'Preppy killer' faces return to jail after bust for cocaine

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Most New Yorkers thought they had seen the last of Robert Chambers, the privileged young man dubbed the "Preppy Killer" after his 1988 conviction for killing a woman in Central Park and leaving her body beneath a tree. After serving 15 years for manslaughter until his release in 2003, returning to the front pages of newspapers was probably not in his game plan either.

Yet, that is where Chambers, 41, has been this week following his arrest on 14 charges of selling drugs from the Upper East Side apartment he shares with his girlfriend, Shawn Kovell, 39. It is a bust which could see him back behind bars for the rest of his life.

His arrest has prompted a bout of morbid nostalgia for the days in August 1986, when the murder of Jennifer Levin and the subsequent prosecution of Chambers, then 19, appalled but at the same enthralled the city, because the case involved underage drinking, wealthy Manhattan youngsters and explicit sex.

Levin, an 18-year-old student at a private school near Central Park, was last seen alive leaving a bar with Chambers. A cyclist found her semi-naked body under a tree near the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Prosecutors said she was sexually abused and strangled with her own blouse. Chambers claimed he killed her accidentally after she hurt him during "rough sex".

Photographs of Chambers this week revealed he is showing the first lines of middle-age and has greying stubble. But there is no mistaking the imposing 6ft 5in young man with thick hair and piercing blue eyes who appeared in the dock 21 years ago.

Kovell fell for Chambers during his trial and stuck by him through his years of incarceration. After his release they relocated to Georgia, where his infamy was less of an issue. He struggled to find a decent job there and worked in a dye factory. The couple soon returned to New York, to an apartment left to Kovell by her deceased mother.

It was in that 17th-floor flat on East 57th Street that the pair allegedly set up as middle-men in the drugs business, connecting big-time distributors of cocaine, crack and marijuana with customers and street dealers. Neighbours began to complain about the endless comings and goings of strangers to flat 17-B and it was not long before police set up a surveillance operation and a sting. In eight visits over three months, officers said, they bought 246 grams of cocaine for $9,600 from Chambers and Kovell – an amount which could fetch $20,000 on the street.

The decision to move in and arrest the couple came on Monday, but the raid did not go smoothly. Chambers refused to answer the door and police had to break it down with a battering ram. Chambers put up such a struggle that three officers were injured – one with a broken thumb, another with a broken finger and a third with a broken toe. Inside the flat, according to one source, the squad found enough cocaine lying around to "levitate Central Park".

That Chambers is on the wrong side of the law again has shocked no one involved in his original trial. Even then, he was battling a drug addiction which began when he was 14 and led to his expulsion from a private school. "I always believed his problem with drugs and alcohol wold get him in trouble again," said Linda Fairstein, the district attorney who prosecuted Chambers for the Levin killing.

Neither did she offer any sympathy. "He has had the opportunity in prison to detox and take college courses to straighten out his life, but that clearly is of no interest to him," she said. "He has learned nothing in the last 20 years."

The penalty for selling more than a small amount of cocaine is 30 years but, because Chambers faces multiple charges, it seems likely he will find himself back in jail until he reaches pensionable age.