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Westfield shocked after Chautauqua violinist is fatally shot

CHAUTAUQUA – For more than three decades, Mary E. Whitaker would make her annual summer trek from her Manhattan home to Chautauqua County, her violin in tow.

Tuesday, Whitaker completed her 36th year with Chautauqua Institution’s Symphony Orchestra, performing as the second violinist in a season-ending concert.

The following afternoon, the 61-year-old woman was found dead in her rural Westfield residence by a fellow orchestra member and her husband who had gone to check on her well-being.

Whitaker, also a member of the downstate Westchester Philharmonic, was shot to death, Chautauqua County Sheriff Joseph A. Gerace said Thursday.

Marty W. Merkley, vice president and director of programming at Chautauqua Institution, called Whitaker’s death a “tragic situation,” one especially difficult for the musicians who he said care deeply for each other.

“The Chautauqua Institution community as well as the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra community are just devastated by this,” Merkley said. “They’re absolutely shocked that this has happened.

“Members of the orchestra come from all around the country and several foreign countries. … They come back year after year for eight weeks to make music at Chautauqua. They come home to Chautauqua in the summertime. This is a shock, and there is an immense grief and a feeling of helplessness about what to do about this.”

Merkley said that another orchestra member grew concerned Wednesday when Whitaker didn’t answer her phone.

“She had an appointment with one of the members of the orchestra, so they were trying to find out what happened,” Merkley said. “It was unusual they hadn’t heard from her, so they went to check on her.”

A motive for the homicide remains under investigation, though authorities say they believe that Whitaker was targeted and that there is not a threat to others in the area.

“She died as the result of a gunshot wound, and we are aggressively investigating the incident,” Gerace said. “My investigators have been on the scene since yesterday afternoon. We got there about 4:20 p.m., and they have worked through the night. We’re being assisted by the Jamestown office of the FBI and the New York State Police.”

An autopsy was conducted Thursday in Erie County Medical Center.

Whitaker made her summer home at a small residence atop one of the many rolling hills on Titus Road in the Town of Westfield, not far from the Sherman town line and surrounded by acres of farmland. 

She lived alone there from the end of June to the beginning of September, neighbors said.

“We actually mow her lawn for her in the spring and fall. A very nice lady,” said Terri Warner, 47. She and her husband, Grant, live about half a mile away from Whitaker’s home.

“She probably would have been leaving here in another week or so,” she added.

Warner said she was shocked to hear of Whitaker’s death. “You come from New York City to the little Town of Sherman and that’s where you end up being killed?” she said.

Whitaker’s closest neighbors live about a quarter of a mile away on each side – both Amish families.

Equally shocked, they said Whitaker kept to herself for the most part but was a pleasant neighbor – and a most unlikely murder victim.

“I wouldn’t think anyone would have a reason to do that to her,” Katie Byler said. “When she was here, she just minded her own business and didn’t give us any problems.”

Said Linda Burkholder, “She really minded her own business. A year before she left, she cleaned out her whole refrigerator and brought everything to us. She was a good neighbor. … This summer, all we did was wave when she passed. In earlier years, we always used her phone.”

Burkholder said residents were alarmed when a suspicious man passed through the usually quiet Titus Road early this summer.

“We had a strange guy walk through here at the beginning of June,” she said. “He was walking all around our road. He walked up into (Whitaker’s) driveway.”

Whitaker moved to New York City after graduating from Indiana University with a performance degree in violin, according to biographical information on the Web page of the Westchester Philharmonic, where she has been a member for 25 years.

Over the last three decades, she had performed with numerous major freelance orchestras in New York, toured regularly with the New York City Opera touring company, and also toured with Barbra Striesand during her 2006-07 North American and international tour, the Web biography stated.

She also played for pit orchestras performing in Broadway productions and had played with such chamber music groups as STX Ensemble, which records and performs the works of Iannis Xenakis; String Fever, a swing/jazz ensemble; and a string quartet that focuses on contemporary and improvisational compositions, the biography stated.

News Staff Reporter Lou Michel contributed to this report. email: