By guest author Ed Shanahan from the New York Times.
May 22, 2023
Flashes flashed and shutters snapped as an exuberant crowd focused its attention on Martin Tankleff.
It was Dec. 27, 2007, a few days after a New York appeals court had overturned Mr. Tankleff’s conviction in the vicious killings of his parents at their waterfront mansion. Now, surrounded by lawyers, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends at a Long Island courthouse, he was a free man after nearly 20 years in prison.
Standing just behind him in the celebratory throng was a beefy man in a dark suit and red tie: Jay Salpeter, a former New York City police detective turned private investigator who had done as much as, perhaps more than, anyone to make the happy occasion possible.
“I’m letting you know you’ll never get rid of me for life since you’ve given me my life back,” Mr. Tankleff wrote to Mr. Salpeter the day the conviction was set aside.
Fourteen years later, Mr. Salpeter, leaner and grayer, was in a Long Island courthouse again, his face behind a blue surgical mask because of the Covid-19 pandemic. He was handcuffed and charged with felonies in connection with a three-year barrage of ominous calls and emails seeking money from a former client: Martin Tankleff.
The Tankleff case had briefly put Mr. Salpeter, a son of Bayside, Queens, on the low rungs of celebrity. He was a guest on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “Dr. Phil” and “Nancy Grace.” He and Mr. Tankleff formed an investigative firm, Fortress Innocence Group, and introduced it at a splashy Manhattan news conference. Later came financial distress, mental health problems, heavy drinking and claims of impropriety lodged by angry clients.
Now, accused of threatening to harm Mr. Tankleff and ruin his reputation, Mr. Salpeter was facing the prospect of years in prison.
Mr. Salpeter, 71, had once said that, except for when his children were born, the day Mr. Tankleff left prison was the best day of his life. But by the time of his arraignment in May 2021, he regretted ever having opened Mr. Tankleff’s urgent letter seeking his help all those years ago.
“I never had these problems before Marty,” he said in one of several interviews over the past two years.
How It Began
On a September morning in 1988, Marty Tankleff, then 17, woke to find his mother, Arlene, fatally stabbed in her bed, and his father, Seymour, bleeding in the den, stabbed and beaten so badly he would die in a month. The boy called 911.
Marty, his relatives and others told investigators to focus on Jerry Steuerman, a shop owner who called himself the Bagel King of Long Island and who owed Seymour Tankleff USD 500,000.
Detectives homed in on Marty instead, partly because of what they said was his inadequate display of emotion. They obtained a quick confession with a lie: that Seymour Tankleff had briefly come to at the hospital and named Marty as the attacker.
The trial was sensational. When it was over, despite recanting, Marty was convicted on two counts of murder and sentenced to 25 years to life.
A decade later, in December 2000, a fellow prisoner from Long Island recommended that Mr. Tankleff, on a ceaseless drive to prove his innocence, contact Jay Salpeter.
By then, Mr. Salpeter had been a private investigator for a few years, starting with matrimonial and minor criminal cases after two decades with the New York Police Department as a beat cop, street decoy, hostage negotiator and homicide detective.
He was skeptical of Marty Tankleff. In fact, he thought he was guilty.
But after explaining that he could help Mr. Tankleff only if he was truly innocent — and then arranging a lie-detector test — Mr. Salpeter took the case. Unlike Mr. Tankleff’s lawyers, he didn’t work pro bono. He wasn’t that liquid.
His fee: a flat USD 5000.
The investigation would last more than six years.
A Thread to Tug At
Mr. Salpeter’s first step was to review the thick case file. He was stunned by what he found. The killings had never been thoroughly investigated. The prosecution rested almost solely on the recanted confession. The supposed motive — a teenager’s anger over a car his father had given him — was shaky; the physical evidence was scant; and the police had never treated Mr. Steuerman, the Bagel King, seriously as a suspect.
Mr. Salpeter found a thread to tug at in the statement of a woman who had told detectives that a local hoodlum had admitted his role in the murders to her, saying he had been at the Tankleffs’ house with someone named Steuerman on the night of the attacks.
No one had followed up on the lead. Mr. Salpeter tracked down the hoodlum’s criminal associates. One confessed to being the getaway driver and also implicated a third man in the crime. The statements underpinned a motion to reopen the case.
Mr. Salpeter brought a Long Island lawyer with whom he had worked before, Bruce Barket, onto the Tankleff team and continued to dig. He set up a tip line that yielded additional witnesses in an investigation that consumed thousands of hours.