Why you should care
Because sometimes bad guys don’t wear black.
Never had a book been judged so badly by its cover. Tipping the scale at about 220 pounds, the 6-foot-5 Robert Chambers appeared every inch the drill-team, altar-boy, prep-school kid he seemed to be. Despite his decidedly humble beginnings — a first-generation Irish kid on scholarship, raised by a single mom — Chambers’ movie-star looks drew more than a few passing comparisons to the Kennedy boys. He even got up to the kind of “good-natured” devil-may-care stuff rich kids, or kids who hang out with rich kids, often do in prep school: alcohol, drugs, pilfering to pay for said alcohol and drugs, almost willful bad grades and a string of expulsions from one high-toned place to the next.
So it was no big surprise when, in August 1986, a 19-year-old Chambers met up with 18-year-old Jennifer Levin at Dorrian’s Red Hand, an upmarket watering hole on New York’s Upper East Side. The bar was in full swing, and Chambers — newly single after dumping his latest girlfriend — knew Levin from school. It also wasn’t unusual that the two took off at 4:30 in the morning. But Levin being found dead, strangled, half-naked and covered in bites, bruises and contusions on a grassy knoll in Central Park, not too far from Dorrian’s, was very surprising indeed.
Murder is not that big of a shocker in a city like New York. It’s just more rare in neighborhoods that are nice.
Detective William McNeely
“Murder is not that big of a shocker in a city like New York,” Manhattan South Detective William McNeely tells OZY. “It’s just more rare in neighborhoods that are nice.” And a dead prep-school girl was the last thing the bicyclist who discovered Levin had probably expected to find nestled behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Chambers, who was arrested soon after, with fresh scratches on his face that he attributed to a cat, changed his story around before settling on: Yes, he had killed Levin, but in the midst of consensually rough sex that had started to go wrong. While defending himself, Chambers claimed, Levin had accidentally died.
“In more than 8,000 cases of reported assaults in the last 10 years, this is the first in which a male reported being sexually assaulted by a female,” said prosecutor Linda Fairstein during the trial. But through it all, in cover photo after cover photo, Chambers — all good hair and good teeth and now dubbed “The Preppie Killer” — became a media sensation. A sensation that seemed like it might ride that face right into freedom.
But the class/caste underpinnings had started to pull at the case, and many were not so into the “she asked for it” narrative that was not just implied but a centerpiece of Chambers’ defense. Nine days into deliberations, with the jury almost hopelessly deadlocked, Chambers’ defense team locked down a plea deal. Chambers would plead guilty to a lesser charge of manslaughter in return for a five- to 15-year sentence, which left the city feeling, if not satisfied, at least semi-believing that some kind of justice had been served.
Enter a home video — rare in those pre-cellphone days — showing Chambers, while out on bail, smiling, laughing and goofing off with four lingerie-clad girls high on his infamy. In the video, Chambers chokes himself with his own hands while making gagging noises before twisting the head off a Barbie doll and saying, “My name is … Oops! I think I killed it.” While the video didn’t affect Chambers’ sentence, in the court of public opinion he was now, officially, toast.
After serving most of his 15-year sentence, plus some for disciplinary infractions, Chambers was released in 2003. Not so surprisingly, he continued having troubles with the law, and in 2008 he pleaded guilty to selling drugs. The sentence? Nineteen years, which means that Chambers will be 61 years old when he is next released. Jennifer Levin — whose mother, Ellen Levin (who could not be reached for comment), later proved instrumental in getting New York’s rape shield law extended to homicide cases in order to keep the victims’ character from being dragged through the mud — is still dead.