From the November 10, 1986 issue of New York Magazine.
For the young crowd at Dorrian’s Red Hand, the early-morning scene on August 26 was like an unplanned reunion. Many of the regulars at the Upper East Side bar were just back from their holidays, and they table-hopped eagerly—drinking and laughing, embracing friends they hadn’t seen over the summer. “We were all in there buzzing around,” recalls one. “We all had fun that night.”
At the edge of the gaiety, one Dorrian’s regular, a tall, handsome nineteen-year-old named Robert Chambers, sat at the bar, drinking beer by himself. Chambers is a good drinker, his friends say, and he can be aloof. But that night, he seemed particularly moody, at times looking straight ahead and ignoring the festivities around him. At about 1 A.M., his girlfriend, a pretty sixteen-year-old junior from a top private school, came over. They’d had a date to meet earlier, but Chambers had shown up more than an hour late and hadn’t spoken to her yet. Now she confronted him and, angered by his noncommittal reply, told him she didn’t want to see him again. Chambers just laughed.
Another pretty student, eighteen-year-old Jennifer Levin, may have overheard the exchange. She was high-spirited and popular, and she’d been interested in Chambers for some time. They’d had a few flings, and she’d confided to friends how sexy she thought he was. Levin now told the other girl that she wanted her boyfriend, and over the course of the next three hours, friends saw Levin flirting and talking with Chambers at the bar. At around 4:30, they left together.
Less than two hours later, Jennifer Levin was found dead in Central Park. The police said that her clothes were disheveled and that she had been strangled. Later that day, they picked up Chambers, and after hours of questioning, he admitted causing Levin’s death, but he denied intending to hurt her. What had happened, he said, was an accident—rough sex play that got out of control. About 24 hours later, he was arraigned on the charge of murder.
The death of Levin and the charge against Chambers stunned and baffled the city, and raised questions about the way children grow up in New York, about underage drinking in public bars and casual sex in Central Park. How, people asked, could an apparently innocent teenage tryst end in death?
Both Levin and Chambers lived in a world in which hardship seems remote, murder unthinkable. Only days away from her first term at a Boston junior college, Levin was a bright, gregarious girl who had been voted best-looking in her graduating class at the Baldwin School. Friends say she was full of life, the least likely victim.
Chambers also went to good schools. He was an altar boy at his parish church, a member of the Children of the American Revolution, and an officer in the Knickerbocker Greys, a uniformed drill troop whose members include the sons—and now daughters—of many prominent New York families. His mother, who was president of the board of that organization, said five years ago, “It’s a very tough world out there. A boy who receives this training is less likely to fall by the wayside later on. The Greys teaches what society should be about, the niceties of life.”
But the world of Levin and Chambers had its shadows. Both came from broken homes, and both had embraced a troubling scene—a particular community of private-school students in which drug use, alcohol, casual sex, and chronic underachievement sometimes start when the students are as young as thirteen.
Of course, not all young people are part of the scene, and not all want to be. But it draws from the city’s best-known private schools, luring students with its aura of glitter and elitism. Both Levin and Chambers probably understood the short-comings of their young social world—Chambers, in fact, had told friends he hated its superficiality. Other students no doubt feel the same way. But they also say the scene provides them with a sense of belonging that they don’t get elsewhere.
Levin was about to escape from that world, but Chambers was apparently trapped in it. He had failed at several schools, he’d had a serious bout with drugs, and some of his friends claim that he lied and stole. Police have charged that he took part in a string of East Side burglaries.
Chambers’s admirers say he was turning his life around in the weeks before the killing, and Chambers himself told friends that he had to pull things together. He’d got out of a drug rehabilitation center in May, and he was talking about trying to get into Columbia. Just six days before Levin died, Chambers had called his former parish priest, whom he hadn’t spoken to in years.
Still, some of his friends felt that Chambers was going nowhere. He may have been off cocaine, they say, but he was drinking heavily and smoking pot. Apart from a little house-painting and a caretaker’s job with a neighbor, he didn’t work. And one confidant recalls Chambers’s growing desperation to resolve the contradictions between his mother’s expectations, his image with his peers, and his low self-esteem.
Chambers’s problems can’t be blamed entirely on the scene that had become such a major part of his life. But what the scene did was provide a cover, a setting in which Chambers’s decline did not stand out. “He was a nice, normal guy,” one of his friends recalls. “But once in a while, he’d show this crazy streak, a strangeness. Of course, we were wrecked all of the time, so it was hard to tell what was strange and what was just being high.” All the same, the carelessness and despair that characterized Chambers’s actions that August morning—even assuming the most innocent scenario—had penetrated his life long before the sad events took place.
Though his family was hardly rich, Chambers grew up in the privileged world of the elite.
Robert Emmet Chambers Jr. was born on September 25, 1966, the only child of Robert Chambers, a former employee of MCA Records who now works for a videocassette distributorship, and Phyllis Chambers, an Irish-born private nurse who still speaks with a brogue. The family lived in Jackson Heights before moving to Park Avenue in 1975 and then to an apartment in a brownstone at 11 East 90th in 1980. Chambers’s parents separated two years ago.
The family was hardly rich, but Chambers had the advantages enjoyed by children of New York’s wealthy elite. When he was four, he was enrolled at Saint David’s, a private East Side elementary school whose graduates typically attend the area’s most competitive secondary schools. At eight, he joined the Knickerbocker Greys. In sixth grade, he was confirmed in St. Thomas More Roman Catholic Church, on East 89th Street, under the sponsorship of Theodore McCarrick, who is now the archbishop of Newark.
Chambers thrived in this sheltered setting. He did well at Saint David’s, where classmates remember him as a top athlete. He rose to lieutenant colonel in the Greys, the company’s penultimate rank. And he was well thought of as an altar boy at St. Thomas More. “He was very faithful, very honest in his duties,” Monsignor James Wilders recalls.
“All the younger boys loved Robert,” says Tim Packard, who was also a lieutenant colonel in the Greys. “He had this smile that would just melt everyone around him.”
Several of the girls at Spence recall Chambers as a nice but extremely shy seventh-grader, one of a small group of Saint David’s boys with whom they hung out at the Sweet Suite, a candy store on the block between the two schools. “I always remember him with his rumpled shirt and his tie in his pocket after school,” says one of the girls. “In groups, he was always standing back, looking at his shoes or the pavement, then scurrying off to be with his pals.”
In eighth grade, Chambers’s social life expanded. Along with students from the other single-sex schools—Buckley, Chapin, Collegiate, Nightingale-Bamford, and St. Bernard’s—his group gathered at the Bandwagon, a teen disco in an Upper East Side Young Republican club. Liquor was prohibited, but Chambers’s crowd sipped Southern Comfort from flasks or bought beer at a neighboring deli. The more adventurous students drank at the nearby Yorkville bar and experimented with pot.
A friend of Chambers’s remembers a curious incident from that time. “I was teasing him about something really stupid,” she says, “and somehow the teasing got physical. I kicked him in the butt—but playfully—and suddenly he started twisting my arm so hard he nearly broke it. I yelled at him to stop, but he wouldn’t let go, and when I looked at his eyes, they were really weird, like he meant it.” But of the dozens of friends and acquaintances interviewed for this story, she was the only one to recall seeing Chambers act out his anger.
He continued to do well in school. With its small classes and emphasis on personal development, Saint David’s fosters a sense of family among its students. (Chambers’s first visitors in jail included three of his former teachers.) He won an award for public speaking, reciting the gallows speech of the Irish rebel Robert Emmet, for whom he was named. He gained admission to Choate, in Wallingford, Connecticut. And during the summer, he worked as a teacher’s aide at Saint David’s, instructing underprivileged youngsters in photography. Chambers befriended Ed Crespo, a shy Puerto Rican student from East Harlem who was in the program.
“After that summer, I called him up,” Crespo says. “I remember thinking, Ed, you’re making a fool of yourself. Why should Robert Chambers bother with a fat, pimply-faced, longhaired kid? He’s not even going to remember you. But he did. He came to my house like it was the most natural thing in the world.”
But even as he was counseling Crespo, Chambers’s close-knit world had begun to unravel. For years, his father had been suffering from alcoholism and was now never at home, according to friends who visited Robert frequently. “As a kid, Rob’s dad used to take him to the park every week to play ball,” recalls John Tulenko, a classmate since kindergarten. “But then as he got older, the visits stopped.”
When Chambers got to Choate in the fall of 1980, he had trouble making the transition from Saint David’s to the larger, more impersonal boarding school. “Robert had a difficult adjustment,” says Tom Yankus, Chambers’s adviser at Choate. “He came from an organization where he was very important to a school where he had to start from the bottom of the heap. Naturally, he was trying to establish himself, but Choate is such a vital community with so many options on campus that some kids get overwhelmed. Robert was so popular, always surrounded by his friends, his room always filled with people. He couldn’t seem to focus his efforts, and as so often happens with the younger kids, once they fall behind, it’s very hard to catch up.”
When Chambers returned home for Christmas, the girls from his old group were dating boys from Columbia and had graduated from the Bandwagon to places like the West End Café, McMullen’s, and Studio 54. Chambers began seeing younger girls, including a pretty eighth-grader he had met the year before. It was the first involvement for both of them. “Every night, we’d talk on the phone for hours,” she recalls. “I don’t think he had anyone else he could confide in. He was all balled up inside.”
When friends remarked on his father’s absence, Chambers told them only that he traveled frequently for business. Chambers was secretive about his girlfriend, too, often ignoring her at parties. But in private, he was considerate. “In those days, all the guys were trying to make it with you,” she says. “But Robert wasn’t like that. He never tried to force anything. He was always very gentle, very sensitive. He used to write me poetry.”
Still, Chambers’s girlfriend broke up with him in the spring after hearing he had “fooled around” with another girl. “I called him at Choate and told him I didn’t want to see him anymore,” she says. “He was very upset. But he didn’t try to lie about it the way most guys would. He was just stunned. Later, he wrote me a letter apologizing for what had happened.”
For all his charm and apparent good intentions, Chambers couldn’t repair his relationship with his girlfriend or his record at Choate, which didn’t ask him back for a second year. “He was aware of his academic problems, but never down about them,” Yankus says. “He was so pleasant to deal with—always a big smile—that in some way he fooled me.”
With his father away and his mother working nights, Chambers came to regard Dorrian’s as a second home. He and Levin met there in June.
In the fall of 1981, Chambers entered the Browning School, a private school on East 62nd Street, where his academic decline accelerated. He showed no interest in his studies and was often absent from class. “Rob was spoiled,” one friend remembers. “He’d never really been challenged.”
Chambers’s apathy may have had something to do with drugs. Marijuana and, to a lesser extent, cocaine and LSD had been common at Choate, and Chambers is said to have used drugs there. During the fall semester at Browning, he was habitually stoned. In the afternoon, he would go to the park to smoke pot, and in the evening he would hit the neighborhood bars.
On weekends, Chambers joined a larger scene that was developing among students from Manhattan private schools. Studio 54 had hired professional party man Baird Jones to bring in some new young faces. Jones teamed up with John Flanagan, who’d known Chambers at Saint David’s, and Flanagan sent invitations to private-school students around the city. Once the club started drawing a crowd of attractive young regulars, a caste system developed that mimicked the social distinctions applied to the older clientele. Only select students were let in free. Young people with rich, celebrated parents or youngsters who were particularly good-looking also got free drink tickets and easy access to VIP rooms. Their B-listed counterparts, however, had to stand in long lines, pay up to $20 to get in, and were barred from the select lounges.
Though many of the students who went to Studio 54 and other clubs and bars were underage, getting served drinks was no problem, since fake I.D.’s were easy to come by. The bar and club owners insist they have no defense against the fake I.D.’s, especially since many students dress and use makeup to appear older than they are. Jack Dorrian, whose wife and daughter own Dorrian’s Red Hand, told the Times shortly after Levin’s death, “Everyone has to have two pieces of I.D. to get in this place. Everybody has I.D.’s, not just these kids. If you were nineteen and you wanted to go into a bar, you’d have fake I.D.” (It’s against the law to serve liquor to anyone under 21 in New York, and bar owners are responsible for determining the ages of their customers. But the state says it lacks the manpower for aggressive enforcement.)
When the scene shifted to Studio 54 and other late-night clubs, many of the students started staying out much later. After all, the action at these places didn’t really get going until after midnight. Some parents found it hard to enforce a curfew when the social lives of their children were at stake. “A lot of kids who weren’t allowed to go to Studio 54 felt left out of the scene,” recalls Arthur Altschul Jr., who threw parties at the club when he was at Collegiate. “Most parents were made to recognize this and had to give in when they realized that other parents were letting their kids go out.”
As his self-esteem sank, he used more drugs, yet his problems apparently escaped notice.
One Spence mother remembers being dragged to Studio 54 by her fifteen-year-old daughter to see that it really was a meeting place for her friends and classmates. Other students simply sneaked out of the house or devised schemes to make their parents believe they were sleeping over at a friend’s. And some parents didn’t care, or weren’t home themselves.
Part of the problem was that many of the young people—in spite of their wealth and privilege—had no other place to go. Most of the schools had stopped holding dances, the Bandwagon had closed, and many parents—scared off by the wide use of drugs and alcohol among teens—refused to play host to parties.
When the clubs took over the social lives of these teenagers, they also took over their values—at least for some of the kids. The party environment encouraged drinking and drug use, and the club scene gave lessons in trading on family names and celebrity. “We were emulating an older bunch of guys we met there, whose biggest standard of success was getting over on a different girl every night,” says one young man.
Chambers hung out occasionally at the clubs, but as his troubles got worse at school, so did his alienation from the glitter set at Studio 54. He was expelled from Browning after the fall semester, for drugs and theft from a teacher, according to a law-enforcement source. “Getting kicked out of Browning was a big shock for Rob,” remembers one close friend and classmate. “For the first time, he felt he’d been expelled from the clique. I mean, if you get kicked out of Choate, you can still go to Browning. But when you get kicked out of Browning, then where do you go? I remember conversations with him at the time, him saying, ‘Ah, preppies, the hell with them. F— the whole scene.’ “
Chambers’s next stop was York Prep, a private school on East 85th Street. His headmaster, Ronald Stewart, describes him as a mediocre student, but a close friend and schoolmate says, “Rob never studied. He never concentrated on his homework, and he just barely passed.”
As his self-esteem sank, he used more drugs. To pay for them, his friends say, he began to steal—jewelry from the apartments of friends’ parents, ski equipment, petty cash. By the end of the tenth grade, Chambers was leading a secret life that involved drinking, drugs, and theft.
The seriousness of his problems apparently escaped notice. “He was a nice, normal boy,” recalls headmaster Stewart. “Yes, he was lazy. Some teenage boys are lazy. Yes, he occasionally drank beer. Some teenage boys drink beer. But we liked him here, and if you had met him, you would have liked him, too. Everybody now is looking for a dark side of Robert Chambers. But I just didn’t see it.”
An old friend recalls a time when Mrs. Chambers caught them smoking pot in Chambers’s room. “She sat us down on the bed,” he says, “and put her arms around us and told us that if we had any problems, we should talk them out with her. Rob and I were doing all we could not to burst out laughing. I mean, she was very nice, but completely out of touch.”
But as his own school career faltered, Chambers advised Ed Crespo to pursue a scholarship he had won at the Longmeadow High School, outside Springfield, Massachusetts. Crespo, who had trouble adjusting, attributes his eventual success to Chambers’s unwavering encouragement.
The summer after his sophomore year, Chambers began working as a messenger for Davis Polk & Wardwell, a blue-chip law firm. Richard Nolan, a partner whose sons knew Chambers from Saint David’s and the Greys, recalls that he did a “fine job.” Back at school that fall, however, Chambers slipped into a familiar pattern. A classmate recalls the boy who “occasionally drank beer” actually strolling to the park with mixed drinks in a paper cup. Friends remember him being constantly stoned, affecting an I-don’t-give-a-damn-about-anything attitude.
But Chambers’s indifference may have been a pose. He confided wild schemes for making money to one friend and told another just last summer that his mother was a doctor. In fact, she was working as a nurse—twelve hours a day, six days a week, for the Hammersteins and the Hearsts, the kinds of prominent families whose children Chambers was expected to befriend. Indeed, sources close to the prosecution believe that Chambers’s troubles may stem, in part, from his mother’s efforts to push him into a rarefied world in which he either couldn’t make it or didn’t want to. It was at her urging, friends say, that he served in the Greys, in his church, and on the committee of the Gold and Silver Ball, a charity event patronized by many members of the private-school social scene.
“He didn’t like the kids in the scene, but I think he was jealous of them,” says one friend. “He wanted to have as much money as they did, to come back in twenty years and show them. He wanted power, a place in society.”
If you’d met him, you would have liked him, says his York headmaster.
Chambers’s tall good looks—he’s six four and about 220 pounds—and secretive manner made him something of a legend among the younger private-school girls. A friend recalls that girls from surrounding schools used to camp out on the steps of the brownstone where he lived. He hated to be pursued that way, the friend says, and in fact, Chambers was always more comfortable hanging out with his male friends. Still, there was a sensitive side to him that he revealed to girls he liked. He also had a hard time letting go of old girlfriends. The girl who broke up with him while he was at Choate says that years later he was still pursuing her. And when Flanagan started dating one of Chambers’s former girlfriends, Chambers avoided him for a year.
By the middle of Chambers’s junior year, the club scene was rapidly expanding. Baird Jones had left Studio 54 the year before, and the club had enlisted Flanagan and several friends—later called the Committee—to carry on the weekend-party tradition. They were given their own private room, an open bar, and carte blanche invitations for their friends. Once, when one of the committee members couldn’t get back from his boarding school for a Friday-night party he’d helped organize, the club sent a limousine to fetch him at his dormitory.
Flanagan’s friend Nick Beavers, whose family later opened the Surf Club and the Zulu Lounge, provided a similar service for nearby Xenon. In fact, a number of new clubs and bars were welcoming the young students—among them, a cheerful five-foot-seven freshman at the Baldwin School, Jennifer Levin.
Levin had moved to the city from Port Washington, Long Island, earlier that year to live with her father, a successful SoHo realtor, and stepmother in their SoHo loft. She made friends easily and began making the rounds of the clubs. “She was a really cute girl—fun, happy-go-lucky,” recalls Brock Pernice, who met her when he was a freshman at York. “She loved the club scene, and she was very innocent. I took her to a Billy Idol concert on our first date, but it wasn’t until weeks later that I first kissed her, at the Peppermint Lounge, and then I couldn’t leave her.”
By the beginning of 1983, Chambers had begun to drift away from his old Saint David’s and Browning friends and to hang out with a group from York known to be heavily involved with drugs. At the same time, his oldest and closest friend, John Tulenko, had become fed up with the self-destructive life that he and Chambers—and many of their friends—had been sharing. “I just realized it was a dead end,” Tulenko says, “that I was only hurting myself and my parents. One night, a group of us were hanging out at this bar on East 85th Street. I remember thinking how pathetic the conversation was. We were just joking around in this cynical manner we have, but I’d stopped drinking a few weeks before and I couldn’t relate to it at all. I stood up and told them to go to hell and walked out.
“Looking back,” Tulenko says, “I wished I’d said something to Rob, told him to get his act together. But that would have been like breaking up our friendship. I just didn’t feel it was my place.”
That summer, Chambers worked again at Davis Polk, and in the fall began his senior year at York. A student at the McBurney School had bought a pair of skis from Chambers and remembers him coming to McBurney with a “couple of tough kids” to collect payment. “It was totally unnecessary,” the student says. “I told him that if he wanted the money, all he had to do was ask me. Later, he told me that the skis were stolen.”
The confrontation with the McBurney student was quite out of character. Tulenko remembers Chambers as a “wimp, not capable of violence.” Ronald Stewart recalls that as one of York’s star soccer players, Chambers would often get tripped up “accidentally on purpose” by opposing players, but that he would always walk away. And just this summer, Flanagan says, someone punched Chambers in the face while he was trying to break up a fight outside Dorrian’s. “He really got clocked.” Flanagan says, “but he just got up and asked, ‘Why?’ He’s six five, six six, but he’s meek, really passive.”
During his senior year, Chambers was using cocaine. Although alcohol was still the drug of choice on the scene, pot, “Ecstasy,” pills, LSD, heroin, and cocaine were widely available from street pushers and student dealers—some as young as fourteen—in Sheep Meadow in Central Park. Some students even found their sources at home. The housekeeper of one of Chambers’s former girlfriends sold cocaine. Other teens remember the private-school mother and tutor who sold cocaine to her students—children of some of the most illustrious New York families—and billed their parents as part of her fee.
Chambers graduated from York in June and was accepted by the College of Basic Studies at Boston University, in part, according to Stewart, because of his high test scores. The Basic Studies Program is designed to help students who’ve had problems in high school. After just one semester, however, BU kicked him out for academic reasons. Friends say he did little work and used the school as an excuse to party and hang out.
Back in New York, Chambers returned to his old life. Flanagan remembers a party at Nirvana early in 1985. “There were a lot of girls there who hadn’t seen Rob for a long time or had never met him, and they were all asking about him and saying how gorgeous he was. After that, Rob kind of came back, started being more prevalent on the scene.”
The scene had changed by then. For Chambers’s crowd, clubs like Studio 54 and Xenon were out, and though students would go to parties at Area and eventually the Palladium, they had begun to frequent restaurants like Caramba!!!! and neighborhood bars like the West End, near Columbia, and Dorrian’s Red Hand, on Second Avenue at 84th Street. Dorrian’s became a favorite of Chambers’s; he had gone to school with Jack Dorrian’s son Michael. (Later, Jack Dorrian would put up his East 71st Street townhouse as collateral for part of Chambers’s bail.) With his father away and his mother working nights, Chambers regarded the bar as a second home.
Chambers’s supporters insist he was turning his life around in the weeks before the killing.
Friends of Jennifer Levin say she, too, retreated into the scene from a turbulent home life. Though she was close to her mother, she told friends that her mother was more a friend than a parent and that she had moved to her father’s home for the added security and discipline. But they say she resented her stepmother and often fought with her father. “She used to call me in tears and sleep over at my house because of fights with her dad,” says one close friend. “They were just about the usual things—coming home late, cleaning her room, getting her priorities straight—and after a day, everything would be lovey-dovey again. But she never felt really comfortable living there. She hated being alone in the loft, and she felt at times she was intruding on her father’s life. She used to leave little toys around for her parents with notes saying she was sorry and would try to be better.”
Levin’s school, Baldwin, on West 74th Street, is small and expensive (her senior-year tuition was $7,800) and offers individual attention to students, some of whom have learning problems. Friends say that Levin had a reading disability, though her principal, Daniel Kimball, says she read at her grade level.
Kimball recalls her as a “good-average student.” Levin described herself as “street-smart, not book-smart,” and was proud of her ability to handle people.
Indeed, coming from a Long Island suburb, she adapted quickly to the hipper styles and sensibilities of her Baldwin classmates and to the highly ritualized private-school scene. Friends recall laughing with her last summer at old photographs of her as a student at Port Washington’s Weber junior high, with a feathered-back haircut.
“I remember when I met her, she was Little Miss Innocent,” Pernice says. “I saw her change, grow up real quick in the city. She wanted to be everyone’s friend, and she put herself on their level. She would sound like different people with different friends. She even began to look like them.”
But her friends also remember that she could be direct and feisty, and that she would rarely back down. “If she was mad at you,” says one, “she would come right up to your face and say, ‘This is the deal, and I’m not happy about it.’ “
“She used to tell off guys for wising off,” says Pernice. “Two nights before she died, she nearly got in a fistfight in Danceteria [a Hamptons nightclub] with some guy she thought had pinched her. We had to have the guy thrown out.”
Levin spent the summer of 1985 in the Hamptons working in a boutique. That fall, back for her senior year at Baldwin, she began to drop in regularly at Dorrian’s. “She got too into the scene,” Pernice says. “I tried to do other things with her. We went to the theater, formals, restaurants. But she always had to go by Dorrian’s. That was where our friends were.”
Despite her romance with Pernice, she had casual affairs with other boys—perfectly normal by the standards of the scene. “We’re like 35-year-old people,” explains one of Levin’s closest friends. “We act like we were adults. Most of us have credit cards; we all drink; and we fool around, have flings.”
Pernice broke up with Levin for a time that winter, and he blames the scene in part for their troubles. “Away from the scene,” he says, “she was a totally different person. When she was with me alone, I really felt love.”
During the summer of 1985, Chambers worked as a host at the Fulton Café in the South Street Seaport. He spent some weekends in the Hamptons, and dated a tall Chapin senior and model named Kristen Gesswein. Once, he ran into John Tulenko during a reunion with old friends from Saint David’s and Browning. “He told me he was getting his act together and trying to get into Columbia,” Tulenko says. “But I didn’t believe him.”
“We’re like 35-year-old people,” says one young girl. “We act like we were adults.”
Indeed, that September, according to a new indictment, Chambers took part in three Upper East Side burglaries with David Fillyaw, who has since been charged with the attempted murder and rape of a Columbia student in her dormitory. Fillyaw, twenty, is said to have belonged to the 84th Street Gang, a group of youths from the Yorkville area who occasionally clashed with students from York and other neighborhood private schools. He and Chambers had been friends for four or five years, the authorities claim, and they used to hang out together in Sheep Meadow. In the burglaries, Chambers allegedly walked into the buildings and then entered the apartments through roof terraces. More than $70,000 in jewelry, silver, furs, and other things was taken, the authorities charge.
Chambers took courses that fall at Hunter College, but he continued to steal and use drugs. One acquaintance remembers, “We went out to dinner at America once, and he pulled out a credit card that wasn’t his and said, jokingly, ‘Should I use this tonight?’ “
Money was disappearing from pocketbooks at Dorrian’s and from the apartments of Chambers’s friends, and Chambers was the main suspect. That winter, several girls laid a trap for him, and he was caught with someone else’s identification in his wallet. Another time, friends found him with a stolen radio.
Yet there were few consequences to the discoveries. Chambers continued to hang out at Dorrian’s, and he continued to socialize with the very people he had victimized.
Away from the scene, Chambers demonstrated a far different side. He has a mentally retarded cousin and has always shown a special interest in her; indeed, when she was young, he was sometimes the only one who could communicate with her. He arranged a full scholarship in the Greys for a minority youth and, as with Crespo, was a “big brother” to him for years. His neighbor Eve Murphy, who hired him as a caretaker and housepainter, was impressed by his diligence and honesty. Alone in her apartment, he had access to jewelry, credit cards, and cash, but never took a thing.
At some level, Chambers was apparently aware of his problems with the scene. A friend from Hunter who had been accepted at Colgate for the spring term recalls walking with him in Central Park one day last winter. “He said he really admired me being a February freshman at Colgate,” the friend says. “And he told me, ‘I put myself in a hole. Now I have to dig myself out of it.’ “
In April, Chambers flew down to Palm Beach to visit Flanagan. After he left New York, a friend says, his mother found drug paraphernalia while cleaning his room, and when Chambers called home, she told him to return immediately, that someone in the family was “sick.” When he got back that day, he told his parents, “I’m the one who’s sick, aren’t I?” He quickly left for the Hazeldon Foundation, a drug rehabilitation clinic in Minnesota.
When he got back to New York in May, he told friends that he had kicked his cocaine habit. On several later occasions, he refused offers of the drug, and he’s said to have counseled some friends against it. Meanwhile, he started working for Eve Murphy.
Still, he continued to struggle. “In a way, he was too positive,” a close friend recalls. “Most people, when they get out of rehab, are realistic. But Rob always wanted people to think he could handle anything. He was drinking a lot and smoking pot. And he was always out, hard to reach. That means to me he didn’t want to sit and think.
“He was under pressure in a lot of ways. He was trying to break away from his mother. But he was scared of disappointing her. It was like he’d try so hard he’d screw up. He was trying to please everyone, trying to be perfect. He’d always wanted to make a lot of money, but now he was realizing it wasn’t so easy. The world out there scared him a lot.”
Like many others in her social world, Levin came from a broken home.
Last spring, Levin went to Boston to visit colleges with a friend named Betsy (who asked that her last name not be used). While they were there, they stayed with Flanagan, who was taking courses at Harvard. Levin had been accepted at Chamberlayne Junior College, a small local school, and Betsy had already enrolled at Boston University. Betsy says the two of them had so much fun together over the weekend that Levin decided to go to Chamberlayne.
In May, Levin got a summer job as a hostess at Fluties, another South Street Seaport restaurant. “She had to wait three or four hours for an interview,” says Betsy, “and when the guy saw her, he told her she wasn’t right for the job. So she just grabbed him by the shoulders and told him that she was great with people and about all the jobs she’d had selling, and she made him fall in love with her.”
At about this time, Pernice was ready to leave for Europe. He and Levin resolved to continue seeing each other when he got back in August.
Chambers’s romantic fortunes were not faring as well. His on-again, off-again girlfriend of two years, Kristen Gesswein, had broken up with him, and friends say he was crushed when she began seeing Moby Banker, a veteran of the scene. Typically, however, Chambers refused to let his emotions show. “When he actually saw Moby, he just looked at him and laughed,” Flanagan says.
In fact, Chambers had already met a girl at a graduation party. Now they began seeing each other regularly, and she became his latest girlfriend.
Levin and Chambers first met at Dorrian’s on a night toward the end of June, according to Betsy. “He was sitting about four tables away from me,” Betsy says, “and he kept looking over and smiling—’Hi,’ ‘Hi’—and finally he said to me, ‘I just want to tell you I think your friend is so beautiful.’ He said he wanted to talk to her, but that he couldn’t do it in public, that he had a girlfriend. I told him he should just go up and talk to her, and he said, ‘I can’t. Tell her to meet me outside.’ “
That night, Betsy says, Chambers and Levin just talked, but something “clicked” between them. “I remember her face turned a different color,” she says, “and how he turned his head to the side, his hands in his pockets, almost smiling—trying to maintain his coolness.”
They met again at Dorrian’s during the second week of July, and this time they spent the night together at his house. The next morning, Levin called Betsy and told her that she and Chambers hadn’t made love, that “he was very gentle, he didn’t force me to do anything. He just complimented me.”
“She was in heaven,” Betsy remembers.
Several weeks later, while Betsy was in the Hamptons with a friend of Levin’s named Edwina, they got another call from Levin. “Guess what?” Levin asked.
“Edwina and I were laughing ‘cause we knew,” Betsy says. “She said she’d gone back to Rob’s house, that she’d wanted to go, and that it had been incredible, she had such a good time. She said he was amazing.”
During the summer, Chambers kept telling friends that he was trying to reorder his life and that he was planning to take courses that fall at Columbia as a general-studies student, in the hope of eventually enrolling at the college.
But as August was ending, Chambers hadn’t enrolled in school or found a regular job, and he was still drinking until late at Dorrian’s. His girlfriend tried to help him, but, friends say, he stole money from her and lied about his whereabouts and his efforts at reform. Two close friends recall that he seemed to be at the end of his rope—guarded about his activities and bitter about the scene he couldn’t escape. “He hated it,” one says. “He thought the people were phony and superficial, but he would say things like he wanted to come back in twenty years and show them. The last few times I saw him, I thought he was about to explode.
“I knew he was unstable. He was living two lives: one, his mother; the other, social. He had so many stories to keep straight with different people, he was like, having to become a compulsive liar. He wanted so much to have control over his life, but he just couldn’t grasp it.”
On August 21, Chambers spoke to his former parish priest, Monsignor Wilders, for the first time in more than five years. Wilders asked him to call back the following Monday to arrange an appointment. Chambers didn’t, and that Monday night—the night of Levin’s death—he went again to Dorrian’s.
Later, Wilders would visit Chambers in prison and ask him why he had called, and Chambers would tell him what in essence he had told so many others during the past year: His life was in disorder. He had hoped the monsignor would help him find a job to pay for his college expenses. He had wanted to turn things around.
Levin, meanwhile, was in high spirits as the summer wound down. After leaving her job at Fluties, she flew to California for a holiday with friends, and when she returned in late August, she headed for the Hamptons, where the scene had moved during the summer.
What’s more, Brock Pernice had returned from Europe and their reunion that week was a great success. They confessed their summer indiscretions—Levin admitted her fling with Chambers—and they rededicated themselves to the promises they had made in June. Pernice would be at Northeastern University in Boston that fall, and Levin said she wanted them to spend lots of time together. “Her thing with Chambers was no big thing, just a crush,” Pernice says. “She told me, ‘It’s not like being with you.’ “
’When we were alone,” says her boyfriend, “I really felt love.”
When Levin arrived at Dorrian’s shortly after midnight on August 26, she was euphoric. She had returned that afternoon from the Hamptons with Alex LaGatta, whom she had been staying with, and they had dinner with LaGatta’s father. Instead of going home—she is said to have argued with her father that weekend but to have made up with him the night before—she borrowed a white tank top and pink skirt from LaGatta. The two girls went to meet friends at Juanita’s, a Mexican restaurant on East 75th Street, where Levin drank two large margaritas. Someone sent a bottle of champagne to their table, and Levin drank some of that too. Despite her reconciliation with Pernice, she was looking forward to meeting Chambers. She told her friends how much she liked him and that she wanted to go home with him later.
Friends remember Levin sweeping into the bar, “psyched about going to Boston next week,” as one put it, kissing and hugging friends she hadn’t seen during the summer, or that she wouldn’t see after she left for college. One young man who met her for the first time that night says, “She was very flirtatious, definitely outgoing. You could tell by the way she flashed her eyes. She kissed me when we were introduced, and she didn’t even know me.”
Chambers, meanwhile, was drinking alone at the bar. Later, in trying to explain his mood that night, he told a friend that he was depressed because he’d just found out that a companion from the drug rehabilitation center had committed suicide. In any case, for over an hour he hadn’t paid any attention to his girlfriend, with whom he had a date. When she finally approached him, the confrontation included an unpleasant scene. Friends say she threw a bag containing packages of condoms in his face, and people heard her say, “Use these with someone else, because you’re not going to get a chance to use them with me.”
Some time after his girlfriend had walked away, Levin began flirting with Chambers at the bar. Drifting around the room, she again told friends that she wanted to go home with Chambers, and she commented on his sexual prowess. At one point, she talked to Chambers again and then came back and reported the exchange to LaGatta and another friend. She said she’d told him, “The sex we had was the best I’ve ever had.” The comment apparently irritated Chambers. “You shouldn’t have said that,” Levin said he’d responded.
At Levin’s urging, a friend then asked Chambers to meet Levin outside the bar. “He just tilted his head like, ‘She’s driving me crazy,’ and said, ‘I don’t think so. I don’t want to deal with it,’ ” the friend says.
Later, however, Levin joined Chambers at the bar in what friends say looked like a serious conversation. LaGatta left after two, and Levin asked her to leave the key under the doormat to the apartment. She would be along in a couple of hours. But as dawn approached, Chambers and Levin continued to talk quietly at the bar while Levin played with the ice cubes in her glass. Friends say she appeared to have sobered up, and later, the toxicologist report is said to have concluded that Levin’s blood contained minimal levels of alcohol.
At about 4:30, they got up and Levin waved good-bye to her friends. “I yelled at her, ‘Where are you going?’ ” Betsy says. “But she just smiled at me and gave me an okay nod. Usually, she would come over and give me a big hug and tell me she’d call tomorrow, but this time she didn’t. I remember she looked sort of mellow—putting her jacket over her left shoulder, pulling her hair, crossing the street like there was no problem.”
She’d been in high spirits as the summer wore down, eager to leave for school in Boston.
Levin and Chambers headed for Central Park. Why they went there is something of a mystery. Students from their crowd often went to the park late at night, but almost always in groups. Levin’s friends insist she would never have gone there to make love and that she must have trusted Chambers to have gone at all.
Chambers’s supporters insist he didn’t lure her there for sex. After all, his mother was working that night, so they could have made love at his home, a short distance away. Rather, the supporters say, they went to the park to talk. As further proof of Chambers’s intentions, they claim, he left his jacket at Dorrian’s and told a friend that he’d be back soon.
It’s possible Chambers took Levin to the park because he thought it would be romantic. One night, earlier in the summer, he’d taken another girl there. What’s more, the park had always been special to him. It was near his home and school; it was where he’d gone to play ball with his father; and it was where he first went to get high with his friends in the afternoons. Tulenko says, “Rob loved the park.”
Chambers and Levin entered at 86th Street at around 4:50 A.M. and walked to a grassy area across the park drive from the Metropolitan Museum. The only account of what happened next comes from Chambers, who made a videotaped statement to the police later that day. Apparently, Chambers claimed that Levin asked him to visit her at school, but he wasn’t interested.
According to people who’ve seen the tape, Chambers told her that if he saw her again, he’d see her at Dorrian’s. She flew into a rage, he said, yelling at him and hitting him and scratching his face. He retreated and sat down in the grass a short distance away.
She then went over to a nearby tree to urinate. When she came back, Chambers continued on the tape, she started being nice to him. He was sitting with his hands behind his back, and she playfully tied her panties loosely around his wrists and pushed him back to the ground. She straddled him, facing away, Chambers said. She undid his shirt and pants, he said, and began to masturbate him. Chambers said he grew tired of her efforts and told her to let go, but she wouldn’t. Instead, she squeezed his testicles, hurting him. Freeing his hands, he reached up with his left arm and pulled back on her neck as hard as he could, eventually flipping her over him.
Levin is estimated to have died at about 5:30. 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 twenty minutes later, and heard someone cry out in pain. “Are you all right?” he called, and someone responded that everything was okay. Later, he’s said to have joked with a second jogger who had also seen the couple.
Chambers’s supporters say he didn’t realize at first that Levin was dead, and he tried to rouse her from what may have seemed like a stupor or a game. Afterward, he made no effort to get help or to call the police. But he didn’t run away. A cyclist found Levin’s body at about 6:15, and Chambers stood at the stone wall of the museum, across the drive, as the police arrived. A policeman is said to recall seeing him there.
Chambers eventually returned home and reportedly slept for a few hours. He later told friends that he was still in shock, that at one point he spent what seemed like an hour searching for a tube of toothpaste that had been directly in front of him all the time.
The police found a wallet in Levin’s jacket containing a single torn dollar bill, some fake identification, and a card for the Palladium belonging to LaGatta. The police got in touch with a doorman at the Palladium, who identified Levin from photographs of her body. Meanwhile, LaGatta had become concerned because Levin had not come in, and she phoned Levin’s father’s home at about ten. A detective was already there, and he asked LaGatta to find out whom Levin had last been seen with. LaGatta called Betsy and then Chambers. His mother answered and said he was in the shower. Moments later, Chambers called back and insisted that he and Levin had not gone off together after Dorrian’s, that Levin had gone instead to visit Brock Pernice across town. Later, when talking to the police, LaGatta realized that Pernice was still on Long Island and that Chambers must have been lying.
The next morning, Chambers at first insisted that he hadn’t left the bar with Levin.
At about two in the afternoon, the police came to Chambers’s apartment and asked him to come with them to the station for questioning. There were scratches on both sides of Chambers’s face, which he said had been made by a cat. (Later, more scratches were found on Chambers’s chest, and he’s said to have had a minor injury to his right hand.) Chambers went with the police to the Central Park Precinct Detective Unit, where he was questioned without a lawyer until about ten that night. He made a statement both in writing and on videotape, and then was jailed in connection with Levin’s death.
On August 28, he was arraigned for the murder of Jennifer Levin while a number of his friends sat in the courtroom and watched. “We just wanted to show support,” says Flanagan. Two weeks later, Chambers was indicted by a grand jury on two distinct counts of second-degree murder—one for murder with intent to kill and a second for murder as the result of an act that showed a depraved indifference to human life.
“We believe that either one or both of these occurred,” Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau said in announcing the indictment. Under the second count, the prosecution would not need to show that Chambers actually intended to kill Levin. In either case, Morgenthau said, the grand jury charged that Chambers asphyxiated Levin by applying a “substantial amount of pressure” to her neck “over a substantial amount of time.” Each count carries a maximum penalty of 25 years to life in prison.
Chambers stayed in jail until October 1, when he was released on bail of $150,000, under the condition that he report daily to Monsignor Thomas Leonard, who’d taught him at Saint David’s. Leonard’s parish, the Church of the Incarnation, is on St. Nicholas Avenue, near 175th Street. No trial date has been set.
A fortnight after Chambers was released on bail, Morgenthau announced the burglary indictments, and prosecutors have said Chambers is under investigation in connection with at least ten other burglaries. Although Chambers was questioned last year about the East Side break-ins, he wasn’t arrested then, and Chambers’s supporters claim that the charges are trumped up and are being used only to create prejudice against him.
Chambers’s family has retained Jack Litman, 43, a Harvard-educated lawyer and former assistant D.A. who gained prominence defending Richard Herrin, a Yale graduate, on charges that he’d murdered his estranged girlfriend, another Yale student. Herrin had confessed to bludgeoning her to death, but the jury convicted him only of manslaughter. Litman had tried to show that Herrin’s sense of identity was wrapped up in his relationship with the victim and that she had triggered his emotional collapse when she threatened to leave him.
Litman’s defense of Chambers will rest in part on an opposite premise: that Chambers’s relations with Levin were so casual and uneventfully pleasant that there was nothing she could have said or done to elicit from him the kind of violent reaction that might result in murder. In short, that he had no motive for killing her.
The trial itself is likely to hinge on the precise circumstances of her death. The autopsy report has not been made public, except for the conclusion that Levin died of asphyxia by strangulation. Early on, investigators close to the case told reporters that the autopsy had found bruises on Levin’s throat and internal injuries—indications, the investigators said, that she had been choked for at least twenty seconds before she died. Investigators also said there were bite marks on her body. The prosecutor handling the case, Linda Fairstein, won’t comment.
Within a day of Levin’s death, Litman hired Dr. Dominick DiMaio, a former New York City medical examiner, to examine her body. Litman hasn’t released Dr. DiMaio’s findings, but during Chambers’s bail hearing, Litman argued that Levin hadn’t been strangled either by hand or by a material, such as an article of clothing. Instead, he argued, she was choked from behind, between Chambers’s left bicep and forearm.
Litman maintains that Chambers’s maneuver was similar to the rear-restraining choke hold, a method of restraint that is widely used by police. A few years ago, the Los Angeles Police Department banned the routine use of the hold after it was linked to a number of deaths. Death by this method can take as little as two seconds. The lethal effects of the hold are aggravated by the victim’s resistance, and Litman will surely point out that Jennifer Levin was the type of person who fought back.
As for the bruises on Levin, Chambers’s supporters maintain that they came when he flipped her over during the rough sex play. Those supporters say the supposed marks on Levin’s neck are consistent with the choke hold—indeed, they might have been caused in part by his watch. If so, they would coincide with Chambers’s claim that he used his left arm to pull Levin off him. Since Chambers is right-handed, Litman will undoubtedly argue that a man who intends to strangle his victim would use his strongest arm. One source close to the case says that, contrary to early newspaper accounts, the autopsy report doesn’t mention bite marks on Levin’s body.
But if, as Chambers claims, the death was an accident, why didn’t he summon immediate help? Chambers’s supporters say he was simply in a state of shock and didn’t know what to do.
“If [Litman] proves that death was possible in seconds, he may win his case,” claims Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard law professor who helped build Claus von Bulow’s successful defense.
But the prosecution claims the evidence against Chambers is overwhelming, and Levin’s friends insist she would never have inflicted the scratches on Chambers without severe provocation. Besides, the use of the choke hold doesn’t rule out murder—or something that falls somewhere between murder and accidental death. It’s possible that Levin triggered Chambers’s anger through her persistence or through inadvertently causing him pain. Their struggle may then have escalated in a series of actions and responses, with Chambers holding ever more tightly to Levin’s throat in an effort to control her.
At Dorrian’s these days, the initial out-pouring of grief and anger has subsided, except among Levin’s closest friends, and there’s little speculation about the upcoming trial. The partying goes on, well into the night. “The scene is more like a family than anything I’ve known,” says one young girl. “Almost everyone in it comes from a broken home, or their parents travel or are busy. That’s why everyone was devastated by what happened. After they heard Jennifer had been killed, people were violent—they wanted to get the guy who did it. But then when they heard it was Robert, everyone went. ‘Whoa.’ It kind of neutralized what they felt. They didn’t know how to deal with it. Everyone was walking around in a kind of limbo.”
A fortnight ago, the students suffered another shock when seventeen-year-old Courtney Steel, the president of the student body at Spence, was struck and killed by a car in the street outside the Zulu Lounge at 3:15 in the morning. Steel, the stepdaughter of architect Charles Gwathmey, was a favorite of the East Side private-school crowd, and she’d been with friends at Dorrian’s just an hour and a half before she was killed. Again, there was disbelief and mourning from the students—one of their own, taken so suddenly and senselessly.
In a brief press conference at Litman’s office on October 1, Chambers made his only public comment about the death of Jennifer Levin. “I regret that nothing I can say or do can undo the terrible tragedy that has occurred,” he said, reading from a statement. Later, he told friends that as he had stood against the museum wall, watching squad cars arrive, he’d felt he was in a dream, a terrible nightmare from which he still sometimes expects to awake. Until that morning, Chambers had led a privileged existence, his misdeeds and failures patched up or taken care of. But as dawn broke around him, a vision of the lifeless girl he’d embraced only minutes before must have tugged at his conscience: Jennifer Levin was real, and so was her death.