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Evidence gives hope to man convicted of killing parents
By John Springer
PORT JEFFERSON, New York (Court TV) --Compelling new evidence uncovered in an old case could one day free a Long Island man convicted in 1990 of the brutal murders of his adoptive parents, court papers filed Thursday say.
Lawyers and a private investigator for 32-year-old Martin Tankleff claim that a career burglar with a guilty conscience told them in August that he served as the getaway driver for what he thought was a run-of-the-mill house burglary in this affluent community on the North Shore of Long Island on September 7, 1988.
The defense says the inmate's claim that his two accomplices emerged from the burglary with blood on their clothes corroborates another witness's statement, provided to the prosecution and defense as long ago as 1991, that one of the men bragged about the murders.
The Suffolk County district attorney's office has yet to indicate whether it will investigate the new evidence, which could be the last great hope for longtime supporters, including siblings of victims Seymour Tankleff and Arlene Tankleff.
Martin Tankleff, who had just turned 17 when his parents were killed, has exhausted most of his appeals and has served just more than one-fourth of a sentence of 50 years to life in an upstate prison.
The night before the attacks, the Tankleffs' million-dollar home overlooking Long Island Sound was abuzz with chatter from the "After Dinner Club," the regular Tuesday night poker game that featured $2,000 pots.
The venue for the game rotated among the homes of the regular players, including the mayor of Belle Terre and the village's chief constable, retired insurance executive Seymour Tankleff.
The game broke at about 3 a.m. and Seymour Tankleff, as was his habit, remained in his study doing paperwork after the last of his guests left. On that occasion, the last guest was Jerry Steuerman, the self-styled "Bagel King of Long Island" and a business associate of Tankleff who owed him $500,000.
A few hours later, Martin Tankleff called 911 to report that he had awoken to find his father in his study bleeding from a severe neck wound. When police and paramedics arrived, they learned that Arlene Tankleff was dead in her bedroom at the opposite end of the expansive ranch-style home.
Both victims were bludgeoned and had their throats slashed. Arlene Tankleff was nearly decapitated.
Martin Tankleff immediately pointed the finger at Jerry Steuerman. Detectives testified during a 13-week trial two years later that they had noted Martin's suspicions but were curious to find out why someone would attack both of his parents but leave Martin, as he claimed, sleeping in the bedroom next to his mother's.
A few hours later, Seymour Tankleff lay hospitalized in a coma and Martin Tankleff was seated alone in an interrogation room at the Suffolk police homicide bureau.
Homicide Det. K. James McCready told the teenager that his father had come out of his coma and fingered Martin in the attack. In fact, Seymour Tankleff never came out of his coma and died a few weeks later before he could tell police anything.
The detective's lie got Martin to break down and give a confession. He told police with very little prodding that his parents were smothering him, that he had a fight with his mother about not setting up the table for the card game, and that he didn't want to drive "the crummy old Lincoln" to school.
Noting that his father never lied to him, Martin told McCready and partner Norman Rein that he must have "blacked out" and attacked his parents.
About a week after the attacks, police found Jerry Steuerman's Lincoln Towne Car unoccupied but running with the doors open near Long Island's MacArthur Airport. Police, who learned that Steuerman had tapped a joint account he held with Seymour Tankleff after the killings, began a missing person's investigation. When police found Steuerman in a spa in California, he told detectives he was laying low and traveling under an alias because of the stress of the police investigation and Martin's accusations.
Police believed that Steuerman was merely an available scapegoat for Martin Tankleff, who had already confessed to the crime. Steuerman testified for the prosecution at Tankleff's trial that he had returned home after the card game and gone to bed. His wife corroborated his account.
According to a motion for a new trial filed Thursday, private investigator Jay Salpeter uncovered the new evidence by following an old trail. A Long Island woman told the defense in 1991 that an acquaintance, Joseph Creedon, had bragged that he was involved in the Tankleff murders.
Salpeter looked up police reports of Creedon's prior arrests and learned that he had once been arrested for a burglary along with Glenn Harris. Salpeter visited Harris in an upstate prison earlier this year.
"This has bothered me for a long time and when [Salpeter] contacted me it gave me the opportunity to tell the truth," Harris said in an affidavit attached to the motion.
Assistant District Attorney John Collins, who prosecuted Tankleff during a televised 13-week trial in 1990, told Courttv.com that he had not received the court documents and therefore could not comment.
Collins is now in charge of District Attorney Thomas Spota's homicide bureau. A spokesperson for Spota did not return calls. The whereabouts of Creedon and the other man named by Harris, Peter Kent, is not known.
Salpeter said he just wants prosecutors to do the investigation they should have done when they first heard about the allegation against Creedon in 1991.
"All I ask is that the district attorney give our investigation and Marty a fair shot," he said. "I can't ask for anything more. If they thoroughly investigate, I can't see us losing here and I think Marty Tankleff will be a free man finally."
After Tankleff's trial, jurors told reporters they did not believe the defendant's testimony that police coerced a false confession from him. Prosecutors also made much of the fact that despite Tankleff's insistence that he never entered his mother's bedroom, her blood was found on a tissue in his pocket and smeared on a light switch in his bedroom.