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December 29, 2007
New York Is Said to Have Inquiry in Tankleff Case
By BRUCE LAMBERT
The New York Times
New York State has begun an official inquiry into Suffolk County law enforcement’s handling of the investigation into the 1988 murders of a Long Island couple, Arlene and Seymour Tankleff, according to people involved with the inquiry.
The inquiry began quietly more than a year ago when the State Investigation Commission started gathering legal documents in the long-disputed case, people familiar with the inquiry said.
The Tankleffs were fatally bludgeoned and slashed in their home in Belle Terre overlooking Long Island Sound. Their son, Martin, was imprisoned after being convicted of the crimes in 1990, but last week an appeals court vacated his convictions. Extensive new evidence pointing to other suspects probably would have changed the jury’s verdict, the court ruled.
“The S.I.C. is viewing this as a serious and significant investigation,” said a person who works with the officials overseeing the investigation and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the matter was confidential. “The commission is looking at how Suffolk County handled this case.”
As a matter of policy, the commission does not confirm or deny that it is working on an investigation.
But Jay Salpeter, a private investigator who has worked on behalf of Mr. Tankleff, said, “I have met with and spoken to investigators for the S.I.C. on more than one occasion.”
Though the commission has no enforcement powers, it can refer evidence of crimes to the authorities or propose a special prosecutor — something Mr. Tankleff and his supporters have urged as a means to reopen the case and pursue other suspects.
The commission is taking special interest in the Tankleff case as a follow-up to its investigation of Suffolk County law enforcement in the 1980s, which found entrenched misconduct among the police and prosecutors. “This is certainly an outgrowth from the commission’s 1989 report,” said the person associated with officials at the agency.
One police officer named in that report, K. James McCready, became the lead detective in the Tankleff murder case. The report had cited him as having lied as a witness in another murder trial.
As soon as the bodies of Mr. and Mrs. Tankleff were found, Martin Tankleff accused his father’s embittered business partner, Jerard Steuerman, of being involved. Mr. Tankleff and his supporters have complained for years that the police never investigated Mr. Steuerman as a suspect even though he owed Seymour Tankleff $500,000, was in the house the night of the attacks, left suicide notes a week later, changed his appearance and fled to California under an assumed name.
At the time of the first state investigation, Thomas J. Spota — now the Suffolk County district attorney — was the police union lawyer. In that role he went to court to try to block the state inquiry and defended Mr. McCready and others who were under investigation.
Later, when Mr. McCready had retired and was charged with assault and robbery, Mr. Spota was his private lawyer and won an acquittal.
The new evidence in Mr. Tankleff’s appeal included testimony implicating three ex-convicts in the killings and accusing them of acting in concert with Mr. Steuerman. Under oath, Mr. Steuerman and two of the ex-convicts have denied any guilt, though other witnesses said that the men have privately admitted involvement. The other accused man has said he was the getaway driver for the attackers.
Although Mr. Tankleff was freed on Thursday, his original indictment still stands. The Suffolk County district attorney’s office says it is considering appealing the decision and is preparing the retry Mr. Tankleff.
Winning a conviction at a second trial would be difficult, some legal experts say. The original jury deliberated for a week before convicting Mr. Tankleff. Since then, there has been no new evidence against Mr. Tankleff and numerous new witnesses have pointed to other suspects.
Lawyers for Mr. Tankleff said that if prosecutors were threatening a new trial to get Mr. Tankleff, who served 17 years in prison, to agree to a plea bargain, he did not appear to be receptive.
“There is this talk that this is going to go away with some kind of a plea, but I don’t see that happening,” said one of his lawyers, Bruce A. Barket of East Garden City. “Either the D.A. is going to dismiss it, or it’s going to trial. I had Marty in my office today setting up a work station and talking about a strategy for a trial.”
Suffolk prosecutors said the state’s inquiry caught them by surprise.
“I haven’t heard anything about it,” said Leonard Lato, the assistant district attorney in the case. He said he could not comment on what effect it might have on the case.
The state commission had kept a low profile in its inquiry to avoid any perception that it was interfering with Mr. Tankleff’s appeal, two people familiar with the inquiry said. Now that the appeals court has ruled, however, the commission will be dispatching field investigators to interview potential witnesses, they said.
“Now they will be intensifying the investigation,” said the person who works with officials overseeing the inquiry. “They want to find out: was this issue handled appropriately or not by Suffolk County, are there still systemic problems and should anyone be held accountable for the arrest and prosecution of Mr. Tankleff.”
The inquiry is said to be directed by a special counsel at the state commission, Joseph Kunzeman, a retired state appellate judge.
While Mr. Tankleff’s case is pending, his lawyers have asked him not to comment. A spokesman for his relatives, Lonnie Soury, said: “Marty’s case has cried out for an independent investigation of Suffolk County prosecutorial and law enforcement misconduct. We’re pleased that the S.I.C. is conducting a full inquiry into alleged illegal activity going back to the original prosecution of Marty’s case, all the way through to his hearings for a new trial.”