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Second man admits role in murder of Chautauqua Institution violinist

Piece by piece, the double-barreled prosecution of Mary Whitaker’s killers is coming to an end.

Charles Sanford, one of two homeless men from Erie, Pa., charged with killing the concert violinist during a bungled robbery last year, admitted his role in the murder as part of federal plea deal Wednesday. He could face a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.

Sanford’s guilty plea to conspiracy to transport stolen vehicles came just a day after his accomplice, Jonathan Conklin, the man who fired the rifle that killed Whitaker, also admitted his guilt in federal court.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy C. Lynch said Sanford gave a full statement to police at the time of his arrest and acknowledged that he also assaulted Whitaker during the robbery at her home in Chautauqua County.

“He admitted he stabbed Ms. Whitaker in the neck at Mr. Conklin’s direction,” Lynch told U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny.

Defense attorney Mark J. Mahoney said the stab wound did not cause Whitaker’s death and insisted that Sanford has been cooperating with the FBI and others since his arrest.

“He was not dragged kicking and screaming into a plea agreement,” Mahoney told Skretny.

Earlier this year, Sanford pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the state case and is expected to get 15 years to life in prison. His state and federal sentences will run concurrently.

Conklin, who admitted killing Whitaker as part of his federal plea this week, is still facing second-degree murder charges in the state case in Chautauqua County.

U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. said, “While we unfortunately cannot bring back a woman whose life was dedicated to bringing beauty to the world through music, at the very least we can say we utilized our justice system as a form of deep respect and appreciation for Mary’s life.”