By Aaron Gell
[Ed. note: This article was originally published on December 13, 2011.]
One day in October 2010, Peter Braunstein’s monthly subscription copy of W magazine arrived right on time. 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 Ms. Williams, staring out at the viewer as if surprised by the camera; Mr. Gosling cradling her head with the tenderness of a ballet dancer.
Mr. Braunstein—or Peter, as I know him from our time working together at Fairchild Publications, when he was a media columnist for Women’s Wear Daily and I was an editor at W a decade ago—is serving 41-years-to-life for a horrible crime: On Halloween night, 2005, he dressed as a fireman and attacked a woman he barely knew, a mutual coworker, knocking her out with chloroform, stripping off her clothes, tying her up with parachue cord, fondling her, and then hanging around her apartment for 13 harrowing hours while fantasizing that they were a couple.
Peter is permitted to receive magazines in prison, and he subscribes to several, includingNew 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 SweeTarts.”
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. In July 2002, he wrote an amusing column critiquing magazine editors’ letters, and his assessments seem to have hit home. The editor of Glamour, after being taken to task for expecting readers 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.”
After spending much of his professional life as an outsider, it was a heady feeling. The editors “took it really seriously,” he explained in 2006, during a videotaped evaluation with a psychologist hired by the Manhattan DA. “If I wrote something negative it really hurt their feelings and their egos. And if I wrote something positive, they were just thrilled.”
His career up until that point—contributing the occasional freelance piece to the Voice and working as an archivist —was “almost like being invisible,” he continued. His experience atWWD, 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, whom he later plotted to murder outside her home, had received an “A” on her editor’s letter (“a truffle”) but had made no effort to suck up to Peter. When he called her office for a comment on the grade for a follow-up item, she 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 [heart] the new W.”
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, 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 his girlfriend Jane, W’s beauty editor, including nude photos that indeed ended up on the internet. Peter claimed that his goal had never been to harass her at all 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.”
Mr. Tonchi and his colleagues didn’t agree. They forwarded the letter to the authorities, who decided it was violation and placed Mr. Braunstein in solitary confinement, or “keep-lock,” for six months.
The misbehavior report indicates the letter was seen as a thinly veiled attempt to communicate with Jane, 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 himself 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.”
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 Peter on the outside. “She’s like my Nikita,” he said. She was the one who posted the W letter—a second copy, actually, in case the original didn’t get through. She later sent me an email, using the alias Gerald Lewis (the name of a serial killer) to ask for my address so Peter could contact me.
Peter and Salander’s 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.”
Soon, the letters became erotic—handwritten phone sex. “There was a lot of ‘I’m doing this to you,’” Peter recalled, noting that 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.”
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—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.”
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 the Desiderata, a famous spiritual poem on the back.
Not long ago, Peter even bought his young friend a little gift with some of the money he got for taping an episode of I (Almost) Got Away With It: a Burberry biker jacket he spotted inW.
“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.”
In the days before Women’s Wear Daily and W, the fashion trade paper’s glossy sister title,were purchased by Condé Nast, Peter and I worked just a few steps apart in the massive third-floor newsroom on East 34th Street. His work stood out, so I suggested he write for the magazine and wound up editing several of his stories, including the piece on Guy Bourdin, the 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. The guy seemed okay.
In January 2011, the first letter from Peter turned up in my mailbox at The New York Observer. “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 and 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 America’s Most Wanted, drew a T-shape 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 LA).”
It was a long letter, seven pages penned in a tight hand, amusing and genial, without a single cross-out. Peter has a keen sense of irony and a disarming if mordant wit, qualities that were highly evident during his stint as journalist. They are also qualities that made what followed all the more bewildering. A talented, well-connected writer with a graduate degree in history and a bright future, Peter didn’t fit the profile.
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. While the crime had been avidly covered, Peter had never told his story in real depth, particularly his time on the run. Moreover, none of the many journalists writing about the case had access to Peter’s voluminous writings, including his criminal manifesto, his “Fugitive Diary,” or the Off-Off Broadway play Andy & Edie, the failure of which contributed to his mental break. I was, I’ll admit, curious to see this stuff.
Still, I had misgivings. Perhaps the most potent was the fear that I’d somehow be betraying my former colleagues—two of his victims—by even hearing his story. There was also a moral dimension. When you make the decision to eagerly harm an innocent person, there are consequences besides life in prison. It means the rest of us 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 the more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that this way of looking at it was flawed. Feeling that he’d been exiled and marginalized for his increasingly erratic behavior—most notably, 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 on his criminal path to begin with. Now that he was safely locked away, was there really anything to be gained from shutting him out further? Peter wasn’t just any psycho—he was a psycho I once knew. My psycho.
So on a gorgeous day in late August, I went.
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.
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.
Peter’s lengthy prison sentence, 41 years to life, was based to some extent on a legal technicality. The most serious charge against him, kidnapping, applies in New York State only after a victim is held forcibly for 12 hours. Peter remained in the woman’s apartment for 13, though he spent a good deal of that time watching TV and eating snacks.
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 would have meant the terms would have been served concurrently, but the deal fell apart when Peter gave an interview to the New York Daily News in which he 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.”