Even to someone with Salpeter’s track record, however, the Tankleff case presented a grim uphill climb. Preparing to dig into the case in 2001, he saw that nothing less than a Perry Mason–style reversal of fortune would clear Tankleff.
But as Salpeter reviewed the case’s dismal paper trail, one thing leaped out. After Tankleff was convicted, a young woman approached his lawyers and told them she’d been smoking pot with a career criminal named Joseph “Joey Guns” Creedon, who’d told her offhandedly that he’d been hiding in the bushes on the Tankleff property on the night of the murder. Tankleff’s lawyers took the information to the Suffolk district attorney’s office, which dispatched a detective to question Creedon. The detective reported back that Creedon had denied all involvement. And the D.A. seemed to have let the matter drop.
“I read the report, and I literally laughed,” Salpeter says. “How in the world could any detective just go to somebody and say, ‘Did you kill the Tankleffs?’ and he says no and you walk away? What the fuck kind of work is that?”
Salpeter went back to the drawing board and did his own background check on Creedon. Looking for his associates, he learned that Creedon had been arrested in the eighties for burglary with another career thief—Glenn Harris. Salpeter then found Harris’s mother and told her why he was looking for Harris. She told him Harris was in jail upstate for parole violations. She also hinted that Salpeter was on the right track: “Go visit him,” she urged.
In full patient-cop-confidant mode, Salpeter started writing letters to Harris. He told Harris what he was looking for, but at first the inmate was reluctant to address the subject. But Salpeter kept writing, taking great pains to win Harris over, chatting in the letters about everything from sports to women. Harris missed his two kids—so Salpeter wrote about missing his own two daughters from his first marriage. Harris’s father had sexually abused him—so Salpeter presented himself as a father figure who would listen to his problems. Eventually, Harris started calling him “Pops.” After months of correspondence, Salpeter asked if he could come see him. Harris agreed. Salpeter drove up to the prison. The first time, he brought Harris’s mother with him. Salpeter visited him again and again.
“I come across nice,” Salpeter says. “But I’m deceiving. I’m like a guy who’ll say anything to get laid.”
On Salpeter’s fourth visit, in 2003, Harris finally gave him what he wanted—a written statement saying he had driven Creedon and another accomplice to the Tankleff house on the night of the murders, had waited outside while Creedon and the other man entered the house, and had driven both men away after they came running out. Harris’s story appeared to gain more credence when Tankleff’s attorneys recalled that Creedon had connections to Jerard Steuerman, an estranged business partner of Seymour Tankleff’s who was significantly in debt to him—and who faked his own suicide and took off without notice for California immediately after the killings. (Steuerman, like Creedon, denies all involvement in the crime.) Harris’s statement was a breakthrough—enough for Tankleff’s team to bring it before Judge Braslow and obtain the new evidentiary hearing.
Nothing in Salpeter’s background marked him as an ace investigator. During an early tour of beat-cop duty in Queens and Williamsburg, he was something of a goon—by his own admission, he developed a confrontational, if not outright violent, style of policing. In the late seventies, Salpeter joined the Street Crime Unit, where he worked as a decoy baiting criminals. “It was great. We dressed up in different disguises. I could do makeup better than your wife. We’d go out and get mugged.” In the eighties, as a homicide detective in Canarsie, he worked a string of nasty murder cases, while pulling additional duty as a hostage negotiator.
But by the early nineties, Salpeter was running out of steam. There seemed to be a never-ending procession of grisly murders. He requested a transfer to a beat in relatively tranquil Queens. Yet he landed in high-crime Maspeth, and there, in 1991, he experienced the most horrifying episode of his career.
A caller had reported a missing baby, and when Salpeter arrived at the apartment, he found a young couple with a 90-pound German shepherd. In the baby’s room, on the floor, he found small skull fragments and a baby’s nightie soaked in blood.
The parents insisted that they had awakened and found the baby missing. Salpeter sensed a problem with their story, but didn’t let on. He had the dog taken to the ASPCA, where—without telling the couple—he had it X-rayed. Sure enough, the X-rays revealed tiny body parts. After getting the dog killed and cut open, Salpeter learned further that the newborn had been cut up before getting fed to the dog, indicating homicide.
Back at the precinct, Salpeter set about wringing a confession out of the young man, named Jason Radtke. For over ten hours the two men squared off in a sweltering interrogation room. Salpeter started with his nice-guy routine. “I wanna bury your son,” he said gently, “but I need to know what happened.” Radtke wouldn’t budge. Salpeter then told him his wife had already given him up in another room, which wasn’t true. (This was also, of course, the same tactic Detective McCready used to extract a confession from Tankleff.) When these softer techniques yielded no results, Salpeter switched into foul-mouthed, confrontational “bad cop” mode. He started singing, “You’re a murderer, I know you’re a murderer.” Radtke flew into a rage. Hours passed. Salpeter left the room, returned, and said, “You know, I fucked your wife.” Radtke blew up again, and Salpeter repeated the line—but still no confession. He prodded another weak spot—Radtke’s obsession with his grandmother. He pounded the table and screamed, “You killed your fuckin’ kid! Your grandmother is not gonna believe you. She’s gonna know you killed your kid!” Little by little Radtke’s resistance weakened, and a little before midnight, he confessed.