The Chilling True Story of Acclaimed Law Professor Dan Markel's Murder
At just 41 years of age, Florida State law professor Dan Markel was among the most well-known and accomplished criminal law scholars in the country. He was also a newly divorced dad, his toddlers Ben and Lincoln the center of his universe.
On the morning of July 18, 2014, Dan dropped his boys off at preschool, hit the gym for a workout, and headed home to his quiet, tree-canopied neighborhood. Within seconds of pulling into his garage, two .38-caliber bullets fired from point-blank range were lodged in his brain.
His brutal slaying seemed to defy logical explanation, the case stone cold for nearly two years. Finally, dogged pursuit by the Tallahassee Police and FBI led to the apprehension of two men with lengthy rap sheets who
had apparently driven ten hours from Miami with one singular purpose: to assassinate the revered professor. But why? Were his ex-wife Wendi Adelson and her South Florida family the masterminds behind this horrific crime?
EXTREME PUNISHMENT recounts the riveting story of a divorce between two law professors that spiraled out of control, wealthy and overprotective in-laws hell-bent on exacting retribution, a most unlikely love triangle, and the relentless quest to bring Dan’s killers—all of them—to justice.
Why I wrote this book
After just completing a book about one of Tallahassee's most notorious murders, about the last thing I saw myself doing was diving into yet another infamous murder that occurred in Florida's capital city. Yet somehow that is precisely what the writing gods convinced me I needed to do.
How did it happen? On my way home from work one day in October 2020, Cheryl Williams----the courageous protagonist in EVIL AT LAKE SEMINOLE---asked me over the phone what I planned to write about next. I told her that I'd researched a few possibilities, but hadn't yet found a true crime story I found compelling enough to spend a year or more of my time focusing on. "What about Dan Markel's murder?" she asked.
At the time, about all I knew of Dan Markel was that he'd been a law professor at Florida State University who'd been murdered in the prime of his life. And that there was some suspicion his ex-wife's family had something to do with it. Those tiny sprinkles came to my attention while I was doing research for EVIL AT LAKE SEMINOLE, as the local newspaper, the Tallahassee Democrat, had run front-page articles on both Mike Williams and Dan Markel on multiple occasions on the very same day. Before my conversation with Cheryl Williams, however, I'd never bothered to peruse any of the articles about Dan Markel.
Thinking I was merely humoring Cheryl, I told her, "I'll look into it." And that's where the writing gods took control. My wife and I subscribe to DirecTV and have a DVR that records programs we instruct it to record. At the time, one of the recordings stored on our DVR was a Dateline episode about the Mike Williams murder I'd recorded while researching and writing EVIL AT LAKE SEMINOLE. I never programmed the DVR to record any additional Dateline episodes. Yet just a couple of days after that fateful conversation with Cheryl Williams, while scrolling through the list of recorded programs on our DVR, a second Dateline episode mysteriously appeared, entitled "Tallahassee Trap." It was a 2-hour documentary about Dan Markel's murder. To this day, I have no idea what caused the DVR to record that program as neither my wife nor I told it to.
That bizarre occurrence, coming on the heels of my discussion with Cheryl, piqued my interest. So I watched the documentary---all two hours. And discovered that there were many fascinating layers to this story. Yet the most important thing I took from the documentary was its reference to a podcast entitled "Over My Dead Body." I learned that the podcast had been downloaded over 20 million times and had been #1 on Apple's iTunes list of popular podcasts for 8 consecutive weeks. Clearly a lot of people found Dan Markel's murder a riveting subject. But was that enough to warrant book-length treatment? I wondered. I listened to all seven episodes of the podcast to find out. It was mind-blowing---by far the best true-crime podcast I've ever heard. By the time I listened to the last segment, I knew I would be writing about another notorious Tallahassee murder.
Two things in particular drew me to this story. Dan Markel was a law professor who'd fought hard to break into the legal academy. In the mid-1990s, that was me. I eventually landed on the faculty of the University of Illinois. Though my career as a law professor was short-lived and paled by comparison to Dan Markel's, I learned a great deal about how one becomes a law professor and what it takes to succeed as one. Which gave me a unique vantagepoint from which to tell this story, as a good bit of it focuses on both Dan Markel's and Wendi Adelson's lives as young, ambitious law professors.
Second, and of even greater significance, since 2014 I've been a divorce lawyer, and have handled many intense disputes between former husbands and wives over the custody of their children. The intense emotion both Dan and Wendi experienced as they fought over Wendi's petition to relocate their children to South Florida, and Dan's efforts to limit contact between the boys and his mother-in-law, resonated with me. I've counseled many clients through very similar battles and watched them struggle with their emotions as they did. As I began writing the book, I was most eager to tell this part of the story. Which is why I wrote Chapters 9-11---covering Dan and Wendi's separation and divorce---out of order, early in the process. In my view, those are the most important chapters of the book, as they provide a chilling glimpse of how a custody battle can so easily spiral out of control and destroy many lives in the process.
Apart from the features of this story that connect so closely with my own life, what inspired me to write EXTREME PUNISHMENT is precisely what motivated me to write MURDER ON BIRCHLEAF DRIVE and EVIL AT LAKE SEMINOLE: a deep yearning to share with readers the march to justice that follows a despicable crime. At the heart of every true crime story is a family devastated by the sudden, unexpected loss of a loved one in the most horrific way imaginable. As well as police officers, investigators, and lawyers who strive to bring everyone involved in the crime to justice. Telling their stories is my passion.
Simply put, this is a story I truly believe I was meant to write. Writing it and seeing its release has been my proudest achievement since walking across my own law school's graduation stage all those years ago.