Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

A Killing in Central Park: The Preppy Murder Case

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.


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