Manhattan murder mystery: Who really killed Linda Stein?
Linda Stein was the New York real-estate diva with A-list clients, a rock'n'roll lifestyle – and a famously filthy temper. Last month, she was found face down in a pool of her own blood. Was she the victim of an embittered employee? Or were darker forces at work? David Usborne reports
She would never have denied that she lived her life fast and furious. There was one marriage, multiple lovers, the notoriety brought by her two very visible careers (co-managing the Ramones and selling homes to the stars), famous friends, and long relationships with marijuana and counsellors at Alcoholics Anonymous.
It was quite an innings for Linda Stein, a gal of five-foot-nothing, born in the Bronx to a kosher caterer. Hers was the kind of kinetic energy that would eventually exhaust the best of people.
In the 1990s, she found herself waging a war with breast cancer that resulted in two devastating mastectomies. Just last year she was back in the trenches when doctors diagnosed a benign brain tumour. Still, Stein was a force of nature, and no one really expected that by the age of 62 she would be dead.
Nor would her friends, among them the likes of Sir Elton John and Whoopi Goldberg, ever have imagined the manner of her going. Sure, Stein – famous for her filthy mouth and bursts of foul temper – had enemies. Yet who could not be shocked when, on the night before Hallowe'en this year, reports began to circulate that Stein had been found in her fancy Fifth Avenue apartment face down in a pool of blood? The police spoke of a "blunt instrument" and of serial blows to the back of her head.
The turnout for Stein's funeral at the Riverside Chapel in Manhattan on 2 November was impressive. Representatives from both professional chapters of her life were there, including music giants such as Jann Wenner, Clive Davis and Joey Ramone's brother Mickey Leigh. So too were members of the celebrity circle who had known her as their go-to estate agent in Manhattan, like Goldberg and Trudi Styler, Sting's wife. Madonna and Sir Elton both issued statements paying tribute to her life.
Some in the congregation saw solace in the manner of her passing. The sheer drama of it – the murder was tabloid fodder for days – would have appealed to Stein. Better a death with banner headlines than a slow surrender to sickness. Of her two daughters, Mandy, who had first discovered her lifeless frame, elicited smiles with memories of stealing her mother's VIP cards to get into Manhattan clubs as a teen. But her second daughter, Samantha, chose instead to describe seeing her mother dead on the mortician's slab and the three hours it had taken the undertakers to disguise the brutality of her death.
"I had to see what this bastard had done," Samantha declared, giving unrestrained voice to her anger. "We stood there and we promised, 'Justice will be served.' We won't stop until justice is served."
No crime writer could have scripted a more poignant scene. Cameras would have panned over the heads of the mourners to a young black woman lingering near the door with tears of grief on her cheeks. As her latest personal assistant – assigned to her by the property company for whom Stein turned apartments – 26-year-old Natavia Lowery had every right to be there. But who in the chapel could know that within days she would be arrested and charged with the murder of her boss?
Fast forward to today, and it would seem that the justice for which Samantha yearned may already have been secured. Lowery, after all, confessed everything that happened in Stein's $3m apartment: how her boss had been constantly yelling at her and everyone else; how she had blown marijuana smoke in Lowery's face that morning and insulted her with a racial slur about black people never having enough money to buy lunch; and how, finally, Lowery had just snapped.
Yet it may not be this simple. Were the police too hasty? Why did they interview her without a lawyer present? And where is the murder weapon? Not everyone is so sure that the mystery of the murder of Linda Stein is not still a mystery.
That the police felt pressure to resolve things as quickly as possible is hardly surprising. The newspaper reporters were crawling all over the case. It was not just that murders aren't common in the fancy climes of upper Fifth Avenue (Stein lived just a few steps from the Metropolitan Museum of Art); it was also the identity of the victim. While not famous in the traditional sense, Stein was a creature of fame. She had famous friends and had led a life more colourful than a float in a Thanksgiving parade.
Certainly, her passing would have made barely a footnote in the ink of New York if she had stayed in her native Bronx and in her first job out of college, as a teacher. It was an interest in music that would alter her life's path – in particular, an introduction one day to an uncle of one of her pupils by the name of Seymour Stein. Even then, Linda was attracted to powerful men and Stein, as a man who had started his own music company, Sire Records, was certainly that. Among the careers Sire would eventually launch were those of Madonna and Talking Heads.
Within months of the two meeting in 1970, they were married and travelling the world with friends like Reginald Dwight – later to become Elton John – and Bob Dylan.
Four years later, Linda forged a friendship with another big wheel on the American music scene, Danny Fields. When Fields paid a visit in 1975 to CBGB, the recently shuttered Lower East Side music dive celebrated as the cradle of American punk, he saw a young band called the Ramones. So impressed was Stein with the frantic energy of their sound – if not their technical prowess – he called Linda at once to urge her to see them. Fields signed the group and asked Linda to help him manage them.
The Ramones were never the commercial success Fields had hoped for. Beyond the CBGB scene, they mostly did not endear themselves to American audiences. Linda, however, had a brainwave that altered the trajectory of the punk revolution; she told Fields that the Ramones should go to Britain. The two shows they played in London in the parched summer of 1976 – at Dingwalls and the Roundhouse – turned out to be the sulphur that finally ignited punk in Britain. Among the native groups that took their lead from them were The Clash. In 1977, the Ramones' single "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker" reached No 22 on the British charts. Sheena, it has been alleged, was actually Linda Stein.
The whirlwind life of touring alongside the Ramones eventually took its toll and, eight years after their marriage, Linda and Seymour sought a divorce. She had been hanging out with the gay set of the Manhattan clubbing scene and frequenting Studio 54. Among her lovers was the bassist Dee Dee Ramone, whose own life had included periods working as a male prostitute. Seymour Stein has since admitted that the marriage was "like a roller-coaster, only a good one, like the Cyclone at Coney Island".
"Whoever she was having an affair with, she was crazy about," Fields told New York magazine this week. "There was usually some cool gorgeous boy, like a bartender at Studio 54. She liked sex."
Nobody who knew Stein will say she was always easy to love. That temper would flare with little provocation – and then there was her mouth. "If she doesn't say 'fuck' 20 times a day, she is repressed," Mandy once said.
In time, her relationship with Fields also imploded. They parted professionally and aside from a brief foray managing a rapper in the early Nineties, Stein mostly moved on to become home-hunter to the stars. That too happened almost by accident when, post-divorce, Seymour tipped her off that he wanted to sell his apartment and Linda passed the intelligence on to the estate-agent arm of Sotheby's for a fat finder's fee. She was hooked.
The roster of celebrities for whom Stein found shelter in Manhattan is long. Clients included Sting, Billy Joel, Calvin Klein, Sir Elton, Harrison Ford, Bruce Willis, Demi Moore, Donna Karan and Lord Lloyd-Webber. Something in her chemistry – maybe her brassiness and disinclination to fawn – made famous people trust her with the always delicate mission of finding the perfect Manhattan apartment.
The constant contact with the rich and notorious presumably gave her the electricity she needed. Plus, it was usually highly lucrative; by the mid-Nineties, she was making upwards of $25m in annual sales.
Working Manhattan's property scene is not without its pressures, particularly with clients such as hers. Millions can be made or lost with one phone call or one lost email. Beware the young person who thought that being Stein's personal assistant would be easy; she went through many of them. Stein never suffered fools gladly and had a reputation for ensuring that anyone who didn't meet her standards got fired.
When Natavia Lowery came to Stein from a temp agency in Manhattan early last summer, it seemed that the fit would be good. Like Stein, Lowery had come from a humble background in an outer borough of New York and seemed to have the hunger to succeed – never mind that tasks given to her included accompanying Stein on her daily walks in Central Park, and washing her hair. That Stein liked her seemed apparent when, according to New York magazine, she paid for Lowery's boyfriend to fly to New York for her birthday. When Mandy found her mother's body on 30 October, there was no reason for her to think of the assistant.
Nor, at first, did the police. In the hours after the discovery, they interviewed anyone and everyone who had been around the building, about 60 people in all, including workers who had been repairing the building's roof. They also considered an Italian construction worker believed to have been her last boyfriend until they broke up two years ago.
However, the last person to see Stein alive, as far as they knew, was Lowery. More than that, they had tapes from surveillance cameras showing Lowery leaving the building at about the time of the murder. The tapes showed her checking the soles of her shoes. She was interviewed on the first day of the investigation, but was not taken into custody.
A week later, a New York tabloid published a story about Lowery with details from her past that seemed to contradict her image of youthful enthusiasm; for example, an episode when a high school friend had accused her of stealing her identity to secure credit from a mobile phone company and a discount department store. The revelations sent reporters scurrying to Lowery's Brooklyn home. She, in turn, called the police to complain about harassment. Detectives arranged to meet her in a local diner, and from there took her to an interview room in their precinct house. It was 7 November, and in the course of the conversation – with no lawyer to assist her – she gave the alleged confession.
The trouble had apparently started when Lowery was struggling to access Stein's emails that day. "Get the fucking emails! How can you be so fucking slow?" Stein yelled at her, Lowery told the detectives, while she blew pot smoke in her face. Perhaps in an effort to make peace, Stein then insisted on buying Lowery lunch on the grounds that black people never have enough money of their own.
Lowery said she seized a heavy exercise instrument that Stein had in one hand – a so-called yoga stick – and, in a moment of frenzied fury began slamming it into the back of her head. And the deed was done.
Or was it? Associates of Stein have noted that she never had a racist bone in her body, counting people like the rap moguls Damon Dash and Jay-Z as her friends. No one can find the yoga stick, and Stein's yoga instructor has said that she never possessed such a thing.
Meanwhile, family and friends of Lowery have launched a campaign insisting that she doesn't have it in her to cause physical harm. Many showed up at a court hearing when the murder charges were first read and screamed at police officers as they led Natavia away. "Liars!" supporters yelled at the police officers, and: "Do a good job next time, fuck!" Her mother, Jeraldine Lottie, insists: "She's a sweet, innocent child. The only thing she could be guilty of is having compassion."
The family contend that detectives, desperate for a break, coerced Natavia into making her confession. "They wouldn't let her call nobody and kept her in there all night," her aunt Julia Carrow told the New York Daily News. "Then they came out and said she confessed."
Maybe the family of an accused killer would say anything to save her skin. But the circumstances of that interview will be critical to Lowery's defence. And it is not just her own lawyers who think so. "I don't think they have a sure thing on this confession," said Edward Hayes, lawyer to Stein's daughters. "It was clearly manipulative for them to meet with her because she was still a suspect in their minds."
Even if the confession can be painted as genuine to a jury, some legal experts believe the entire interview and resulting confession may prove inadmissible as the detectives failed to wait for a lawyer for Lowery.
That Stein might have driven the young woman to distraction seems plausible. But could a puff of smoke and some intemperate words have pushed her to murder? The police think so. Yet the list of people pilloried, insulted or dispossessed of employment by Stein is a long one.
If the case against Lowery falls apart, the mystery of who killed Linda Stein will be more drawn out than at first seemed likely. This Manhattan murder mystery may yet deliver plenty of new headlines – which is probably exactly how the deceased would have liked it.