Career Girls Murders
The "Career Girls Murders" was the name given by the media to the killings of Emily Hoffert and Janice Wylie in their apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, New York City, United States on August 28, 1963. George Whitmore, Jr., was accused of this and other crimes but later cleared.
The actions of the police department led Whitmore to be improperly accused of this and other crimes, including the murder of Minnie Edmonds and the attempted rape and assault of Elba Borrero. Whitmore was wrongfully incarcerated for 1,216 days—from his arrest on April 24, 1964 until his release on bond on July 13, 1966, and from the revocation of his bond on February 28, 1972 until his exoneration on April 10, 1973.
His treatment by the authorities was cited as an example that led the US Supreme Court to issue the guidelines known as the Miranda rights. The Whitmore case was also considered as being instrumental in the restriction and eventual elimination of the death penalty in New York State. As the New York Times stated on the occasion of the actual killer's denial of parole in 1998, "[t]he murders at first led to the arrest of an innocent man, George Whitmore Jr., and the case helped contribute to the abolition of the state's death penalty and to the restriction of police interrogations throughout the country. New York State legislators said an innocent man could have been executed after giving a forced confession."
The crimes and the first arrest
On August 28, 1963, Patricia Tolles, 23, who worked at the book division at Time-Life, returned to her apartment on the third floor of 57 E. 88th Street in New York City. There she found the flat ransacked and covered in blood. In a bedroom were the bodies of her roommates, Newsweek researcher Janice Wylie, 21, and schoolteacher Emily Hoffert, 23. Both had been stabbed over 60 times with knives from their own kitchen, and there was evidence that Wylie, who was wearing only a towel, had been sexually assaulted.
The case was dubbed the "Career Girls Murders" by the media because Wylie, the daughter of advertising executive and novelist Max Wylie and niece of novelist Philip Wylie, and Hoffert were two of many thousands of young women who had come from all over America to New York to seek jobs and careers. Others like them now felt unsafe and the police were under pressure to solve the case. Hundreds of detectives were assigned to the investigation and thousands of people were interviewed, but as the weeks went by no arrests were made.
On April 14, 1964, Mrs. Minnie Edmonds, 46, was found murdered in an alleyway off Chester Street in Brooklyn. She had been stabbed and slashed repeatedly; there was also evidence of sexual assault.
On April 23, at about 1:45 a.m., nurse Elba Borrero, 20, was walking home in the same area as the Edmonds murder. She was attacked by a man but fought back. Police Officer Frank Isola chased the man and fired several shots at him, but he got away. The following day, Isola met George Whitmore, Jr. and took him to the 73rd Precinct for questioning, despite the fact that Isola did not think Whitmore physically resembled the initial suspect.
On April 25, Brooklyn police announced that Whitmore had confessed to the Wylie-Hoffert and Edmonds murders and the attempted assault of Elba Borrero, who had identified him as her attacker. At a news conference it was announced that Whitmore had given details of the Wylie-Hoffert murders that only the killer could have known. It was stated he had drawn a detailed diagram of the apartment and had in his wallet a photo of Janice Wylie that had been stolen from the flat.
Whitmore, who had an IQ of below 100, was a 19-year-old African American, who worked sporadically as a day laborer. He alternated between living with his siblings, his aunt and uncle, his cousin, and his girlfriend and her mother. He was near-sighted and could not afford new glasses. He had no criminal record and was described by the arresting officers as a "drifter".
"We got the right guy, no question about it," Chief [of police] McKearney said at the time Whitmore was booked. The certainty of the police was soon to unravel. The Manhattan legal team, in charge of the Wylie-Hoffert murders, was having serious doubts as to Whitmore's guilt. At his arraignment on April 28, he had repudiated his confessions, claiming that he had been beaten during the interrogations; counsel had not been present; and his request for a lie detector test was denied — an unusual request for a guilty man to make.
Investigators quietly collected evidence showing the confession to be false. Whitmore had claimed to have found the photo of a young blonde, which the arresting officers claimed was of Janice Wylie, in a junkyard in Wildwood, New Jersey, where his father worked. Inquiries led investigators to identify the girl in the photo as Arlene Franco, who was very much alive and living in southern New Jersey. They also found witnesses who claimed that Whitmore was in Wildwood at the time of the murders: he had been watching a TV broadcast of Martin Luther King's speech during the March on Washington and was thus miles away from the crime scene.
The Brooklyn detectives had claimed that Whitmore had given details of the Wylie-Hoffert killings which only the murderer could have known. In fact, Detective Edward Bulger, who had worked on the case, had been at the Brooklyn Precinct at the time of Whitmore's arrest and was part of the interrogation. It was he who had wrongly identified the photo as that of Janice Wylie. Manhattan prosecutors noticed that every detail in the Whitmore confession was known to the police beforehand.
However, even after Whitmore's confession was discredited, Manhattan District Attorney Frank Hogan did not immediately dismiss the indictment against him, even though he and his colleagues secretly knew that police had a new suspect. With Brooklyn authorities, the public, and even the jury still assuming that Whitmore was a confessed murderer, he was tried in November 1964 for attempting to rape Elba Borrero. She had identified Whitmore as her attacker, although she acknowledged that he was the only suspect police had shown her. She also admitted that she had discussed with a lawyer a $10,000 reward offered for the conviction of Janice Wylie's killer.
Brandishing Whitmore's ragged raincoat and a leather button Borrero had torn from her attacker's coat, the prosecutor asked the jury, "Haven't we nailed George Whitmore right on the button in the truest sense of the word?" It has since become known, however, that the prosecutor's office had in its possession, and deliberately withheld, an FBI report that found that the button was not a match for Whitmore's coat. Meanwhile, Whitmore maintained his claims that he had been beaten by the police and had only confessed when the pressure became too great. "I was in the precinct — the only Negro in that precinct house. Everytime I denied I'd done any of those things, they'd punch me in the back or chest. They beat on me whenever I said no."
Whitmore was originally represented by Jerome Leftow, a court-appointed attorney from Kings County, who was discharged following Whitmore's first conviction in the Borrero trials. He was replaced by Arthur H. Miller and Edwin Kaplan, both of Brooklyn, and Stanley Reiben of Manhattan, who became Whitmore's primary defense team for the remainder of the Whitmore criminal matters. The Defense lawyers worked for Whitmore largely on a pro bono basis. "Miller did most of the investigation work-digging up evidence — and Reiben blueprinted the courtroom strategy. With help from newspaper reporters, the lawyers soon had enough evidence to convince them that the Wylie-Hoffert case against Whitmore was worthless." Of the various attorneys who represented Whitmore, Miller remained with Whitmore the longest, through his ultimate release and later during his fruitless attempts at obtaining compensation for his wrongful incarceration.
Aside from Whitmore's coerced confession, no other evidence could be found linking him to the Manhattan murders, and Hogan delayed the prosecution of Whitmore for those offences. "Presumably a murder rap would have been given precedence; but since the Wylie-Hoffert 'confession' had collapsed and the [Borrero-]Edmonds prosecution hinged on the same document, [the District Attorney's Office] had chosen to play it safe."
A new suspect
On October 9, 1964, Nathan Delaney, 35, was arrested for the murder of rival drug dealer, Roberto Cruz del Valle. Facing the death penalty, Delaney offered to make a deal: in return for leniency he would give police the name of the killer of "career girls" Emily Hoffert and Janice Wylie — and he did not mean Whitmore.
Delaney claimed that on the day of the killings he had met an old acquaintance, Richard "Ricky" Robles, who had told him that he had committed the murders. Robles, a 22-year-old burglar, had a long record of drug use and had been released from prison just two months before the murders. Delaney told detectives that Robles had turned up at his flat on the day of the killings, his hands and clothes covered in blood and demanding drugs.
A grand jury cleared Delaney on the grounds of justifiable homicide. He and his wife were wired with bugs which were also installed in both their apartment and Robles'. Over time, Robles gave enough details of the murders to convince investigators that he was the real killer and he was arrested and charged on January 26, 1965.
In March 1965, New York Supreme Court Judge David Malbin quashed Whitmore's conviction for the attack on Borrero on the grounds that members of the jury were racially biased and had discussed the Wylie-Hoffert murders, which they were instructed not to.
Prosecutors insisted Whitmore should face retrial for the Borrero mugging and still be tried for the murder of Minnie Edmonds. The trial for the Edmonds murder began in April 1965. There was no physical evidence linking Whitmore to the crime and the prosecution had to rely mainly on his confession — now much-maligned given the fact that someone else was now accused of the double murders for which Whitmore had also originally confessed to. On the stand, Whitmore stood by his story that the confessions were obtained as a result of beatings and claimed that he did not even realize that he was being charged with murder until the indictments. Police detectives denied the allegations. When the jury was unable to reach a verdict, a mistrial was declared. Four days later, DA Hogan formally dismissed the Wylie-Hoffert indictment pending against Whitmore.
In the autumn of 1965, Robles was tried for the Wylie-Hoffert murders. His attorneys attempted to buoy the credibility of Whitmore's Wylie-Hoffert confession to create a reasonable doubt that their own client had committed the crime. However, Prosecutor John F. Keenan replied by summoning Whitmore and the detectives who had arrested him. Whitmore's testimony was erratic, but Keenan's grueling questioning of the detectives illuminated the sloppy analysis of physical evidence that had put Whitmore under suspicion. Whitmore's claims of physical abuse remained in dispute, but threats and trickery had clearly helped elicit his "confession." His guilt was assumed on racist grounds like one detective's belief that "you can always tell when a Negro is lying by watching his stomach, because it moves in and out when he lies." Robles' attorneys were unable to translate doubts about police interrogation methods to their own client's advantage, despite testimony that Robles had confessed to the Wylie-Hoffert murders while suffering from heroin withdrawal and without his attorney present.
On December 1, 1965, Richard Robles was found guilty of the murders of Emily Hoffert and Janice Wylie and sentenced to life in prison, the New York Legislature having, just months before, abolished the death penalty, except in the cases of the killing of police officers, prison guards, and murders committed while escaping jail. He was found guilty, largely on the basis of secretly tape-recorded conversations about the murders. Observers debated the verdict because Robles' self-incriminating statements were made to a fellow junkie, Nathan Delaney, who had become an informant and testified in return for immunity in an unrelated homicide. Despite the conviction of Robles, numerous questions regarding the police conduct in this case were left unanswered. "Police detectives, who may have been motivated by their sense of justice, resorted to highly questionable means to extract a confession from a suspect who was too weak to resist. Their colossal blunders in the career girls murder case almost put George Whitmore Jr. on death row for a crime he certainly did not commit. No formal charges were ever brought against Detectives Bulger and DiPrima who consistently denied any wrongdoing in the case. But exactly how Whitmore was able to supply a 61-page confession to a double murder he never committed was never explained."
In March 1966, Whitmore was tried for the second time for the attack on Elba Borrero, who maintained he was her aggressor. Defense counsel Stanley J. Reiben tried to cast doubt on his client's confession to the assault on the grounds it was obtained in the same manner as the repudiated Wylie-Hoffert confession. The presiding judge, New York Supreme Court Justice Aaron F. Goldstein, ruled the Wylie-Hoffert confession inadmissible and Whitmore was found guilty and sentenced to between five and ten years in prison.
Kings County Supreme Court Justice Hyman Barshay later dismissed the indictment against Whitmore in the Edmonds case. The Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court also ruled the failure to admit the Wylie-Hoffert confession in the Borrero trial was a "prejudicial error" and Whitmore faced his third trial on the case. In June 1967 he was found guilty and again sentenced from five to ten years.
Whitmore's lawyers proceeded to appeal all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but each court of appeal upheld the guilty verdict. In December 1972, after Whitmore had exhausted his appeals, journalist Selwyn Rabb, who had covered Whitmore’s travails for the New York World Telegram and Sun, obtained dramatic new evidence — an affidavit from Borrero’s sister-in-law, Celeste Viruet. The affidavit said, before Borrero identified Whitmore, police had shown her an array of photos of other possible suspects — and she had identified positively another man as her assailant. By this time, Brooklyn had a new district attorney, Eugene Gold, who confirmed the accuracy of the affidavit. On April 10, 1973, a Supreme Court judge vacated Whitmore’s conviction, officially exonerating him. Whitmore received no compensation for his wrongful imprisonment.
The third conviction was obtained in part as a result of police and district attorney's office's suppression of the existence of an eyewitness to the assault on Mrs. Borrero. As noted by Circuit Judge Mulligan, in dissent, "Appellant urges here, as he did in the district court, that it was not until the Spring (March–May) 1969 post-trial evidentiary hearing that counsel for Whitmore ever learned that there was an eyewitness to the assault on Mrs. Borrero. It was then ascertained that Detective Aidala who was in charge of the Minnie Edmonds' murder investigation and took over the Borrero case because of a possible similarity of modus operandi, kept a notebook which indicated that Celeste Viruet, the sister-in-law of the victim, had seen her being grabbed in the early morning of April 23, 1964 while looking out of her apartment window. Counsel for Whitmore in all three Borrero trials have submitted affidavits denying that they ever knew of or were advised of the existence of Celeste Viruet, the silent witness in the window. Celeste Viruet was never called by the State in any of the trials nor has she ever appeared in any evidentiary or other proceeding relating to Whitmore. The State makes no contention that defense counsel was ever specifically advised of the existence of this witness." The description provided by the "hidden" witness of the alleged attacker materially differed from Whitmore's actual physical appearance. No punishment attached to the District Attorney's office for this suppression of evidence.
Robles, who had himself protested his innocence over the original double-murders, finally admitted his guilt to a parole board hearing in November 1986. He had broken into the flat in order to obtain money for drugs and had assumed at first it was empty. When Wylie, who had been taking a shower, appeared, he attacked and raped her. Hoffert had turned up shortly afterwards and he attacked her as well. Defiantly, she told him that she would remember his face and report him to the police, whereupon he murdered both her and Wylie. Robles remained in prison. No charges were pressed against the police officers who had obtained Whitmore's "confessions".
The case of George Whitmore, Jr. and his treatment by the police was one of many examples used by the US Supreme Court when it issued the guidelines known as the Miranda rights in June 1966 by which, when a defendant is taken into custody and accused of a crime, he must be advised of his constitutional rights. The court acknowledged that coercive interrogations could produce false confessions, and in a footnote stated: "[t]he most conspicuous example occurred in New York in 1964 when a Negro of limited intelligence confessed to two brutal murders and a rape which he had not committed. When this was discovered, the prosecutor was reported as saying: 'Call it what you want — brain-washing, hypnosis, fright. The only thing I don't believe is that Whitmore was beaten.'"
The Whitmore case was also significant in the restriction and eventual elimination of the death penalty in New York State. Although the death penalty ultimately returned to New York State, no inmate was put to death under the restored law, and the law has since been overturned and rendered non-functional by the New York State Court of Appeals.
Whitmore died on Oct. 8, 2012 in Wildwood, New Jersey at the age of 68.
In popular culture
The case was the basis of the TV movie The Marcus-Nelson Murders starring Telly Savalas as police Lt. Theo Kojack, which became the pilot for the Kojak crime drama in which Savalas also starred, albeit with the name spelled differently. Kojak himself was a composite character, based on a number of detectives, lawyers and reporters who were involved in the 1963 Wylie-Hoffert murder case, which included police detective Thomas J. Cavanagh Jr., known to his colleagues as "the velvet whip", and who had been part of the team that cleared Whitmore of the double-murder.
A police procedural and legal drama, the plot closely follows the events of the Wylie-Hoffert case from the discovery of the bodies to the arrest for attempted rape of a suspect who is then charged with their killings after being beaten and tricked into confessing without realizing that he is being charged with murder. It includes the investigations into the photo; the arrest of a dealer who then implicates a drug addict; and the subsequent surveillance and capture of the real killer.
George Whitmore is renamed Lewis Humes and portrayed by Gene Woodbury. José Ferrer co-stars as his defense attorney, while Marjoe Gortner plays Teddy Hopper, the real killer. The movie emphasizes how the case led to the passing of the Miranda rights by the Supreme Court. In his narration and comments to other characters, Kojak blames much of the events on the desire for commendation and promotion of officers and officials involved in the case.
The same year that The Marcus-Nelson Murders was broadcast, a novel entitled The Killings, by Edgar-winning author Clark Howard also fictionalized the case. Set in Los Angeles, rather than New York City, it depicts a pair of LAPD detectives investigating the brutal murders of twin sisters. Despite the change in setting, and making the victims sisters, rather than merely roommates, the plot follows the events of the real-life investigation with enough fidelity that it's easily recognizable as deriving from the Wylie-Hoffert case.
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