December 22, 2007
Triumph for an Inmate, and a Persistent Investigator

New York Times

Hours after learning that Martin H. Tankleff’s conviction for the 1988 murders of his parents had been overturned, Jay Salpeter, a former New York City homicide detective whose work was crucial in winning a new trial for a man imprisoned half his life, was about as ecstatic as a hard-boiled private eye ever gets.

“It’s one of the happiest days of my life,” Mr. Salpeter, 56, said in a telephone interview on Friday from Long Island, where he lives and sleuths. “But it’s not my day. It’s Marty’s day.”

The appellate ruling, dismissing 1990 verdicts against Mr. Tankleff, was based on new evidence. That material and witnesses largely found by Mr. Salpeter suggested that several criminals acting on behalf of an estranged business partner of Seymour Tankleff, Mr. Tankleff’s father, had killed him and his wife, Arlene Tankleff, in their home in Belle Terre, N.Y.

The ruling came seven years to the day after Mr. Salpeter received a letter from Martin Tankleff, written from the state prison at Dannemora, where he was serving 50 years to life, asking for help. Decades as a police officer and private detective had made Mr. Salpeter wary, and he was not initially enthusiastic.

“Frankly,” he recalled, “I thought he was guilty.”

But there were troubling aspects of the case. It seemed to rest on a confession Mr. Tankleff had repudiated and never signed. Only 17 at the time of his arrest, Mr. Tankleff for years contended that he was confused during the interrogation that produced the confession. He said a Suffolk police detective, K. James McCready, had duped him by saying that Seymour Tankleff, who lived for several days after the attack, had regained consciousness and implicated his son before dying.

Moreover, while the parents had been slashed and bludgeoned in a violent struggle, the teenager, who said he had found them when he awoke, had no scratches or bruises. And the supposed murder weapons, a barbell and a knife, had no blood on them.

“When I looked into it, this case never seemed to have had an adequate, proper investigation,” said Mr. Salpeter, who grew up in the Bronx and Queens, was a police officer and homicide detective for 20 years until retiring in 1991, and has been a private detective since 1993.

He said he met Mr. Tankleff only once, at the Dannemora prison, and asked him to take a polygraph test. “I said: ‘I don’t want my time wasted. If you did this, don’t have me work for you.’ ” He took the test, and passed. Mr. Salpeter was hired by Mr. Tankleff’s lawyers and paid only $5,000 and expenses in seven years on the case. “There are people in jail who don’t deserve to be there,” he said when asked why he stayed with the case.

Mr. Salpeter found a lead in a witness, Karlene Kovacs. She said that at an Easter gathering in Farmingdale in 1990 or 1991, she shared a marijuana cigarette with Joseph Creedon, a career criminal who admitted a role in killing the Tankleffs and said a man named Steuerman had been there.

Checking crime records of anyone involved with Mr. Creedon, he came across the name of Glenn Harris, and found him in 2002 in the Dannemora prison, serving time for burglary. Mr. Salpeter befriended him in a series of meetings.

Mr. Harris, saying he had long been bothered by his involvement in the Tankleff case, was promised nothing, but signed a statement saying he had driven a getaway car for Mr. Creedon and an associate, Peter Kent, who, he said, had killed the Tankleffs. Mr. Harris said that as he left the scene, he stopped in a wooded area and threw away a metal pipe they had used as a weapon. A rusty pipe was later found by the detective in the area that Mr. Harris had described.

Martin Tankleff’s lawyers contended that Jerard Steuerman, formerly Seymour Tankleff’s partner, had hired men to kill the Tankleffs to escape repaying a $500,000 loan. He was never considered a suspect, even though he acknowledged at the original trial that he had been at the Tankleff home on the night of the killings.

“Harris was the main person to open up the investigation,” Mr. Salpeter said. “That gave us some publicity, and many others came forward.”

Eventually Mr. Salpeter and the defense lawyers found more than a score of witnesses who cast doubt on Mr. Tankleff’s conviction, including Tina Molloy, who said Mr. Creedon talked of the killings while they were dating, and Dennis Piacente, another companion of Ms. Molloy, who said Mr. Creedon kept albums about the Tankleff case.

The new evidence and the witnesses were presented to the Suffolk County police and the district attorney’s office, but neither was interested, Mr. Salpeter said. “I felt like I was fighting the whole Police Department, and the D.A.’s office was not too cooperative,” he said.

In court hearings last year, Mr. Creedon and Mr. Kent denied involvement, and Mr. Harris, who said he had been threatened, refused to testify when prosecutors declined to grant him immunity. But the defense introduced Mr. Harris’s signed affidavit, dozens of letters from him and testimony from Mr. Salpeter and others.

Nevertheless, a judge upheld the 1990 convictions, saying the new witnesses were not credible. The defense lawyers then filed another appeal, leading to Friday’s ruling for a new trial.

“I spoke to Marty today,” Mr. Salpeter said. “His attitude? Finally! Justice is finally going to begin.”