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tv   Dateline  MSNBC  May 21, 2022 10:00pm-11:00pm PDT

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>> i'm craig melvin. >> and i'm natalie morales. >> and this is dateline. >> my question is why. i didn't need who. my only question is why? >> they were beautiful people, in miami's sizzling south beach. singles who became lovers, and then newlyweds. >> you may kiss the bride. >> congratulations. >> they were still on their honeymoon, only married four days, when this young bride was murdered. >> i get a phone call, screaming, crying. >> no murder weapon, no dna, but no shortage of suspects. >> you gotta prove it. > did the red hot miami lifestyle
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have something to do with her death? >> what's been going on in this club scene? >> he did admit to having encounters with other couples there. >> or was it simple jealousy? >> are you still intimate with yolanda? >> yes, we are. >> threats. >> say that again. >> objection. >> betrayal. >> he said he didn't love her, he loved me. >> and finally a verdict. >> the years of waiting. the years of mourning her. we needed justice. >> hello and welcome t"dateline." wendy trapaga fell head over heels for michel escoto, an older man with a string of admiring girlfriends, though wendy was his prize catch. the couple quickly married. then, just days later, the young bride was found dead in a parking lot.
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the mystery of her murder would haunt investigators for years. but the truth would prove more cold-blooded than even they could imagine. here's dennis murphy with."mystery in south beach." >> if you spent any time down here, you probably sensed there are really two miami beaches. you know this one by reputation anyway. south beach. a pulsating playground with energy that surges out of the ocean and exhausts itself in the all-night clubs. and then there's the old miami beach. here are the sunburned back streets of squat apartment blocks, where decades past the old people used to sit out in aluminum chairs. and that's where a young couple, wendy and michel, were trying to make a go of it. the rent was cheap. the window air-conditioning good enough.
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but if you ever thought beautiful people catch all the breaks, then listen to this story of 21-year-old wendy trapaga because she may be the most gorgeous, doomed young woman to ever walk these streets. >> she was model pretty. >> i don't think that she thought of herself as anything spectacular. >> her much older sisters tiara and rita and brother ralph never use the qualifier step sister. they'll tell you she was a little bit of a daddy's girl, their father an international airline pilot who died, sadly, in a crash when wendy was just 6. wendy's mother, miriam, raised her with big sister rita always pitching in. >> i guess i was like that other mother for her because i was always there by miriam's side, raising her. >> the love of animals was always a part of wendy. >> she was always rescuing some animal, dog, puppy, kitten, anything. >> but allergies would end her ambitions to become a vet. >> i kept telling her, don't
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give up your passion. don't give it up. >> but wendy did have another passion. it was for fashion and makeovers. >> pretty girl. >> at easter, she memorably dolled up her nieces for a living room fashion show. >> here is the director of the entire operation. >> how nice a kid was this church-going, slightly sheltered girl? there's this story of the classmate without a dress. >> one girl couldn't afford to go to the prom and wendy got this girl prettied up, got her a dress, everything. that was the heart she had. >> after graduation, two cousins who owned their own salons urged wendy to follow in their footsteps. >> she had a flare for it and you can do very well in that field? >> yes, she did. >> so at 21, after a brief marriage, she enrolled in beauty school. and in 2002 that's where she first saw michel escoto rumble up on his red ducati motorcycle. michel was a self-taught web designer and sometime teacher of computing.
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but by his early 30s he was looking for a career change. he thought he would try hairstyling. so he enrolled, as fate would have it, in the same cosmetology school as wendy. michel's friend ramon santa cruz. >> when i met wendy, he was on a motorcycle with her. i told myself it's a beautiful girl. i don't know what he did to get this girl. >> whatever he did, it worked. the pair falling quickly and deeply. within six months they were living together on south beach. wendy gave michel a makeover, dyeing his hair blond. perfect for the club scene. they lived for the day and then came unexpected news for these two butterflies. wendy was pregnant. her mother miriam had mixed feelings. how did she feel about the fact that her baby was having a baby? >> delighted with the fact of being a grandmother, but not delighted with the circumstances. >> wendy had had the big church wedding for her first marriage. this time around, she and michel got hitched at miami beach city hall.
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>> you may kiss the bride. congratulations. >> the next day, wendy and michel set out for a brief weekend honeymoon, a drive down the florida keys to key west where the road ran out. sunset drinks, dinner and a hotel. three days after the wedding, they were back in miami beach, sunday evening. wendy called her mother to say they were going to a movie and dancing later at a club. her mother urged her pregnant daughter not to drink. then, in the middle of the night, the wee hours of monday morning, wendy's mother got an unexpected call from her new son-in-law, michel, saying they've had an argument. wendy had stormed off, saying she was going to her mother's house. since then, the bridegroom said he'd repeatedly called wendy without success. right around then, in a bleak
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warehouse district miles and miles from the after-hours bars of miami, a sanitation worker was startled to see the body of a young woman in a blue dress slumped between two vehicles. it was the newlywed, wendy. news traveled fast. >> i get a phone call from my stepmother, screaming, crying. "wendy's dead. they took her from me." she told me it's on the news. i went looking and there's my sweet little sister being put on a gurney. and it's just so surreal. >> this desolate warehouse place. >> all i kept thinking about was her being alone there, by herself, and praying to god that she didn't suffer. >> the killer, who bludgeoned her to death, also erased the beauty of her young face. a honeymoon weekend for the new bride had ended behind yellow police tape. coming up, who killed wendy and why? did it have something to do with miami's wild night life?
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don't make me turn this alexa around. oh my. it's painful. the buick enclave, with available alexa built in. ask “alexa, tell me more about buick suvs.” >> miami-dade police detectives maria medaros and gus tobias had barely clocked in for their monday morning shift when word came down of a homicide in a bleak warehouse district.
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it's where they found in a parking lot the body of wendy trapaga. lying between a car and a van. >> we could see the spatter of the blood on the van. meaning that whoever did it to her, did it right there. >> so this body hadn't been disposed of there. this was the place where she was killed? >> correct. >> her head had been bashed in. but there was no weapon to be found. >> what type of a crime is this, a robbery? a drug deal that went bad? >> tell me what you're taking in about the victim. >> this is a young girl. she doesn't have her shoes on which was unusual. why is this young girl in an industrial parking lot -- >> no reason to be in this forlorn part of the county? >> no. unless she met up with someone. >> so the detectives headed out to do the part of the job that never gets easier. >> so you're delivering terrible news? >> horrible news. >> amid the shock and tears, they piece together from the mother a sense of who their victim was and what her final
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hours and days had been about. sunday evening, the phone call, wendy sounded okay, the detectives were told, but that next call at 5:48 am, the one from michel asking if she was at her mom's, was worrisome. a few hours later, he was waiting for wendy's mother at the school where she worked. >> he met her at her job. she tells me he was very disheveled and very worried about where she could be. >> michel escoto, it turned out, was about to get an official answer to his where is she question. >> and while we're talking, the phone rings, and it's michel escoto calling. >> again, asking his mother-in-law, if she had heard from wendy. detectives grabbed the phone and asked where he was. they headed over to michel's apartment to deliver the news of his girlfriend of eight months, his bride of four days. >> we walked into his apartment when he blurted out is she dead? and we explained we're investigating the death of wendy, et cetera. he started balling up. >> doubled over, crying.
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police gave him a few minutes to compose himself before asking him to come down to headquarters to answer some more questions. there, he recounted the brief honeymoon. michel told the detectives wendy had the idea of adding a little more spice before rejoining their workweek lives. >> well, we haven't had much of a honeymoon this weekend. let's extend our honeymoon. >> so as michel escoto told it, around midnight they checked into a miami hotel that features fantasy suites with a private pool and jacuzzi. he says they had sex, slept a little and wendy dozed off in the jacuzzi. around 4:00 am, michel says, they checked out and headed home. that's when, he said, the newlyweds had their first argument. michel says he walked into the apartment, leaving wendy in the car. >> three minutes later he comes out. he says when he comes out the car is gone. wendy is gone. >> michel escoto spoke with detectives for 14 hours. they asked him repeatedly if he could identify anyone with a motive. he said he couldn't.
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after leaving police headquarters, he saw his friend ramon santa cruz. >> he was looking depressed. he looked down, maybe tired. >> five days after her murder, wendy was laid to rest. and then friends and family gathered at her parents'home. detective baez was there as well as and he learned something about the couple that would send the investigation down another path. a thread of this investigation takes you into the swinger lifestyle. what's been going on with michel and wendy and this club scene? >> after i'm informed of this, that wendy was part of a swingers club, a place called the miami velvet down here in south miami, the first thing i did was i called michel. he did admit to having encounters with other couples there. >> now you got to wonder did somebody had a thing they developed about wendy and is that person the killer?
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>> it turns out the club is within a mile and a half of the scene. so i wanted to explore that. >> the swingers club was cooperative and detectives took dna samples from a few employees and members. they would have to wait for the results. in the meantime, the investigation was turning up a new lead, a former girlfriend of michel's. her name, yolanda cerrillo. >> yolanda cerrillo is a person that had a relationship with michel before he met the victim. according to her, michel left her for wendy. she loved michel escoto. she was very much in love with him. >> yolanda, a single mother. was she also a woman scorned? he left her six months earlier and to add insult to injury, asked her to watch his dog while he was on his honeymoon with wendy. >> to go to the extent of taking care of somebody's dog during their honeymoon, it's just. as a woman, very strange
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to me. >> does yolanda become a suspect? a woman who feels she was cashiered, fired because of this younger woman and nobody gets away with that and i'm going to kill you? >> there's a lot to yolanda. there's a lot to yolanda. >> a lot of bad, if you ask ramon santa cruz. >> i didn't like her from the beginning because she was very evasive. the apartment was always dirty. she was never a good person to begin with. >> detectives met with yolanda cerrillo, who freely admitted that she'd been devastated when michel dumped her. but she had no idea who beat his wife to death. >> she said she didn't know anything about it. >> but the detectives noted something else about yolanda. she lived just a few minutes from the parking lot where they'd found wendy. >> when you started adding up all the little things together, then her proximity to the crime scene, i'm very interested in yolanda cerrillo. >> no one knew yet what yolanda was hiding. that would come later. and so would the revelation of a motive that seemed to explain every violent little thing. >> coming up, a million reasons why someone wanted wendy dead. >> i asked him, how much is the
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wendy trapaga? did her killer meet her at the sexual swapping club that her boyfriend michel escoto took her to? the cops ran down those leads, and the swingers club theory went nowhere. what about yolanda, the husband's ex-girlfriend,
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enraged, perhaps, to be traded in for wendy, the younger model? the detectives'guts told them yolanda knew way more than she was saying. but if so, how to crack her? and then there was the husband himself. they kept going back over their notes from the 14-hour interview with him. at times, it had been pulling teeth. >> once we asked him over and over again is there anybody with a motive, anything, anything at all, anything you can tell us? i bring up the point, don't you have a life insurance policy? he says, yeah, we do. >> a hefty one, it would seem, for a healthy 21-year-old woman he wasn't even married to at the time of purchase. >> i asked him, how much is the life insurance policy? and he said a million dollars. and i said a million dollars? and you don't think that's a motive? you don't think that's important to tell us? and he said no, i don't, because i have a million dollar life insurance policy on myself, too. i said, well, that's not in question because you're here. you're alive. >> one thing escoto did reveal,
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wendy was not pregnant. he said that was the cause of their argument that night. he said wendy had lied to him about the whole thing. as the detective's questions got sharper that day, michel shut down. would you take a polygraph? no. can we photograph those bruises on your arm? no. take a dna swab? again, no. >> he didn't talk himself off your list of suspects? >> he did not. he did not. >> the working theory of the crime was as simple as it was brutal. he bashed in her skull with a million-dollar insurance payout. a tire iron was missing from her car, a likely weapon, but nowhere to be found. >> so you two go to the prosecutor, state attorney and say we've got it. let's go. grand jury. >> no. it's not that easy. >> we're done? >> no. >> why not? >> you have to prove it. you've got to prove it. >> so the police let their person of interest go. in the meantime, wendy's family had huge suspicions about michel. sister rita wasn't crazy about him from the moment she first met him. >> call it bad energy.
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i shook that man's hand and i was wiping my hand right after i let it go. >> the revelation that he bought a million-dollar life insurance policy on wendy only confirmed their belief that he'd killed her. two months after wendy's death, michel filed for his beneficiary payout. the insurer, metlife, balked saying the case was an unsolved homicide. and her murder would remain unsolved for a long time. >> we would be frustrated, the family of the victim. we're sitting there, waiting and waiting. >> and then michel did something bold. he actually sued the insurance company to pay him his million dollars. would a guilty man be so brazen as to try that? absolutely, the family said. and by then, they had had enough. the family got a lawyer, jorge barone, and together they went after michel escoto. >> we believed he was the killer. >> two years after the murder, the family filed a wrongful death suit against michel.
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metlife put the insurance money in escrow and waited on the sidelines as michel and wendy's family fought it out in civil court. but if michel wanted to see so much as one cent of that money, he would have to do something he'd never done before. >> he has to testify. he cannot plead the fifth. especially since he's pursuing the claim. so he has to testify. >> at this point police and prosecutors were happy to help the family's attorney prepare his case. sharing those statements michel had made to detectives after wendy's death. >> they call you and say, take a look at what we've got, is that right? >> we ask if we would be allowed to look at the statements he had given them. we were. >> michel escoto was videotaped as he gave a sworn deposition. >> we took his deposition and his story kept changing. >> so the story about a fight and she takes a hike -- >> it doesn't add up. he testified that wendy was -- it was her idea, all of a
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sudden that night, to go to the miami executive hotel. >> however, back in 2002, yolanda, the ex-girlfriend, told police michel asked her to make the hotel reservation. it wasn't wendy's idea at all. a factual discrepancy also known as a lie. during the deposition, michel also admitted that yolanda was no longer his ex. he had moved back in with her not long after wendy's death. >> are you still intimate with yolanda? >> yes, we are. >> do you have any plans of marrying yolanda? >> plans as such, no. >> there had been one question about michel and yolanda that had nagged detectives since 2002. they learned through phone records that on the night of the murder, michel paged yolanda at 3:00 in the morning. but why? both michel and yolanda told police at the time he wanted to check on her sick daughter. >> he claims that he beeps her because he thought her daughter,
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yolanda's daughter, was sick. we later find out that yolanda's daughter was not sick. >> so there's no reason for a middle of the night communication? >> no reason whatsoever. >> when the civil case finally went to trial, escoto got so roughed up, that on the second day he was a no-show in court. wendy's mother got the insurance money and prosecutors got to hear firsthand about his constantly shifting stories. >> the state attorney sat in the courtroom and was taking notes. >> did you have a little chit-chat in the hallway outside? >> we did. >> what did you say? >> this is your case. you have all the evidence right now. of course, we gave them the deposition testimony and everything. we had everything outlined. >> michel escoto was arrested three days after his court no show and was charged with the murder of his bride, wendy trapaga. but police still thought they needed more, so they fixed their eyes on the girlfriend, yolanda cerrillo. >> i knew eventually as time goes by that that relationship
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would deteriorate. would deteriorate. >> why did you think that? >> if they have that secret amongst each other, that was going to be a friction point in their relationship. >> that's too corrosive a secret to keep? >> yes. >> how do you reel her in? >> time. time. time changes relationships. >> and it did. in 2006, one year after michel was arrested, yolanda and her attorney went to prosecutors and said let's make a deal. she got full immunity in exchange for telling how she helped michel that night. >> she came into the state attorney's office and explained that she did take him away from the crime scene. >> so that's a great story to tell a jury. >> yes. that's it. >> police may not have had a murder weapon or helpful forensic clues, but now they had yolanda, who was about to give her version of that night. it was cold-hearted and calculating. >> coming up, a spurned lover
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takes the stand. >> he said to calm down. it was our plan. that he didn't love her, he loved me. >> when "dateline" continues. ontinues under budget too! and i get seven days to love it or my money back... i love it! i thought online meant no one to help me, but susan from carvana had all the answers. she didn't try to upsell me. not once, because they're not salespeople! what are you...? guess who just checked in on me? mom... susan from carvana! [laughs] we'll drive you happy at carvana.
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finding waste. saving money. because... yiu is for you. yiu is for you. exactly. i'm dara brown, here's what's yvonne yiu. democrat for controller. happening. the youngest victim in last week's tragic buffalo shooting was later west saturday. robert a jury was just 32 years old. she was one of the ten black people who are targeted and killed in a buffalo supermarket. and voters in australia have voted a new government. prime minister scott morrison has confuted deceit. opposition leader anthony albany's we sworn in after his labour party secured its first win since 2007. now back to dateline. now back to dateline welcome back to "dateline." i'm craig melvin. investigators believed michel escoto had a million-dollar
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motive to kill his young wife, wendy trapaga. but they lacked a murder weapon or any forensic evidence tying michel to the crime scene. what they did have was a witness who was about to offer a chilling account of what happened on wendy's last night alive. back to dennis murphy with "mystery in south beach." >> nearly 12 years after the murder of wendy trapaga, her husband michel escoto was finally on trial for her murder. pleaded not guilty to first degree charges. >> money is the root of this defendant's evil. >> prosecutors offered the most chilling detail to the case. that escoto actually picked wendy to be his bride just so he could insure her life and kill her. >> he would prey on an unsuspecting 21-year-old girl and marry her. four days, four days after that marriage, this defendant bludgeoned and strangled wendy
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trapaga to death. >> among the first witnesses, wendy's heartbroken mother, miriam benitez. speaking through an interpreter, the mother said she was shocked when she learned the couple had taken life insurance policies out on one another just before their marriage. >> translator: i did not feel good. i expressed to her, why insurance, they're not even married, they didn't have children. why insurance? >> on the stand, detective maria medero said she zeroed in on that insurance policy when she questioned escoto a day after the murder. >> i told him if he couldn't muster up a tear for his wife of four days to muster up a tear for the million dollars he was never going to see. >> what was his reaction? >> that lack of emotion was an indifference to wendy or a disregard for women in general. detectives say escoto was a man
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with a history of mooching off girlfriends. this former lover testified she supported escoto for years. >> how much money did you give him a month? >> approximately maybe $1,500. >> go figure, the state said. for whatever reason women threw gifts at escoto. one bought him the ducati motorcycle, another a car. but still another former lover who also supported him for years would be the prosecution's star witness. >> yolanda cerrillo. >> reporter: landa cerrillo. the prosecution argued she was the girlfriend with intimate knowledge of how escoto carried out this brutal crime. she had been given immunity in exchange for her testimony here. wiping away tears she recounted how it all started, how she fell hard for the defendant she thought to be a charmer. >> have you ever had a man you could share your life with? >> i thought it was michel. >> only to realize he was dumping her for the younger and
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more attractive wendy. yolanda said she then confronted escoto in this restaurant parking lot and heard for the first time, she said, that his impending marriage to wendy was all a sham. that in the end he would come back to yolanda with pockets full of cash. >> he said to calm down. it was all a plan. that he didn't love her. he loved me. he was going to marry her. they were going to have an insurance policy and she was going to die. >> all right. so he told you he had a plan? >> yes. >> the plan was murder. it was during that conversation, yolanda told jurors, that she became a co-conspirator, not only helping escoto cover up his crime but also helping him carry it out. this was the plan. on his wedding night, yolanda said escoto would drug and drown wendy. to make sure he got it right, yolanda admitted that she took part in a grim dress rehearsal of what was meant to look like an accidental death.
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>> we filled up my tub and i got in the water. and he pushed me down with his hands. >> you let him push you under the water? >> yes. >> what did you say once he let you up? >> i told him that wouldn't work. >> why? >> because the force of him holding her down in the water would leave bruises. >> so what did you suggest? >> i suggested he use a towel to hold her down. >> yolanda said she even helped him whip up the drug-laced concoction to knock wendy out. >> he came over and he brought some percocet pills. and he and i started squishing them in i think it's a mortar and pestle thing. >> what was he going to do with the percocet pills that you ground? i'm dara brown, we have breaking news at this hour, president biden's meeting service members of family military members innocent airbase in south korea, as he
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continues his five-day trip in asia. there, he's meeting with some families. let's take a quick listen in. president biden has been taking a tour of the absent airbase. it's about 40 miles south of seoul, korea. osint has a column that center and another area where the 51st fighter plane flies out of along with the pacific air force and the -- air force. there's roughly 6000 military members there who are in office duty, as well as their family members. osint was built during the korean war. and this is president biden's first trip to asia and, meeting the troops there for the first time since president. yesterday, president biden had a state dinner with president yun of the republic of korea.
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he also had a wreath laying ceremony, and a press conference. he toured hyundai, samsung, and he's there in business to get green companies to do more manufacturing in the united states. samsung actually announced they are doing more manufacturing in taxes. so that's it. kudos goes to south korea for actually bringing more manufacturing to the united states. after his trips here at boston airbase, the present will be heading to japan, where he'll be meeting with prime minister shia and emperor naruhito. and of course, on tuesday he will be heading to the quad summit, where he'll be meeting with leaders from australia, india, and japan. back to president biden, he's at osint, lively katie fang. and now back our program. and now back our program
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get epic protection for your dominion reason, or fun. daring, or thoughtful. sensitive, or strong. progress isn't either or progress is everything. the state of florida had succeeded in painting michel escoto as a man who used women for money, in other words, a cad. then again, a cad is a far cry from a killer. >> i don't think he's a killer. i think there is problems with this >> attorney terry lenamon served as escoto's standby counsel.
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he said despite the evidence, the station case against escoto was weak from start to finish. there was, he pointed out, no murder weapon, no blood, no dna linking the defendant to the crime. which is maybe why michel escoto, who had already pled not guilty to the charges, did what so many men facing a life in prison sentence would never dream of doing. he defended himself in court. >> i believe the evidence will show that only an imbecile and an imbecile in love with money would kill somebody four days after they were married to that person. >> was it lincoln's advice about a fool as a client? those who represent themselves? >> we'll see. >> wearing glasses, khakis, a sweater, and speaking in a soft voice, escoto seemed less like a killer and more like a geek, a hopeless novice getting pummeled by the execution. >> judge, i'm telling him he was being sandbagged -- he. >> objection, judge.
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>> one time, the newbie seemed near tears, another, overwhelmed. >> this is harder than i thought it would be. >> was this klutzy moment all about winning sympathy from the jury, the time he stumbled? >> sorry. twisted my ankle, judge. >> one particularly wince-worthy moment came when civil attorney jorge baron, his nemesis from the insurance trial, took the stand. under cross-examination by escoto he explained just why it was he suspected escoto of killing his wife, wendy. >> you had been married to her three days before you killed her, to get the life insurance. to me, that was very clear. >> judge, give me a second. because i want to say something that i shouldn't. >> escoto lost it. >> if you say that again -- >> objection, judge. >> mr. escoto. >> all of those guys, i'm going to take all of them and some more. >> had mr. nerd inadvertently shown the jury the lava boiling within? that threat won escoto a contempt of court citation from the judge. >> be quiet! >> but what
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appeared to be near disaster for the defendant could be spun as a play to his advantage. >> i think one of the important advantages that he has here is that human connection that he's getting, standing up there and with every witness who says you're a murderer, you're this, you're that, him not backing down. he's never backed down. >> but escoto, the hapless underdog, still needed to convince jurors he was not violent, especially when it came to women, wendy in particular. >> i'm going to be as gentle as i can, judge. >> he carefully questioned his former mother-in-law. he may have won points when he got her to admit that wendy had once confided this to a friend. >> translator: she told her friend that she was content, that she loved you, mr. escoto. >> so did i. >> likewise, this former girlfriend and self-confessed sugar mama had to admit that he was never a violent bully. >> did i ever throw anything at you? >> no. >> did i ever punch you? >> no, no. >> did i ever slap you?
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>> no. >> did i ever throw you on the ground? >> no. >> more important, escoto wanted to show that the state's theory of the crime was a fairy tale, starting with the idea that he drugged wendy. a pharmacologist testified that wendy had only small amounts of prescription narcotics in her blood when the autopsy was performed. >> the toxicology report are consistent with normal doses that you would take of any of these medications. >> she wasn't heavily drugged, as the state argued. >> she wasn't as incapacitated as you might have been led to believe? >> absolutely. that's highly disputed. >> that's not a knockout punch. >> highly disputed. >> there was another problem with the state's theory. it had to do with how wendy died. >> if the assailant left-handed began to strike her -- >> a medical examiner for the defense believed that wendy's extensive injury indicated two killers, both right-handed. >> there are several impacts on the right side, which in an altercation suggests to me that the assailant is right-handed. >> and since michel escoto is
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left-handed, the implication for the jury is clear. he couldn't be the killer. what's more, a dna expert said she expected to find escoto's dna on the victim's clothes. after all, they were husband and wife. but she found something more. >> there were several markers where his dna is not represented. >> dna traces for two different males and, get this, traces for a female. to standby lawyer terry lenamon, that could mean only one person. yolanda cerrillo, escoto's old girlfriend who said she was with him before and after the murder. >> who got immunity. >> lenamon says the first thing to know about yolanda is she's a liar. first, she knew nothing about the crime. then she said she did but only after the fact. the final story, he said, put yolanda front and center in planning the murder.
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>> lo and behold we have a story that comes about, about the drowning and the drugging and all this drama that i believe is rubbish. >> so what did make sense? a killer, he said, who hated wendy enough to pummel her so badly she was unrecognizable. and who fit that bill? >> i felt destroyed because she took you from me, yes. >> in a beyond weird courtroom exchange, escoto in cross-examination took on his former lover, yolanda cerrillo. who admitted her poisonous resentments of wendy. >> i hated what she stood for. i didn't know who she was. i didn't -- i hated the whole situation. i hated that you left. >> and did you wish she was dead? >> i wished she would go away. >> so you see yolanda's hand in this directly? >> she's lying because she feels that's in her best interest. i don't put it past her as being a person who would have committed this crime. >> but would jurors see it that
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way? here was the critical moment of the trial, a chance for each side to sum up its case. and this potential tipping point, even michel escoto seemed to agree was no time for amateurs. coming up, the verdict. >> the years of waiting. the years of mourning her. we needed justice. >> when "dateline" continues. when "dateline" continues dad, it's a buick. i love that new alexa smell. it's a buick. we need snacks for the team. alexa, take us to the nearest grocery store. getting directions. alexa will get us there in no time. it's a buick. let's be real. don't make me turn this alexa around. oh my. it's painful. the buick enclave, with available alexa built in. ask “alexa, tell me more about buick suvs.”
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the suspect involved was arrested multiple times and not held. after a seven-week trial and yes on h. recall chesa boudin now.
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testimony from almost 40 witnesses, the prosecutor and the defense attorney, in this case michel escoto himself, would get one last chance to talk to the jurors in closing arguments. prosecutor gayle levine acknowledged that her office had to hold its nose in order to get escoto's girlfriend yolanda to testify against him. >> i can't charge her. i'd love to. but i can't. and she came in here and she filled in the details. she gave you the answers to questions that you have. >> when it was the defense's turn, escoto and his back-up attorney terry lenamon surprised the courtroom. >> you want mr. lenamon to take over as your counsel at this time? >> i would like to let him take over, judge. >> thank you, judge, i'm ready
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to proceed. >> for the first time in this trial escoto's backup counsel terry lenamon, a seasoned defense attorney, would take over and urge the jurors to find reasonable doubt in the state's case. lenamon jumped in, attacking what he called the prosecutor's overselling of a mostly circumstantial case. >> this is a court of law. and no matter how much i scream as an advocate, no matter how much i wave my hands or say villain, villain, villain, bad, villain, it doesn't make it so. >> his strategy was to plant a seed of doubt in just one juror's mind. >> if there's a hung jury, we may have to start over again. >> then the case went to the jury. wendy's family, as they had done throughout the trial, gathered together once again and prayed. her mother hugged prosecutor gail levine, who pursued escoto so ferociously. >> she is my hero. she is without a doubt my hero.
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>> 2 1/2 hours after the jury went out cell phones started buzzing in the courthouse. so many years after wendy's murder. now, in moments, her family would know. >> the years of waiting. the years of mourning her. all of a sudden we're told the verdict is in. before i got to the courtroom i was already crying. i was shaking. >> wendy's family members held their breath. escoto appeared to do the same as the judge instructed the clerk to read the verdict. >> we the jury in miami-dade county, florida this 22nd day of april 2014 find the defendant michel escoto guilty of first-degree premeditated murder. >> michel sat stone-faced in his chair, his lips downturned in a grimace, nodding. for the family there were more tears but of a different kind. now sorrow, mixed with relief and satisfaction. wendy's mother dropped to her knees and gave thanks. for detective maria medeiros a 12-year-old case was now officially stamped closed.
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>> he'll never do this to another woman again. his lies and his charming and his planning and his evil plan will not affect another person. >> but there was someone the family felt had gotten away with murder, escoto's girlfriend yolanda cerrillo. her immunity deal meant she would never spend a day in jail. >> they're both monsters. they're both psychopaths. >> i don't care at all how desperate, how insecure, how lacking in self respect you have. you're a mother. and you went ahead and planned out the death of another mother's daughter. >> but investigators said without yolanda things might have turned out differently. >> people are going to be throwing their shoes at the tv screen at this point, detective. >> she gave us the additional thing that we needed to charge
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and keep and bring michel escoto to justice in this case. >> he gets a life sentence and she gets have a nice day. >> that's how it appears. but in lieu of not having anybody held accountable for this, i'll take that. >> the family wasn't going to let yolanda off so easily. they sued her for the wrongful death of wendy and were awarded a $44 million judgment. though they had no expectations of ever seeing that kind of money. >> if she has to pay one cent a week, it's well worth it. as a reminder for the rest of her life how she assisted that monster. >> two weeks after his conviction michel escoto was sentenced for wendy's murder. at the hearing he proclaimed his innocence to her family. >> no matter how much satisfaction this verdict has given any of you, an innocent person was convicted in this case. >> finally the family had an opportunity to address the man to killed wendy. >> justice served. off to hell with you and good riddance.
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>> when wendy's mother, miriam, spoke through a translator, there wasn't a dry eye in the courtroom. >> translator: sunday is mother's day. many of you have daughters or sons. and you will receive a kiss from them. i have to go to the cemetery to put flowers on my daughter's tomb. >> judge marisa tinkler mendez gave escoto the mandatory sentence. >> life in prison without the possibility of parole. >> the only way he leaves prison is in a pine box. on the day escoto was found guilty, the family went to the cemetery to visit wendy. they sat on her grave and talked to her. >> i kind of just sat back and felt that i could breathe for the first time in so long and just felt that she was finally at peace. she can rest now.
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>> rest for wendy, the kind young woman who loved animals and enjoyed playing dress-up and who fatally married a stranger, till death he did part. i'm craig melvin. >> i'm natalie morales. this is dateline. >> i'm here, in pain and so hurt, so sad. >> i would give anything for him to be here. >> they were new to college a newly in love, the whole world ahead of them. >> he grabs my chin and he pulls me up, and it gives me this magical case. >> their seeker romance will lead to

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