A year and a half later, Tankleff’s lawyers enlisted Salpeter. At first, they were partly banking on the P.I.’s work to bring in new information that would generate publicity. “We hoped the attention we attracted would force the D.A.’s office at least not to summarily ignore our requests that they take another look at the evidence,” says Tankleff lawyer Bruce Barket.
Yet Salpeter has given Tankleff’s team a great deal more than it bargained for—in all senses of the phrase. In another unlikely twist in the case, Salpeter himself has emerged as a key source of legal controversy complicating Tankleff’s bid for freedom. During the hearings in the fall, the Suffolk County D.A.’s office managed to cast doubts on Salpeter’s tactics in an effort to undermine Tankleff’s bid for a new trial. It’s an elegant paradox: Without Salpeter, the case would be all but dead, yet Salpeter has also become a big, inviting target to demonize in court.
Salpeter’s obsession with springing Tankleff has infuriated some of his former colleagues in the law-enforcement world. This is scarcely a new sentiment: Some cops and prosecutors have had it in for Salpeter since he launched his second career as a P.I. in 1992. To them, he represents an emissary of the dark side: a hired gun now determined to spring convicted felons from prison. Such critics are quick to point out that Salpeter is none too choosy about his client list; he acknowledges having done investigative work for the Gambino crime family and Hells Angels.
“He’s created a niche for himself,” says Leonard Lato, an assistant district attorney in Suffolk County who has argued against a new Tankleff trial. “It doesn’t matter to him if his clients are guilty—his job is not to find out the truth but to create new bodies of evidence that his clients can use to their advantage. And it’s worth it to him to take these high-profile cases, because it creates publicity that translates into more cases—and more money. He’s now probably one of the best-known investigators in the metropolitan area to inmates. He’s marketing himself and doing a good job of it.”
“How could any detective go to somebody and say, ‘Did you kill the Tankleffs?’ and he says no and you walk away?”
Not surprisingly, New York’s criminal-defense attorneys have a very different impression of Salpeter’s track record and round-the-clock dedication. “It’s hard enough to find good private investigators, much less ones who like working on these cases,” says Adele Bernhard, the director of the criminal-justice clinic at Pace University. “Jay is unique.”
Salpeter, 53, is undeniably unique in one respect: He’s a single-minded sleuth in wrongful-conviction cases who was once a single-minded, conviction-obsessed cop, detective, decoy, and hostage negotiator. He brings a broad investigative background to his work, while giving defense lawyers an invaluable glimpse into how the other side thinks.
Certainly anyone meeting Salpeter, a heavyset guy with a thick, graying mustache, wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he was a career police officer. And as it happens, his ex-cop credentials are more hard-boiled than usual. During his cop years, he was none too troubled by the justice system’s periodic failure to live up to its name. He never hesitated, he says, to dole out “tune-ups”—cop argot for beatings—to “skels” (i.e., lowlife criminal suspects) who he thought deserved it. And when squeezing people for information as a detective, he used tactics that, in our gentler age, would seem somewhat heavy-handed. In interrogation sessions he’s been known to taunt suspects with barbs like “I’m gonna fuck your wife,” or the more authoritative version, “I fucked your wife.” As Salpeter often says, “You can’t be an angel in this business.”
But like many investigators, he can be a charmer, if not exactly an angel, when it suits his interests. He’s skilled at shifting roles, at winning over people who have a foot in the world of low-level crime, and at building conversational trust in his interview subjects. “Jay has an innate ability to make people feel comfortable,” says Michael Spiegel, a Manhattan defense lawyer who’s worked with him on about a dozen cases. “Put that it in the pressure cooker of hostage situations Jay went through, and you get an ability to connect with people, to get people who are totally freaked out to keep talking, that’s really remarkable.”
Salpeter’s also not afraid to remind you how very good he is. “Do I seem like a nice guy?” he asked me recently. “I may talk nice. I come across nice. But I’m deceiving. I’m like a guy who will say anything to get laid.”
Salpeter has been getting laid, investigatively speaking, a lot lately; the P.I. has steadily built up his curious specialty in outcopping the cops since the mid-nineties. Indeed, he’s played a quiet—but critical—role in reversing some high-profile wrongful convictions in New York.
Take the tale of Antowine Butts, a rapper wrongly arrested in 1998 for gunning down two people in a Brooklyn bodega. The key witness was a career criminal and drug addict who had gone awol as the case went to trial. Police and defense lawyers were in a race to find him—because each side thought his testimony might help its case. Salpeter used his NYPD contacts to track down the witness at his girlfriend’s apartment and persuaded him to give the defense team a statement that proved instrumental in clearing Butts. New York Times op-ed writer Bob Herbert wrote two columns on the case, describing it as an example of the “criminal justice system gone haywire.”
Salpeter also played a key role in the celebrated trial of four American men—two from wealthy New York families—who were arrested in 2000 for the murder of a woman on the British Virgin Island of Tortola. Salpeter spent a week on Tortola, quietly interviewing witnesses and revisiting the crime scene—all of which happened to be against the law, since he wasn’t licensed to practice there. But he knew how and when to cut corners, and his covert investigation allowed him to brief defense attorneys on the ways in which the Tortola police had blown their own investigation, handing the lawyers material for a devastating cross-examination of cops. The trial judge dismissed charges against three of the suspects outright; the fourth was convicted but later acquitted on appeal. Michael Griffith, a prominent defense attorney who worked with him on the Tortola case, says, “Jay is the best investigator I’ve ever used, and I’ve been practicing for 30 years with clients in over a dozen countries.”