Saturday, 27 October 2007

A Killing in Central Park

Handsome bad boy Robert Chambers murders attractive young Jennifer Levin in the park.

The Jennifer Levin murder case captivated New York City and mesmerized the public with its sordid tale of "rough sex" and a freewheeling lifestyle among the city's spoiled youth. Fueled by the tabloids, which featured such titillating headlines as SEX PLAY GOT ROUGH, JEN'S SEX DIARY and the now notorious, HOW JENNY COURTED DEATH, the case dominated front-page news for two years.

The media turned Chambers into the victim, blaming a very young woman for her rape and murder. Jennifer Levin, 5 foot 3 inches and 120 pounds, roughed him up a little too much during sexual play behind Manhattan's Museum of Art. He said that he was forced to act in self-defense when he accidentally choked her to death.

Now "preppie" killer Robert Chambers is charged on multiple felony drug counts.

On a crisp, sunny morning in August 1986, a dedicated cyclist pedaled her way through Central Park in New York City near the back of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The path she rode led in an easterly direction, twisting through the trees and bushes that grow in the shadow of the museum. Several times a week, Pat Reilly, 34, cycled this route before she left for work. She guided her bike carefully through the area known as Cleopatra's Needle. It was a little past 6 a.m., the day's first light was just about making its way between the canyons of 5th Avenue and E. 82nd Street. Most of the time, the trip was safe and uneventful, but in the park, one had to be aware of the surroundings. As Reilly made her final turn approaching the museum, her eye caught the image of a person lying on the ground. It appeared to be a woman. Not such an unusual sight in the park, but what piqued her interest was the absolute stillness of her body.

She steered her bike over to the spot where the woman lay under a large, leafy elm tree whose branches hung low to the ground. She dismounted and had to walk in order to get closer. Reilly came to a halt about 20 feet away. She was already nervous and knew that something was very wrong. "Her clothes were around her waist and around her neck, but I knew that I was looking at the front part of a naked woman," she later said.

Pat Reilly saw that it was the body of a partially clothed girl. Her mini-skirt was pushed up past her waist and her bra and shirt were pushed above her chest. Nothing was covering her breasts. Her neck had large, red colored bruising on both sides of her throat. There were various items of clothing strewn about the scene. The young girl had short brown hair and looked to have a recent tan. And she appeared to be dead, though without checking her pulse, the cyclist could not be sure.

Pat Reilly quickly sped off and when she came upon a phone in the park, she stopped to call the police. She found all the phones in that area were ripped off their columns by vandals and thieves. She then went to 5th Avenue outside the park to look for the cops, but there were none to be seen. Finally she found a telephone at 90th and Madison Avenue and she was able to reach the police department to report what she found.

And so began one of the most sensational murder cases in New York City's history: the brutal killing of 18-year-old Jennifer Levin that came to be known as the Preppie Murder Case. Its lurid details of freewheeling sex among the city's privileged youth and the often-infuriating conduct of the accused killer and his legal defense kept New York City mesmerized for nearly two years. The city's ravenous tabloid press catered to an insatiable public who couldn't read enough about the ongoing drama that played out daily on the six o'clock news and in the city's courts where justice is frequently mangled. At the center of the storm was a man who told a ludicrous story of a sexual assault committed by a 5'4", 130-pound girl upon a 6'4", 200-pound man. A man who portrayed himself as the poor, unfortunate victim of an aggressive female who was so determined to have sex with him that he had to kill her in order to stop her.

The Scene
When the uniformed police from the Central Park precinct arrived at the scene on the morning of August 26, 1986, they found the body of a young, attractive girl who had the typical signs of being raped or sexually assaulted. Her legs were spread eagled, her clothes were mostly off or pushed out of the way and she had obvious neck wounds, which indicated strangulation. Detectives were notified and within minutes cops, forensic people and photographers invaded the area. Although a dead body found in a public place in Manhattan in the 1980s was truly no big news, (there were at least 1,592 homicides in NYC in 1986), because of the location, the event attracted attention. News reporters, who monitor the police radio frequency in New York City, quickly responded.

The girl was lying on her back. Her mini-skirt had been pushed up to her waist. Her bra and shirt were pushed up to her neck. Her panties, if she had been wearing any, were missing. There were no stab wounds or gunshot injuries, only the very obvious red marks on the girl's throat. She also had bruises, bite marks and cuts on her body, which indicated a lost fight for life. Most officers at the scene believed she had been walking or jogging in the park, which was very common, and came upon her attacker. Unlucky, but not so unusual.

A few hundred feet away, by a stone wall, pedestrians and joggers watched the police work the scene. Susan Bird, a local real estate broker and jogger who had just finished her morning run, stood by the wall. Next to her, within an arm's length, a young man sat on the rocky ledge. He was tall, had "a nice face" and appeared to be about 20 years old. She asked him what was happening. The man said he thought the police found a body. She asked him a few more questions but noted that the young man's responses seemed indifferent. They remained together by the wall for the next 15 minutes. Then Susan Bird walked off. The next time she would see this young man, his photograph would appear in the daily newspapers. His name was Robert Chambers.

As the N.Y.C.P.D.'s Crime Scene Unit (CSU) searched the body, they found a credit card identifying the dead girl as Jennifer Dawn Levin. A number of rings and bracelets were collected, along with her wallet. Several photographs were found in her jacket, which lay nearby. Investigators from the Central Park precinct soon arrived and assumed control of the scene. Detective Michael McEntee was assigned the case, his very first homicide investigation. As he searched the area around the body, he discovered a pair of white panties approximately 50 feet away. The underwear lay under another tree, crumpled up into a small, round lump. The panties appeared to have been rolled down when they were removed.

The Assistant Medical Examiner, Maria Luz Alandy, arrived at 9:45 a.m. By then, this area of Central Park was filled with senior-ranking cops, press people and hundreds of civilians who watched every minute of the unfolding drama. A veteran of more than 1,000 autopsies, Alandy made several observations about the girl. She saw that the eyelids had tiny points of bleeding called "petechial" hemorrhages. These injuries are usually an indication of interrupted blood supply to the brain. Although this condition can be found in other parts of the body, when they are found in the eyelids, it usually indicates death by asphyxiation: strangulation. Dr. Alandy also noted that rigor mortis, the stiffening of a human body after death, had already begun but not yet fully set.

Rigor mortis, long used by coroners to establish time of the death, is caused by the absence of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is needed by muscles to perform their contractions. Once death occurs, production of ATP ceases and the muscles begin to stiffen. Normally, rigor mortis begins within two to four hours after death, but it is not permanent. As decomposition begins, rigor mortis fades. Estimating time of death is a very inexact science because accuracy depends on a wide variety of shifting factors. Dr. Alandy estimated the time of death in this case as approximately 4 hours earlier.

Soon, detectives were able to trace the name of Jennifer Levin and eventually located her father, Steven Levin, at his office in lower Manhattan. Detectives responded and broke the news of his daughter's death. He called one of Jennifer's friends and found that she had been at a bar on the Upper East Side the night before called Dorrian's Red Hand.

Dorrian's Red Hand
The Upper East Side of Manhattan, along 1st, 2nd and 3rd Avenues are lined with bars, restaurants and clubs where young people gather to drink, party and meet each other. They crowd into these bars almost every night of the week, where underage drinking, drugs and sex are part of the scene, especially during the 1980s when the minimum drinking age was still just 18 years old. A certain image developed during that time, which portrayed these young people as affluent, spoiled and self-indulgent. They went to private schools and vacationed in the Hamptons. They drove their fathers' BMWs and coveted MBAs and law degrees. They wore designer clothes and knew all the right colleges. They hung around the East Side bars spending money they didn't earn and drinking booze they couldn't legally buy.

One of these bars was Dorrian's Red Hand at the corner of E. 84th Street and 2nd Avenue, which became a favorite of Jennifer Levin and her friends. During 1986, her group visited Dorrian's several times each week and they frequently met there both before and after they went out on dates or to the movies. The place was always crowded and they were sure to bump into someone they knew because everyone knew everyone else at Dorrian's. The owner, Jack Dorrian, was a familiar sight to the preppie crowd. He was sort of a friend and a father figure to lots of the kids, according to Jennifer's friends. The place was like their own private club. When parents called looking for their kids, they were relieved to find that they were at Dorrian's rather than some strange place somewhere else in the city.

During late August 1986, the bar was packed with high school graduates who were having a last summer fling, saying good-bye to each other before going away to college. They drank Summer Breezes and Rum and Cokes, which they bought with phony IDs, and made elaborate plans to meet again. It was here, at Dorrian's Red Hand -- where romances began and ended, where the partying seemed to go on forever and the illusion of youth stretched out before them like an endless carpet -- Jennifer Levin first laid eyes on Robert Chambers.

Robert Chambers
Perhaps because of her humble beginnings on a farm in County Leitrim in Northern Ireland, Phyllis Chambers had desires for a higher social standing. Later, when her son Robert was born, whom she believed to be talented and destined for bigger things, she focused all her attention upon him. She sent Robert to the very best schools that she could afford although she did not have a high paying job. Trained as a nurse in Dublin, she was able to get a job as a caregiver to affluent families in New York City. Her contact with the social elite of Manhattan made her strive even more for her son. Phyllis was upwardly mobile and never missed an opportunity to improve Robert's social skills. She enrolled him in the Knickerbocker Greys, an elite military drill group where the Vanderbilts and the Roosevelts had been members. It was a prestigious organization that could help his future and maintain the kind of image that his mother wanted for him.

Robert Chambers as a teenager was an attractive young man. Standing 6'4" and weighing two hundred pounds, he often towered over his friends at the bars. Girls were naturally drawn to him and he knew it. He had blue eyes and the well-proportioned features of a movie star. During those years, he attended a series of prep schools where he continuously ran into difficulties, mostly of his own doing. Either he had failing grades or behavioral problems that included rumors of stealing and drug abuse. After attending summer school to make up required work, Chambers finally graduated from York School in Manhattan. Ironically, his "bad boy" image probably improved his prospects with the impressionable girls at Dorrian's. Undaunted by his poor performance in prep school, his mother managed to get him accepted into Boston University in 1984. But still, his erratic behavior got him into trouble once again. Before the second semester began, Robert was asked to leave the college. He had gotten into a jam over a stolen credit card.

Once he arrived home, he couldn't hold a job. He was unreliable and never seemed to fit in. It soon became obvious to his friends that Robert Chambers was using drugs. He also did a few burglaries with an accomplice; breaking into apartments on the Upper East Side when he knew the owners weren't home. Later, he sold the proceeds in local stores and pawnshops. He was questioned by the police about the crimes but denied any involvement. A heavy drinker for years, his alcohol and drug abuse became severe enough for him to seek treatment at the Hazelden Clinic in Minnesota.

Nevertheless, when he returned to New York several months later, Chambers continued with his old ways. The police wanted him to stand in a line-up concerning the old burglaries and his mother was after him to get a steady job or get back in school. But he ignored them all. One night, after he left Dorrian's, police issued Chambers a summons for disorderly conduct when they found him screaming obscenities in the middle of the street. As they drove away, Chambers tore up the summons and yelled: "You fucking cowards, you should stick to niggers!"
During the summer of 1986, while Chambers was at Dorrian's with friends, he met Jennifer Levin. He had told one of her friends that Jennifer was "the best-looking girl in the world." Jennifer was elated. She had seen Chambers several times at the bar but had never spoken to him. She thought he was gorgeous. Jennifer's friend told her that he wanted to talk with her but his girlfriend was in the bar. That night though, she left Dorrian's with Chambers for the first time and soon, they had sex together.

Jennifer Levin was outgoing, pretty and had lots of friends. She was raised on Long Island and during the early 1970s, her parents, Ellen and Steven divorced. Jennifer and her mom soon moved to California but returned to New York in 1979. Later, Jennifer graduated from Baldwin School, a private school on E. 74th Street in Manhattan. During the summer of 1986, she worked as a waitress in football player Doug Flutie's Pier 17 restaurant on South Street. Although the work was tough, she managed to save some money for college in the fall. She planned to attend Chamberlayne College in Boston that September.

She eventually moved in with her father, a successful real estate broker, in a spacious loft in Soho, the region South of Houston Street in lower Manhattan. Because her parents were divorced, Jennifer may have craved love and attention, which is common among children from broken homes. She tended to fall in love easily and had sexual relationships with others before Chambers. She was extroverted, loved to have fun and go out with friends. She visited all the trendy spots in Manhattan, like Studio 54 and Hard Rock Café.

Though she was only 17, Jennifer looked older than her age. She had short brown hair, a freckled complexion and a wide engaging smile. She wore sexy clothes like ripped jeans and tight mini-skirts. But she always dressed well as a friend once said: "Nobody knows as much about style as Jennifer." People liked having Jennifer around and she frequently attended parties at the clubs in Manhattan and sometimes at the Hamptons, which she visited frequently during the summer months.

But her love life faltered. She went through several boyfriends who somehow always disappointed her. She felt rejected and used. "Boys are so strange," she told a friend, "When you haven't had sex yet, all they want is to get you to do it. But if you've had it, they're scared of you."

Throughout 1986, she and her friends hung around Dorrian's where they would meet up sometimes after they went out. They were well known there by all the bartenders, including John Zaccaro Jr., son of Rep. Geraldine Ferraro who would make history one day as the first woman to run for Vice-President. One night, before the summer began that year, she saw a tall good-looking guy standing at the bar. When she asked around, she learned he was Robert Chambers. She liked the way he looked, his body language, the way he combed his hair. So when he took notice of her, Jennifer was elated. "Maybe this time," she may have thought, "maybe this time I'll luck out."

The Interview
When Detectives Al Genova and Frank Connelly of the N.Y.P.D. tracked down Robert Chambers on the morning of the murder, they had no idea what to expect. They went to his home at 11 East 90th Street, just off 5th Avenue and next door to the Carnegie mansion, where Phyllis Chambers answered the doorbell. Det. Genova explained that a girl was missing and they needed to talk with Robert. When he emerged from the bedroom, the police were momentarily shocked at his appearance. He had scratches on his face and arms. And they were very fresh.

Det. Genova said that a girl was missing and that he would like to talk with Robert at police headquarters. Robert agreed. Within minutes, he and the two detectives drove over to the Central Park precinct. Phyllis, perhaps accustomed to dealing with the police, decided to wait it out at home after she was assured that Robert was needed to help the cops find the missing girl. It was just about 3 p.m.

The Central Park precinct, known as the "two-two" in the police world, was built in the 19th century to shelter horses for the park maintenance crew. During the 1920s, the building was converted to a police precinct and little by little, furniture, desks, communications equipment and the bare essentials for a police station were brought in. But the building itself retained its original design and charisma, which was unique in New York. It was constructed of dark, dingy brownstones and from the outside, it looks like a small castle from some distant era.

"Did you notice the scratches on Robert's face?" Genova asked Det. McEntee at the precinct. Everyone who saw Chambers that morning noticed the blatant injuries to his face and hands. It was a detail that spoke silent volumes of what may have happened the night before.

"How did you get those scratches on your face?" asked Det. McEntee."Oh, my cat scratched me," Chambers said."What happened to your hand?""I was sanding floors for a woman who lives upstairs from me, and the sanding machine jumped around and cut my fingers," replied Chambers without missing a beat.

Throughout the afternoon and into the evening, Chambers maintained his composure, exhibited confidence and seemed to be cooperating fully, even if some of his answers strained credibility.
At about 5 p.m. that day, in another room at the station house, a throng of reporters had gathered for a press conference about the murder. They had no idea that a suspect was being questioned a few feet away. But the story was already gaining momentum in the media.
By early evening, Manhattan North Detective Mike Sheehan and A.D.A. Steve Saracco joined in the interview. Chambers offered several explanations concerning his movements the night before. At first he said that Jennifer left Dorrian's without his knowledge and he never saw her again. Then he said that she walked across the street to buy cigarettes. But Jennifer did not smoke. After the detectives expressed doubt, Chambers said he walked outside the bar with her and she left for the night. Chambers changed his story several times to conform to the questions he was asked. Sheehan developed something of a rapport with Chambers and began to express sympathy for the young man. The seasoned detective knew that sometimes the best way to elicit a confession from a suspect is to express empathy. Chambers seemed responsive to Sheehan although he insisted that he last saw Jennifer when she left Dorrian's alone. Sheehan told Chambers that he had witnesses that placed him and Jennifer together leaving Dorrian's.

"Yeah, well I did leave the bar with her, I guess," said Chambers. For the first time, Chambers seemed taken aback. His eyes filled with tears. He shifted uneasily in his seat and seemed unsure of his words. It was the beginning of a long and detailed confession that would leave detectives speechless and shaking their heads in disbelief.

"The First Man Raped in Central Park!"
Soon, Chambers related what he said was the true story about how he had first seen Jennifer the night before in Dorrian's. A.D.A Saracco decided to tape the confession. In 1986, videotaping the statements of suspects was still new but not unknown. Sometimes the results of confessions on videotape can work against prosecutors. But at about midnight, in the presence of Det. Sheehan, Det. McEntee and A.D.A. Saracco, Robert Chambers gave his version of the death of Jennifer Levin.

Saracco read Chambers the Miranda warnings. Then, Chambers was asked how he came to be with Jennifer at Dorrian's the night before. He said that he was in the bar with friends when his girlfriend, Alex, began to argue with him in front of everyone. He said this embarrassed him and got him angry. Within a few minutes, Jennifer came over and said that she wanted to talk to him.

"I had a shot of tequila…and I did my shot and went outside and I met Jennifer. And then we started walking to 86th Street," Chamber said on the videotape. He said that he told Jennifer that he didn't want to see her anymore but she wouldn't hear of it. She wanted to go to the park.

"No, no, I want to go home," he said to her. In spite of his initial refusal to go to the park, Chambers said they both wound up in a grassy spot behind the museum. "I didn't even want to be with her," he said. Chambers described Jennifer as very sexually aggressive and he had to push her away several times. More than once, he said that he rejected her attempts at sex. They sat down on a bench and Jennifer disappeared into the bushes for a minute.

"The next thing I recall is she grabbed me from behind and tied my arms up behind my back with her panties," Chambers said.

"She started to take off my pants, she started to play with me. She started to jerk me off. She was doing it really hard. …And I-you know-I started to say, 'Stop it! Stop it! It hurts!" Chambers said. "She like sat on my face and then she dug her nails into my chest and I have scratches right here," Chambers said as he showed the cuts to the camera. "She was just having her way…I just could not take it…she was leaning forward, jerking me off and squeezing my balls and laughing, and I managed to get my hands free. So I kind of sat up a little and just grabbed her," Chambers said. "It-it was just really quick, she just flipped over and then landed, and she was kind of twisted on the tree. On her side." And that was it. That's how Jennifer died. That was the explanation offered by Chambers: she died by accident when he pushed her off of him after she tied him up with her panties, forced him down on the ground and groped his penis. In summary, he was defending himself against rape.

When the detectives expressed doubt on his story, Chambers became rigid and defensive. "She was having her way with me. Without my consent. With my hands tied behind my back," he said. But no matter how he tried to explain the event, Chambers could not explain the injuries to Jennifer's neck and body. He stuck to his story as improbable as it sounded.

After he saw that Jennifer was not responding, Chambers said he simply left the area and walked over to a nearby wall. "Then I went across and I sat on the wall and the lady with the bike came and then the police came and an ambulance came," he said. And after the killing, after he knew that Jennifer was dead? "And then I just walked through the park all the way up to Ninetieth Street…And I just, I went upstairs and got undressed and went to sleep," he said.
"I've been in this business for a while, and you're the first man I've seen raped in Central Park," Saracco said. The video ended and Chambers was formally placed under arrest and charged with the murder of Jennifer Levin. Before booking, he was allowed to visit with his father who was waiting out by the front desk. When he walked into the room, Chambers stood up and blurted out a statement that his father later said he didn't hear.

"That fucking bitch, why didn't she leave me alone?" he said.

"Wild Sex Killed Jenny!"
The campaign to demolish the reputation of Jennifer Levin began almost on the day of the murder. Press reports on the case, which reflected a blatant bias in favor of Robert Chambers, bordered on the hysterical. Headlines like "Sex Play Got Rough," which appeared in the N.Y. Daily News on August 28, two days after the murder, were typical of the tabloid's view of the crime. From the very beginning, the press embraced the idea that Jennifer somehow caused her own death by her irresponsible behavior and by her "teenage vamp" image that was promoted and sustained by the print media. Chambers was seen, strangely enough, as a victim who was on an equal plateau with the dead Jennifer. The killing was a tragedy, not a murder.

Within a few days of the crime, the majority of the press corps was inclined to accept at face value, the statements of Chambers who said that he was defending himself against a sexual assault. Of course, the fact that both victim and suspect traveled in circles that most city dwellers never see was also a part of a story that one reporter called "irresistible." A slaying in Central Park that revolved around young good-looking people, sex and the socialite class was the kind of event that newspaper editors dream about, a story that made its own headlines.
Stories about Chambers and Levin almost universally described them as gorgeous, rich and from an ill-defined upper level of society. Whether or not they were gorgeous is a matter of opinion. But they were not rich nor did their origins come from Manhattan's social register. The media's labeling of the event, as "The Preppie Murder," was also inappropriate since Chambers was not a "preppie." He had already attended college and was thrown out. His entire scholastic record was one of failure and disappointment.

Chambers, from the day he was arrested was described in the press as "handsome", "extremely good-looking" or "Romeo." His future was "promising" and "bright." The murder was perceived as almost a temporary setback for what he was to accomplish in his charmed life. Jennifer Levin on the other hand, was described in newspaper articles as " sexy," "worldly" and stories on her background focused mostly on how many boys she dated. References were made to her sexual past as if to say, "yeah, she's the kind of woman who would try to rape a guy."

On August 29, the N.Y. Daily News ran this headline: "How Jennifer Courted Death." There it was. It was now official, in a sense: Jennifer caused her own murder. The idea that was implanted in the public mind, and everything that followed afterwards, had to conform or in some way support this theory: a girl who drinks in a bar with a man late at night and goes to the park for sex, deserves what happens to her. Reporters from the city's newspapers, including the Times, who struggled to find some sort of moral lesson in the murder, followed this line of reasoning for months. And much of that reporting was the result of personal bias, as one N.Y. Times reporter said: "I felt so offended by the lifestyle that these kids lived." Robert Chambers received lots of good press. His arrest and indictment for the burglaries he committed, his past drug abuse and poor reputation among friends was conveniently ignored. In contrast, Levin's past was fair game for every kind of scrutiny and innuendo. It was only months later that stories began to appear that examined the negative past of Chambers.

But the damage was done. The groundwork was laid for a contentious legal battle that was at times, infuriating, hurtful and preposterous. On one side was a dedicated prosecutor, a champion for victim's rights and feminist causes. On the other was a brilliant trial lawyer, Harvard graduate and defender of the accused. And together, they would fight to a bitter end in which neither side could claim a total victory.

Battle Lines are Drawn
Jack T. Litman, 43, was hired to defend Robert Chambers. Litman was no stranger to New York's courts or controversy. He was already one of the city's most well-known defense attorneys and in years past participated in several high-profile trials. As a young graduate from Harvard Law School, his first legal job was as a prosecutor with the Manhattan D.A.'s Office where he developed a fine reputation, losing only one trial. But his heart was not in prosecutions. After several years, he left the D.A.'s office and went out on his own. He took several dramatic cases to trial involving police shootings, winning them all. Litman also defended several accused murderers who were convicted on lesser charges.

But Litman's most famous trial to date was the Bonnie Garland murder, a case that became known for its "blame the victim defense." Garland was a 20-year-old Yale University student in 1977 who was sleeping in her own bed at home in Scarsdale, New York. A man, later identified as fellow student Richard Herrin, broke into her room and bludgeoned her to death with a hammer. Herrin was a former boyfriend who was spurned by Garland. When the case came to trial, Litman offered the defense that Herrin was acting under a sort of diminished capacity because he was mistreated by Garland. Eventually, Herrin was convicted on a lesser charge of manslaughter. But Litman suffered through a great deal of criticism from an angry press and a fed-up public who saw his tactics as a further degradation of the victim. The Bonnie Garland murder was well remembered in 1986 and soon, protesters marched in the streets carrying signs that denounced Litman for his role in the Chambers case.

Linda Fairstein, 39, a veteran A.D.A. out of the Manhattan office, was named as the prosecutor. Fairstein was a graduate of prestigious Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, and the University of Virginia Law School in 1972. She spent most of her career in Manhattan prosecuting rape cases and, as a result, developed a genuine empathy for sexual assault victims. During the 14 years she was part of the D.A.'s office, the rape conviction rate rose from 10% in 1973 to almost 75% in 1985. Although she was widely respected in the courts, the Chambers case would be her first murder trial. But Fairstein was determined not to have Jennifer's name or memory dragged through the mud. In reply to Litman's motions, Fairstein said in court papers: "In more than 8,000 cases of reported assaults in the last ten years, this is the first in which a male reported being sexually assaulted by a female." Ironically, her very first job when she arrived at the Manhattan District Attorney's office was to assist a young prosecutor named Jack T. Litman. They remained in touch throughout the years. Of Litman, she once said, "He's a brilliant lawyer. Our passions are very different, and I'm glad I don't do what he does, but I certainly respect his right to do it."

On September 29, Litman asked the court for bail. In support of the request, he supplied the names of dozens of character witnesses including a letter of support from Archbishop Theodore McCarrick of Newark, New Jersey. McCarrick knew Phyllis Chambers and Robert from the time she worked as a nurse for Cardinal Cooke of New York. He wrote that Robert was an outstanding young man who surely would not hurt anyone. Although most murder defendants were denied bail, Judge Howard E. Bell was persuaded. He set bail at $150,000 and added one condition. If released, Chambers would have to report regularly to a Monsignor Leonard in a church in Washington Heights. Fairstein was outraged. In the Bonnie Garland case, the defendant was also released on bail and also placed under the supervision of the Catholic Church.

When Judge Bell announced his decision to grant bail, he told the court he was "deeply concerned about the families on both sides in this case. The court finds that bail in this case is appropriate." Ellen Levin burst into tears when she heard the ruling and ran from the courtroom. The Chambers family tried to raise the cash but could not get all the money together. Jack Dorrian, owner of Dorrian's Red Hand, posted the remaining bail. Concerning the propriety of providing bail money, Dorrian said, "At least his mother has the comfort of having him out of jail for now. I'm sure the mother of the victim would understand that." But, of course, she didn't. The vision of her child being viciously strangled in the darkness of Central Park obscured her ability to see things as clearly as others.

"Blame the Victim!"
In November of 1986, word leaked to Jack Litman that the prosecution had read a diary that belonged to Jennifer Levin. To make matters worse, it was rumored that the diary contained a detailed litany of Jennifer's sexual activity including the names of many different young men. Litman claimed that Fairstein first mentioned this diary to him and in doing so said there was an abundance of sexual material in its pages. Fairstein denied this allegation, but Litman submitted court papers asking that the diary be made available to the defense. He said that the diary contained information that could be beneficial to his client and therefore under the rules of evidence, he was entitled to it.

The press immediately dubbed the book the "sex diary." It became linked with Jennifer's name for the duration of the trial and helped to denigrate her reputation as well. Whatever image she had as a young and innocent college girl took a battering in the press who consistently referred to her as "rich," "bubbly," "sexy" and "privileged." Headlines that emphasized the sexual aspects of the case appeared daily in the city's tabloids and the N.Y. Times. Fairstein, trying to stem the tide of bad press, told reporters: "There isn't a sex diary. There is a school date book, but nothing chronicling Jennifer's sex life."

Ultimately, the contested diary was turned over to Judge Bell for a private review. After a reading, Litman's request was denied. Judge Bell wrote that the diary "contained no admissible evidence and nothing that was relevant and material to the defendant's case. He added that Chambers should not be permitted to take "an unrestrained tour of investigation." However, the diary issue was an ominous development for the prosecution team. They feared it was the opening barrage of what was to come in the weeks and months ahead. Would there be no limits to what steps the defense would take to exonerate their client?

An organization called "Justice for Jennifer" was formed by some of her friends and other interested parties who were outraged at the attempts to destroy the victim's reputation. They wore pins whenever they appeared in public and frequently spoke to reporters, condemning the tactics of Chambers' defense team. The spokesperson for the group, Rose Jordan, told the Times that women who are murdered "are victims of the same distortions to justify the violence against them." But there were supporters of the defense tactics as well. A law professor from N.Y.U. School of Law told reporters: "Not only is it not unethical to try to cast aspersions on the character of the victim, it's ethically the lawyer's duty to do that if it will succeed in a not-guilty verdict or conviction of a lesser charge."

But the specter of a "trash Jennifer" defense did not sit well with most people. Although in 1985 changes were made in the rape laws in New York, which restricted testimony into the sexual past of a victim, they did not apply to murder cases. And Jennifer was not around to take the stand in her own defense. The Village Voice said it best in an article titled "Who's On Trial?" when author C. Carr wrote: "The Chambers\Litman story is that of a 'bad girl' who gets what she deserves and a helpless man defending himself from her sexual voraciousness."

"I Think I Killed It!"
The case moved forward at a snail's pace. Chambers' videotaped confession was ruled admissible, though in a slightly edited version. Edited out was D.A. Saracco's sarcastic questioning on the night of August 26, 1986, in which he expressed obvious doubt about Chambers' responses. Statements made by Saracco such as, "If I was sitting here telling you this story, you'd be laughing" and "I really don't believe what you're saying!" would never be heard by the jury.

In the meantime, Chambers complained to many people that he would have to go to jail. To his family and acquaintances, he played the role of the victim. It was he who was being sent to prison, it was he who was being vilified and persecuted. This was the theme Chambers repeated over and over again. The entire year of 1987 went by while Litman filed motion after motion in Judge Bell's court. Each motion had to be addressed, argued and decided upon. This ate up a great deal of time. The press grew tired of the delay and said so in several editorials. But unknown to the public, Chambers did not stay at home and sulk while waiting for trial. He attended parties, went out to the local bars and often met with friends to socialize and talk about his future.

In December of 1987, Chambers attended such a party given by a friend who had once attended York Prep while he was a student. Her name was Melissa Buschell. She invited several of her girlfriends over and after drinking for a time; they came up with the idea of videotaping themselves. When Chambers arrived, he joined in the fun and Melissa taped the scene while the girls fooled around and performed comedy routines for the camera. Chambers began to roll on the floor mugging for the camera. He took a woman's wig and placed it on his head and in his crotch area as the girls giggled continuously. He choked himself with his own hands as he gagged loudly. He picked up a doll and held it close to the camera while he twisted its neck. Chambers spoke in a high female voice as he said, "My name is" The head to the doll suddenly came off the body. "Ooops," he said in a maniacal voice. "I think I killed it!" The room erupted in laughter. The girls, some who were Jennifer's friends, perhaps did not realize the symbolism of Chambers' wretched behavior. The tape was placed aside and forgottenfor a time.

The Trial
After months of pre-trial maneuvering and motions filed by the defense, New York's most anticipated trial opened on January 4, 1988. On the bench sat Judge Howard E. Bell, whose rulings infuriated both sides during the many legal questions prior to trial. The press reported every development in court and hardly a day went by that a newspaper editorial didn't condemn Litman for his "blame the victim" defense.

The prosecution began by putting the police officers and forensic investigators on the stand for the first few days. They detailed the crime scene, the location and condition of the body. But the handling and processing of the evidence at the crime scene was not perfect. At times, it was less than acceptable and Litman was able to cast doubt on much of the critical evidence offered by Fairstein concerning the crime scene.

A parade of young people who were friends of the victim, or who were at Dorrian's on the fateful night, took the stand to testify.

Medical Examiner Dr. Maria Alandy testified to the post mortem examination and stated that compression of the victim's neck had to be substantial in order to effect death. It was crucial testimony; for Chambers' explanation was that he grabbed Jennifer by the neck for a moment and threw her off of him. For her final witness, Fairstein put on a Dr. Werner Spitz, the chief medical examiner for the city of Detroit who would give his opinion as to the nature of Levin's injuries. But it was Litman who originally contacted Spitz to testify for the defense. The doctor had taken an immediate dislike for Litman and was not shy about it on the stand when Litman questioned him.

Q: We had a conversation two days in a row, don't you recall them?

A: No. I have no recollection of speaking to you more than once. I don't think I'll forget that phone call for a long time.

Q: In that call, did I convey to you ideas, suppositions, I had about this case?

A: It was a shouting match, and you paid no attention to what I said. You tried to influence my opinions.

Q: Do you remember my telling you things that Chambers had said?

A: Maybe, I don't recall. I felt bulldozed, and I completely turned you offI was on the phone, but I wasn't listening to what you were saying.

This contentious line of questioning continued for some time as Litman tried to elicit favorable testimony from the defiant Dr. Spitz. Essential was the estimate of time it took to strangle Jennifer and the two men argued, debated and screamed over that point for virtually the entire time Dr. Spitz was on the stand. And once, when Litman tried to get Spitz to agree to a point he was trying to make, the doctor became enraged.

Q: I'm challenging you, Doctor, to tell us how the blouse was tightened into a rope around her neck! Can you or can't you tell us which part was against the side of her neck?

A: I can't tell you.

Q: The fact is that you can't do it, can you?

A: If you want, I'll demonstrate to you right now, on yourself!"

On March 2, Jack Litman opened his defense. He had only five witnesses to testify for Chambers including Dr. Ronald Kornblum, chief medical examiner for Los Angeles, who refuted Dr. Spitz's observations as best he could. By March 10, the defense rested and the case later went to the jury.

For nine nail-biting days, the jury debated the issue of guilt or innocence. Reports indicated that the atmosphere in the deliberations room was tumultuous and undecided. At one point the vote was 8-4 for acquittal. A later poll was 9-3 for conviction on second-degree murder. One black juror complained that other members of the panel were racists. Several times, jurors asked to be excused because of the mounting pressures. In an interview with the N.Y. Times, Debra Cavanaugh, the jury forewoman, said, "Both sides proved their points. Both sides' stories could be true." Another juror said: "Our feelings went back and forth so much, I can't say what it was."

Chambers Cops a Plea
However, unknown to the jury, who was sequestered in another room, a deal was being worked out behind the scenes. Litman and Fairstein were talking about a possible plea bargain. Pivotal in the talks was the outcome of pending charges for the burglaries committed by Chambers in 1986. Those felony charges combined with a possible conviction on manslaughter could put his client behind bars for a long, long time. While the jury was completing its ninth day of deliberations, word leaked out in the courtroom that a deal had been struck.

Chambers, as it is said, copped a plea. He would plead guilty to first-degree manslaughter and faced a sentence of five to 15. He had to serve a minimum of five years. In addition, he had to plead guilty to one count of burglary for his thefts in 1986. The significance of that plea was important, since it made Chambers a two-time loser. If he should be convicted of a third felony sometime in the future, it would mean life in prison. The news swept through the courthouse like a tornado.

While the jury was out of the room, the plea in court began. Chambers stood with his attorney to hear Judge Bell ask the questions.

"Is it true, Mr. Chambers, that on August 26, 1986, you intended to cause serious physical injury to Jennifer Levin and thereby causing her death?" he said.

"Looking back on everything, I'd have to say yes, but in my heart I didn't mean for anything to happen," Chambers said as he stared at the floor. Fairstein interjected.

"Your honor we're asking about his mind and his hands, not his heart!" she said.

The judge repeated the question and this time, Chambers replied: "Yes, your honor." But he shook his head back and forth as if to indicate "no."

"Is there any question in your mind about causing her death?"

"There is no question, your honor," Chambers replied. He also had to plead out to the burglary charge. Sentencing was set for April 15. At 5:40 p.m., the jury was brought back into the courtroom and for the first time, they learned that a deal had been made. Judge Bell gave them the news.

"This matter has been disposed of. Thank you very much for your services," he said to the jury.
Some of the panel began to cry as they marched out of the box. The media crush was everywhere, trying to interview anyone who would talk. A few minutes later, outside the court, Ellen Levin spoke to the TV cameras.

"I don't think we could have withstood another trial," explaining her fears about a possible hung jury. "We could not have sustained that strain and tension for another year and a half." It was what a lot of people were thinking. For better or worse, it was over.

After the trial, as the excitement of the case subsided, the forgotten "party" videotape ignited passions again. The TV program Current Affairs heard rumors about the existence of a strange video recording in which Robert Chambers did some extraordinary things: like choking himself and tearing the head off a doll. There were young girls in their underwear on the tape too. And it all took place while he was awaiting trial for murder and under the bail supervision of the Catholic Church. Current Affairs tracked down the owner of that tape and it was reported that the owner was paid $10,000 for the recording though the price was never confirmed.

During April 1988, Current Affairs played the tape for its TV audience. The reaction was immediate. Again, Chambers caused a sensation. Outtakes from the video played on all the television networks. There was outrage and disgust at his behavior. Many saw it as a further denigration of Jennifer Levin. The image of Chambers laughing and mugging for the camera while young girls in their underwear cavorted in the background was too much for the public. Whatever support he may have had in the community turned against him. The press finally hammered away at Chambers.

In 1989, a TV movie called The Preppie Murder was made about the case. It starred Billy Baldwin as Chambers and Lara Flynn Boyle as Jennifer. Det. Mike Sheehan served as a consultant on the project. The Levins did not cooperate with the production of the film. Neither did Linda Fairstein. Jack Dorrian also refused any filming inside the Red Hand bar.

There was a $25 million dollar wrongful death suit filed by Jennifer's parents. Chambers did not fight the lawsuit and the Levins won a judgment against any of his future earnings. Since Chambers would surely be released from prison one day, he still had the potential to make money. To his supporters, he later wrote, "I came to the decision to plead 'no contest' to end this circus once and for all." But his troubles were still not over. While incarcerated, he violated prison rules several times including an incident where he was found to be in possession of marijuana. These infractions added time to his sentence and also affected his eligibility for parole. As of September 2001, Robert Chambers was still in custody at Auburn State Prison. He has a parole hearing scheduled in December 2002.

February, 2003 Update
Valentine's Day is for lovers. It is supposed to be a time of romance and candlelight dinners in secluded restaurants. But for the family of Jennifer Levin, murdered at the age of 19 by Robert Chambers in 1986, this year's holiday will likely be a difficult one. On February 14, Chambers, the misnamed "preppie killer" is scheduled to walk out of New York's Auburn prison a free man at the age of 36. He will have served his maximum sentence for Jennifer's murder: 15 years.
Actually, he is due out February 16. But because that date falls on a Sunday, he will be released the Friday before, Valentine's Day. Chambers could have been released as early as 1997, but he committed a series of infractions in prison that added to his time.

In 1986, the Jennifer Levin murder case captivated New York City. The killing in Central Park mesmerized the public with its sordid tale of "rough sex" and a freewheeling lifestyle among the city's spoiled youth. Fueled by the tabloids, which featured such titillating headlines as SEX PLAY GOT ROUGH, JEN'S SEX DIARY and the now notorious, HOW JENNY COURTED DEATH, the case dominated front-page news for two years. A home video, made by a friend of Chambers shortly after the murder trial, was shown on prime time news in 1988. It showed a smirking Chambers ripping off the head of a female doll and mugging for the camera. "Oops! I think I killed it!" he said in a high-pitched voice during the video. It was a disturbing reference to the actual murder. A TV movie was later produced starring one of the Baldwin brothers as Robert Chambers. The film generated a great deal of anger among citizens that has not yet totally subsided.

Ellen Levin, Jennifer's mother, recently described the agonizing ordeal of losing a child on "Larry King Live." "It was horrible," she said. "I felt like I was getting hit over the head over and over again. We all suffered. My whole family was in disbelief over what had happened." The Levin family attended the trial every day and sat a few feet away from her daughter's accused killer. "He took my daughter's life and I hate him for that," she said.

Over the years, she accumulated tens of thousands of signatures on petitions and showed up at parole hearings to make her feelings known about possible freedom for her daughter's killer. As for Chambers, he has never shown any public remorse for what he has done. At a 1995 parole hearing, he made the curious statement: "I guess I could also give you the party line and say I have learned my lesson, I will never do this again, but that's not how I feel at the moment."
During the murder trial, Chambers' attorney used a "blame the victim" defense. The 6-foot-4-inch Chambers claimed that Jennifer Levin, 5 foot 3 inches and 120 pounds, roughed him up a little too much during sexual play behind Manhattan's Museum of Art. He said that he was forced to act in self-defense when he accidentally choked her to death. To support that contention, Jennifer Levin's life and reputation were put under a critical microscope for the world to see. She was said to be promiscuous, drunk, spoiled and worse.

Chambers was frequently described as a "preppie," which he was not; "handsome"; "promising"; and deserving of an exciting future that was just out of his grasp. The more negative aspects of his past life, like drug abuse, thefts, burglaries and expulsions from several schools were rarely mentioned and never emphasized. But those tactics ultimately backfired. It brought the "blame the victim" strategy to the forefront of public attention. Many victim's rights groups were formed, and Ellen Levin spent the last 12 years working for changes in laws that emphasize the right of criminals. She has also counseled parents who have lost their children to murder.

In the meantime, Robert Chambers has been confined to the Auburn facility where he has been in involuntary protective custody confinement since April 6, 2002. Inmates that are high-profile, like Chambers, are susceptible to attack from other prisoners. As a precaution, they are frequently placed in confinement for their own safety. During his time at the facility, Chambers has been less than a model prisoner. A recent Associated Press report said that between July 1988 and June 1997, Chambers was docked for 75 months of good time due to seven violations of prison rules. He has spent nearly five years of his sentence in solitary confinement. All of that becomes history after February 14 when Chambers walks out of Auburn for the last time. Since he has served his complete sentence, he will not even be under parole supervision. Under the eyes of the law, he will have paid his debt to society in full for killing Jennifer Levin.

Phyliss Chambers, the mother of Robert, was an Irish immigrant who stood by her son during the 1986 trial. Before the murder, she was full of hope that her handsome son would become a successful businessman or perhaps a politician. She lobbied continuously with no success over the past 15 years for the release of her son. The Chambers' family attorney, Brian O'Dwyer, recently told CNN, "There will be no statements from the family prior to February 14." But for a mother who has endured the ultimate tragedy as a parent, the suffering will go on. "I think she's incredibly lucky to get her son back," Ellen Levin told the New York Daily News recently, "because I'm not getting my daughter back."

Preppy Killer Arrested
Nearly everyone in the upscale building on E. 57th Street in mid-town Manhattan suspected what was going on in the seventeenth floor apartment. For months, unfriendly strangers would show up at the front door at all hours of the day or night, enter and leave within a few minutes. Some of the visitors were sleazy and scary, and many seemed high on drugs. Neighbors in the high-rise complained about the suspicious activity, and police were summoned to the building on several occasions.

The show came to an abrupt end on the night of October 22, 2007, when police, armed with a no-knock search warrant, showed up at the front door of apartment 17-B. After breaking down the door with a battering ram, police entered and arrested two suspects, Robert Chambers, 41, and his girlfriend, Shawn Kovell, 39. They had been living there since 2003, when sympathetic landlord Connie Hambright let the couple rent the space though she suspected they couldn't afford it. At the time of his arrest, Chambers allegedly fought with police, injuring three cops in the struggle. The story might have attracted little attention, since this type of drug raid is performed every day by New York Police Department drug teams and Drug Enforcement Agency agents. Except Chambers wasn't an ordinary suspected crack dealer.

The once-handsome Robert Chambers may be better known as the Preppy Killer. In August 1986, he was arrested for the strangulation murder of eighteen-year-old Jennifer Levin after a night of partying in Manhattan's trendy East Side bars. Coverage of the case reached remarkable heights of media frenzy, featuring lurid headlines such as "Sex Play Got Rough" and "How Jenny Courted Death." New York tabloids especially received a great deal of public criticism when some seemed partially to blame Levin for placing herself in harm's way by taking the fatal late-night stroll with Chambers in Central Park.

In his defense, Chambers claimed that Levin was the instigator and that he was trying only to defend himself from her aggressive advances. In the midst of a sensational trial, in which Chambers had as many supporters as detractors, he suddenly pleaded guilty to a charge of manslaughter and was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. He was released from prison in February 2003 and remained out of legal trouble until 2005, when he was charged with heroin possession and later served one hundred days in jail for the offense.

Inside the E. 57th Street apartment on Monday, police found what seemed the squalid crash pad of a drug abuser. The $1,800 a month dwelling was a shambles, filthy and littered. A mural of a lizard or a dragon adorned the wall behind the headboard of an unmade bed. Uneaten food and dirty dishes lay about the kitchen, and dirty clothes littered each room. According to news reports, police found crack pipes and several bags of cocaine, which may lead to additional charges. The New York Daily News reported that the apartment was the scene of "heavy drug traffic in recent months, and undercover cops bought a quarter-kilo of coke with a street value of $20,000." The New York Post differed in its assessment, reporting that "in all, they purchased nearly $10,000 worth of drugs during seven different sales."

"My heart is broken," Connie Hambright told Daily News reporters after the arrest. 'I think it happened out of desperation, financial desperation." Other neighbors, tired of the apparent drug activity on the 17th floor, were not so understanding. "It was absolutely horrible," one tenant said to reporters from the Post. "What can you possibly say about him, except, 'Put him away for good'?" said another.

Chambers was charged with multiple counts of selling drugs in the first degree; each charge is an A-1 felony in the State of New York and more than enough, given his prior record, to put him away for the rest of his life. Kovell, a long-time friend of Chambers, was also charged with drug sales. She was one of the pretty girls seen in the notorious 1987 video tape shot while Chambers was awaiting trial for Levin's murder. In the video, he was seen mugging for the camera with Kovell and her friends, ripping the head off a doll. "Oops!" he said in an affected voice. "I think I killed it!" When the news program A Current Affair broadcast the tape in April 1988, public outrage was immediate and vociferous.

When reporters tried to talk with him after his most recent arrest, Chambers seemed confused about what had happened. "I don't even know why I'm here," he said to a Daily News reporter. In court, Chambers told the judge that he did not know why he had been arrested nor what the charges were. His appearance was a far cry from the suave, cocky image he had projected throughout his 1988 trial, when young women packed the courtroom and swooned over the handsome, 6'5" defendant. When he appeared this week in Manhattan Criminal Court, Chambers seemed much older than his years, unshaven, dirty and thin. The promising future that once seemed his is long gone. The only future he seems to have left is one behind bars.

"I would expect he would spend the rest of his life in jail," said District Attorney Robert Morgenthau to Post reporters.


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