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Overturned conviction leaves a murder mystery
BY MICHAEL AMON
December 23, 2007
The attack on Seymour and Arlene Tankleff in the early morning hours of Sept. 7, 1988, was puzzling from the start.
At one end of their opulent Belle Terre home lay Arlene, 54, dead on the floor of the master bedroom, battered about the head and her throat cut so deep she was nearly decapitated. At the other end, gasping on the floor of his den, was her husband Seymour, 62, with similar injuries. He went into a coma and died a month later.
With no signs of a break-in, Suffolk police detectives focused instead on the disquieting demeanor of the couple's only child, 17-year-old Martin. Barefoot, the young man who had just lost his parents sat outside on a car and in calm, measured tones told police of his theory on who killed his family. He said it was Jerry Steuerman, a business associate who owed Seymour Tankleff hundreds of thousands of dollars.
But something about Tankleff's story didn't add up, prosecutors would say later, and he was taken to police headquarters in Yaphank. There, alone in an interrogation room with two detectives for several hours, Tankleff was tricked into confessing to the brutal murder.
When the teen's attorney, Robert Gottlieb of Hauppauge, called and told Assistant District Attorney Timothy Mazzei to halt all questioning, the prosecutor responded: "Too late," Gottlieb recalled yesterday.
Nearly 20 years later - after Martin Tankleff's trial on murder charges, dozens of appeals and hearings, allegations of police and prosecutorial misconduct and, on Friday, the overturning of his conviction by a state appellate court - what happened that night on Seaside Drive remains an open question in Suffolk County.
Tankleff, now 36, never signed his confession, recanted it almost immediately and maintained his innocence even as he began serving a prison sentence of 50 years to life. His defense team has unearthed about two dozen witnesses implicating Steuerman and three career criminals in the murders, a body of evidence that four state justices said Friday would likely sway jurors if there were another trial.
But Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota said Saturday he's not convinced and is weighing whether to retry Tankleff on murder charges.
Now, with the prospect that Tankleff will be free on bail by Friday, his life hangs in the balance again. His future may depend on this question: Were his parents murdered over a past-due debt owed by a shady business associate? Or were they, as prosecutors charged in a 1990 trial, the victims of a spoiled son who resented them for controlling his life?
By all accounts, Seymour and Arlene Tankleff doted on their son, whom they adopted at birth in 1971.
"Seymour was grooming Marty to take over his businesses," said cousin Ronald Falbee of Westbury. "They were a very, very tight family."
They lived in a $1 million house overlooking Long Island Sound, afforded by Seymour Tankleff's fortune as an insurance salesman. The beautiful home may have masked a turbulent family life inside.
Martin was arguing with his parents about going to college, according to trial testimony. He wanted to step right into his father's business and often talked to his friends about the money that was coming to him, according to testimony.
Meanwhile, Tankleff's business relationship with Steuerman, a bagel store chain owner whom he had loaned more than $500,000, was going sour. Tankleff, who owned part of the bagel business, wanted Steuerman to start repaying. Falbee recalls a terrible phone argument between the two in 1988.
"Seymour was just screaming, cussing and swearing," Falbee said. "I turned to Arlene and said, 'Who's he on the phone with?' This just didn't happen with Seymour."
Around 6 a.m. on Sept. 7, 1988, Martin Tankleff dialed 911 and said he'd found his father "gushing blood from the back of his neck." When police arrived, Tankleff methodically began telling detectives that Steuerman was the only person with the motive to kill his family. But police said the story was full of holes.
For instance, Tankleff told police that he went to bed at 11 p.m., yet he knew that Steuerman was the last person to see his father and had left the home at 3 a.m. after a poker game.
At police headquarters, Det. K. James McCready tested Tankleff with a police ruse.
He staged a fake phone call within earshot of Tankleff and then returned.
"Your father," McCready told Tankleff, according to testimony. "They pumped him full of adrenaline and he came out of his coma, and he said that you did it."
Tankleff said his father was wrong and that whoever attacked him should get psychiatric help. McCready asked if Tankleff needed psychiatric help.
"Could it have been that I blacked out? ... Could I be possessed?" Tankleff said, beginning the confession that would lead to his conviction.
McCready said the admissions then came pouring out. He told detectives that he woke up at 5:35 a.m. and - in the nude to prevent blood stains - bludgeoned his mother with a barbell and cut her throat with a watermelon knife. He told them he did the same to his father.
Around 4 p.m., the detectives were preparing a written statement when Gottlieb called and stopped the interrogation. In jail the next day, Tankleff recanted the admissions, Falbee said. The confession was ruled admissible in court and has survived appeal.
Police charged Tankleff with second-degree murder, but a week later, something happened that defense attorneys say should have changed their minds. Steuerman faked his own death and fled to California, changing his name and appearance. Police found him Sept. 28 in a motel.
Prosecutors say they never seriously considered Steuerman as a suspect. At trial, Steuerman denied he had anything to do with the deaths. He did not return phone calls to his home in Boca Raton, Fla., for comment.
Defense attorneys implicated Steuerman at Tankleff's trial. Any future trial will surely focus on him, with charges bolstered by several witnesses who say associates of Steuerman's son Todd have privately admitted killing Seymour and Arlene Tankleff.
But in 1990 jurors zeroed in on Tankleff's testimony. In interviews after the trial, they said they didn't believe the young man and were put off by his unemotional answers.
"I have second-guessed it to this day," Gottlieb said of putting Tankleff on the witness stand.
As the jury verdict was read, Tankleff revealed his feelings for the first time. He lowered his head to the defense table and cried.