A Child of Suburban Wealth
Martin Tankleff's house was a place of luxury - and tension
By Shirley E. Perlman and Joseph Demma
December 13, 1988
He was given up at birth by a woman going through a divorce who already had one son and decided she couldn't keep a second.
Three days later, he was adopted by a Long Island couple who couldn't have children, who saw him as "a gift from God" and raised him accordingly.
The boy, Martin Tankleff, became a child of suburban wealth. He had an all-terrain vehicle and piloted the family cabin cruiser. At his bar mitzvah party, there were clowns and game booths, and the hall looked like a bazaar.
He went everywhere with his parents - even to dinner with other couples - and he was groomed to take over the family enterprises. As a child, he sat in a corner at his father's business meetings, taking in the talk of deals and dollars. In junior high school, he sold so much candy that he competed with the school store and was asked to stop. In high school, with his father as his supplier, he dealt in thousands of dollars worth of baseball cards.
Some people said he bragged about the things his family's money could buy.
"I bought this," they quoted him as saying. "I own that."
And when it came to happiness, his home in Belle Terre was somewhere east of Eden.
According to friends and relatives, tensions swirled about the family. Martin and his father argued about the future. His father wanted him to go to college; Martin wanted to step right into the family business. His mother and father bickered as they had through more than 20 years of marriage. Four years ago they split up but got back together and, according to friends, never completely reconciled their differences. Coolness marked the relationship between his mother and his father's daughter by a previous marriage.
This fall, his father told members of his weekly card game that he wanted to go to Atlantic City to get away from the tensions inside the ranch-style home on Long Island Sound. He asked a player to go with him.
But a few hours later, shortly before dawn Sept. 7, Arlene and Seymour Tankleff were attacked in the $1 million home - she in the bedroom and he in the den. Their heads had been bludgeoned and their throats slit. Police said Arlene, 53, died almost immediately; Seymour, 62, lingered unconscious for a month.
Before sundown on the day his parents were found, Martin Tankleff was charged with the attacks. Authorities say the 17-year-old high school senior admitted the crimes. They say he told them he attacked his mother and father with a barbell and a knife because of the pressures of family life - fights over his use of the cars and his aversion to college and because he was frightened by his parents' talk of divorce.
Martin Tankleff claims he is innocent. He disputes the police account of the admissions and says any statements he made were coerced. From the beginning, he has insisted that Jerry Steuerman, a business associate of his father, had a motive, a contention denied by the partner and police. Martin's half-sister, aunts, uncles and cousins have rallied to his side. They say he is incapable of such crimes. They have put up $1 million bail to get him out of jail while he awaits trial on two counts of second-degree murder. And they have posted a $25,000 reward for information in the case.
Tomorrow, a State Supreme Court judge will set a date for the murder trial of the 17-year-old heir to more than $3 million - a fortune left by the parents he is accused of killing.
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Martin Tankleff was born at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn at 4:58 p.m., Aug. 29, 1971. According to a Tankleff relative, his natural mother was in the process of getting a divorce. An adoption had been arranged, but the prospective mother became pregnant and new adoptive parents were being sought.
Someone suggested Arlene and Seymour Tankleff, a West Hempstead couple who were desperately looking for a baby to adopt. According to relatives, neither Seymour nor Arlene was able to have children - he had suffered from testicular cancer and she had undergone a hysterectomy. Tankleff had married Arlene, a secretary in his Hempstead insurance office, after divorcing his first wife, Viga, to whom he had been married about 22 years.
The adoption seemed everything Seymour and Arlene Tankleff had ever wanted. The baby was named after Seymour's oldest brother who had died several years before, a family member said, and was viewed as "a gift from God. Arlene wore a robe and sat in a rocking chair just like she gave birth . . . it was a wonderful event."
A Bris was held at the house in West Hempstead, where the Tankleffs were living while their new home in Belle Terre was being built on property Seymour had seen several months before during a golf outing.
About 10 months after Martin's birth, Arlene and Seymour Tankleff took in a little girl they planned to adopt. But the child was taken from them after several months when a dispute developed between the Tankleffs and the natural mother. Arlene was "devastated" by the loss, relatives said, and compensated by "redoubling her attentions on Martin."
Not that Martin was deprived to begin with. He grew up in an affluent home in an exclusive neighborhood. His parents belonged to the Harbor Hills Country Club in Belle Terre and the Port Jefferson Yacht Club. Seymour Tankleff became commissioner of constables for the village and belonged to the "After-Dinner Club," a group of about 18 men who had been meeting weekly for almost 20 years for poker.
Arlene Tankleff played golf and tennis and loved gardening. She grew orchids in her living room and taught her son to cook. She became increasingly involved in her husband's businesses.
Both parents seemed devoted to their son. They spent weekends on Long Island Sound in the family cabin cruiser and traveled to Europe. For several years, Martin went to a sleep-away camp and Arlene and Seymour - stretching the visitation rules - "would make weekend pilgrimages and go up and visit him," a relative said.
When Martin was 13, his parents threw what a family member called "one helluva party." The bar mitzvah reception was held at the Harbor Hills Country Club. An entertainer did a Michael Jackson impersonation; there were clowns and game booths. The band was led by Ronald Rother, Seymour's son-in-law.
Several people who knew the Tankleffs felt parents and son were almost too close. Steuerman, a partner with Seymour in two bagel stores, said, "They took him everywhere - out to dinner, out to a racetrack, to Connecticut. With other couples, and they bring their 17-year-old son with them . . . And he's the only kid there . . . Every Saturday night."
"He wasn't spoiled," a family member said. "It was more the only-child syndrome."
William Strockbine, registrar at the State University at Stony Brook, whose son has been a close friend of Martin Tankleff, agreed. "I was always a little surprised, coming from a family with all that money, that he was so unspoiled."
Others saw him differently. One source who knew the family for about 10 years said Martin was not popular and rarely dated. The source said that he "was always talking, `My father owns this, my father owns that.' Kids don't want to hear that, but Seymour was like that, too - `I bought this. I own that.' "
Steuerman, who employed Martin Tankleff in one of the bagel shops, said the youth projected an attitude of, " `I'm Marty Tankleff, I don't have to do this here. I'm gonna be a millionaire in two more years, have my own business.' "
"I fired him once," Steuerman said. "He had the attitude with the girls, `Hey, this is my business. My father owns it, you do what I say.' That type of thing. I said, `Marty, `I'm the boss here. Your father's a silent partner.' "
Martin's grades have been average but a relative described him as a "quick learner. He was good with a computer . . . a bright kid."
And he was getting an education outside school. He was learning business from an expert - his father.
During Martin's boyhood, Seymour Tankleff was expanding his business interests, lending money and investing for the most part as a silent partner in such ventures as the bagel stores and a health spa. "He would go to buy a bag of ice and wind up maybe buying the deli," one relative recalled. "His entire being was business. Once he had you . . . he had you. And there would always be a hammer clause . . . if you stood out of line, out would come the hammer clause, he'd grab you . . . and squeeze."
Robert Horowitz, a partner in the insurance business for seven years with Tankleff, said, "Anybody who is Seymour's partner starts out happy at the beginning but isn't so happy at the end."
Seymour's dealings extended to his son. Once, said a relative, Seymour fired his landscaper and made a deal with Martin. Seymour would buy the lawnmower and Martin would maintain the property and be able to use the mower to earn additional money.
"He wasn't mowing the lawn because, `I love you Mom and Dad.' It was a business deal," the relative said. "Seymour was molding him. Seymour used to take him to business meetings, and there was the kid sitting in the corner, listening. He was learning how to be a businessman, every little trick."
A longtime friend and Steuerman agree about how Martin got into the business of selling baseball cards. "Seymour bought maybe twenty, thirty thousand dollars worth of wholesale baseball cards," the friend said. "Marty would sell them at school."
But over the years, deep tensions were developing within the family, according to friends and relatives. Martin was in conflict with his parents more and more. His father teased him about not having girlfriends and criticized his grades. Martin, on the other hand, was resisting his parents' pressure to attend college as a business major, insisting on going into his father's businesses instead.
At the same time, relations were strained between Martin's parents. Several family members and friends said the couple separated briefly in 1984, but Tankleff suffered a severe heart attack and turned to his estranged wife for help. Arlene agreed to get back together, but only after her husband rearranged his finances to give her more control in his businesses. And friends and relatives said they were aware of ill feelings between Arlene and Shari Rother, Seymour's daughter by his first wife. Although they lived only a few miles apart, there seemed to be little contact between father and daughter.
When the poker game met at the Tankleff house on Tuesday, Sept. 6, tension between husband and wife was so great, according to two of the players, that Seymour told them he had to get away for a few days to Atlantic City.
It was after 3 the next morning when the card game broke up and the players said their goodbyes to Seymour Tankleff. Less than three hours later, Seymour Tankleff would be beaten and slashed into unconsciousness at his desk in the den, and his wife would be dead in the bedroom.
* * *
Shortly after 6 a.m., Wednesday, Sept. 7, Martin Tankleff called 911, the police emergency number, and said his mother had been murdered and his father had been assaulted but was still breathing. According to police, he called a friend and told him not to pick him up for school, that his parents were murdered. According to police, Martin gave the following account:
He began giving his father first aid, as instructed by the 911 operator. He pulled his father from the chair, propped up his legs and put a towel around his head. Then he showered, put on a shirt and shorts, ran next door to a neighbor and hysterically told him what happened.
He returned to the house and was sitting on a retaining wall when police arrived. While waiting, police said, he told a passing female student that his parents had just been murdered and he wasn't going to school that day.
At first, police thought they were dealing with a robbery-murder but discounted that almost immediately when they found no evidence of a robbery - there was jewelry on the bedroom dresser, more than $1,000 in a drawer and $25,000 worth of cash and gold coins in a free-standing safe in the closet. Instead, they started focusing on Martin.
There are varying accounts as to the details of what happened next.
Myron Fox, the Tankleff family attorney, says he arrived at the waterfront home about 8 a.m. and told Homicide Det. James McCready he was Martin's attorney and that McCready was not to talk to the youth. Fox said McCready told him Martin had been taken in a police car to visit his father at the hospital.
Edward Jablonski, chief of the Suffolk County district attorney's homicide bureau, said he could not respond to Fox's statement because it is a matter of dispute to be settled at a pretrial hearing.
Whatever was said, Martin was taken to police headquarters for questioning. The youth has told Strockbine that police immediately began badgering him for a "confession." Strockbine said Martin accused police of telling him, " `Your father told us you did it, your hair matches that we found on your mother.' . . . They pushed him up against the wall. All the time, they were telling him, `We know you did it, we just want you to tell us in your own words.' "
During the afternoon, Martin's defense attorney, Robert Gottlieb, called into the case by Fox, telephoned the district attorney's homicide office. He told authorities not to talk to the youth. Gottlieb said he called them again and told them not to let Martin talk to anyone on the telephone, including his half-sister, Shari.
But Shari Rother called police and said she wanted to talk to her brother. A telephone conversation between Rother and Martin was arranged. Jablonski listened on an extension. Shari Rother has testified before a grand jury that Martin said he told police he killed his parents but only after they forced him to do so. Jablonski, who has been disqualified from trying the case because he will be a witness, has said Martin admitted the attacks to his half-sister but did not say he was forced to make the admissions.
Jablonski said Martin told detectives "a number of different stories" on the day of the attacks. "He was caught in lies, in facts that could not be true, and that caused him to confess to the murder."
Jablonski declined to discuss the contradictions but said that "evidence gathered at the scene disputed his earlier stories." That evidence includes tests that show a paper tissue Martin was seen using to wipe his ankle contained his mother's blood. Police quoted Martin as telling them he did not go near his mother's body.
Members of Martin's family say they are convinced of his innocence and that there are weaknesses in the prosecution's case. The prosecution's main evidence consists of statements Martin allegedly made to police admitting the murders. And questions have also been raised about whether investigators violated Martin's rights in talking to him.
In addition, some details of what Martin allegedly told detectives are not supported by the evidence. Forensic tests on a knife and weightlifting equipment allegedly used in the attacks are not conclusive.
Both sides agree, however, that almost from the outset, Martin told police he felt Steuerman may have been involved in the attacks because he was in debt to Seymour Tankleff. Steuerman has refused to discuss details of his business with Tankleff, but said their relationship had been strained recently.
Martin was charged with murdering his mother and assaulting his father and held without bail to await trial. Shortly after his father died Oct. 6, the assault charge was changed to murder.
Police quickly ruled out Steuerman as a suspect but he would become a principal figure in a subplot to the story.
A week after the attacks, Steuerman's car was found in a Hauppauge restaurant parking lot. The engine was running, the driver's door was open and there were notes left in the car indicating he was going to commit suicide.
Two weeks later, he was found in California. He said increasing family pressures, capped by the murder and assault of the Tankleffs, pushed him into a plan to disappear in such a way his family and a woman friend would be provided for with a $500,000 life-insurance policy.
Last week, the Tankleff estate sued Steuerman for more than $900,000 it claims Steuerman owes based on agreements between him and Tankleff.
Shortly after Steuerman's disappearance, however, Gottlieb went into court and successfully argued to have a judge set bail for Martin.
But when Martin tried to get back to his classes at Earl L. Vandermeulen High School, the school district suspended him, citing the indictment and an incident last May when he allegedly threatened another student in the school with a switchblade.
School authorities said Martin threatened a youth who had started dating the girl Martin took to a junior prom. The knife, obtained on a trip to Italy last year, was taken from him and then returned at his father's request, school officials said.
Gottlieb, who has refused to allow his client to talk to the media,says Martin was only fooling around. He said the other student told officials he did not feel threatened, and the school took no disciplinary action at the time. Gottlieb challenged Martin's suspension and a hearing is being held to determine whether it was proper.
* * *
Since the attacks, the entire Tankleff family - half-sister, aunts, uncles, cousins - has rallied to Martin's support.
Martin Tankleff lives in Port Jefferson with his half-sister and her family and is being tutored privately until his school suspension is settled. Along with the school hearings and criminal proceedings, the case has stirred activity in the Suffolk Surrogate's Court. At issue is the Tankleff estate - which, according to court papers, is valued at more than $3.2 million.
Under terms of his parents' will, Martin gets more than half the estate, with the rest going into trust funds that include scholarships at Hofstra University for Tankleff relatives. Martin and Shari Rother reportedly share the proceeds of all but $400,000 of that trust fund.
But under state law, a conviction on the murder charges would automatically disqualify Martin from benefiting from the will, with his share reverting to Rother. Meanwhile, Rother has filed papers in Surrogate's Court that legal experts say could be preparatory to filing objections to the will.
Hearings on the will are to begin next month.
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