By Robert K. Tanenbaum, Kensington Books, New York, 243 pages, $25
Almost forgotten today, one of New York City’s most sensational homicide cases of the 1960s played a key role in the recognition of Miranda rights, the prohibition of coerced confessions, and the reformation of the death penalty. In “Echoes of MY Soul,” Robert Tanenbaum tells the story of the “Career Girl Murders,” in which the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office originally indicted the wrong man, discovered its mistake, dismissed the charges, re-investigated the crime, and later convicted the real murderer. It is a gripping story of historical significance that is written in the crime drama style the author has perfected in his many fiction books.
In the late morning of Wednesday, Aug. 28, 1963, a 19-year-old burglar, Richard Robles, entered a Manhattan apartment through an open window at 57 East 88th St. He was intent on stealing money to fuel his heroin addiction. Because it was a weekday, Robles expected the apartment to be empty. Instead, Robles encountered one of the tenants, Janice Wylie, emerging from the shower, and proceeded to rape the 21-year-old magazine researcher.
While the rape was in progress, Wylie’s roommate, Emily Hoffert, a 23-year-old teacher, entered the apartment. As described by the author, Robles attacked Hoffert, who defiantly replied that she would remember his face. With that, Robles savagely murdered both women with a Coke bottle and kitchen knife. In the bloody melee, Robles virtually disemboweled Wylie. Robles then showered, cleaned his clothes, and fled undetected. Later that day, Wylie’s horrified father discovered the macabre scene.
The murders electrified the city and caused a great sensation in the press, which soon dubbed the double-homicide as the “Career Girl Murders.” The crime went unsolved, however, despite the tireless investigation by a huge task force of NYPD detectives, some of whom were pulled into Manhattan from the outer boroughs.
Nearly eight months after the murders, the NYPD caught a seeming break. In the early morning of April 24, 1964, detectives picked up a 19-year-old black man, George Whitmore, Jr., near the place in Brownsville where the murder of one woman (Minnie Edmonds) and the assault of another (Elba Borrero) had recently taken place.
As expertly recounted by the author, Whitmore, a grade school dropout with no criminal record, was taken to the 73rd Precinct, where he underwent a grueling 22-hour interrogation by several detectives, all of whom were white. During the entire inquisition, Whitmore was unrepresented by counsel. What happened there would change the criminal justice system forever.
Edward Bulger was a first-grade detective assigned to the 73rd Precinct. For the last three months of 1963, he had been posted to the Wylie-Hoffert murder investigation in Manhattan. As described by the author, Bulger worked hard on the case and was upset when, in early 1964, he was sent back to Brooklyn, the crime unsolved.
As his fellow Brooklyn detectives questioned Whitmore about the Edmonds and Borrero crimes, Bulger examined a photograph taken from Whitmore’s billfold. It depicted two young women sitting on the back of a convertible near a lake surrounded by pine trees. One of the women in the photo was a blonde. Upon close inspection of the photo, Bulger became convinced that the blonde depicted in the photo was Wylie.
Based on this “physical evidence,” Bulger suspected that Whitmore had perpetrated the “Career Girl Murders” and taken the photo from the East 88th Street crime scene. A short while later, Bulger entered the interrogation room, introduced himself to Whitmore, and began a new line of questioning.
As recounted by the author, Bulger proceeded to interrogate the fatigued Whitmore over the next several hours about the Wylie-Hoffert murders. Employing various deceptions and subterfuges, Bulger coerced the exhausted suspect to admit to a series of facts about the East 88th Street crime scene, all of which were suggested to him by the detective. By 4:30 a.m. on April 25, Bulger had extracted a lengthy confession. As would later be revealed, every single inculpatory fact contained in the confession had been suggested by Bulger.
Based on this tainted confession, Whitmore was indicted by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. In the rush to judgment created by the sensational nature of the crime, however, the D.A.’s office overlooked the fact that the only piece of physical evidence which linked Whitmore to the crime was the photo of the blonde sitting on the back of the convertible.
At this point of the story, the author introduces Mel Glass, a young assistant in the D.A.’s office. In a compelling narrative, the author describes how Glass investigated the case, proved that Whitmore had obtained the photo in New Jersey, demonstrated that Wylie was not the blonde depicted in the photo, and became convinced that Whitmore had never been anywhere near East 88th Street. Armed with this evidence, Glass presented it to D.A. Frank Hogan who, to his credit, dismissed the indictment against Whitmore and righted an injustice.
Whitmore’s plight fueled civil rights activists who were complaining about NYPD abuses that targeted minority communities. When the U.S. Supreme Court decided Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), Whitmore’s travails were cited by the Court as an example which justified the robust protection of a suspect’s right to counsel in custodial interrogations. Outrage over Whitmore’s wrongful indictment also helped to convince the New York Legislature to reform and eventually eliminate the death penalty in New York.
However, the story did not end there. Aided by Manhattan detectives, Glass undertook an assiduous investigation to identify and prosecute the true killer. Glass caught his big break in October 1964 when Nathan Delaney, a Manhattan drug dealer, was arrested for murdering a rival drug dealer, Roberto Cruz del Valle. During his interrogation, Delaney told detectives that Robles had admitted to him on the afternoon of the Wylie-Hoffert murders that he had killed the two women.
The best part of the book is the investigation, wire-tapping, and prosecution of Robles by the D.A.’s office. The author, who himself served under Hogan and was mentored by Glass, meticulously describes the difficult obstacles faced by the lead prosecutor, John Keenan, and his second seat, Glass. At trial, defense counsel ironically relied on the testimony of Bulger and the other Brooklyn detectives who had implicated Whitmore in an attempt to create reasonable doubt as to the guilt of Robles. In countering this strategy, Keenan was forced to cross-examine the detectives about their overreaching and mistakes, an unenviable task that he carried off masterfully. At the end of the trial, Robles was convicted of the Wylie-Hoffert murders. To this day, he is serving his sentence at Attica.
Jeffrey Winn is a partner at Sedgwick.