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Men sentenced in 2014 murder of Westfield resident

May 25, 2016
By A.J. Rao - , Westfield Republican

Nearly two years after Westfield resident and accomplished violinist Mary E. Whitaker was brutally murdered inside her home, Jonathan Conklin, a 45-year-old homeless felon, was handed his fate.

On May 17, in Chautauqua County Court, Conklin was given an indeterminate sentence of 25 years to life in state prison. The sentence is the result of a second-degree murder charge, which Conklin pleaded guilty to in November.

U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. announced May 18 that Conklin, who was convicted of carjacking in federal court, was sentenced to 25 years in prison by Senior U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny.

The sentence will be served consecutive to Conklin's Chautauqua County Court murder sentence.

In addition, Judge Skretny sentenced co-defendant Charles Sanford, 32, to 15 years for unlawful possession of a firearm and conspiracy to transport a stolen vehicle in interstate commerce.

Sanford, of Sherman, was then sentenced May 19 by County Court Judge Richard C. Kloch to an indeterminate sentence of at least 15 years in state prison, to a maximum of life in prison, after being convicted of second-degree murder for the death of Whitaker.

Acting District Attorney Patrick Swanson said that while a concurrent sentence was originally in the works, Conklin voluntarily chose to have his state sentencing prior to his federal sentencing for personal reasons and thus accepted back-to-back prison terms as a result.

"I have no objection to this because it gives him an effective 40-year sentence instead of a 25-year sentence," Swanson said.

"This is a case where you had a very senseless killing," Swanson said. "You had two grown men descend upon a house of a single female who was not armed. Mary Whitaker was an amazing woman. No one deserves to exit our world in the manner she did. Our thoughts are with her family and friends as they hopefully can move forward remembering the amazing person she was."

Nathaniel Barone, Chautauqua County public defender and counsel to Conklin, said he was unsure whether Conklin would appeal the decision, indicating that it was only a "possibility."

"Mr. Conklin accepted responsibility for what he did ... not that this makes anything better, but nonetheless, he did accept responsibility rather than put the family through a trial," Barone said. "He was in a position to move on."

The Hon. Richard C. Kloch Sr., who presided over the sentencing, addressed both Conklin and a courtroom packed with friends and family members of Whitaker.

Notably, he described the deluge of letters he received from people around the country whose lives were touched or impacted by the 61-year-old musician.

"I never in some 30 years on the bench ever received so many letters from people," Kloch said. "They're from everyone and from every little corner of this country. The ripples that this young lady sent out ... it really is amazing."

Kloch, who described Whitaker as someone who embodied youth, vitality and vibrancy, highlighted the way she kept in touch with childhood friends or how she bought pet food for the overlooked pets at Ground Zero in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

"This is the person you killed," said Kloch to Conklin, repeatedly. "Victims are remembered and loved. They never die. Their spirit goes on. But the criminals? The people who take these people away from us? They die. And (Mr. Conklin), you're about to be very, very, very dead."

Conklin, clad in prison garb and cuffs, refused to address the court and slumped out of the courtroom, only briefly making eye contact with the gallery.

Whitaker, a 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 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 City of Erie Police Department, tracked their credit card activity and identified Conklin on a store security camera.

Swanson offered his thanks to the agencies that assisted in the swift capture and prosecution of the two men.

"This was a case that originated under my former boss, the Hon. David W. Foley," Swanson said. "He, and the staff that assisted him, did an amazing job prosecuting this case. I know he would have wanted to thank the Sheriff and the Sheriff's office for their fast response, the Forensic Investigation Team for their efforts at the crime scene, the local FBI branch that we are so fortunate to have here in Chautauqua County and the U.S. Attorney's Office, headed up by the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of New York, William J. Hochul, Jr."

Swanson also thanked the City of Erie Police Department in Pennsylvania.



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