A 2001 murder in Manhattan revisited
In May 2001, two gunman killed a group friends above the famous Carnegie Deli in central Manhattan. Here the murderer, lawyers and family of the victims remember the event.
By Matt Kennard on Wednesday, December 17th, 2008 - 3,156 words.
The Carnegie Deli on West 55th Street and 7th Avenue is the quintessential New York City delicatessen. It’s famed the world over for gargantuan sandwiches sometimes stuffed with over a pound of pastrami, as well as its larger-than-life waiters who perfectly embody the gruffness of New York City in all its surly splendor.
Opened in 1934 by a Jewish family it is now on its third generation of owners who still work on the philosophy: “If you finish your meal, we’ve done something wrong”. Inside the establishment the walls are lined with the sated smiles of the American rich and famous. There’s Bruce Willis, Al Pacino, Michael Jordan and plenty more, all exposing their sparkling chops to the camera while gulping down an over-sized Carnegie creation.
There is a real bussle to the place as sandwiches, drinks, pickled cucumbers and insults are dispensed with rapid-fire regularity. Everything is served with extra lashings of banter.
But on one sunny, hot evening in May of 2001 this atmosphere of revelry was shot through by a sudden and horrific incident in the apartment block above the restaurant.
As evening approached 39-year-old Jennifer Stahl, a former actress turned aspiring singer, was relaxing in her 4th floor greystone apartment over Carnegie Deli with four friends.
To keep her afloat while her nascent singing career took off she was supplementing her income by selling marijuana to the more rarified sections of the city with who she was involved – Broadway thespians and singers, primarily.
She was joined by a cross-section of this world on this Thursday, May 10th 2001. There was Anthony Veader, 37, a hair stylist for movies like Men in Black, and now a famous actor, Stephen King, 32, a budding musician and health-club manager, Charles Helliwell III (‘Tre), 36, an accomplished Boston music promoter, and his girlfriend, Rosamond Dane, 36.
While they were relaxing in Stahl’s spacious apartment, across the other side of the Hudson river, in New Jersey, two men, Sean Salley, 29, the nephew of famed music producer George Clinton, and Andre Smith, also 29, had begun their trip over to Manhattan.
It was around 7.30 p.m. when these two worlds collided. Salley and Smith ascended the stairs above Carnegie Deli and were let into the apartment by Stahl. By the time they returned to New Jersey that night, Stahl, King and Helliwell III were all dead, shot in the head by either Salley or Smith. Dane and Veader had also been shot but survived.
Smith eventually handed himself into the police, while Salley fled to New Orleans to his mothers house, then on to Florida, where he was eventually captured by the police. The two were eventually tried seperately as they had divergent accounts of what had happened. Salley had claimed he shot Ms. Stahl by accident as he was so nervous, then handed the gun to Smith who dispensed the rest of the shots. Smith claimed Salley had dispensed all the shots.
They were both convicted of 2nd degree murder as well as robbery. Salley was sentenced to a minimum sentence of 119 years, 6 months and 20 days, and Smith was sentenced 113 years, 6 months, 24 days. Neither will ever see the light of day again.
Salley is now in Wende, the maximum-security prison in upstate New York. He has been incarcerated for just six years of his life sentenced. On the way, he has punched a prison officer at Rikers maximum security jail and bought himself a stint in 23-hour lockdown. The officer involved, Vincent Donovan, required eight stiches to the back of his head.
When Salley comes out for visiting time, he is instantly recognisable from the photograph released on America’s Most Wanted while he was on the run. That picture is now proudly subtitled with the words “CAPTURED” on the AMW website.
He eyes are thin and close-set and betray a vacant, passive sadness. His hair is long and wiry and tied back into a pony tail which stands erect behind his head. His black hair is now flecked at regular intervals with white strands and his face has the bitten and ragged look of a street kid. There are scratches around his eyes and a gash on his cheek.
“I was shocked when they said you had come, I didn’t have a clue who you were,” he says. It is obvious straight away that Salley is intensely lonely. “When you come in here you expect your friends and family to be supportive, I haven’t got anything from them, you are my first visitor for a long time.”
Around us in the visiting rooms, inmates chat happily to their children and spouses. “I write letters, it’s therapeutic,” he says. “I don’t usually get answers, but I write them anyway. It is most painful when they hand around the letters and they always pass your cell and there is nothing for you while everyone else gets something. And on visitation days, when they call the names and they never call yours. It’s really hard sometimes.”
As he is speaking, Salley is constantly giving hi-fives and thumping his chest when other inmates go past. “You have to build up a respect in a place like this,” he says. “You know, if someone bitches you out and you let it go, then you you get a reputation and people take advantage of you. I have a good rep, you know, people respect me here. There’s no rape and that sort of thing anyway, I think you get that mostly in the South.
“The hardest part of the day is the morning and the night. The worst is when you first wake up and you see the bars and the realization of where you are just hits you. And in the evening the guards are chatting all this shit and you just want them to shut up. They are talking about Jay-Z and Beyonce and everything else and it’s a fucking hassle.”
It is a while before we touch on the case, as he seems so happy to be able to talk to someone, something even more therapeutic than his unreciprocated letter writing. I ask him why he ran away after the murders.
“Well people say that it is a sign of guilty, but it wasn’t,” he says. “I was just so scared, it was the natural thing to do, so I went to see my mum, and she was also scared, so she put me up in a hotel.”
The story of his three-month fugitive adventure to the South is an interesting one not least because of the ineptitude of the police it reveals. “I needed money so I rang my friend and he agreed to wire something through.” At this point Salley’s friend contacted the police who in turn got hold of the police and told them of Salley’s whereabouts. They told the friend to wire the money through, and then sent half a large contingent of police officers to stake out all the Northwestern Banks in the region, where Salley would have to pick it up.
“I’m not particularly bitter at him,” says Salley. “I expect the police probably gave him a deal, I mean , I bet he was on drugs charges or something and they said, ‘Look if you help us get Sean, we’ll cut you a deal and you won’t go to prison’. They do that kind of thing all the time.”
Mitch Dinnerstein was Salley’s defense attorney during the trial that sent him away for the rest of his life. He works in a sparse 7th floor office at Broadway and Leonard Street in downtown New York City. His window vista is a picturesque spread of skyscrapers and clear blue sky. He is white-haired man, who, despite his lifetime of fighting within a corrupted system, seems jolly and sanguine. “It was actually funny what happened when the police got that tip about Sean and the police literally sent half of the NYPD down to Florida. And they had to just stake out all the Northwestern Banks. But Sean just walks into one, and because it’s within a travel agent or something the police don’t realise it’s there, so he walks in and walks straight out again. It’s just hilarious how incompetent the police were.”
“I just went into this place and the woman in the bank said, ‘Who knows about this? Something funny is going on’,” says Salley. “Then I went out and saw a load of police cars so I scrammed and decided to go to Florida.”
When in Florida Sean started working in a homeless hostel. “I got a fake ID from this guy and I was planning to leave the country,” says Salley.
“That’s what I liked about Sean,” says Dinnerstein. “I mean it’s funny, again in an ironic way, that he starts working. I mean he didn’t steal anything. If you look he didn’t have any criminal record before the Carnegie murders. He just got a job and stayed the working.”
Eventually, through serendipity, he was spotted. A woman had seen his picture on AMW and reported it to the police. They staked out the place he was staying in. “I saw the police cars outside,” says Salley. “I went up to get my stuff.”
“Then when he was leaving, the police messed it up again!” says Dinnerstein, letting out a little chuckle. “He saw them in the lobby and obviously they’d guarded the front door, swarming with them, but, they hadn’t even got the back door, so Sean starts running out the back door!”
“I climbed two fences,” explains Salley. “Then I had nowhere to go, and I said, ‘Come and get me’, but they let out the dogs…” he continues and points to his arms which is peppered with scars from what I assume are dog bites. “I have a load on my back too, I told them I was ready to be taken but they just let the dogs at me.”
When he was taken in, Salley was subjected to ruthless interrogation, according to Dinnerstein and Salley. “There was this real brute,” explains Dinnerstein. “He just really went for Sean. I mean the guy was just crazy.”
“Yeah the guy just really scared me. I owned up to it. But I retracted my statement later,” says Salley.
Salley initially admitted to planning a robbery with Smith, and said it went horribly wrong. His eventually plea was that he had been suborned into the robbery with no prior knowledge. Smith had initially said he wasn’t even there. Surveillance footage later showed both men ascending the steps of Stahl’s building.
“I didn’t even know Smith at all well,” says Salley. “It became obvious during the trial that Sean and Andre [Smith] hardly knew each other,” confirms Dinnerstein.
“But that’s what I feel so guilty about,” continues Salley. “I mean I didn’t murder anyone, but I shouldn’t have gone there with Smith without knowing him at all.”
So why did he say in the trial that he accidently killed Stahl? “That’s what Mitch [Dinnerstein] told me to say,” he says. “I mean I didn’t kill anyone, but Mitch said that was my best chance of not being put away for ever. It didn’t work out.
“I mean Mitch tried his best but I think he could have done a better job. I’m putting my appeal together now, and I just don’t understand, there were no witnesses who said they actually saw me with the gun, why didn’t Mitch say this to the jury in his closing statements? I didn’t even bring the gun, that was accepted, but he didn’t even go for this point.”
“I don’t have any regrets with the case,” says Dinnerstein. “Apart from I’d like to have had a Judge who was not crazy. I mean that judge is famously a bit odd. The judge in the case was Carol Berkman and the possible sentence for their offence ran from 120 years to life. She gave both the maximum.
“This isn’t a case I think about a lot,” says Dinnerstein as he reclines in his chair. “I mean there’s some other cases I am still fighting on, but this one no, I mean he had admitted it early on which just made everything so difficult.”
As Salley looks around the visiting room, he says he retains how through his mother, Philomena Salley. He says he also had a girlfriend on the outside who “has put me through a lot,” he says. “I love her and I asked her to marry me,” he says. “But she said she can’t commit in these circumstances…. Now she’s pregnant, and the dad is some guy who raped his own sister. I mean come on.”
Inmates in maximum security facilities are permitted one two-day “trailer visit” every 45 days, which allows them to be in a trailer with their wife or relative from a Friday morning to a Sunday evening. “I just wanted to do that, but I can’t push it, because I don’t want to push her away. She actually wrote two days ago,” he adds.
“I just really feel sorry for the families of the victims,” he says. “I was young and arrogant when I came in but I think I’ve changed a lot. I pray for them sometimes.”
Is he religious? “I don’t believe in any particular religion, but I got into Buddhism for a little while, and I still pray, I just don’t know who to.”
The toll it took on the victims families cannot be imagined. Three talented, vivacious young people lost their lives on that fated day, and the ache was magnified by the randomness of the whole affair. What if those particular people had not been there that night? What if Smith had not bought the gun? The whole case was a string of errors and fated chance.
“I did see they appealed in 2005,” says Charles Helliwell, 70, of Dover, Massachusetts, and father of Charles Helliwell III, who was murdered. “But as long as both are behind bars forever I’m OK. As long they are there and no liberal parole board lets them out early then it’s OK.”
Does he still feel anger? “We suffered such a great loss and it’s hard not to turn that into negative feelings. But we must make the best of what we have, so they have kind of faded off.”
“I have changed because of what happened, it took something major of my own and my families life.
“’Tre was a wonderful man, he had so many ambitions and so many friends. There were nearly 800 people at his funeral, about 200 were our family and friends, the rest were his friends.”
The most vocal of the victims family during the trial was Stephen King’s father, Dr. Philip King, a university professor at San Francisco State University. “Yeah he was quite insufferable at points during the trial,” says Dinnerstein. “He shouted at Sean at the end, ‘Just say you did it!’, and Sean just didn’t reply. Apparently he was an absent father who became heavily involved when he found out his son had been killed – for the first time, apparently.”
“Philip King was very much for the death penalty,” says Helliwell. “We were neutral.” What did he think of King’s conduct during the trial? “As a father we are given to reacting differently,” he says.
“We couldn’t have actually got the death penalty because although Rosamond [Dane] knew Sean Salley pulled the trigger she was tied up with her face down so she couldn’t say who definitely did it.” Salley was the definite murderer? “Oh yeah,” says Helliwell. “He took the gun from Andre and he into the room and confronted Jennifer [Stahl], but out of fear or by accident killed her and tried to cover it up.”
“At the end of the trial the defence lawyer came up to me and said, ‘You are a mensch’” – a Yiddish term of a decent, upright person – “I used to run into him through the trial, Mitch Dinnerstein was his name. In fact, I met him in the restroom earlier on and said, ‘Tough case you got here’, and he didn’t say anything and just smiled.
“I mean you could tell what he thought of everything by his summation remarks where he was just going through the motions, no jury would ever had listened to him and been convinced.”
Pamela King, 36, of Phoenix, Arizona, is the sister of the deceased Stephen King. She finds it particularly hard to deal with the complete arbitrariness of her brothers death. “I don’t think anger describes how I feel. It was just the situation, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
How did she deal with the loss? “My faith has got me through it. What goes around comes around. Stephen will always be part of us. His daughter will actually be six in a week.
“I was very grateful to the authorities and for Americas Most Wanted, without which we might not have caught them.”
Stephen King was a music producer who was in process of producing his second CD when he was murdered. “He was using her [Jennifer Stahl’s] recording studio at the time after a business dinner, he was actually taking a break when they came in.” She pauses. “He was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” she repeats.
She does not want to discuss her father and his contribution to the trial and the aftermath. “You’d have to ask him the question,” she says. “He did everything on his own. I haven’t actually spoken to him for ten years.”
As she looks forward Pamela says her brother will be with her. “His daughter is so well, and so his legacy will live on into the future,” she says.
This case brought together so many different worlds and blended in such a tragic and appalling manner. And so much chance contributed to the gruesome ending. The murderers, the amateur high-class marijuana dealer, and a selection of young creative innocents, were all thrown together in a ghastly moment for which none was prepared. We shall never know why Salley or Smith decided to unload their weapons on the five people they had tied up, but that act ended the lives of three young people and destroyed the lives of countless other loved ones.
“Please don’t contact Rosamond,” says Helliwell, talking about the girlfriend of his murdered son, Tre. “She lives in the Virgin Islands now and has been hurting for five or six years.” And her plight has been mirrored across the community of relatives who lost loved ones that day. But despite their ordeal and the terrible pain suffered they all display a resilience and eloquence befitting the talent and vivacity of their lost ones. I mention to Helliwell in passing that I visited Salley. “You know, at the end of the trial it was Andre Smith who got up and said he felt sorry for what he’d done. Sean Salley never did.” I told him that Salley had said that exact same thing to me. There was a pause. “God Bless him, then.”
Matt Kennard graduated from the Journalism School at Columbia University as a Toni Stabile Investigative scholar in 2008. He has written for the Guardian, Salon and the Chicago Tribune, amongst others. In 2006 he won the Guardian Student Feature Writer of the Year Award.
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