Marty Tankleff's fight for the truth

Erin Moriarty on the latest chapter in the Marty Tankleff case

Produced By Gail Zimmerman

[This story was first broadcast on Jan. 26, 2008. It was updated on Aug. 8, 2008.]

Marty Tankleff was only a teenager when he was convicted of murdering his parents. He spent more than half his life in remote New York state prisons, a far cry from his privileged childhood on New York's Long Island.

Marty initially confessed, but quickly recanted. He fought for years for his innocence, especially as new witnesses surfaced that could potentially exonerate him.

Correspondent Erin Moriarty, who has covered this case for years, reports on this rollercoaster of a legal case.

Marty had just turned 17 when he was arrested for the murder of his parents, Seymour and Arlene. He has spent his entire adult life in remote upstate New York prisons.

It's a far cry from Marty's childhood, spent in the lap of luxury in a sprawling Long Island waterfront home. Seymour and Arlene were unable to have children of their own, so they adopted Marty as a baby.

Marty says his mom was "great." "She adored me and I adored her. We were the best of friends," he remembers.

He was also close to his father. "My father had a poor childhood. When I became a teenager, he had money, so he lived vicariously through me," says Marty, who admits he was spoiled by his parents.

Seymour, a savvy and tough entrepreneur, was grooming Marty to follow in his footsteps. "I wanted to be a businessman. So I enjoyed being involved in all of that," Marty explains.

Marty says he knew everything about his father's businesses, including the trouble his dad was having with a partner in a bagel shop, Jerry Steuerman, who owed him around half a million dollars. "The friendship had dissipated. They essentially became enemy business partners," Marty says.

Despite the tension between Seymour and Jerry Steuerman, both men continued to play in a weekly poker game. And on Sept. 6, 1988, it was Marty's father's turn be host. The game lasted into the wee hours and Steuerman was the last to leave. The next morning, Marty says, he woke to find his father near death.

Marty called 911. "I just remember the woman yelling back at me saying 'Calm down, calm down.' She gave me some instructions," he remembers.

Then, Marty says, he searched for his mother. He found her dead on her bedroom floor.

James McCready, the lead detective, now retired, arrived an hour later, and remembers the scene as "very brutal."

Seymour, bludgeoned and stabbed but still alive, had been rushed to the hospital; Arlene's body still lay in her room. "She was nearly decapitated," McCready remembers. "And it appeared to me that she had struggled with whoever had assaulted her."

McCready, a homicide cop for ten years, saw no sign of forced entry and was immediately bothered by Marty's appearance. "He was sitting as calm as calm could be, with his hands clasped like this," McCready recalls.

Asked what he would have expected for Marty to be doing, McCready says, "Oh, I think he would have been crying, I think he would have been shaken, been very upset."

What impression did Marty get from McCready? "I felt that they were trying to help me and I was trying to help them," he says.

But McCready says he "could see" Marty was lying. "I get a feeling, it's not so much the way, what is said. It's the way in which it's said."

Marty volunteered his suspicions that Steuerman, his father's partner, was somehow involved and Marty agreed to talk more about that at police headquarters. But in fact McCready thought he already had his man.

Why would Marty kill his parents? McCready has a theory: greed.

Seventeen-year-old Marty sat alone with McCready and his partner, without a lawyer, in a small windowless room for hours, where the detectives questioned him. "It was the constant barrage that 'Marty, we know you did it, everything will be ok, just tell us you did it. We know you did it.' And the on and on and on questioning. Over and over," he remembers.

Then, McCready did something that would change everything: he left the room, pretended to talk on the phone, and came back with news about Seymour. The detective told Marty his father had come out of his coma and had implicated Marty in the murder.

But McCready admits he lied to Marty, and that Seymour's statement never happened. Asked if that's all right to do, McCready says, "the United States Supreme Court says it is."

Marty begged to take a polygraph, but the detectives refused.

"So you're better at telling whether someone is lying?" Moriarty asks McCready.

"I? I think I'm better than the polygraph machine," the detective replies.

McCready's scheme worked. Marty began to wonder if he blacked out and in fact had attacked his parents. Finally, he told the police what they wanted to hear.

McCready began to prepare a written statement. Although Marty - who didn't write it himself - never signed it, and almost immediately recanted, the detectives had enough. Marty was arrested and charged with murder.

Private Detective Jay Salpeter began working on Marty's case seven years ago. "And you can't leave a case like this. And you become addicted to a case like this," he says.

Salpeter's addiction would eventually lead to startling new clues that would turn the case around.

Fighting for Marty

From the moment Marty was arrested, his cousin and guardian, Ron Falbee never believed Marty murdered his parents. And Ron was not the only family member in Marty's corner: ever since the 1988 murders, a large number of relatives have been fighting to free Marty.

The relatives say they were never questioned by police, but lead detective James McCready claims they're lying.

"Did you ask to speak to them and they said no?" Moriarty asks.

"No," McCready says. "I never asked directly to speak to them. I didn't have to. What were they going to add to my case?"

But they say they had plenty to add. For one thing, they knew Marty. And while police say Marty killed his parents to get money, his family disagrees. "He wasn't supposed to get any money till he was 25 years old," one of his relatives points out.

McCready says he wasn't aware of that.

"Jim, isn't it important to talk to everybody before you settle on someone when you know their entire life ...could be ruined by this?" Moriarty asks McCready.

"No, no. no. Under the circumstances in this case, everything we needed to know we pretty much knew in the first day," the detective argues.

With his suspect behind bars, McCready thought he had the whole case all wrapped up in a day. But a week later, with Marty's father Seymour lingering in a coma, the case took an unexpected turn. Seymour's business partner, the same man Marty had told the police to investigate, suddenly disappeared.

Marty thought the business partner would then become a main suspect, but, as a police report shows, McCready still refused to consider Steuerman a suspect.

"I'm reading from a missing persons report and it says, 'Homicide has no reason to believe that Steuerman's absence is connected to the murder...' Why not?"Moriarty asks.

"Because he had nothing to do with that murder," McCready says.

Asked if the disappearance didn't make his case harder, McCready says, "Not that it made it harder. It just added more questions."

Two weeks later, the detectives found Steuerman in Long Beach, Calif., where he was living under an alias. Steuerman returned home, claiming his personal and financial problems caused him to flee. "I had too many problems and its just 20 years of building up, that's all" he explained. "So I staged my death."

Asked if it is possible Steuerman had hired someone, McCready says, "Nope, he couldn't. That man couldn't hurt a fly."

One month after the Tankleffs were attacked, Seymour died, without ever regaining consciousness. Marty was then charged with two murders, and a year and a half later, went on trial.

"I think every emotion ran through me, scared, fearful, but I was also hopeful," Marty remembers. "Because I knew I was innocent. And I always believed that innocent men don't get found guilty."

By far, the most damaging evidence against Marty was his confession, but there was little physical evidence to back it up. None of Marty's hair, nor blood, was found on his parents. His mother Arlene had clearly fought her attacker, yet Marty had no cuts or bruises - only some swelling in his eyes from a nose job he got for his 17th birthday.

The jurors also heard from Steuerman, who denied having anything to do with the crime. "I would never do anything like that," he said.

He admitted he owed Seymour hundreds of thousands of dollars. What's more, Seymour was entitled to part of all of Steuerman's future ventures.

Under intense questioning, Steuerman snapped. "Marty Tankleff sitting over there is accused of this and I am not!" he said on the stand. "The only mistake I made was I was a poor man living like a millionaire!" he added.

By contrast, Marty was composed on the stand - perhaps too composed - as he tried to explain why he would confess to something he didn't do. "They were saying my father said I did this. My father never lied to me," Marty said.

After a week's deliberation, the jury reached its verdict: guilty. Marty was sentenced to 50 years to life.

Eleven years later, Jay Salpeter, a retired New York City police detective, stepped in. Salpeter believes Marty's alleged confession was coerced, and he is not alone. Richard Ofshe, an expert in interrogation tactics, is working on Marty's appeals.

In Marty's case, Ofshe says the teenager was tricked into doubting his own memory. "He knows he didn't do it but he's confronted with a police officer who's lying to him, and skillfully lying," he says. "All of a sudden there is a way of reconciling it. And that is you had a blackout, because of some psychological condition you got that impairs your memory."

False confessions do happen: 25 percent of the people who have been exonerated with DNA evidence had confessed to crimes they did not do.

Ofshe is convinced Marty's confession is false because it doesn't match the crime scene evidence. For example, Marty allegedly told police that he used a barbell and kitchen knife as murder weapons; but not a trace of blood was found on them, even when they were microscopically examined.

"If he cleaned off the weapons, why wasn't any blood found in the plumbing?" Moriarty asks McCready.

"Every confession does not have 100 percent of the truth in it. Because they don't give you the whole truth," he says.

The forensics team found bloody glove prints at the scene, but Marty never mentioned wearing gloves, and those gloves were never found.

McCready says he doesn't know what happened to the gloves and that it doesn't concern him.

Salpeter conducted his own investigation, and, with old fashioned leg work, tracked down a man who would unravel the entire case.

A break in the case?

McCready refused to re-consider his initial conclusions, even when the crime scene evidence raised doubts.

"Once you have that confession aren't you caught? Because you can't bring anyone else to trial once you have that confession," Moriarty asks.

"Well, I'm not taking a confession from an innocent man. I would never do that," McCready replies.

But at the time of Marty's arrest, McCready and his fellow detectives in Suffolk County, New York, had an astonishingly high confession rate - 94 percent - so high, a state commission said it provoked skepticism. McCready defends his work. "Homicide squad is sort of the crème de la crème, if you will," he says.

In Marty's case, says Salpeter, McCready was simply wrong. "The forensic work does not fit the story," he says.

Salpeter says it was a man named Glenn Harris who gave him the break in the case. A career criminal serving time for burglary, Harris says after 14 years of silence, he was ready to admit his involvement in the Tankleff murders.

Harris says that on a night in September 1988, he was the driver on the way to what he thought would be a home burglary. Harris says he was with two men that night, Joseph Creedon and Peter Kent.

Creedon, known on the street as "Joey Guns," and Kent, also have long criminal records. In a notarized affidavit, Harris says he drove them to an upscale neighborhood and "parked his car... where Creedon told me to stop."

When they returned to the car, Harris says he knew something had happened. "Their demeanor, their behavior, it wasn't normal," he says.

Asked what his feelings were, Harris says, "That something more than a burglary happened. Usually when you commit a burglary there's proceeds of something and that wasn't there."

"And can you tell me what their demeanor was?" Moriarty asks.

"Extremely nervous, winded," Harris says. "Creedon's anxiousness to get out of there."

Harris says he later watched Peter Kent "burning his clothes." And when he heard about the Tankleff murders, Harris says he "put two and two together" but kept quiet.

"I had no right being up there," he says. "I was just out on parole."

Harris took - and passed - a polygraph arranged by Marty's investigator, Jay Salpeter.

What's more, Salpeter says, Joey "Guns" Creedon is linked to the man who the police dismissed as a possible suspect. "Jerry Steuerman has ties to Joseph Creedon. This is not a random hit," Salpeter says.

Steuerman, the bagel shop owner who was heavily in debt to Seymour, is connected to Creedon through his son Todd Steuerman, like Creedon a convicted criminal. Salpeter believes Steuerman hired Creedon the night the Tankleffs were killed.

"My scenario is that Seymour is sitting at the desk. Jerry Steuerman is talking to him keeping Seymour's attention on Jerry," Salpeter theorizes. "At this point, behind Seymour, coming through the door, Joe Creedon, Peter Kent, and they took Seymour out and then went for Mrs. Tankleff."

Steuerman has lived in an upscale community in Boca Raton, Fla. He refuses to talk to "48 Hours", but both he and his son, Todd, deny they had anything to do with the Tankleff murders.

Still, the new evidence provided by Harris is a major break for Marty. He has been granted a hearing. If the judge at that hearing finds that the new evidence would cause the original jury to vote a different way, Marty will get a new trial, and a real shot at winning his freedom.

As the hearing begins, Marty's lawyers, who are working pro bono, and his large extended family are thrilled to be back in court.

But that new evidence will not go unchallenged. Assistant District Attorney Leonard Lato is fighting to uphold Marty's verdict. "There's a verdict, there are appeals, there's been federal habeas petitions, he's lost," Lato says.

And Lato says Harris is a liar. "When I tried to interview him, he said 'I don't want to talk,'" he says.

In fact, when Harris takes the stand, he refuses to testify, afraid he will be charged with the murders. "In my view, he isn't testifying because he doesn't want to get up on the stand, and be exposed as a liar," Lato says.

But, when he was in prison, Harris confessed to a Catholic priest. With Harris' permission, the priest tells the court the same story Harris told "48 Hours".

And there are 20 other new witnesses who back Harris' story. Karlene Kovacs met Creedon at a party, and she says he bragged about the murders.

Kovacs tells Moriarty she believed Creedon was telling the truth when he talked about the murders.

Lato claims Creedon took credit for the crime only to enhance his violent reputation. But other witnesses brought to court by Tankleff's attorneys say Joey "Guns" Creedon tried to involve them in the murder plot; there's Joe Graydon, who says he and Creedon had made a failed attempt to ambush a man he now believes was Seymour.

"We had to go up to the bagel store and make it look like a robbery," Graydon said. "He wasn't there. We missed him. We were supposed to catch him coming out of the back."

And there is witness Bill Ram, another associate of Creedon. He confirms Harris' story that the killers started out at his house the night of the murders.

Asked what he was doing that evening, Ram tells Moriarty, "I was hanging out at my house. I had a few people over."

Ram, a convicted drug dealer, recalls what Creedon told him that night. "He said, 'I'm working for somebody who's got a partner in the bagel business that needs to be straightened out.' And he said, 'You know, there's some money in it for me if we go there and just, you know, he's going to threaten the guy or rough him up,'" Ram says.

Ram says that he turned Creedon down, but that Harris did not. "When I saw him the next day he was completely distraught," Ram tells Moriarty. "Just shooken up, couldn't hold a thought, just scared to death. I told him - listen keep your mouth shut."

Asked what surprised him the most what he heard from these witnesses, Marty says, "Their honesty. That after all these years that they would come forward and admit their involvement in such brutal crimes."

When it's the state's turn to present witnesses, the hearing becomes almost surreal. Incredibly, the star witness is Peter Kent, Creedon's alleged accomplice.

"When they brang me in, you know they told me that, 'We don't believe that you did this,'" Kent says. "I thought maybe like they were trying to play tricknology games with me, you know?' Yeah, Peter, we don't think that you really did it, but just come on, come forward.'"

Kent denies he had anything to do with the murders. "I know I was not there with Glenn doing no murders," he says.

But even he says Creedon is capable of murder. "With a name like Joey Guns?" he says. Just not theses murders. "Joey was not the killer for these murders. I know that, 'cause he was not with me that night and we didn't do these with Glenn. It never happened," Kent says.

Creedon, who has been convicted of rape and grand larceny, denies ever killing anyone, but on the stand he admits to a life of violence collecting money for drug dealers.

"Do you believe when they say they had nothing to do with the Tankleff murders?" Moriarty asks Lato.

"I believe, in terms of the evidence, that there's no evidence connecting them to the crime at all, no credible evidence," the prosecutor says.

But the hearing is not over. After watching a "48 Hours" report on the Tankleff case, a surprise witness comes forward: Creedon's own son.

Marty's last hope

The final witness for Marty, and maybe the most surprising one, is 17-year-old Joe Guarascio, who comes to court to accuse his own father, Joey "Guns" Creedon, of murder.

In 2004, the young man finally got to spend time with the father he barely knew. He says at first he was thrilled, but later after seeing a "48 Hours" report on the Tankleff murders, he had to ask his father the tough question.

"'Dad, did you really do this'?" Guarascio remembers asking his father. "He tells me, 'Yes, I did do it.'"

For several months, young Joe says he kept to himself what his father said. When he finally told his mother, she convinced him to testify and called Jay Salpeter.

But Lato believes Guarascio is just lashing out at his father. In fact, Lato doesn't believe that any of Tankleff's new witnesses can be trusted, especially since so many of them have criminal histories.

"The point is, those things affect their credibility," Lato says. "Like the people who implicated Creedon? They all admitted one thing. They all hated him. That's a reason to say things about a person that isn't true."

"The district attorney of Suffolk has an obligation to seek the truth. The district attorney is doing everything here to suppress the truth from coming out," Salpeter argues.

In March 2006, 18 months after the hearing began, there's finally a decision and it's a heartbreaking one for Marty: the judge dismisses the new witnesses as "nefarious scoundrels" and refuses to grant a new trial.

Marty's conviction stands, but he has one last hope: an appellate court.

In October 2007, four appellate court judges hear the case in a courtroom packed with Tankleff supporters, including actor James Gandolfini, who went to visit Marty in an upstate prison. "He knew I was innocent. He believed in me. And he'll do anything he can to help me out," Marty says.

Marty's lawyers argue that even though some witnesses have criminal records, they could still be telling the truth.

"There are people you brought forward who have criminal histories. What gave them credibility as a group?" Moriarty asks Jay Salpeter.

"They didn't know each other. They came from different walks of life, different communities," he says. "How do you get 20 people to lie? To come in and just make up a story that's consistent with each one, and all name the same people?"

In December, 19 years after Seymour and Arlene were killed, and 17 years after Marty went to prison, the court rules and he gets the news he has dreamed of all those years: the court overturns Marty's conviction, unanimously.

Within days, Marty is brought to Suffolk County one more time.

"Was there any side of you, Marty, a little scared of getting out? You had spent your entire adult life in prison," Moriarty asks.

"No," Marty says. "I was ready for everything."

The following morning, his family gathers at the courthouse. Marty is still under indictment, but the court agrees to release him on a $1 million bond.

Minutes later, Marty walks free. The event is carried live on Long Island television. "I just couldn't believe it," Marty says. "I was outside. A free man. Walking with my attorneys and being bombarded by everybody."

"It was just mind boggling." As Marty prepared to address the media, he says, "I walked in there. I don't remember what I said, really. I remember just seeing all the family crying." He says, "I just remember hugging everybody. I wouldn't have wanted it any better way. Having my family all together."

He went on to tell the crowd, "It's great to see you all here today. My arrest and conviction was a nightmare. This is a dream, come true."

"Is it still a little hard to believe?" Moriarty asks Salpeter.

"Yeah. I mean, you know, it just came so suddenly."

Of Salpeter, Marty says, "This is a man who gave me back my life. And it was his dedication that saved me."

"Did you ever really think this day would come?" Moriarty asks Marty's cousin Ron Falbee.

"There's a side of me that finds it hard to believe, however, there was never a doubt in my mind that this day would come," Ron says.

"At that moment, you're still facing trial," Moriarty points out.

"At that moment, yes, but I wasn't even thinking about it, because it was the first time I was essentially a free person wearing street clothing," Marty says.

Marty is followed to his cousin's home, where there is a long-anticipated celebration. "I walked into my family's house that was filled with friends and family and it was a loving, caring, warm environment. And everybody, it felt like I hadn't left," he remembers.

But Marty's case has caught the attention of high state officials, and his fate is now in the hands of the governor.

Freedom for Marty

After 17 years of isolation, Marty was suddenly thrust into the spotlight. He moved in with his cousin Ron Falbee. "At times it gets a little hairy," Ron says. "You go to bed at night and they're still out there sitting there waiting for you. Yeah, you get a little feeling of what a rock star is.

It's not just the notoriety that's new for Marty. "The shock was the technology," he says. "You know, sending an e-mail across the world and getting a response back in three seconds. Never knew that was possible."

The world changed while Marty was locked up. Asked if anything else surprised him, Marty tells Moriarty, "How good it was to wake up in the morning, be able to make my own cup of coffee, walk out the backdoor and watch the sunrise."

"When was the lowest period in all of this?" Moriarty asks.

"Every day in prison is a low period, you know. You wake up and the smells, the sounds, the noise. And you have to force yourself to get past that period to kind of get through the day," Marty explains.

At age 36, Marty finally feels like a free man. "I was given my life back. In a 10-day period, I went from a prison cell serving 50 years to life, to being back with my family. It's kind of exciting."

His apparent seamless transition to the outside world surprises his family. "My wife and I have been watching him closely. And his manners are still there. He still helps his aunts," Ron says.

Ron's concern was that the years behind bars would harden Marty, but he says that didn't happen.

"I didn't live in the prison system," says Marty. "I resided body was physically there. My mind and soul wasn't."

Marty's legal ordeal is not over: New York's governor appoints a special prosecutor from the attorney general's office to investigate and determine once and for all whether Marty should be retried for the murder of his parents.

It's yet one more frustrating delay, but Marty wastes no time and enrolls in college. At the same time, he helps his lawyers prepare for a possible new trial.

Six months after his release, there's a decision and Marty returns to court.

"Today is a day that's not just about me," says Marty. "It's about my mother's sister, my father's family."

He is prepared for battle, but the attorney general's office asks the court to drop all charges. It is over.

"The 18 wheeler has finally driven off my chest and I can just finally get on with my life now," Marty comments.

While the decision doesn't completely exonerate him, it's the next best thing. Marty is free and clear, his record now clean.

"Do you feel that anybody still looks at you and wonders?" Moriarty asks Marty.

"I haven't sensed that at all. I think that anybody who knows the facts has no doubt, they know that I'm innocent," he says.

The special prosecutor's investigation uncovers a stunning piece of evidence that points away from Marty's guilt and was overlooked for two decades. There's a bloody imprint of a knife on Arlene Tankleff's bed sheet and it matches no knife in the Tankleff home. "It shows that someone left the house with the murder weapon and it wasn't Marty," Salpeter says.

Marty remains convinced that it was his father's former business partner and his hired thugs who killed his parents. "My family and I won't stop until they're prosecuted and they're in prison," he vows.

But the state says neither that bloody knife imprint, nor any other forensic evidence links the men Tankleff's team has accused to the murders, and it also finds many of the witnesses unreliable. So, for now, no one is charged with the crime.

"It's frustrating that the system doesn't work," Marty says.

Marty is finally free now to make something of his future and he has his sights set high. "I'm majoring in sociology, and then I go on to law school," he explains. "I've been exposed to a system that just has so many problems, and I want to change it."

A state commission is investigating the way the Tankleff case has been handled. Its report is expected in the fall.