Criminal Injustice: A True Crime, a False Confession, and the Fight to Free Marty Tankleff

Criminal Injustice: A True Crime, a False Confession, and the Fight to Free Marty Tankleff

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by Richard Firstman, Jay Salpeter

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When he went to bed on the night of September 6, 1988, seventeen-year-old Marty Tankleff was a typical kid in the upscale Long Island community of Belle Terre. He was looking forward to starting his senior year at Earl L. Vandermeulen High School the next day. But instead, Marty woke in the morning to find his parents brutally bludgeoned, their throats slashed. His


When he went to bed on the night of September 6, 1988, seventeen-year-old Marty Tankleff was a typical kid in the upscale Long Island community of Belle Terre. He was looking forward to starting his senior year at Earl L. Vandermeulen High School the next day. But instead, Marty woke in the morning to find his parents brutally bludgeoned, their throats slashed. His mother, Arlene, was dead. His father, Seymour, was barely alive and would die a month later. With remarkable self-possession, Marty called 911 to summon help. And when homicide detective James McCready arrived on the scene an hour later, Marty told him he believed he knew who was responsible: Jerry Steuerman, his father’s business partner. Steuerman owed Seymour more than half a million dollars, had recently threatened him, and had been the last to leave a high-stakes poker game at the Tankleffs’ home the night before. However, McCready inexplicably dismissed Steuerman as a suspect. Instead, he fastened on Marty as the prime suspect–indeed, his only one.

Before the day was out, the police announced that Marty had confessed to the crimes. But Marty insisted the confession was fabricated by the police. And a week later, Steuerman faked his own death and fled to California under an alias. Yet the police and prosecutors remained fixated on Marty–and two years later, he was convicted on murder charges and sentenced to fifty years in prison.

But Marty’s unbelievable odyssey was just beginning. With the support of his family, he set out to prove his innocence and gain his freedom. For ten years, disappointment followed disappointment as appeals to state and federal courts were denied. Still, Marty never gave up. He persuaded Jay Salpeter, a retired NYPD detective turned private eye, to look into his case. At first it was just another job for Salpeter. As he dug into the evidence, though, he began to see signs of gross ineptitude or worse: Leads ignored. Conflicts of interest swept under the rug. A shocking betrayal of public trust by Suffolk County law enforcement that went well beyond a simple miscarriage of justice. After Salpeter’s discoveries brought national media attention to the case, Marty’s conviction was finally vacated in 2007, and New York’s governor appointed a special prosecutor to reopen the twenty-year-old case. At the same time, the State Investigation Commission announced an inquiry into Suffolk County’s handling of what has come to be widely viewed as one of America’s most disturbing wrongful conviction cases.

As gripping as a Grisham novel, A Criminal Injustice is the story of an innocent man’s tenacious fight for freedom, an investigator’s dogged search for the truth. It is a searing indictment of justice in America.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Chapter 1

Belle Terre, Long Island: September 6, 1988

All along the coastline, a succession of jagged peninsulas gives the northern shore of Long Island its idiosyncratic contours and most desirable real estate. Great Neck . . . Manhasset Neck . . . Lloyd Neck . . . Eatons Neck . . . eight haphazard glacial formations in all, each in its way heaven or hell to centuries of seamen. Fifty miles out from the New York City line, the last of them pushes into Long Island Sound. And then the coastline abruptly straightens, becoming as regular as a riverbank from there to Orient Point.

It is a hilly cape, this last one, smaller than the others, shaped something like a crabeater seal. The peninsula’s tree-lined western edge shelters Port Jefferson Harbor, whose wharf docks the ferries that rumble by on their way to Connecticut and back. On the sound side of the neck, a line of low cliffs overlooks a stretch of rocky shoreline. There was a time, before the first land speculators came along in the early 1900s and gave it a more agreeable name, that the peninsula was known for the misfortune it brought ship captains who didn’t see it in the night. Mount Misery Neck was what they called it, before they called it Belle Terre.

Now, late in the century, the cape remains serene and secluded, home to a small community of suburbanites who live in upscale homes on significant properties. Apart from a lavish estate at the end of Cliff Road, where a manor known as the Pink Mansion is inhabited by a woman known as the Contessa, the most enviable addresses are on a sleepy, L-shaped lane that runs toward the sound for a few hundred feet before turning sharply to the right to hug the coastline. It’s precisely at this bend, hard by what locals know as the Cliffs, that the first waterfront home comes into view. A roadside mailbox displays the address: 33 Seaside Drive.

The residence is a sprawling, ranch-style house nestled beneath a canopy of leafy trees—if five thousand square feet of living space can be said to nestle—and shrouded in a small forest of shrubbery. In the ground out back is a gunite swimming pool surrounded by a deck of mountain laurel stone. And then, over the cliffs, an endless midnight-blue panorama. On sun-splashed afternoons, Long Island Sound sparkles, sailboats bob in the breeze, and the occasional powerboat leaves a V-shaped wake of foam. Distant on the horizon is the Connecticut shoreline—New Haven straight ahead, Bridgeport slightly to the left. Late in the day, the sun casts an orange glow across the western sky, and at nightfall the blue sea dissolves into a vista of blackness, the southern New England coast twinkling faintly in the distance.

Such is the view on this nearly moonless night in the late summer of 1988. It is the day after Labor Day, and the venerable After Dinner Club is gathered for its floating Tuesday night poker game at the house that Seymour Tankleff built sixteen years ago as his personal affirmation of the American Dream. It’s the old story, give or take: Son of immigrants grows up in Depression-era New York, thinks big, makes some good moves, has a little luck and a ton of chutzpah—next thing you know he’s living on a cliff on Long Island. At sixty-two, Seymour has the world whipped. At least that’s what Seymour wants the world to think.

The After Dinner Club goes back thirty years, and the stakes have risen as the players have grown older and more prosperous. It’s not for amateurs or the budget-conscious. The opening ante is a hundred dollars a player, and thousands can change hands by the last one. But the game is friendly and oddly wholesome: Drinking and smoking are prohibited (though swearing is permitted) and 20 percent of the weekly buy-in goes into a kitty for charities, or to send flowers when someone of local prominence dies.

Peter Capobianco—“Cappy” to all—is one of the originals and the current member of longest standing, but at seventy-seven he’s not even close to being the oldest. That would be Al Raskin, who’s ninety-five, which makes him a full sixty years older than Joe Cecere, who picks him up each week from his room at the Elks Hotel. Except for Frank Oliveto, who’s an orthopedic surgeon, and John Ceparano, a lawyer, the players are local businessmen of one sort or another. Cappy owns Cappy’s Carpets. Joe has a Goodyear Tire franchise and builds high-end homes on speculation. Leo Sternlicht is a Ford dealer, Bob Montefusco’s a contractor, and Al Raskin used to have his own shoe company. There’s Vinnie Bove, who owns one of the biggest wholesale nurseries in Suffolk County, and there’s Jerry Steuerman, who has half a dozen bagel stores. By his own proclamation, he’s the Bagel King of Long Island.

And then there’s Seymour. Describing Seymour Tankleff as a businessman is a little like calling a shark a tropical fish. He made his first million in insurance, then sold the business and fashioned his voracious appetite for wheeling and dealing into a second career as everybody’s partner. Friend, relative, neighbor, perfect stranger—Seymour wants to be in business with you. Don’t have the cash? You can pay me back! The terms? Never mind about the terms. Seymour the deal maker. Seymour the conquerer. Seymour the big macher with the snow-white hair and the shit-eating grin. He’s in deals with just about everybody in the card game, if only because he can be a son of a bitch to say no to. Ask Joe Cecere. He said yes just to get Seymour off his back; then he read the contract he came up with. The balls on this guy, Joe thought. Of course, this stuff with the poker pals is nothing compared with what Seymour’s got going with Jerry the Bagel King.

Leo Sternlicht was due to host the game this week, but Leo and his wife went upstate for a long Labor Day weekend. The game rotates alphabetically, so Seymour’s up next. The men start arriving at 33 Seaside around seven, packing the red gravel driveway with late-model Cadillacs and Lincolns and one Mercedes that’s brand-new. They troop in, pockets full of twenties and fifties. Frank Oliveto, the orthopedic surgeon, comes straight from the operating room, his shoes caked in blood. He stops to say hello to Seymour’s wife, Arlene, who’s in a recliner in the den, reading the paper and half watching the TV. Frank gives her a kiss and asks what’s new—how’s Marty doing? The swelling’s down, Arlene says. And he got his license last week, so he’s all excited about that. Jenny too, Frank says.

The card table is set up as usual in a spacious room, at the far right corner of the house, that serves as Seymour’s office and doubles as a home gym. The décor is mostly sports kitsch and exercise equipment. The rear wall has sliding glass doors opening onto a deck that looks out onto the pool and the sea beyond. The early arrivals play a couple of warm-up hands. By eight there’s a full house. The night officially starts in the kitchen, around the center island where the men help themselves to the turkey Arlene cooked the way her husband likes it, in champagne. There are bagels—of course there are bagels. And watermelon. Seymour brought home a good one—nice and red, the new seedless kind.

The game’s in full swing when Vinnie Bove pulls into the driveway in his nurseryman’s Ford station wagon. He’s a beefy man with thick white hair combed straight back. Besides selling shrubs and evergreens by the truckload, Bove—it’s pronounced Bo-vay—serves as the mayor of Belle Terre, population 829. He’s also the vice chairman of the board of John T. Mather Memorial Hospital and president of the Port Jefferson Volunteer Ambulance Corps. So he’s always got some meeting to go to and rarely gets to the card game in time for dinner, even when he’s the host.

“Vinnie!” Seymour says when Bove appears in the card room. “Go get something to eat. We’ve got the champagne turkey.” Vinnie says no—he’s on one of his periodic diets—and takes his seat at the card table. “I got something for you,” Seymour tells him. He sits out a hand and brings Vinnie a bag of microwave popcorn, along with a generous slice of watermelon. Hey, no seeds, says the nurseryman—what’ll they come up with next?

The bets are flying, and so is Bob Montefusco. Monte looks to be headed for a very good night. The game’s not going quite so well for Seymour. Maybe he’ll have better luck with the horses this weekend. Between hands he goes off to make a phone call. “He’s in the race,” he tells Jerry the Bagel King upon his return. “We need a check.” They’re just about the only words between them all night. Whatever’s going on between them, Seymour’s not doing much better with Arlene these days. “We’re at each other’s throats,” he tells Vinnie. “I’m getting in her hair.” Vinnie has an idea: “Why don’t you do some vacuuming or something for her? Make yourself useful around the house instead of bothering her.” Seymour has a better idea: “Why don’t you and me go down to A.C.? Get outta here for a few days.” If they do, maybe Seymour will tell Vinnie what he and Arlene have really been fighting about.

Marty gets home a little past nine and stops in on the card game, carrying a bag from Pants Plus and another from Radio Shack. He’s a wisp of a kid, his thick brown hair freshly cut and styled for the first day of school.

“Marty, let me see you,” Vinnie says.

“Oh, he told you,” Marty says with a sheepish smile, nodding toward his father. He’s still wearing the tinted glasses he’s been using to hide the aftereffects of the nose job his parents gave him for his seventeenth birthday. “They break your nose,” he says, then lifts the glasses just enough. Oooh, says one of the guys, looks like you lost a fight. Marty says it’s nothing compared to right after the operation.

“Yeah,” says Vinnie, appraising the new nose. “It looks good.” The others nod. Marty says thanks, then asks Cappy for the keys to his Seville. He needs to move it so he can get his car in the garage. It’s a ten-year-old version of something from the card players’ fleet: a dark blue ’78 Lincoln Town Car. Seymour got it for Marty because Arlene wanted him driving something big and safe after two of his classmates died in a sports car in June. Marty’s made no secret of his desire for something not quite so old-mannish, but for now even a big blue Lincoln beats a big yellow school bus. He’s been fixing it up with the money he makes at the bagel stores. He and Zach Suominen spent the afternoon putting in a new stereo, with dual-control speakers.

Marty returns Cappy’s keys but doesn’t stick around to watch a few hands, which he usually does when his father’s hosting the card game. He wants to get up early to finish working on the car stereo before he has to leave to pick up Mark Perrone, his best friend, for the first day of school. He’s thinking 5:30, no big deal after two years working weekends at the bagel stores. He kisses his father and says good night to the group before heading into the kitchen to see what’s to eat. He helps himself to some champagne turkey, some watermelon, and brings it into the den, where his mother’s still reading in the recliner. They talk for a few minutes, about the trip to the mall, about school, about Marty having forgotten to set up the card table for his father before going out. Marty apologizes and promises to take it down tomorrow. He brings his dish into the kitchen and goes off to take a shower. His mother calls it a night herself. She’s in bed, watching TV, when Marty comes in a little while later and gives her a kiss good night. See you in the morning, Mom, he says.

On the other side of the house, the poker game continues into the night. Cappy quits around midnight, his usual departure time whether he’s ahead or behind. The game typically breaks up around one, sometimes two, but it’s been a lively night and nobody objects when Monte, who’s still on a roll, suggests a few more hands. It’s around three when they finally call last hand, play it out, throw in their cards, count their winnings, lick their wounds. Vinnie’s the first to go. Wasn’t his night. He pauses in the kitchen to cut himself one last piece of seedless watermelon. Monte, meanwhile, is all smiles—he’s pocketed a tidy two grand. He’s in the solarium, which connects Seymour’s office to the kitchen, when he decides to go back in, maybe gloat a little and wind down the night with Seymour, who’s always good for a few laughs. Monte comes to an abrupt halt, though, when he sees Seymour and Jerry alone in the room, having a conversation that’s obviously private. He turns right around and heads for the front door.

One by one the card players pull out of the driveway, in reverse order of their arrivals seven, eight hours earlier, until just two remain: Cecere in his new Mercedes with Al Raskin beside him, and Jerry Steuerman at the wheel of his Lincoln. Joe was the first to arrive and should be the last to leave. But Jerry signals for him to go around him. It’s an awkward maneuver and Joe’s a little worried for his new car. But he has just enough room and heads out in the darkness. Half a minute later, he’s sailing down Cliff Road, the only driver on the road in these peaceful moments, three hours before day breaks over the cliffs of the little cape they used to call Mount Misery Neck.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Richard Firstman is an award-winning author and journalist whose books include The Death of Innocents, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and Edgar Award winner co-authored with his wife, Jamie Talan. He has written for numerous publications, and his work as a producer has appeared on 60 Minutes. He was previously a reporter at large and an editor at Newsday.

Jay Salpeter, a highly decorated former New York City police detective and hostage negotiator, is one of the country’s top private investigators. His work has led to frequent appearances on Dateline, 48 Hours, MSNBC, Fox News, and Court TV (now truTV). In 2008, he co-founded the Fortress Innocence Group, the nation’s first private investigations firm devoted to overturning wrongful convictions.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Criminal Injustice 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 16 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Obviously recycled garbage from the family. Very little fact finding or fact checking and so many contradicting paragraphs that I kept flipping back and forth to see if I read something wrong (I didn't). Tankleff fixated on one theory to create reasonable doubt and, typical of a spoiled rich kid, neither he nor his family ever bothered to spend their money on something real - like finding out what really happened to his parents. Don't waste your time or money on this.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
SilverShadow takes a vole
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Runs over and picks up 2 fat voles and runs to the warriors den.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
She set a vole in the fresh-kill pile.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Owlfeather has given birth to one male kit, Firekit! Go to res 9 to meet him.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Puts a rabbit and a mouson tje freshkill pilee
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Forgot to bring his freshkill herd last night :3)) Dropped his squirrel on the growing pile and trotted happily away.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Placed his trout,mouse and sparrow next to wolfpelts kill. He covered them all in dirt and went to see what was happening in the main camp
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
When you are finished with a hunting patrol, make sure to put the fresh-kill here. Then, when you are hungry, you can grab an already-hunted peice of prey. No more magic food! Make sure to grab a piece that has not been taken yet.<p> Example: 'Silverstar dropped the mouse and squirrel she had caught on the fresh-kill pile.'<br> 'Pigeonwings grabbed the mouse, taking it back to her favorite rock.'<p> ~$ilverstar
ch27 More than 1 year ago
The book was great. What a sam Marty had to spend all that time in jail for a crime was obvious he did not commit. They botched that whole case up right from the beginning. Shame on the police in Suffolk County for what they did to him
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you like slow paste book this is for you if you like hard thinking books this is the one
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What do any of these comments have to do with the book?
Darcelle More than 1 year ago
Sad but true!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Fallensnow looked worriedly at Lily. "Do your powers drain your energy? If so, you may stop. If not, then remember, I can do THIS." Fallensnow said in cat, then shapeshifted into a bear and clawed at the vines. Once they were a tiny bit loose, she shapeshifted into a mouse, sliding out. She turned back into a cat. "All right, that's enough for now. Come on, take your prey and we'll go back to camp." Fallensnow told Lily softly, beconing with her tail.~Fallensnow
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
She followed, flying above him.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The nursery.