WESTFIELD, N.Y. (WIVB) – Two men have been arrested in connection with the murder of a musician in Chautauqua County that has left the community in shock.
Mary Whitaker, a New York City resident, was shot and killed inside her Titus Road home in Westfield on Wednesday. Jonathan Conklin, 43, and Charles Sanford, 30, are being federally charged in connection to her murder.
Deputies say the 61-year-old violinist was found dead in her garage on Wednesday and investigators immediately got to work. Whitaker’s Chevy HHR was found in Erie, Pennsylvania “shortly after the commission of the crime,” according to Sheriff Joe Gerace.
The FBI was instrumental in tracking the suspects, according to the sheriff, who says the FBI used credit card information to find Jonathan Conklin, a man who was known to be in the Sherman area and wanted on existing warrants for grand larceny.
Detectives caught up to him and Charles Sanford on Friday in Erie, Pennsylvania, and after questioning the two, placed them both under arrest. Authorities believe the pair knew each other “from the streets.”
Deputies believe the pair attempted to get information from Whitaker before fatally shooting her in the chest. She was also shot once in the leg.
“During the course of that robbery Mrs. Whitaker was murdered. She died of a gunshot wound to the chest, and she also had another gunshot wound to her leg. We have reason to believe that she was being forced to give them information, and we don’t know if she ever did. But they subsequently stole her vehicle,” Sheriff Gerace said.
Authorities say the pair then stole Whitaker’s vehicle and drove it to Erie, Pennsylvania. The vehicle was found after the sheriff’s office released a “be on the lookout” order to other police agencies when they discovered it was not at the scene.
Conklin and Sanford are being charged federally with stealing property and crossing state lines, which carries a sentence of up to 10 years in jail, a $250,000 fine or both. They are also being charged with carjacking. Under federal law, someone who steals a car, crosses state lines and murders the victim can face a sentence of up to life in prison.
Lastly, the pair will be charged federally with use of a firearm during a crime of violence. Any crime of violence where a weapon is discharged carries a mandatory minimum of 10 years and up to life in prison, which must be served consecutively to any other sentence, according to U.S. Attorney William Hochul.
Hochul says his office “will do everything in our power to make sure neither of these two men ever again walk free.”
The pair will also face state charges, which will be determined by a grand jury. Chautauqua County DA David Foley says charges could be first- or second-degree murder.
At Whitaker’s rural home on Friday, crews searched a pond and property for evidence. The sheriff said they were looking for anything deposited into the pond, such as a gun.
Whitaker spent summers in Western New York, performing with the Chautauqua Symphony as part of “Core 74” for the past 36 seasons. Core 74 is made of up renowned musicians and just wrapped up their season last Tuesday.
One violinist said, “She was beloved amongst her colleagues and friends, as a lovely person and a delightful members of this musical family, and I keep using that word ‘family’ because that’s what it is. It is a family.”
Richard Sherman is the primary flutist for the eight-week program at the Chautauqua Institution program. He is from Lansing, Michigan and worked with Whitaker for more than 25 years.
“Playing in an orchestra is tough and challenging. You’d look over at Mary and Mary would be doing this: ‘You sound great!'” he recalled.
Whitaker spent the rest of her time performing in New York City and playing with the Westchester Philharmonic. She toured with Barbra Streisand and is remembered as a woman who was serious about her work but never took herself too seriously.
“If something would go wrong one of the first people I’d look at is Mary, who’d already be looking at me. It was like this knowing kind of glance that she had. There were no flies on Mary about anything. She was one of the smartest people I knew. She inspired me to believe in something passionately,” Sherman said.