Ex-cop worked 8 years to free Tankleff


Sunday, December 30th 2007, 4:00 AM

Private investigator Jay Salpeter, who kept Martin Tankleff's hopes alive, is still working case.
In his days as an NYPD detective, Jay Salpeter checks revolver, in 1980. He retired from Finest in 1991. Sorrentino/News

In his days as an NYPD detective, Jay Salpeter checks revolver, in 1980. He retired from Finest in 1991.

It was Friday morning, and private eye Jay Salpeter was juggling calls on two cell phones - congratulations from well-wishers on one and leads from tipsters on the other.

The congrats were for helping overturn the conviction of Martin Tankleff, who spent half his life in prison on charges of killing his parents.

The tips came from first-name-only people who said they had information about the notorious case.

But the best one bore the name "Marty" on his caller ID. It was from Tankleff's new cell. That's cell as in cellular phone - not jail cell.

"It was nice to see that instead of getting a collect call from prison," Salpeter said. "It is such a good feeling, to give a kid his life back, but we still have a lot of work to do if this goes back to trial."

Salpeter, 56, wore a blue sweater and jeans and looked tired as he handled all the calls in his office.

He had celebrated with Tankleff and his relatives a day earlier, when Tankleff was freed from the Great Meadow Correctional Facility. Bubbly flowed, but Salpeter admitted he "drank more than champagne. ... I'm a vodka man."

It's been almost eight years since the retired NYPD detective began probing the Tankleff case. Tankleff was sentenced to 50 years-to-life for the 1988 slaying of his parents, Seymour and Arlene, in their Belle Terre, L.I., home.

Tankleff, then 17, confessed but recanted. He claimed his father's business partner hired hit men to bludgeon and stab the couple.

"They just f----- this guy," Salpeter said of the Suffolk County cops who arrested Tankleff.

He said Tankleff wrote him a letter in 2000 asking him to take up his case. He made Tankleff take a polygraph test, and he passed.

"I told him, 'The only way I'm going to get you out of it is to solve it,'" Salpeter recalled.

He found witnesses, including Glenn Harris, who admitted to driving two men to the Tankleff home for what he was told was just a burglary.

Harris had first confessed to a priest in Sing Sing, where he was jailed on another case, and he, too, passed Salpeter's polygraph.

When Harris checked out, "I said, 'We're gonna get this guy [Tankleff] out,'" Salpeter recalled. "I got excited. The lawyers got excited."

Remarkably, Salpeter found a pipe in a wooded area near the Tankleff home where Harris said the killers tossed it the night of the murder.

The possible weapon was sent to an Innocence Project lab, where forensics tests showed the pipe's condition was consistent with exposure to the elements for 16 years.

Time had erased any possible DNA evidence. "But time helped the case," Salpeter said. "Time is a detective's best friend, because people change over time."

While working the case, Salpeter's face, framed by longish gray hair and a thick trademark mustache (since shaved off) became familiar on cable news channels and network newsmagazine shows as a pundit on high-profile cases like the Robert Blake murder trial.

The Bronx-born, Bayside-reared Salpeter joined the NYPD in 1972 and retired in 1991 as a detective second-grade after assignments in the street crime decoy unit, narcotics, detective squads and as a hostage negotiator.

As a detective, he had his share of limelight cases. One was the return of dozens of Jewish artifacts stolen from Brooklyn yeshivas and synagogues after he rescued the precious metal objects at a smelting company in Massachusetts.

His last case as a cop, in August 1990, remains the most memorable - for its horror.

A Queens man, Jason Radtke, became enraged when his 6-day-old son wet him and threw the infant to the floor, killing him. He dismembered the baby's body with a razor and left the remains for the family's German shepherd.

"I was with that guy 19 hours. We got a confession out of him, and we never touched him," Salpeter said.

After retirement, he became a private investigator and worked cases of cheating spouses and for criminal defense lawyers. He often works with Long Island attorney Bruce Barket, Tankleff's lawyer.

He worked for one of four American youths charged with murder on the island of Tortola, and his client was among the three cleared.

He also tracked down a witness who sprung Lamont Branch from prison, where he had served 13 years for a 1988 Brooklyn murder committed by his brother.

But, he said, "No other case has ever been so satisfying" as the Tankleff case.

With that, Salpeter started to rush out of his Great Neck office to continue working the case, because it could be retried - if prosecutors don't simply agree to drop it.

He stopped to open his mail. There was a letter from Tankleff, dated Dec. 24, right after the appeal to overturn his conviction was granted.

"He told me this was coming," Salpeter said. He scanned the brief, typed letter and read a line of it aloud: "You'll never get rid of me for life, you've given me my life back."

Salpeter smiled broadly.

"Hopefully," he said, "this is the last letter he'll ever write from a prison."

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