Share this article

print logo

Two arrested in death of Chautauqua violinist

MAYVILLE – After the final performance of the Chautauqua Institution Symphony Orchestra’s 2014 season Tuesday night, Mary E. Whitaker went out for a celebratory drink with fellow musicians, then headed to her summer home overlooking the Town of Sherman before she would prepare to return to the bustle and grit of New York City.

It was hours later in her rural summer home, police said, that she encountered two robbers.

Late Wednesday afternoon, another orchestra member found Whitaker dead in the garage of her Titus Road house after she missed an appointment.

And Friday, Jonathan Conklin, 43, no known address, and Charles Sanford, 30, of Erie, Pa., were arrested separately in Erie, law enforcement officials announced at a news conference in Mayville. Whitaker’s gray hatchback was found in Erie and her credit cards had been used in the area.

Conklin and Sanford will be charged with stealing property and taking it across state lines, carjacking and murdering its owner, and using a firearm during a crime of violence, U.S. Attorney William Hochul Jr. said at the news conference. They face up to life in prison if convicted.

They were arraigned Friday evening in Buffalo before Federal Magistrate Judge H. Kenneth Schroeder Jr., who entered not guilty pleas for them and ordered them held without bail pending a hearing set for Thursday.

Authorities believe the two attempted to rob Whitaker early Wednesday in her home.

Whitaker, 61, died of a gunshot wound to her chest and was also shot in her leg, said Chautauqua County Sheriff Joseph A. Gerace.

Gerace said Whitaker was likely forced to give information at the time of her murder. 

“I believe they were probably looking for her to tell them that she had something of value,” he said, noting that it is believed Whitaker was home when the accused approached her house.

Officials said they believe Whitaker was not targeted – as it initially had been suggested – and that her murder was random.

“We have no information at this point that she was singled out for any reason,” said Chautauqua County District Attorney David Foley.

Conklin, who was wanted on warrants for grand larceny and was known by authorities to be in the Sherman area, was identified early on as a suspect by investigators, Gerace said.

“With the help of the FBI, we were able to see that (Whitaker’s) credit card was compromised” in Erie, Gerace said.

“With the Erie PD’s assistance, my investigators went to one of the establishments where her credit card had been attempted. At that point in time, we identified (Conklin) in the videotape of the store and began really concentrating on him as the lead person responsible.”

Whitaker’s 2007 Chevrolet HHR, which had been missing, was recovered by Erie police early Thursday, Gerace said.

During a 14-minute court session Friday evening, the pair – wearing white jumpsuits and tightly guarded by U.S. marshals – submitted signed affidavits and under oath told the judge they are homeless and have been receiving food stamps

Conklin and Sanford said they have two children each for whom they are periodically paying child support.

Conklin said he last worked for a Southern Tier temporary work agency in March. Sanford said he used to work for an unnamed bakery company but did not reveal when he last worked.

Schroeder assigned the Federal Public Defender’s Office to represent Conklin.

Buffalo criminal defense attorney James P. Harrington will represent Sanford at taxpayer expense.

After the court session, Harrington and Federal Public Defender Marianne Marino both declined to comment.

Lynch said the allegations in the case, which will be the subject of federal and state grand juries, appear to confirm the murder was a “targeted crime of opportunity.”

Whitaker’s death stunned the normally idyllic community surrounding the world-renowned Chautauqua Institution, founded in 1874 on the shores of Chautauqua Lake as an arts and education retreat.

“It’s like paradise here,” Gerace said earlier Friday, noting he couldn’t recall another killing associated with the Chautauqua Institution, save for an urban legend about two kitchen workers involved in stabbings in the 1930s or ’40s. “It’s nine weeks of heaven by a lake with restaurants and lakes and the theater.”

The death left the community stunned, said Dr. Peter Bloom, a gastroenterologist from Amherst who was at the institution on Friday with his wife, Erie County Health Commissioner Gale Burstein, for a health conference.

“This is a place where people come for the arts and beauty, and what’s happened is the antithesis,” he said.

Whitaker lived in upper Manhattan, performed with the Westchester Philharmonic and worked as a freelance violinist in Broadway pit orchestras and other musical groups.

The Greencastle, Ind., native earned a performance degree in violin from Indiana University and moved to New York, where she continued to grow as a better violinist and an even better person.

In Manhattan, she lived with her life partner, Suzanne Gillman, also a violinist, according to Marty W. Merkley, vice president and director of programing at Chautauqua Institution. Whitaker also loved her cat, which she brought with her to Chautauqua County each summer when she joined the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra’s 74 musicians for nine weeks.

Whitaker was an avid golfer and very active. While staying in Westfield, she never sat still.

She was always gardening, mowing the lawn and cooking, said Margaret Cooper, a fellow violinist.

Whitaker’s friends and colleagues remembered her as strong willed and never afraid to stand up for what was right.

It takes a certain strength, will and confidence to be an accomplished New York musician, they said. Whitaker brought that New York sensibility wherever she went, Merkley said.

“She could be tough when she needed to be tough. She could be a hard negotiator,” Merkley said. “And the other side was a private person. She was very loving and kind and very sweet with her colleagues and friends.”

Cooper said Whitaker was a leading advocate for New York City musicians who played in Broadway’s musical pits when they were threatened with replacement by synthesizers.

“Mary was bright and thoughtful but also, boy, she would stand up for what she believed in, even if it wasn’t popular,” said Cooper, who has known Whitaker since 1973. “Sometimes, that meant fighting for whatever issue was on the table. Even if it was unpopular, she was willing to stand up for what she believed was right.”

And as easily as she could be serious, Whitaker was just as fun-loving, generous and kindhearted.

Cooper described Whitaker as 5-foot-7, with a slender and fit build. Cooper said Whitaker moved as swiftly as a youngster, and she didn’t even look 50.

Her friends say she established relationships everywhere she went.

As news spread Wednesday night about Whitaker’s death, musicians gathered for an impromptu candlelight vigil in Bestor Plaza.

“They gathered there and embraced each other,” said Jordan Steves, editor of the six-day a week Chautauquan Daily.

Her friend Joshua Worby, who worked with Whitaker at the Westchester Philharmonic, struggled to talk about Whitaker in the past tense.

“It almost all sounds corny or hard to believe that this is a real human being, because it just sounds like nice things that people are trying to say, but it’s all absolutely Mary,” said Worby, the executive and artistic director of the Westchester Philharmonic. “She commanded respect and admiration from everybody she touched.”

Whitaker’s friends and colleagues say she was strong-willed and never afraid to stand up for what was right.

“Mary was not quiet and unassuming, but neither was she boisterous and presumptuous,” Worby said. “She walked straight down the middle of the road. She was just so clear-headed about everything. … This was a very simultaneously gentle and strong human being.”

Whitaker was involved in the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra and the Westchester Philharmonic orchestra unions. And in both, she advocated for musicians’ contracts and rights.

For years, Whitaker served on the Broadway Theater committee, and at the time of her death she was serving on the Associated Musicians of Greater New York Local 802 trial board, where she advocated for musicians so they wouldn’t be exploited or taken advantage of and defended musicians against unscrupulous employers.

Tino Gagliardi is the president and executive director of the association and one of Whitaker’s close friends.

“She was tireless,” he said. “She was dedicated, very dedicated to the musicians.”

Worby said Whitaker could be serious and upright, but he also had some of his most enjoyable moments with her.

“A good cold glass of beer after a concert and just some laughs was very much a part of how we would interact,” he said.

Whitaker’s death was reported on international classical music news sources like Slipped Disc, a blog run by the British music critic Norman Lebrecht. On Twitter, musicians expressed their condolences. Marin Alsop, the internationally renowned music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, tweeted: “Today is filled with unbearable sadness at the news of the tragic loss of our dear, kind, gentle, funny, loyal friend, Mary Whitaker.”

And: “Simply do not understand this world; nothing will ever be the same. Generous and loving always.”

News Staff Reporter Matt Gryta contributed to this report. email:, and