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Federal judge orders Florida man held without bond in his estranged wife’s disappearance in Spain

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MIAMI (AP) — A federal judge ordered the Florida man charged with his estranged wife’s disappearance in Spain held without bond on Friday, rejecting his lawyer’s argument that the prosecution case is entirely circumstantial and shouldn’t be tried in the United States.

Magistrate Judge Edwin Torres said the decision to hold David Knezevich until trial was “a close call,” but he said the Fort Lauderdale business owner’s wealth and close ties to his native Serbia make him a potential flight risk even if he was required to post a $1 million bond, wear an ankle bracelet and surrender his passport. Knezevich and his wife are both naturalized U.S. citizens — she is from Colombia.

Knezevich, 36, was arrested by the FBI last weekend at Miami International Airport and charged with kidnapping. His 40-year-old wife, Ana Knezevich, disappeared Feb. 2 after a man in a motorcycle helmet spraypainted the lens of a security camera outside of her Madrid apartment. She had moved there from Florida late last year after their split.

Torres’ decision came after a contentious two-hour hearing during which federal prosecutor Lacee Monk and defense attorney Jayne Weintraub sparred over just how strong the government’s case is against Knezevich and whether the U.S. has jurisdiction to try an alleged crime that happened in Europe.

Monk told Torres that prosecutors believe Ana is dead and that the FBI and Spain’s national police have substantial evidence that Knezevich is behind his wife’s disappearance, which happened five weeks after she left him and moved to Madrid.

She said the couple had been going through a nasty divorce after 13 years of marriage, fighting over how to split a substantial fortune they had amassed from their computer firm and real estate investments. He didn’t want her to have an equal share, Monk said.

Monk said Knezevich flew to Turkey from Miami six days before Ana’s disappearance, then immediately traveled the 600 miles (950 kilometers) to his native Serbia — she said he was covering his tracks. There, he rented a Peugeot automobile.

On Feb. 2, security video shows him 1,600 miles (2,600 kilometers) from Serbia in a Madrid hardware store using cash to buy duct tape and the same brand of spray paint the man in the motorcycle helmet used on the security camera, Monk said. His cellphone connected to Facebook from Madrid. The man in the motorcycle helmet is the same height and has the same eyebrows as Knezevich, she said.

License plates that were stolen in Madrid in that period were spotted by police plate readers both near a motorcycle shop where an identical helmet was purchased and on Ana’s street the night she disappeared. Hours after the helmeted man left the apartment, a Peugeot identical to the one Knezevich rented and sporting the stolen plates was recorded going through a toll booth near Madrid. The driver could not be seen because the windows were tinted.

The morning after his wife disappeared, Knezevich texted a Colombian woman he met on a dating app to translate into “perfect Colombian” Spanish two English messages, Monk said. After she sent those back, two of Ana’s friends received those exact messages from her cellphone. They said she was going off with a man she had just met, something they say she would have never done. Monk said that proves Knezevich had his wife’s cellphone.

Finally, when Knezevich returned the Peugeot to the rental agency five weeks later, it had been driven 4,800 miles (7,700 kilometers), its windows had been tinted, two identifying stickers had been removed and there was evidence the license plate had been removed and then put back.

She said Knezevich has a strong incentive to flee as he is looking at a potential life sentence if convicted of kidnapping and death if it can be be shown his wife has been killed.

But Weintraub said the government’s case is “built on assumptions.” She denied that the couple’s split was acrimonious and questioned FBI agent Alexandria Montilla extensively about the investigation, trying to poke holes in the government’s theory, admitting she sometimes crossed into “snarkiness.”

For example, Montilla said the only items missing from Ana’s apartment were her laptop and cellphone. Weintraub said perhaps she took a change of clothing, which wouldn’t be obvious, and ran off with a man. When Montilla said unidentified blood was found in Ana’s apartment and is being tested, Weintraub asked why that would take three months.

When Montilla said Spanish police had interviewed all the men Ana had dated since arriving in Spain, Weintraub asked how they would know there wasn’t someone else.

She said Ana had a history of mental illness and had talked of suicide. Weintraub posited that Ana perhaps ran off “on a mental health holiday” and would soon return “with whomever she’s with” — a suggestion that caused Ana’s relatives in the gallery to noticeably stir.

Weintraub also argued there is no evidence that Ana’s disappearance was forced, an essential component of a kidnapping charge.

“And there never will be,” she said.

She then questioned whether the U.S. government even has jurisdiction. Monk argued that under revisions made to the federal kidnapping law in 2006, the U.S. can charge someone if the offender engaged in “interstate or foreign commerce” to commit the crime. Weintraub called that a stretch.

Torres agreed that Weintraub will be able to mount a substantial defense, but the prosecution does have sufficient evidence to charge her client and he is flight risk. He invited Weintraub to appeal his decision. She did not respond.

By TERRY SPENCER
Associated Press

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