Tankleff investigator: Case "biggest" he's done


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December 30, 2007

The walls of Jay Salpeter's second-floor office in Great Neck hold images of his beloved Jets and Mets, as well as what he could regard the hard-earned trophies of his trade as a sleuth-for-hire.

There with the glossy, autographed portrait of legendary quarterback Joe Namath and a photograph of the Mets in a celebratory frenzy are framed newspaper and magazine articles in which Salpeter's name appears alongside details of some of the area's most interesting crime cases.

Most are grisly killings that the former New York Police Department homicide detective helped to solve, cases he said were examples of mistaken identity or malicious prosecution.

But no case has gotten Salpeter's name in print more often than the one attached to one of Long Island's most talked-about surnames: Tankleff.

"This is the biggest case I've ever done," the veteran private investigator said.

Nineteen years of experience as a detective and hostage negotiator allowed him to switch sides, he said, and become an advocate for those seeking freedom.

Salpeter, 56, got involved with the Tankleff case seven years ago, on Dec. 22, 2000, the day he received a letter from Martin Tankleff, the Belle Terre man convicted in 1990 of killing his parents, Arlene and Seymour Tankleff.

"Please know that your services are greatly desired," Tankleff wrote in his letter from the state prison in Dannemora, where he was serving a 50-years-to-life sentence. In the neatly typed note, Tankleff asked Salpeter to do some work on his case for free.

On Dec. 22 of this year -- seven years to the day that Salpeter got Tankleff's letter -- Tankleff walked out of a Suffolk County Court into the arms of his relatives, free on $1 million bail, and resolved to fight to be acquitted if Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota decides to retry him for the killings that occurred on Sept. 7, 1988.

A state appellate panel reviewed the case and found that, largely based on evidence Salpeter gathered, Tankleff should be granted a new trial.

"Seven years ago, I never knew what I was going to be involved in," Salpeter said, referring to the moment he agreed to look into Tankleff's claims of innocence. "No other homicide case has taken me seven years to solve."

Salpeter's evidence-gathering experience allowed him to connect the proverbial dots, he said, and explore the associations among people he says are linked to the killings.

When Salpeter began his investigation in 2001, he found that a woman named Karlene Kovacs had provided an affidavit to Tankleff's attorney Robert Gottlieb in 1994. In that document, Kovacs said that Joseph Creedon, a known drug-debt enforcer from Selden, had mentioned at a party that he was at the Tankleff home with a man named Steuerman on the night of the slayings.

Next, the investigator said, he checked criminal records and found that Creedon had been charged with committing a burglary with Glenn Harris, a small-time drug abuser and thief also from Selden who now is serving time for a parole violation.

Salpeter focused on Harris, writing several letters to him in prison. Eventually, Harris responded and later testified in an affidavit that he drove Creedon and another Selden man, Peter Kent, to the Tankleff home.

In the affidavit, Harris said he waited in the car while Creedon and Kent walked up to the house. He said the two came back to the car panting and sweating and carrying a pipe, which Harris said he tossed into a patch of woods. Kent later burned the clothes he was wearing, Harris said.

"We are here today because of Glenn Harris," Salpeter said.

Separately, Salpeter had linked Creedon to Jerard Steuerman, who was Seymour Tankleff's partner in the bagel business. In the 1980s, Creedon used to collect money for Steuerman's son, Todd, a cocaine dealer, court documents show.

Harris' affidavit formed the basis of the evidentiary hearing, begun in July 2004, where Tankleff's attorneys, Barry Pollack of Washington and Bruce Barket of Garden City, argued that new evidence proved Tankleff's innocence.

Specifically, they said, Harris would testify that he drove Creedon and Kent to Belle Terre that night to kill the Tankleffs over a dispute Seymour Tankleff had with the elder Steuerman, who owed Tankleff hundreds of thousands of dollars. Evidence in the case showed that Steuerman was at the house that night during a poker game.

Also, Salpeter combed the grounds of the Tankleff home and said he located what he thought was a murder weapon, a pipe that had been on property adjacent to the Tankleffs' waterfront home.

But Harris never testified at that 2004 hearing, appearing on the stand but invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Others did testify, including Billy Ram, a former drug dealer who Salpeter contacted because Harris said he, Creedon and Kent were at Ram's home partying with drugs before driving to Belle Terre just hours before the early-morning killings. Ram testified to this at the hearing.

Salpeter also reached Teresa Covais, Creedon's former girlfriend and the mother of Creedon's son, Joseph Guarascio, who testified at the hearing that Creedon told him he and Kent had killed the Tankleffs that night.

Salpeter credits his ability to persuade people to come forward to testify in high-stakes situations such as the Tankleff affair partly to the negotiating skills he honed as a street cop and partly to people's consciences.

"No matter what I say to people, they're not going to come forward unless they think it's the right thing to do," he said.