The Reinvestigator

Jay Salpeter, near the wooded area where he found what he believes is the Tankleff murder weapon.Photo: Kyoko Hamada

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’sbusiness 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.

From left, Martin Tankleff at his 1990 trial in Riverhead Criminal Court; at the Nassau County jail in 2004. Photo: From left, Ken Korotkin/New York Daily News; Angel Franco/The New York Times

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.”

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.

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.”

The Reinvestigator