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As killer gets 50-year prison term in violinist’s murder, emotional letter is read in court

Martha Whitaker wrote a letter to her dead sister this month.

In it, she talked graphically about the brutal nature of Mary Whitaker’s murder and how her two killers dragged the concert violinist’s body into a garage and left her to die alone.

She spoke about the crime scene photos from her sister’s summer home in Chautauqua County and lamented the bruises and blood stains that appeared around Mary’s eyes, lips and fingers.

“I have looked at those perfect fingers and fingernails for over 50 years,” she wrote. “Those are the fingers that played violin all over the world.”

On Thursday, Martha Whitaker read her letter in court for the first time and forced her sister’s killer, Jonathan Conklin, to listen to every word of it.

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Her voice quavering at times, she told her sister that she was proud of her for fighting back when Conklin and Charles Sanford confronted her with a rifle on that August day in 2014.

“I knew you fought back. I knew it before anyone else told me,” she said. “You’re a fighter when it comes to injustice. Always have been. Always there to fight the good fight.”

On a day when Conklin would learn his fate – at least 50 years in prison – Whitaker wanted the world to remember her sister and the beauty she produced through her music.

Well-known in the classical music community, Mary Whitaker performed with the Westchester Philharmonic Orchestra and played in Broadway theater orchestras. She also toured with Barbra Streisand and the New York City Opera, and spent her summers playing with the Chautauqua Symphony.

Surrounded by her sister’s friends and family, Martha Whitaker never spoke directly to Conklin, but she referred several times to the “dudes” who killed Mary as part of a robbery that netted them an old used car and some credit cards.

She ended her letter by talking about justice and how “real justice” is impossible because Conklin and Sanford can’t bring back the beauty and love that are Whitaker’s legacy. “Thank you for your life, Mary,” she said before sitting down.

Conklin, who admitted killing Whitaker as part of a failed robbery, was sentenced Wednesday in Chautauqua County on his second-degree murder conviction and again Thursday in Buffalo on a separate but related carjacking offense.

“You silenced a virtuoso voice,” said U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny. “Your conduct was debased, depraved and despicable, and all for nothing.”

Skretny sentenced Conklin to 25 years in federal prison and ordered him to serve it after he finishes his 25-year-to-life term in state prison.

Conklin, who is 44, agreed to the consecutive sentences in an effort to stay in New York, near his ailing mother.

Sanford, who was sentenced to two 15-year prison terms, will serve his sentences concurrently.

“The victim in this case, Mary Whitaker, represented the best of our community,” said U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. “While the defendants’ cowardly actions may have taken her life, they will never extinguish her generous and caring spirit, which continues to live on in all who knew her.”

From the day Conklin and Sanford were arrested, prosecutors have drawn contrasts between the music that Whitaker brought to the world and the violent nature of her murder at her Town of Sherman home.

“The world would be a better place if there were more Mary Whitakers in it,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy C. Lynch said Thursday.

Conklin and Sanford, both homeless men from Erie, Pa., admitted their involvement in the Whitaker murder as part of two separate federal plea deals. Conklin pleaded guilty to carjacking, not murder, but admitted killing Whitaker when she fought back that day two years ago.

Conklin’s admissions also include acknowledgment that he shot Whitaker with a .22-caliber rifle after he told her it was a robbery and she screamed. He and Sanford then burglarized the house and fled to Erie with her car.

“I think it’s fair to say that law enforcement was particularly motivated to solve this case because of the heinous nature of the crime,” said Adam S. Cohen, special agent in charge of the FBI office in Buffalo. “We also knew immediately that Mary Whitaker was a treasure to the community, and everyone worked very hard to bring her killers to justice.”

Conklin’s and Sanford’s convictions are the result of an investigation by the FBI, the Chautauqua County Sheriff’s Office, the Chautauqua County District Attorney’s Office and Erie police.