A nationwide obsession with the true crime genre in recent years has prompted the reopening and re-examination of numerous criminal cases through podcasts, television specials and docuseries, each time bringing not just new voices and technology to the cases, but rearview insight. The latest, from Sundance and AMC, takes us back to 1986, when a 12’x12’ crime scene in Central Park became front page news, day after day, bringing out the worst in tabloid journalism.
What became known as The Preppy Murder began inside of Dorrian’s Red Hand, an Upper East Side bar that remains open today. It was there where "starry-eyed SoHo teenager" Jennifer Levin, on the night of August 25th, 1986, met up with a guy she had been seeing that summer, Upper East Sider Robert Chambers (who lived in a rich zip code but had attended prep schools via scholarships as his family could not afford the tuition). Later in the night, the two decamped to Central Park, and by the time the sun came up that morning, a cyclist, Pat Reilly, discovered Levin’s body behind The Met and called the police. (The Met's security cameras were actually lined up in a way that would have caught the crime on tape, but they were devastatingly out of service that night for maintenance.) It’s Reilly who begins retelling the story in this series, noting she went from feeling “invincible” to feeling less brave—"that morning changed everything for me.”
Mike Sheehan, who died earlier this year, is the voice of the NYPD in the series. The detective (who also worked on the Central Park Five case, and was later a reporter) comes straight out of a Richard Price novel, and leads viewers through the process, frustrations and all, that eventually led to getting Chambers behind bars.
In his taped questioning on the following day, where scratches are apparent on his face, the 19-year-old Chambers says he remained near the crime scene—“I stayed there and I watched,” silently and from a safe distance, as the cops arrived and began their investigation, before (allegedly) going home to sleep. He goes on to claim that he accidentally killed Levin after she forced “rough sex” on him.
“She was too pushy,” he told the police, “and she liked me more than I thought.”
This, with the help of Chambers’s lawyer, Jack Litman, became a popular media angle; Litman pushed this narrative to benefit his case, and it’s believed he planted stories in the lead-up to the trial. The story unfolded through headlines that increasingly blamed the 18-year-old Levin for her own death; from a non-existent "sex diary" to claims of promiscuity and even prostitution. The victim-blaming was not subtle, headlines declared “ROUGH SEX” led to her death, while others screamed: "HOW JENNIFER COURTED DEATH" and "JENNY KILLED IN WILD SEX." The length of her skirt was mentioned more than once.
"It sounded like she’s a slut," her friend Jessica Doyle recalls.
Yeah, I’m sure she was sleeping with multiple people, but you know what, she’s 18, playing the field… believe me, I’m sure Robert Chambers was sleeping with anybody he could get. I’m sure he had sex with multiple women at that time... but he’s a guy, when you say that about a woman it suddenly implies that there’s something wrong with her. This is why we’re here, this is what we need to deal with here.
Peter Davis, another friend of Levin’s, noted that "the media was kind of weirdly Team Robert Chambers, even though he killed her.”
Amidst this, a "Justice for Jennifer" group emerged and would rally with signs outside of the courtroom once the trial began.
Longtime NY Post reporter Steve “I gotta get that story!” Dunleavy, another talking head in the series who comes straight out of Central Casting, explains why the story was "perfect" for him: “You have youth, you have money, you have sex, you have death… it just gripped the city.” It also burst the illusion of safety in the bubble of privilege and private schools.
Prosecutor Linda Fairstein (also known for the Central Park Five case) remembers, “All anyone could talk about was how good-looking Robert Chambers was… it so played into his version of the events, that this must have been an accident because nobody who is that good-looking would have to hurt a girl who was with him."
The defense had to cut through the noise and spectacle created by the tabloids, and Fairstein notes in the series that it was their job to change the public opinion of Robert Chambers, who was becoming a bit of a blue-eyed Kennedy-esque charmer in the papers. This task, dismantling the prep school poster boy and unmasking his true persona, became a little more difficult after Archbishop Theodore Edgar McCarrick of New Jersey wrote a letter in support of Mr. Chambers' character, urging for his release on bail. (It's worth noting that McCarrick was removed in 2018 by Pope Francis following credible sexual assault claims.) Chambers was released on bail, which was paid for by his family and the owner of Dorrian's Red Hand, Jack Dorrian, and he remained free for the two years leading up to his trial.
During this time he was caught on tape at a party surrounded by women and decapitating a Barbie doll, saying, "Oops! I think I killed it." The footage aired on A Current Affair.
In the end, the jury in Chambers's trial was deadlocked for over a week, and Chambers ultimately pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of manslaughter. He served a 15 year sentence for the murder of Levin, and when he got out, he lived with one of the women in that Barbie video, Shawn Kovell. The two were later charged for running a cocaine operation out of their New York apartment, which at that point was just the latest in a list of drug arrests since his release. In 2008, Chambers pleaded guilty to dealing cocaine and was sent to prison once again; he's currently serving at Sullivan Correctional Facility in New York State, with his earliest eligibility for parole in 2024.
This 5-part series airs on AMC and SundanceTV over three consecutive nights, starting this Wednesday, November 13th, 9 p.m.