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The New York Times
April 4, 2004, Sunday Late Edition - Final
Questions About a Son's Guilt, and a Cop's Methods
By BRUCE LAMBERT
K. James McCready, a veteran Suffolk County homicide detective, was off duty the morning of Sept. 7, 1988, when his beeper summoned him to a murder scene at a luxury waterfront home in Belle Terre.
Inside was a gruesome sight. Arlene Tankleff had been stabbed and bludgeoned to death. Her brutally wounded husband, Seymour, was unconscious and died weeks later in a hospital.
Within hours of surveying the scene, Detective McCready declared the case solved. He singled out the couple's son, Martin, 17, as the prime suspect. In a long interrogation that day, the detective later boasted, he used deception to trick him into confessing.
But Mr. Tankleff promptly disavowed the confession, refusing to sign it, and the physical evidence did not implicate him. Yet he was convicted in 1990, based on the statement extracted by Detective McCready and his testimony as the star prosecution witness at the trial.
The tough-talking Mr. McCready voices pride in outwitting the youth. "I used trickery and deceit," he said. Lying to a suspect is legal, and he remains adamant about Mr. Tankleff's guilt. "I don't think he did it. I know he did it."
Imprisoned for 50 years to life, Mr. Tankleff insists he is innocent. He accused Mr. McCready of ignoring an obvious suspect: the slain father's estranged business partner, who owed hundreds of thousands of dollars and was in the house that night for a high-stakes poker game.
But the conviction withstood numerous legal appeals, even to the United States Supreme Court, though some decisions were sharply divided.
Hoping anew to win Mr. Tankleff's freedom, his lawyers are back in court, this time with evidence from a man who says he was the getaway driver who took two accomplices to the Tankleff house that night. But the Suffolk County district attorney, Thomas J. Spota, says that justice was done and opposes the challenge.
Mr. McCready shrugs off criticism. If the verdicts are overturned, he says, he is ready for a retrial. "It won't change the testimony," he said recently in South Carolina, where he retired. "It won't change the evidence." As for discrepancies in the case, he said, "Wouldn't it be great to have every murder open and shut?"
Despite the passing of time, the case has drawn growing national attention from lawyers, judges, investigators, scholars, journalists, crime buffs and critics of the system. Some professors teach it as a textbook case of the law gone tragically awry.
Core questions haunt the case: did Mr. Tankleff do it? If so, why? If not, how was he convicted -- and who is the real killer?
Critics of the conviction have often focused on the conduct of Mr. McCready, an alumnus of a scandalous period in Suffolk law enforcement who has a checkered reputation on and off the job.
"He's the heart and soul of why this case is rotten to the core," said Mr. Tankleff's lawyer, Robert C. Gottlieb. "Any investigation of this case is by definition an investigation of James McCready."
A state inquiry concluded that Mr. McCready perjured himself in another murder case. During the Tankleff trial he befriended Martin Tankleff's half sister, the only relative to turn against him, and later opened a business with her husband.
Later, Mr. McCready was prosecuted on an assault charge but was acquitted. In one of several odd coincidences, his defense lawyer was Mr. Spota, now the district attorney opposed to reopening the Tankleff case.
While the campaign to free Mr. Tankleff focuses on new evidence, it is difficult to separate his case -- and Mr. McCready -- from their origins in a notorious era.
"This case reflects everything that was rotten about the system," said Mr. Gottlieb. "It was a misnomer to call it a criminal justice system."
The Suffolk County system that prosecuted Mr. Tankleff was under attack from many quarters as inept and even corrupt. Critics accused the district attorney's office and Police Department of tolerating gross misconduct and lawbreaking.
A State Investigation Commission report in 1989 found that the authorities had botched major cases -- even enabling murderers to get off -- by coercing false confessions, brutalizing suspects, illegally tapping phones, lying on the witness stand, engaging in cover-ups and ignoring, losing or faking crucial evidence.
One innocent 17-year-old -- the same age as Mr. Tankleff at the time of his arrest -- was suspected of rape. The police beat him, threatened to kill him, fired a shotgun nearby and shoved a gun in his mouth, the commission report said. The panel's chairman, David G. Trager, said at the time that Suffolk was known as the Wild West of New York. A Pace University law professor, Bennett Gershman, said: "People used to joke about Suffolk. They were notorious."
Among those the report cited was Mr. McCready. It said he perjured himself in a 1985 murder trial by "knowingly giving false testimony." While the report said wrongdoers were rarely penalized, Mr. McCready disputed the perjury accusation and noted that he was never disciplined or prosecuted.
An Immediate Suspect
From the moment he arrived at the Tankleff home, Detective McCready says, he suspected the son.
With no sign of a break-in and no valuables missing, robbery was ruled out. The son, who said he woke up to find the carnage and called 911, was unscathed. "Why was he still alive?" Mr. McCready wondered.
His first impression of the youth reinforced the hunch. Mr. McCready said that when he first saw Mr. Tankleff, he was sitting quietly, hands clasped over one knee. "That will always stick in my mind," he said. "The kid just didn't have any emotion -- totally not understandable by me. When I approached him, the first thing out of his mouth was, 'I know who did it."'
Mr. Tankleff accused his father's partner, Jerard Steuerman, as having motive and access. He quarreled over his debts and was the last poker player to leave that night, the teenager said. But the son's premise seemed too pat, Mr. McCready said. "It was too calm, cool and collected," he said. "He wasn't even expressing anger towards Jerry."
But Mr. Tankleff's relatives -- the brother and sisters of his slain parents -- say that his placid exterior in public is a lifelong trait. At the trial, he showed no emotion until the verdict, when he sobbed.
In hours of questioning, Mr. McCready accused the youth of the attack. He denied it and even asked to take a polygraph test, an offer that was declined. Later, he arranged to take one and says he passed.
Then the detective hit on a ploy and pretended to call the hospital. "I was trying to figure out some way to get him over the edge," he said. "I made up that lie that his father came out of the coma" and named his son as the assailant. In fact, the father never woke up.
The youth cracked. Under duress, suggestive questioning and badgering, he says, he wondered aloud if he was deluded or had a dual personality and could have committed the killings and blocked the memory. Prodded, he said, he imagined how he might have done it.
Mr. McCready said, however, that it was more than the boy's imaginings, but that it was an actual confession to the killings, motivated by a number of grievances against his parents. He even gave two different versions of how he did it, Mr. McCready said.
The detective jotted his notes of the interrogation on a pad. But he never finished; he was interrupted midsentence when the Tankleff family lawyer intervened. The partial statement was never signed, and Mr. Tankleff promptly disavowed it. The interrogation was not taped.
As for physical evidence, Mr. Tankleff bore no scratches or bruises and, despite the savagery, had no blood or skin under his nails. The alleged weapons, a kitchen knife and dumbbell, were clean. Medical experts said the blows had come from a hammer.
As the father clung to life with a chance of waking, a remarkable episode occurred. Mr. Steuerman faked his own death and fled to California, shaving his beard and adopting an alias. Mr. McCready tracked him down and returned him, not as a suspect but as a prosecution witness who had been at the Tankleff house. Mr. Steuerman, a bagel shop owner, said he had fled because of mounting personal problems.
Mr. Steuerman was not given a polygraph test. He vehemently denied guilt, saying he had left before the mayhem. "He couldn't hurt a fly," Mr. McCready said. Nor would killing the partner make sense, he said, because that "doesn't make the debt go away."
But the executor of the $3 million estate, Ron Falbee, said he found on Seymour Tankleff's desk a blood-spattered copy of a letter demanding that Mr. Steuerman pay up. "I was amazed the police didn't take it as evidence," he said. After the murders, he said, Mr. Steuerman stopped paying, though he later made a settlement.
Years of Questions
"I didn't convict him," Mr. McCready said. "Twelve jurors did."
The trial got off to a rocky start. The defense lawyer, Mr. Gottlieb, was about to run for district attorney as a Democrat and wanted the judge, Alfred C. Tisch, who was mulling running as a Republican, to disqualify himself. But he refused and "was unfair from Day 1," Mr. Gottlieb said. Mr. Tisch declined to comment.
In the end, the disputed confession swayed the jury. The nagging question, as Mr. McCready says, was: "Would you ever admit to something you didn't do?"
The concept of false confession was little known then, though modern DNA evidence has since proved it can happen, as in the Central Park jogger case. A Fordham University law professor, Abraham Abramovsky, said, "Even today, people have a hard time believing it."
Lawyers hired by Mr. Tankleff's relatives uncovered intriguing evidence over the years, cited in their appeals, that casts doubt on Mr. McCready's version. The common thread is Joseph Creedon, a criminal known as Joey Guns who was acquainted with Mr. Steuerman.
While Mr. Tankleff awaited trial, Mr. Creedon told the police that he had been pressured by Mr. Steuerman through his son, Todd, to cut out Mr. Tankleff's tongue. When Mr. Creedon refused, Todd shot him in the arm, Mr. Creedon said in a statement to the police. Todd Steuerman has denied shooting Mr. Creedon, and the police took no action.
A few years later, a woman signed a statement that Mr. Creedon claimed he had been involved in the murders with a "Steuerman."
The new appeal is based on another witness who places Mr. Creedon at the scene. Glenn Harris, an ex-convict, says he drove Mr. Creedon and another man to and from the Tankleff house, supposedly for a burglary. Mr. Harris, who later heard on the news what had happened, said in a statement, "This has bothered me for a long time."
Jay Salpeter, a retired New York City homicide detective who found Mr. Harris, said he passed a polygraph test and had nothing to gain by implicating himself. Mr. Creedon has denied involvement.
Detective McCready's role extended beyond his testimony.
He befriended Mr. Tankleff's half sister, Shari Rother, and during the trial gave interviews to reporters about her shift against him. Jurors were not supposed to find out, but one said they did.
Mr. Falbee, the executor of the will, said that the will gave most of the money to Martin, but because it is illegal to benefit from crime, the conviction shifted his share to Ms. Rother. She did not return calls for comment.
After the trial, Mr. McCready raised eyebrows by joining Ms. Rother's husband as a partner in Digger O'Dell's bar and restaurant, near the Riverhead courthouse. "It was unseemly," Mr. Gottlieb said. Mr. McCready says he did nothing wrong.
A year later, Mr. McCready was charged with felony assault after a brutal fight outside a bar on St. Patrick's Day. "I was defending myself," he told Newsday. "I'm not the bad guy. I wore the white hat all my life." He accused investigators of lying and framing him -- the same things Mr. Tankleff accused him of doing.
A judge acquitted Mr. McCready.
'Marty Is Innocent'
Mr. Tankleff's supporters say the facts show innocence.
If he had wanted to kill his parents, for example, why did he cradle his wounded father, call 911 and apply first aid to keep him alive?
And why would he kill his mother and father? Mr. McCready claims the motive was anger at his parents for limiting his driving to a "crummy old Lincoln," restricting use of a boat, having a chaperon when they were away and scolding him for not setting up the poker table.
Relatives scoff at that theory. Seymour Tankleff's brother, Norman, and Arlene's sisters, Marcella and Marianne, describe the family as loving. Adopted at birth, Martin was being groomed to go into his father's business. "There was no way Marty could have hurt them," they wrote to prosecutors. "Marty is innocent and will forever be innocent."
The family denounced Mr. McCready as "unscrupulous, unprofessional, unethical."
Now 32, Mr. Tankleff faces 36 more years behind bars before he is eligible for parole. "From Day 1 I have maintained my innocence," he said, "because I had absolutely nothing to do with the attacks on my parents. I loved my parents and would never have harmed them."
Images: Photo: Martin Tankleff in 1990 after he was sentenced for the murder of his parents. (Photo by Associated Press)
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company