|This case has remained unsolved for 35 years, 3 months, and 0 days.|
The village of Belle Terre, New York (NY) is located on the north shore of Long Island. Sitting on a peninsula and insulated by the Long Island Sound, the village hosts a small community hovering between 700–800 people for the last four decades. The idea that a brutal double-homicide could’ve occurred in Belle Terre was far from anyone’s minds — until that’s exactly what happened in 1988.
Martin Tankleff was only 17 years old when he woke up to find his parents, Seymour and Arlene, brutally murdered in their Belle Terre home. He called authorities, but suspicions quickly turned on him despite there being evidence pointing to Seymour’s business partner. A coerced confession sealed Martin’s fate, and he was convicted and sentenced to over 50 years in prison.
Years of appeals eventually led to Martin’s conviction being overturned, and though he is now free and won settlements due to his time spent wrongly incarcerated, the murders of Arlene and Seymour Tankleff are still unsolved. Why did law enforcement focus so heavily on Martin? Why wasn’t Seymour’s business partner looked at more closely? And who really murdered the Tankleffs?
Table of Contents
The Day of the Murders
It was early on the morning of September 7, 1988 when 17-year-old Martin “Marty” Tankleff woke up. He was to start his senior year in high school that day and was looking forward to seeing his friends again. However, that would never come to pass. Looking back on it, Martin said:
“It was supposed to be my first day of school… I had just turned 17 on August 29, and it should have been a great year. Instead, it changed my life forever.”Martin Tankleff (Source: Oprah)
A Horrible Discovery
That morning, Martin discovered his father and mother dead in their Belle Terre home. His mother was in the master bedroom bludgeoned, stabbed, and her throat slit. His father was in the study, beaten and his throat also slit. Somehow though, he was still alive.
Martin immediately called 911, explaining the scene he’d woken up to. He attempted to help administer first aid to his father, getting blood on his hands in the process. Authorities showed up not long later and began investigating the scene.
Almost immediately, Suffolk County law enforcement honed in on Martin as the prime suspect. They took the teenager in for what is now considered a “hostile” interview in which he was accused of murdering his parents. At first, Martin denied that he had anything to do with the attacks.
Detectives Lied During Questioning
During the interview, detectives lied to Martin, telling him that his surviving father had been able to speak in the hospital and had named his son as the attacker. According to later court testimony by Detective James McCready:
“I told [Martin] that his father told Detective Pfalzgraf [stationed at the hospital] that he, Marty, was the one who did this to his father; that he beat and stabbed his father.”Det. James McCready (Source: People v. Tankleff)
Another officer, Detective Norman Rein, then added, “Marty, maybe your father was conscious when you came in and stabbed him.” This wasn’t true, but in most jurisdictions, authorities are allowed to lie to suspects during interrogations.
In order to prove his innocence, Martin offered to take a lie detector test for the detectives, but they denied his request. Martin began to wonder himself if he’d “blacked out” and actually done something to his parents. Remember that at this point, Martin was 17 years old, had just found both of his parents brutally attacked, and was likely in shock.
After some hours, detectives finally read Martin his rights — after already starting the interview — and soon thereafter, Martin gave a confession in which he admitted to murdering his parents.
In all fairness, a suspect is not entitled to be read their Miranda rights until they are in police custody according to New York state law at the time. It’s generally viewed as a good idea, however, for police and interviewing officers to read the rights to a suspect prior to an interview starting. Information gained before a suspect is read their rights may be inadmissible in trial.
Regardless, the detectives drafted a confession for Martin to sign that confessed to the murder of his mother and attempted murder of his father. However, Martin refused to sign the confession and instead suggested that authorities look at Jerard Steuerman, his father’s business partner.
Another Suspect Overlooked — Jerard Steuerman
Seymour Tankleff owned a bagel shop with another man, Jerard “Jerry” Steuerman. However, times were tough and Steuerman owed Tankleff nearly half a million dollars. Steuerman was also the last person to leave a poker night in the early morning hours of the day of the murders, and had made violent threats against the Tankleffs in the past. Why he was allowed to attend a poker night in light of these facts, I’m not sure.
Steuerman has always publicly denied that he had anything to do with the attacks on the Tankleffs. For whatever reason — although many allege corruption in Suffolk County law enforcement — Steuerman was not viewed as a potential suspect despite the obvious motives of money and anger. I tried to find any evidence that Steuerman was ever interviewed by police, but was unable to find any information. It’s not clear that Suffolk County police ever interviewed or even tried to interview Steuerman.
Steuerman Flees New York
The week after the murder and attempted murder of the Tankleffs, Steuerman made some suspicious moves. First, he withdrew $15,000 from a joint bank account that he shared with Seymour Tankleff while Seymour was in a coma. Next, Steuerman named his girlfriend the beneficiary of his life insurance policy, then attempted to fake his own death.
After staging a suicide scene, Steuerman then went to Big Sur, CA and shaved his beard, changed his hairstyle, and took on an alias. Despite all these suspicious moves, Suffolk County police still didn’t view or name Steuerman as a potential suspect.
Seymour Tankleff Dies
After several weeks of being in a coma due to his injuries, Seymour Tankleff passed away, unable to recover. He never regained consciousness, nor did he name or implicate his son in the murders. The estate of Seymour Tankleff filed a lawsuit against Steuerman in December 1988, claiming he owed over $900,000.
Martin eventually went on trial for the murder of his parents in 1990. He was convicted in June 1990 and sentenced to two consecutive life terms of 25-years-to-life in prison, becoming eligible for parole in 2040. There was no physical evidence linking Martin to the crime and most believe that the confession given during the initial interrogation is what sealed Martin’s fate.
The Many Appeals
Despite his conviction, Martin’s family still believed that he’d been wrongly convicted of the murder of his parents. Eventually, a retired New York City homicide detective, Jay Salpeter, decided to reinvestigate the case in 2001.
During the course of his investigations, Salpeter discovered that Jerard Steuerman’s son had been selling cocaine out of the bagel store that his father and Seymour Tankleff jointly owned. Beyond that, one of the son’s friends had bragged for years about having participated in the Tankleff murders.
Looking more closely in to the potential links that Steuerman’s son and his friends had, Sapleter was able to find an accomplice who admitted to having been the getaway drive on the night of the murders. It soon became clear that there had been multiple people involved in the murders of Seymour and Arlene Tankleff — but Martin wasn’t one of them.
New Evidence Hearings
Based on the new evidence that Salpeter had uncovered, Martin’s lawyers filed a motion for a new trial. Months of evidentiary hearings followed, and with additional investigation by the defense team, over two dozen witnesses ultimately testified, providing massive amounts of evidence pointing toward Martin’s innocence and others’ guilt.
Additional eyewitness testimony suggested that Steuerman had been good friends with the lead detective on the Tankleff murder case. Some believe this is why Suffolk County law enforcement didn’t look more closely at Steuerman, even though he had the means, motive, and opportunity to kill the Tankleffs.
A Conflict of Interest?
Despite the fact that there were extreme conflicts of interest in this case, the district attorney (DA) refused to recuse himself. There were several issues with this, one being that the DA had represented Steuerman’s son five years prior in the case of the cocaine sales in a bagel shop.
Another potential issue was that there were rumors of corruption on the part of Suffolk County law enforcement; some officers were allegedly paid off to look the other way in the cocaine bagel shop situation. I was unable to find any concrete information about this, however, so it may be just a rumor.
January 1997: Writ of Habeas Corpus Denied
For those who don’t know, a writ of habeas corpus (literally “you should have the body” when translated) requires that a person who is in custody be brought before a court to determine whether the detention is lawful. In this case, Martin’s lawyers argued several points:
- Martin’s Fifth Amendment rights (namely protection against self-incrimination) were violated during the interrogation due to the manner in which the confession was obtained
- the jury selection process violated Martin’s constitutional rights
- the prosecution violated Martin’s rights under Brady v. Maryland (the prosecution must turn over all evidence to the defense, even if it’s exculpatory) by withholding evidence
- certain arguments made by the prosecution in summation violated Martin’s due process rights
Unfortunately for Martin, in January 1997, the petition for a writ of habeas corpus was denied. This denial was upheld by the New York Supreme Court’s Appellate Division one year later in January 1998.
Despite losing his previous appeals, Martin kept at it for years. By the early 2000s, many legal scholars, organization, professors, judges, and regular people had heard about Martin’s case and were outraged that he’d been convicted in the first place. Such organizations as the Innocence Project and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers submitted amicus briefs (briefs written by those who are not directly involved in a case but have the expertise to offer insight to the court) in Martin’s favor for a new trial.
During a 2004 visit with his estranged father, Joseph Guarascio was hoping that they’d be able to reconnect after years of having little to no relationship. Instead, Guarascio’s father, Joseph Creedon, confessed to murder. Creedon was showing his son a gun and mentioned that it was the gun he would use if anyone decided to testify against him regarding the murders of Arlene and Seymour Tankleff. Guarascio explained, “When my father told me that he had killed the Tankleffs, I was so scared and shocked.”
Although Guarascio reported the comments to authorities, he wasn’t the first to do so; there were four other witnesses who came forward and quoted Creedon admitting to his involvement in the Tankleff murders. Others were implicated as conspirators in the murders: Peter Kent, Glen Harris, and Jerard Steuerman. According to Guarascio, his father elaborated on what had happened that night:
“[Joseph Creedon] said it was him, Peter Kent, and Glenn Harris. He and Peter Kent waited outside of the house until Jerry Steuerman gave them a signal.”Joseph Guarascio (Source: NY Times)
Glenn Harris, one of the men tracked down by one of Martin’s private investigators and mentioned by Guarascio when he recalled his father’s confession, also gave a sworn statement that confirmed he had driven two hitmen (Joseph Creedon and Peter Kent) to the Tankleff residence on the night of the murders. This was powerful new evidence that pointed toward Martin’s innocence.
More hearings were held in light of the new evidence that Martin and his lawyers had uncovered. Creedon was subpoenaed and denied any involvement in the killings, although he admitted to other crimes like rapes and assaults. Other witnesses were brought in — over 20 in total — many of whom supported the claim that Steuerman had organized the murders of the Tankleffs.
Original Detective Committed Perjury
Other evidence came to light that Detective James McCready, one of the men who’d interrogated Martin back in 1988, had come under investigation for perjury. Witnesses testified that they’d seen McCready with Steuerman prior to the murders, all but confirming that he had a relationship with what should have been the prime suspect in the case.
McCready had also violated police department rules by showing some crime scene photographs to unauthorized people. It’s not clear if these rules were violated in relation to the Tankleff case or for other cases.
Despite all of this evidence, Suffolk County Judge Stephen Barslow denied the petition that would have given Martin a new trial. Barslow said that the defense’s evidence “consisted mainly of testimony from a cavalcade of nefarious scoundrels.”
Angered at the ruling, Martin’s defense attorney said, “There’s no way in hell that he should have been convicted… and there’s no way in hell he should not have been granted a new trial today.” Martin and his lawyers vowed to further appeal the case to a state appellate court in Brooklyn, NY.
Salpeter, Martin’s private investigator who had helped uncover some of the new evidence in the case, was also gobsmacked at the dismissal of all of the new information by the judge, officers, and DA. Salpeter said:
“I read the report, and I literally laughed. How in the world could any detective just go to [Creedon] and say, ‘Did you kill the Tankleffs?’ and he says no and you walk away? What the ____ kind of work is that?”Jay Salpeter (Source: New York Magazine)
Finally, in December 2007, the New York Supreme Court Appellate Division unanimously opted to vacate Martin’s conviction and sentence, granting him a new trial. The case was sent back to Suffolk County for a retrial “to be conducted with all convenient speed.” So, although Martin was free, Suffolk County prosecutors could still opt to retry him and get him sent back to prison.
Probe into Suffolk County Law Enforcement Announced
A week after Martin’s conviction and sentence was vacated, the New York State Investigation Commission (NYSIC) had already begun an official inquiry regarding how Suffolk County law enforcement handled the Tankleff case. It had already been going on for over a year, but it was kept quiet so as not to impact Martin’s appeals case.
Special Prosecutor Appointed
In January 2008, a special prosecutor was appointed to examine the Tankleff case. A special prosecutor is one who is appointed to prosecute selective cases that the regular prosecutor cannot, or is unable or unqualified to prosecute.
Ultimately though, the special prosecutor’s office declined to retry Martin, citing insufficient evidence: “After 20 years, the evidence is insufficient to conclude or would prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he did so.” All charges against Martin were formally dropped in July 2008.
Martin ended up filing federal civil lawsuits for his wrongful conviction against the State of New York and the Suffolk County Police Department, along with several officers. Eventually, he won settlements of $3.375 million from the State of New York and $10 million from Suffolk County.
Martin Gets his Law Degree and License
Following his wrongful conviction and incarceration, Martin Tankleff went on to study law. He passed the New York bar exam and was sworn in during February 2020 — one of only a handful of exonerees to be able to practice law in the state of New York.
The Murders Remain Unsolved
As the title of this article suggests, the case of who murdered Seymour and Arlene Tankleff still remains technically unsolved. Martin’s conviction was overturned, and, to this day, no one else has been prosecuted for their deaths despite the many witnesses who implicated Jerard Steuerman, Joseph Creedon, and others in the crime.
Why Wasn’t Martin Killed?
Some have suggested that the fact Martin wasn’t attacked or killed is evidence that he was somehow involved in the plan. We don’t really know for sure, although Guarascio recalled his father, Creedon, saying something to the effect of he “looked into Marty’s room and saw he was asleep.” Perhaps the attackers didn’t want to risk the 17-year-old somehow being able to fight back or, as others have suggested, they intentionally left him alive to have the murder pinned on him.
Given the amount of witness testimony and information that suggests Steuerman was the mastermind behind the murders, there isn’t any justifiable reason that the murders should be unsolved. A ton of forensic evidence could and should have been collected from the crime scene which likely would have proved that there were intruders in the house on the morning of the murders via DNA, fingerprint, or shoe print analysis.
I believe this case would have been much easier to prove against Steuerman if Suffolk County law enforcement hadn’t focused fully on Martin from the beginning. Steuerman was hardly even looked at as a suspect, despite the fact that he owed Seymour Tankleff a substantial amount of money and faked his own suicide before fleeing to California.
As it stands now, the case of the false conviction of Martin Tankleff is one of the ones that is used to teach law students and police officers about the dangers of a false confession. The case of the Tankleff murders, however, is unlikely to ever be solved despite the overwhelming evidence pointing at Jerard Steuerman.
Cold Case Questions
- Do you think Martin Tankleff was responsible for his parents’ murder?
- What do you think happened in this case?
- Will this case ever be solved definitively?
Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!
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