More than five years after she was killed in an Eastpoint motel, Aileen Seiden is on the verge of having justice meted out to the two people charged in her death.
One of them, Christina Marie Araujo, 43, of Palm Beach, decided earlier this month to plead guilty to a lesser charge of second-degree murder, and awaits sentencing sometime later this summer or early fall.
The other co-defendant, Zachary Abell, 35, of North Miami Beach, who like Araujo was charged with first-degree murder, accessory after the fact and tampering with physical evidence after being extradited from South Florida to Franklin County in early May 2018, has decided, at least so far, to take it to trial.
On May 18, Circuit Judge Jonathan Sjostrom agreed to postpone the trial, originally slated to begin this week, until July at the earliest. He granted a motion filed by Abell’s counsel, Tallahassee attorney Alex Morris, and unopposed by Assistant State Attorney Jarred Patterson, and set a case management hearing for July 11.
“There is no case I want out of my file cabinet more than Mr. Abell’s,” Morris said. “Mr. Abell wants his day in court. (He) is in agreement with my professional estimate of time and my belief in the necessity for a continuance. Mr. Abell and I were 100 percent on the same page.”
Morris was appointed as attorney in January 2021 after the public defender, and later the regional conflict counsel, told the judge they each had a conflict of interest in the case.
Morris told the judge last week that as soon as Araujo entered her plea on May 9, “literally the same day (I met with Abell) to discuss concerns and considerations of what we thought we needed to do.”
The attorney said that after he completed a lengthy federal trial in Tallahassee, and attended his son’s graduation in Texas, he “hit the ground running this week. I’ve been working hard and doing due diligence, playing a lot of catch-up.”
Nonetheless, Morris told the judge there was not enough time to calendar the deposition of Araujo, a possible witness at Abell’s trial, in advance of the May 24 start date for the trial.
“It’s going to take me some time to be able to do it,” he said. “There is rhyme or reason for a shoot-from-the-hip strategy, but I believe it would be irresponsible, if not ineffective, to fail to depose Ms. Araujo. I think that’s prudence.
“(This case) was a whodunit and the whodunit was based on circumstantial evidence,” Morris said. “That has shifted now. The whodunit is solved and the defense’s case shifts a little bit in that response.”
The attorney also argued that having just one defendant would shorten the time required for jury selection, and alter the days when witnesses would be called to testify. “That speeds up the timeline considerably, and then the holiday weekend intervenes,” Morris said, appearing by Zoom from his office, as did Abell, from the Franklin County Jail.
“While all my witnesses are under subpoena, there are a multitude of witnesses coming from various jurisdictions, professionals who have moved their schedules and booked rooms, which are not easy to come by in Franklin County,” he said. “It’s going to leave me in a lurch without the ability to have witnesses. It would be discombobulated at best.”
The judge said he understood the timing had changed. “Never in my experience have you been dilatory in any case, and certainly not this case,” Sjostrom told Morris. “The number one priority I have (for this trial) is because of its age.”
On April 23, 2018, Araujo and Abell are alleged to have beaten to death Aileen Seiden, 31, at a room they were staying in at the Sportsman’s Lodge, and then dumping her lifeless body in a cul-de-sac at a vacant subdivision off U.S. 98, before hurrying back to Miami where they were later apprehended.
One witness, Dustin Dinkelacker, in whose Texas home the three traveling companions stayed before stopping in Eastpoint on their week back to South Florida, would not be available for the trial this week because he is on a deployment with the Army National Guard, Morris said.
“He would be an important witness,” Morris said. “Mr. Abell and the decedent (Seiden) traveled to Dallas, Texas and they stayed at Mr. Dinkelacker’s residence. Ms. Araujo flew in and met up with the two parties.
“Mr. Dinkelacker provides testimony as to what Ms. Araujo’s conduct was,” he said.
Patterson said he believed, after talking with Morris, that “there is no reason to fight this (request for a continuance).
“I understand why this changes the game for Mr. Abell and Mr. Morris,” he said, noting that it is common to have defendants file a post-conviction motion for an appeal, and “I don’t want to run the risk of handing this issue on a silver platter.
“This has gone to a witness in the room who is going to say what happened and that is a big shift,” said Patterson. “I don’t think it was appropriate to fight Mr. Morris on this under the circumstances.”
In ruling this week’s trial would be postponed, and a case management date set for July, Sjostrom said Araujo’s sentencing, as well as adjudication of a Jan. 13, 2021 battery charge against Abell alleged to have taken place within the jail, “will travel together here on out until they’re resolved.”
He said he planned to discuss the matter with Circuit Judge Francis Allman, who is set to succeed Sjostrom on July 1 as the judge assigned to Franklin County.