Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

A Killing in Central Park: The Preppy Murder Case

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."

 

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