After 15 years, Robert Chambers walked out of prison 12 days ago a free man, still pursued by his own infamy. 48 Hours Investigates correspondent Richard Schlesinger reports.
He's 36 now but people still remember him…from the summer of 1986 when he was 19. In New York, a city where killers get titles, Robert Chambers quickly became known as The Preppy Murderer. He looked the part. His face was everywhere. The story of how he strangled a beautiful 18-year-old named Jennifer Levin in Central Park was the talk of the town.
Chambers and Levin had dated before and met the night of Aug. 25 at Dorrian's Red Hand, a bar that catered to the sons and daughters of the rich. Friends say that Robert and Jennifer left Dorrian's together around 4:30 a.m. Two hours later, a cyclist in Central Park found her lifeless body under a tree.
Chambers became a suspect within hours when police interviewed him, as they had Levin's other friends, about what she had been doing the previous night.
"He came out of the bedroom and the minute the two detectives- homicide detectives - saw him, they saw deep, fresh, bloody scratches on both sides of his face," says Linda Fairstein who prosecuted. Chambers She's now a 48 Hours consultant. "And in their minds, without saying anything, they - their immediate thought was this guy has to explain those scratches."
His explanation that the cat scratched him fell apart under questioning and he admitted killing Jennifer. The story he told police, seeming to blame Jennifer, was a shocking and graphic one about rough sex in the park. He claimed Jennifer was hurting him and the blow he gave her to make her stop hit her in the neck and killed her .
"Well, I can tell you that everything he said in that statement about how she died is absolutely untrue," says Fairstein, citing evidence of a violent struggle. The prosecutor said they argued bitterly about something that night, and Chambers squeezed Levin's neck very hard for a long time.
Chambers was charged with 2nd degree murder. His preppy good looks gained him some sympathy until a videotape, taken at a party he attended when he was out on bail, surfaced. In it, he is surrounded by girls wearing lingerie and holding a doll, appearing to mock Jennifer Levin's death.
"I was horrified when I saw it, but in a way I was also glad that he showed himself for what he really was," said Jennifer's mother, Ellen, in a TV interview at the time.
After almost three months of testimony and nine days of deliberating, the jury appeared unable to reach a verdict. So Fairstein made a deal. Chambers pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter, a step down from murder. But as part of the agreement, Chambers had to admit in open court that he intended to hurt Jennifer when he killed her.
Today, Chambers wants to apologize.
As for the videotape that sealed his image with millions of American, he admits it was a mistake, even arrogant of him, to attend the party. "Everybody was just acting silly," he says, "and I acted silly. Reenacting a crime? Certainly not."
Of the murder, he clings to the story he told at his trial.
"My story hasn't changed," he said. "There is nothing to change. It's not a story that's pleasant. It's not a story people like. It's not a story that fits into people's perceptions. You know why? Cause it's not a story. It's the truth."
He denies that the scratches were inflicted as Jennifer fought for her life.
"While we were talking, she became upset about one thing," he said. "And the one thing was that I did not take her seriously. I did not take her feelings seriously. And I guess, in a way, I degraded her feelings. And with that, she scratched me. There was not a struggle for life. There was not an all-out war in there fighting for her life."
Fairstein believes Chambers hasn't changed very much despite all the time he spent behind bars.
"He's done 15 years of hard time, made harder because of his own drug abuse in state prison," she says. "I'm not willing to buy his words. I'm looking forward to seeing what his actions are in the next-- next 15."