From the start, detectives believed the person who murdered Howard Pilmar in March 1996 must have known him. The owner of two gourmet coffee bars and an office supply business, Mr. Pilmar had been found stabbed to death in a hallway outside his fourth-floor office on East 33d Street.
There was no sign of forced entry to the building or the hallway, which was secured. His watch was missing but not his wallet with $200, making burglary an unlikely motive. He had been stabbed 27 times shortly after the security guard’s quitting time. The number of wounds suggested the killer had emotional ties to the victim; the timing suggested the killer knew his routine.
The police learned his wife, Roslyn, and her brother, Evan Wald, had visited him in the office the night before. They questioned Mr. Wald, who had a cut on his hand. Investigators also discovered that Mrs. Pilmar stood to benefit from two life insurance policies.
Yet as the years wore on in what detectives called the Coffee Bar Case, investigators could never find enough evidence to arrest Mrs. Pilmar or her brother. Nor could they identify any other suspects, despite taking fingerprints from more than 30 employees at one of Mr. Pilmar’s businesses, a combination gourmet coffee bar and office supply store.
That investigation finally came to end on Tuesday — 21 years after Mr. Pilmar’s death — when Mrs. Pilmar was brought into State Supreme Court in Manhattan and charged with second-degree murder, and Mr. Wald was arrested on murder charges near Lorton, Va., where he lives, prosecutors said.
Mrs. Pilmar, a gaunt blond woman of 60 dressed in jeans and a denim shirt, pleaded not guilty. After a short hearing, Justice Jill Konviser ordered her held without bail.
Elizabeth Lederer, an assistant district attorney, said Mrs. Pilmar and Mr. Wald, who is 43, had killed Mr. Pilmar because she was deeply in debt. She had embezzled more than $200,000 from a dentist’s office where she had worked and had to come up with a $15,000 payment within a week, the prosecutor said. Though she had also stolen from her husband, she did not have the money she needed.
After her husband’s murder, Mrs. Pilmar received about $1.5 million in life insurance benefits and inherited Mr. Pilmar’s businesses, as well as a summer home and an Upper East Side apartment, Ms. Lederer said. In 1999 she pleaded guilty to grand larceny in the embezzlement case, repaid what she had stolen from her former employer and was sentenced to probation.
Ms. Lederer said Mr. Wald had been a suspect in the killing early on because blood from the crime scene was found to match his DNA. Yet Ms. Lederer said the evidence was not strong enough to present a grand jury until this year, after cold-case investigators tracked down new witnesses with incriminating information. More than 38 people testified before the grand jury, she said.
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