June 16, 1997 12:00 PM

WHEN NEWS OF HIS MURDER last week reached Jonathan Levin’s students at William Howard Taft High School, the anguish was overwhelming. Eleven students were treated at local hospitals—10 had stress-induced asthma attacks, and one boy suffered a broken finger when he punched a wall in frustration. Throughout the day more than 80 adults and teenagers sought counseling at a makeshift crisis center in the library. Levin, 31, was remembered as a gifted English teacher and generous soul who took pains to connect with those he instructed. Says junior Victor Rosado, 18: “I loved that man—he was like a father to me.”

Few students or teachers at Taft, which is in an impoverished section of New York City, had known that Levin was the youngest child of Gerald M. Levin, chairman and CEO of Time Warner (PEOPLE’S parent company), and his first wife, Carol, who divorced in 1970. The connection “was not something he flaunted,” says colleague David Tantleff. When one student asked Levin why, if he had money, he would work in a school like Taft, Levin replied, she told The New York Times, that it wasn’t his money, it was his father’s. Added Divine Vidal, 17: “He related to us. He didn’t act like a rich snob. Everyone knows this school is bad. You see a rich boy, you think he would teach in a rich white school.” Says Gordon Pradl, an NYU professor who was a mentor while Levin was working toward a master’s degree in education in 1993: “There was nothing boastful about him. He saw teaching as a way of giving back to society.”

Though Levin lived simply on his teacher’s salary—taking the subway to school and dining on sandwiches from the local deli—he often bought food or clothing for his needier students and rewarded those who did good work with trips to Yankee baseball games or amusement parks. “A caring teacher who wasn’t burned out,” in the words of Taft adviser Joe Mawn, he would stay after school to tutor students facing tough exams and wrote perceptive letters of recommendation for seniors trying to get into college. Golden Gloves boxer Rosado (a native of the Dominican Republic who knew almost no English when he moved with his mother to New York in 1993) says Levin not only coached him until he was fluent enough to apply for college, but cheered him on at four bouts last year. “Every time I fight, I’ll expect to see his face all smiling in the crowd,” says Rosado.

Levin failed to report for classes on Monday, June 2. Summoned by a neighbor and a concerned colleague who had called 911, police entered his one-bedroom Upper West Side walk-up at 11:30 that night to find his body faceup in a pool of dried blood. His ankles bound by duct tape, Levin had been shot in the head and jabbed repeatedly with a knife.

Since there was no sign of forced entry, police speculated that Levin may have known his attacker or been forced to open his door. His dog Julius, a stray that he had acquired several months ago, was in a closed bedroom and unharmed.

By Thursday, police reportedly were focusing on robbery as the motive. New York’s Daily News, citing police sources, said investigators were looking into the possibility that Levin had been killed by an assailant who wanted the teacher’s ATM card and PIN number. The same sources said that the ATM card had been used to withdraw $800 from a bank machine on the evening of Friday, May 30, but that neither the card nor the money was found in Levin’s apartment. The New York Post quoted Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau as saying, “I think it was robbery.”

When mourners (including a large, emotional contingent from Taft High) gathered for a memorial service at Manhattan’s Park Avenue Synagogue, no suspects had been named, and friends were choosing to focus on the joy Levin had brought to their lives. “Jonathan was a genuinely good person,” says Wendy Goldstein, a classmate at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. “He was loved.”

Reported by RON ARIAS and ANTHONY DUIGNAN-CABRERA in New York City

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