Friday, August 26, 2011

Preppie Love

On this day 25 years ago, Robert Chambers became the "Preppie Killer" when he strangled an 18–year–old girl named Jennifer Levin in New York's Central Park.

That was a different time. Today, the murder of an unknown yet attractive girl anywhere would attract dozens of camera crews from all over the world, and the internet would be full of details on first the investigation and then the trial. In 2011, you wouldn't be able to escape those details, no matter how hard you tried.

But in 1986, things were different. I was living in Arkansas at the time, working on the copy desk of the largest newspaper in the state. I thought that having access to the Associated Press' wire meant I would know things that many of my friends did not, but the information we got on the Preppie Killer was spotty at best.

I'm sure the coverage of the case was pretty intense in New York and the media centers of the Northeast, but, as I say, that was many years before cable and the internet made it possible for people to see and read daily news coverage in places around the globe.

As the drama of Chambers' arrest and trial played out, I might as well have been in another hemisphere. Most of the information I got on the case came from my subscription to Newsweek. It wasn't quite as spotty — but it still left a lot to be desired.

I have often wondered if it might have been the "trial of the century" until the O.J. Simpson case in the mid–1990s — if the technology of the 1980s had been as advanced.

When Chambers eventually did go to trial, it was hardly what I would call the "trial of the century." But it sure did draw a lot of attention for its day — and that did lead to a kind of trickle–down effect in terms of the information that was available.

It's the kind of thing that has always attracted the folks in our culture, and if cable TV had been more extensive and the internet had been more than an information network linking research–oriented institutions, the audience that followed the Preppie Killer story might have rivaled that of the Casey Anthony trial.

Chambers was a tall, good–looking guy who, apparently, had most things handed to him as he grew up. He seems to have had something of a social inferiority complex.

Chambers attended prep schools on scholarships; his family couldn't afford the tuition. He did not thrive in that environment, received poor grades and ran into problems with theft and substance abuse.

He was accepted to Boston University, but the same problems that plagued him in prep school followed him to college, and he was asked to leave after a single semester.

On Aug. 26, 1986, a month before his 20th birthday, he was at a Manhattan bar where his girlfriend loudly ended their relationship, throwing a bag of condoms at him and assuring him that "you're not using them with me."

Chambers' girlfriend was, reportedly, upset that Levin was at the bar. The story was that Levin was Chambers' secret lover. Witnesses said they left the bar together.

I don't know if that was true or not. Neither do I know if it is true that, later, Chambers and Levin had "rough sex" before Chambers, who stood more than a foot taller than Levin and weighed nearly twice what she did, strangled her in Central Park.

Chambers claimed that Levin hurt his genitals and he pushed her from him, accidentally killing her. It never really seemed plausible, considering the nature of the physical evidence.

"I've been in this business for a while," the prosecutor said to Chambers, "and you're the first man I've seen raped in Central Park."

But that was Chambers' story, and he stuck with it.

Well, whatever the truth was, Chambers wound up pleading guilty to manslaughter, and he served 15 years in prison. He was released, ironically, on Valentine's Day 2003. With time off for good behavior, he might have been released earlier — but he had disciplinary issues in prison that mirrored the ones he had prior to Levin's death, and the same problems followed him as he tried to carve out a life for himself after his release.

A few years ago, Chambers, now in his mid–40s, was sentenced to 19 years in prison after his conviction on drug charges.

I suppose it is possible that he could get some time off for good behavior. But, given his history, it doesn't seem likely. I think he will be behind bars until he is in his 60s.

A cynical person might say a pattern has been established.

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