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Suspect in murder of violinist will testify in plea deal

One of the two homeless men accused of killing a visiting Manhattan violinist at her Chautauqua County summer home had bragged that he would rob enough money from her to buy drugs and “live like a rock star.”

It didn’t turn out that way.

Jonathan M. Conklin’s partner in the crime that shocked her neighbors and residents of the nearby Chautauqua Institution two summers ago is now ready to testify against him and possibly put the 43-year-old Conklin behind bars for the rest of his life.

But Charles Sanford, 31, isn’t getting much in return for his cooperation, according to Chautauqua County District Attorney David W. Foley.

Sanford, who met Conklin at a homeless shelter in Erie, Pa., pleaded guilty to second-degree murder earlier this week in the killing of Mary E. Whitaker, 61, on Aug. 20, 2014, and is expected to receive 15 years to life in prison when he is sentenced on Feb. 29 by State Supreme Court Justice Richard C. Kloch Sr.

Had Sanford gone to trial on the murder charge and several other charges, he still might have gotten the same sentence if he was convicted, Foley said, though it could have resulted in an even longer sentence of 25 years to life.

“I’ve had extensive conversations with the victim’s family, and their opinion was given weight,” Foley said, explaining that they did not object to the plea deal. “Obviously when you have a case with codefendants, sometimes you make decisions on what you may need. You make decisions on what you have in front of you.”

Conklin, who allegedly hatched the plan to rob Whitaker, is scheduled to return to court in Mayville Oct. 23. A trial date has not yet been set. He faces two counts of second-degree murder and additional counts of robbery, burglary, criminal use of a weapon and grand larceny, in addition to a federal indictment that includes carjacking and firearms charges.

Authorities say Conklin had been arrested in Chautauqua County six times since 2001 and once lived in the Town of Sherman, adjacent to Westfield, where Whitaker resided.

The killing of the violinist who performed summers with the Chautauqua Institution Symphony Orchestra and the rest of the year with the Westchester Philharmonic was the result of a bungled robbery, authorities said.

Conklin and Sanford arrived at Whitaker’s Titus Road home in the Town of Westfield at about 6:45 a.m., after allegedly stealing a loaded rifle and other guns hours earlier. When she answered a knock on the door, Sanford explained that his vehicle had run out of gasoline and he needed to make a phone call.

After she provided him with a phone, according to court documents, Conklin appeared with the rifle and when she screamed, he allegedly shot her in the chest.

In a struggle, another shot went off, striking Whitaker in the right leg, causing her to fall and hit her head against the door to the attached garage of the ranch-style house.

Conklin told Sanford to drag her into the garage as he searched the house for valuables, the court documents stated. Conklin then asked Sanford if she was still alive, and when told that she was, he told Sanford to kill her with the knife. Sanford told detectives that he tried to plunge the knife into her neck, but could only penetrate as far as a “nick.”

But that has been disputed. A federal prosecutor, in previously providing a graphic account, described the musician as “gurgling in her own blood” when Sanford stabbed her in the neck.

Following the killing, the men fled with Whitaker’s cellphone, her credit cards and her gray Chevy HHR station wagon, heading for Erie, Pa. On the way, authorities said, they left a digital trail of phone calls and credit card charges for merchandise, some of which was swapped for drugs. Two days later, they were arrested in Erie, Pa.

Under Sanford’s plea deal, he is expected to admit his guilt to the federal charges. His federal and state prison sentences, Foley said, will run concurrently.