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Sentencings in Westfield murders scheduled for May

March 24, 2016
By A.J. Rao ( , Westfield Republican

The grisly murder of Westfield resident and accomplished violinist Mary E. Whitaker sent shockwaves across the county and state in 2014.

In two months, her alleged killers will learn their fates.

Appearing in Chautauqua County Court on March 10, Jonathan Conklin, 44, and 31-year-old Charles Sanford, who were originally scheduled to be sentenced this week, were handed new sentencing dates.

Conklin will be sentenced in county court on May 18 at 1 p.m. He will be sentenced for his separate federal charge in the U.S. District Court in Buffalo on May 19.

Sanford will be sentenced in the U.S. District Court in Buffalo on May 19, and be sentenced in the county court on May 20 at 9:30 a.m.

The Hon. Richard C. Kloch Sr. presided over Thursday's proceedings.

Late last year, Conklin and Sanford pleaded guilty in county court to second-degree murder - a state charge that carries a potential 25 years to life in state prison for Conklin and 15 years to life in state prison for Sanford.

In October 2015, both men also appeared in the U.S. District Court in Buffalo and pleaded guilty to federal charges - illegally possessing a firearm for Sanford and carjacking for Conklin.

During the court appearance, Conklin indicated via his counsel that he wanted to be sentenced on his state charge prior to his federal charge.

This change, according to Kloch, would mean Conklin's state and federal sentences will no longer run concurrently, but rather consecutively. In other words, Conklin could potentially face 25 years to life in state prison, and if released via parole, could face another 25 years for his federal charge.

"He's essentially giving himself a life prison sentence and I'm fine with that, considering the heinous nature of this crime," said Patrick Swanson, acting Chautauqua County district attorney. "It was a brutal and senseless killing, and if (Conklin) is asking for more prison time, I absolutely have no objection to that."

Conklin's reasoning behind the change, according to his counsel, is that he wants to serve his initial prison time in New York state, where he will be closer to family.

In regard to Sanford, state and federal attorneys are making an effort to have him psychologically evaluated so that there is a forensic profile in his sentencing folder that can be passed along to a parole board.

"It makes more sense to do (an evaluation) now close in time to the crime rather than having him psychologically analyzed later," Swanson said.

Whitaker, the 61-year-old concert violinist who regularly performed with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, was found dead inside her 8448 Titus Road home on Aug. 20, 2014, after what police referred to as an attempted burglary turned deadly.

According to Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Lynch, Conklin and Sanford, both homeless men with criminal records, approached Whitaker's home shortly before 7 a.m., where they reportedly concocted a ruse to get inside.

Sanford, he said, knocked on Whitaker's door and asked to use the phone, while Conklin hid outside with a gun. When Whitaker obliged to the request, she was shot and killed by Conklin, Lynch said.

The two men then stole Whitaker's 2007 Chevy HHR and used her credit cards at various businesses in Erie, Pa., police said.

They were arrested separately two days later after the Chautauqua County 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.

Initial state charges included second-degree murder, first-degree burglary, first-degree robbery, first-degree criminal use of a firearm, second-degree burglary and fourth-degree grand larceny.

Initial federal charges included carjacking, using a gun during a violent crime and bringing a stolen vehicle across state lines.



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