At what for most guests is a peaceful country getaway, inside of a room at the Sportsman Lodge in Eastpoint a hop and a skip away from the Apalachicola River, on a Sunday evening just about a year ago, Aileen Seiden spent her last night on earth.
The next morning the two people she was traveling with dumped the lifeless 31-year-old in a ditch off 98 and headed back to South Florida, where they met up with a mutual friend in Davie, who soon learned enough of what they told him happened, to report the matter to police.
The two were arrested and extradited to the Franklin County Jail, first Zachary Abell, 31, on May 2, nine days after the battered remains were found, and followed the next week by Christina Araujo, 39, her additional days of freedom spent in the hospital recovering from what officials said was a spider bite. Circuit Judge Terry Lewis denied them bond, and each was assigned to a jail outside the county.
Araujo, daughter of a high-ranking officer with the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, has hired Tallahassee criminal defense attorney, James P. Judkins, the cost of which is likely as considerable as the attorney’s decades-long reputation as among the region’s finest. She continues to have her Palm Beach attorney, Scott Richardson, working her case, and here in Franklin County, Apalachicola attorney Steve Watkins has joined as co-counsel.
On behalf of Abell, Apalachicola attorney Donna Duncan has filed with the court that she is joining the public defender’s legal effort, as additional counsel, pro bono.
In an April 3 motion before Circuit Judge Charles Dodson, Abell’s lawyer, Armando Garcia, an assistant public defender in Tallahassee, told the court he supports the motion Araujo’s legal team filed March 25 to ask that there be separate trials.
“I'm reconsidering my position,” wrote Garcia, in an email Monday. “I don't want to make any further statements at this time.”
Araujo’s six-page motion makes clear as the muddy river the two defendants’ differing versions of what happened on their fateful visit, but one thing is unmistakable: Each intends to say the other one did it.
“In this case, Abell’s statement in the recorded jailhouse calls, and his statements to Mr. Picavet are of such a character that they would clearly compel a reasonable person to infer Ms. Araujo’s guilt,” reads the motion.
It goes on to excerpt and summarize what Abell has said in recorded jailhouse calls he made to an unnamed female, and based on what he told Michael Picavet, the friend in Davie who turned them in.
“The essence of Abell’s statement to Picavet was ‘Christina was at fault,’ that ‘(Araujo) had a fight with (Seiden),’ ‘she went to bed,” and Ms. Seiden was dead when they woke up,” reads the motion.
The motion counters that Araujo has accused Abell of the charged crimes, which for each of them is second-degree murder, which carries with it a possible life sentence, and tampering with evidence.
“I did not put my hands on (Seiden)… I did not push her,” but “(Abell) beat her bad,” the motion says, in citing what Araujo told police in a post-arrest interview. The motion says that during this interview, she described how Abell beat Seiden with a walking stick or a paddle, and how after the two discovered Seiden had died, he put the body in the car, and told Araujo to drive “until he found a place” to put the body.
The motion says Abell told Picavet, shortly before his arrest, that Araujo had fought with Seiden “and they passed out, and woke up, and (Seiden) was dead.”
In its excerpts from the recorded telephone calls, the motion outlines what it says Abell will likely contend happened that Sunday, which witnesses say began peacefully with a day-long barbecue by the trio, enhanced by the downing of a large bottle of Fireball cinnamon whiskey bought earlier that day at 98 Liquors.
“Me and Aileen had been fishing, right, while we were there, and she told me she had been getting morning sickness, and everything like that, right, and she thought she was pregnant,” quotes the motion, from a fourth recording of Abell talking with the female individual. “(Abell) then supposes Ms. Seiden said something about this to ‘you know who.’"
Seiden, it quotes Abell from a second recording, may have told Araujo about the pregnancy, and “you know how (Ms. Araujo) gets.”
“Aileen was waking up with morning sickness, and sh*t, you know? I was excited,” the motion quotes Abell as having said.
The fateful road trip began several days earlier when Abell and Seiden drove together from Miami to Texas, and later Araujo flew there to join in the trio’s return trip to South Florida.
Abell is quoted as having said on the telephone to the female, “he loved that girl… that’s why we left (but) she (Araujo) just couldn’t let us be alone, could she?
“I loved that girl, (but) somebody just couldn’t handle it,” it quotes Abell as having said in a third recording.
“The inference is that Ms. Araujo had an extreme reaction to the news which led to Ms. Seiden’s death,” reads Judkins' motion.
It goes on to say that because Abell implicated Araujo in what he told Picavet, any statements that this key witness makes at trial would lead to a jury being “compelled to infer Ms. Araujo’s guilt,” The motion says Abell’s statements are admissible only against him, “but will improperly influence the jury as to the charges against Ms. Araujo.
“Their dueling statements result in inconsistent, antagonistic defenses,” reads the motion. “In this case, both defendants have clearly placed the blame on each other
“(This) may become a ‘definite problem’ should Abell choose to testify while Ms. Araujo remains silent at trial,” it reads. “Accordingly, a separate trial for Ms. Araujo is necessary to avoid violating her confrontation rights, and, ultimately, to assure Ms. Araujo of a fair determination of her guilt or innocence.”
Judkins said Monday he was confident the judge would agree to separate trials. “I think it is fairly clear cut law,” he said.
Based on Picavet’s social media writings, there is little doubt he would testify in a way sympathetic to Abell. The motion also hints at possible collusion when it cites Abell’s statement, on a call to the female individual, to “Tell Mike, ‘thank you for helping.’”
Judkins made clear he would not let Picavet’s testimony go uncountered. “His (Picavet’s) emotional ties to Mr. Abell are fairly irrelevant,” he wrote. “You have to give testimony under oath.”
If Dodson grants the two trials, it will be up to State Attorney Jack Campbell’s office to decide who would go first, as they cannot be held concurrently.
Judkins said he expected a jury trial before the end of the year. “I’ll be shocked if there’s not,” he said.