NEW YORK – Former fashion writer Peter Braunstein was convicted Wednesday of charges that he sexually abused a woman for almost 13 hours after posing as a firefighter on Halloween to bluff his way into her Manhattan apartment.
The jury needed less than four hours to convict Braunstein in a case that provided a daily window in the bizarre world of a man whose life seemed to grow ever more unstable after he lost his girlfriend and his job in the magazine business.
Braunstein, 43, was convicted of kidnapping, burglary, sex abuse and robbery charges, and was acquitted of an arson charge. After the verdict, he maintained the same blank, lethargic look he had throughout the trial.
Braunstein's lawyers did not dispute that he carried out the attack, but said he was so mentally ill that he was unable to form the intent to be held criminally responsible. He faces 25 years to life in prison.
His dad, Alberto Braunstein, said outside court after the verdict that he hoped his son would not simply be thrown in prison with common criminals and receive no psychiatric treatment. "He is a sick person," Alberto Braunstein said.
"Peter Braunstein is mentally ill, and the fact that he was convicted doesn't change that fact," defense lawyer Robert C. Gottlieb said.
The trial provided an endless amount of strange testimony about Braunstein.
The jury heard of Braunstein's musings about sending the editor of Vogue magazine to a hell guarded by rats and hoping a SWAT team would kill him to put him out of his misery. In one of his many rambling journal entries, he described wandering around Tennessee posing as a Katrina victim to get free meals and a place to crash. The jury also saw scans of Braunstein's brain, which the defense said was "broke" to the point that he couldn't possibly be convicted.
And then there was the attack on Halloween 2005. Braunstein was accused of setting off smoke bombs outside the woman's apartment while dressed as a firefighter and brandishing a BB gun. Once inside, he knocked the victim — a former co-worker — out with chloroform, tied her naked to a bed and molested her.
The trial included graphic testimony from the victim, as she recalled Braunstein stripping her naked, putting stiletto heels on her feet, groping her and videotaping the encounter.
In addition, Braunstein's ex-girlfriend, Jane Larkworthy, tearfully testified about how he tormented her after they broke up — and even posted her nude photos and contact information on the Internet. Braunstein was not on trial for doing anything to Larkworthy, but prosecutors said his relationship with Larkworthy shows his motive and his ability to devise twisted plans for revenge. Prosecutors say the Halloween victim, who barely knew Braunstein, was a surrogate for the people the defendant disliked.
Braunstein became the city's most-wanted man after the attack, and he soon wound up in down-and-out neighborhoods in Tennessee and Ohio. He passed himself off as a hurricane victim while in Memphis, posing as a New Orleans man whose name he found on the Internet.
He expressed his fascination with the extensive media coverage of him as a fugitive, including front-page tabloid stories and his appearance on "America's Most Wanted."
He was arrested Dec. 16, 2005, on the University of Memphis campus. He tried to kill himself by stabbing himself in the neck as a campus policeman approached while pointing a gun at him.
Gottlieb said his client's mental illness crippled his brain and left him unable to form the intent or the conscious objective to commit the crimes charged.
He said Braunstein heard voices and had delusions, which are symptoms of schizophrenia, while prosecution experts said the defendant had a personality disorder and other less severe mental ailments.
Assistant District Attorney Maxine Rosenthal disputed the argument that Braunstein should be acquitted because of his mental troubles. "He meticulously planned and executed this case down to the last detail, and not only the crime but his flight afterward," Rosenthal said.
During that flight, Braunstein wrote a journal entry two weeks after the attack in which he described seeing several NYPD cars and fantasizing that they were after him.
"So I reach for my Beretta because, even though I'm so outgunned, I still have to go thru the motion of firing off a few rounds at the SWAT team so they'll return fire & incinerate me. That is, after all, the plan."