MAYVILLE - Two suspects allegedly behind the killing of accomplished violinist and Westfield resident Mary E. Whitaker were taken into custody Friday and now face a potential life sentence in prison.
Joseph Gerace, Chautauqua County sheriff, revealed at a late afternoon press conference in Mayville that 43-year-old Jonathan M. Conklin and 30-year-old Charles Sanford were apprehended earlier that day in Erie, Pa., as soon as investigators traced them to the attempted robbery and subsequent homicide of the 61-year-old Whitaker at her 8448 Titus Road home.
"During the course of this robbery, Miss Whitaker ... died of a gunshot wound to the chest," Gerace said. "She also had another gunshot wound in her leg. We have reason to believe that she was being forced to give them information ... we don't know if she ever did."
Contrary to what some media outlets falsely reported, Whitaker was not "targeted" or "surprised" to come home and find her home invaded. Rather, according to Gerace and District Attorney David Foley, Whitaker was home during the incident and not purposefully staked out.
"We have no information at this point that would suggest that she was singled out for any reason," Foley said.
The two suspects, who reportedly stole Whitaker's 2007 Chevy HHR and used her credit cards at various businesses in Erie, were eventually arrested separately Friday after the Sheriff's Office - with the assistance of the FBI and Erie Police Department - tracked their credit card activity and identified Conklin on a store security camera.
Conklin, according to Gerace, was a familiar face, who already had existing arrest warrants for grand larceny.
The stolen vehicle was recovered separately early Thursday morning by Erie Police. It is currently being processed for evidence at the FBI office in Buffalo, according to Holly Huber, acting special agent-in-charge of the FBI Buffalo office.
William J. Hochul Jr., U.S. attorney for the western district of New York, discussed punitive measures and how he will pursue three federal charges against Conklin and Sanford.
"These defendants stole property and took it across state lines ... that crime by itself carries up to 10 years in jail and a $250,000 fine or both," Hochul said. "The next thing we're going to do is charge them with carjacking. Under federal law, if you steal a car, cross state lines and you murder the victim, that crime is punishable by up-to-life imprisonment. (Finally) the use of a firearm during a crime of violence. Under federal law, if you use a firearm in any crime of violence, and you discharge the firearm ... the judge will have no choice but to impose a mandatory minimum of 10 years in jail up to life imprisonment ... those punishments have to be consecutive to any other punishment."
Hochul further indicated that he will request the defendants be held without bail.
"I can assure the Whitaker family and friends, that we will do everything in our power to make sure neither of these two men ever get freed from any sort of confinement," he said.
Foley, in similar fashion, said he will go forward with state charges.
"It was helpful of the U.S. Attorney's Office to come in and lay charges," he said. "It gives us time to put our case together and ultimately present it to a Chautauqua County grand jury."
Conklin, whose address was not known, and Sanford, an Erie resident, were arraigned Friday at the U.S. District Court in Buffalo.
Whitaker, a violinist for the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra and also a resident of New York City, was found dead inside her garage Wednesday afternoon by friends concerned about her sudden silence.
By Wednesday night, after blocking off both ends of Titus Road, police notified neighbors that they were not in danger.
"We all in the law enforcement community take a solemn oath that we are going to do our best to protect people," Hochul said. "We want them to be safe ... and certainly the sanctity of one's home is what this country stands for."