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.'

Peter’s got it pretty good in prison, the way he sees it. He has his own cell, approximately six feet by eight 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 eight-inch 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.

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-color spots on his right thumb and forefinger.

Despite his attempts to lay low, Peter has gotten into a few scrapes during his time inside. One dispute was with 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 Mr. Rifkin, Mr. 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 Mr. Phillips’s 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! You do not steal someone’s pen pal, especially if it’s a girl.”

 

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.

Peter’s a smart guy, I thought. So I put the question to him directly: Why do you think you did 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.”

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.”

As entertaining as Peter can be 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 2005. He’d been arrested for harassing Jane and was put on probation. “I already felt like a criminal,” he recalled. “So I just thought, why not go full-tilt boogie with it?” 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 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.”

One day it just came to him, the fireman idea. 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 the psychologist in his taped deposition 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. Though the undertaking was superficially fueled by rage at Jane, 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—a worse hell even than the one he’d come to know.

So he picked another victim instead, one he’d spoken to just once before his attack. Now he’s facing a different sort of hell. “I think it’s obscene that I’ve lived this long,” Peter told me at 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.

Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    Nice.

  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.