'Death Angel' Author Linda Fairstein on Central Park Sex Crimes
Bestselling thriller author Linda Fairstein knows more about sex crimes and New York's underground history than most: She was the head of the Sex Crimes Unit of the Manhattan District Attorney's office for 30 years, and in her 15 novels starring DA Alex Cooper (whom Fairstein calls the "younger, thinner, blonder" version of herself), she's unearthed the forgotten stories behind Governor's Island, the New York Water Tunnel and more. Her latest thriller, "Death Angel," is set in what Fairstein calls "the heart of Manhattan and really the centerpiece of the city": Central Park. Fairstein is intimately familiar with the park's shocking criminal record, having "prosecuted more than 40 cases in the park," including the infamous "Preppie Murder" case. She told Bookish about her discoveries within New York's most hallowed landmark, offered her take on the media's role in sensational court cases and disclosed her current obsession: the endemic sexual assault in the military and on our nation's most prestigious college campuses.
Bookish: As a prosecutor and the longtime head of the Sex Crimes Unit of the Manhattan District Attorney's office, you focused on crimes of violence against women and children. What drew you to crimes of sexual assault?
Linda Fairstein: The unit in the Manhattan DA's office was the first of its kind in the country. There were no special victims units before the mid-1970s. I joined the DA's office in 1972, and this unit was established in 1974. As in most law enforcement jobs, there were only seven women on the staff of 200 prosecutors in New York, and the district attorney thought it was important for a woman to lead this groundbreaking new unit, so I was asked to work on these cases (because they figured that victims might respond well to talking to a woman, in those days). I never envisioned that it would become a career that would keep me there for 30 years, but I found the work so challenging--and, ultimately, rewarding--that I loved to do it.
Bookish: Was there a particular moment when it clicked for you: You knew that this would be your career?
LF: It was a point in time when everything was beginning to change for the better and there was a lot of legislative reform, which I participated in. We were able to move victims into the courtroom. They'd never been before--victims of sexual assault--because of archaic laws. So, 1976 was a year for me--with changes in laws and the beginning of changes in attitudes--that really captured me, both emotionally and intellectually.
Bookish: "Death Angel" is your 15th novel featuring prosecutor Alex Cooper. Have you modeled her after yourself? What can fictional prosecutors do that real ones cannot?
LF: She is modeled on me in the sense that she really has all of my professional experience and my passion for the work that she does. She--I'm smiling as I say this--she is younger, thinner and blonder than I am, and she has a trust fund. So, the liberties I've taken in creating her are really on the personal side. I had fun with those traits, and I gave her a trust fund so she could do things that I couldn't do as a prosecutor at her age. I'd never been out of the country--I didn't have the means to. I take fictional liberties with her personal side, and the professional side really mirrors my work.
We have a very unique system in the Manhattan DA's office where prosecutors partner with police early on in a case, so it's not unusual for a prosecutor in New York to go to a crime scene, to go to the morgue, to be questioning a suspect in a police station in the middle of the night. But, I would say I take the freedom of putting Alex out there on the street with Mike Chapman more often than she would be in real life. She's a little more of a sleuth. It's a little more the Nancy Drew in me that I invest her with.
Bookish: "Death Angel" explores the history of New York City's Central Park. What most surprised you about the park in your research and why did you choose it as the setting for the novel?
LF: In each of my novels, I have taken some aspect of New York City history to explore, and that's just because I love crime fiction but I don't enjoy books that are just chases and attacks and shootouts and action. I love to learn something in a book. So my way of doing that was taking New York Public Library and exploring under the surface, Governors Island, the New York Water Tunnel. So, the park was long in my sights as a place to go because I consider it the heart of Manhattan and, really, the centerpiece of the city. Two things drew me in, in particular: One was a dig three years ago in Central Park by Columbia archaeologists who were digging to find the foundation of Seneca Village. I had never known such a thing existed, and I was absolutely fascinated to learn that there had been an actual community of homes--not tents, not a shantytown, but homes--of a middle-class African American community, with churches and schools, that had been razed and destroyed to build the park. What's underground always interests me--what we build over in cities, which we do all the time.
The other part was that I had really no idea that the topography of the park was entirely man-made. The Ramble, in particular, and the Ravine--there were caves in them that had been created, and then trouble happened in the caves so they were bulldozed over. In my research, I found a New York Times headline story about a young runaway who was found in a cave in Central Park. She'd been missing for months and was found alive and well in a cave. It read like one of my own cases--if it were a missing girl today or a homeless girl today, but the dateline was 1897. I didn't realize that there were actual caves, and she had lived inside this cave that extended 15 feet in. So, I set about trying to find the caves, and my research revealed that every time something bad happened in a cave, the city founders would decide to boulder them up and then, 20 years later, somebody would say, "Well it was designed to have caves, so let's move the boulders away." And then odd things would happen in caves [again]. During the Depression, there were actually people who lived in the caves. So, the real history and, in this case, some of the geography of the park was just fascinating to me.
Bookish: To what extent was what's become known as the "Central Park Jogger" case on your mind as you explored Central Park for "Death Angel"?
LF: Not at all, because I prosecuted more than 40 cases in the park, and that was not one of mine, the Central Park Jogger. The "Preppie Murder" case, Robert Chambers, was one of mine. The Brazilian woman whose murder has never been solved, in the Ravine, was mine.
Bookish: You've been a frequent media consultant about sex crimes, so now you've been on both sides of the media, so to speak. What does the media get wrong about sex crimes and what does it get right?
LF: When I started to do this work in the 1970s, I had no better knowledge of it: It was such a new field. And so, those of us within the system struggled for different reasons than the media. I would say the media coverage that I lived through in the 1970s and most of the 1980s reflected societal attitudes: It was pretty tabloid. Mainstream media, like The New York Times, rarely covered sexual assault--certainly not as an issue in the "A" news section. There would sometimes be, in the old "B" metro section, a story of a crime, but it was not until the Robert Chambers case in 1986 there were some "A1" stories about teenagers and sex and underage drinking, a lot of the societal mores. But, I think that the media coverage of these issues became much more informed and responsible in the 1990s, and what you see today is generally a much better approach to and an understanding of these issues in the mainstream media. We still fight the battle over the way a tabloid will cover [a case], how they write their headlines, how they describe victims, which is usually irrelevant. It can be made to sound like such a tawdry subject when it's not treated appropriately. But, I think that's a lesson that real journalists got 20 years ago.
Bookish: It seems like a really tricky thing--the media bringing a case to life can be very helpful, but then if it skirts over the edge into tabloid attention, it can be negative.
LF: Absolutely. You can take the same case, as I often do, and read [about it in] the Times, the Washington Post, the L.A. Times--and then read [about it in] the tabloids--and sometimes it's hard to know you're reading about the same issues.
Bookish: Which crimes that are currently in the news are on your mind?
LF: The issue that's most on my mind now is twofold--they're both ongoing and getting a lot of attention and not much solution: the enormous incidence of sexual assault in the military that has been endemic for so long (and that many of the leaders seem resistant to change) and, also, the incidence of sexual assault on college campuses (again, not a new problem). Recently, there was a big L.A. Times story that I sat to be interviewed for about a series of events at USC. I'm a senior advisor of a business called K2 Intelligence, and I do advisory work on college campuses about best practices for handling sexual assault cases. Within the last year, there've been major events, upheavals, at great schools--Amherst, University of North Carolina, Occidental on the West Coast, Swarthmore--with schools struggling with how to handle these allegations in a college setting, whether or not law enforcement's involved.
Bookish: Having studied cases of both military and on-campus sexual assault, can you draw any similarities between the two? Could one set of cases inform the other?
LF: Yes, actually. I think the fact that both are in institutional settings has a lot to do with them and that, while there are differences, certainly, some of the military problem starts at the level of the military academies. I mean, these [sexual assaults] go on at West Point and Annapolis and the Air Force Academy, and many of the same people trained in those cultures of course go on to be leaders and become the people who make decisions in sexual assault complaints whether it's in the field, in a war zone or on a submarine. So, the bigger fact that they're institutional concerns, generally both institutions--academic and military--[means they] have the same end goal of keeping these issues internalized and dealing with them without going to law enforcement and without letting the public become aware of what's happening. I think that's a danger in both institutions that really needs to be addressed and changed.
Bookish: What is it about a case or a crime that makes it a possible inspiration for one of your novels?
LF: Usually, in 14 of the 15 novels, the crime is completely fictional--I make up a story. But, what I draw from are motives. I might draw character traits from a bad guy whom I've actually encountered. I've never done any of my high-profile cases in any of the books. The exception to the rule of a high-profile case, not mine, was that in my last book, "Night Watch," I couldn't resist doing a version of DSK [Dominique Strauss-Kahn], and that was probably because, had I still been in the Manhattan DA's office, that case would have been my jurisdiction and everywhere I went, somebody would say, "What happened in that hotel room?" and, "Did they handle it right?" So I kept doing the "what ifs" in my head. I made the perp African and the victim Latin American. I changed the power dynamic and the race, but made him a powerful, wealthy leader, and played with the "what if" with a pretty different outcome. That's as close as I've come to using something real. I was trying to show the reader what the difficulties are for the prosecutor when the witness you're working with, you fully believe and you're trying to get justice for--and if she fails to cooperate and her story changes, and she is deceptive about many facts--if not the central fact itself--how do you believe her?
Last summer, there was a birdwatcher in her 70s who was attacked in the Ramble. She had reported to the police a guy who was masturbating in the Ramble and she turned him in, and he waited for her the next day and sexually assaulted her. So, I did draw a bit of that to create this bird-watching character. I don't have her sexually assaulted, but it's one of those things--in my 30 years as a prosecutor, I would always say I thought I had seen everything and then something would happen, like the guy in Cleveland who lived for 10 years with three girls in his house. I said, "Whoa, it's beyond my wildest imagining." So, when the birdwatcher was attacked last year--and fought the guy off and was in her 70s--I had in the back of my mind that I would use a piece of that somewhere.
Linda Fairstein is America’s foremost legal expert on crimes of sexual assault and domestic violence. She led the Sex Crimes Unit of the District Attorney’s Office in Manhattan for 26 years. Her 14 previous Alexandra Cooper novels have been critically acclaimed international bestsellers, translated into more than a dozen languages. She lives in Manhattan and on Martha’s Vineyard.