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Murder in Manhattan

The 'Preppy Killer' case outraged America 30 years ago, but - unknown to many - the story of Robert Chambers went all the way back to Ireland and a woman who became nurse to a baby Kennedy, writes Donal Lynch

Published 10/09/2016

A stoic Robert Chambers leaving his townhouse surrounded by police and taunting crowds to begin serving time for the manslaughter of Jennifer Levi
A stoic Robert Chambers leaving his townhouse surrounded by police and taunting crowds to begin serving time for the manslaughter of Jennifer Levi
Jennifer Levin
Phyllis Chambers, mother of Robert Chambers Jr

The beautiful mature elm tree still stands on the upper east side of Central Park, in the shadow of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Most locals, however, know the terrible significance of this tree.

Exactly 30 years ago this week, under its distinctively crooked branches, one of the most notorious crimes in American history took place. After a night out drinking, Robert Chambers, a young, first generation Irish-American, dragged 18-year-old Jennifer Levin (above right) to the ground and strangled her to death. It was a crime that sent shockwaves through Manhattan.

His trial, a tragedy of privilege, class and endemic misogyny, captured the American public's imagination like few others before it. The sense that Chambers was a handsome child of privilege only inflamed interest in the case. He was a well spoken, well connected varsity jock, was swooned over in the media and received love letters by the sack. The headlines screamed of 'rough sex' and the tabloids quickly dubbed Chambers 'the Preppy Killer'.

Feminists protested outside the courthouse that his deceased victim was being posthumously vilified. Even before the trial was over, the question of who would play Chambers in the movie was being discussed (William Baldwin would be among those who took the role in the decades after). The case influenced legal history in the US too - five years later, Chambers's notorious 'she was asking for it' defence would resurface - in the William Kennedy Smith trial.

This seemed oddly fitting, and not only because Chambers had frequently been described as 'Kennedy-esque' in the media. There was also the fact that a strange twist of fate linked his family with the Irish-American dynasty.

His mother Phyllis Shanley, a trained nurse, had moved from Co Leitrim to New York in the late 1950s, in search of a better life. There she got a job at a hospital, which brought her into contact with the city's elite.

One of the first children she nursed was the infant John F Kennedy Junior. Phyllis was mesmerised by the power and wealth that buzzed around this boy prince. She vowed that one day her own son would become a part of the high society whose children she cared for.

As her career developed, Phyllis's romantic prospects also improved.

In New York she met Bob Chambers, a young man who came from a well-to-do Irish-English family. In 1965, Phyllis and Bob were married, and a year later their son Robert was born. He was a cherubic child, already displaying the good looks that would later mesmerise millions.

Phyllis had trouble in her marriage - Bob drank too much - and perhaps in reaction she pinned much of her hopes and dreams on her son. She wanted to give Robert the chances she never had herself.

At vast expense, she enrolled him in Knickerbocker Greys, a prestigious after-school group that aimed to instil leadership skills in the privileged young men of Manhattan's Upper East Side. Its alumni included Rockerfellers and Vanderbilts, and the Irish nurse harboured illusions that her son would one day be mentioned in the same breath. The family's social mobility continued when they moved to an apartment on Park Avenue.

Robert attended a private prep school. He became an altar boy at St David's prep school and excelled at aristocratic pastimes such as marksmanship. He was also elected to the school's honour guard.

Behind the scenes, however, he was beginning to show the first signs of dysfunction and rebellion. In his mid-teens he was caught drinking and smoking marijuana after class, and soon Phyllis opted to move him to the Browning School, a stricter, but no less prestigious, private prep school on Manhattan's Upper East Side.

By now in his late teens, he began to style himself as something of a playboy and, in the words of one of his biographers, "quickly adapted to the jet set lifestyle of New York's A-List crowd; fast cars, fast drugs and fast sex." He and his clique of friends were regulars at the legendary nightclub, Studio 54.

Robert was accepted to study at Boston College, but by then his problems were not confined to drink and drugs. He also began stealing, and when he was found in possession of one his teachers' credit cards, he was expelled. Phyllis intervened at this point, and funded a stint in a chemical dependency unit in Louisiana. This set a pattern that would endure over the next few years.

After leaving rehab, he failed to stay clean and was arrested on a number of petty charges.

Unable to hold down a job, he received a summons for disorderly conduct one night after leaving Dorrian's Red Hand, an Upper East Side bar. Chambers destroyed the summons in front of police, yelling, "You f**king cowards, you should stick to n***ers!" and was arrested again. He later entered and was discharged from the Hazelden Clinic in Minnesota, another addiction treatment centre.

New Yorkers are fairly unshockable at the best of times, but in the mid-1980s in particular, murders sometimes barely merited a mention in the press, so commonplace had they become. Times Square was still a cesspit of hookers and pimps, and certain parts of the west side of Manhattan were too dangerous to walk, even in daytime hours.

To put the overall atmosphere in the city in perspective, 1,907 people were murdered in New York City in 1986, while only 617 died in this way in 2014. Thirty years ago it took something truly macabre to propel a murder into the Manhattan headlines.

They couldn't resist poor Jennifer Levin, though. Her cold, partially clothed body was discovered by a cyclist on a grassy knoll just after six in the morning on August 26, 1986. The first responders at the scene found her bra twisted around her neck. Her short pink skirt was pulled up around her waist, and her white sleeveless blouse was at her shoulders. The clothing was torn. In her jacket pocket was a crumpled and torn $1 bill and a wallet containing a learner's driving permit and a birth certificate. The permit bore her correct birth date: May 21, 1968. The birth certificate copy had been altered to make her four years older.

In the days after, more details would emerge about her. She was the bubbly daughter of a successful SoHo property agent, and, like Chambers, had attended upper crust private schools in Manhattan.

In the days before her death, Levin had been partying in the Hamptons with friends, and returned to Manhattan where she met two more friends - a man and a woman - for drinks. They arrived at Dorrian's, known as "a rich kids' hangout," on the Upper East Side around midnight.

There, fatefully, a familiar 19-year-old Irishman caught her eye. Robert Chambers was in a bad mood. He'd told a friend that he was depressed because he'd just found out that a companion from the drug rehabilitation centre had committed suicide earlier that week. He had stood up his 16-year-old girlfriend earlier in the night. Now, he had his sights set on Levin, with whom he had had a few casual flings in the past. Or maybe she had her sights on him.

"I just want you to know, the sex you and I had together was the best sex I ever had in my life," Levin reportedly told Chambers at the bar, according to court transcripts. Chambers allegedly bowed his head and said, "Jen, you shouldn't have said that."

They spent the next few hours flirting at the bar before leaving together around 4.30am. She'd been in the bar for many hours by that point but she seemed to have sobered up. (Later, a toxicologist report concluded that Levin's blood contained minimal levels of alcohol).

Levin is estimated to have died at about 5.30am. At around five, according to newspaper reports and other sources, a jogger, an Upper East Side doctor, saw the couple together and thought they were making love. He passed by again about 20 minutes later, and heard someone cry out in pain. "Are you all right?" he called, and someone responded that everything was okay. It would be the middle of the following day before police picked up Chambers.

Almost immediately, he tried to spin a number of tales to police, including that he had been scratched by his cat (which was later proven to have been declawed).

He eventually confessed to police that he had killed Levin, but denied that it had been intentional and instead insisted that it had been a case of 'rough sex gone wrong.'

He said that he didn't realise at first that Levin was dead, and he tried to rouse her from what may have seemed like a stupor or a game. Afterwards, he made no effort to get help or to call the police. Instead he returned home - his mother was away - and slept for a while.

Police confronted him with the evidence they found. "I have never seen in my entire career the strangulation marks on her neck the way I did that day out of the 2,000 murders I've investigated," detective Mike Sheehan told The Post.

"She had all of these half-moon marks above the moustache line because she was desperately trying to pull the jacket off her mouth and nose so she could breathe."

Bizarrely, Chambers was released on bail and that was when a home video - rare in those pre-mobile phone days - surfaced, showing Chambers smiling and laughing with four lingerie-clad girls.

In the video, Chambers chokes himself with his own hands while making gagging noises before twisting the head off a Barbie doll and saying, "My name is… Oops! I think I killed it." The public was aghast.

The trial was a sensation. In what would become a notorious courtroom manoeuvre, Chambers's legal team claimed that Levin had in fact sexually assaulted their client.

Levin's family were appalled that her sex life was used to try to show that she had "asked for it". In his closing argument, Chambers's lawyer said: "It was Jennifer who was pursuing Robert for sex... that's why we wound up with this terrible tragedy."

After the jury deadlocked, Chambers pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to five to 15 years in prison. When asked by presiding Judge Howard E Bell if he intended to cause harm to Levin that fateful night, Chambers recanted on his original claim that it was all an accident, saying, "Looking back on the event, I have to say yes. It breaks my heart to say that."

Because of constant infractions in prison, Chambers got no time off for good behaviour and served his full sentence of 15 years. He was released in 2003 - but soon found himself in trouble again. After holding a series of odd jobs, he was arrested for selling drugs out of his New York apartment. In 2008, he was sentenced to 19 years in jail. His earliest release date from prison is now January 25, 2024.

A wrongful death lawsuit, to which Chambers pleaded no contest, ruled that his future income (up to $25m), including any income from book or movie deals, will be turned over to the Levin family. It's thought by some that upon his release Chambers may attempt to move back to Ireland.

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