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Ex of Slain Preservationist Wants His Unsolved 1972 Murder Case Reopened

By Mary Johnson | February 23, 2012 8:32am
Peter Detmold, 48, was murdered on Jan. 6, 1972. Now, 40 years later, police have yet to solve the case.
Peter Detmold, 48, was murdered on Jan. 6, 1972. Now, 40 years later, police have yet to solve the case.
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New York Daily News

TURTLE BAY — At the eastern end of 51st Street, a beautiful old block lined with townhomes and brick-fronted apartment buildings, lies a park named after Peter Detmold, a real estate aficionado and preservationist who was murdered in his doorway 40 years ago.

His killer was never found. And the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death — he was discovered with a stab wound to the chest, but there were no signs of robbery and his wallet was left untouched — have left those who loved him still searching for answers.

Nancie Taphorn, who dated Detmold for several years before they split, shortly before his death, said she would love to see some justice.

“I think they should open the case and they should find out [what happened]," Taphorn, who still lives in Turtle Bay, told DNAinfo in a recent phone interview. "I think there was a motive."

Detmold was an active advocate for neighborhood preservation in Turtle Bay in the 1960s and early 1970s, going up against developers who tried to convert Turtle Bay's old buildings into newer, bigger, more lucrative ones. Detmold was an outspoken leader in the fight to keep those builders at bay — until he was murdered on Jan. 6, 1972, at the age of 48.

The neighborhood was rough back then. A New York Times article written two days after the murder claimed the area had become "infested with pimps, prostitutes, aggressive homosexuals and narcotic addicts."

But Detmold made it his mission to take on big-time, high-rolling developers with millions at stake. In that pursuit, Detmold reportedly made some enemies, and even feared for his safety, said those who knew him.

“[Peter] had said to me one night, ‘If anything ever happens to me … look for the corporate people who are trying to tear the houses down,'" Taphorn said. "I have no idea if there’s any connection there, but I wouldn’t be surprised."

William Curtis, current president of the Turtle Bay Association and one of the last people to see Detmold alive, agreed.

“I’m totally convinced there’s more motive somewhere there,” said Curtis. “It seemed like there was something more there than a random act of violence.”

On the night of his death, Detmold was coming home from a meeting at Taphorn’s apartment, where he and several members of the Turtle Bay Association had gathered to discuss some business. It was dark out, and cold, witnesses recalled.

Detmold left Taphorn’s apartment with Curtis and another friend, Jeannie Sakol. On Third Avenue, Detmold parted ways with Curtis, who headed toward his home on East 49th Street. Detmold then walked Sakol to the door of her building on East 48th Street, his friends said.

The last Sakol saw him, Detmold was heading across the street to his fifth-floor apartment at No. 229.

“Poor Peter,” Sakol, now 85, recalled in a recent interview with DNAinfo. “I was the last one to see him alive.”

According to police documents, Detmold was found on the top floor stairway of his home later that night with a stab wound to the chest. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

Newspaper accounts of the crime offer a few more details. An article in The Gramercy Herald, a now-defunct publication, quoted police as saying Detmold was stabbed on the first floor of his building and then stumbled upstairs, knocking on neighbors' doors to no avail, until he collapsed on the fifth floor.

The sound of his body hitting the floor prompted one woman to peer out her peephole. When she saw Detmold’s body, she called another neighbor and, finally, the police.

The police file does not mention whether any of Detmold’s possessions were missing, but Curtis said a detective who interviewed him several times immediately following the incident told him that Detmold’s wallet had not been stolen.

“We were shaken there for a little while,” Curtis recalled. “Here’s a leader of the neighborhood who was quite visible, especially at the community board, and he was known for arguing with our elected representatives and everybody else that didn’t see the way he thought that preservation in the community should be.”

Friends recalled Detmold, a graduate of Cornell University and who fought in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II, as a shy, reserved person with a bit of a playful streak and a driving passion for preservation.

“What I remember about him was that he was dogged in his pursuit of the ethics of the Turtle Bay Association and in preserving those houses,” Taphorn recalled.

“He would have killed like a tiger if any corporate patrol had come in and tried to take over those houses,” she added. “He was fierce.”

Detmold spoke openly at city planning meetings and was an active member of Community Board 6, friends and acquaintances said. He also took some battles to court, if tenants were being harassed or threatened with eviction as large-scale developments tried to move in.

In a New York Times article from 1969, Detmold spoke about the pressure he often received from prospective builders, calling it “intense and unrelenting.”

Detmold also claimed to have been offered a $500,000 bribe from a developer seeking a building variance to build commercial on land zoned only for residential use — a bribe Detmold said he flatly turned down.

“The rumor was that [his murder] had something to do with real estate,” Sakol recalled. “That maybe somebody was paid to knock him off because he stopped something.”

At the time, police circulated a sketch of a possible suspect, a man described as about 5-foot-10, 160 pounds and in his 20s or 30s, according to reports. The case files include multiple accounts of residents seeing such a man on the street around the time of the murder, but there is no record of an arrest.

The NYPD’s cold case squad declined to comment.

Despite the fading mystery surround his death, Detmold remains a defining figure in the history of Turtle Bay. His work is chronicled in a book about the neighborhood, “Manhattan’s Turtle Bay,” written by resident Pamela Hanlon. And Curtis said the association has worked steadfastly to continue his preservation work.

“We really have gone on and done the kind of thing that he wanted to do,” Curtis said.