — has known the Adelson family for 40 years. He is one of the few people still defending them, saying he simply does not believe the case that prosecutors and police have built in a notorious murder-for-hire case
Dr. Ben Graber — a gynecologist who also served as a state lawmaker, Broward commissioner and mayor in a long career — has known the Adelson family for 40 years. He is one of the few people still defending them, saying he simply does not believe the case that prosecutors and police have built in a notorious murder-for-hire case

Directing the children’s lives

Over the years, Donna Adelson took control of all aspects of her children’s future, pushing them to become successful: overseeing their schooling, organizing their play dates, sending them to summer camp, shuttling them to and from their extra-curricular activities. Son Robert, in a podcast about the case, said that Donna Adelson, and sometimes Harvey, even signed off on who they dated.

All three Adelson children excelled in college: Robert, the oldest, graduated summa cum laude and phi beta kappa from Tulane and graduated with honors from the University of South Florida College of Medicine with a specialty in otolaryngology. Charles Adelson attended the University of Central Florida, receiving a bachelor’s degree in Micro and Molecular Biology in 1999, and Nova Southeastern University, from which he received a degree in dentistry, later becoming a periodontist in his father’s practice.

Wendi studied Peace and Conflict Studies at Brandeis University, where she graduated magna cum laude in 2001, then obtained her masters at the University of Cambridge before earning her law degree in 2006 from the University of Miami.

There was one particularly important parental desire: The Adelsons, who were members of the reform temple Beth Orr in Coral Springs, believed their children should marry within their faith.

Robert, however, met and fell in love with a woman who was Indian-American and practiced Hinduism. His parents refused to accept him marrying her.

In an interview for the “Over My Dead Body” podcast, Robert Adelson said that for years his parents had threatened to disown him if he married his girlfriend, who was also a doctor. In 2003, he finally broke it off and married “a nice jewish girl from Dallas,” he said in the podcast, available on Wondery.com. The engagement was proudly announced by his parents in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

But it didn’t last. The couple divorced and Robert reunited with his former girlfriend. To his surprise, his parents attended their traditional Hindu wedding ceremony.

“We all tried for a first start,” Robert said in the podcast. “I do think my parents did everything they could do to make things better.”

But there was still a rift in the family, which didn’t seem to heal, he said. He and his wife live near Albany, NY. He could not be reached for comment

One son, ‘the risk taker’

Charles, the son convicted last month in plotting the hit, was having different issues, some professional ones.

“Charlie is a risk taker,” Graber said. “I’ve known him since he was four years old. He is a playboy. A middle child. He has delusions of grandeur. In his mind, he wants to be James Bond but he is a periodontist.”

Public records show Charles was sanctioned twice by the state of Florida, in 2015 and in 2023, for improper implant placement that led to nerve damage, according to state records. He had to pay $187,000 for malpractice, and later $7,000 to the Florida Board of Dentistry in fines and investigation costs. He also received a reprimand on his license in 2019.

A child custody dispute between Wendi Adelson and her ex-husband Dan Markel morphed in a murder-for-hire case that has led to the conviction of her brother and arrest of her mother.
A child custody dispute between Wendi Adelson and her ex-husband Dan Markel morphed in a murder-for-hire case that has led to the conviction of her brother and arrest of her mother.

Wendi, meanwhile, making a name for herself in the legal profession but had not yet checked the marriage box. Donna, according to numerous media reports, would help pick her husband, Markel, through a Jewish dating site. To everyone, they seemed to be the perfect accomplished power couple. Dan, a native or Toronto, was a Harvard-educated lawyer who specialized in criminal law and wrote extensively about crime, punishment and family. Wendi focused on immigration, child advocacy and disability rights.

Their lavish February 2006 wedding in Boca Raton, announced in the New York Times, was attended by over 200 people.

Within a few short years, it was clear they would not live happily ever after.

A grandmother’s determination

The family matriarch’s hopes for Jewish grandchildren seemed to rest with Wendi, who had moved with her husband to Tallahassee where both taught at Florida State University. They had two boys, and had settled in with new friends in a nice upscale neighborhood. Still, Wendi soon became disenchanted as Markel’s career took off while her career took a back seat to raising the children.

In a foreshadowing, Wendi Adelson published a fictional book in 2011 in which the female protagonist lawyer leaves her condescending husband.

What happened next has been documented in numerous court hearings: Shortly thereafter, Wendi left Markel, taking the kids and half of the furniture in the house, while he was on a business trip in New York. When he came back home, he had been served divorce papers.

Donna Adelson, 74, mugshot.
Donna Adelson, 74, mugshot.

Although the divorce was finalized in 2013, the litigation over custody of the children became brutal. Court records show that a Leon County judge denied Wendi’s motion to relocate her kids to South Florida. Emails between Donna and her daughter shown at Charles’ trial, revealed steel beneath the “Donna Reed” image. She first told Wendi the family could offer Markel $1 million to let the children move to South Florida, and when Wendi refused to do so, Donna then instructed her to threaten Markel, a strict conservative, that she would convert their children to Catholicism if he didn’t back down, according to the emails shown in court.

Markel dug in, filing a motion to not allow his children unsupervised visits with Donna Adelson, because he claimed Donna was disparaging him to his kids, according to a court pleading in the case. The motion was still pending at the time of Markel’s murder.

After Markel’s death, Donna and Harvey Adelson relocated to Miami Beach with Wendi and the two boys. Wendi also changed the boys’ last names from Markel to Adelson.

Mom, son longtime suspects

For years, police and prosecutors pointed to Charles as a suspect in arranging the murder of Markel, who was shot in his Tallahassee driveway. In a 2019 trial of one of the hit men, he was labeled an “unindicted co-conspirator.” An attorney for Charles and Donna at the time denied any family role in the slaying.

Before Charles was charged and finally tried in November, three others had previously been convicted and sentenced in the murder. Sigfredo Garcia and Luis Rivera — the two hit men — and Katherine Magbanua, Charles Adelson’s former girlfriend and the go-between who introduced Charlies to the hit men. Garcia and Magbanua received life sentences and Rivera, a former gang leader of the Latin Kings in North Miami who cooperated with authorities, is serving 19 years.

Charles testified in his own defense, claiming that he and his family were victims of an elaborate extortion plot orchestrated by the killers. His attorneys told jurors that Garcia and Rivera had learned that Charles had discussed hiring someone to kill Markel, then decided to commit the murder on their own and threatened to kill Charles if he didn’t pay them. Wendi, who was given limited immunity to testify at the trial, insisted that neither she, nor her family, had anything to do with her ex-husband’s murder.

Assistant State Attorney Georgia Cappleman presents her closing argument to the jurors during a 2019 trial of a hit man in the cased. Cappleman displays a graphic showing the connection of the defendants to the Adelson family and Dan Markel.
Assistant State Attorney Georgia Cappleman presents her closing argument to the jurors during a 2019 trial of a hit man in the cased. Cappleman displays a graphic showing the connection of the defendants to the Adelson family and Dan Markel.

But following eight days of testimony, a Tallahassee jury came to a quick no-doubt conclusion, deliberating for just three hours before finding Charles Adelson guilty on three counts, including first-degree murder.

Afterwards, Markel’s family — parents Ruth and Phil and sister Shelly — discussed the deep wounds left in the wake of Dan’s murder.. “This has been a really long and terrible ordeal for all of us,” Shelly Markel told reporters. “It’s taken a long toll on our lives. And there’s a real sense of relief today.”

Following the guilty verdict, Donna Adelson made multiple phone calls to Charles recorded by authorities that ultimately led to her arrest as a co-conspirator in the plot. Adelson told her son she was “getting things in order, creating trusts and making sure her grandchildren were taken care of.” Authorities said she told him about a plan to flee to “a non-extradition country.” According to her arrest affidavit, she also discussed a plan for suicide.

Prosecutors allege Donna Adelson’s key role was to help plan and finance the slaying with the motivation that the family would be able to raise Wendi’s children in South Florida without Markel’s interference. The final price for the murder, they say, was $100,000.

While her son awaits sentencing, Donna Adelson is being held without bond at the Leon County jail pending her next court hearing.

Despite the string of convictions and arrests, Graber still felt compelled to write a column defending the family for the Tallahassee Democrat this week. He said he also recently spoke to his old friend, Donna’s husband Harvey, to offer his support.

“All I see is the demonization of the family in the news, and on the podcast. It’s a one-sided picture,” Graber said. “Harvey is like in a daze, teary eyed, choking up. He told me ‘I don’t know what’s going on here, but I can tell you this – none of it is true.”