Looking Back at the Preppy Killer Case, 30 Years Later

On the anniversary of Jennifer Levin's death.

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It's the first crime I remember. Thirty years ago today, on August 26, 1986, Jennifer Levin was strangled in Central Park by Robert Chambers. I can't remember now exactly how I learned the details of her death, they were just everywhere that year—on the cover of the Post and Daily News at newsstands, on the evening news promos that screamed on during the shows I watched.

Levin and Chambers had left Dorrian's, a bar on the Upper East Side, a bit past 4 in the morning. They'd walked into Central Park, where Jennifer died. She was discovered at dawn by a cyclist, her clothes torn and her body bearing the clear marks of a violent struggle. Chambers was arrested a few hours later—the police didn't have to look far for the obvious suspect. Multiple people had seen Chambers and Levin leave the bar together and their friends knew the two of them had been seeing each other, casually, that summer.

They had engaged in consensual rough sex, and as Chambers told it, Levin had started to hurt him and he'd pushed her off him, killing her in the process.

Chambers claimed they had walked into Central Park, found a patch of lawn across the East drive from the Metropolitan Museum, and then engaged in consensual rough sex. As he told it, Levin had started to hurt him and he'd pushed her off him, killing her in the process. He had no explanation, it seemed, for why he'd left her body there and drifted back home to his parents' apartment.

At 18, Levin was seven years older than I was. That's nothing really, but at the time it seemed like a vast difference. She was on the other side of high school, someone who went to bars and clubs and had boyfriends. Plenty of kids who grew up on the Upper East Side (as I and Chambers had; Levin lived in Soho with her father) were startlingly sharp and sophisticated by the beginning of sixth grade, but I was not. Central Park was a place where I went to the zoo, past the playgrounds I'd only recently outgrown. This was my first, terrifying window into what else might be happening in there—what it meant to be 18 and on your own in the city.

Levin was always described as pretty and vivacious, dark-haired and funny and fun. It was noted, too, that she liked to drink and go to parties, that she had a boyfriend in addition to Chambers and that the night she died wasn't the first time she and Chambers had sex. All this was surely meant to paint a picture of someone who'd put herself in harm's way. And even then there were victims' advocates who argued that no 18-year-old girl can be held responsible for her own murder, regardless of what she wore or drank or where she went with a boy.

All I could think about at the time was how terrified and alone Jennifer must have felt. On the cusp of adolescence, I had imagined all the ways that romance might be wonderful, just begun to hope that one day I might be with a tall and handsome boy. But Jennifer Levin's death was the grim flip side to those fantasies. I thought a lot about Jennifer and the moment when whatever was happening to her went from okay—manageable if not exactly fun—to horrific, a fight for her life. That moment could happen to any of us, to me.

In all the stories about the murder, Chambers was always described as handsome: Ruggedly so, or square-jawed or patrician. Plenty was also said about his checkered past (opens in new tab), the fact that he'd been kicked out of several prestigious schools, that he had a history with drugs and had been to rehab. He quickly earned the nickname the Preppy Killer. This made it impossible not to imagine Chambers in a polo shirt and dock siders, perpetrating a bit of casual violence on his way to playing tennis.

The nickname the 'Preppy Killer' perfectly captured the blend of menace and privilege that Chambers came to embody.

It was a genius sobriquet, like so many of those tabloid monikers. It captured exactly the blend of menace and privilege that Chambers came to embody. And of course his privilege had abetted his menace. His good looks and his charm and his address and his friends with even better addresses made people give him the benefit of the doubt again and again and again.

Five months before he killed Levin, according to the (opens in new tab)New York Post (opens in new tab), Chambers had stolen a friend's credit card and used it fraudulently. Chambers's mother talked the friend out of pressing charges, and promised Chambers would go rehab instead. She knew he'd stolen before and abused drugs, but she protected him, as so many others had. "I have always believed that if he had gone to jail for the credit-card theft and the thousands of dollars he illegally charged or had stayed for the required amount of time at Hazelden, then Jennifer Levin would have been alive today," Linda Fairstein, the retired head of the Manhattan DA's Sex Crimes Unit who prosecuted Chambers in Levin's death, told the Post.

Looking back, I can't find any evidence that Chambers' family or friends asked for leniency for the 19-year-old based on his "bright future" or his "good" background, though certainly the fact that the was an altar boy and a private-school kid was mentioned ad nauseam. Chambers had admitted to police that he killed Levin and plead guilty to manslaughter, with a sentence of five to 15 years in prison. (Prosecutors apparently had a hard time proving premeditation, and the jury deadlocked, which lead to the plea deal.) Chambers served the maximum sentence and was released from Auburn Correctional Facility in upstate New York in 2003. Five years later, he went back to jail, having plead guilty to selling cocaine out of his midtown apartment. His earliest possible release date is 2024.

The other word that people use over and over again to describe Levin's death is shocking. In an era where crime and death were relatively common place—murder was much more rampant than it is today: 1,907 people were killed in New York City (opens in new tab) in '86; 617 in 2014—this young white woman's death made a certain segment of the population, to which I belonged, feel suddenly unsafe.

People wanted to know how a girl on a hot summer night in one of the richest zip codes in the country could end up in such a dangerous and desperate situation. It's absurd of course—living on Park Avenue or going to private school can't protect you from rapists or murderers, nor should it earn you special treatment if you turn out to be a drug dealer or a thief or a killer. How many rapes and assaults have happened because the perpetrator seemed like such a good guy based on how he dressed or spoke or where he went to school or who his friends were? How many people like Robert Chambers have been allowed to do awful things over and over and over again because no one could quite believe they were dangerous criminals?

I don't know if alarm bells ever went off for Jennifer Levin that night. Perhaps she felt wild and free and full of possibility. I like to think of her that way, even as I wish she had decided to stay with her friends inside Dorrian's, to take a cab home with them and stare dreamily out the window, making a mental list of the things she wanted to pack for college. I hope her death taught a generation of young woman not to trust the good looking creep in the bar because of his Upper East Side bonafides.

It certainly taught me that.

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Elizabeth Angell

Elizabeth Angell is the Executive Editor, Digital for Town & Country, where she writes about the British Royal Family, the Kennedys, Ivy League shenanigans, superstars of interior design, and trends in style, beauty, and home.