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.