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25 years later, 'preppie' killing still stings in New York City

When handsome Robert Chambers strangled a pretty 18-year-old in New York City's Central Park it set off a media firestorm that is still reverberates today.
Image: Robert Chambers, the so-called \"preppie killer,\" accompanied by his father, Robert Chambers, Sr.
Robert Chambers, the so-called "preppie killer," accompanied by his father, Robert Chambers, Sr.,right arrives at New York City Criminal Court, Dec. 12, 1986, to listen to legal arguments over the diary of Jennifer Levin, the girl who Chambers strangled to death in Central Park.Mario Suriani / AP
/ Source: NBC News

The American elm with the long, low-hanging crooked branch is still there in Central Park. Perched in the shadows of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the tree offers people a perfect and peaceful spot to rest, relax and daydream.

But for in-the-know New Yorkers and true crime buffs, it’s not the beauty that they first think of when they gaze at the elm. It is the horror that occurred under it 25 years ago.

It was there on August 26, 1986, that Robert Chambers wrapped his hands around the neck of Jennifer Levin and squeezed the life out of the 18-year-old.

The story, a tragedy of private school privilege, race, class, wealth and death, attracted national attention,. A quarter of a century later, it remains a haunting tale.

“I think about it quite frequently,” said Linda Fairstein, who as the head of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Sex Crimes Unit, prosecuted Chambers. “I can’t help but wonder what would have become of Jennifer,” she said. “It’s so hard to imagine a vibrant, loving kid losing her life at 18.”

Fairstein, now an author, also often thinks of the young man who strangled her, the square-jawed charmer labeled by the press as the “preppie killer.”

'So many opportunities'
“He had so many opportunities to turn his life around,” Fairstein told NBC News of the killer, who remains in prison, but not for the slaying. “He had more chances that most people who killed someone with their bare hands. And he ignored all that help.”

Standing 6 ft. 4 and strikingly handsome, Chambers, who was 19 at the time, denied murdering Levin, and claimed she accidentally died during what he called was “rough sex” initiated by Levin.

But nine days into deliberations, Chambers pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to 5-15 years in jail. Following his release in 2003 – he served the maximum sentence due to several prison infractions – he was arrested and convicted for selling cocaine from his Manhattan apartment. In 2008, he was sent back to prison for 19 years.

The case exploded into the media during the slow days of late summer and became a front-page story for weeks and months. Chambers’ upbringing, Levin’s boyfriends – every facet of their lives was dissected and, at times, exploited. Reporters even rummaged through the garbage outside the Levin family’s apartment building, searching for any new detail about her background and relationship with Chambers.

Fleeting friends
They were fleeting friends, Chambers and Levin, not a couple. Two prep school kids from New York’s affluent Upper East Side, who made their way to Central Park after meeting up at Dorian’s Red Hand, a bar popular with Manhattan’s young and privileged.

“She left the bar that night because she trusted and liked him,” Fairstein recalled. “They walked into the park, sat down together, began probably to have some kissing,” Fairstein said. “There is no evidence that there was a sexual act. The intent to kill her was formed in a manner of minutes.” There was evidence that Levin fought back. “Her fingernails scratched him severely,” she said.

Confessed \"Preppie Killer\" Robert Chambers, center, leaves Auburn Correctional Facility as members of the media follow, on Valentines Day, in Auburn, N.Y., Friday, Feb. 14, 2003. Chambers served the maximum time on his manslaughter conviction for killing Jennifer Levin on Aug. 26, 1986.(AP Photo/David Duprey)David Duprey / AP

During the trial and the investigations that led up to it, Chambers was exposed as a thief who stole from many people, including a teacher at an elite private school that expelled him. It was also revealed that he had a serious drug habit since the age of 14.

But his good looks and swagger carried him a long way, and he knew it.

“He’d hold the door open for me in the courtroom,” said Fairstein, “and I’m carrying the autopsy pictures in my hand.” But the public saw a very different side of Chambers in a vile moment captured on home video that was broadcast on the syndicated tabloid-TV show “A Current Affair.”

In front of a camera, a smirking, cackling Chambers holds a Barbie doll in his hands, twisting the head and saying, “I think I killed it.”

“I think he’s a sociopath in having absolutely no feelings for anyone else,” said Fairstein.

“To be able to kill someone face to face and then sit 100 yards away and watch until her body is put in a body bag and not call 911 and ask for help.”

Since the killing of her daughter, Ellen Levin has fought for victim’s rights. She was instrumental in getting New York to extend the rape shield law to homicide cases to protect the character of the victims.

The so-called “preppie killer” is now known as inmate 08A4763, incarcerated at Wende Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison near Buffalo.

As for the where the crime took place, to this day the setting stirs up painful memories. “I can’t walk in Central Park without thinking wouldn’t it be nice if Jennifer Levin never walked here that night,” Fairstein said.