The nightmarish tragedy that unfolded last week when a Manhattan violinist was slain during a brutal robbery in her Chautauqua County summer home began several miles away in a clearing near an old railroad trestle.
It was there, federal investigators said, that two blundering men who had met in a homeless shelter in Erie, Pa., caught a few hours of sleep early Wednesday morning, before one of them cooked up a plot to get money so he could buy drugs and “live like a rock star.”
By morning’s end, Mary E. Whitaker was shot, dragged into her garage and then stabbed in a bungled robbery, investigators say. The two men then ransacked her home, fled in her gray Chevy wagon and made their way to Erie, where they enlisted the help of a crack addict to buy a flat-screen TV and some clothes at Walmart, investigators said.
It is a tragic story rife with brutality, senselessness and half-baked decisions.
Here is how the slaying unfolded, according to new details revealed in a federal affidavit filed Friday in U.S. District Court:
Charles Sanford, 30, had run out of time.
The registered sex offender – convicted in July 2012 of statutory sexual assault – at one point worked for a bakery company. Lately he had been staying in an Erie homeless shelter but was kicked out when he exceeded the time allotted for stays. On Tuesday morning, Sanford ran into Jonathan M. Conklin, 43, on the streets in Erie. They had met a few months earlier in the shelter.
Conklin, who was wanted for grand larceny, was also unemployed, and he told Sanford that he might have a place for him to stay.
Late that night, the two caught a ride to Sherman, not far from Westfield, with a woman named “Michelle,” and they slept for a few hours in the clearing near the railroad trestle. Conklin had been staying in Sherman in recent months, through the kindness of various town residents. Conklin also was known to authorities in Chautauqua County. He had been in jail there six times since 2001 on charges including parole violation, larceny and passing a bad check. But there were no violent crimes in his background there.
Before dawn Wednesday, Sanford and Conklin walked into the town of Sherman, where Conklin told him to wait by a gazebo while Conklin broke into an apartment near a bar and stole several shotguns and a .22-caliber rifle. Conklin claimed the bar owner owed him money, Sanford told detectives.
The two checked the rifle and found it was loaded with nine rounds of ammunition. Conklin then told Sanford to follow him as they walked and that he would explain his plan when they arrived at their destination.
The destination was Whitaker’s ranch-style home on Titus Road.
Whitaker, 61, a slender woman with a wide network of friends in the classical music community, lived a life that could hardly be further from the two homeless men. A concert violinist who performed with the Westchester Philharmonic, had played in Broadway pit orchestras and had toured with Barbra Streisand and the New York City opera, she spent her summers with the Chautauqua Institution’s Symphony Orchestra.
Chautauqua County District Attorney David Foley said he had no reason to believe she was “singled out for any reason” by the two men. But a neighbor told The News on Thursday that a “strange guy” passed through the area in June and had walked up Whitaker’s driveway. Law enforcement officials said this weekend they are not certain that man was one of the two accused killers.
Still, her modest house on the rural road was central to the robbery plan, according to court documents.
At about 5 a.m., the two men stopped on Titus Road not far from Whitaker’s home. There, Sanford said, Conklin filled him in on the details of the plan.
Conklin described the house and told Sanford he planned to rob its owners to get money for drugs and to “live like a rock star.” Conklin told Sanford to ring the doorbell and claim he had run out of gas. Once the owner came to the door, Conklin planned to force his way into the house, Sanford told detectives.
If the owner resisted, Conklin had a backup plan. They would use the .22-caliber rifle. And if Conklin shot the homeowner but wasn’t able to kill the person, he wanted Sanford to use a knife to stab the victim in the throat, Sanford told investigators.
At about 6:45 a.m., Sanford rang Whitaker’s doorbell while Conklin hid from view of the door. When no one responded, Sanford pounded on the door until Whitaker finally answered. He asked to use her phone, and she went to get it.
As Sanford dialed numbers, including his own disconnected cellphone, Conklin emerged with the rifle and confronted Whitaker.
“This is a robbery. Don’t make this any worse than it is,” he said to her, according to Sanford.
Whitaker screamed, and Conklin fired the rifle, striking Whitaker in the chest, the court document said. She then grabbed for the rifle.
As Whitaker and Conklin struggled outside for control of the rifle, another round went off, hitting her in the right leg. She fell backward and hit her head against the garage door. Conklin ordered Sanford to drag her inside the garage as he searched the house for valuables, according to the court documents.
Conklin then asked Sanford if she was still alive, and when told that she was, he ordered Sanford to kill her with the knife, Sanford said. Sanford told detectives that he tried to plunge the knife into her neck, but could only penetrate as far as a “nick.”
The men took off with Whitaker’s cellphone, her credit cards and her gray Chevy HHR station wagon.
They left a digital trail of phone calls and credit card charges as they made their way back to Pennsylvania.
Once there, the two men called a crack cocaine addict they knew and convinced her to use Whitaker’s credit cards to buy a flat-screen television and some clothes at Walmart in exchange for drugs. That woman, who was not identified in court documents, told investigators that Sanford was unusually quiet during the shopping trip. When the woman asked how they had gotten the stolen cards and car, Conklin told her he had killed their owner, she told investigators Thursday.
Sanford on Friday told investigators the details of the killing, according to court documents.
The men were still shopping with Whitaker’s credit cards, including a stop at an Erie Rite Aid, as two of Whitaker’s friends found her body in her Titus Road garage. After going to the Harborcreek Walmart, Sanford said, he drove to a house on West 10th Street in Erie where the stolen firearms were hidden.
Whitaker’s car was found at 11:27 p.m. Wednesday in the 1000 block of West Seventh Street in Erie, Pa.
Sanford and Conklin were arrested separately Friday on charges of murder, carjacking, stealing property and taking it across state lines, law enforcement said. They were arraigned in federal court late Friday.
News reporter Lou Michel contributed to this story email: firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com