33 years ago, a former prep school student killed a young woman he was dating in New York City's Central Park

By Chris Harris
August 26, 2019 10:11 AM
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Thirty-three years ago today, a 20-year-old former prep school student was thrust into infamy after he was arrested for killing an 18-year-old woman he’d been seeing.

A cyclist discovered Jennifer Levin‘s strangled, half-naked body on Aug. 26, 1986, while riding through an area of Central Park behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Before long, investigators were interrogating Robert Chambers, who claimed Levin died following a round of consensual, rough sex in the park.

Instead, prosecutors argued at trial that Levin was raped and killed. Jurors failed to reach a verdict after nine days of deliberation, prompting prosecutors to strike a deal that saw Chambers — the man the media nicknamed the “Preppy Killer” — plead guilty to the lesser crime of first-degree manslaughter, serving 15 years behind bars before being released in 2003.

This fall, a five-episode docuseries on the case is coming to AMC. The Preppy Murder: Death in Central Park will reexamine the case, airing all five episodes over three consecutive nights starting November 13 at 9 p.m. on SundanceTV and AMC. An exclusive clip of the series is shown above.

Ahead of the show’s upcoming debut, here are five things to know about the case.

Robert Chambers, soon after his arrest
Getty

1. Chambers Spied On NYPD Investigators at the Crime Scene

Police would learn that while they searched the crime scene for clues, Chambers was hiding in vegetation nearby, watching them.

The crime scene was grisly. Levin was badly bruised and her underwear was found more than 100 feet from her body. She had numerous cuts on on her neck, caused by her own nails as she struggled to free herself from Chambers’ deadly grip.

2. Chambers Made Inconsistent Claims to Police

Detectives caught up to Chambers after learning he’d been seeing Levin, and that on the night of the killing, both were seen drinking at Dorrian’s Red Hand bar on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Police approached him at his home, and soon noticed the many scratches he had on his arms and face — which he blamed, at first, on his cat. However, once he was inside an interrogation room, Chambers — a heavy substance abuser — changed his tune.

Chambers confessed to investigators that “his cat had been declawed.” He told them he and Levin parted ways after leaving the bar together; she ran off to buy cigarettes, Chambers said. When he was told that Levin’s friends had said she wasn’t a smoker, he claimed she’d died after he pushed her off of him when she hurt him during an aggressive sexual encounter in the park.

Prior to his arrest, Chambers’ father visited him at the police station. As they spoke about Levin, Chambers referred to her as a “bitch” and asked, “Why didn’t she leave me alone?”

3. Chambers Had History of Arrests — Before and After Levin’s Killing

His arrest for Levin’s killing was not Chambers’ first time in handcuffs, and it wouldn’t be his last.

Chambers had priors for disorderly conduct as well as petty thefts and burglaries — crimes he committed to fund his drug and alcohol abuse. Within two years of getting out of prison after Levin’s death — Chambers pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter and was released in 2003 — he was arrested for heroin and cocaine possession following a traffic stop. Chambers would plead guilty in July 2005, receiving a 100-day sentence.

Jennifer Levin

Then, in the fall of 2007, Chambers was arrested again for selling drugs and resisting arrest. Investigators would eventually charge both he and his girlfriend with operating a cocaine ring out of their apartment — allegations that led to charges he pleaded guilty to.

He returned to prison in 2008, and remains behind bars to this day. The earliest he’ll be out is 2024.

4. Chambers’ Crime Spawned Civil Lawsuit

Levin’s parents filed a civil suit against the owner of Dorrian’s Red Hand, contending the bar continued to serve Chambers well after it was apparent he was inebriated.

Media hounds Chambers following his release from prison in 2003
Corey Sipkin/NY Daily News Archive via Getty

The bar settled with Levin’s parents in 2009 for an undisclosed sum. The Levins then took Chambers to court, filing a wrongful death lawsuit he pleaded no contest to. As a result, the Levins were awarded $25 million; the court ordered he pay all moneys he receives, including any income from book or movie deals, to the parents.

Levin’s mother, Ellen Levin, became a victims’ rights advocate, helping to craft the language of over 13 legislative amendments, all of which became law.

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5. The Crime Became the Basis of Film and Songs

The crime resonated in pop culture, fitting into a narrative about an era popularly defined by excess and entitlement run amok.

The case was the basis of a 1989 made-for-TV movie starring Billy Baldwin as Chambers and Lara Flynn Boyle portraying Levin. The producers of Law & Order based a 1990 episode on the crime. On HBO’s Oz, actor Mike Doyle said he based his character, Adam Guenzel, on Chambers.

Rock band The Killers released a tune in 2004 called “Jenny Was a Friend of Mine,” mocking Chambers’ defense to authorities he never would have killed Levin, as the two were “friends.” Sonic Youth’s landmark album Daydream Nation includes a song about the Chambers case titled “Eliminator Jr.” Chambers’ case is also mentioned in passing in Brett Easton Ellis’ book American Psycho.

The Preppy Murder: Death in Central Park, a five-part docuseries, premieres Nov. 13 at 9 p.m. on SundanceTV and AMC.