Peter Braunstein, WWD Writer Turned Tabloid Monster, Still Has Issues

In an exclusive excerpt from the ebook <em>Speak of the Devil,</em> Braunstein's former colleague sits down with the 'Fire Fiend.'

The massive Clinton Correctional Facility is located in Dannemora, N.Y., in a breathtaking corner of the state not far from Burlington, Vt. Peter resides in what is called APPU, or the Assessment and Program Preparation Unit, and his neighbors include homicidal maniacs, child molesters, and rapists.

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, us-es and thems, attempts 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.

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 with truly unspeakable offenses 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, he looked like 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.”

At the far end of the table, a clean-cut, exceptionally muscled guard sat politely studying his hands in his lap and occasionally stifling a laugh.

“If I hear one more time, ‘You didn’t even rape her,’” Peter said. Then he leaned back and shook his head. “I mean, talk about ‘Damned if you did, damned if you didn’t.’”

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 Mr. Rifkin’s atrocities were, though, he never thought to impersonate a fireman. In addition to its theatricality, 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 Condé Nast had stationed armed guards around its building.) As The New York Times put it in a report on the trial 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 Mr. 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. 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 whom some considered way out of his league—and then dashed when he eventually lost both.



  1. Anonymous says:


  2. How entirely without courage walks Aaron Gell in penning the story of his former colleague. Journalism 101, 102 and 103 have been trampled on with seemingly utter abandon. There is no justification for reporting on, about or with  a convicted felon that the reporter has a connection with. That is the bottom and only line. There is no “new” journalism, only the old school of integrity and separation of association.

  3. Brysonphoto says:

    If you don’t know the two are connected–does it make any difference that it is a valid work of art? Far better than the endless vomit of TV crime dramas–here is a real look into the mind of a sociopath and human nature at its freakiest. Perhaps more interesting because the criminal is intelligent and has some insight into his own dilemma. That’s what real journalism is about, and that the two were connected might be the only access to the story.

  4. Brysonphoto – Thank you for your considered response. The non-fiction genre, under which journalism falls, must be absolute in its fidelity to the truth. It is black and white writing and anchored by footnotes, accreditation, annotations and the like.

    Peter Braunstein was born with a soundbite burping out of his mouth. He is a sociopath and true to form would readily speak to any reporter, would let anyone gain “access” as you have mentioned.

    I’m not sure why the author of this piece would have a reader believe it to be balanced or ethical once the connection is made between Aaron Gell and Braunstein. The real disconnect is why his editors would allow it, and as such, spur Gell to publish it with XYZ. I won’t name where it is because I’m not looking to knock down another author.

    Chris Roberts


    1. Aaron Gell says:

      Chris, I appreciate your point of view, but I think it’s a little simplistic. To me journalism is about the truth, and truth has many layers and is not arrived at by a single route. My point of view as someone who knew Peter is no less valid or deserving of consideration that that of a reporter who didn’t. Perhaps more to the point, this piece is an excerpt from a much larger story that considers this issue in real depth. I’d urge you to read that and would love to hear what you think of it.

      1. Aaron, I think a fundemental tenet of journalism is to be impartial. That’s not to say you haven’t been, but you have stirred up the question of propriety by conducting an interview with a former co-worker. I know this will sound odd, but I rather believe that you and Braunstein would have worked better in a creative non-fiction genre, in the vein of Capote and killer Smith from “In Cold Blood.”

        That said, I want to be fair and will read your larger work and always one for full disclosure, my work (fiction), is available where Mr. Gell’s volume can be found.