Salpeter wore down his suspect, but also worked himself over pretty thoroughly in the process. The next day, he sat sleepless before a grand jury. The tabs were all over the story. He was disgusted, exhausted, completely wrung out. Without warning, as he read Radtke’s confession aloud to jurors, he broke down and cried.
Though only 39, Salpeter left the force a week later, taking advantage of an early-retirement loophole that permitted his Police Academy tenure to count as time served on the force. For all his bravado, he realized he’d gotten too deep into his tough-guy detective role, and he was paying for it in other parts of his life. His marriage had fallen apart—he had a wandering eye and partied a bit too much on and off the job—and his wife asked him to leave. A couple of years later, he eased back into investigative work, launching a P.I. service, getting by on matrimony cases that were anything but glamorous. Little by little, defense lawyers called with criminal work. Even Jason Radtke’s former attorney hired him on a case. At first it felt strange—Salpeter had always thought of these lawyers as shysters who would say anything to get their guilty clients off.
But then he started to enjoy working the other side. Defense lawyers, he realized, weren’t all that different from prosecutors or cops—the justice system was a big cash cow, and everyone was working it from all sides for profit and publicity. “It’s a business—whichever side you’re on,” he says.
Still, Salpeter brought a sense of his old professional mission to the new cases. It was one thing, he thought, to beat up some punk after a high-speed chase, or bait some lowlife drug dealer with a disguise, or even cut corners to put away guilty guys—as a cop he’d looked the other way while other cops did far worse things. It was another thing, though, to ignore or suppress evidence of someone’s innocence.
“Maybe I wasn’t an angel as a cop, but I would never take away the wrong person’s freedom just to clear a case,” he says. “The victim’s family thinks they have closure, but they’re really getting jerked off.”
Marty Tankleff calls Salpeter “the magician” for his yeoman efforts to get his conviction reopened. But the case has also worked magic for Salpeter, launching him as something of a minor celebrity in his own right.
Salpeter has realized he’s got a good story to tell and has learned to trade on his persona. (He—and the rest of Tankleff’s defense team—also benefited from the pro bono labors of Lonnie Soury, who has been flacking the case to the press.) Salpeter will be featured prominently in an upcoming 48 Hours piece on the case. He regularly offers investigative commentary on Court TV, and was recently retained as a consultant on a forthcoming true-crime film for Millennium Films starring John Travolta and James Gandolfini.
Salpeter’s also notched high-profile clients like writer Dominick Dunne, who hired him last year to dig through the background of Martha Shelton, who Dunne says tried to swindle him by saying he owed her $100,000 in exchange for information she’d provided for a Vanity Fair story. “Within a matter of hours,” Dunne says, “Jay got the entire rap sheet on her. He figured out all the aliases she had used over the years.”
Now, however, Salpeter finds himself in the limelight at just the moment when he fears that the Tankleff case could be unraveling. After Judge Braslow granted the evidentiary hearing, a new trial for Tankleff seemed tantalizingly within reach. But as the hearings ground on, attention began to home in on Salpeter—and it was not the sort of attention he likes. The D.A.’s office started hammering away at him for allegedly tailoring a new set of evidence that would justify a new theory of the case.
On the first day of the hearings, prosecutors wasted no time in using Salpeter’s carefully cultivated relationship with Glenn Harris as a weapon against Tankleff. They accused Salpeter of everything from buying Harris clothes to taking advantage of Harris’s loneliness. “Jay found somebody who could easily be manipulated,” Lato, the Suffolk assistant D.A., says. “Harris was mentally ill; he had few friends. He was nice to the guy, built up a dialogue, paid for his mother’s haircuts.”
Salpeter angrily dismissed the criticism: “Tell me how on Earth it’s in Harris’s interests to say he was involved in a murder,” he says. But other things started going wrong, too. Later in July, the Suffolk County D.A., Thomas Spota, refused to grant immunity to Harris in exchange for his testimony. Harris, in turn, refused to testify—a major blow. Legal observers attacked Spota’s refusal to extend an immunity deal as a ploy to avoid discovering that his office had arrested the wrong man.
As the hearings continued, things got tougher for Salpeter. In December, the third person Harris had said he drove to the house—a thug named Peter Kent—testified that he hadn’t been involved. Later in December, prosecutors suggested that Salpeter had bribed yet another witness he’d tracked down who seemed to corroborate Harris’s version. Salpeter again denied it, but the tabs nevertheless pounced on the hint of scandal. TANKLEFF CASE BRIBE HINT, blared a headline in the Daily News.
Before long, all the controversy began taking a physical toll. One day in late December, Salpeter was being grilled by prosecutors. Suddenly, right there on the witness stand, he came down with chest pains. That night, he went to the hospital—spent the night—for the first time in nearly four decades.
This wasn’t a side of the P.I. life Salpeter had bargained for: He quit the force because the intensity of his murder cases was threatening to undo him, and now his health was taking a beating again, because he’d grown too wrapped up in solving another murder case—one that, if he’d done his job right, could free a person who many believe is innocent. “I wake up to this case,” he says. “I go to sleep with this case. I wake up at 3:30 in the morning, thinking about it. My life is Marty Tankleff.”
All of which makes the case’s recent setbacks that much harder to bear. “I feel we’re not gonna win this hearing,” Salpeter told me recently. “It’s never-ending. My head can do this but my body can’t anymore.” As he drove down the Northern State Parkway, away from the Tankleff house, going over the case in his head yet again, Salpeter looked uncharacteristically subdued. “I walked away from the Police Department,” he said. “It might be time to walk away from this.”