Adoption Forensics and the Tankleff Case

by David Kirschner, Ph.D.

CrimeMagazine.com - March 2008 (updated 7/25/08)

  The Martin Tankleff courtroom saga may finally have come to an end. Tankleff, 36, was released from prison in December, 2007, after serving 17 years for the 1988 gruesome murders of his adoptive mother and father, Arlene and Seymour Tankleff, in their Belle Terre, L.I. mansion. An appellate court overturned his 1990 conviction, because of "new evidence," suggesting that somebody other than Tankleff might have committed the crimes; and on July 1, 2008, New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo announced that he would not retry Tankleff.

After an extensive five month investigation/review however, Cuomo did not exonerate Tankleff, stating that "although there is some evidence that the defendant Martin Tankleff, committed the crimes charged, after 20 years the evidence is insufficient to . . . prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he did so. . . There was no sign of a break-in or of a robbery, and the defendant who was the only other person in the house, was unharmed. . . The defendant made vague but incriminatory statements to a family member and direct confessions to some fellow inmates in prison.

Benjamin Rosenberg, Cuomo’s chief trial attorney, concluded that making a case against Tankleff was no longer feasible. Legal technicalities and changes in the law would bar prosecutors from trying him in his mother’s murder. Another factor in the decision not to retry Tankleff is the passage of time, resulting in "dimming recollections" of some witnesses and the deaths of others.

Cuomo also stated he had no plan to indict any of the possible killers Tankleff named, saying, "We have found no forensic evidence linking any of these persons to the murder."

And so, Tankleff gets to go home. But someone’s getting away with murder, and where’s the justice for his adoptive parents Arlene and Seymour, who were horribly murdered in their home? Marty has said (after the AG’s decision) that he "can now focus on bringing the real criminals in this case to justice." Let’s hope so. I recall O.J. and/or his legal team saying the same thing, after the Simpson trial. Hopefully, Tankleff and his many supporters, including Amy Fisher (of "Long Island Lolita" fame), who wrote an article for the Long Island Press, declaring Marty’s innocence - will be as zealous in pursuing the "real killers," as they have been in securing his release from prison.

But Shari Mistretta, half-sister of Martin Tankleff, steadfastly believes that her sibling brutally murdered her father and stepmother; and in a TV interview, Mistretta further stated that she was not part of the trial when Tankleff was found guilty in 1990, so she was "not able to bring to light the family dynamics and the series of events that led up to the crime." And James McCready, retired detective, who induced Tankleff to confess insists he got the right man, despite charges being dropped. According to McCready, "Nobody . . . but Marty Tankleff killed his mother and father – nobody else . . . He killed his parents, and he’s going to have to live with that for the rest of his life."

But why would he kill his adoptive parents? I have not directly interviewed/examined Marty Tankleff, as I have 20 other adopted killers (including Joel Rifkin, New York’s most prolific serial killer), but I’ve read volumes about the case and followed the trial in its entirety. As a psychologist, specializing in adoption forensics, I’m convinced that adoption issues are crucial to understanding Tankleff’s pathology, motivation, and mental state at the time of the murders; though none of these issues were discussed during the trial. Very little has been written about Marty’s adoption history, and his classic Adopted Child Syndrome (ACS) pattern of behavior. His few public comments about the subject, however, suggest that adoption issues of identity, loss and even normal curiosity about genetic/medical history, were denied and not validated in the Tankleff family.

Marty has described his relationship with his parents in near perfect, idyllic terms as follows: "My parents were my parents my entire life…I never looked at myself as an adopted child . . .Our family relationship was great . . .The relationship I had with my mother was a special one. She taught me the finer things in life . . .My earliest memories up until the tragic day are good memories." (CBS News.com, January 14, 2008). Too good to be true? Consider the following.

Among other symptoms of ACS, Marty was suspended from high school for threatening a student with a switchblade knife, when the other student began dating a girl Marty had taken to the junior prom. One key symptom of ACS is pathological reaction to rejection, real or perceived. Marty’s adoptive parents’ talk of divorce could also have resonated with the "adoption story" he was told. His birth mother gave him up for adoption because she was going through a divorce, already had one son, and couldn’t care for another. Adoption issues of identity, self-image, and repressed, dissociated adoptee rage, could have intensified/surfaced following his nose job, shortly before the murders. Three Ward Melville High School fellow students, in fact, testified at his trial in 1990, that Marty was still wearing bandages from his "nose job," when he told them "if he could get a hit on his parents. . .if they were killed". . .he could realize his fantasy of a fancy car like a Ferrari or Lamborghini (Newsday, April 25, 1990).

Another symptom of ACS is pathological lying, and detectives testified that "He [Marty] was caught in lies, in facts that could not be true, and that caused him to confess to murder." For example, Marty’s statement that he never touched his mother’s body, was belied by the fact that "a paper tissue Martin was seen using to wipe his ankle contained his mother’s blood." (Newsday, December 13, 1988).

Marty Tankleff’s personality profile, behavior pattern, and the manner of the homicides, very closely matches the pathology of adoptees, out of proportion to biologic children in the population - who have committed parricide. Among other adopted teens/young adults who have killed both of their adoptive parents, I have personally examined and /or testified for: Patrick Campbell (Darien, Conn.), Patrick DeGellke (Rochester, N.Y.), Matthew Heikkila (Somerset, N.J.), Daniel Kasten (Ronkonkoma, N.Y..), and Patrick Niiranen (Portland, Ore.). Most of these cases, with my forensic evaluations, are described in detail, in my book Adoption: Uncharted Waters.

Moreover, even the testimony of Marty’s defense psychiatrist, Dr. Herb Spiegel, was consistent with homicide motivated by adoption pathology, rather than the defense contention that Marty "didn’t do it." Dr. Spiegel’s diagnosis (based on hypnotic sessions) was that Marty was in a "dissociative state" when he "falsely confessed" to murdering his adoptive parents (Newsday, June 12, 1990). But if Marty were prone to dissociation, as Dr. Spiegel testified, then his personality was consistent with other adoptees who kill – when their buried, split-off, dissociated rage is triggered by fears of rejection and abandonment real or perceived. Further, Marty actually told detectives on the scene that "Maybe another Marty Tankleff did it. It felt like there was another person inside of me who did this."

Many adoption experts and psychotherapists who treat adoptees have written about the "splitting" (adoptive self/biologic self/fantasies of birth parents, etc) so often seen, even in normal, well-functioning adoptees. In a small percent of cases, at the extreme end of a spectrum of adoption issues, the attempt to integrate a solid sense of self/identity fails – and there is a proneness to clinical Dissociative Identity Disorder, aka Multiple Personality Disorder – sometimes with violent, acting-out behavior, triggered by rejection, real or perceived. I agree with Marty’s post-confession statement that "maybe another Marty Tankleff did it," except that the Marty who did it, was another side/persona of the same person.

Adoptees, after all, actually do have two identities, and this split can be fertile soil for serious problems, especially in a sub-group of at-risk adoptive families that do not validate their children’s need to know, and deny or not really confront the complex issues of rejection, abandonment, loss, identity, and sometimes buried, dissociated rage.

The gruesome nature of the killings (Mrs. Tankleff’s head was nearly severed) is inconsistent with a professional mob hit – as Marty’s appeal lawyers, who secured his release from prison, suggest that it was. But the murder scene was entirely consistent with an act of catathymic violence, unplanned, based on intense, buried emotions, very similar to a crime of passion. So if he "falsely confessed" because of a proneness to dissociate or split, as his own defense psychiatrist testified, then his fragmented personality would be prone to violence, similar to that seen in forensic examinations of other adoptees who kill their parents. Marty’s self-description would also be consistent with the above theory, as follows: "I was brought up to be very non-emotional. I mean I was brought up to very much internalize emotions." (CBS News.com, January 14, 2008)

The Martin Tankleff legal/court saga may be over, but I for one, would not bet on his innocence.

David Kirschner, PhD., is a forensic psychologist and psychoanalyst with a private practice in Woodbury, Long Island, N.Y. He founded and directed for 25 years a community mental health clinic – The Nassau Center for Psychotherapy. Dr. Kirschner is nationally and internationally recognized for his clinical and forensic work on adoption issues, and for his concept of an Adopted Child Syndrome. He has lectured widely, appeared on many radio and television shows, and has often been an expert witness, in high profile adoption forensic cases.

Dr. Kirschner is the author of Adoption: Uncharted Waters, which was published by Juneau Press, LLC in 2006. It can be purchased through the link above or from the publisher at adoptionunchartedwaters.com. You may contact Dr. Kirschner at 44 Juneau Blvd., Woodbury, NY 11797; Tel:  516/692-6060; e-mail DK21544808 @aol.com