A Killing in Central Park: The Preppy Murder Case
October, 2007, 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.