"Speak of the Devil" interview

Date Published 01.26.12
True crime followers --- and why are you here if you are not? --- will recall the infamous case, in 2005, of Peter Braunstein aka “the fire fiend,” a talented New York writer whose descent into creepy sex offender on the run was gleefully chronicled by the tabloids.  The story’s theatrical flourishes gave it legs --- on Halloween night Braunstein, dressed as a New York firefighter, used a fake fire ruse to gain access to a former co-worker’s apartment, where he knocked her out with chloroform, tied her up, assaulted her, then hung around for 13 hours before escaping on a weeks-long, cross-country crime spree. 

Recognized by an America’s Most Wanted fan, Braunstein was finally cornered by police in Memphis.  He plunged a knife into his neck during the standoff, but lived.  He’s now serving 41-years-to-life.

Peter Braunstein


That would seem to be that, but then last year Braunstein reached out to a former colleague of his, Aaron Gell, now the executive editor of The New York Observer, and offered to give him “the definitive interview.” Gell’s ebook, Speak of the Devil, available on Amazon, is a fascinating peek inside the mind of a sophisticated criminal offender, a rare up-close and personal impression of the man behind the madman nicknames. 


As a reader one feels about the access to Braunstein a little like Dr. Chilton from Silence of the Lambs, when he says of Hannibal Lecter, “Pure psychopath.  So rare to capture one alive.  From a research point of view, Lecter is our most prized asset.”


I mean that in the best possible way.


I got the opportunity to ask Aaron Gell several questions about the book.  Our Q & A, through email, below:

Q: Some reports characterized Braunstein as possibly suffering from paranoid schizophrenia.  What do you make of that?


One of the witnesses for Braunstein's defense, a professor of psychiatry, said his PET scans showed signs of schizophrenia, citing low frontal-lobe activity. The jury rejected an insanity defense though, for a few reasons. One was that Braunstein's writings, despite certain passages that seemed grandiose or paranoid, were also highly cogent and showed evidence of careful planning. The prosecution also made the point that Braunstein had intentionally faked mental illness—then bragged about it in his "fugitive diary"—in order to rob a psychiatrist while on the run. During my dealings with him, he has always seemed perfectly, even disconcertingly, sane. Then again, he has often been suicidal and depressed, and has been institutionalized several times during his life. And his crime itself seemed like a sign of mental illness. His request for leniency to the judge made the point that he himself had no rationale for choosing the victim he did, and suggested that while carefully planned, the crime demonstrated a diminished capacity for reasoning. It's hard to argue with that.


Q: You write: “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 --- was part of what had set Peter on his crime path to begin with…”


This passage interested me for a couple of reasons.  I wanted to know more about the flare-up at work, how it fit into his eventual disintegration.  I guess I’m up against the chicken-egg thing here --- was his fit of pique a sign something was not right, or did the push-back to his thin-skinned temperament, coupled with several other blows, send an otherwise quirky guy over the edge?


The sentence as you write it suggests he was aware he was acting increasingly erratic, so I guess I’m curious why he’d think he wouldn’t be exiled and marginalized if he was acting that way?  Did he think he was immune from consequence?


Those are really good questions. Interestingly, while looking through the files he gave me access to, I found documentation of a similar blow up he'd had at a job years before. Braunstein told me he felt like his limit for keeping his cool in a work situation was around two years, after which he often felt a need to quit or be fired in some overly dramatic fashion. Interestingly, he wasn't the only reporter at WWD to be reprimanded at that time for pressuring a publicist about tickets to the VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards show. But while the other reporter simply apologized, Braunstein used the reprimand as an excuse to express a number of frustrations that had been building up. I think at that point, he felt he was bigger than the job, and that his ability to manipulate the press (planting a story about his firing in Page Six, for instance) would enable him to find other opportunities, produce a successful play and so on.   


Q: In your opinion, which of the stressors --- work fall-out, break-up, play failure --- do you think was the match that ignited his criminal behavior?


A match might not be the best metaphor. One of the things that struck me was that it really took a combination of factors to make this happen, and barring any one of them, Braunstein might have never snapped. But the break-up of his relationship was clearly the most crucial factor. After that he began menacing and harassing his ex. And once he was charged for that (after 18 months), the idea that he'd been been fully cast out of society began to take hold. Then, after the play failed and he was living along at his mother's house, having alienated his friends, this criminal plot began to take shape. And drugs also played a big role in this. But if all the factors hadn't lined up the way they did, he would not have committed this crime. 



Q: I was fascinated with Braunstein’s description of the mundane drudgery involved in carrying out a stalking campaign.  Putting aside the black comedy potential in that, do you think the fireman assault was, in a twisted way, his version of skydiving or racecar driving, a jolt of adrenaline to an existence that had become too flat? 


He has a number of rationales for what he did, and certainly that's one of them. At times our conversations were reminiscent of scenes in Fight Club—with him suggesting that he'd dome something rebellious and even heroic by transgressing social norms. I think that notion becomes easier to consider when applied to his time on the run. That was a much easier thing to romanticize, and he described himself during those weeks as feeling more alive than he ever had. The Halloween assault itself was just really horrific and sad.



Q: You allude to the fact that Braunstein is still muttering darkly about his enemies.  If you feel comfortable reflecting on it, how optimistic are you about his rehabilitation?


It's hard to say. At this point, he says he has no interest in being rehabilitated, and I take him at his word. 

The Feed

RT @emilynussbaum: The artful @hodgman's straightforward case for Hillary: https://t.co/ijA8xHJ8Tm
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Know what he does believe in? PAC $. Took 10K from HRC pac 2006. That means he's in her pocket.#BSLogic
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Good one. Unfortunately Bernie on record as not believing in charity.
@johnlevenstein Thanks for asking, btw. That's the kind of elevated discourse missing lately. A lot of mud slinging. #I'mNotAboveItEither
@johnlevenstein Can't convey it all thru Twitter but yes, she has flaws. Too poll-driven, burned needed bridges, trouble owning mistakes.