I'm a Tennessee-based freelance writer with a passion for true crime, a thirst for knowledge, and an obsession with lists.
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 Midwest roots and finding success in the Big Apple.
After earning a degree from an all-girls 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, being it was far before women demanded equal rights and equal pay. No, in the 1960s and 1970s, for a woman to live a comfortable 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 an entirely different matter.
By today’s standards, Diane would be called a drama queen. When life got a little boring, Diane would 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 hated the manic lifestyle. Divorce came as sweet relief from the craziness of it all.
It’s often said that disordered 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. He once made allegations of abuse at the hands of an extremely strict father and a mother who was emotionally absent.
Seemingly overcoming those mind-scarring obstacles, Pikul studied and worked hard until he felt he had reached his goal of success. Joe Pikul became 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 even a tumultuous divorce did little to affect his bottom line.
When Diane met Joe, it was like a dream come true. Joe was handsome and wealthy; her idea of Mr. Right. So enamored with Joe was Diane, she had no second thoughts about marrying him when she discovered she was pregnant only a few months after they began dating.
As is prone to happen to men who are initially knights in shining armor, Joe did a complete turnabout after the wedding. 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 overdramatic and as someone always tossing fuel on the proverbial fires. She did and said many things just to rile Joe, but regardless, it served as no excuse for inflicting violence on Diane; often in the presence of their children.
Often friends and neighbors were audiences 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 off-limits to the Pikul's constant bickering.
Following one of their innumerable arguments several years into their marriage, Diane was snooping through her husband's things when she uncovered his deepest, darkest secret: Joe enjoyed secretly dressing in women’s clothing.
Her discovery was the final straw. Diane wanted a divorce.
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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, just not quite the position for which she had hoped.
Diane returned to the working world as an entry-level assistant rather than on the writing staff for which she felt very qualified. The pay was low; 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 it was time to proceed with the divorce. She planned to child support and alimony from Joe to bridge the gap between her income and the cost of her and the children's lifestyle.
But for Joe, there were two things he refused to do:
- Live without his children; and
- pay alimony and child support; especially to a woman whom he was certain was leaving him for another man.
In Joe's mind, it could not possibly be because of the constant arguments, violent assaults, or his secret hobby.
Deep down, however, Joe knew other people wouldn't agree when his and Diane's dirty laundry was out on display in family court. Friends, colleagues, bosses - every one of them would see the cross-dressing photos. They would know the real Joe Pikul.
He couldn't bear the thought of it. It was too overwhelming.
When he had these realizations, Joe could think of only one solution and he had the perfect plan. Under the guise of one last family weekend in the Hamptons before the divorce was finalized, Joe convinced Diane to drive up to their cottage home in Amagansett after work.
When Diane arrived on that chilly night of October 24, 1987, she had no idea her fate had been decided by her husband, who now lay in wait for her.
Getting out of the car, Diane began to walk toward the front door but did not make but a few steps from the driveway before being ambushed by Joe. It would take a moment before Joe's pummeling blows registered with her startled mind. Then suddenly, Diane saw her husband on top of her and felt his hands around her throat strangling the life out of her.
It was over. Diane was dead. Joe had a lot of work to do.
After Joe and the children returned to Manhattan, friends and coworkers began asking “Where is Diane?”
Joe appeared rather unconcerned by Diane’s disappearance. He told anyone who would listen that the couple had fought that weekend after he discovered an unfamiliar brand of condoms in the home’s master bedroom. He elaborated on his lie by saying Diane had fled into the night, undoubtedly to shack up with another man.
No one was buying Joe's explanations, however. As he continued to spread his lies, a close friend of Diane's was very concerned about her absence and filed a missing person report with the 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 a few days after the first, at least one detective sensed something fishy was going on.
Soon Joe found himself trapped like a deer in headlights and began confessing his misdeeds to detectives. It was a convoluted tale of self-defense, as Joe claimed Diane had come at him with a knife, and in a scuffle, she had been stabbed inadvertently.
Detectives have previously learned Joe had visited a hardware store where he purchased 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. Later the same evening, Joe had shown 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 without asking questions and never had any idea that it was Diane’s body.
Investigators weren’t convinced by Sandra’s testimony, however, when it was discovered that in the weeks prior to Diane’s murder, Joe had paid Sandra several delinquent alimony payments and she had agreed to be the children’s guardian should something tragic happen to the Pikuls. Nonetheless, Sandra held firm to her story.
Police had Joe’s confession, statements from Diane’s friends that she feared Joe would kill her, and testimony from the hardware story employee, they were ready to proceed to seek justice for Diane.
But Karma had other plans.
Murderer vs. Family in Family Court
Friends and family were unsure just how much the Pikul children had witnessed of their mother’s murder; thus, the idea of Joe, a confessed killer, having custody was just appalling. Friends 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 mudslinging from both sides of the aisle, Diane’s supporters were shocked and outraged when a family court judge declared Joe could retain custody of his children pending his criminal trial. The judge's reasoning was 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, 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 referred to time and again 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 wasn't a stupid man. He realized 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 how, should her new husband be convicted, she was more than willing to care for them.
Despite public opinion, Mary's testimony was good enough for Judge Kristen Booth to allow Joe to retain custody of his children; that is until she was contacted by upstate law enforcement officials who suggested she ask Mary about a marital dispute with her previous husband that involved the wielding of a knife.
With the revealing of this information, Joe realized he could not win and ended his bid for custody. Diane's cousins, Mike and Kathleen O’Guinn, were awarded custody of the two children.
Conviction Vacated Due to Death
In 1989, Joe Pikul was convicted of murdering 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 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.
Marrying the Hangman by Sheila Weller
The 1993 book Marrying the Hangman by journalist Sheila Weller is written with a feminist slant, downplaying some of the victim's bad behaviors and a biased focus on domestic violence against women. Although such is a bit annoying at times, I still found the book to be the best of two books written about the case and recommend to anyone wishing to know more about Joe and Diane Pikul.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2016 Kim Bryan