Suspect who killed musician wanted to live like a “rock star”

WESTFIELD, N.Y. (WIVB) – New details have been released in the murder of a musician in Chautauqua County now that federal charges have been filed against two men.

Mary Whitaker, a New York City resident, was shot and killed inside her Titus Road home in Westfield last Wednesday. Jonathan Conklin, 43, and Charles Sanford, 30, are being federally charged in connection to her murder.

According to the criminal complaint, Conklin and Sanford met in Erie, Pennsylvania, where Sanford told Conklin he had been ejected onto the streets after staying the full length of time possible as a homeless shelter. Together, they hitched a ride to Sherman, where Sanford told investigators in the early morning hours they went to an apartment building and Conklin stole guns, including the .22 caliber he would allegedly later use to fatally shoot Whitaker.

Conklin and Sanford then allegedly went to Titus Road, where Sanford told investigators he rang the bell while Conklin hid with the rifle at the ready. In the complaint, Sanford says Whitaker, a 61-year-old violinist, came to the door of her garage and he asked to use her phone after claiming he had run out of gas.

Sanford told investigators that after making a few phony calls, Conklin jumped out and told Whitaker she was being robbed and “don’t make this any worse than it is.” Whitaker screamed and that’s when Sanford says Conklin shot her once in the torso.

Whitaker put up a fight, attempting to grab the gun from Conklin, who then fired again, hitting her in the leg, according to Sanford. Sanford told investigators that after dragging Whitaker inside the garage, Conklin insisted he cut her throat as she lay bleeding on the floor. Sanford says he tried to, but only made superficial wounds on her neck.

As Whitaker lay dying, the pair allegedly swept through her home in search of valuables, stealing credit cards, money, Whitaker’s cell phone, checkbooks and keys to her Chevy HHR. Sanford says Conklin told him he wanted to commit the robbery so he could “live like a rock star.”

The pair then allegedly drove to Erie, Pennsylvania in Whitaker’s vehicle, where the FBI worked with credit card and mobile phone companies to track them down. Agents say Conklin used Whitaker’s credit card at Rite Aid in Erie, and was caught on video surveillance, and placed several calls to a woman using Whitaker’s cell phone.

That woman, who the criminal complaint refers to only as “HC,” says Conklin and Sanford drove her to Wal-Mart in Harborcreek, Pennsylvania using the victim’s vehicle, and that during the ride, Conklin admitted killing Whitaker and stealing her credit cards. In turn for using the victim’s credit cards at Wal-Mart to buy a flat screen TV and clothing, HC says she was promised crack cocaine.

Deputies were able to identify Conklin based on surveillance images. Authorities say he was known to them due to outstanding grand larceny warrants and was known to be in the Sherman area. City of Erie Police found Whitaker’s vehicle on West 7th Street.

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.

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.

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