Before Oct. 31, 2005, Aaron Gell thought only of Peter Braunstein as a former colleague—he was a writer at Women’s Wear Daily when Gell was an editor at W. Afterward, he and the rest of the world came to know Braunstein as "the Fire Fiend" or "Pervy Pete." A decade ago, Braunstein set off smoke bombs in a New York City apartment and, dressed as a firefighter, convinced a woman (a former co-worker) to let him inside her home where he used chloroform on her, tied her up, and sexually abused her. He left 13 hours later, hit the road, and ultimately tried to kill himself when cornered in Memphis after a six-week manhunt; he failed. After Braunstein reached out to Gell from prison, Gell set out to explore what set off his acquaintance, partly because, "as naive and foolish and perhaps immodest as it sounds, I wanted to help redeem him," Gell writes. The resulting story in Medium describes a man with a twisted history, a fear of feeling ignored, and an apparent lack of remorse.
Braunstein had a difficult relationship with his father and says he only felt truly loved among affectionate hospital staff while battling an unexplained blood disorder at 13. "I think on some level I made that connection: proximity to death equals happiness. And I had a death wish my whole life," he said. By 2003, he was harassing an ex-girlfriend he'd threatened with a knife. "The alternative was ... blowing her head off," he said. After a play he'd written received poor reviews, a plan began to form. When Gell asked Braustein if he regrets his crimes now, he wasn't satisfied with the "tangled" answer that equaled a "no." But "Peter wasn't the only one who harbored fantasies of changing the world and being admired, after all," writes Gell. "I wanted his remorse to bring clarity to my story. A muddy, ambiguous ending is less satisfying than a redemptive one." Click for the full piece, in which Braunstein gives an answer Gell "hadn't wanted to know," to the question, "What did you do to her?"