Born in a small Indiana town to well-to-do parents who thought they could never have children, Diane Jackson Whitmore always dreamed of shedding her heartland roots and finding success in the big city.
After earning a degree from an all-girl college, Diane set off for adventures in the big city but living the lifestyle she always dreamed of wasn’t as easy as she’d believed in the days before women demanded equal rights and equal pay. No, in the 1960s and 1970s, for a woman to live a luxurious lifestyle, it almost always demanded she have a husband.
Diane was beautiful and outgoing, so it didn’t take much effort to get a boyfriend. And even landing a husband came without difficulty. But keeping them was a whole other matter.
By today’s standards, Diane would be called a drama queen. When life got a little boring, Diane could always do something to stir that pot again. Whether it was spending money to excess or slipping off for an afternoon fling, Diane needed excitement.
For Diane’s first two husbands, it was more than they could handle. They loved their beautiful bride but hate the manic lifestyle. Divorce came as relief from the craziness of it all.
It’s often said that dramatic personality types are drawn like magnets to those just like them, which probably explains why Diane was so enamored with Joseph Pikul.
Joseph John Pikul
There’s not a lot known about the childhood of Joseph John Pikul, or Joe, as he preferred to be called. There’s allegations of abuse at the hands of an extremely strict father and a mother who was emotionally absent.
Regardless of what his early life my have lacked, one thing is for certain: he was a Wall Street securities analyst in high demand.
Despite the financial turmoil of America in the 1970s, Joe had managed to maintain and even increase his wealth. And a divorce had very little effect on his net worth.
When Diane met Joe, it was like a dream come true. Joe was handsome and wealthy, so when she discovered she was pregnant, there was no second thoughts about marrying him.
As is prone to happen to men who are initially knights in shining armor, Joe did a complete turnabout after marriage. When he wasn’t drinking and spending long nights at the office, he was at home with Diane instigating arguments by controlling her every move.
Diane was no angel herself. She’d long ago earned a reputation as being over dramatic and adding fuel to the proverbial fires. She did and said many things just to get a rile out of Joe, but regardless, it served as no excuse he inflicted on Diane; often in the presence of their children.
Often friends and neighbors were audience to screaming matches between the couple, either through the walls of their home, out on the streets, or in their weekend home’s yard. No time or place was of limits to the Pikul fiascoes.
After years of fighting, Diane discovered her husband enjoyed secretly dressing in women’s clothing and it was the final straw.
Diane wanted a divorce.
Divorce Turns Deadly
In preparation for divorce, Diane sought employment. With an English degree, she hoped to land a job with a publishing house. And she did, but not quite the position for which she had hoped.
Diane returned to the working world as an entry level assistant. The pay was well below what Diane needed to maintain the lifestyle to which she and the children were accustomed.
But as the bickering continued, the abuse became more intense, and Joe’s secret hobby turned into midnight rendezvous, Diane decided that she and was going ahead with the divorce and she would seek child support and alimony from Joe to bridge the gap between her income and lifestyle.
But for Joe, there was two things he refused to do: (1) Live without his children; and (2) pay alimony and child support; especially to a woman who, he believed, was leaving him for another man.
Under the pretense of one last family outing at the couples’ weekend home, Joe lured Diane to their Amagansett, Long Island home.
When Diane arrived on the night of October 24, 1987, her fate had already been decided by her husband, who lay in wait for her. As she approached the home, Joe began beating Diane. in the head and soon strangled her to death.
After Joe and the children returned to Manhattan following the weekend, friends and coworkers began asking, “Where is Diane?”
Joe appeared rather unconcerned by Diane’s disappearance. He told anyone who had listened that the couple had fought at the weekend home after he discovered an unfamiliar brand of condoms in the home’s master bedroom. He carried on his story by saying Diane had fled into the night, undoubtedly to be shack up with her boyfriend.
But no one was buying it, and one of her friends filed a missing persons report with police.
Initially police viewed Diane’s “disappearance” as another wealthy wife running off to punish her husband; but when Joe begrudgingly filed a missing person’s report with another precinct, at least one detective sensed something fishy was going on.
Soon Joe found himself trapped like a deer in headlights and decided he’d better start talking. It was then he began a tall tale of self-defense, claiming Diane had come at him with a knife and he had simply defended himself and inadvertently killed her.
In the course of their investigation, police learned that Joe had visited a hardware store to purchase tape and rope. On the night in question, he had called an old college friend out of blue and asked that he and his wife keep the Pikul children due to an emergency. After leaving the children at the home of his friend, Pikul appeared without notice at his ex-wife’s home in New Jersey and asked if he could bury something on her property. Sandra Jarvinen claims she turned him down and never had any idea that it was Diane’s body.
Investigators weren’t convinced by Sandra’s testimony, however, after it was discovered that in the weeks prior to Diane’s murder, she had received a lump sum payment toward deliquent alimony from Joe and she had agreed to be the children’s guardian should something tragic happen to the Pikuls. But Sandra held firm to her testimony.
Police had Joe’s confession, statements from Diane’s friends that she fear Joe would kill her, and testimony from the hardware story employee, they were ready to proceed to Court in search of justice for Diane.
But there were bigger things brewing than a murder trial.
Murderer vs. Family in Family Court
Friends and family were unsure just how much the Pikul children had witnessed of their mother’s murder. And the thought of Joe, a confessed killer, having custody was just appalling.
They sought to remedy the situation by supporting Diane’s cousin and her husband when they filed for custody in a New York family court.
After much mud slinging from both sides of the aisle (Joe gave one side a lot to work with), Diane’s supporters were shocked and outraged when a family court judge declared that Joe could retain custody of his children pending trial. The judges reasoning being that, although Joe Pikul was charged with murder, he had not yet been convicted and the children appeared to be in no immediate danger. She continued on to say that the best interest of the children was to be with a parent, and since Diane was unable to take custody, the other parent (Joe) stepped into first place.
This riled many residents of New York. Not only was this family court judge a woman, but someone who was otherwise tough on domestic violence offenders. Her ruling would be criticized long after made and be repeated through a series of appeals.
In the meantime, Joe Pikul remarried. It wasn’t necessarily for love, Joe was incapable of loving anyone but himself. But he realized that having a stepmother for the children was the ultimate trump card in a game of child custody.
Mary Bain Pikul abandoned her own husband to be with the accused murderer; even willfully relinquishing custody of her daughter. In testimony given during the child custody hearings, Mary spoke of how she loved the Pikul children and, should her new husband be convicted, she was more than willing to care for them.
It was good enough again for Judge Kristen Booth and was until she was contacted by upstate law enforcement officials that suggested she ask Mary about a marital dispute with her previous husband that involved the wielding of a knife.
Realizing the game was over, Joe ended his bid for custody and Mike and Kathleen O’Guinn were awarded custody of the two children.
Conviction Vacated Due to Death
In 1989, Joe Pikul was convicted on the murder of Diane. While awaiting sentencing, Joe was free on bond and his attorneys filed an appeal.
Karma, however, has a funny way of taking care of things.
After a one-week stay in a Goshen, New York, hospital, Joe died on June 13, 1989. Although hospital officials would not confirm it, sources close to Joe Pikul say that he died from complications arising from AIDS.
In August 1989, Judge Thomas Byrne of Orange County Court vacated Joe’s conviction pursuant to a New York law that requires a conviction to be vacated if the defendant dies while an appeal is pending.
When it was all said and done, Joe Pikul, at least in the eyes of the law, died with a clean slate.