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The Halloween crime that has NYC talking

It was a story that had a whole city talking: A single woman in the glamorous world of fashion was held captive in a bizarre attack. Who was behind this?
Peter Braunstein appears in this undated photo provided by the New York Police Department Friday, Nov. 18, 2005. Detectives say they want to question Braunstein, 41, about a Halloween night episode in which an armed man bound and molested a woman in her Manhattan apartment after starting a fire and posing as a firefighter coming to her rescue.
Peter Braunstein appears in this undated photo provided by the New York Police Department Friday, Nov. 18, 2005. Detectives say they want to question Braunstein, 41, about a Halloween night episode in which an armed man bound and molested a woman in her Manhattan apartment after starting a fire and posing as a firefighter coming to her rescue. New York Police Department via A

Halloween night in New York was mostly notable for what didn’t happen: It didn’t get unseasonably cold. The city’s annual parade up Sixth Avenue went off without a hitch, and the masses of costumed revelers were kept in good spirits. 

No one knew, until the holiday was over, what was happening just a few blocks away—what a night of true and unfathomable horror it had been for a woman living here in the trendy Chelsea section of New York.  

On the surface, it was an unlikely and puzzling encounter which police said involved two successful people from New York’s glamorous fashion world.  But investigators would soon discover a disturbing crime that might be the real-life acting out of a failed playwright— which would launch one of this city’s most intense manhunts in years.

The woman, 34 years old and single, lived alone on the fourth floor of an apartment building on West 24th street.  Around 6 p.m., amid the Halloween revelry, there was a report of fire in her building in one of the stairwells.

Angelo Barela, neighbor: It was a thick, gray smoke.

Barela says he began frantically alerting fellow tenants to flee the building, including the woman living in apartment 4J. 

Barela: I knocked on her door screaming, “You have to evacuate. There’s a fire in the building.” 

But he says he got no response. And police say there was a terrible reason why: Just before Barela, someone else had come knocking— a man wearing a firefighter’s jacket and pants.

New York Post criminal justice editor Murray Weiss: When she opened the door he quickly pushed his way in. 

The New York Post’s criminal justice editor Murray Weiss has been tracking the police investigation.  

Edie Magnus, Dateline correspondent: When she answered her door, did he look like a fireman?Weiss: He was dressed in fire department gear. He had every reason to believe that he was a fireman.  Magnus: He looked authentic?Weiss: Absolutely authentic.

It was a cruel, sick ruse: Police say the man was not a firefighter, but an assailant who’d set the fire and then used that as a pretext to force his way inside her home.

Weiss: He poured Chloroform on a cloth, put it over her face, and overpowered her. She was rendered pretty much unconscious immediately.

Within minutes, there were more than two dozen real firefighters on the scene.  But Weiss says they found only a couple of small blazes and a lot of smoke. The firefighters figured it was all just a holiday prank and, with no reports of injuries, returned to their firehouses. But inside apartment “4J” police say a bizarre ordeal was carried out over a long, terrible night.

Weiss: Over the next 13 hours he tied her up, tied her to a bed and basically tormented and tortured her. Magnus: Was she raped?Weiss: No, she was not raped. She was just physically manhandled, if you will.

More terrifying, perhaps, than the physical assault itself was the fact that, according to police, the attacker clearly knew who she was, had been studying her for some time, and had amassed intimate knowledge about her life.

Weiss: He knew details of where she worked and people she knew. If you can imagine being the victim of a crime where you’re tied up and you’re helpless.  As awful as that is, now somebody is tormenting you by indicating they know things about you.Magnus: Very personal things?Weiss: Extremely personal.

Personal—and devastating—and he seemed to take pleasure that night in reminding her  about it.  Reporter Vanessa Grigoriadis wrote a cover story on the case for New York Magazine.

Vanessa Grigoriadis, New York Magazine writer: And this was about making her remember a scene and a time that had been deeply, deeply embarrassing to her.  

It went on and on.  Hour after hour.  He kept the woman drugged the whole, but she told police she thought he videotaped his attack on her.  She also reportedly remembered hearing the sound of a zipper, and believes the man may have stuffed his fake firefighter gear, the latex gloves he’d worn, and his trash— all the evidence of his having been there— into a duffel bag. 

At around 6 a.m. the next morning the man simply left, and the victim managed to free herself, and call 911 for help.

When news of the attack got out, New Yorkers were shocked to learn it wasn’t just a random act.

Weiss: In the case of going through an elaborate ruse to attack them, and then hold them captive it takes on the air of like a carefully crafted script, that’s extraordinarily unusual. 

Unusual, but perhaps not unsolvable: The investigators’ belief that the perpetrator had clearly planned this assault in advance and had not chosen his victim randomly gave them a small bit of hope they could crack the case.

Weiss: As cold as it sounds, the fact that she said that he tormented her verbally and knew things about her, that was actually good for them. They liked hearing that, because that meant the universe of suspects was somebody that had some dealings with her. 

Police released a sketch of the alleged attacker and soon after got a big break.  And the idea that the attack may have been scripted, step-by-step, would figure even larger once police learned who they were looking for.

Within days of the nightmare sex attack on West 24th Street, authorities involved in the hunt for the perpetrator got a big break:  A woman who heard the reports of someone being tied up and tormented called police to alert them about a man who had done similar things to her. 

The woman who tipped off police is a beauty editor who traveled in the glittering circles of the New York fashion world.  And as unlikely as it sounded, so did the man she was pointing the finger at:  a man named Peter Braunstein.  He was  freelance journalist and writer who’d been making quite a name for himself in the Big Apple.

The 41-year-old had been living with his mother, across the East River in Queens, but investigators found he’d fled and was on the loose.  Surveillance footage captured Braunstein at a Super 8 motel near Times Square the night after the attack.  Weeks later the owner of a coffee shop in Brooklyn thought he’d been a customer.

There were other sightings, too— never confirmed, but enough to frustrate authorities.  

The case has been front page news on this city’s tabloids for weeks.

Braunstein’s mother was insisting he was innocent, while his father, an art dealer, pleaded publicly for him to surrender. A picture of Braunstein began to emerge: of a brainy but socially awkward child of divorced, immigrant parents who’d educated him in very fine schools—private high school, college, even a stint at the Sorbonne.   

Alberto Braunstein spoke to "Dateline."

Alberto Braunstein, father of Peter: [He had] a quick mind, quick sense of humor, and it was important for him to shine.

And shine he did:  Braunstein’s wit and intellect soon set him apart from the many other young writers trying to make it in New York City. He reported on pop culture for newspapers including the Village Voice, contributed to books about the ‘60s.  Then in 2000, he landed a plum job as a reporter at Women’s Wear Daily.

He was dating the beauty editor who worked for the same company.  They stayed together for a couple of years.

And it was there that Braunstein’s life would intersect with that of the young woman who was viciously attacked on Halloween.  She also worked in fashion and they were in the same offices—  he for Women’s Wear Daily, she as a director for the fashion hot sheet's more upscale cousin, W Magazine.  

Vanessa Grigoriadis, New York Magazine writer: The victim was a woman who really traveled in very high powered fashion circles.  She was also kind of an aloof person.  She dressed incredibly well, had impeccable taste and wore kind of head to toe designer labels.  And this is something that people found somewhat intimidating. A lot of people said to me they found her intimidating but fascinating.

No one’s sure whether Braunstein and the victim knew one another, but they’d likely seen one another.  She and other women in the fashion office would sometimes lay out designer accessories near Braunstein’s desk.  

Grigoriadis: There was a filing cabinet or several filing cabinets around that they would lay these things out on.  As far as anybody knows she never really even spoke to him.  She didn’t want anything to do with him. 

Other women at the magazine reportedly liked Braunstein and found him quirky and charismatic.  But his father Alberto told "Dateline" there was a dark side to his son that many at first did not see, that Braunstein had shown signs of being unstable since he was a child. He was quick to anger, and impulsive.

Alberto Braunstein: This erratic behavior through the years but it was not life-threatening. It was not serious. So, all right, so that’s his personality accept people the way they are.

His father says that he tried to get his son to seek help at least 25 years ago.

When Braunstein was a high school senior he allegedly broke into the home of a young girl on whom he had a crush.  He was never charged, but a former schoolmate of Braunstein’s remembers the incident well:

Former schoolmate: It’s not clear exactly how he did it. Perhaps he had a key that he got in some unauthorized fashion. And, he was found by her father rifling through her underwear drawer. And, he was caught red handed.

Several years ago, though, things went from strange to downright ugly.  It was then that Peter Braunstein’s bright life in the big city seemed to unravel.

Steve Huff, who writes true crime stories on the Internet says Braunstein’s firing roughly coincided with his breakup with the beauty editor— after which Braunstein posted long, angry and lurid rants about her on the Internet. 

Steve Huff, Internet writer:  2002, he gets fired from WWD for a pattern, by the way, of what they called "belligerent behavior." And that seems to mark a point where things start to come out from under him.It’s almost spooky. It’s as if this guy decided to go ahead and get every bit of bile he could spew about this woman online.

His anger escalated in 2003, when police say Braunstein sent menacing emails to his ex-girlfriend, threatened her family, bound her to a chair and brandished a knife, and even posted pictures of her naked on the Internet.  Braunstein pled guilty to menacing and just this past September was sentenced to three years probation. 

Then Braunstein took yet another hit: A play he’d written flopped.  Actor Ben Beckley was in the short-lived production.

Ben Beckley, actor in Braunstein’s play: He seemed to enjoy causing panic in other people, making them nervous.

Steve Huff believes that since Braunstein’s failure in the theater, he may have been winding up to do his next play ever since: a real life drama acted out on Halloween night, against a hapless woman who might not even have known him. He held against her will and tortured for hours inside her home.

Huff: You get the feeling of somebody deciding, "Ok fine, I’m gonna go ahead and do my own thing.  And you all are going know about it.  And it’s going to be a production. And it’s going to be intense."Magnus: Only this time, it’s real life.Huff:  It’s real life and—Magnus:  And a very real young woman.Huff:  And a very real young woman and it’s a very real stage.

And police uncovered evidence to support that very scenario in Braunstein’s own computer. They still had it from the previous case involving the beauty editor.  Inside they found a startling document: a story line for a crime.

Weiss: He detailed, step-by-step, how somebody or he could set off a smoke bomb, set off a fire, pose in bunker gear, get chloroform, overpower a woman, the entire step by step scenario was detailed in his computer that was seized in the first case.

It was a script for which Braunstein may have purchased some very real props. In the weeks before the Halloween night attack, police say he made a series of purchases on e-Bay, including a costume of sorts: A New York firefighter’s jacket and pants and 2 bottles of Chloroform. There was also one prop that he apparently hasn’t used: An expired police badge.

With Braunstein still on the loose, and amid reports that she helped police narrow in on him, his ex-girlfriend, the beauty editor, has gone into hiding, and security has tightened around the fashion publication where she works. 

And the victim from Halloween night?

Grigoriadis: As far as I know the victim is deeply traumatized by this. She’s been staying on friends’ couches and going to see trauma counselors. And she has friends go and pick up her clothes for her.  But she really just doesn’t want to go back to her apartment.

The nights are now much colder than that balmy Halloween eve.  And police are hoping Peter Braunstein’s luck will freeze up too.  Though they haven’t charged him with anything, they want him badly.  Wherever he is, there are those who believe Braunstein is likely watching the headlines and savoring the attention — and all the fear he’s stirring up for lots of women in New York.

Grigoriadis: This makes women feel unsafe, because this man was a co-worker.  He was a friend.  He was somebody who was well-liked.  He traveled in many of the kind of glamorous circles that glamorous single women in New York travel in.

Police have assigned an elite fugitive enforcement team to try to nab Braunstein— one that specializes in finding people who don’t want to be found.