Friend of the Devil
More than a decade ago, an acquaintance committed one of the most nefarious crimes in New York history. Then he helped me try to understand why.
I always kind of liked Peter Braunstein.
This is when he was Peter, before he became the Fire Fiend, or Pervy Pete. Before the unusually temperate autumn day, October 31, 2005, when he dressed as a fireman and set off several smoke bombs in the hallway of a Manhattan apartment building. Before he then talked his way into the apartment of a woman he barely knew, knocked her out with chloroform, tied her up, sexually assaulted her, and held her captive for 13 harrowing hours. Before the six-week manhunt that followed, and the armed robberies, and the discovery of his plot to murder Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour. Back when what he and I had in common — two straight guys on the mostly gay or female staff of a fashion-oriented publishing company, neither one of whom seemed to have much of a future in the fashion world — hadn’t yet been so completely overshadowed by what we didn’t.
True, he could come off like a bit of an asshole back then, a little too full of himself, swaggering around in his leather pants and velvet blazers, his corkscrew curls glistening with product. Then again, plenty of people are full of themselves. There’s no crime in that. It’s why we come to New York, many of us, to get more full.
Peter’s tenure as a writer at Women’s Wear Daily overlapped with mine as an editor at W, the fashion trade paper’s glossy sister title, and in the days before both publications were purchased by Conde Nast, he and I worked just a few steps apart in the massive third-floor newsroom on East 34th Street. His work stood out at WWD, so I suggested he write for the magazine and wound up editing several of his stories, including the piece on Guy Bourdin, a French fashion photographer notorious for his sadomasochistic imagery, that was later taken as a sign of Peter’s twisted mind. He filed on deadline, and his copy was clean. Like I said, the guy seemed okay.
Eventually we lost touch, one thing led to another, and a couple years went by. The next thing I knew, Peter was a regular on “America’s Most Wanted,” the perpetrator of a sensational crime that shocked New York and sparked a tabloid frenzy.
It was January of 2011 when the first letter from Peter turned up on my desk at The New York Observer, where I was employed an editor. “Guess who,” it began, going on to suggest I visit him in prison to get “the definitive interview.” He said he’d been following my work. “I never figured you for a closet subversive iconoclast,” he wrote, a bit of flattery that vastly inflated the political subtext of my resume. “You, in turn, probably never suspected that I was one downward spiral away from criminal notoriety,” he went on. “Neither did I.”
He expressed annoyance that he’d failed to kill himself that day in December 2005, when he stood on a street in Memphis, Tenn., confronted by a campus security officer after being recognized from news reports, drew a T-shaped “punch knife” and repeatedly plunged it into his neck in an attempt to sever his jugular vein. “I was so close, man,” he wrote. “I felt like I had played my part to the hilt but death cheated me and refused to validate my parking ticket. (That’s right — as you might have suspected, death is from L.A.)”
He noted that he was enjoying prison, compared himself to the Michelle Pfeiffer character in White Oleander, and explained that he’d recently emerged from a lengthy medicated phase, during which he was like “an extra in a George Romero flick.”
It was a long letter, seven pages penned in a tight hand, amusing and genial, without a single cross-out. Packed with cultural references, from Shannon Doherty, Kim Kardashian, The Vampire Diaries, and Mean Girls to Carl Jung, James Ellroy, and the Marquis de Sade, it displayed all the breezy humor I recognized from his work as a journalist. But there were troubling passages as well, in which he ranted about his ex-girlfriend, an acquaintance of mine I’ll call Jill, and muttered darkly about his plans for exacting revenge on his enemies.
It also contained a personal reminiscence: All these years later, Peter still remembered an email I’d written to our colleagues announcing the birth of my son in 2001. “You said, ‘Remember that name!’ and I think I was jealous,” he recalled. “I thought, ‘Wow, that guy Aaron made something of his life, and he even has plans — hopes — for his newborn child. From Day One! It made me slightly sad, because it was just so alien to me. That optimism. I could never imagine my dad trumpeting my arrival in an email blast…” (My first thought on reading that: I sure am a wonderful father. Followed immediately by another thought: A psychopathic sex-criminal is jealous of my son?)
Peter has a keen sense of irony and a disarming if mordant wit, qualities that were highly evident during his ill-fated stint as media critic for Women’s Wear Daily in 2001 and 2002. They are also qualities that made what followed all the more bewildering. Plenty of successful journalists and writers have antisocial tendencies, and a few harbor deep wellsprings of resentment, but they tend to exorcise them on the page. For the most part, they (we) are wallflower types, more comfortable on the sidelines reporting on the action than jumping into the fray with bizarre acts of aggression. The type of person who might be expected to commit such an act tends to be alienated and anonymous. Peter, a talented, well-connected writer with a graduate degree in history and a bright future, didn’t fit the profile.
Which isn’t to say he was a particularly obvious fit for a job at WWD either. Neither of us were, though in many ways he seemed better suited to the place than I was, especially after he somehow caught the eye of W’s beauty director, Jill, an elegant blonde with a closet full of vintage dresses. As for me, I did a decent job and my presence was tolerated, even appreciated, but I wasn’t fooling anyone. Not long after one of Anna Wintour’s former assistants published a nasty roman à clef, The Devil Wears Prada, I remember joking with my boss, Fairchild’s urbane editorial director Patrick McCarthy, that his exceedingly loyal long-time secretary might one day do the same. “Better watch out for Gloria,” I suggested. He raised an eyebrow. “I better watch out for you,” he replied dryly, smiling but not exactly joking.
I mostly kept my head down at work. I was only dimly aware of Peter’s relationship with Jill and didn’t pay much attention to his stormy departure, in 2002, except for being disappointed to lose a good writer. I knew nothing of his downward spiral, his 18-month campaign to destroy Jill’s life. I’d have guessed he wouldn’t last long at Fairchild, but only because I suspected he was headed for a more interesting job, not a nightmarish spasm of fury and a life in prison. I never pictured him disguising himself as a fireman in order to gain entry to the apartment of a colleague in the fashion department, a woman with whom both of us had worked but whom neither of us knew, knocking her out with chloroform, assaulting her.
He seemed like an okay guy to me. Who would have imagined any of that?
Receiving a letter from prison can be a seductive thing — especially for a journalist, especially if it comes from a “celebrity inmate,” a notorious figure whose crimes were lurid and sensational. As I sat at my desk, hunched over the yellow legal pages, I felt as though the atmosphere in the room had shifted, like storm clouds had suddenly appeared overhead, or a fine crack had formed in the teacup of my day-to-day existence. The letter was a dispatch from the dark side, forbidding but also tantalizing. Later that evening, I met a friend for a drink and slipped it into his hand, then sat quietly, sipping a vodka and soda while he paged through it slowly, muttering “whoa” and “holy shit,” his eyes widening.
“You going to interview him?” he asked finally.
“I don’t know,” I said.
Then I hid the letter away and I tried not to think about it.
Peter Braunstein had already proven an intriguing story, of course. His crime had been terrifying and theatrical, front page tabloid news for weeks after his rampage and again during his trial.
Still, I couldn’t help wondering if there was really anything to add to a story that had been so avidly covered by the New York media. New York magazine and Vanity Fair had run lengthy features on the case. Peter had appeared on Inside Edition, and from time to time reporters from the New York Post and the Daily News had trooped up to Clinton Correctional Facility for jailhouse interviews, always happy to milk the story a little more. Still, even with all that coverage, Peter had never satisfactorily explained his motives or described his experience in depth, nor had he granted access to his voluminous writings, which included a criminal manifesto, a “Fugitive Diary” of his weeks on the run, the manuscript of a comic novel, Paparazzi, and his play, Andy & Edie, all of which I was curious to read.
But there were deeper misgivings. Perhaps the most potent was the fear that I’d somehow be betraying my former colleagues — most significantly, two of his victims — by even hearing his story. They were no doubt anxious to move on, to put the ordeal behind them. Writing about Peter clearly risked making that harder.
Besides, if Peter’s crime was in part a bid for attention, then to listen to his tirades, or worse, dutifully transcribe them and disseminate them, would be on some level to become his accomplice. It would be giving him what he wanted in the first place.
Finally, there was a moral dimension. When you make the decision to harm an innocent person, you cross the line separating what’s acceptable from what’s not. Sometimes it seems like that line is all we have between civilization and chaos. If everyone did whatever they wanted, if we acted on every furious or lustful or greedy impulse, things would get ugly. And one way to keep everyone in check is to draw the line clearly and emphatically, to underscore and fortify it at every opportunity, and make the penalties for crossing it absolute. This is the logic of zero tolerance, of three strikes and you’re out, of with us or against us. You’re in the wagon circle or you’re out. Peter had been cast out, and for good reason. That has consequences beyond being in prison. It means we — the rest of us, who generally refrain from doing real violence to one another — don’t need to sympathize with you, or like you, or be amused by you, or listen to a word you say ever again.
But as I let the weeks pass by, leaving Peter’s letter buried in my desk and trying to distract myself with other more pressing work, I began to see the shortcomings of that logic. For one thing, it means we never really make an effort to grapple with the motivations for certain actions. And if we can’t understand the extremes of human behavior, we don’t fully know ourselves either.
The more commonplace crimes, like robbery, rape and murder, are often explained in terms of a lack of self-discipline, or a dysfunctional environment, or flat-out stupidity. Crimes like Peter’s are a little more special, more out-there. We have a whole lexicon of words for describing such transgressions and the people who commit them. Aberrant. Sicko. Perv. Twisted. Demented. Malevolent. Warped. Diabolical. Evil. Pathological. Degenerate. Monster. These are great words. They carry incredible force, and they’re satisfying to say. But they don’t describe something so much as stain it. And far from helping us discover why a terrible act might have been committed, they tend to discourage us from asking. Monsters do bad things — that’s why we call them monsters.
But as I continued to mull it over, I became convinced that this whole approach to looking at the world was flawed. Labeling an act inhuman, I decided, is mostly a way of removing any obligation we might have to comprehend it. The unspoken agreement seemed to be that once we’d successfully shoved someone outside the boundary of what’s acceptable, we could simply ignore them and go about our business. But what were we afraid of? Was our own sense of right and wrong so fragile that it could be imperiled by allowing that even bad people are human too? What did we risk by acknowledging that the potential to commit an evil act was something we all shared?
Feeling that he’d been exiled and marginalized for his increasingly erratic behavior — including quitting WWD in a fit of pique in October 2002 (having been reprimanded for insisting on an extra ticket to the Vogue/VH1 Fashion Awards) — was part of what had set Peter off to begin with. Now that he was safely locked away, was there really anything to be gained from shutting him out further?
To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have given any of this much thought if I hadn’t known Peter beforehand, when he was still very much on our side of the line. Watch the crime segments on the local news, and you’ll see the parade of uncomprehending neighbors, squinting into the camera: “He always kept to himself,” they’ll say. “I never would have imagined he was capable of this.” This time I was the neighbor. I knew a little too much — enough to know how much more there was to it, how many layers one might peel back, how complicated the factors must have been. And Peter was an unusual perpetrator in that he’d been trained as an academic and a journalist. He liked asking questions, looking beneath the surface of things, spotting the ironies. Clearly he’d been unhinged when he committed the crime, but not so far gone that he couldn’t describe what it felt like to seek his own destruction, and ours too.
Maybe this was a chance to think through something unthinkable.
There were obvious risks. I tend to be a sympathetic interviewer, suspending judgment and trying to relate to a subject’s point of view. But that approach can fall short when the person has committed a horrific crime, like Peter had. When I worked at W — a magazine that avidly covered people with money and generally downplayed the unsavory ways they’d sometimes acquired it — I remember joking with a colleague that a few of our profiles might one day seem as off-key as “Hitler’s Mountain Home,” perhaps history’s most ill-conceived puff piece (“The color scheme throughout this bright, airy chalet is a light jade green”), published by British Homes and Gardens in 1938. What if I did the same for the “fireman perv”?
But I had one other reason for wanting to respond to the letter. As naive and foolish and perhaps immodest as it sounds, I wanted to help redeem him. Peter had reached out to me for a reason. Maybe because he knew I’d really listen to him, and by doing so, help him work through what had happened. Not only did I know the main characters but I had a familiarity with the context. I understood what it felt like to get past the velvet rope of the fashion world, only to find a another VIP room that I knew I’d never penetrate. Maybe I could do some good. Peter wasn’t just any psycho — he was a psycho I once knew. My psycho.
So on a gorgeous day in late August, I rented a car and drove north.
The massive Clinton Correctional Facility is located in Dannemora, New York, in a breathtaking corner of the state not far from Burlington. Peter resides in what is called APPU, or the Assessment and Program Preparation Unit, and his neighbors include homicidal maniacs, child molesters, and rapists. The unit is also home to several offenders, like him, whose crimes sparked sensational media coverage, along with police informants, inmates with a history of psychiatric issues, and a number of cops-gone-wrong (as well as men who fall under several of those categories). In short, they’re convicts who might be in danger if forced to live among the everyday miscreants in “population.”
It’s about as far as you can get from the New York fashion world. But if Peter thought he was escaping the tyranny of narrowly calibrated social hierarchies, he was mistaken. Even within the exile of APPU, inmates draw lines of their own, attempting to delineate the truly repugnant versus the merely bad — or conversely, to separate the genuine sickos from the ones, like Peter, who are seen as mere poseurs.
The problem, Peter told me, during our six-hour interview one morning in early fall, is only exacerbated by his notoriety, which many of his fellow inmates consider unearned. Indeed, as measured by the perverse standards that define prison life, it turns out Peter’s greatest transgression may have been appearing on America’s Most Wanted a total of five times while so many other reprobates — some with truly unspeakable atrocities on their rap sheets — never made the cut.
“I don’t even like to mention it, because guys are so competitive,” he said with a sigh. We were sitting at a wooden table in a spare meeting room. Peter wore a green prison jumpsuit resembling a mechanic’s uniform. His once unruly hair was cut short, and there was little sign of scarring from the suicide attempt that brought an end to his outlaw spree.
Actually, if you squinted a bit, it was easy to imagine him as a late-vintage Billy Joel.
Peter went on, “They’ll be like, ‘I was almost on it.’ I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that. ‘Almost.’ Really? Does John Walsh email you when you’re almost on and say, ‘You were almost on my show?’ No. He doesn’t do that. There’s no way you could almost be on it. It’s like, ‘almost pregnant,’ or ‘almost dead.’ No. You’re either on it or you’re not. And the thing is I’m not even saying it to be like, ‘Hey, look at me. I’m fucking awesome. I’m a rock star.’ It’s just that I happened to be on the show.” He looked ponderous for a second. “I can’t undo that. I wouldn’t want to undo that. It’s cool to be on that show.”
At the far end of the table, a clean-cut, exceptionally muscled guard sat politely studying his hands in his lap.
“If I hear one more time, ‘You didn’t even rape her,’” he said, employing a whiny singsong. Then he leaned back and shook his head. “I mean, talk about ‘Damned if you did, damned if you didn’t….’”
At that, the guard and I both stifled a laugh.
Peter went on to talk about one of his new neighbors. Joel Rifkin has been convicted of killing nine women and has admitted to murdering at least eight more. He preyed on prostitutes, often bludgeoning and then strangling them, before dismembering their corpses. As gruesome as Rifkin’s atrocities were, though, he never thought to impersonate a fireman. Nor did he attack the sort of people who tend to buy newspapers and magazines, much less edit and write them. Indeed, part of Rifkin’s self-described m.o. involved carefully targeting women he thought no one was ever likely to miss.
By contrast, Peter, didn’t rape or kill. As a sexual abuser, he seemed half-hearted. In a collection of “random notes,” written shortly before his crime, he offered a hint of a different motivation: “Home invasions: for me it’s about not paying rent,” he wrote in the sardonic style he somehow maintained even as his psyche was unraveling. “It’s about really short-term cohabitation. You see some chick on the street and think: hey, I’d love to live with her — but just for a day.”
While his crime was less violent than Rifkin’s, however, it was distinctly diabolical and cruel, not to mention theatrical. A playwright and would-be novelist, he made sure to work in narrative details that would have suited a schlock horror film — the Halloween-night setting, the impersonation of firefighter — and seemed calculated to sow maximum fear. Changing his user name on eBay, where he bought various supplies, from “drgroovy” to “gulagmeister,” shortly before his attack and explaining to a seller that “i just don’t feel like drgroovy anymore” was another ominous touch. Finally, Peter’s bid for attention was well served by his decision to target members of the media itself. (While at large, he read with glee the news that Conde Nast had stationed armed guards around the building.) As The New York Times put it in a report on the court proceedings that read more like a movie review, “The trial of Peter Braunstein has it all: kinky sex, celebrity, power and romance, in a Manhattan courtroom setting.”
As a result of all this, Peter now rivals even Rifkin in tabloid notoriety — apparently a source of some annoyance for the man who is often called the most “prolific” serial killer in New York history.
“I’m not competitive with him, but he’s competitive with me,” Peter said. “Serial killers are very snobbish. They consider themselves the elite, the crème de la crème of, you know, twisted criminals. Society feels the same way.” He mentioned that there was an entire TV program, Criminal Minds, devoted to them. “They basically internalize that sense of status,” he went on. “So Rifkin receives a lot of status in this unit. He has very few friends here, but he gets a lot of mail. He has a fan club.”
Peter compared the situation to “guys in the seventh ring of hell pointing at guys in the eighth ring, going, ‘I’m not that fucked up.’” He added, “The murderers think they’re better than the rapos, the rapos think they’re better than the pedophiles, and it’s all so stupid. I don’t buy into any of that.”
Like more or less everything Peter says these days, that last line was delivered deadpan, and it brought to mind one of the central themes in his undoing: his status anxiety and fragile, see-sawing self-esteem, which was inflated both by his sudden success as a journalist, and by his romance with a woman who some considered way out of his league — and then dashed when he eventually lost both.
Peter grew up in Kew Gardens, Queens, an only child. His father, Alberto, was an airline customer relations executive from a wealthy European Jewish family; his mother, Angele, a Jewish émigré from Iraq. The family was not religious, and even discouraged Peter’s youthful interest in his spiritual heritage, but it was an intellectual home. As a child, Peter struggled to win his father’s attention. “He was a very moody guy, and he openly expressed contempt for the situation he was in, being a husband and a father,” he told me.
Peter has been a prolific writer since childhood. Among the files collected by his defense attorney, which he eventually allowed me access to, were several series of adventure novels he wrote in early adolescence, featuring his dachshund Terry as a 007-type superspy; Terry’s girlfriend, Honey; and his arch-nemesis, Bosco Bulldog of S.O.M.T., the Secret Organization for Murder and Terrorism. The stories are fast-paced, with Magic Markered illustrations on construction paper and a dash of self-deprecating humor (one installment is blurbed on the back cover: “He’s written dumb books, but this takes the cake!” — NY Post). In retrospect, it’s easy — too easy — to read even this innocent work as a sign of what was to come. Terry’s relationship with Honey is precisely the kind of outlaw love affair Peter always seems to have wanted, and Terry’s many close calls prefigure Peter’s evasion of a massive police manhunt three decades later. And of course, the critical barbs hint at the ambition and the insecurity that would spiral out of control following the poor critical reception of his off off Broadway play, Andy & Edie.
One of the most significant incidents in Peter’s life, as he tells it, occurred when he was 13. He came down with a mysterious blood disorder — possibly a staph infection, he thinks, possibly from being pricked by a cactus — and spent weeks in a hospital. “My hand blew up the size of a football,” he said, “and there was this black line running up my vein, and every day it would get a little further up and no one would tell me what was going on.”
One night, he recalled, an orderly gave him the lowdown. “He said, ‘You know what that is? It’s poisoned blood. And when it reaches your brain, you’re dead.’”
It turned out the guy was just joking. (It sounded like the kind of joke only Peter Braunstein would appreciate, but not for a few more years.)
Terrified though he was, Peter remembers his stay in the facility as the only time in his life he felt truly loved. Most of the hospital staff were nice to him. The nurses had Farrah hair. They would ask how he was doing and spoon-feed him his meals.
“I think I based every weird erotic fantasy scenario on that,” he said of the sadomasochistic role-play that he would be drawn to years later, “because it was the happiest time in my life. But at the same time, I was closest to death. So I think on some level I made that connection: proximity to death equals happiness. And I had a death wish my whole life.”
Despite such dark thoughts, Peter was mostly an A student. That’s not to say he was always well behaved. In high school, he started breaking into apartments in his neighborhood — sometimes on his own, sometimes with a friend, Danny. He focused on the homes of girls in his school. He wasn’t after money; though that was his buddy’s goal. Peter went after their underwear. “It was just dumb, dumb, dumb, even by teenage terms,” he said.
Even so, thinking back, he felt like maybe that was his destiny all along — being a bad guy. That ironically if he’d just embraced it, he would have been a more contented and well-adjusted person. “I would have been happier in my own skin if I’d just listened to the side of me then that wanted to go down that route instead of being the good middle-class Jewish kid who went to college. That was my main tension, whether at Women’s Wear or wherever. It was the desire to fit in and get the self-esteem from being in a place like that and being told that you’re doing a good job, and then the desire to wreck that whole place.”
Though his family was middle-class, he said he lived like a rich kid, traveling often to Europe due to his father’s job with the airline. Summers were spent with his fathers’ relatives on the Italian Riviera, and at 17 he began bumming around the continent by himself on a Eurail pass. He went to college at George Washington, in D.C., and had his first arrest in 1983, when he and his old partner in crime were caught in the Helmsley Hotel. In a 2006 interview with Dr. William Barr, the psychologist brought on as an expert witness by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, Peter claimed they were simply fooling around. “We were just causing trouble, hanging out in the bar, following people around, going up to floors that we weren’t supposed to be on, basically trespassing,” he said. “Danny and I did a lot of strange things. We would go to the airport for no reason, or conventions in hotels for, like, orthodontists, and steal the IDs and walk around.”
Later, though, he admitted to me they were in fact looking for people to rob. But Peter had a decent lawyer, and was able to get off without any serious repercussions.
One night during his senior year of high school, Peter’s father was driving him home from a party when he pulled into the parking lot of the nearby station of the Long Island Rail Road and turned off the engine. The elder man had a confession to make. Apparently, Peter had a half-brother he’d never known about. His father had been married before. But there was more to it than that, “a kind of gross, Tennessee Williams play–type aspect to it,” as Peter described it. His half-brother was also his cousin. Before becoming involved with his mother, his father admitted, he had been married to her sister, with whom he had another son. (Allan Starkie is a wealth management advisor and once served as business advisor to Fergie, Duchess of York, about whom he later wrote a tell-all book.)
One might imagine such a revelation would make a mark on Peter’s psyche — after all, it meant that his mother had betrayed her own sister by sleeping with her brother-in-law — but he claimed not to have been shocked by it. “Typical high school teenager, you don’t care,” he said. “You don’t even want a deep conversation with your dad.”
Still, his father’s transgression and perhaps resulting hostility toward his son seems to have shaped Peter’s childhood and warped his sense of himself.
During Peter’s interval as a fugitive, his father often appeared in the news media, pleading for him to turn himself in, insisting that his son was mentally ill. In those interviews, he is a well-dressed, gentlemanly figure, with thin reddish-blonde hair and slit-like eyes. He speaks with a German accent, and would seem well cast as an aging villain in a spy thriller. He looks sincere but exhausted and distant — sometimes frustrating TV hosts by failing to express the hoped-for emotion. His father died recently, and on Father’s Day, Peter said, practically spitting with contempt, “I felt glee.”
Peter described both of his parents as narcissists, but his relationship with his father was particularly troubled. “You can’t unmake yourself,” he told me at one point. “You can’t suddenly go back and have a dad who gives you self-esteem.” He suggested that many societal ills were attributable to bad fathers. “Prison, porn and prostitution, there’s all one concern,” he said. “It’s absent fathers, absentee fathers, bad fathers or evil fathers. My father was an absentee father. He was there but he was far off.”
Alberto Braunstein was also a “serial philanderer,” he said. Peter recalled that shortly before his crime spree, his mother told him about how his father “took off with this girl and had this really surreal, almost sadomasochistic relationship with her.” His mother also told him that Alberto was so open in his adultery that Peter’s Christmas presents one year had included a gift from his dad’s mistress. “My mom said it was these hippie-type clothes,” he recalled. “And I looked at them and made a face, and my mom was so gratified because I didn’t like the clothes that my father’s mistress had given me. And when I heard that, I just kind of…where do I even start to unwrap the pathologies there? You let your husband’s mistress give your kid presents, and you’re counting on the kid to have a negative reaction? Even now I’m like…” He dropped his hands to his sides with a sigh. “I think that’s probably why I don’t remember much of my childhood. It was probably full of fucking twisted shit like that.”
When pressed, Peter did come up with a few memories of his own — many of them involving women. There was, for instance, the time when Alberto explained to his 11-year-old son that he had to cheat on Peter’s mother, because she was “frigid.” And the time a few years later, when Peter was hanging around his father’s gallery in Kew Gardens and Alberto took a phone call. His father’s voice was oddly intimate, “like a lovers’ tone,” Peter said. “I remember thinking, ‘He doesn’t talk to my mom this way.’
“It turned out to be this woman named Carol whom he’d had a relationship with out in Arizona.” Later, he said, she came to New York and tried to make a pass at Peter in order to make his father jealous.
Alberto Braunstein often violated boundaries this way, his son said. “He was competitive with me about women in the way like brothers are competitive.” Peter recalled once going out to a restaurant in Philadelphia with his parents and a friend of his mother’s when he “maybe 15,” he said. “I was expressing my opinion about what girls I found attractive. And this is in the middle of a restaurant — he goes, ‘Now what the hell do you know about women, virgin?’ This was at the top of his lungs. The horrified reaction of my mother’s friend is what I most remember. He’d push it in your face.” Peter said it seemed like his father wanted him to remain inexperienced as long as possible, out of sexual competitiveness. “It was a really twisted relationship,” he said.
Given this history and Peter’s eventual crime, one would expect him to have had a turbulent romantic life, but for the most part, Peter’s relationships seem to have been relatively stable — at least, in the sense that he tended to have lengthy attachments marked by long periods of calm. The breakups could be tumultuous, but then breakups often are. There was Christy, his first real girlfriend, whom he met while they were on a study-abroad trip in the south of France. On returning to the states, they decided to part ways because he wanted to live together, while she was pressing for marriage. “I mean, I was 21!” he said. After failing to reconcile, he recalled in a letter from prison following our interview, they got together for “a good-bye day, spent walking in Georgetown, me ducking out to the men’s room of a restaurant, weeping, feeling like my heart would give out.”
Then there was Donna, whom he actually did wind up marrying, in 1990. They worked together at a British Airways office near JFK Airport, where Peter’s father had gotten him a job as a reservationist following his withdrawal from George Washington University after two years. (His stormy departure from that apparently mind-numbing gig, which seemed to foreshadow his self-expulsion from WWD, involved a flurry of almost comically vituperative letters to coworkers, an accusation of sexual harassment — which he later told me he’d completely fabricated — an official hearing with the HR department, and finally Peter “exiting the building with raised fist à la Judd Nelson in Breakfast Club.”)
As for the marriage, he described it as a “pretty even-keel, unexceptional relationship that then mutated into a Mexican soap opera.” The turning point was Peter’s acceptance to NYU’s doctoral program in history, where he met Debra, a glamorous Ph.D. candidate specializing in women’s studies. “Debra was, by what I felt were pretty universal standards, the most gorgeous girl in all NYC,” he wrote me. Though both were spoken for, they began going out for coffee and drinks after class, and soon fell for each other. Peter felt guilty for cheating. But it turned out that Donna had secrets of her own, and “things started to get seriously twisted.” As their marriage began falling apart, she let slip a startling confession: before meeting him, she’d been an IV drug user, and she had recently tested positive for HIV. This was the early 90s, when such news was viewed as a certain death sentence. Many of their coworkers at the reservations center were gay, and several had already died from the disease.
According to a resentful and self-pitying essay he later wrote about the experience in hopes of publishing it, she told him, “I’m sorry, I’ve killed both of us. I have AIDS.” The news, he wrote, “descended on me like a deadening weight, and I started crying.” The adulterer now felt betrayed himself, and terrified. He found his way to a clinic and tested negative, then took the test again and again, certain that despite the low incidence of female-to-male transmission he must somehow have contracted the disease. In its terrible mingling of death with sexuality, the experience echoed Peter’s battle with the blood infection a decade before, but none of that made it into the essay. (It seems indicative of the depth of Peter’s narcissism that in the midst of an epidemic, he’d expect sympathy for being the guy who tested negative.) The Village Voice, where Peter would later become a regular freelance film writer, turned him down flat, while an editor at the Times suggested he send it to Glamour or Mademoiselle.
The article doesn’t sound much like Peter’s other writing. It’s a little morose, a little whiny. A few years later, however, the experience would inspire another creative endeavor, one that would shed some light on his eventual crime. In the files taken by police from his mother’s home, I came across a folder full of sketches and written notes about a character he’d invented. Dubbed the Weird Clown, it seemed to be a vehicle for Peter’s darkest, most messianic revenge fantasies. The goal, as he remembers it, was to create a graphic novel around the character. Though he went so far as to hire one of his students at NYU to draw a series of colored pencil renderings, the idea never went anywhere. But the character is striking as a cartoon prototype of the malevolent persona Peter himself would adopt a decade later. The Weird Clown has a red nose, large bulbous red shoes, a polka-dot shirt and an oversized tan or black suit. His white head is bald, except for two red hornlike tufts of hair curling out to either side. And in every image, he holds a smoking automatic pistol. In one, the clown holds a pair of guns, one pressed to his own temple, the other pointing toward the viewer.
In Peter’s files, I found several pages of printed notes about the character. Described as “clown by day, gangsta by night,” he “retains a fragile but ever-slipping grasp on reality,” Peter wrote.
A dossier lists the clown’s favorite musical group as The Carpenters. His criminal record includes possession of marijuana and crack, and frightening children, a crime for which he was acquitted, because “it’s part of the burden of being a clown.”
A scribbled note in the file depicts the Weird Clown as a radical political figure, out to redeem a corrupt society. “In his haze of brilliant delirium, the Clown hurls himself, desperately, into the realm of social engagement to condemn the frozen apathy of his age, devoting the precious moments of his slow death into regenerating a lost society. Prophet, hero and criminal, the Clown is admired by those whom society most despises.”
What interested me most about the weird clown was how not-weird it was. There are similar figures throughout pop culture, from Batman’s Joker — especially Heath Ledger’s version — to the Simpsons’ Sideshow Bob, not to mention the Insane Clown Posse. (Serial killer John Wayne Gacy was perhaps the darkest example of a clown-gone-bad.) While the temptation to see the Weird Clown as a sign of what Peter would become is irresistible, to me it raises an essential question: For many artists, and presumably for Peter himself in those days, a creative endeavor like that can provide a way to express and process our dark impulses. What happened to Peter that made such strategies stop working? If he could channel his rage into art, why did he need to act on it?
As one might expect, the character was deeply personal. Peter explained the backstory in a letter to me. “He wasn’t always the Weird Clown, he was initially just a happy successful children’s party clown, but he fell for the wrong woman and married her, only to discover that she had AIDS and had infected him,” he wrote. “That broke him and triggered his metamorphosis into the Weird Clown, a deranged, homicidal HIV+ clown with a tenuous grasp on reality and a hazy morality. My alter ego, I suppose. The Weird Clown was a projection of how my life could have gone were it not for Debra.”
Then again, he added, “It sort of turned out that way anyway.”
But well before its meaning became clear, he said, his new girlfriend gave him a custom-made watch with the Weird Clown logo as its face.
By coincidence, I met Debra a few years later, in 1999. I was then an editor at Mirabella, and I was writing a feature on the development of the first national museum devoted to women, in Dallas, Texas. A Ph.D. candidate in history, Debra had landed the job as curator, and I interviewed her at length about the experience of trying to balance her strong feminist values with the more conservative outlook of the museum’s Texan backers. Mirabella folded before the story was complete, and it eventually ran in Salon. Meanwhile, I went to work at W, and at some point, Debra suggested I meet her boyfriend, who’d recently become a reporter at WWD.
Despite being steeped in gender studies and identify politics, Debra had an old-school glamour about her. She wore makeup and skirts with tall leather boots, and had a Breck girl swoop in her hair. She struck me as witty and confident, a serious, socially conscious historian, whose research focused on the empowerment of women in the business world — not at all the sort one might expect to wind up in a lasting relationship with a would-be sadist and a sex criminal. (Like everyone else I approached while digging into Peter’s story, Debra was done talking about him.)
Peter and Debra lived together in an apartment on Sullivan Street, in SoHo. “We basically embodied the ’90s,” he told me in the meeting room at Clinton. Despite their flourishing academic careers, he said, “We were couch potato slackers like out of fucking Reality Bites, like Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke, living out our ’90s fantasy.” Looking back, he said that low-impact life probably suited him better than he’d realized. “Life was moving at such a slow pace, even if you fucked up, nothing was at stake,” he explained. “Every day was like, ‘What are we going to order for dinner?’ ‘What movie should we rent?’ It was kind of dreamy. I think Debra and I were truly meant for each other in that we both didn’t trust the outside world and wanted to kind of cushion ourselves from that.”
One fall morning in 2001, the two of them were in bed “trying to make a baby — for the first time since we’d been together,” Peter wrote me, “when we heard the sound of a plane flying real low.”
An event that rips at our assumptions the way the terror attacks of September 11 did can have clarifying effects, as well as disorienting ones. I experienced the event at a distance, and with minimal personal trauma. I was in Toronto at the time, attending the annual film festival in my role as W’s senior features editor. I was safe, but I was anxious to get home to my wife, then seven months pregnant, and four-year-old daughter.
It was then that I realized definitively what I’d long suspected — that despite my exalted position on the masthead, I wasn’t part of the inner circle at W and never really would be. And how could it be otherwise? The staffers who really mattered were in the fashion department or on the creative team; certainly not the young dad culture writer walking around in a cardigan sweater and khaki pants. While most of those key staffers were back in New York for Fashion Week, several were also in Toronto for a cover shoot. With all flights cancelled, I frantically worked the phones trying to find a way back to the city, without success. Meanwhile, I left message after message at the front desk of the hotel where my colleagues were staying (a considerably more expensive accommodation than I’d booked) but never heard back.
Two days later, when I returned to work and heard the breathless story of how the creative team had sped home from Toronto in a limousine — hired at a premium — I’ll admit, a tiny spasm of resentment stirred in me. Not a murderous rage, like Peter would feel two years later, when he decided he’d been cast aside like last year’s handbag. But the tragedy had revealed something about my position in the ecosystem at work, about the quality of my relationships and maybe about the culture of the place. On the phone years later, Peter and I talked about our differing reactions to feeling like outsiders. I shrugged off the occasional slight because I never expected to find myself anywhere near the fashion world. I viewed my entire tenure at W as borrowed time and studied the culture as best I could while I had the chance. One of the things I noticed seems never to have registered with Peter. His characterization of Fairchild as a sort of media aristocracy wasn’t quite accurate. Unlike some Conde Nast magazines, which can in fact have the trappings and the slashing politics of royal courts, Women’s Wear and even W were modest operations. Fairchild was an industry trade publisher. Its other titles included Footwear News and Supermarket News. Our newsroom was shabby, and our colleagues — from the top editors to the greenest beat reporters — worked extremely hard. Whatever glamour the publications exuded was mostly a put-on, part of a show. Even Patrick McCarthy, who hobnobbed with socialites and wealthy designers, had come up the hard way, chasing scoops as a cub reporter in Women’s Wear’s various international bureaus. That was part of the place’s charm.
I wanted to know more about Peter’s experience of 9/11, because it seemed to have been such a big influence on him. The attack on New York’s financial power center was something the Weird Clown would surely have applauded. And Peter himself remembered being awed by the spectacle. “Not to be all Damien Hirst about it, but it looked like a movie, a work of art,” he said, referring to the British conceptual artist, who’d called the attacks “visually stunning,” before apologizing shortly thereafter. Later, Peter mailed me a picture of himself wearing a white wife-beater, taken during a manic phase after he’d left WWD and was frantically writing his play Andy & Edie. He thought the picture compared favorably with the famously unkempt image of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. “Aside from masterminding 9/11,” he explained, “the Sheikh had mad style.” Finally, Peter’s fireman costume intentionally evoked 9/11 as well.
After the first plane hit, Peter told me, he and Debra climbed the stairs to the roof of their building and stood there watching the smoke pour from the North Tower. Then they watched as another plane hit the South Tower.
Peter had an interview to do. A sit-down with a celebrity — Mary McConnell? Mary McDonnell? Mary McCormick? He can’t remember now. Then again, it could have been Leelee Sobieski or Heather Graham, both of whom he interviewed shortly thereafter. Whomever she was, he was supposed to meet her for breakfast at the Mercer Hotel. He started to get dressed. “I was so into the work frame of mind,” he recalled. “Debra was like, ‘You are not leaving this apartment.’”
Did 9/11 precipitate Peter Braunstein’s unraveling? Not quite. His rampage was still five years away. But it certainly made an impression on him. The attacks preceded by just a few unsettled weeks Peter’s affair with Jill and the ensuing breakup of his nine-year relationship with Debra. The attacks, it’s fair to say, had obliterated their cushion of safety, along with so much else.
He’d first met Jill a month or so before, at a colleague’s small going-away party. It was held in a karaoke bar, and Peter and one editor teamed up for a duet of “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” Then Jill sang. In addition to her day job, Jill was an extraordinary cabaret singer, with a trained voice. He thinks the song was “Fly Away Home,” but maybe it was Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “10,000 Miles,” which also appeared in that film. Anyway, it mesmerized him. “She could really belt out a tune,” he recalled in a letter. “And she continued to stare at me while singing, which affected me.”
To him, the moment had the weight of metaphor. “It all began with a song,” he wrote me, “a siren song…. [Jill] was the allegorical siren and the textbook femme fatale, and I’m the doomed guy.”
Even after the song, he didn’t begin “crushing on her,” he said, until a few weeks after September 11, at another going-away party for a fellow staffer, this time at the chic Bryant Park Hotel.
Peter spotted Jill sitting alone at a corner table, “chain-smoking” — when that was still allowed in New York City — “and looking anxious and preoccupied.” He sat down. “I feel like a fraud,” she told him, confessing that she didn’t feel qualified for the job of beauty director. “What do I really know about beauty?”
That seemed surprising, given that she was, even then, one of the most experienced, and well-regarded editors in the field. But Peter seemed to understand. “Nine years with the babe feminist Debra prepared me for this,” he recalled. “I knew that women in power positions often felt ‘fraudulent,’ like impostors, because they don’t feel entitled to power the way men do.” Even so, the flirtation left him feeling guilty, and when Jill excused herself for a minute, he bolted home to Debra.
Years before I met Peter, Jill and I worked together at Mademoiselle. Naturally, when I decided to go ahead with the story, I tried contacting her to get her version of these events. I wasn’t surprised when she didn’t reply, nor can I blame her. She’s moving on. But as a result, this story mostly reflects Peter’s point of view, with all of the caveats that implies.
As he remembered it, the morning after the party, Jill was wearing “one of her Mad Men outfits,” the chic vintage dresses she favored, “like Liz Taylor in Butterfield 8 or Tippi Hedren in Marnie.”
She walked right up to him. “Fine, just leave a girl,” she said.
“A ‘moment’ had passed between us,” he wrote, “and I guess we both knew it.”
On a Friday morning in mid-September, I got word from Peter’s lawyer that he had given me permission to examine all the evidence that had been collected in his case. There were nine banker boxes in all — a trove of material that included his personal writing dating back to childhood, reams of courtroom transcripts, and five DVDs containing his videotaped interviews with a psychologist hired by the DA to evaluate his mental state.
Later that afternoon, I sat on the crowded subway with a plain white shopping bag between my legs. In it were two expandable legal files containing a small sample of the material. For a journalist, this was an incredibly lucky break, a trove of documents that would help me understand just how Peter had unraveled. Any fan of CSI or Criminal Minds can likely relate to the magnetic appeal the files held: this was evidence, the private ramblings of a notorious madman. The many reporters who had written about this case had never gotten near it. Feeling a little like an impatient child up early on Christmas morning, I unwrapped my presents in an eager frenzy, right there on the A train, springing off the rubber band that held one of the files, flipping up the cover and peeling off a stack of paper.
The first pages I saw were copies of handwritten letters, but the penmanship was different than Peter’s hurried scrawl. It was neater, more rounded. I felt a tightening in my chest as it dawned on me what I was looking at. This was not something Peter had written, but something he’d received.
A letter from Jill.
It’s one thing, I thought, to dig through Peter’s own stuff — his medical records, prescriptions (so many prescriptions), personnel files, school transcripts sprinkled with 4.0s, and so on. But reading heartfelt letters written to him by a third party, someone with whom I’d long had a friendly acquaintance? That was something different. Not only did it seem like an unconscionable invasion of privacy, it played into Peter’s longstanding desire to expose and humiliate Jill. I shoved the pages back into the binder, and vowed to toss them out.
Later, that evening, I began to sort through the material, putting aside any correspondence from her. Most of it was a series of email exchanges, and as I turned the pages, I found myself reading bits and pieces of Peter’s side of the conversations. In some cases, I couldn’t help glancing at her replies as well, just to understand the context of a particular point.
Then I kept doing it.
Two hours later I looked up, and like a compulsive eater with a beard full of crumbs and empty cookie bag at his feet, I realized I’d devoured every last letter.
What I found was a evidence of a normal seeming whirlwind romance, which began in a rush of passion and excitement shortly after 9/11, while the streets of downtown Manhattan were still papered with eerie fliers seeking word of lost relatives. The pair began quietly, eager to keep their secret from officemates, and their emails and letters were dizzyingly romantic. The language is flirty and sometimes sweetly heartfelt, and would be familiar to anyone who’s ever fallen in love.
“I’m an apocalyptic guy,” he wrote to her at one point, “and everything that’s happened in my life up to now seems a build-up to this. In matters of love, I thought I had experienced everything there was to experience, and I was wrong.”
They kicked around baby names, made fun of various staffers (though not me, I was slightly disappointed to discover), exchanged sexy banter (“I know you’re the ‘beauty director,’ but do you have to be so literal about it?”), and strategized about their respective careers. One note from Jill makes it evident how disorienting Peter’s success was becoming, between two separate book deals (one with Routledge about disco, another with St. Martin’s on the history of New York in the 1970s), a satirical novel in the works about paparazzi, and his much-talked-about media column in WWD. “Hold out on the book deal if the money sucks,” she wrote. “Your star is rising and burning brighter by the minute. You can’t not notice when that happens to someone, and it’s happening to you, despite the fact that your life also happens to be turbulent.”
Indeed, his life was turbulent. As all this was going on, Peter was still living with Debra, gradually extricating himself from that nine-year relationship, while admitting to his therapist that he might not really love Jill and suspected he was making a mistake.
At one point, the couple exchanged emails about a competing source of office gossip, noting that their romance was being “eclipsed” by another torrid affair between Fairchild employees, a graphic designer and a fashion stylist. Perhaps this was the connection, this sense of shared transgression — but five years later, the stylist would hear a knock at her apartment door, and it would be Peter, wearing a firefighter’s outfit.
Peter and Jill’s relationship survived his departure from Fairchild, but they fought often, and both seemed to sense that their long-term prospects as a couple were not good. Still, in the summer of 2003, Peter wound up moving in to Jill’s apartment on tony Beekman Place. While she went off to work at W, he stayed home, finishing up his play about Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick, and beginning research for his history of 1970s New York.
In a diary he kept at that time, he referred to himself as the Prisoner of Beekman Place, and expressed anxiety about becoming too dependent on her. He also complained that the relationship wasn’t fulfilling, that he wasn’t more appreciated, and that there was an “erosion of trust.”
They had terrible fights, screaming matches. One night, he broke one bottle of wine after another on the kitchen floor. Another time, he taped her to a chair, waving a knife around and warning darkly of what he might do with it. Peter was changing. Anxieties about his loss of status and fears of slipping back into anonymity seemed to be consuming him. He was popping Phenobarbital all day. Looking back, Peter said Jill should have gotten rid of him after he’d threatened her with the knife. “That would have been sensible behavior,” he admitted. No doubt she was scared, unsure now that she’d let him into her home how to end things without aggravating a volatile situation.
The end was ugly.
On November 22, 2003, Peter wound up with scratches across his abdomen. There is still a dispute as to who caused them. That night police showed up, placed him under arrest and sent him to Bellevue for observation. That was it for the relationship.
After getting out in less than a day, Peter moved back in with his mother, and threw himself into two big projects. One was producing Andy & Edie, which mostly involved working the press, and casting the lead roles. Brilliantly, he decided to seek his Edie among the city’s young socialites, interviewing Elizabeth Kieselstein-Cord, Juliet Hartford, and the doomed Casey Johnson, among others, before settling on Misha Moore, whom he began referring to as Misha Sedgwick, persuading Page Six that she was Edie’s “gorgeous, real-life niece”).
It wasn’t a smooth production. “I was circling the drain psychologically,” he wrote to me of that time, “getting more erratic as time progressed.” He was using cocaine, and had lost so much weight, he said, that he’d taken to wearing thermal underwear despite the spring weather, just to keep his pants on. He was such a mess, he told me, that he skipped one performance because Allure editor Linda Wells was scheduled to attend, and he didn’t want her to see him in his reduced state.
The play opened in June to poor reviews. The text is surprisingly ill conceived and amateurish, one of Peter’s poorer efforts, full of painfully flat exposition about the shallowness of the Factory scene. What’s interesting about it, though, is the way it highlights the parallels between Edie’s experience as Andy’s muse, one of the pop-artist’s first “superstars,” whom he would eventually tire of and toss aside, and Peter’s own treatment — as he saw it — by Women’s Wear.
Did the failure of the play bring about Peter’s mental collapse? “It was a major turning point,” he recalled, “because it left me with nothing to do except contemplate the disaster area that my life had become, and also because it removed the only kind of social structure I had left, so that I soon started to feel like I was no longer part of the world.”
One day, he decided to do some research for his book at the reading room at the Main Library on Fifth Avenue. After having his picture taken for the ID card, he was stunned by what he saw. “I looked shattered,” he wrote. “Old, ugly, tired eyes, my father’s demeanor — it was haunting…confirmation that my life as I knew it was over.”
He did have one other project at the time, which he also threw himself into with customary creative fervor: his harassment of Jill, whom he began referring to by a nickname, BioHazard. There were a number of angles and points of attack. First came the emails to Jill, boiling with rage (“Your attitude sucks, you’re an arrogant moron who tried to lock me up and is still flouting my orders…”), followed by equally unhinged emails to her friends and family members. Then he posted nude photographs of her online, creating fake profiles on adultfriendfinder.com and similar sites. He wrote a series of letters to her employers, including Patrick McCarthy, Fairchild ceo Mary Berner and WWD executive editor Bridget Foley, posing as a variety of characters who drew attention to the scandalous photos and attempted to undermine her position at work. He sent a note to a cosmetic dentist with whom Jill was working on a book project, warning him of her supposed proclivities. He even posted notices around her neighborhood, alerting the residents to the promiscuous woman in their midst.
Peter also planted a story in Page Six offering his version of their break up. He vilified “BioHazard” on the website he’d set up to publicize Andy & Edie. And he called her and called her and called her — and her father, and her sister, and her coworkers — hundreds of times, week after week. Often he didn’t speak, but simply held a tape recorder to the receiver and played the sound of a woman having an orgasm. He was tireless. In all, the harassment lasted 18 months.
Even during the ten days that Andy & Edie was onstage, Peter remained diligent, making time on his way to the theater each day to stop at a pay phone and continue the campaign.
Talking about it years later, he was eager to point out that such harassment isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Far from the obsession one might expect, he called it drudgery. “It really is like a job,” he said. “Sometimes I didn’t feel like stumbling out of my mom’s place at 3 in the morning to call up Jill’s father from a phone booth just to hang up. I wasn’t in the mood. Walking around with this stupid tape recorder. It lost its novelty after about a month. But I made myself do it.” The alternative, from his point of view, wasn’t simply getting on with his life, which he felt certain at that point was over. “The alternative was just walking up to her in broad daylight and blowing her head off,” he said. “And I’m glad I made the decision that I did.”
Peter’s got it pretty good in prison, the way he sees it. (Note: in the years since this piece was written, Peter was transferred to a mental health facility.) He has his own cell, approximately 6 feet by 8 feet, “larger than the average work cubicle,” he noted pointedly. He considers it “the quintessential man-cave.” The pale green walls have been covered with photos torn from magazines: Emma Roberts, Mila Kunis, a still of Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion, a Jimmy Choo ad, and a selection of hard core porn. He’s built a makeshift coffee table out of cardboard and stacks of books, and his library includes works of crime fiction (James Ellroy, Harlan Coben, Natsuo Kirino), psychology texts (Imagination and Its Pathologies, Emotional Intelligence, Michel Foucault’s Psychiatric Power, in the original French), and old favorites, like Charles Bukowski’s Tales of Ordinary Madness and White Oleander, by Janet Fitch.
Inmates are allowed to purchase their own TV sets (his is an 8” HD model with a plasma screen), and the basic channel lineup includes the four networks, TNT, BET, ESPN, two PBS affiliates, CBC, Cinemax, and a special channel administered by the Department of Corrections, which airs movies as soon as they become available on DVD. Investigation Discovery is not included, so he hasn’t been able to watch the recent episode of I (Almost) Got Away With It, featuring him.
For the most part, he rarely seeks out contact with other inmates. “There are opportunities to go out and be a social butterfly, if that’s your thing,” he said, “but I’m a pretty antisocial person. I didn’t realize the reclusive aspects of my personality were so hard-wired until I got in here.”
Peter is required to leave his cell only once per day, for lunch in the mess hall. The food isn’t great, he said, “But I was never a foodie, so I don’t really mind it.” Inmates are also allowed to purchase their own provisions from a commissary, and one of his staples is ramen, or “crackhead soup,” which goes for just 17 cents per packet. “Two of those and you’re good to go,” he said.
He makes coffee in a hot pot, and rolls his own cigarettes, a frequent habit that has given him large rust-colored spots on his right thumb and forefinger. Smoking inside is technically forbidden, but Peter prefers sneaking the occasional smoke in his cell to lighting up in the yard. “Aesthetically, it’s grotesque,” he said of the outdoor space, despite a sand area and volleyball courts. “It’s this really sad kind of Auschwitz-looking type set up.”
Despite his attempts to lay low, Peter has gotten into a few scrapes during his time inside. One came about after he revealed the “jacket,” or the rap sheet, of a fellow inmate. “It’s in the public record,” he pointed out, “so it’s the most open secret on the face of the earth.” The guy’s crime involved violently beating and sexually assaulting a child — among other things, he’d shoved a battery into the boy’s rectum — but he’d managed to keep it a secret on the tier. Peter discovered the story and during a “gate war,” when prisoners taunt one another from inside their cells while everyone else listens, began calling the inmate “Battery Boy.”
One day, as Peter was about to emerge from his cell, the other inmate mounted a surprise attack, jumping him the moment the doors opened. “I was surprised he didn’t knock me out, because he’s a lot younger than I am,” Peter said. “Plus, I mean, I smoke constantly, and never get any exercise. My diet is for shit, my lifestyle is for shit. I look like I fell out of a tree.” The guy got a few good punches in before Peter wrestled him into a headlock.
In the end, both men were placed in “keep-lock,” or solitary confinement, for a month.
Another dispute involved a more infamous inmate, Bucky Phillips, a prison escapee who was on the run for five months in 2006 and became a local folk hero in Upstate New York before shooting three state troopers, one of them fatally. Like Rifkin, Phillips receives a lot of fan mail — “From chicks who love cop killers,” Peter said, “which is like, I guess, a subgenre of crazy chicks who write to prisoners” — and somehow Peter got hold of a letter from one of Phillips’ correspondents and started writing to her as well. “Then Bucky got back to me and was like, ‘You stay away from my girl.’ It was crazy. It was like this ‘pen-pal pilfering,’ and he called me on it! So I had to back off because technically by some sort of weirdo rule, it wasn’t cool. You do not steal someone’s pen pal, especially if it’s a girl.”
Not long ago, Phillips was disciplined for having contraband in his cell, a sweatshirt filled with stuffing, which was presumably part of yet another escape plot.
“That’s so old school,” Peter marvelled when I told him about the news report. “That’s so Alcatraz.”
Recently, Peter seems to have acquired a buddy, Giovani Luciano, who was busted for credit card fraud a few years back and dubbed the “Bungalow Thief” and the “Bungalow Bungler” after claiming to be the nephew of fashion designer Domenico Dolce. According to Peter, Lucano told him, “I don’t associate with people in this unit because they haven’t lived the life we’ve lived.”
Peter laughed. “He thinks we’re bonded.”
One day in the fall of 2010, Peter’s monthly subscription copy of W magazine arrived at Clinton. It was one of the first under the direction of a new editor, Stefano Tonchi, and the cover featured Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, in an artfully staged embrace: a red lipsticked Williams, staring out at the viewer as if surprised by the camera; Gosling cradling her head with the tenderness of a ballet dancer.
Peter is permitted to receive magazines, and he subscribes to several, including New York, Playboy, and the indie fashion magazine Nylon, which is particularly popular among his fellow inmates. “All the pervs love it,” he said. “It’s like giving them SweetTarts.”
But Peter pores over W with particular interest, because of his history with the place.
For a time, Peter had seemed to thrive at Fairchild. He’d started on WWD’s tech beat, writing mostly about e-commerce start-ups, but soon moved on to the media desk, a far more prominent perch. In July 2002, he wrote an amusing column critiquing magazine editors’ letters, winning notice not just within the industry but from the editors themselves, many of whom replied with amused mash notes suggesting that his assessments had hit home. Cindi Leive, after being taken to task for an overly perky portrait (“Before even reaching the text part of the Glamour editor’s letter,” Peter wrote, “prospective readers have to pass through the smiley-faced crucible that is Cindi Leive’s photo”) sent over a framed copy of the picture with batch of cookies and a note reading, “Dear Peter, I know you love this picture — thought you might want one all your own! Cindi.”
For Peter, who had previously spent much of his professional life as an outsider, it was a heady feeling. “It was an opportunity to insult editors of really big magazines, either praise them or insult them,” he explained incredulously during his psychological evaluation with Dr. William Barr. “They took it really seriously. If I wrote something negative it really hurt their feelings and their egos. And if i wrote something positive, they were just thrilled. Having that sort of power as a journalist is not something I was used to, and it went to my head.”
His career up until that point — contributing the occasional freelance piece to the Voice and working as an archivist for various private schools — was “almost like being invisible,” he explained to the psychologist. His experience at WWD, then, “was like going from being in a cave to being thrown in front of Klieg lights, you know? The transition was so abrupt, and it really threw me for a loop.”
Interestingly, Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, had received an ‘A’ on her editor’s letter (“a truffle”) but had made no effort to suck up to Peter, cookies or otherwise. When he’d called her office for a comment on the grade for a follow-up item, she’d remarked to her publicist, “I can’t believe it’s that slow a news day.”
Reading the new W in his jail cell at Clinton, the media critic grabbed a pen and a yellow legal pad and dashed off a letter to the editors. “As a current subscriber — and former contributor,” he began, “I am happy — and proud — to say: I ♥ the new W.”
After a dig at McCarthy, he went on, in a tone of high sarcasm. “I love how much it’s like a slightly larger Elle. I love Stefano Tonchi’s editor’s page photo and its old-school vibe, very Vegas lounge lizard two-sets nightly at the Sands circa 1961.”
What really got his attention, however, was a small squib that most readers probably overlooked — a “Vanity Fair-cover–inspired epigraph? pull-quote? whisper? decree?” as he put it, just floating on the cover in tiny, italicized type. “Just get naked and who cares if it ends up on the internet,” it suggested. “My feelings exactly,” Peter wrote.
He was making an allusion to the elaborate campaign of harassment he’d initiated after being dumped by Jill. Peter claimed that the nude photos of Jill had been posted “as part of a Guy Bourdin–inspired romantic adieu.” His goal had never been to harass her, at all, he claimed coyly, but “to show the world that (to quote the comely Ryan Gosling in October’s W) ‘sex is messy.’”
Finally, he concluded: “Let me salute you, new W! Truly, we are kindred spirits.”
Tonchi and his colleagues didn’t agree. They forwarded the letter to the authorities, who decided it was violation and placed Braunstin in the Special Housing Unit (SHU), or “keep-lock,” for six months.
The misbehavior report indicates the letter was seen as a thinly veiled attempt to communicate with Jill, which Peter had agreed not to do. But it seems that his more serious violation was mailing it through a third party. The envelope did not have the proper facility stamp, the report stated, and was posted not from Dannemora but from New York City.
Peter had found an accomplice.
The girl he calls Salander, after Lisbeth Salander, the protagonist of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, first wrote to Peter in early 2008, when she was 16 and living in Maryland.
“You get people who write to every crazy person in prison,” he said. “She wasn’t one of those.” In the meeting room at Clinton, he fondly recalled the opening line of her first letter to him: “I’ve never done anything like this before, so I guess I’ll just start by saying, I think your crime was really cool.” He looked a little misty. “It was like, ‘You had me at hello.’”
The relationship, he said, was hard to characterize. “I never had a daughter, so I can’t say it’s a father-daughter thing. And I can’t say it’s some weird-ass November-May romance, either.” They’ve never met face-to-face, since that would necessitate a visit to prison, and as Peter put it, “A teenage girl? People would be looking at her like a giant pastry in a place like this.”
In addition to her regular job, working freelance for an online reputation management company, Salander now runs errands for him on the outside and helps him hatch various mischievous plots. “She’s like my Nikita,” he said. They brainstorm “crazy hijinks,” as he put it, ways for him to “mess with the outside world by proxy.” She was the one who sent the W letter — a second copy, actually, in case the original didn’t get through — and a few months later, in December 2010, emailed me using the alias Gerald Lewis (the name of a serial killer) to ask for my address so that Peter could contact me.
Salander also keeps him up to date on the activities of his old acquaintances. “Like the latest thing, I just wanted to know what EKC looked like nowadays,” he said, referring to the socialite Elisabeth Kieselstein-Cord, whom he’d interviewed about appearing in Andy & Edie.
Peter and Salander’s letter-writing relationship went through several phases. “At first, she wanted to impress me in a Manson Girl kind of way,” he said. “She tried to come off as more fucked up than she actually was. She felt like she had to bring it because she was dealing with me.”
Soon, the letters became erotic — handwritten phone sex. “There was a lot of ‘I’m doing this to you,’” Peter recalled. He was glad to be relating through words only, he said, because given his age — 47 — and what he called his “whole PTSD-from-life thing,” he wasn’t “physically, emotionally or acrobatically capable of doing any of this stuff.”
Most of their scenarios involved fetishes and role-play. Nurse-and-Patient, Shrink-and-Mental Patient, Peter’s well-worn fantasies. But there was also something new: the Domineering DA (Peter’s case was prosecuted by a woman, ADA Maxine Rosenthal), who’s willing to cut the perp a deal in exchange for oral sex. What Peter found most thrilling about the scenario is the way she degrades him even while enjoying his ministrations, calling him a worm, a degenerate.
Peter pointed out that this sort of game is only fun when both parties are really into it. “The interplay is really important. It’s a dialectic, really.” Despite her relative youth, Salander proved a natural. “She managed to say some stuff that really rubbed me raw,” he said. “Certain lines would be reverberating in my head for days.”
Salander did not respond to messages sent to the Gerald Lewis email address. “She doesn’t trust you,” Peter explained. “She doesn’t trust reporters. And the day-to-day snarkifying of the New York Observer? I want to shelter her from that.”
(This seemed ironic — the Fireman Perv was protecting his teenage pen pal from me? It occurred to me that perhaps the reason I couldn’t speak with her was that she didn’t exist at all. Then again, she probably does: after all, someone sent me those emails and posted that letter from New York City.)
Over time, he has developed a very tender attachment to her. “What I like doing is giving her the kind of advice I could have used,” he said, adding, “Don’t get me wrong — it’s evil advice. I’m like an evil life coach.” For instance, when she expressed ambivalence about going to college, he convinced her to get a degree by telling her it would make her that much more effective if she wanted to wreak criminal havoc. “I told her, ‘Think of college as this thing where you’re going in there with this kind of dark agenda,’” he recalled. “She liked that.” Of course, there was always the chance she’d develop other, more wholesome goals — at this point, Salander is, as he put it, “just a kid” — and that Peter might surreptitiously be attempting to exert a positive influence on a troubled girl, albeit in his own unusual way.
The two of them seem to have forged a powerful bond. They talk about favorite TV shows and books, like True Blood and Hunger Games. They hatch plans to market edgy gift items, like T shirts that say “Sex Crime” and prayer cards with Lindsay Lohan, “the Patron Saint of Train Wrecks,” as Peter put it, on the front, and on the reverse, the Desiderata, a famous spiritual poem (“Do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness…”).
Not long ago, Peter even bought his young friend a little gift with some of the money he got for taping that episode of I (Almost) Got Away With It: a Burberry biker jacket he spotted in W. Now he suspects he may have created a monster. After he turned her on to Blade Runner, Salander spotted another piece of outerwear, “an apocalyptic rain poncho” that reminded her of something worn by one of the replicants in the movie. “I’ve got to have it,” she told him. “I think you’re becoming a label whore,” he replied.
“It’s a really cool relationship because it defies categories,” he said. “It’s kind of like, if I could raise a girl, it would be Salander. I mean, she’s fucking cool.”
I always knew Peter could be funny and charming. What I didn’t know was the other Peter. As entertaining as he was to talk to, I hadn’t driven six hours (picking up a speeding ticket along the way) to shoot the breeze. I wanted to know why he’d done it.
The plan, he told me, was always to die. That was the endgame. Everything else, the fireman stuff, the sex attack, was just about trying to make it interesting, make it original.
Peter’s Halloween plot developed in early fall. He’d been arrested for harassing Jill and placed on probation. “I already felt like a criminal,” he recalled. “So I just thought, Why not go full-tilt boogie with it?” (This, in a nutshell, was the argument for listening to people even when they’ve done something reprehensible. Once they’re cast out, they have nothing else to lose.) At that point, Peter was back living with his mother, drinking all the time — a fifth of Smirnoff vodka before noon — and guzzling cough syrup. (He’d mostly worn out his psychiatric drug connections.) He couldn’t sleep, and nothing seemed to help. That was the point of the chloroform, at least initially. He bought it online as a sleep aid. Sometimes he’d take a sniff and wake up hours later. Once he just left it open on his desk. “I just passed out for like 12 hours, and I didn’t even remember passing out. It’s crazy.”
The fireman idea just came to him one day. He didn’t have a victim in mind — just a manic inspiration to take on a role that was the polar opposite of what he felt like inside. After the Twin Towers crashed to the ground, firefighters became more than heroes. “They were a step down from being angels,” he told Dr. Barr in 2006. “They were seen as immaculate. So I thought, ‘This is really going to piss off the entire city.’ It’s like you’re desanctifying something that’s seen as almost sacred.”
Consumed by this new project, he gave up the drugs and alcohol cold turkey. He didn’t need them anymore. He spent hours planning, researching the details online. He ordered an air gun and began practicing with it out in Forest Park, near his mom’s house. Though the undertaking was superficially fueled by rage at Jill, he never really considered harming her, he said. “My gut was telling me, ‘If you kill her, you’re going to go to that pizza joint and sit there eating a slice and going, Well, what do I do now?’” he explained. The focus of his rage would be gone, he thought, but the rage would still be there. The idea seemed terrifying. Without his reviled antagonist, he would be completely alone — a worse hell even than the one he’d come to know.
He still seems fuzzy about why he selected the victim he did, a woman he’d seen around the office and spoken to just once. He wasn’t obsessed with her, he insisted. It was really nothing like the press claimed. But there were reasons for believing, in his delusional state, that she might understand his situation. They’d both had issues at work and left under questionable circumstances. (It was rumored she’d taken shoes from the fashion closet for her own.) They’d both been in office relationships around the same time, relationships that began in secret. He didn’t want to hurt her, necessarily, but to get her attention, to bond. He pictured a scenario out of one of his favorite movies, Bonnie and Clyde, two romantic outlaws on a crime spree.
In the weeks leading up to the attack, he said, he was operating purely on instinct. “My unconscious mind was calling the shots,” he explained. “My conscious mind had lost all credibility to me. I paid it no attention at all. It was like the U.S. government is for most people, or Congress or the financial system — bankrupt on the level of credibility.”
At some point, early in the fall of 2005, Peter began to compose a fascinating piece of writing he titled “Personal manifesto aka the making of a menace.”
It’s a curious document, by turns amusing, insightful and painfully self-conscious, and of course chilling — as it’s plainly meant to be. In a sort of introduction, he warned, “The reader will notice that I describe the most gruesome actions and ideas in a tone that might strike some as ‘pithy’ and ‘full of mirth.’ There are a couple explanations for that. One: I’ve always seen life that way. Secondly, I’m probably, at this point, clinically psychotic. But above all it shows what happens when society ignores or mistreats talented individuals everywhere who lurk in the shadows and are consigned to oblivion.”
He offered a disconcerting if nonetheless astute exposition of the differences between shooting someone and stabbing them, noting that in the latter case, “You’re face to face with your victim, you watch as…his/her life slowly ebbs away. And in those moments, it’s like you, the killer, are dying too — which is, of course, what you’re really looking for anyway.”
He critiqued various notorious killers, praising Andrew Cunanan for “mixing it up” stylistically, applauded suicide bombers as giving the world “the ultimate fuck you,” and defended Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. “Ideally, there should be a Columbine every six days or so until society realizes that letting kids torture each other as a means of identity formation only proves how warped we are as a society.”
This is not to say that Peter was necessarily bullied in school, the way Harris and Klebold were. Rather, he was the class clown, the kid who was always “on,” but was, he said, more or less well-liked.
In one section of the manifesto, Peter put forth what he called “The Theological Angle,” containing a somewhat facetious alternative view of the world’s creation that doubles as an explanation of his own motives. While written in a light, humorous style, it quickly turns menacing. In order to amuse himself, Peter posited, God gave humans dominion over earth, but we disappointed him. “That’s when God started hating us (humans)…because he was so disgusted with the whole experiment.” Unwilling to sully his hands with fixing his mistake himself, God “started outsourcing or subcontracting divinely sanctioned punishment…through a whole series of people, who, in their own time, were labeled ‘insane criminals.’ Me, I’m just a guy on a list of people whose pure hearts were scorched to flames by the world and whose particular natures make them eminently suitable for divinely-sanctioned payback, because they’re simultaneously really intelligent and completely enraged. You need just the right combination to be a Hit Man for God.”
Much of the manifesto is written in an arch tone, one part Hannibal Lecter, one part Lenny Bruce, but there are a number of highly sincere passages as well. Peter admitted there were “some beautiful moments” in his life. “Most of them — all of them, actually — involved Love. The way Christy looked at me on the beach in Palavas, and I knew that moment she had fallen for me. Me and Christina kissing in the bar in Georgetown in ’86. The way Donna looked at our wedding, at the reception, in her gown while munching on a sandwich — it was like a Renoir painting. And Debra, spontaneously splashing on the beach at night, naked, beckoning me to join in.”
Perhaps the most interesting passage concerns his feelings about the roller coaster ride he’d taken at Fairchild Publications. “I’ve experienced first-hand the social effects of success and I can tell you quite frankly, they’re ghastly,” he wrote. “When your star is ‘on the rise’ at ‘the company,’ the toppermost creatures in the organization begin to nod briefly toward you in the elevator, the next-in-lines offer up a faint smile…the girls bat their eyelids, etc.” As for what happens when your star fades, he continued, “I never experienced that part, I exploded before I got to it.”
My favorite section of the document, if I can call it that, is called “Why 2005 is much more than ‘as good a time to die as any.’” In it, Peter complains that the range of acceptable emotions is narrowing. “I predict that by 2035 anger will actually be illegal,” he wrote. “Underground clubs will crop up where people will be able to express rage openly, but these catharsis speakeasies will be frequently raided by police. Once anger is abolished, Joy will inevitably come under attack…. The optimal condition, which will become almost obligatory, will be [to be] mildly ‘stressed’ — the ideal condition for shopping.”
That’s a pretty incisive social critique, even if it is coming from the mind of a man plotting a horrible crime.
As Peter hammered away intermittently on this letter to the world, he painstaking began acquiring the various props and tools he’d need to embark on what he conceived as “a one-man crime wave with socio-political overtones.”
On Ebay and cheaperthandirt.com, a Texas website featuring military and hunting paraphernalia, he purchased a stun gun, Flexicuffs, chloroform, a gas mask, leg irons, a fuel can, a ski mask, military-style goggles, a voice changer, and a camcorder.
There were unexpected complications. He almost missed Halloween altogether due to a late postal delivery. “The only thing that I was waiting for, believe it or not, was that I had ordered on eBay the first season of Nip/Tuck,” he said. “And I was really, like, ‘Is it really worth putting off doing the thing on Halloween to wait for this fucking show?’ I had this intensely complicated crime plan but I would get hung up on stupid things like that. Crazy logic was completely intact, normal logic was not. And then I said, ‘Fuck the DVD.’” Apparently, it showed up in time; he had it on him when he was apprehended.
A few hours later, he stood in the woman’s apartment, barking instructions like an actual firefighter in an emergency: Close those windows, put a towel under the door…
“I said to myself, ‘As soon as you draw this gun, this is going to happen,’” he recalled as we sat across the conference table from one another. “‘You’ve crossed the line and there’s no going back.’ For the first time in my fucking somnambulist life, I was fully, 100 percent aware of the gravity of the moment. But I didn’t want to go back. What was I going back to, you know?”
A look of irritation passed across his face. “Oh, my God, I just wanted to be incinerated.”
Whatever violent sexual fantasies Peter had in mind when he set out that evening, they no longer seemed appealing once he found himself in the woman’s apartment. “I imagined it like, I’m the one in control, and all the power’s flowing in one direction,” he remembered. “But that’s not how I experienced the situation. Because when you acquire power, sometimes it seems like poison. It felt like a touch of vertigo. In a way, I found myself looking to her to stabilize me.”
Somehow she did. The woman’s instinct to talk to him like a person, concealing her fear, even confiding in him, probably saved her life. “She did the whole therapy repetoire of sympathetic listening,” he said. “She’d just been fired from some random job, and she said, ‘You know, the last week, I just felt like I’d never been so alone in my entire life.’ And that’s exactly how I’d felt for two years. And on some level, that was the turning point for me. She was now a human being. And once you humanize someone in a situation like that, the whole other scenario, the triple-X sex-slave thing, that just goes out the window.”
He tried to get aroused, but it wouldn’t happen. “I guess it was just, like, burdensome on some emotional level,” he said with a sigh.
Instead he crawled into bed with the woman — who was bound with cord and fading in and out of consciousness, due to repeated hits of chloroform — and talked. She teased him, he remembered, calling him by the name he’d given, Mark, but in quotes, like she knew it wasn’t his real name. “I felt an admiration for that, like she’s giving me attitude,” he said. “We were fighting over the stupid little blanket. It was hilarious. It was such a twisted, surrealist thing.”
He described that evening as “the sex-crime equivalent of the rich CEO who pays $5000 for a hooker and then can’t get it up and spends all night talking to her and crying about his problems at work. I was kind of like that guy.”
After awhile, he again pressed a chloroform-soaked rag to her face. Then he made himself a snack and sat down in front of the TV. It was a familiar feeling — staying up all night while a woman slept nearby — and he could almost imagine they were a couple.
Peter’s victim declined to be interviewed. Her testimony in court, however, was powerful. She was a brilliant witness. One of the cops who had tracked Peter told him she was the best witness he’d ever encountered. She admitted that on several occasions that night, she’d pretended to pass out while actually remaining alert to every move he made. Though he’d taped her eyes shut, she seemed to know just what he was doing, figuring out he was videotaping her, for instance, by the whirring sound of the tape in the machine.
Peter himself painted an oddly ironic and playful picture of this crime — a twisted hybrid of Law and Order SVU and Moonlighting — that is transparently self-serving, a way of minimizing the horror of what he put her though. Victims of such assaults experience years of emotional pain, and some never fully recover. Still, when seen in this light, the message he scrawled on the woman’s mirror as he left the crime scene — “Bye. Hope things turn around for you soon” — which came off as sarcastic and cruel in press accounts, was probably an attempt, pathetic though it seems, at sincerity.
Six years later, sitting in prison, Peter said of the woman he’d attacked, “I just hope she’s out there in the world and I hope she’s surviving. I don’t say that about many people.”
Peter grabbed a few items on his way out of the woman’s apartment — souvenirs, basically. There was a feather boa, a pair of fake Chanel sunglasses, and “a Louis Vuitton totally cute bag,” which he noted was “useless to me on a functional level.” He raided her medicine cabinet. And finding $800 in cash in an envelope, he took that too. “Who keeps $800 in an envelope?” he asked. “It’s like pennies from heaven.”
Peter stuffed his fireman’s outfit in his gym bag, and pushed out onto the quiet Chelsea sidewalk. It was still early. He made his way to Super 8 motel in Hell’s Kitchen. He felt alive and full of energy, like he’d just pulled off an incredible coup. Next, he’d kill Anna. That was the plan.
Anna-bashing, by this time, had become a beloved media sport. A “climate” had been created. The novel The Devil Wears Prada had come out in 2003, earning its author, a former assistant to the Vogue editor-in-chief, a reported $250,000 advance — and the movie version was in production. A few years before, an anti-fur activist had dumped a dead raccoon onto the editor’s plate at the Four Seasons. (Wintour is said to have covered it with a napkin and ordered coffee.) And just three weeks before Peter’s Halloween attack, another activist flung a tofu-cream pie into her face outside a Paris fashion show. Of course, Wintour wasn’t a political figure; she was a magazine editor, whose greatest crime seemed to be doing her job well and projecting an imperious attitude.
Peter knew that as well as anyone, just as he knew that Wintour had nothing to do with doling out press tickets to awards shows. But six years later, sitting in prison, he still seemed furious that “she acts like she has aristocratic blood.”
He’d once gone so far as to follow her home from work, watching as the editor browsed Kim’s Video with an assistant and finally rented the Jennifer Aniston movie The Good Girl. He’d studied her building, which wasn’t far from where he’d lived with Debra, and planned the crime in meticulous detail. He’d even chosen an outfit (“an All Saints duster — coal-colored, metallic, trench coat length,” he said), which he planned to shed on his way to the subway. He wanted to use a knife, he told me, because he wanted to show that she bled like the rest of us. In his bag, he carried a note, which he intended to place on the body. It was scrawled on the back of New York Post media reporter Keith Kelly’s column about Peter’s departure from WWD. It said, Sudden Death Is the New Black.
I knew I’d become too detached when I thought, Pretty cheesy. He could do better.
That said, the whole idea of killing Anna Wintour was no less puzzling than Peter’s attack on our coworker. Plenty of stalkers had targeted famous or powerful people: Andrew Cunanan, Mark David Chapman, etc. Their motives varied, but in most cases they were delusional — convinced that they had a relationship of some kind with the celebrity they’d stalked. Peter didn’t seem to be operating under any such pretense. He and Anna had met once, at the VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards. She’d shaken his hand, he recalled, and offered a tight smile, but said nothing. Wintour’s capital offense, in his mind, seemed to be that although most of the other print editors he contacted during his stint as a media reporter were eager to take his calls, she simply never bothered. (This wasn’t actually so surprising; while most magazine editors were eager for any favorable notice in Women’s Wear, which could boost their reputation among the critical fashion advertisers who read the paper every day, Anna had the sector locked up.) For that, he wanted her dead.
“Why? She’s just a person,” I told him on the phone, during one of what became a series of weekly 30-minute conversations that a colleague jokingly began calling “Mondays with Peter.”
“You can’t seriously still want to kill her! It makes no sense.”
“Objectifying her was a prelude,” he said coolly. “Was she not objectifying the rest of us? What is this faux-aristocratic thing? Do you even think she thinks of herself as being part of the same species as me? Someone like that is asking for it. Aaron, people like her produce people like me.”
Then he got academic. “Foucault wrote a lot about this,” he said, as if the proper scholarly citation would furnish a philosophical rationale for the crime. “It’s about mystification and the cult of authority, as related to the assassination of Louis XV.”
As he stepped into his shower at the Super 8 on the morning of November 2, Peter’s mind was racing. The first stage of his plan had gone off exactly as he’d hoped. He marvelled at how the woman’s yuppie neighbors had fallen into line, eagerly following the firefighter’s orders and rushing from the hazy corridors, where he had set off his homemade smoke bombs, out into the street. The success was exhilarating. It was time to escalate, time to actually kill someone. “I just felt this zealousness and energy,” he recalled. “Like, ‘Do this, just do this and get out of New York City.’”
He knew he’d have the element of surprise on his side, that he’d have a little bit of time after the murder. “People go into a kind of cardiac arrest when you do something like that,” he explained. “They don’t know how to react.” Then again, a bloody slaying on a Manhattan street was risky no matter how you played it, even early in the morning. He’d have just seconds to dash for the PATH train. They’d probably put out an APB and be watching the bus stations by the time he hit Newark.
He was in the midst of this internal debate as he stepped out of the motel shower, grabbed a towel and flipped on the TV. The news was on, and it was carrying the first reports of his crime. Anna Wintour, he decided, would be spared for now. Peter had dropped a few hints about his identity to the woman he’d attacked, but before he had been publicly identified, he was gone.
He headed to Newark and caught a bus to Cleveland, where he took a room at a fleabag hotel near the bus station for $100 a week. There was a topless bar nearby where he began hanging out, identifying himself as a scout for a new F/X series about exotic dancers (Mary Stuart Masterson, he said, had already been cast as the “den mother”).
One night, Peter rode the elevator at the hotel with a black guy who asked him if he was “all right” — if he needed anything, drugs-wise. He did.
Peter had gone back to drinking and doing drugs, beginning with a stash of medications he’d found in his victim’s apartment. Even so, buying the crack, smoking the crack — that was mostly just a way of gaining the man’s trust. What Peter really wanted was a gun. He soon found himself being driven into East Cleveland to make the connection. The process took the better part of a day. Finally, he paid $500 for a Beretta. “I got way overcharged, and I didn’t even know,” he said, sounding annoyed.
Hanging around the strip joint, Peter hatched a convoluted plan to rob a dancer. “They’re like walking ATMs,” he said. He even placed a classified ad in the Cleveland Plain Dealer and found an unwitting accomplice to help him follow one of them home, flashing the U.S. Marshall’s badge he’d purchased on eBay at the guy and offering up some story about helping a friend out with a custody battle. “It was ridiculous, man,” he said. But he was having fun. One night, he and his hired cohort began following the woman home from the club, and she spotted them immediately. “She tore the fuck out,” he recalled jovially.
At one point, Peter found himself alone in a desolate field in Cleveland in the middle of the night, bursting out laughing to himself. At WWD, there had been at least five people he’d wanted to kill. Now, he had a loaded gun in his backpack, and he couldn’t find a single person worth murdering. “People were just so damn nice to me it was ridiculous,” he said.
Peter spent about two weeks in Cleveland, blowing through his money “almost gleefully,” he said. He knew when it ran out he’d have to get serious about robbery. “I was deferring it for as long as possible, but I was also looking forward to it,” he told me.
Meanwhile, back in New York, armed guards were stationed around the offices of Fairchild and Conde Nast. Jill had gone into hiding, communicating with friends only via email, and Peter’s victim, the fashion editor, never again returned to her apartment, crashing with various friends. The building’s other terrified residents were offered a class in self defence by an expert in Hapkido. Peter was spotted in the Fairway supermarket on 74th and Broadway. Then in the garment district (cops apprehended a suspect, an Italian tourist, as it turned out). Police questioned his ex-wife, Donna, who was now living in Brooklyn and seemed to have survived HIV — or perhaps, Peter later suspected, never had it at all.
After about two weeks, Peter left Cleveland for Columbus. He didn’t like it. “I found it to be a beat town,” he said. Out of money and eager to move on, he decided to commit his first armed robbery. “It was a weekend, and the downtown was basically uninhabited,” he said. “All the white people go somewhere else. I felt like Charleton Heston in Omega Man.” Peter hailed a cab to take him to a hotel, then brandished his Berretta and demanded money. Immediately, it became clear that this kind of caper was harder to pull off than he’d imagined. Instead of cowering in fear, the driver began to argue with him. “He was this Arab cabbie, and he just started complaining, ‘Oh, no. Why? Why do you have to do this?’” Peter recalled. “Right out of the gate I lost control of the situation. It suddenly seemed like a more casual transaction, like I was stiffing him or something.”
“What are you, crazy?” the cabbie cried. “I don’t have money. I just started my shift!”
Peter was flummoxed. He wasn’t going to kill the guy. What to do? “It was absurd!” he recalled.
Growing increasingly panicked as the situation began to spiral out of control, Peter had an idea. If he could slip a pair of Flexicuffs on the guy, he might have time to make a getaway. But the sight of the cuffs only drove up the tension. “He was outraged, like, ‘What are those!?’” Peter remembered. “They freaked him out more than the gun. It was a completely Keystone Kops–type thing. Everything was going wrong.”
Leaving Peter a bit of cash, the cab driver bolted from the car and ran to a corner store. ‘I can’t believe this whole thing is going to end right now,’ Peter thought. He threw off his coat and ran to a nearby construction area, where he dove out of sight. Eventually, he emerged from his hiding place and caught a 4 A.M. bus to Cincinnati.
Around this time, Peter began keeping a journal, which he sometimes called the Fugitive Diary, and at other times the Crime Diary. Written mostly on hotel stationery, it’s a fascinating document, in part because the tone of it is so calm and reflective, written with the clear-eyed anthropological insight of someone who’s just passing through. It is, as he notes himself, a picaresque — like Huckleberry Finn or Candide — but with the odd twist of being written by a sex-criminal and psycho who was at the time the subject of a massive manhunt.
There’s none of the wild ranting found in the manifesto, no talk of God’s army.
Still, there is a spiritual aspect to the Fugitive Diary. By this time, Peter had begun frequenting churches, which generally offered a free meal and friendly conversation — and even maybe the prospect of forgiveness.
Rolling into Columbus on a Sunday morning, he headed to the largest, most stately church he could find, the Christ Church Anglican, where he arrived in time for the pre-mass welcome hour, a bounty of pastries and hot coffee. The minister approached him with a smile. Peter introduced himself with an alias (a name he’d gotten off of a realty sign) and explained that he was a reporter from LA Weekly, who’d been dispatched across the country to write a 10,000-word think piece called ‘God 2006’ about the state of religion in America.
Did the clergyman wonder about the the writer’s caginess? The redness in his eyes? Hard to say. Fellow said he was from Hollywood, right? The minister enlisted a member of the vestry to give Peter a tour of the building, and off they went, the man chattering away as he showed off the main worship hall, the Sunday school classrooms.
Later Peter wrote about the encounter in his journal: We live in a culture of soliloquies. People talk and talk and talk endlessly, paying lip service to being conversational, when in fact all they want is the occasional call-back from the chorus (you), like, ‘Oh, really?’… At any time, I could have interjected, ‘You know, I’m wanted in several states by now,’ and he would have nodded brusquely and continued, ‘So here we have the gift shoppe.’ Maybe they’re soliloquizing because they, too, feel invisible, but they don’t seem to realize they’re pulling the same thing on the listener.
Invisibility was a big issue for Peter. A case could be made that it was his greatest fear, and that rage at feeling ignored and forgotten had fueled his Halloween plot. But here he felt more relaxed, less angry. What infuriated him back in New York felt more like a source of curiosity in this random Midwestern house of worship.
There was another reason he felt so calm. Peter told me later that his time on the run was “the high point of my whole existence,” comparable perhaps only to his first love affair, as an exchange student in France.
For one thing, he felt more himself as a criminal than he had as a law-abiding citizen. “It gave me this evil-genius feeling, a me-against-the-world narrative,” he said. “It felt like I’d been waiting my entire life to live this out. Cause that had been my attitude all my life and it was finally manifest, like, ‘Yes, it is me against the fucking world.’”
In a blue Hello Kitty backpack, he carried his stun gun and loaded Berretta; there was a vicious-looking T-shaped knife strapped to his ankle. He felt ready for whatever came his way, keyed up, completely alert. He compared the experience to the Steven King book Cujo. When the St. Bernard in the novel got rabies, Peter recalled, “It was having all these bizarre physical effects on him, but he felt that it deepened his cunning. That’s exactly how I felt. I kept thinking to myself, ‘Where did you come up with that idea? That was in me the whole time?’”
It was a state of euphoria, he said. “I just threw myself into this thing. I knew the clock was ticking, so every day was a new adventure because I didn’t know if this was going to be the day….”
After the Eucharist service, he wandered past a Church of Scientology, and thought he might stop by later for an armed robbery and some “mayhem,” as he put it. Maybe that would make him more sympathetic. Interestingly, he still seemed to crave acceptance. “People would realize I did it for moral reasons,” he wrote.
That afternoon, he spotted a FedEx envelope that had been wedged into a side door of an office building — “a magic moment.” Peter slipped inside and bedded down in a empty suite of cubicles, using the bathroom sink to bathe and to wash his clothes. The space looked like it hadn’t been rented since the grunge era. Maybe he’d stay awhile, then find a “hobo” and clue him in to the place, “handing over my FedEx envelope to the next lucky resident.”
He soon moved out of the office suite and found new lodging at the University of Cincinnati, hanging out in the student library, where he found he could come and go without identification, reading up on World War II history, plundering the occasional backpack, and sipping coffee in the student union.
A few dirty looks from campus security, though, were enough to persuade him to ditch U. of Cincinnati for another school, Xavier, a few miles away. On his way there, he had a close call. A police car suddenly approached him, then another, and soon 12 cruisers were screaming down the street from both directions, followed by a SWAT van. A team of “tactical boys” jumped out in full body armor, and Peter went for his Beretta, figuring he might as well go down in a hail of bullets. But they ran right past him and into a charred and abandoned apartment building nearby. A cop approached him. “Move along,” he said.
Marveling at his good luck, he wrote, “I’ve never seen real SWAT guys deployed before. It’s quite a show. Now I’m really looking forward to when they descend on me and we all play out my last moment on Earth together.”
The NYPD was looking forward to the same thing, but they still had a month of chasing down false leads and feeding personal details to news outlets hoping he’d slip up.
After arriving at Xavier and hitting the library, he decided to locate a hiding place where he could wait until everyone went home, at which point he would grab a few hours’ sleep on one of the sofas in the lounge. After wedging himself into a small niche behind a Coke machine in a basement snack area 15 minutes before the 1 a.m. closing time, he wrote, “I wait. And wait. And keep waiting in this mock-frozen state. It feels like a David Blaine stunt, only sadder, sillier and more desperate and petty.”
Eventually, the students cleared out, and then the staff. The only person left was a cleaning woman he gave the name Esmeralda, who turned out to be aggravatingly thorough. While Peter waited, crouching uncomfortably in his “deoxygenated death trap,” yearning for a chance to sleep, she diligently cleaned the stairwell. “I’m losing it,” he wrote. “It’s so tight a squeeze, I’m so tired, I keep hoping she’ll call it a night already…”
Finally, his patience exhausted, he seized an opportunity to slip out and make a dash for the bathroom, which Esmeralda had already cleaned. He locked himself in a stall and sat on the toilet, his legs crossed so they wouldn’t be visible underneath the door. He passed the time by “alternately nodding off” and humming a song to himself: “Esmeralda, why don’t you come to your senses? / You’ve been out cleaning fences / for so long now….”
To make matters worse, the toilet was automatic, flushing every time he moved a muscle, until he managed to disable it by slipping one of his socks over the detector.
Just when he thought he might be safe, the door swung open. Her rounds finished at last, Esmeralda had one finishing touch in mind: dumping her soapy water, a little at a time, into each toilet bowl. She was, as he said, a perfectionist.
In the journal, Peter recounted what happened next from her point of view:
You open the second stall to see a white man in a black skullcap, dark sunglasses and a gun in his hand sitting on the toilet seat in the Lotus position with only one sock on. You freak out. There’s no script for this…but you can’t panic, gotta stay cool, so you mutter, ‘Oh, excuse me, Sir,” as if you’re the intruder. Then you close the stall door and HIGHTAIL IT THE FUCK OUT OF THERE. You jump in the elevator and hit the lobby button hard. You can hear the strange, dangerous, half-barefooted man behind you, he’s left the bathroom and is heading toward you, trying to cut you off, but the elevator doors close in just the nick of time. You’re freaking out…. You get out at the lobby, but he’s already made it up the stairs, he says ‘Come over here’ in a dangerous voice, he’s not exactly yelling but he seems really angry….
It’s a good read, the Fugitive Diary, full of suspense and humor and heart-racing action. You can picture this scene perfectly; it resembles nothing so much as the cheesy Italian cult slasher flicks Peter used to watch. But what’s most notable is how human it is — how intent he is on seeing the encounter through the woman’s eyes and imagining her experience. Not only does he make up a name for her, he makes up a nickname, Ezzy. And as he humanizes her, he also humanizes himself. Back in New York, he’s a fiend, a demon. In the pages of the diary, he’s an everyday guy who finds himself in extraordinary circumstances. It’s one of the reasons his story is so hard to dismiss. Very few psychos have had the skill or the determination to explain their actions in such relatable terms — to make the rest of us understand how they saw things. Peter wrote his diary expecting to die. He wanted us to read it, especially I think those of us in the media. After everything that had happened, he still wanted to make it as a writer.
When Ezzy slipped through my grasp, the first thing I did was yell, “DAMN IT!” at the top of my lungs and then bang my skull-capped head on a bookcase a few times. All I wanted was some FUCKING sleep. And now, I’ve got to do the absolute last thing I want, which is run back downstairs, get my other sock, fetch my gear-bag from behind the neighboring Doritos machine, and GET THE HELL OUT OF THERE.
Why didn’t he kill her? Peter asked himself afterward. “It didn’t feel right,” he reflected in the diary, “and more importantly, it goes against the CODE. I’m not out here, living out my final days…just so that I can murder or disable some Latina cleaning lady who’s probably knocking herself out for minimum wage.”
When one acquaintance suggested to the press that he had “no empathy,” they got it wrong. Peter had empathy, just not quite enough of it.
The next day, he pulled off his first successful robbery, selecting a psychiatrist at random out of the Yellow Pages. It was an interesting choice. He had of course seen numerous mental health professionals throughout his life — psychiatrists, therapists, counselors, and social workers. And of course, he’d spent some time in psychiatric wards. Perhaps he secretly hoped the doctor would help him. Or maybe he just knew that shrinks were easy marks, having outwitted them so many times in the past.
This time he was calm, decisive, powerful. He pulled the gun; got the wallet, the ATM card, the PIN number; slipped on the Flexicuffs; then duct taped the man’s mouth shut, and left, ditching his “robbery clothes” and catching a Greyhound to Nashville. “Not bad for a couple of hours work on no sleep,” he wrote. “Oh how I love my GUN.”
Back in New York, the city remained on edge. Normally cocksure law-enforcement officials seemed markedly irritated by their two-and-a-half-week hunt for the fireman perv. The next morning, they caught a break: The owner of a cafe in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, called the NYPD, swearing Peter had stopped in for coffee; cops arrived within minutes, dusted the counter for prints, and brought in bloodhounds. The dogs, who’d been given Peter’s scent from clothes the police confiscated from his mom’s house, led them to a vacant brownstone nearby while department helicopters thumped overhead. With a bomb squad standing ready, eight Emergency Services Unit officers armed with machine guns stormed the house. They found nothing.
Peter was nearly 900 miles away, on a bus to Nashville. Once there, he checked into a modest lodging, albeit a step up from some of his previous domiciles. He flicked on the TV, and there he was on CNN Headline News. The story said the authorities had offered an award for his capture: $12,000.
That seemed a little low to him, especially considering the “hysterical” reaction to his crime. Seeing the TV spot reminded him of everything he’d come to hate about New York in the first place — most notably, “the colossal sense of entitlement that only New Yorkers have.” The whole city was full of spoiled brats, he thought, who can’t stand not to get what they want. It wasn’t just the crime that had made everyone so crazy, it was the fact that Peter was now refusing to be apprehended.
“How dare I? How dare I defy the timetable for my speedy capture?” he wrote.
He was in good spirits, surprised to feel more healthy than ever before. “My body, the same body that imbibed little more than booze and cigarettes from June ’04 to June ’05, is becoming a machine,” he reported. “It’s typical me that, even on the verge of death, I’m in the best physical shape of my adult life.”
He was also getting a tan. “Another perk of this lifestyle — don’t have to worry about melanoma. Not gonna be around long enough for that to matter.”
It was nearly three months since Hurricane Katrina had made landfall in Louisiana, and as Peter traveled south, he began increasingly to identify with victims of the catastrophe. After all, he too had lost everything and been displaced. On November 22, just before Thanksgiving, he tried on a new identity — Mark Joffrey, “a name I love!” — for whom he’d created an elaborate backstory. Mark had been a caretaker for a well-to-do New Orleanian couple, the Ellisons, who lived in a fine old mansion on Pitt St. in the Carrollton spur. He’d left two days before the storm hit, after failing to persuade the 73-year-old Mrs. Ellison to evacuate. He was on his way back to Louisiana, he told people, to view the wreckage.
As Peter told the story at a Catholic mission, he found himself in tears. “Must have something to do with the part about having no friends or family,” he theorized, “and a future that is, to put it generously, unbelievably precarious.”
He soon found out just how precarious it was, when he stopped by the a public library in Memphis to Google himself and saw he’d been featured on America’s Most Wanted. “Pac would be so proud,” he wrote of Tupac Shakur. “I can’t wait to join him in heaven w/ Biggie (I think he’ll be there) and Aaron Spelling….”
One striking element of the Fugitive Diary is Peter’s attempt to ally himself with poor and middle-class people he met while on the run — another sign of compassion, perhaps, but also an effort to re-frame himself as victim rather than perpetrator. One rainy morning, as he waited for a bus from the homeless shelter to the University of Memphis, a black woman offered him “a huge double-handful” of her Skittles. Noting that “this seems to be a national black eating habit — they’ll consume sweets, whenever, wherever,” he marveled at “people with very little, sharing whatever they have with you.” It made for a sharp contrast, he wrote, with “the selfish indifference of those overcompensated fashionista assholes in NYC…who wouldn’t give me the time of day when I was hurting and reaching out for some help. I didn’t even want anything material from them, just the proverbial shoulder to cry on. Just someone to invite me over for a spaghetti dinner and some conversation. But evidently that was too much to ask….”
When I read this, I couldn’t help wondering what would have happened if he and I had been closer. We were just acquaintances, and he’d never reached out to me. But hell, I would have made spaghetti for the guy. Wouldn’t I?
He went on, declaring that those “hubris-drenched sociopaths” — a nice turn of phrase that a psychologist might call an example of projection — were “crying out for retribution.” The thought of their “callous indifference,” he insisted, “strengthens my resolve to see this thing through until I’m a bleeding corpse splayed out on the sidewalk filled with police-issue lead. Soon…”
The media kept calling it a “cat and mouse game.” It wasn’t. Peter wasn’t taunting law enforcement or sending clues to key news outlets. “The self-obsessed media assumes that I’m as fixated on the media coverage of the case as they are, when in fact I’ve been almost entirely focused on the trivialities of survival,” he insisted.
He praised the wry coverage of websites like Gawker and Jossip, and derided the Times and the tabloids for false sanctimony. “Let’s face it — the case sells papers,” he wrote. “People can’t get enough of it, even while they’re saying that they’ve had enough of it and ‘Why can’t they arrest him already?’ Because, Dude — they don’t know where I am.”
Peter mocked the authorities for what he saw as desperate, long-shot tactics, such as publicizing various personal details, including his love for Chinese beef curry with extra mustard. “I haven’t had Chinese food since I left NYC,” he wrote, pointing out that the idea that such a habit is “hard-wired” seemed ludicrous. Picturing himself at a Chinese takeout joint in Provo, Utah, he laughed off the notion that his “addiction — enslavement, really” to the dish would so overwhelm him that he would involuntarily reveal his identity.
The former media critic also took particular umbrage at the “dimestore determinism” of news reports suggesting that his violent spree was somehow inevitable. “It was predetermined!” he ranted. “I was always going to commit this crime! It was my ineluctable nature! There was never a moment that my destiny could have been otherwise!” Then he wondered rhetorically, “Is hurling insults and making my entire life seem like one giant pathology really helping the situation?”
Lashing out at various quotes from his father suggesting that he might have a chemical imbalance, he raged, “This is what you created, asshole, through your indifference and hostility, which made me so reliant, too reliant, on girlfriends to give me the self-esteem that I always innately lacked.”
So how does someone evade a police manhunt for six weeks? Peter figured there were two ways you could go—high style and low. The former would require “robbing enough people, killing some and not others, and in time assembling a tidy little nest egg,” then getting a new face from “a ‘fallen’ plastic surgeon like Bogey in Dark Passage,” and heading to Mexico.
He preferred the other route, a “subsistence-level deal which basically means that you’re always one step away from living off of tree bark.” It also meant he could avoid using ID. At one point, he went so far as to make a “Katrina Survivor” sign and sit in the middle of the University of Memphis campus. He didn’t get much money, but he found the stigma of homelessness made him more invisible. Rather than looking at him with suspicion, he found, people were guiltily averting their gazes. He relished the irony. Who would expect a wanted fugitive to be aggressively engaging people on the street, asking them for spare change?
“Performance and psychology, psychology and performance,” he wrote, “that’s really the whole enchilada.”
In terms of crime, he decided he had to alter his patterns as much as possible. “The name of the game in this country-wide fugitive crime spree is mutate the m.o.” Smoke bombs, he knew, were out. Those, and the other hallmarks of his original attack would by now be key-worded into the FBI’s database, known as VICAP. “Most petty criminals get caught so easily because their crimes lack any kind of ingenuity — it’s like they approach crime with the same blatant lack of originality that civilians demonstrate in every aspect of their straight lives,” he wrote, “not as an adventure or odyssey or a way to break new ground but as a quick means to a fast buck, just like their noncriminal brethren. It’s a sad state of affairs.”
In Memphis, he seems to have settled into a rhythm: Visiting various churches and religious centers for the free meals and toiletries, hanging around the campus library where he’d read biographies of Caravaggio, “who I guess is kind of a soul mate,” and nick unattended backpacks and articles of clothing, and crashing among the props in a hidden storage area above the mostly abandoned campus theater — Phantom of the Opera-style. It was, he wrote, “an endgame journey that’s part vacation and part that movie with Natalie Portman where she lives in a Wal-Mart,” a reference to 2000’s Where the Heart Is.
As cynical as he could sometimes be, Peter admitted that he reaped more than physical sustenance from his visits to churches: It’s the only place where I still feel human, and it hurts…. During church services, when we’re all playing follow the Mufti and reading from the Book of Common Prayer, I get really emotional, so choked up that I have trouble reciting the verses without starting to cry. My throat jams. All those words about God’s love and forgiveness and the hope of a better life and that all will be right in the end.
It’s pretty touching stuff, but as he goes on, it’s evident that there are aspects of the Gospel that seem not to have fully penetrated.
I thank God for preventing me from killing myself during these dark days, in which case I would have succumbed to the indifferent dictum of a world of assholes ready to relegate me to oblivion and social death. Instead he breathed life into me again, for the last time, and gave me the strength to strike back at the city that was just a little too ready to count me out.
On December 16, just after the University of Memphis campus emptied out for winter break, Peter was walking along a side street when a woman recognized him from America’s Most Wanted, which had featured his story almost weekly. Police had been searching for him there since he sold his blood for $20 a few weeks before, using his actual identification — an oddly sloppy move. Or perhaps he was tired of running.
The woman called campus police, and an officer confronted him. It was 2:45 in the afternoon.
“I’m the person you’re looking for,” he said, reaching for his punch knife and jamming it into his neck. The officer used pepper spray to subdue him.
In Peter’s legal files, I came across a photograph: It’s a color Xerox, 8.5 by 11, so washed out it almost looks bleached. A white sidewalk slashes across the frame. In the foreground, a leaf-strewn lawn. In the background, a campus police car in the road, not parked, exactly, but angled a foot or two from the curb as if it had stopped abruptly.
On the sidewalk, face down, head toward the camera, is Peter. His hands are cuffed behind his back and covered with blood. His face is angled toward the camera, his right cheek flat to the pavement, a pair of Armani sunglasses pushed up onto his forehead. Peter’s eyes are closed. His lips look childlike. There’s a gray ski cap on his head. A sleeping bag and a backpack are at his feet, which look oddly delicate. His blue jacket is open to the pavement, winglike. His blood spills out in fine rivulets, puddling in places.
That was how it ended.
“I think it’s obscene that I’ve lived this long,” Peter told me in Clinton. Dying that day in Memphis would have been so perfect, he said. “It’s amazing how shitty your life can be and you still can’t punch your own ticket.”
He still thinks about suicide all the time, he admitted. “I think there’s something awesome about dying.” During his long spiral downward, Peter visited quite a few psychotherapists and social workers, none of whom seemed to understand what a danger he had become. “At one of the many places I went to, some guy handed me a suicide checklist,” he recalled. “Like, how to know when you’re in trouble. And I had all the categories. It was ‘recent job loss,’ ‘recent loss of home,’ ‘recent loss of an important relationship,’ ‘recent loss of income.’ I had every single check mark. Okay, so I’m basically an imminent suicide…”
Peter’s lengthy prison sentence, 18 years-to-life, was based, to some extent on a legal technicality. The most serious charge against him, kidnapping, only applies in New York State after a victim is held against their will for 12 hours. Peter remained in the woman’s apartment for 13, though he spent much of that time watching TV and eating snacks.
Still, he has no plans to appeal his sentence, he said, nor the slightest desire ever to leave prison. In fact, he may have assured that he would die behind bars when he stood trial in Cincinnati for his armed robbery of a psychiatrist while on the run. Prosecutors negotiated a plea bargain that called for the terms to be served concurrently, but the deal fell apart when Peter gave an interview to the New York Daily News in which he called Cincinnati “a backwater,” described the local authorities as “so Dukes of Hazzard” and insisted that if ever released he would “go on a homicidal rampage.” The judge sentenced him to 23 years, to be served after his time in New York is over.
I asked him why he wanted to spend his life in prison. “Like I really want to hit the streets again when I’m 65? Yeah, that’s a good life,” he said. “In this economy. Fast forward to then, where you got like 27 percent unemployment and people are going to be hunting squirrels for food.”
In the weeks after my meeting with Peter, I was confused. Something didn’t compute about his crime, about how a guy who seemed on so many levels to be a lot like me could attack a woman, knock her out, strip her listless body, tie her up, assault her. If he could do this, maybe anyone could, given the right circumstances, or the wrong ones.
A few days after my visit to Dannemora, I was walking to work in Midtown Manhattan when I noticed a woman moving toward me on West 43rd Street. Older, and kind looking, with neatly curled and frosted hair, she wore tan pants and white Reebok sneakers and a windbreaker. Someone’s grandmother, for sure — most likely a tourist, given the neighborhood.
Then an odd notion popped into my head: I pictured the woman in handcuffs, shoulders pulled back, hands bound. A perp being frog-marched to jail. It was just a little trick of the mind, and the vision actually made me laugh to myself. I focused on her face, but suddenly the same expression that had originally seemed sympathetic and warm morphed into something sinister and guilty. I thought about what she might have done. Insider trading? Medicaid fraud? Knocking off her husband with his own service revolver? Robbing a pharmacist for Oxycontin? It’s an odd game, and surprisingly easy to play. Then I did the same thing to someone else, a young boy of 12 or 13, walking with his parents. A guy in a business suit. A guy running a Halal cart. It’s a little like those optical illusions, where you can force your eyes to see the negative space, Freud’s face or the nude woman, and it got easier with practice — seeing the capacity for misbehavior in each of us, the potential for bad; and noticing the tendency of my own mind to judge, to categorize, to project an image onto a person I’d never met.
I highly recommend it.
The game is really about perception, and on that level it’s a worthwhile exercise, a reminder not to judge a book by its cover.
But unlike the Times Square grandma, Peter really did commit a horrible crime. And I was no closer to knowing why than I had been when I’d started. Not that I hadn’t come across plenty of possible explanations. The cause may well have been something buried in him long ago. Hints of deep insecurity had surfaced before, as had a tendency toward criminality. Maybe it all went back to his father’s cruel taunts or general air of disinterest in his child. Or a rare blood infection that planted an evil seed. Was it perhaps schizophrenia, as his defense team argued? Or borderline personality disorder, as the prosecution suggested? Or narcissistic rage, per the judge? Or a drug-induced psychosis? (“I was diagnosed 18 different ways between ’04 and ‘07,” Peter later wrote to me. “I never felt I was mentally ill — just dangerous when hurt.”)
Could it really be, as Peter seemed to believe, that he was ruined by his dalliance with a siren, a femme fatale — a woman who wasn’t able to provide the psychic cushion he’d always relied on to keep him from tipping over into madness? Or was it a long-standing misogynistic streak, inherited from his father, that blossomed in response to the self-loathing that overcame him as his life fell apart?
I’ve actually known Jill for a long time, considerably longer than I’ve known Peter. Not that it matters, but she’s a great person. He claimed she was emotionally distant, but her letters (the letters I had no business reading) were passionate and loving. Besides, lots of people struggled with issues of trust and intimacy, and many relationships fizzled out out as a result. Big deal.
Eventually I put the question to him directly: Why did you do it? His answer seemed as good as any.
“When you’re hurting that bad and you’re looking to strike back, it’s an empathy crime — a perverse bid for empathy,” he explained. “What you’re saying is, I’m experiencing all this hurt, and you don’t seem interested. So the only way I can make you interested is to make you hurt the way I’m hurting. I mean, that’s what I’m looking for.”
There was more. “I think at any time, with any action, there are probably seven motivations for it,” he said, “and we’re like dimly aware of two. There’s the antisocial thing, the self-loathing, and really the thrill of self-annihilation. And the idea of rupturing the cushy world of overly entitled people. There’s all that there.”
We talked about his clothes, the leather pants and velvet jackets, the hair. I remembered once mentioning Peter to Patrick McCarthy, suggesting we get him writing more for the magazine. “He’s very smart,” Patrick said. “But I don’t know — what’s with the hair?”
It seemed a superficial thing to say at the time. Only later did I find myself musing that maybe appearances really did matter the way people in the fashion world seemed to think they did. Maybe to a well-trained eye like Patrick’s, a bad hairstyle was a sure sign of something else.
Peter later expressed fury at Patrick for holding him back professionally on so shallow a pretext. Still, during another conversation, he admitted that his clothing choices did perhaps betray something about his personality. He was reminded of a line from American Gangster, spoken by the drug kingpin Frank Lucas: “The loudest man in the room is the weakest man in the room.” As Peter saw it, “If you need to call all that attention to yourself, you probably have self-esteem issues, you know? And it’s true, I mean, being thin-skinned, wanting the attention but then having contempt for the attention when you get it, and just, ah, I don’t know…”
It all made perfect sense when Peter analyzed it. And yet it didn’t.
Finally, he reached for another movie reference. “It’s like that line from Dark Knight,” he said. “‘Some men just want to watch the world burn.’ That’s me in a nutshell.”
What does it mean to say you “like” a convicted sex offender? That you enjoy the company of a fiend? To find him “funny” — does that minimize his crimes, or worse, risk excusing them in some way? Does allowing that his articles are smart and well-constructed suggest on some level that he’s perhaps not a bad person?
Peter was an excellent writer, and to judge by his letters to me, he still is. Reading through the files of his work — not only his pieces for Women’s Wear, which have been removed from most search engines but are still available through the New York Public Library, but his historical essays for American Heritage (cover stories on Jane Fonda, and the history of disco), his random web postings, including a satirical interview with Marcel, the monkey from Friends, and his various unpublished stories and notebook jottings — I couldn’t help but admire his intelligence. He wrote poems too, some of which were quite good.
One, written in the early 1990s, was called “It Doesn’t Take Much to Bring Us Down.” It began:
I used to overdo what it takes to bring a man down
I thought in terms of formal conspiracies
But now I see that all it takes is a momentary yawn
an empty space where sentiment should have been
In the poem’s last stanza, however, there emerged a hint of the familiar anger that years later would finally come to light.
It doesn’t take much to bring us down,
but there’s a dark solace
knowing that their lack of all love is killing them too
albeit at a much slower pace.
Paging through his thoughtful pieces of writing like this, it struck me — I still liked Peter, perhaps more so than when we’d worked together. Indeed, it didn’t dawn on me how thoroughly I’d been snowed by him until one afternoon in September, when I sat in the office of his former defense attorneys in downtown Manhattan, digging through the cardboard boxes, nine in all, filled with every scrap of material they’d collected for the case.
In one of the boxes, in an envelope, in a manila folder, in an accordion file, I came across a set of 15 to 20 snapshots and felt myself grow dizzy. The first image showed a woman’s wrist, with a thin red scar running across it at the edge of her hand. The photo was starkly lit, almost garish, with the raw, clinical, forbidden look that Terry Richardson and other fashion photographers so admire, but this wasn’t an aesthetic choice. It was criminal evidence. I could see the hairs and freckles on the woman’s hand, the neatly trimmed nails. There were shots of the outside of a brick apartment building with a green awning. Shots of an unmade bed, a closet, a nightstand, a bathroom mirror with a message written on it. And then, from a close, low angle, a familiar face.
The photos looked as though they’d been taken the morning after the Halloween attack. Her face looked hard, inexpressive. Her brown eyes angled up and away from the flash, as the photographer leaned in close to capture the red welts on her cheeks, her chin and around her lips, where Peter had burned her with the chloroform-soaked rag. Her eyes. Peeled wide open. Staring distantly. Raw looking. Exhausted. Empty.
In court, she’d stated that she had been terrified to let the police in. She’d opened the door for a firefighter, and look what had happened. These pictures were taken minutes after she’d opened her door that second time.
Did I mention I knew her? Not well, just the way you know someone you work alongside in a big office for a few years. Sort of a nodding acquaintance, enough to offer a quiet “Hey” if we shared an elevator, enough to have seen her laughing sometimes in the newsroom as she organized a row of strappy sandals or wedges or stilettos for a shoot or wheeled a rack of clothes between the cubicles. Enough to have a memory of the “before” that now informed and deepened this very stark “after.” Enough to bring the horror and the courage and the terrible weight of the pictures into humbling relief.
What had I been thinking? Of course, I had related to Peter as a fellow writer. That’s the side of him I understood. I had no experience with sex offenders, or violent criminals, or their victims.
My eyes kept going out of focus. This was important. I forced myself to look harder.
Some of Peter’s escapade had seemed almost like a lark, an elaborate prank on a silly culture. But in order to see his Halloween spree as a kind of radical performance art, the way he saw it, you had to overlook so much. I realized then that in our six hours together in the prison conference room, I had never actually asked him the one question that might have lent the whole story a sense of reality: What did you do to her?
Peter had been convicted of kidnapping, burglary, robbery and sexual abuse, but the details of that last charge had not fully emerged in the trial. Though he’d filmed the incident with a videocamera, no tape had ever been found. And since the victim had been unconscious for long stretches of time, and Peter had not testified, the nature of his crime had mostly been implied.
I had to admit, I hadn’t wanted to know. But without that, none of it meant anything.
Eventually I wrote Peter a letter with a number of follow-up questions, including that one. A week later, I found his his reply in my mailbox at work. This is what he says happened:
After subduing the woman at gunpoint, immobilizing her arms with a pair of FlexiCuffs and chloroforming her, he pulled off her Chinese slippers, using a large military blade to remove her T-shirt. He then dragged her to the bedroom, cut off the cuffs and bound her with parachute cord, tying her arms in a Christ-like pose to two pieces of furniture.
He still thought at this point that he might rape her. Either he’d want to or he wouldn’t — he didn’t know. When he pictured the whole crime in advance, there was a parenthesis there in his “mental movie,” as he called it. He could imagine the abduction, imagine tying the woman up. But when he tried to picture how the rest of it might unfold, tried to imagine raping her, his mind went blank. There was no way to predict just how he’d react. Maybe he’d become like a Viking, he thought, mad with violent urges, operating on some long-suppressed animal instinct.
First though, he needed to see her in something “sexier” than bare feet or Chinese slippers. The victim’s apartment was plain — a nice building but sparsely, simply furnished. The closets, though, were brimming with clothes and expensive shoes. Peter was a longtime connoisseur of stiletto heels. He chose a particularly appealing pair and strapped them onto the woman’s feet.
Then he used the knife to cut off her underwear.
He placed a strip of duct tape across her mouth.
Holding the video camera, he crouched between her legs, lifting her ankles onto his shoulders.
He touched her breasts, she testified.
He began stroking her legs with one hand, filming with the other.
At some point, he said, she regained consciousness. She testified that she’d been conscious throughout this phase and that she’d pretended to wake up. As his hand approached her vulva — a man in a balaclava-type ski mask, “the Munich massacre look,” as he put it — the woman began to cry.
No Viking spirit stirred in him. Instead there was something else. Part of it was mercy, but not really, because if that were truly operative he would have said his goodbyes, turned around and walked out the door. He didn’t do that. The woman’s ordeal was just beginning.
Peter peeled off the duct tape, and moved her to the bed, where she would be more comfortable. Feeling too hot for the ski mask, he put on sunglasses and a baseball cap instead. She was smart enough not to study his face, to keep her eyes averted. Peter said his name was Mark. He lay beside her and began to tell her his plans — how he was going to embark on a killing spree, butchering Anna Wintour and other prominent members of the fashion world. She listened and nodded. She was compliant but not obsequious.
At one point, people showed up. Peter’s victim had plans that evening, a party. It was Halloween. She hadn’t been answering her phone, so a friend had gotten worried and decided to stop by.
They could hear the friend knocking, calling out, trying the door. She even had a key, Peter recalled, but only to one of the two locks. This was the moment, he said, when the evening could have turned in a different direction.
Oh good, he thought to himself. I had to pick a party girl. “You’re like Paris Hilton,” he whispered to the woman as she lay on the bed, her mouth covered with duct tape. “Should we let them in?” She shook her head. If they had, or if the key had worked and the door swung open, Peter told me, he would have been so scared and angry he would have used the knife he’d brought with him. It would have been a bloodbath, he said.
“On any given day,” he pointed out, casually, “you’ve got people snuffing each other over nothing. A flash of rage and it’s over, and you’ve got bodies all over the place. So the fact that no one died in this case is just unbelievable to me. It’s just because of one lock, one key that she didn’t have. Those tiny details can make a huge difference in a combustible situation.”
As the judge in his case considered a sentence, Peter wrote a letter. It was deferential and contrite, as such letters often are. He praised the judge for being “fair and circumspect.” He noted, not quite accurately, that he had spent “the first 41 years of my life until 2005 crime free, until my psyche burst apart.” And he brought up two issues that he thought argued for leniency. One was that the mental illness he plainly suffered from had run up against “antiquated” state laws. “The prosecution argued that I had planned out the crime in detail, hence I was sane,” he wrote. “The madness resides in the fact that I had no motive or intent.”
He also made note of the “excessive sensationalist media coverage,” never mind that he had planned his crime with such coverage in mind. “The Daily News alluded to my ‘long history of abuse of women’; in fact, this ‘long history’ lasted only two years (from 2003 to 2005) and was preceded by 15 years of loving, non-abusive relationships with women. I also earned a number of monikers courtesy of the press — ‘Perv,’ ‘Fiend,’ ‘Psycho’…part of an editorial arsenal that seeks to demonize a suspect before he even reaches trial.”
All salient points, it seems to me. Then he apologized:
I would like to express my remorse for committing this crime and heartfelt sympathy for the victim. I deplore the senselessness of this act, without aim or intent — in some ways it was more like an improvised pantomime of a crime, but with real effects. Some observers, as well as those arguing the case in the legal forum, offered up theories as to my motives (‘obsessed with coworker’), but these explanations generally discount the presiding irrationality behind the crime. I myself have several theories as to why I engaged in this behavior. I’m more swayed by the mental illness explanation, but I’m still deeply confused. All I know is how my victim, through her powerful testimony, demonstrated once again the fortitude she’d exhibited during her ordeal with me; and how this in turn inspired a bout of self-contempt as I considered my lack of self-control and the fall from society this had to cost me.
Justice Thomas Farber didn’t buy it, or not entirely, anyway. Peter received 18 years to life, three more than the minimum, but considerably less than the maximum sentence of 25 years to life.
Later, he told reporters that he had no regrets except for his choice to attack an innocent victim rather than the people with whom had real grievances.
Six years later, does he feel any remorse? He answered the question so many times, and so unsatisfactorily, over the years, that I didn’t bother asking it again during our six-hour interview. I knew Peter thought it was a cliche, and deplored cliche above all else, so I let it go.
Later, I included it on a long list of written follow-ups.
There are situations where even the sharpest sense of irony is of little use — occasions, in fact, where it’s a significant drawback. That, it seems, is the sort of spot Peter now finds himself in as he contemplates his actions of six years before and tries to determine how exactly he feels about them.
Are you sorry? I asked.
After noting in a return letter that he’d been “impressed” that I didn’t ask it before, because it’s “sort of perfunctory,” he offered a reply. “The question itself is a trap,” he wrote. “No one gets out alive. If I answer ‘no,’ I’m a cold-blooded monster. If I say ‘yes,’ people think ‘crocodile tears’ and them I’m a liar, monster and a wimp because now I’m flip-flopping. Plus, I approach it as, foremost, a philosophical question, and my long answer tends to be intellectual, a rumination on selective empathy, so this time around I’ll just cut to the chase by summoning the immortal words of chanteuse Edith Piaf: ‘Non, je ne regrette rien.’”
Among the odd things that struck me about that tangled, over-intellectualized non-reply were the unnecessary and distancing use of the word chanteuse, and Peter’s choice (really it’s a tic) to employ a cultural reference — in this case, a hoary half-century-old torch song — as a means of supposedly expressing some kind of emotional truth.
Peter went on to say that if he ever felt any remorse, it would have been during his weeks as a fugitive. He concluded: “When I was cuffed and bleeding out on the ground in Memphis, there was nothing left to hide from myself, no illusions, so I can vouch for my feelings. And what I felt was both relief and pride. I was relieved that my life was finally over. And proud that I’d taken on the world on my own terms, and lost.”
His answer struck me as bullshit. At this point, “Mondays with Peter” had become a regular routine, so during our next conversation I called him on it.
“You’ve written this really convoluted, tortured response to the remorse question, and it seems silly,” I told him. “The question isn’t about how your possible responses might reflect on your public persona. It’s about what you actually feel.”
“You’re right,” he admitted. “There are real feelings there.”
Peter doesn’t get a lot of social interaction, so when we got on the phone once a week, he tended to be loquacious. But here, he stopped and went no further.
“I think you’re afraid that if you actually admit that you feel bad, that you made a horrible mistake, that you don’t really want to kill Anna Wintour or whatever — then all this will be for nothing. You’ll lose what little power you may still hold over everyone, they’ll stop being afraid and forget all about you. And then you’re faced with a lifetime in jail, completely invisible. This all comes off like a pose.” (You don’t want to push a psycho too hard, even at a distance. As I said it, I thought of Salander, out there somewhere, making mischief.)
He stayed pretty calm. “Yes, but I don’t have to pretend anything,” Peter replied. “That’s the beauty part, dude. I don’t have to do that anymore. And at least I’m consistent. I don’t wish I didn’t do the things that I did.”
I wanted to keep at him, to peel off this new Halloween mask, and to get him finally to admit that he’d committed a terrible crime — a series of them, actually — that he’d perhaps irrevocably damaged another person who’d done nothing to him, that he’d thrown away his life out of spite. (The fashion world is snobby? Wow, you don’t say.) I wanted to hear him say that he wanted to be a good person. That he could still change, even if changing meant facing a lifetime of self-reproach.
It wasn’t going to happen. “You’re a guy who still inhabits the world where there’s light and stuff,” he pointed out. “There’s a moral component to your life. Clearly I was not thriving as a good guy. You’re obviously supposed to be a good guy. I’m not.”
There was a pause. “Dude, I went over to the other side,” he said.
I couldn’t really argue with that. And then it occurred to me, maybe the spiritual transformation I was pushing for wasn’t for him at all, but for me. For my ego. Peter wasn’t the only one who harbored fantasies of changing the world and being admired, after all. I wanted his remorse to bring clarity to my story. A muddy, ambiguous ending is less satisfying than a redemptive one. A guy who continues to insist on a heartfelt inclination to slaughter innocent people is a less likable character than one who comes back from the dark side with newfound affection for his fellow man.
I’d love to write about that guy, the one who knows it will take the rest of his sorry life to make things right, or longer, but rolls up his sleeves and gets busy anyway. The guy who volunteers in the prison tutoring program, uses his intellect and passion not to burn the world to the ground but to help the troubled men around him begin to heal. The guy, I suppose, who finally finds the strength to sit down and write for himself the story that I tried to write for him.
A version of this piece originally appeared as a Kindle Single in 2011.
If you enjoyed reading ‘Friend of the Devil,’ please make a donation to Safe Horizon, a national organization that assists victims of crime and abuse with shelter, advocacy, counseling and other services.