Crime Watch

The Dark Secrets of Central Park

The beautiful bucolic heart of New York is also home to many famous scenes of murder, rape, and crime. Former prosecutor Linda Fairstein writes about how Central Park inspired her new thriller.


I was riveted by the headline in The New York Times: “LIVED A MONTH IN A CAVE—Police Find a Fifteen Year Old Runaway, Hiding in Central Park.” The story went on to describe the July 1 disappearance of the East 71st Street resident, her parents’ frantic monthlong search for their child, and the precinct detectives who finally located the teenager inside the park—alive and well, reclining on a rock deep within a cave overlooking the lake, where she had lived for the four weeks since leaving home. The story was published more than a century ago, on July 31, 1897, but I found it online when I began researching settings for a new novel.

For 30 years, I served as a prosecutor in the office of the New York County District Attorney, in charge of the country’s pioneering special-victims Unit. Runaway teens and homeless youth have always been a sad part of that work, vulnerable as that population is to all sorts of abuse and tragic endings unlike the story of the child in the cave. Now I write crime novels featuring a Manhattan sex-crimes prosecutor as protagonist (the latest of which, Death Angel, is out this week). In each story, I’ve used a landmark New York City location as a backdrop, almost a character in the novel, exploring the dark history of a familiar place in a thoroughly modern tale of suspense.

The story of the girl in the cave is what drew me to the idea of making glorious Central Park, often called the heart of this city, the centerpiece of my new crime caper. The 843 acres (larger than the principality of Monaco) once described as a swampy “waste land” became the first great public park designed (by Olmsted and Vaux) in America, with construction that began in 1857. Now more than 40 million visitors come every year, and this unique oasis is truly New York’s great seductress. There are bikers, runners, babies in strollers, dog walkers, bird watchers, bladers, ice-skaters, and tourists from every country in the world who enter to enjoy the vistas and vitality of the park. But as a prosecutor, I was well aware that it had a dark side, too.

In the 1970s, when I used to jog there before going to work, the park’s decline and its neglect by the city made it a danger zone after dark. I prosecuted a number of cases involving young women who were raped there—some on the south end, others on the bridal path around the reservoir or on the baseball fields to the north. In 1986 I tried the murder case of a young man named Robert Chambers, who killed with his bare hands a vibrant 18-year-old friend of his named Jennifer Levin. She was about to leave for her freshman year of college, but instead he left her body on the lawn behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 1995 I investigated the death of a 44-year-old Brazilian woman, Maria Alves, who was beaten to death by a killer who has never been caught and left face-down in a stream that runs under Huddlestone Arch in the Ravine.

Before I walked the Alves murder site with homicide detectives—convinced that I knew the park well—I had never been to the Ravine. I didn’t know that it had been designed to resemble a woodland aerie, so that New Yorkers would think they had been transported to someplace like the Adirondacks. I hadn’t seen the three waterfalls that ran through it to create the loch near where Alves’ broken body had been found. And I hadn’t a clue that the entire topography of Central Park, which I thought was natural, was entirely man-made, down to the caves in the Ramble, where the teenage runaway had hidden for a month.

I’ve never had quite such a fascinating time researching a book as I did with Death Angel—the name a reference to the iconic statue of the Bethesda angel, the first sculpture commissioned for the park by a woman. The magnificent restoration that began in 1998 as a public-private partnership between the city and the Central Park Conservancy made it a joy to walk the lesser-known areas, some of which had such sinister associations for me until I viewed them again in daylight, with the eye of a novelist.

I had no idea that just about every foot of the park was created by landscapers, down to the number and species of trees, except for the glacial erratic—boulders deposited on the land thousands of years ago. I wandered about the Ramble, one of the most spectacular sites in this city, until I found the rear entrance to the cave that had provided shelter for the 1897 runaway, as well as an entire family during the Depression. I found the spring-fed faucet that once brought water to the mysterious Seneca Village—an African-American community of houses, churches, and cemeteries that was taken by the city and razed to the ground for the building of the park. I learned that it’s impossible to lose yourself in the remote reaches of the park because each lamppost has markings that describe the location, east or west and equivalent to a numbered city street. And I actually sat on a bench in the Ravine, listening to the water cascade over the falls, watching the turtles sunning on the ancient rocks.

All these elements worked their way my fiction. There’s a homeless girl who is lured into a cave, a valuable relic from one of the Seneca Village churches, a clue that takes investigators to the famed Dakota apartments—the first majestic building to tower over the west side of the Park in the 1880s. The story reveals its dark side, as the prosecutor turned crime novelist is wont to do, but it’s also a love song to the spectacular beauty and exciting history of New York’s great heart, Central Park.