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The Preppie Killer To Leave Prison

Robert Chambers, left, leaves court in New York during a lunch break with his attorney Jack Litman in this Oct. 21, 1987 file photo.
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For 17 years, the family of Jennifer Levin has learned to live without the beloved teen who was strangled in Central Park: missed birthdays, anniversaries, holidays.

This Valentine's Day, the Levin family must endure a new form of agony: the release of Jennifer's killer.

Confessed "Preppie Killer" Robert Chambers will exit an upstate prison on Feb. 14 after serving the maximum time on his manslaughter conviction for killing Levin on Aug. 26, 1986.

"Obviously, this is a very difficult time for the family," said Linda Fairstein, who has remained close to the Levins since prosecuting the case against Chambers. "Their child will never come home."

For the Levins, the prospect of Chambers returning to the city where he killed their 18-year-old daughter is overwhelming. "I find that very unpleasant," said the slain girl's mother, Ellen Levin, as Chambers' release became imminent.

Levin's sister, Danielle Roberts, said she was "haunted by a feeling of dread" over Chambers' departure from the Auburn Correctional Facility.

The Levin slaying, splashed across the city's tabloids in the summer of '86, was a made-for-TV movie waiting to happen - a glimpse into the lives of callow youths on the Upper East Side bar scene.

The suspect, a college dropout with a taste for cocaine, was Hollywood handsome. The victim was pretty, a private school student from a well-to-do family. And the defense - consensual "rough sex" gone amok - was startling.

"Our lives became the media event of the year," Steven Levin, Jennifer's father, said at Chambers' sentencing.

Nothing that Chambers has done since going to jail in April 1988 has changed the negative perceptions of the 6-foot, 4-inch, dark-featured killer.

Chambers, now 36, racked up an assortment of violations behind bars - heroin possession, assaulting a guard, weapon possession. His bids for parole were rejected five times, and he spent about a third of his time in solitary confinement.

Shortly after his sentencing, a videotape surfaced showing Chambers snapping the head off a small doll. "Oops, I think I killed it," Chambers cracked, the doll's head in his hand.

Chambers admitted strangling Levin after they met in Dorrian's Red Hand, an Upper East Side yuppie bar. Her battered, partially nude body was found under a tree behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the pair went after leaving the bar.

At a 1995 parole hearing, Chambers expressed no remorse about the crime.

"I guess I could also give you the party line and say I have learned my lesson, I will never do this again," Chambers said. "But that's not how I feel at this moment."

Chambers was about a month short of his 20th birthday when he was charged with murdering Levin.

Although his lawyer pressed the "rough sex" defense, Fairstein offered another motive: Chambers flew into a rage set off by his impotence. Jurors were in their ninth day of deliberations when Chambers opted to take a deal, pleading guilty to first-degree manslaughter in return for a 15-year jail term.

After Chambers' incarceration, Ellen Levin worked tirelessly to ensure he would serve the maximum sentence. She collected tens of thousands of signatures on petitions opposing his release, and was a constant presence at parole hearings.

His mother, Phyllis Chambers, worked equally hard at getting her son out early - efforts that proved fruitless. She will likely greet her son on Feb. 14 when he finally leaves prison, but nothing is certain, said family attorney Brian O'Dwyer.

"There will be no statements from the family prior to Feb. 14," he said.

Fairstein said that while Chambers' release was inevitable, it's not easy to accept.

"We were well aware this day was coming," she said. "But it's very difficult because of my feelings for the Levins, and the things I know about Robert Chambers."

By Larry McShane