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New York Times
January 20, 2008
By BRUCE LAMBERT, PAUL VITELLO and NATE SCHWEBER
He called himself the Bagel King of Long Island, and with dozens of stores and franchise contracts, Jerard Steuerman could reasonably claim the title.
His flamboyant, self-promoting persona — complete with a gold bagel pendant necklace and a ’60s-style Afro — lent itself to fancy cars, flashy rings and a gambling habit.
He charmed some and he frightened others, and in 1983, he entered the lives of Seymour Tankleff, an insurance broker turned investor, and his wife, Arlene, who lived in Belle Terre, on the North Shore of Long Island.
The two men became business partners. Mr. Steuerman, heavily in debt, borrowed $500,000 at a high interest rate from Mr. Tankleff. And on the eve of Sept. 7, 1988, Mr. Steuerman attended a poker game at the Tankleffs’ home, leaving before the couple were found assaulted: Mrs. Tankleff dead and her husband mortally wounded. Shortly afterward, he left for California under an assumed name.
Mr. Steuerman, now 68 and living in a condominium in Boca Raton, Fla., has been a figure in the case from the start, ever since the Tankleffs' killings and the arrest of their son, Martin H. Tankleff, then 17, two decades ago.
To some — notably Mr. Tankleff and those who supported his claim of innocence — he has always seemed a likely suspect in the crimes.
To others — including the Suffolk County police and prosecutors — he was simply a bystander, a businessman who might have made mistakes but who did not commit murder.
With the events of recent weeks, however, have come renewed questions.
Martin Tankleff is free after 17 years in prison, his conviction overturned by a state appellate court. But the charges against him are still in place. Gov. Eliot Spitzer has appointed a special prosecutor, Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo, whom a court has given 30 days to decide how to proceed.
Mr. Steuerman is now a wild card in a 20-year-old mystery, his past and his relationship with the Tankleffs once again the object of scrutiny.
He has denied under oath any involvement in the murders. For years, he has refused to comment publicly on the case. Repeated attempts to contact him by telephone for this article, including a message left with his son, were unsuccessful. An employee at one of his stores said that Mr. Steuerman was unavailable and had no comment. A security officer and a sheriff’s deputy barred a reporter from entering Willowwood Gardens, the gated condominium community where Mr. Steuerman lives and serves on the board of directors.
But interviews with neighbors, business associates and others who knew him in the 1980s — as well as the accounts of witnesses whose testimony helped overturn Mr. Tankleff’s conviction — reveal him as a man of many contradictions. He was a shrewd businessman, with an eye for a deal, a skillful hand with a poker deck and a desire to impress. He was also a lavish spender who by his own account lived beyond his means, a high-stakes gambler whose losses outpaced his gains, and a father whose son was convicted of dealing cocaine in one of his stores.
A Bond in Business
When Jerard Steuerman and Seymour Tankleff crossed paths in 1983, it was through the bagel business, the Steuerman family’s occupation for four generations.
In the early 1900s Jerard Steuerman’s grandfather, Jakob Frutchman, emigrated from Austria and opened a bagel bakery in a Manhattan basement, according to a Web site for Strathmore Bagels, the chain founded by Mr. Steuerman.
As a young man, Mr. Steuerman toiled in a factory so hot and steamy from the big kettles boiling bagels and the coal-fired ovens baking them that workers stripped to their underwear, according to an article in Newsday in 1986.
But Mr. Steuerman had bigger plans. He branched out to Long Island, opening a bagel shop in Merrick in the 1960s, then expanding into Suffolk County in the 1980s.
Nicholas Argyros, a co-owner of the Bagel Chalet in Commack, who was Mr. Steuerman’s business partner for several years in the 1980s, remembers him as “a stand-up guy.”
His opinion of Mr. Steuerman, he said, is "all positives."
Some workers in Mr. Steuerman’s bagel stores sensed another side.
"I still get goose bumps when I hear his name," said Rebecca Keeler, who as a teenager worked for three years at bagel stores owned by Mr. Steuerman in Stony Brook and East Setauket.
"He wore his Capezios and gold rings, pinkie rings," she said. "He tried to be funny, to be everybody’s friend," but people often shied away from him.
One customer at Mr. Steuerman’s bagel stores was Seymour Tankleff, an insurance broker who had sold his business and was seeking companies to invest in, said Ron Falbee, a nephew of the Tankleffs and executor of their estate. Like Mr. Steuerman, Mr. Tankleff was the descendant of recent immigrants: his father, after arriving in New York from Russia, started a chain of poultry stores in Brooklyn.
Mr. Tankleff and Mr. Steuerman became business partners, but their financial relationship soon grew more complicated. Mr. Tankleff lent money on the side, often at very high interest rates. At some point, he began making loans to Mr. Steuerman, Mr. Falbee said, initially to finish building a spacious two-story home in Belle Terre, where the Tankleffs also had a large house.
The clifftop bluffs on the North Shore of Long Island have long been a coveted spot for the rich. The Astors and Morgans built summer cottages there at the turn of the last century. Mr. Tankleff and Mr. Steuerman were part of a new entrepreneurial elite that had settled there by the 1980s: car dealers, real estate lawyers, small-business owners and investors like Mr. Tankleff, many looking for big returns in a time then known as the go-go decade.
Mr. Steuerman’s house in Belle Terre house was one of 10 addresses in Suffolk and Nassau Counties listed in his name from 1983 to 2006. One of those was a gray beach house overlooking the bay in Mount Sinai that Mr. Steuerman rented in the early 1980s.
Charles and Nancy West, who lived next door, described him as an ostentatious man who drove a Jaguar and took frequent trips to Florida.
He was a difficult neighbor, they said. People came and went at all hours of the day and night. On the Fourth of July, there were noisy fireworks displays. Once the barrage was so intense that the Wests, fearing their home would burn down, called the Fire Department.
More than once, Mrs. West recalled, people drove up to the house “in the middle of the night,” and there were angry exchanges about drug use.
“It happened a few times,” said Mrs. West, who is 68 and a retired schoolteacher.
Mr. West said that he complained about Mr. Steuerman to the police but was told that nothing could be done.
“It was so bad that we said, ‘If he buys that house, we’re selling,’ ” Mr. West recalled.
It was a complicated time for Mr. Steuerman and his family. In 1983, his son Todd was arrested for selling cocaine at a bagel store where he worked; his lawyer in the case was Gerard Sullivan, a law partner of Thomas J. Spota, now the Suffolk County district attorney. According to the police report, Todd Steuerman, who was convicted and placed on probation, told an undercover officer: “Just call here any time you want more blow. My father owns the place, so it’s cool.”
Mr. Steuerman himself was facing increasing debt.
Lou Bove, 50, the son of Vincent Bove, the village’s former mayor, who played poker with Mr. Tankleff and Mr. Steuerman, said he had always liked Mr. Steuerman but was aware of his faults.
“Jerry was a nice guy,” Mr. Bove said, but “he had a very bad gambling problem.”
In the years before Seymour and Arlene Tankleff were murdered, Mr. Steuerman piled up gambling debts at casinos including Harrah’s Marina and Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino, according to court records.
By 1988, Mr. Tankleff had lent Mr. Steuerman more than $500,000, at an interest rate of about 35 percent, secured by shares in his bagel stores and several racehorses. But “the partnership was deteriorating,” Mr. Falbee said, because Mr. Steuerman had stopped repaying the loans and he and Mr. Tankleff were fighting for control of the bagel stores.
In the months before his death, Mr. Tankleff had demanded an immediate cash payment of $50,000, and Mr. Steuerman resisted, according to members of the Tankleff family. Two weeks before the attacks, Arlene Tankleff told her sister, Marcella Alt Falbee, that she was afraid of Mr. Steuerman, according to court records. Ms. Falbee quoted her sister as saying that when Seymour Tankleff had tried to collect money, Mr. Steuerman angrily grabbed him, pulled him across a counter and said, “I’ll cut your throat.”
The Son Is Blamed
Seymour and Arlene Tankleff were found stabbed and bludgeoned in their home about 6 a.m. on Sept. 7, 1988. A Tuesday night poker game known as “the After Dinner Club” had ended about three hours earlier.
Mr. Steuerman was among a group who often attended, along with Mayor Bove and other prominent residents of Belle Terre. He was the last to leave the Tankleff house that night, sometime after 3 a.m., he said.
Dr. Frank Oliveto, an orthopedic surgeon who also attended the poker game, said that nothing unusual happened during the seven-hour game, though Seymour Tankleff and Mr. Steuerman “were cool to each other,” as they had been for months.
From the outset, Suffolk County police and prosecutors cast the Tankleff murders as an allegory about the dangers of growing up rich in a place like Belle Terre. They quickly pursued charges against the Tankleffs’ 17-year-old son, who, they said, murdered his parents in a fit of anger about privileges denied, and with a cold eye on $3 million he would inherit when he was 25.
Martin Tankleff, his lawyers and a cadre of aunts and uncles familiar with the Tankleffs’ business affairs insisted that Mr. Steuerman should be considered a suspect.
But within six hours after the bodies were found, the Suffolk County police, led by Detective K. James McCready, extracted a confession from Martin Tankleff, albeit one he never signed and quickly retracted.
A witness tracked down by investigators working for Martin Tankleff would later say that Mr. McCready, a building contractor on the side, had a business relationship with Jerard Steuerman before the murders, though Mr. McCready denied knowing him.
Hours after the crimes, according to Mr. Falbee, the Tankleff estate executor, Mr. Steuerman withdrew $15,000 from a bank account that Mr. Falbee said was financed by Mr. Tankleff. A week later, Mr. Steuerman disappeared, leaving notes behind to fake his death and instructing his children and a girlfriend on how to collect his life insurance policy.
Suffolk County authorities did not consider Mr. Steuerman a suspect, but they wanted him to testify at Martin Tankleff’s trial in 1990. Police tracked him down in California, where, beard shaved and hairpiece changed, he had spent some time at the famed Esalen Institute in Big Sur, relaxing and receiving psychotherapy. He was traveling under the name Jay Winston, one of many names he used in his business and personal lives.
Mr. Steuerman told the police he had run away to escape personal problems.
“The only mistake I made in my life is that I lived lavishly,” Mr. Steuerman testified at the trial. “I was a poor man living like a millionaire.”
Referring to his flight after the murders, Mr. Steuerman told the jury: “I did a foolish thing. But I am no murderer and I should not be here.”
In the years after Mr. Tankleff’s conviction in 1990, Mr. Steuerman’s business flourished. He secured franchise deals to open bagel shops at major airports, including Kennedy International, and at rest stops along the New York State Thruway and the New Jersey and Florida Turnpikes. After a few years, he and his second wife, Sharon, moved to Florida.
A New Theory
In 2003, Jay Salpeter, a private investigator who began looking into the case on behalf of Martin Tankleff and his family, began to piece together a startling alternate version of the crimes, one that centered on Mr. Steuerman. Several witnesses unearthed by Mr. Salpeter, including two ex-convicts, implicated Mr. Steuerman in recruiting two hit men, Joseph Creedon and Peter Kent, to kill the Tankleffs, and in signaling them to enter the Tankleff house before he left the poker game. (One witness later retracted his story; another once said he had concocted his story but later swore an affidavit affirming it and has maintained it ever since.)
In 2006, a Suffolk County Criminal Court judge, Stephen L. Braslow, dismissed the testimony as given by “a cavalcade of nefarious scoundrels.”
But last month, the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court overturned Mr. Tankleff’s conviction in the murders, noting that whatever the witnesses’ character flaws, many did not know one another and gave their testimony independently.
What happens next will depend on the path of Mr. Cuomo’s investigation, an undertaking that he has acknowledged will be difficult, given that the trail is 20 years cold. Yet at some point, it will almost certainly make a stop at a condominium on Willowwood Drive in Boca Raton.
Ralph Tamburro, who lived next door to Mr. Steuerman on Empress Pines Drive in Nesconset in the years immediately after the Tankleff murders, remembers a man very different from the flashy, disruptive neighbor the Wests knew in Mount Sinai a decade before.
Mr. Steuerman, Mr. Tamburro said, was a quiet man, who "kind of kept to himself."
"He was pleasant; there were never any problems," Mr. Tamburro said.