By James S. Kunen
September 25, 1989 12:00 PM

The spot where Jennifer Levin died—behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York’s Central Park—is shaded by gnarled trees, their lower boughs bent to the ground. The tumult of the city seems far away, and the air is as sweet as a young girl’s hair; a visitor inhales sadness with each precious breath.

Something unspeakable—and as yet unspoken—happened here in the predawn hours of Aug. 26, 1986. Jennifer, 18, and Robert Chambers Jr., 19, had walked into the park together, but only Robert Chambers walked out.

His trial last year, which became known as the Preppy Murder Case, morbidly fascinated the nation. But it has been a year and a half since Chambers pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sent to prison, and the public mind is fixed on fresher horrors. (Mention crime and Central Park now, and people think of the gang rape of a woman known only as the Jogger, who was brutally attacked about a mile up the road last April.) Now the bicyclists and runners, young and fit and heedless, pass right by the little grove behind the museum, leaving the spot undisturbed, peaceful.

But one day this August, that hallowed earth was aflurry with commerce. The crew of an ABC-TV movie was filming The Preppie Murder(see review, page 15), which airs this Sunday (Sept. 24). Though the film was made mostly in Los Angeles, the company had come to New York to shoot exterior scenes, including one of Robert (Billy Baldwin) and Jennifer (Lara Flynn Boyle) walking into the park. (This moment fades into an advertising break, followed by the discovery of Jennifer’s body the next morning, for only Chambers knows what happened in between.) Camera crews and sound technicians and makeup artists and actors were going about their business. Their ultimate goal, says producer Sydell Alpert, was to honor Jennifer Levin. “We’d like to stop the injustice,” she says.

Alpert, who is a trained psychologist and the widow of a cop, is nothing if not sensitive, and she acknowledges that some might see her work in the park as trampling on Jennifer’s grave. “We probably could have shot the scene somewhere else,” she concedes, “but when you look at this picture—the museum, the wall—it’s all so critical to the story. And it’s also cinematic.”

One man in her film crew has walked this ground before. “Memories?” says New York police detective Mike Sheehan, who investigated Jennifer’s killing. “Let me tell you, this has been very weird.” Sheehan served as a paid consultant to the film and also plays a cameo role as another detective. (Danny Aiello plays Sheehan.) “We walked up here for the first production meeting, and [director] John [Herzfeld] says, ‘So, where is the actual crime scene?’ And I said, ‘John, uh, you’re standing where her head was.’

“Just being here,” Sheehan continues, “I’m blown out of my socks. They wanted me to supervise the makeup of the wounds to [Jennifer’s] face and body. I did it from memory. Today, when I actually saw her lying there again, it was too real. Way too real.”

Therein lies the insoluble problem of this and all headline-ripping docudramas. It is too real not to be mistaken for an accurate portrayal of actual events and people, yet not real enough to be true. For all its good intentions, The Preppie Murderis half documentary and half drama and cannot succeed fully as either.

But it cannot fail to salt the wounds of Jennifer Levin’s already violated family. Her parents cannot watch with equanimity as their child’s death is turned into a mass entertainment. “I have a wonderful daughter [Jennifer’s sister, Danielle Roberts], granddaughter, wife and a good solid family,” says Jennifer’s father, Steven Levin. “I’ve got to try to be as happy as I can. But I’ll always have moments in the day when I get choked up. It never stops. It never will stop.

“I did not cooperate with the movie,” says Levin. “It’s exploitative. All it does is bring it all back, hurt us, make us sad.” Steven, a partner in a Manhattan real estate concern, is on the board of directors of Parents of Murdered Children in New York, and he and his former wife, Ellen Levin, Jennifer’s mother, have set up the Jennifer Dawn Levin Memorial Fund to benefit victims of violent crime. The filmmakers and ABC have yet to contribute a dollar. Ellen also refused to cooperate with the movie, although, she says, the filmmakers were “very persistent” in seeking her help. Such a project “puts the survivors in a horrible position,” she says. “You’re tempted to be involved, to try to ensure a fair and just portrayal of your daughter.” But the filmmakers retain control, “and if they turn around and exploit your daughter, it’s like a stab in the heart.”

Ellen was barely able to endure the endless lurid press coverage of the trial, at which the defense argued that Chambers had “accidentally” killed Jennifer when she forced him into painful sex play. In fact, there was no persuasive evidence of any sexual activity at all. “When your child is horribly murdered, it’s devastating,” says Ellen, “and then to see her attacked in court and in the newspapers—I had thoughts of suicide. But it was my anger that kept me going, that and the fact that I was lucky enough to find a doctor who specializes in helping parents who’ve lost their children violently.”

Ellen channels her anger into the victims’ rights movement: One of her immediate goals is to push through New York’s legislature an extension of the Rape Shield Law, which would in most circumstances exclude from evidence the past sexual activities of deceased victims and victims of nonsexual crimes. “Right now a rape victim is protected from having her past brought up, but only if she’s not killed,” Ellen points out. When a victim dies, her rights die with her—as the Levins learned so painfully. “Our lives became an open book,” Ellen recalls, “and then when we heard the movie was being made, we felt we were being dissected.”

Chambers’s prosecutor, Linda Fair-stein, also declined to help with the film. “I felt there was no way to guarantee it would be done with any taste or dignity,” she says. Fairstein, who during the trial was named godmother to Jennifer’s niece, Samantha Jennifer Roberts, is now supervising the prosecution of last summer’s Central Park rape case. Chambers’s defense attorney, Jack Litman, also objects to the movie. Litman, recently elected president of the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, points out that the film’s principal source of information, aside from court transcripts, was an investigating detective, Sheehan. “Needless to say, it’s going to be skewed a little bit,” Litman says. From the defense point of view, the movie’s distortion begins with its title, The Preppie Murder. Litman notes that Chambers stands convicted only of manslaughter.

Indeed, sources in the district attorney’s office say even some prosecutors, without having seen the film, mockingly call it the Mike Sheehan Story. Danny Aiello’s Sheehan comes off as a worthy successor to Sherlock Holmes, virtually solving the crime the moment he arrives on the scene. In reality, Sheehan was consumed with interest in some irrelevant tire tracks while Robert Chambers sat watching, his face badly scratched, some 50 feet away. “The police investigation was an abomination, an absolute embarrassment,” says trial juror Eliot Kornhauser.

Jack Dorrian, proprietor of Dorrian’s Red Hand—the bar where Chambers and Levin met—says he refused an offer of cash from the filmmakers to shoot scenes at his establishment. There, Manhattan’s affluent young still gather. “Jennifer Levin’s friends come in,” he says, “with the exception of Robert Chambers.” Some of Jennifer’s friends, however, steer clear of Dorrian’s—and one another. Some are angry because they believe that others accepted cash to talk about her. At the time of the trial, Jennifer’s friends say, one of her pals paraded into a Western-wear store, dropped several hundred dollars on cowboy boots, and said, “These are on Jennifer.”

Chambers, for his part, has not broken his silence. He is doing 5-to-15 years at the Great Meadow Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in Comstock, N.Y. “He’s not thrilled” to be there, says his girlfriend, Shawn Kovell, who cavorted with him in an infamous home video. She still visits him regularly. “He’s fine. He’s getting through it.”

Chambers lives in the prison’s general population, does janitorial work, takes college correspondence courses in business, exercises in the yard, and sleeps alone in an 8-by 10-foot cell. “He’s treated like everybody else,” says prison superintendent Arthur Leonardo. “He fits right in.” Chambers will not be watching The Preppie Murder, says Leonardo, “because by the time it starts, it’s time for the inmates to return to their cells. Prime time is not the same here as it is in New York City.”

—Additional Reporting by Alan Carter in New York and Kristina Johnson in L.A.