Private Investigator Jay Salpeter inched his blue Mercedes SUV along a narrow road in affluent Belle Terre, a private community on Long Island’s North Shore, and stopped at a luxurious mansion overlooking the Sound. Here was the setting of one of New York’s most notorious murder sagas—the place where, in 1988, a wealthy former insurance executive named Seymour Tankleff and his wife, Arlene, were found stabbed and bludgeoned to death. Their son, Martin Tankleff, then 17, was convicted of the killings two years later and given a prison sentence of 50 years to life.
Salpeter, a former NYPD homicide detective, was here because he didn’t believe Marty Tankleff killed his parents. Instead, he thinks that three career criminals, working in league with one of Seymour’s business partners, broke into the house and killed the Tankleffs while young Marty slept.
“Here’s where their car stopped,” Salpeter said as he climbed out of the SUV, running through the sequence of events that accords with his theory of the case. Pointing through trees at a lawn behind the house, he added, “They walked across here. They went into the back. This is where they came running out, too.”
Salpeter has been working the Marty Tankleff case for four years now. After nearly a decade of frustrating appellate pleadings, Tankleff’s legal team had brought the P.I. onboard in the desperate hope that he might be able to jump-start a new investigation of the crime. Using a full repertoire of tactics learned as an NYPD detective, Salpeter has unearthed a number of new witnesses, including a career criminal named Glenn Harris, who admitted that he’d driven with two accomplices to the house on the night of the murders—a startling discovery that might break open the case for the first time in seventeen years.
Harris had also taken Salpeter up to the house, retracing what he said were the steps of the killers. He claimed they’d disposed of the murder weapon—a heavy metal pipe—in a nearby patch of forest. Hoping to bolster Harris’s credibility, Salpeter had returned later, in the company of an expert evidence consultant, to scour the forest for the weapon. But as Salpeter tells it, the search culminated in a discovery that had little to do with expert preparation.
“I had to take a leak,” Salpeter said. “I wandered off into the woods. I’m standing there with my dick out, and I look down, and there’s a fuckin’ pipe right there. It was unbelievable. I said, ‘Holy shit, I’ve got a pipe.’ This pipe was weathered, half-buried, completely pitted. It wasn’t just there for a year or two. Someone picks a spot out of the clear blue and says they threw a pipe there. What are the odds you’ll find a pipe?
“When I saw that, it strengthened my conviction in Harris. I said, ‘This guy’s on the money.’ To me, this was almost like an orgasm. I found the goddamn murder weapon!”
Salpeter’s rapture turned out to be a bit, well, premature. He shared his discovery with the Suffolk County D.A.’s office, which originally prosecuted Tankleff. But after looking at pictures of the pipe, prosecutors maintained that it didn’t match the murder wounds—and was, in any event, too far into the woods to have been thrown from the road. Salpeter and his crime-scene expert continue to insist that the pipe they found could indeed have been the murder weapon, but the lack of DNA evidence in a case this old rendered the discovery inconclusive.
Even though Salpeter didn’t cinch the case with the pipe, his investigation, broadly speaking, was a coup. By patiently piecing together an alternative narrative of the crime, Salpeter did something that almost never occurs in these kinds of cases: He put Tankleff on the verge of winning a new trial, helping turn the saga into one of the biggest legal cause célèbres in New York State history.
Salpeter’s discovery of Harris, and the line of evidence associated with Harris’s version of events, enabled Tankleff’s lawyers to go before Suffolk County judge Stephen Braslow and ask him to order a new evidentiary hearing to determine whether Tankleff deserved to have the case reopened. The judge gave the hearing the go-ahead in July 2004; with Suffolk prosecutors opposing the new-trial bid, the hearing concluded in February. The Tankleff team will submit its final legal papers as early as this week.
Sometime in the next few months, Judge Braslow is expected to rule on whether the evidence amassed by Salpeter merits granting Tankleff a new trial. It’s perhaps Tankleff’s final shot at freedom in a tortuous legal drama that has drawn wide media attention—and propelled Salpeter into P.I. stardom.
Salpeter isn’t exactly defensive about his new renown. “Yes, the publicity has been very good for my career,” he says. “But I didn’t get into this for the attention, and I’m not gonna feel guilty about it. I got noticed because I delivered. I’ve busted my ass to get Marty out. This case has beat the shit out of me.”
Marty Tankleff, now 33, has spent almost half his life behind bars for a crime he claims he did not commit. He’s always insisted that he awakened on September 7, 1988, to find his mother dead and his father unconscious nearby (the elder Tankleff died several weeks later). James McCready, the Suffolk County homicide detective who arrived first at the house that morning, claimed that Tankleff confessed to the crime while in custody. But McCready later testified that he’d gotten the confession by falsely telling Marty that his father had regained consciousness and fingered him. What’s more, Tankleff refused to sign the confession written by the detective. He even offered to take a lie-detector test, a request that was denied. And McCready appeared to have started interrogating Tankleff before reading him his Miranda rights. Nonetheless, in 1990, Tankleff was convicted of the killings, largely based on McCready’s testimony.
The unusual circumstances surrounding Tankleff’s conviction began attracting the attention of legal observers; lawyers at white-shoe firms such as Baker Botts and Collier Shannon started donating pro bono time to the case. Tankleff’s defense team began a wrenching and ultimately unsuccessful round of appeals—all citing various procedural irregularities—which culminated in 1999, when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.