Thursday, January 15, 2009

Tankleff case may be tip of the iceberg

The notorious criminal case of Martin Tankleff, the Belle Terre teenager convicted in 1990 of murdering his parents early in the morning on Sept. 7, 1988, ended without real resolution last December, when the state attorney general announced he would not seek a new trial of Mr. Tankleff.

His conviction had been tossed out in 2007 by a state appellate court after nearly 20 years of maneuvering by a team of believers who never gave up hope that justice would be served.
But the attorney general’s investigation and report did not exonerate Tankleff. It simply found that while there was “some evidence” that the youth committed the crimes, it was too old to form the basis of a new prosecution.

Marty Tankleff won his freedom. But justice was not served. The killer or killers of Seymour and Arlene Tankleff walked away.

A recently released book about the investigation and prosecution of the Tankleff case portrays the Suffolk County criminal justice system — police, prosecutors and judges alike — as a corrupt good ol’ boys network far more interested in protecting each other’s hides than pursuing truth and justice.

“A Criminal Injustice: A True Crime, a False Confession and the Fight to Free Marty Tankleff,” was co-authored by the private investigator who devoted seven years of his life to digging for the truth of the Tankleff murders (remunerated with a $5,000 retainer paid by Tankleff’s pro bono law firm). The book provides eye-popping details about what the investigator, Jay Salpeter, a retired NYC police detective, found — and how the Suffolk DA and the court went out of their way to disregard or bury it all, or worse.

“They are still hunkering down,” his co-author Rick Firstman told me Tuesday, about the posture of law enforcement officials regarding the Tankleff case and new disclosures made in the book.

And with good reason, according to the details laid out in “A Criminal Injustice.” It’s a gripping, can’t-put-it-down read.

The Tankleff case is a gripping, can’t-stop-thinking-about-it kind of case.

Lonnie Soury, a Manahattan-based PR man and part-time Southold resident, who said he became obsessed with Marty’s cause, said “people got infected with Tankleff” because “there was an undercurrent in Suffolk County that this kid got a raw deal.”

There’s the confession coaxed from a traumatized kid with lies by a detective who may have had his own business relationship with the murder victim’s estranged business partner, whom many believe was involved in the crime. Then the same detective becomes partners in a bar with the defendant’s half-sister, who bankrolls their business venture — Digger O’Dell’s in Riverhead — with the inheritance she got because her brother was convicted.

The detective, James McCready, denied under oath that he knew Tankleff’s business partner, Jerry Steuerman, the self-proclaimed “bagel king” of Long Island; he denied he even knew of him.

A “crucial” witness whose testimony at a post-trial hearing in 2004 linked McCready to Steuerman was Lenny Lubrano, now proprietor of Lenny’s Restaurant in Jamesport. Lenny had a wholesale business in the 1980s and bought bagels from Steuerman. He saw the two men together at the store. Later, when he owned a pizzeria in Rocky Point, McCready would come in and buy lunch for his crews — he had a thriving construction business “on the side.” McCready told Lenny he was doing construction work for Steuerman. This was long before the murders. After Lenny heard that Steuerman and McCready were involved in the Tank­leff case and that they denied knowing each other, he came forward.

Greg Blass of Jamesport, an attorney in private practice in Riverhead during the 1980s (he was also then a member of the County Legislature), represented Seymour Tankleff in several business transactions. Seymour usually brought Marty along with him to meetings with the lawyer — he was “grooming” Marty to take over his business. Blass told me he was supposed to meet with Tankleff the day of the crime.

“I had absolutely no doubt that Marty did not do a thing like that,” Blass said. A subdued youth who had a loving relationship with his father, “he was not capable of it.”

Blass remembers Tankleff asking him to review some promissory notes he was planning to foreclose on. He believes they were from Steuerman and that Steuerman knew Tankleff was going to call them in. “Seymour told me he had spoken to him,” Blass said, “and suspected there were going to be some difficulties.”

That may be the understatement of a lifetime.

Copyright 2009 Times/Review Newspapers Corp.