For more than 20 years, the murder of Howard Pilmar, a high-end coffee shop and office supply entrepreneur who was stabbed dozens of times and left in a hallway outside his Manhattan office in 1996, went unsolved.
From the get-go, the police investigating Mr. Pilmar’s grisly death were convinced that the culprit was someone who knew him. As they investigated, they discovered that Mr. Pilmar’s wife, Roslyn, and her brother, Evan Wald, had both visited Mr. Pilmar’s office the night before he was found dead.
The police learned that Mrs. Pilmar stood to receive more than a million dollars in life insurance benefits after her husband’s death. When they questioned Mr. Wald, they noticed a cut on his hand.
But as the years passed, detectives never found enough evidence to charge or arrest Mrs. Pilmar or Mr. Wald. Yet they could not find any other suspects in Mr. Pilmar’s murder either.
Then, in August 2017, Mrs. Pilmar and Mr. Wald were arrested. At the time, prosecutors said that cold-case investigators turned up new information that would prove crucial to their case.
On Friday, a jury in State Supreme Court found Mrs. Pilmar and Mr. Wald guilty on charges of second-degree murder after nearly four days of deliberations, the Manhattan district attorney’s office said.
The verdict, 23 years in the making, was a victory for prosecutors, who built their case on largely circumstantial evidence that they hoped would be compelling enough to bring Mr. Pilmar justice.
“For nearly 23 years, Roslyn Pilmar and Evan Wald evaded justice for their gruesome crime and thought they would get away with it,” the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., said in a statement.
Mrs. Pilmar and Mr. Wald each face 25 years to life in prison. Their lawyers said they would appeal.
“We’re disappointed in the verdict, of course, but the battle is far from over,” Sam Talkin, a lawyer for Mrs. Pilmar, said.
Throughout the trial, prosecutors portrayed Mrs. Pilmar, 61, and Mr. Wald, 45, as greedy, vindictive siblings who lured Mr. Pilmar to his office and murdered him in March 1996 to resolve financial troubles and settle personal scores.
“They planned it as a trap, and they set it up as a trap,” Elizabeth Lederer, the lead prosecutor, told jurors on Monday during closing arguments. “And he didn’t stand a chance.”
Mrs. Pilmar was staring down deep financial problems before her husband’s death, prosecutors said. She had been caught stealing $160,000 from the dentist’s office where she used to work and had promised to pay it back. But she had kept the problem a secret from her husband and was desperate to come up with the money without his help.
In the days before the murder, the calls about her debt were frequent and persistent, prosecutors said.
Adding to her debts, the state told Mrs. Pilmar that she owed the government about $14,000 in unpaid taxes related to her work running one of her husband’s coffee bars. They threatened to shut the business down if she could not come up with the cash, Ms. Lederer said.
“She owed the money, and she had to pay it back,” Ms. Lederer said of Mrs. Pilmar. “She had to find it quickly.”
All the while, prosecutors said, the Pilmars’ marriage was falling apart. Mr. Pilmar had contacted a divorce lawyer and was looking for a way out of the marriage, they said. Witnesses said Mrs. Pilmar had complained about her husband, calling him verbally abusive.
After her husband’s murder, Mrs. Pilmar received more than a million dollars on two life insurance policies, prosecutors said. She also inherited her husband’s businesses, which she sold months after his death, as well as an Upper East Side apartment and a summer home.
She eventually pleaded guilty to grand larceny in the embezzlement case in 1999, repaid the money she had stolen, and was sentenced to probation.
While Mrs. Pilmar grappled with money troubles, tensions were mounting between Mr. Wald and Mr. Pilmar. Mr. Wald worked for his brother-in-law and thought he was often overly critical, prosecutors said. As problems began to surface in the Pilmars’ marriage, Mr. Wald saw himself as his sister’s protector, Ms. Lederer said on Monday. Before the murder, he had said he would kill Mr. Pilmar if he ever hurt Mrs. Pilmar in any way.
Mr. Wald’s lawyers, Daniel Gotlin and Michael Croce, downplayed the testimony about that threat in closing arguments, saying it was not enough to build a case on.
“If you were planning something, why would you make that statement?” Mr. Gotlin asked on Monday.
“It’s like announcing, I’m going to kill the guy.”
Mr. Wald had been a suspect in the case for years after blood at the crime scene was found to match his DNA. When police investigators spoke with him after Mr. Pilmar’s death, they noticed a cut on his left hand that Ms. Lederer said Mr. Wald sustained while stabbing Mr. Pilmar.
When the police found Mr. Pilmar, 40, in a pool of his own blood outside his office on East 33rd Street, there was no sign of forced entry. The killing happened shortly after the building’s security guard’s normal quitting time, and detectives saw that as a hint that the killer was familiar with Mr. Pilmar’s business operations.
And because Mr. Pilmar’s wallet with $200 inside was found on his corpse, the police ruled out burglary as a motive.
The vicious manner of Mr. Pilmar’s death also added to the police’s suspicions. He had been stabbed dozens of times in the chest, back and neck. It was the kind of brutal attack that prosecutors and the police said often pointed them toward suspects with close emotional ties to the victim.
“Howard Pilmar was slaughtered and left to die on the floor,” Ms. Lederer said on Monday.
The police believed that the wounds were created by a left-handed attacker, she said. Mr. Wald is left-handed, and the cut was found on his left hand, she told jurors.
But Mr. Gotlin disputed the prosecutors’ assertions, saying that Mr. Wald’s cut came from cleaning up a broken plate that he had dropped.
“His hand was cut. So what?” Mr. Gotlin said during closing arguments on Monday. “That doesn’t mean he killed anyone with a knife.”
Mr. Gotlin also tried to get jurors to disregard the drop of Mr. Wald’s blood found at the crime scene. He said in the closing arguments that after detectives zeroed in on Mr. Wald early in their investigation, they failed to adequately pursue other leads.
Before his death, Mr. Pilmar had spent much of his life working in his family’s office-supply business, King Office Supply. As early as 4 years old, he was sweeping the aisles in the stores before moving behind the register as a teenager and eventually taking over the family business.
It was in 1992, after a trip to Seattle, when Mr. Pilmar came up with notable business innovation. Spotting the proliferation of high-end coffee bars in that city, he opened a coffee bar in front of the family store in New York City.
The beanery, named Philip’s after Mr. Pilmar’s son, helped King Office Supply stand out from other midtown Manhattan office supply stores and aided Mr. Pilmar’s business in fending off competition from encroaching national chains. With business booming, he opened a second Philip’s in the city not long after.
The night that Mr. Pilmar died, he was at his office at about 6 p.m., when his wife and Mr. Wald visited him. Mr. Wald said in an interview then that he and Mr. Pilmar went to work out at a gym before returning to the office. He and Mrs. Pilmar then left, he said.
At 5:45 the next morning, when a King Office Supply employee opened the office, he found Mr. Pilmar on the floor, fatally stabbed.