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From the outside, Robert Chambers looked like an All-American hero. The handsome, popular, prep school athlete fit in seamlessly among his wealthy peers on Manhattan's Upper East Side—spending his time at popular haunts like Dorrian’s Red Hand, a bar known as a hangout for the preppy elite.
But the 19-year-old would find himself thrust into the media spotlight in August 1986 after the body of 18-year-old Jennifer Levin was found half-clothed in Central Park with tell-tale signs she had fought against a violent death in her final moments, according to “The Preppy Murder,” a five-part docuseries on AMC and Sundance, premiering Wednesday night.
Chambers had been the last person seen with the teen at the bar in the pre-dawn hours of Aug. 26, 1986 and quickly went from being a possible witness to a person of interest in his friend’s murder after investigators saw that his face and body were covered in deep scratches.
Chambers—who was 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds—would eventually admit to investigators that he had killed Levin, who was half his size, but claimed it had been an accident after she had initiated unwanted, rough sex in the park.
“I couldn’t take it anymore and I managed to get my left hand free, so I kind of sat up a little and just grabbed at her. I just grabbed her neck as hard as I could and she just flipped over me and landed right next to the tree, and then she didn’t move,” Chambers said in his police confession tape aired in the series.
Chambers was arrested for murder in a case that gripped New York City and made sensational headlines. But Chambers maintained that he had never intended to kill Levin and his attorney Jack Litman launched an aggressive campaign to paint Levin as the instigator that night, relying heavily on a “blame the victim” defense.
“Jack Litman was extremely dangerous. He was very smooth, he was very bright. He had absolutely no mercy for Jennifer. It was all his client and his client was innocent,” her mother Ellen Levin says in the series.
After a nearly three-month trial, and as the jury was deliberating, Chambers made a surprising decision to accept a plea deal that required him to plead guilty to first-degree manslaughter in exchange for a sentence of five to 15 years.
So what happened to Chambers after he headed to prison?
Chambers went on to serve the maximum time possible in prison, all 15 years. Initially, he served time at the Auburn State Prison but was later moved to the Clinton Correctional Facility in New York because of violations he committed while behind bars, including drug possession and assaulting a guard, according to reports.
“He was a bad boy. He was in solitary for several years,” said Susan Zirinsky, the former senior executive producer of “48 Hours,” during an 2016 interview on Metro Focus.
After Chamber was released in 2003, he did an interview with “48 Hours” and maintained that Levin’s death had been an accident.
“I never intended for anything to happen. I never even intended to go out that night let alone hurt somebody or kill somebody,” he said on the show.
He said he continued to think about Levin “every day” since she died.
“I was responsible for her death, there’s no question about that,” he said. “I don’t believe I intended to kill her at all.”
Chambers had hoped to get a full-time job after his release from prison and resume a normal life—but he would end up back behind bars.
A little more than a year after his release, Chambers was arrested in Harlem on drug charges after police pulled over his car, according to The New York Times. Police officers spotted two straws and a piece of tin foil dusted with cocaine in the back of his car, according to charging documents obtained by the paper.
According to Zirinsky, Chambers had struggled with drug use since he was a teenager.
Chambers would be arrested again on similar charges in 2005 and pleaded guilty in 2008 to assault and selling drugs, Reuters reports.
Chambers had been selling drugs out of his girlfriend Shawn Kovell’s Manhattan apartment. He was sentenced to 19 years behind bars—where he remains today. His earliest possible release date is January 2024.
While Chambers has spent most of his adult life behind bars, Levin’s family remains haunted by her death.
“I think [about] what Jennifer might be doing, what she would look like,” Ellen Levin told People shortly after Chambers was released for the manslaughter charge. “I think about the grandchildren I won’t have. Her dream was to be a designer, but that’s gone now. And all that loss runs deep.”
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