In 2014, Dan Markel — a law professor at Florida State University, loving father of two young boys, proud Jew, friend of mine — was brutally murdered by hitmen hired by his in-laws’ family, according to compelling evidence laid out by police and prosecutors. Investigators cited as motives the family’s “desperate desire” to have their daughter and grandkids live close to them in South Florida, and an upcoming court hearing that threatened to limit Dan’s mother-in-law’s unsupervised access to his kids. All of the murderers have not yet been brought to justice, though one of the hitmen has pleaded guilty and two others are scheduled for trial in September.
Since Dan’s death, his friends and family have watched and supported the prosecution of his killers, anxiously awaiting one of the conspirators to flip on Wendi’s mother Donna and brother Charlie so that justice can be done. And people around the country have learned about this case through the recent podcast Over My Dead Body.
But there is another grave injustice in this tragic story. For the past three years, Dan’s ex-wife Wendi has denied Dan’s parents, Ruth and Phil Markel, the opportunity to visit and otherwise communicate with their grandkids. She has also changed their last names from Markel to her name, Adelson.
In a recent statement, Wendi’s lawyer gave an explanation of what he calls the “true facts” on why she is denying Dan’s parents access to her kids. Three years ago, Wendi learned of an email exchange between the prosecutor and Dan’s mother Ruth where Ruth was informing the prosecutor of temporary foster care options in the event that members of the Adelson family were arrested while caring for the kids. Wendi’s lawyer, though, characterizes it this way: “[T]he Markels were communicating with prosecutors regarding the possible removal of the children from Ms. Adelson’s custody. This effort was confirmed in email communications involving the state prosecutor...[O]ur client has feared that the Markels might take some action to interfere with her custody of her children.”
This is both false and nonsensical. Here’s the truth: Ruth was quite reasonably worried about a scenario where Donna or Charlie Adelson were arrested (which will happen) while taking care of the kids, say when Wendi was out of town. In such a scenario, the kids would typically be put in foster care, at least temporarily. To avoid that outcome, Ruth reached out to a local social services organization (JAFCO) that runs an emergency shelter for kids in that situation, and then provided the contact information for that organization to the prosecutor’s office. That’s it.
JAFCO’s executive director confirmed this, saying:
“Ruth Markel called JAFCO to inquire about a backup emergency safety plan for her grandsons. Ruth wanted to ensure that her grandsons would not be left in the care of child protective services should members of the Adelson family be arrested at a time the children were present. At no time did Ruth suggest seeking temporary or permanent custody, or doing anything to remove the children from their mother.”
This account was also confirmed by the email communications with the prosecutor that Wendi’s lawyer references, which was inadvertently disclosed in conjunction with the indictment of one of the hitmen. The email clearly states it is about “emergency placement due to arrests.” This totally reasonable explanation was provided to Wendi three years ago.
And by the way, let’s assume for the moment that the Markels were exploring options for custody if Wendi herself were arrested, or more generally. So what? Wendi is currently raising her kids in an extended family that appears to include their father’s killers, who will likely end up in prison. Could you fault the Markels if they’ve wondered from time to time whether this was the best environment for the long-term emotional health of their grandkids?
The explanation is also nonsensical because even if Wendi fears that the Markels “might take some action to interfere with her custody,” what does that have to do with allowing them to visit or even talk by Skype? Surely her lawyer has advised her that the Markels have no legal ability to interfere with her custody. And I have no doubt that the Markels have offered Wendi and her lawyer plenty of conditions and options — supervised visits, etc. — to eliminate any possible objection to visitation.
But there is a larger point here. Though this may not be part of the Ten Commandments, let me suggest a related rule: When your mother and brother murder your ex-husband, you don’t get to complain about your in-laws being insufficiently supportive of your parenting. You don’t get to hold a grudge about something they did three years ago that rubbed you the wrong way, or wish they were stronger candidates for in-laws of the year. Or you shouldn’t, anyway.
Wendi and Dan’s boys were robbed of the ability to grow up with a loving father. They deserve to know their paternal grandparents while they still can, to understand who they are and where they came from, to know they were not abandoned. We have seen in the immigration context the devastation that results when kids suddenly lose close family members without any explanation. Surely Wendi — an immigration advocate — knows this as well as anyone, and yet she separates families in her own life.
In the months ahead, Wendi and Dan’s boys — now 10 and 9 — are going to suffer a horrible tragedy all over again. They’re going to learn that Grandma Donna and Uncle Charlie — no doubt a big part of their lives right now — murdered their father. And when that happens, they’re going to need family: grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins who they know love them and would never do anything to hurt them. They have such family on their father’s side — and even Wendi’s older brother Rob’s family on their mother’s — but they never see them.
When Ben and Lincoln find out about what Grandma Donna and Uncle Charlie did, they will no doubt cut them off, likely for the rest of their lives. Will they turn on their mother too? Trust me, teenage boys do that to parents in the best of circumstances. They’ll read and watch everything there is, and question whether Wendi was part of the murder plot too.
I personally believe that Wendi had nothing to do with Dan’s death, as explained here. In retrospect, she clearly should have taken more seriously her brother’s talk of hiring a hitman, and unambiguously shut it down. Her culpability is likely to remain between her and her conscience.
But her boys are likely to try to draw clues from how she has behaved since his death. She changed their names from Markel, and now she has kept them apart from their father’s family. What message does that send? What message does it send that since learning definitively (if there was any doubt) of her mother and brother’s involvement three years ago, she has kept the boys in the middle of the criminal dysfunction that is her family, instead of setting boundaries and distancing herself to give the boys the emotionally safe life they deserve? Regardless of what she knew before the murder, her actions afterward make her an active participant in the family’s horrific efforts to wipe out any trace of their father from the boys’ lives.
Wendi still has time to fix this injustice of separating Dan’s parents from her kids, and help her kids survive and thrive in the longer-term. Ruth and Phil Markel have suffered enough at the hands of the Adelson family, and the boys are about to suffer more. It’s long past time to let the Markels have a relationship with their grandkids, and for the boys to reconnect with their father’s family. Time is running short for Wendi to preserve her relationship with her boys: once they find out what happened, the die will have been cast.
So what should happen when your mother and brother murder your ex? You try to make up for it, as best you can. Wendi Adelson can do better.