On August 26, 1986, a cyclist noticed something peculiar sprawled behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Taking it for a sleeping woman, she at first pedaled onwards, but realization dawned after a terrifying second glance. The figure wasn't asleep, but dead—the naked and battered body of 18-year-old Jennifer Levin. The culprit, Robert Chambers, would later be identified as "the Preppy Killer"—a spoiled 19-year-old who had recently spiraled into drugs, alcohol, and petty crime.
Robert and Jennifer had casually dated, though their relationship had grown strained in the months before her death. Both were seen together on the night of her murder, leaving a popular Manhattan bar near Central Park. Jennifer was never seen alive again.
Investigators and a scandal-hungry media swooped in once Robert—a Kennedy-esque school boy—was linked to the crime. Though he was covered in scratches during his interrogation, he was adamant about his innocence. It was Jennifer who molested him, he claimed, and he'd merely acted out in self-defense. The picture he painted was a damning one: Jennifer was promiscuous, kept a record of her sexual encounters, and had forced him into "rough sex." Of course, Robert's story was also incredibly false—and an infuriating example of victim blaming.
In Wasted, author Linda Wolfe goes inside the case of "the Preppy Killer," who wound up serving nearly 15 years for Jennifer's murder. Wolfe reveals the full backstory, diving into Robert's home life, the offensive strategies used by his defense team, and how the party culture of the 1980s propelled a boy to kill. The result is a compelling addition to the true crime annals that Ann Rule called "fascinating, horrifying, and heart-breaking."
Read on for an excerpt of the Edgar Award finalist, Wasted, to go inside the crime scene.
Susan Bird, a lawyer in her forties, was one of the rubberneckers [watching the crime scene]. She’d been running near the Museum with a friend when she’d heard sirens and noticed the police car pull over onto the grass. She stopped moving in order to take in the activity across the way. A young man was also watching, sitting on a low stone wall and staring intently at the police. “What’s going on?” Susan asked him.
“I don’t know,” he said. “It looks like they found something.” Susan thought him odd. His face had strange vertical scratches on it, and he seemed almost indifferent to her presence. “Like what?” she said, forcing herself on his consciousness. “What could it be?”
“I think they found a body,” he murmured.
A body? Susan’s mind immediately filled in a scenario. A runner had died. Had a stroke. That’s what happens when you get to be forty and exercise too vigorously. You fall down in the park and die, and nobody finds you till morning. “Have you gone to check?” she asked the young man worriedly. “I mean, have you done anything?”
“Well, no,” he said.
“Because if I did, the cops would chase me away.”
A strange thing to say, Susan thought. Police in the Midwest, where she was raised, didn’t chase away concerned citizens. Still, she didn’t go across the road to ask what had happened. The policemen over there were busy removing a length of brown paper from something lying on the ground and replacing it with a sheet. She saw a leg. Whatever had happened, it was all under control now. Susan, no longer keen to linger, walked away.
The friend she’d been running with left at the same time. As they headed out of the park, he said to Susan, “Did you see the scratches on that guy on the wall? How deep and regular they were?”
“Yeah,” Susan said. “Like he got scratched by a machine. What kind of industrial accident would you have to be in to get those kinds of scratches?”
Standing behind The Metropolitan Museum of Art in the grove of trees where the girl’s body had been found, [Detective Mickey McEntee] told himself that no matter how unlikely the prospects of his catching this case were, he was going to make a try for it as soon as the right time came. That wasn’t yet. Right now Nightwatch, which handled the start of all crimes reported between midnight and 8 A.M., was still in charge. Their head, Detective Sergeant Wallace Ziens, was briefing a group of the Central Park detectives. “What we got here,” Ziens was saying, “is a girl. Young. White. We also got tire tracks.” He gestured at an area where the grass was matted down and explained that the biker who had found the body had moments earlier nearly been run down by a brown car traveling against traffic. “It looks as if,” Ziens went on, “whoever this girl is, she was killed by whoever was driving the brown car and then dumped here.”
To break his tension, McEntee turned to [his partner Joe Kennedy] and ribbed him. “Naw, some of our own guys were probably sleeping here in a radio car,” he said. “Someone killed the girl. Then our guys woke up and saw the body. And they said, Jeez, it’s a crime. Let’s drive the other way fast.”
Kennedy laughed, and McEntee felt more relaxed. When the briefing was over, he talked to some of the Nightwatch detectives who’d been on the scene for an hour already, then went to have a look at the body. Detectives from the Crime Scene Unit were working on it, taking photographs and looking for evidence. Hairs. Fluids. Fingerprints. They always got first crack on a case, recording and collecting whatever traces of the killer they could find on the body, and any traces of his or the victim’s presence at the scene of the crime. It was painstaking and time-consuming work, McEntee knew, so they would take a while to finish. He and the other detectives couldn’t examine the corpse until they were done. But in the meantime he could make a few observations. Eager to get going, McEntee stood over the body, which was no longer covered, and tried to figure out what had happened to the girl.
She’d been strangled. That much was obvious. But she’d probably been assaulted, too. Her face was dirty, as if it had been pushed into the ground, her left eye was swollen, and around her nipples were gouges that looked like bite marks. Most likely she tried to resist her attacker. That’s how she got so marked up. And most likely she was raped. That’s how come her clothes were all shoved up, and her breasts and pubic area exposed.
He was touched by the girl’s body. She looked so young. And so well groomed. Somehow, cops were always affected when a dead woman looked well groomed. It made them think about their wives or girlfriends. And except for the dirt and marks on her, this girl looked unusually tidy. Her hair was lustrous, and she had a deep tan, one she’d clearly worked hard at getting. It showed the traces of the straps of several different bathing suits. One of the Nightwatch detectives McEntee had talked to had said the girl was probably a hooker, but McEntee didn’t think so now that he’d seen her.
Anyway, it probably wasn’t the girl’s identity that he’d have to worry about if he caught the case. That would get straightened out when the Crime Scene Unit finished its work and let the rest of the guys search her pockets. There was a jean jacket draped over her arm. Probably there’d be ID in there. The killer was another story. Who could he be? Looking at his handiwork, McEntee figured he already knew a bit about him. The guy was a callous sonofabitch. He had to be. Otherwise he’d have covered the girl up when he was done with her. And he was cruel. He had to be in order to strangle her. Take me, McEntee said to himself. I could shoot someone, but if I had to go hand to hand and choke a person to death, I’m not sure I could do it. To choke someone, you had to stand right up close to them and actually squeeze out your victim’s life.
The clues he was getting made him feel better, even though he knew they weren’t much. But he went on regarding the body, hoping he’d find more. And then something odd struck him. The girl had a pierced ear, but no earring. That in itself wasn’t strange. He didn’t wear his earring all the time. But when he didn’t wear it for a while, the tiny hole in his lobe seemed to tighten up and grow almost imperceptible, whereas when he wore the earring and then removed it, the hole looked slightly stretched for quite a while afterward. The hole in the girl’s lobe had that stretched look he’d seen in his own. “Hey!” he shouted suddenly to the Crime Scene Unit detectives. “You guys remove an earring?”
After that McEntee decided to search for earrings. He didn’t know why he decided that. Maybe it was because when he turned away from the Crime Scene guys, he noticed a group of news photographers stampeding onto the roadway and said to himself that the last thing the Police Department wants to have are camera crews photographing guys standing around with their hands in their pockets. Whatever the reason, he said to Joe Kennedy, “Hey, she was wearing earrings. I’m sure of it. Let’s look for them.” Kennedy agreed, and the two of them began shuffling around the elm tree, peering into the thick layer of twigs and leaves that covered the ground like a rug.
They saw nothing, so they kept on looking, moving their search to other trees in the area. They were checking beneath a crab-apple tree about forty-five feet north of the body when they saw something white on the ground. A dirty handkerchief, McEntee thought, and bent toward it. But it wasn’t a handkerchief. It was a pair of soiled panties. He studied the area. A few feet away from the panties, the ground looked peculiar. The twigs and leaves covering it had been scattered, leaving bits of earth visible. Maybe the girl struggled with her killer here, McEntee said to himself, maybe she tussled with him under the crab-apple tree and then ran away, only to be caught and killed under the elm. Or maybe she was even killed here and then dragged to the elm. “C’mere,” he called to the guys from Crime Scene. “Take a picture of this! Looks like there was a struggle here.”
They refused to come over. “Naw, this was a dump job,” one of them called back. “The girl was dumped from the car that made the tracks.”
“Her panties are here,” McEntee said. Behind him, cameramen were being kept back by park police and reporters were craning their necks. “How’d her panties get over here if she was dumped where the tracks are?”
“Those aren’t her panties, that’s how.”
“We looked at them. Too soiled. Those panties have probably been here for days. Anyway, we already got panties. A blue pair. From over near the tire tracks.”
Two pair of panties so close to the scene? The park was really something! No matter. The panties he’d found were the right ones, McEntee was sure. What did the Crime Scene Unit know? They were a bunch of old hairbags. A bunch of guys who’d been on the job so long, they’d forgotten how to think. The girl had to have been over here, under the crab-apple tree. Not far from the panties were other signs. A lipstick case and a little black hairbow. “This wasn’t no dump job,” he grumbled to Kennedy, and Kennedy agreed.
A few minutes later they discussed their theory with some Night-watch detectives. A couple of them agreed; they, too, had noticed the lipstick, the bow, and the ground disturbance. One of them had even gotten the Crime Scene Unit to dust the lipstick case and the bow for fingerprints. But when none had been found, Crime Scene had refused to collect the items. Still, the Nightwatch detective continued, there were now two factions in Nightwatch, a bunch of guys who believed the body had been dumped dead from the car and another who were seriously considering the idea that dumping wasn’t involved, that the victim had reached the park alive and struggled with someone under the crab-apple tree.
Steve Levin was in his office on Lafayette Street, a spacious suite of rooms with an unobstructed, panoramic view of lower Manhattan, when two detectives entered the reception area and asked an assistant, “Can we speak with the boss?” He came out and invited them into the conference room.
“Better sit down,” they told him.
He did. Then slow and deliberate, one of them said, “Do you have a daughter named Jennifer?”
“What’s wrong? What’s going on?” Steve asked.
“She may be hurt.”
Hurt? “Where is she?” Steve demanded.
The second detective drew a breath and said, “Jennifer may not be with us any longer.”
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