A little over 50 years ago, in the last days of a summer something like this one, a woman returned home from her publishing job to find a literal bloody mess. She shared the apartment on East 88th St between Madison and Park with two other young women in their early 20s. She took a few steps into the living room and saw a knife perched on the edge of the bathroom sink. Then she called one roommate's father, Max Wylie, who lived nearby, and ventured no further.
When he got there he went into the bedroom and saw his daughter, 21-year-old Janice Wylie, lying dead and bloody in the other room along with 23-year-old Emily Hoffert. Hoffert, who was in the process of moving out, was supposed to start work as a schoolteacher soon; Wylie was an aspiring actress whiling away her time as a researcher at Newsweek. They were found tied together with strips of bedsheet, facing away from each other. Hoffert was still wearing a skirt, blouse, shoes and socks. Wylie was nude. And the scene was as gory as it gets. Wylie was disembowelled, and the girls stabbed 60 times between them. A piece of one of the kitchen knives used to do it was buried in Hoffert's chest.
The building had a doorman—this was Carnegie Hill, which was a tony area even in 1963—and he'd seen nothing. The neighbors had heard nothing. All anyone knew was that Wylie had been supposed to go to the civil rights March on Washington that day and had suddenly decided instead to stay in New York and fill in for a Newsweek co-worker at 1 p.m. Hoffert had spent her morning returning a borrowed car in the Bronx. Calculating how long it took her to return to Manhattan, police guessed she'd walked on on the crime-in-progress, which put its time at about noon.
Everything else was pure mystery.
Fear was pushing the story out of control from the start. The tidal wave of crime that would mark the city in the late 1960s and 1970s hadn't yet hit yet. But the chief theme of the coverage was "blind panic," and the television cameras and mild fame of some of the participants (Wylie's uncle was a bestselling novelist) amplified the scare. According to Selwyn Raab, who reported on the case for the New York Herald Tribune and later wrote a book about it, Justice in the Back Room, the switchboard was getting hundreds of calls from New Yorkers all over the city who wanted to know what they could do about intruders. The Times put Gay Talese himself on the "terror in the streets" beat, and he produced an article titled:
Talese recorded everyone talking about the murders "in boutiques, in East Side restaurants, in Bloomingdale's, in some small, expensive delicatessens patronized by many girls who, between college and marriage, work for a few years in New York and share East Side apartments." He quoted one such "girl" as saying that although she herself lived on West 76th Street, "[A]s far as I'm concerned, as long as it happens to two girls living on East 88th Street, it can happen anywhere in New York. I only hope I'm on the right side of the statistics."
The tone of much of the coverage did not allay many of these fears. Newsday, for example, ran a two-part series about what really happened to career girls in the big city, titled thusly:
In other words, the ensuing panic did not lead to a lot of soul-searching about the root causes of violence against women. Instead it led to a giant, 5-borough-spanning investigation, one which was repeatedly called among the most expensive in city history. It would yield very little; mostly the papers would be reduced to printing endless rehashes of certain prank calls Janice Wylie had been getting at work in the weeks leading up to her murder. (Prank calling was a preferred mode of harassment in the 1960s, apparently.) For months nothing really moved.
The size and scope of the dragnet ended up backfiring. Because when the cops "found their man," he was a drifter loitering outside a laundromat in Brownsville, Brooklyn. And the process of connecting him to the Wylie-Hoffert murders was painstaking and fragile. Mostly because he was innocent.
Nineteen-year-old George Whitmore, Jr., was from Wildwood, New Jersey, which is near Cape May. He was shortish and skinny, and had what newspapers were then comfortable calling "below average intelligence." He had dropped out of school in eighth grade, he was myopic, and he had bad acne. He was also black in 1960s America. What work he could get was usually in manufacturing, or moving furniture. But he still wanted to impress other kids, so he scavenged a picture of a blonde girl from a garbage dump and scrawled "To George, from Louise," on the back. He carried it in his wallet, sometimes telling people it was his girlfriend.
One day in April 1964, during a stint living with his mother in Brownsville, Whitmore started chatting to a police officer who happened to be out in the street very early in the morning. As the New Yorker described it, the conversation began innocuously enough,
The young man said he was waiting inside out of the cold to meet his brother and go to work at a nearby salt-packing plant, and when Isola asked him he responded readily enough with a name and address. Then the young man volunteered something. "I know why you're asking me these questions," he said.
"Oh?" said Isola. "Why?"
"It's about that fellow the police were chasing last night," the young man said. "What was the shooting all about?"
The police officer told Whitmore that an attempted rape had recently happened nearby. Whitmore claimed to have seen the man running away. His willingness to share with the police officer was odd for Brownsville, where the cops were distrusted. The detective couldn't stop thinking about him. So the next day the cops returned and took Whitmore to the station. He thought they were going to show him a photograph lineup of the suspect. Instead, they presented him to the attempted rape victim, a 20-year-old nurse named Elba Borrero. It wasn't a line-up, but a "stand-up," meaning Whitmore was the only suspect Borrero was shown. He was told to say, "Lady I'm going to rape you. Lady, I'm going to kill you." She identified him as her attempted rapist.
The cops sent her home and began their interrogation of Whitmore. What followed was the matter of some dispute in subsequent years. Whitmore said the cops beat him repeatedly; the cops said they used standard interrogation techniques. Whatever happened, it eventually resulted in Whitmore confessing to the attempted rape, though in a roundabout way. One cop recorded their conversations thusly,
He thought it over a little while, and he then asked me, if a fellow was convicted for this type of crime, how much time would he do. I said I honestly didn't know, the punishment for the crime would be limited to the courts and the judge. "Well," he says, "I'll tell you the truth. I want to tell you that I'm the one that Mrs. Borrero identified as — I'm the person that she identified as assaulting her."
If, perchance, you are wondering why Whitmore didn't ask for a lawyer, it is because all this happened two years before the Supreme Court handed down Miranda v. Arizona and we could all recite the warning from heart from a lifetime of cop shows. Instead Whitmore was scared, he didn't know his rights, and gradually he ended up signing a false confession.
The cops apparently got ambitious at that point. Because Whitmore made repeated mentions of a certain road in Brownsville, they tried to connect him with a recent rape and murder there. The victim was Minnie Edmonds, 46. She'd been raped and killed by a slash to the aorta in an alleyway. The police began hammering Whitmore on this one too. They insisted he must have hidden the knife somewhere. They went to his girlfriend's home to retrieve clothes and to try to find the knife. They badgered him and told him they'd have his girlfriend, who was 17, sent to a girls' home. So Whitmore confessed to the Edmonds murder too. The "confession" process went something like this:
Q: Did you have the weapon on you that evening?
A: Yes, I have it right here.
As the New Yorker noted at the time, the knife on the table belonged to one of the detectives, so police were quick to correct him: "Did the knife you had seem to be an exact copy of this?"
Whitmore still had no lawyer.
The police still weren't done.
Rifling through Whitmore's things they found the photograph of the blonde girl in the convertible on which Whitmore had written "To George from Louise." As the New Yorker reported it, one of the Brooklyn detectives, who'd earlier been assigned to the massive, fruitless Wylie-Hoffert investigation, got an idea.
"Joe," [the detective] said to Di Prima, "I would like to talk to him about this picture. It bears an awful resemblance to Janice Wylie."
Based on this theory Whitmore went through another round of questioning. He explained where he'd gotten the photograph, explained that it was a prop in a lie about a girlfriend, explained that he'd borrowed the name Louise from an old acquaintance. The cops didn't believe him. They continued to question him for hours until he confusedly confessed to killing Wylie and Hoffert too, getting several details of the killings wrong in the process. Which took him up to confessing to three major crimes in the 22 hours he'd spent at the police station.
Everything happened so quickly that the Manhattan detectives actually in charge of the Wylie-Hoffert investigation had already begun to voice doubts—the girl in the photograph bore no real resemblance to Janice Wylie, in their opinions. But it was too late.
Early in the morning, the next day, the Brooklyn PD called a press conference and announced they had their man in the three crimes.
The press was mostly interested in the Wylie-Hoffert murders. They asked if the police were sure they had the right man.
"We wouldn't have booked him if we weren't sure," the police chief replied.
Except, as it would turn out, finally granted a lawyer, Whitmore recanted all of his confessions. He would be indicted by grand juries in Manhattan and Brooklyn on all three crimes, anyway, and be committed to Bellevue for a psychiatric evaluation. While there he kept a diary. "I never been threw anything like this before," he wrote. "Iv hard of it and seen it on T.V. Never thought it be me. They are making a mistake." The psychiatrists deemed him sane.
He would end up tried on only two of the crimes he was indicted for—the Edmonds murder and the Borrero attempted rape—and convicted on only one, Borrero's case. It would eventually turn out that Borrero had positively identified men other than Whitmore as their rapist in a photograph lineup, that a button she'd grabbed from her assailant's coat in no way matched Whitmore's, and that also she was talking to lawyers about collecting a $10,000 award Newsweek was offering for the capture of Janice Wylie's murderer. He would end up in jail for almost four years total while the various appeals and retrials worked their way through the courts. He wouldn't be exonerated until 1973.
Yet even before that the Manhattan DA had already moved on from Whitmore as a suspect in the Wylie-Hoffert murders. Nearly as soon as he was indicted they had, according to the New Yorker, already "conclusively determined" that the photograph wasn't of Wylie. The girl in the photograph they eventually identified as Arlene Franco, alive and well near Wildwood. Which left Whitmore with no real connection to Wylie.
And although he couldn't recall his own whereabouts, it seemed Whitmore had most likely been in Wildwood the day the Wylie-Hoffert murders occurred. Some local residents remembered watching the March on Washington with him.
The mess of the case was so notorious that when the Supreme Court did deliver its Miranda decision in June 1966, the following text appeared in a footnote:
Interrogation procedures may even give rise to a false confession. The most recent conspicuous example occurred in New York, in 1964, when a Negro of limited intelligence confessed to two brutal murders and a rape which he had not committed. When this was discovered, the prosecutor was reported as saying:
"Call it what you want — brainwashing, hypnosis, fright. They made him give an untrue confession. The only thing I don't believe is that Whitmore was beaten."
It had become so famous they made a lightly-fictionalized television movie about the case too, which starred an actor called Telly Savalas as Lt. Kojak. Whitmore "was paid a pittance for his cooperation"; the movie would get expanded into the long-running Kojak series.
Meanwhile, by late 1964 the Wylie-Hoffert murders had been linked to another suspect entirely. A white junkie named Richard Robles had told a friend he'd committed the murders. By 1965, Robles been investigated, tried and convicted for those crimes. He lived nearby, in Yorkville. He'd simply intended to burglarize the apartment, he said, but then Janice Wylie had been there, and he'd decided to sexually assault her. When Hoffert had stumbled on the crime she had openly vowed to remember his face and tell police about him. So in a fit of rage he killed both women, and left by a service entrance. It was a really simple story. "I was like a ghost," he'd tell a parole board, in 1986.
Whitmore lived out the rest of his life in what they call a "troubled" fashion. He died in 2012.
[Image by Jim Cooke.]