By Marvin Smilon
August 28, 1963 is best remembered as the date of Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic March on Washington in support of civil rights and his memorable “I have a dream” speech. But on that same day, two young career girls, Janice Wylie and Emily Hoffert, were brutally murdered in their apartment on the fashionable Upper East Side of Manhattan. This led to a series of events that shook the whole city — the New York City Police Department in particular — in ways that still echo, even though those events have been long forgotten by nearly everyone except a few who had a personal involvement in the case. It also taught a young New York Post police reporter a lesson he never forgot.
I was that young reporter and the lesson I learned was that relying on “conventional wisdom” is not always wise.
The gory killings were dubbed the “Career Girl Murders” by the tabloids and it heightened an increasing awareness and apprehension by the public that something was happening that was fundamentally changing New York City.
There were clear signs in the early 1960s that crime was increasing dramatically and the newspapers — especially the tabloids — were feeding into those fears. Even the then liberal New York post was devoting as much or more space to crime stories as its tabloid competitors.
The investigation of the sensational murders was front-page news for months until a much more sensational and significant murder took over the front pages of every newspaper in the world on November 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.
Besides an occasional article about the status of the case like one in the New York Herald Tribune in March of 1964, headlined “Our City’s Number One Unsolved Murder: Who Killed The Career Girls?”, not much was written about the murders in late 1963 and early 1964. This near silence about the case ended abruptly with no warning at 3:30 a.m. on April 25, 1964 when a bulletin came across the AP machines in every New York City newspaper city room and TV and radio news department announcing:
“A 19-year-old Negro has admitted slaying Janice Wylie and Emily Hoffert [sic] in their East Side apartment last August 28, Deputy Police Commissioner Walter Arm said early today.” The bulletin added that the suspect had been identified as George Whitmore, Jr. and was being held in the 73rd Precinct in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn.
Since I was the Post’s police reporter in Brooklyn in 1964, within minutes of the bulletin, the phone in my Queens home began ringing. I was informed of the break in the murders and instructed to get over to the 73rd because a press conference was scheduled there to make the official announcement. The scene at the precinct, which mirrored its poor run-down neighborhood, was not unexpectedly chaotic with reporters, photographers and TV and radio reporters crowding into a tiny squad commander’s room where the NYPD Chief of Detectives Lawrence McKearney was about to hold a much anticipated press conference. As reporters headed toward the room, where they eyed a 19-year-old scrawny, shabbily dressed youth with an acne scarred face and a confused, frightened yet strangely passive almost gentle look, peering out from a locked cage where he was being held.
Reading from his notes, McKearney gave a precise narrative. He told reporters that Whitmore had been arrested the day before as a suspect in an assault on a woman in Brownsville. After being identified by the victim, Whitmore had voluntarily blurted out confessions to that crime, a murder of another woman in Brooklyn, and — finally what the reporters had all come for — to the Wylie-Hoffert murders. McKearney said with obvious satisfaction, “We got the right guy — no question about it,” he added. “He gave us details only the killer could know.”
McKearney disclosed only part of the Wylie-Hoffert confession and with the aid of detectives who had interrogated Whitmore, answered a barrage of questions about the Manhattan murders, posed by the noisy, unruly reporters. Whitmore lived in Wildwood, New Jersey, with his father who was separated from his mother but frequently came to New York to stay with his mother and other family members who lived in Brownsville, McKearney said. He described the suspect as a “drifter” who had taken a subway to Times Square to sightsee and then randomly wandered up to East 88th Street. According to McKearney, Whitmore told police that he decided to see what was on the roof of a building where the two victims lived and on the way up, apparently on an impulse, entered the front door of the apartment where they lived together.
According to the Chief of Detectives, Whitmore admitted that after finding the two women there, he had used a coke bottle and three knives, breaking the blades of two of them, to beat and butcher the two women and then tied the bloody bodies together. The suspect admitted that he washed his hands before leaving the blood splattered apartment and its gruesome contents the same way he entered, taking with him several photographs, one of which had been found on him, McKearney added.
After phoning in my notes to a rewriteman in order to make the first edition of the then afternoon Post, I ran back to the precinct to see if any more information was available. Things were winding down but a few reporters were still peppering McKearney with questions.
No, the suspect did not have a criminal record, said McKearney, who then became defensive when reporters badgered him to describe any other evidence, except his confession. He said a picture of Janice Wylie believed to have been stolen from the scene of the crime had been found on Whitmore when he was arrested. He refused to show the picture because it was evidence and seemed to waver on how sure he was that it was a picture of the victim. He also said none of Whitmore’s fingerprints were found in the apartment because the suspect said he had worn gloves while killing the girls. Obviously tired after being up all night and annoyed at being grilled like a suspect himself, McKearney in exasperation repeated what he had said earlier that he was sure they got the right man because he had given them facts only the killer could have known and said they had a lot more evidence besides his confession.
I spent the rest of the day covering the story, and before getting a goodnight, Stan Opotowski, editor in charge of the City Desk that day, asked me if I had any ideas for a second-day story. When I hesitated he suggested profiles of the detectives who broke the case. Conventional wisdom certainly dictated that that ideas was the safe kind of follow-up but when I hesitated again, he asked me if there was a problem. I said I wasn’t sure, but I was just uncomfortable about the scenario laid out by the police and there were a lot of questions in my mind still unanswered. For instance:
How and why did Whitmore pick that neighborhood, the building and the apartment for his rampage?
Why was there no physical evidence from the blood splattered murder scene except the picture, which appeared to be shaky at best?
And, why was the accused carrying around a pair of gloves in August since he apparently had no plans to commit this crime?
There was an added piece of information that had slipped by me and others at the press conference about the police boast that only the killer had the detailed information about the murders provided by Whitmore. In fact that was not quite accurate because one of the detectives questioning Whitmore had worked on the Wylie-Hoffert murder investigation for three months and he also knew those details.
Opotowsky told me to forget about the overnight and we had a whole weekend to come up with something. In the next few days the Brooklyn detectives who broke the case were lionized. There were exclusive first person stories on how the detectives got Whitmore to confess and how a picture of one of the victims stolen from the murder scene had been discovered on the suspect. Newspapers had heaped honors on the officers involved in “solving” then murders including “Public Protector Awards” from the Journal-American for “brilliant police work.”
It looked to me that conventional wisdom won out this time and I felt I had made the biggest goof of my young career. I spoke to Opotowsky the next week, sharing my misgivings with him and apologized. Opotowsky, a taciturn ex-World War II Marine Corps war correspondent, who sadly died last year, reassured me. He told me that if he didn’t have confidence in my judgment, he wouldn’t have me working for him on the street and advised me to wait and see how it all played out. He also assigned Irving Lieberman, a veteran Post investigative reporter and a highly respected and beloved uncle of mine, who had been covering Brooklyn for decades, to look into the case.
Within weeks, rumors began floating around town that there were problems with the Whitmore case, and Manhattan detectives and the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, under the legendary Frank Hogan, hadn’t closed the books on the case but were taking a closer look at the arrested suspect. Brooklyn authorities quietly scoffed at these rumors citing jealousy on the part of their more celebrated counterparts in Manhattan as the reason for the reports. However, the Brooklyn prosecutors insisted on trying the two Brooklyn cases before the highly publicized Manhattan double murder and noted that if, Whitmore were convicted in those two cases, it might not be necessary to even try him on the Wylie-Hoffert murder.
Behind the scenes the Manhattan detectives were checking and rechecking every detail of the case against Whitmore. They were troubled by the near total lack of corroborating evidence for his confession except the photograph that was found on Whitmore. They first sought to check out the photo supposedly of Janice Wylie. The young woman’s friends and relatives could not positively identify the photo as that of her, but after showing it around Wildwood, New Jersey, the detectives discovered it was a photo of a young woman who resembled Janice Wylie but lived in Whitmore’s hometown. At the same time they uncovered witnesses who remembered seeing Whitmore around the town on the day of the March on Washington. The Manhattan detectives were convinced Whitmore had an airtight alibi because he could not have been in two places, three hours away at the same time.
The rumors persisted and stories began appearing in the New York newspapers with one reporting that Manhattan detectives had focused in on a drug addict who lived only a few blocks from the Upper East Side murder scene as the prime suspect in the double murder. On January 26, 1965 Richard Robles was arrested for the murders of Janice Wylie and Emily Hoffert and the charges against Whitmore were dropped. Robles was ultimately convicted of the double homicide and is serving a life sentence. All the other charges against Whitmore were dropped but only after years of litigation including attempted rape and assault.
The heroes of this story were of course the Manhattan detectives and prosecutors who turned up the evidence exonerating Whitmore while at the same time gathering other evidence that led to the arrest and conviction of the real killer. But the reporters, including Lieberman of the Post and Selwyn Raab, then of the World-Telegram and Sun and later the New York Times, who wrote stories that helped to expose this miscarriage of justice also deserve credit for performing a public service in the very best tradition of American journalism. Several books were written about the case, including one by Raab entitled “Justice in the Back Room,” which was turned into a movie starring Telly Savalas, as the Manhattan detective who helped to clear Whitmore. The movie led to the long-running popular TV series “Kojak” starring Savalas.
After the exoneration of Whitmore, Opotowsky called me over to his desk and just said with the tiniest of smiles, “See, you were right.” I learned two things from this case — that conventional wisdom can too easily turn into a trap and the importance of editors with the backbone to stand up for their reporters.
Silurian News, May 2000