New York City in 1984 was a far cry from what it is today. People were carefree, crime was through the roof and nightlife had a magical edge about it, especially for someone like Connie Crispell. The big city was much to take in, but she seemed to want it all.
The 32-year-old from Virginia was a staple in clubs like Studio 54, living the high life in the heart of Midtown Manhattan, just steps away from Central Park. At the same time, the AIDS epidemic was ravaging the city Crispell had come to love.
In 1984, as many excitedly readied and gathered to celebrate the Kentucky Derby, Crispell’s life was cut short, claimed, in a way, by that ignored epidemic. But not for the reasons one may suspect.
Small Town Girl in the Big City
The daughter of the Medical Deal of the University of Virginia, Constance Louise Crispell grew up in an affluent family in Charlottesville. She and her family ran in high-ranking circles, dining with the likes of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip when they toured the state in the mid-1970s.
But her life also saw low lows. When she was a teenager, Crispell’s 12-year-old brother was killed in a car accident. She would work to cope with the loss for the rest of her life, according to a New York magazine story from 1984.
She attended University of Georgia and after graduating, moved to New York City. Arriving in the late 1970s, Crispell lived in various parts of Midtown, taking on secretary and assistant jobs for big firms like Ogalvy and Mather and fashion designer Carolina Herrera.
She made a variety of friends, many of whom had deep pockets. She dined at the exclusive Widows on the World on top of the World Trade Center, had drinks at The Plaza Hotel’s famed Oak Bar and had shopping sprees at Bloomingdales. And through her elite circle of friends, Crispell had no trouble getting into the hottest place in town -- Studio 54.
“Studio 54 opened in the late '70s and it was an extraordinary place,” New York chronicler and columnist for NewNowNext.com Michael Musto told Inside Edition Digital.
Studio 54 was a former television studio and theater that was converted into a nightclub that created scenes that show business wouldn’t think to produce. A journalist at the time, Musto was privy to what he called “this incredible world of celebrities and beautiful people.”
“The décor was glittery and went up and down and at the height of the evening, this sort of cardboard quarter moon came down-- it was like a set piece-- and it had a cocaine spoon attached and everybody would cheer this cocaine spoon,” Musto said.
From the LGBTQIA+ community to the brokers of Wall Street, everyone would bump elbows at Studio 54. It wasn’t unheard of to see Mick Jagger, Liza Minelli, Cher, Grace Jones, Michael Jackson, Elton John and Stevie Wonder partying with the best of them.
“I hated when the DJ would play ‘The Last Dance’ by Donna Summer at 4:30 in the morning. It meant that was the last song. You had to crawl back to reality,” Musto recalled. “But for the time that you were there, it was incredible because you felt so lucky to have been chosen.”
But to make it inside, partygoers had to pass muster with owner Steve Rubell. The place was so cut throat to get in that even Chic’s Nile Rodgers had difficulty getting in.
“We knock on the door, the guy opens the door and he says ‘Hello,’ and we say, ‘Hello, we are personal friends of [singer and artist] Ms. Grace Jones,’ and the guy slams the door in our faces and says, ‘Ah, F off,” he told Inside Edition Digital. “We're banging on the door, we're dressed to the nines, we are chicer than Chic… Finally, the guy opens the door again. He said, ‘Didn't I tell you to F off?’ And we realized that we weren't going to get in.”
But Crispell was a regular at the club. Yet, for small town girl Connie Crispell, who never drank, danced, or did drugs, once she got a taste of what Studio 54 could give her in her new life in New York City, everything changed and she became a regular.
While a regular on the nightlife scene and hitting up places like 54, Crispell had to keep up with her high society lifestyle and while she was working, her income was not as high as her output.
By 1980, Studio 54 closed their doors after just three years. The owners were busted for tax evasion and were forced to sell the club. In 1981, the club reopened with new owners and Crispell was right there for it.
However, there was something more sinister lurking in the shadows of New York nightlife by this point.
Alone In Dire Situation
As Crispell and others like her partied, a massive risk was arising in the city.
By the late 1970s and early 1980s, AIDS had spread across New York City and San Francisco, and was creeping up across cities and communities around the country and the world.
“During the very early days of the HIV epidemic, it was really an invisible killer because people didn't know what was happening,” Dr. Demetre Daskalakis told Inside Edition Digital.
To date, 75 million people have been infected with the HIV virus and about 32 million people have died of HIV, according to the World Health Organization. But Daskalakis, who serves as deputy commissioner for the Division of Disease Control of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said very little was known about the virus at the time.
“So there were strange cancers and other opportunistic infections and diseases that were being identified,” he said. “No one knew how they would link, except in epidemiology they were happening in certain populations.”
“AIDS wasn't even called AIDS until 1984,” Musto said. “At first it was known as all sorts of things like GRID or ‘the gay cancer.’ But immediately, myself and the rest of the gay community, I pretty much just stopped having sex. It was so terrifying when you eventually realized you could get this from one encounter. And it was a certified death sentence. I mean, basically, if you got AIDS, you died a grisly death.”
It took years for the Reagan administration to acknowledge the disease’s effect on the country had swelled to epidemic proportions.
Lack of knowledge and an already entrenched stigma surrounding the illness even after more was learned led many to make assumptions. Many believed only gay people could contract the disease.
“In the nightlife scene, if somebody was known to be promiscuous, you kind of didn't want to be that intimate with them. That was only natural. Not to demonize them, but everyone knew that the AIDS virus was transmittable through sex,” Musto recalled.
As Crispell tried to afford the lifestyle she created for herself, she took on a side job as an escort.
By the spring of 1984, she had fallen ill, telling some of her friends she thought she had AIDS, according to New York Magazine. She was also struggling with her mental health and had a short stay at Bellevue Hospital after she threatened to jump out of her apartment window.
Crispell continued to immerse herself in New York’s nightlife, going out and befriending a variety of people, including a 20-year-old ex-convict named Charles Ransom, a handsome Times Square theater security guard who was also known in the club scene.
In May 1984, Crispell hosted a Kentucky Derby party at her Midtown apartment.
Ransom attended and would later tell police that he and Crispell became intimate. Ransom said Crispell told him she might have AIDS and in response, he strangled and suffocated her. He put her body in a clothing trunk and placed it on her balcony, and then, he continued partying in her apartment. He stayed there for a week.
Crispell’s neighbors called police after they saw strangers going in and out of her apartment in the days that followed. Authorities who responded to her home discovered Crispell in the trunk on her balcony. Ransom was arrested at a disco nearly one week after the killing.
The events that took place and the words exchanged between Crispell and Ransom before she was killed will never be known. But what is clear is Ransom’s belief at the time that claiming the possibility that Crispell may have had either HIV or AIDS was enough of an excuse to use in effort to escape murder charges.
“The thing to remember is that, violent acts against people living with HIV were at some point, by law, condoned, and that you were able to say that, because this person was potentially transmitting HIV to me, it was actually a way to plea something about an act of violence. So really, the stigma went deep and the stigma went into law and regulation,” Daskalakis said. “I think that undue fear related to HIV status really continues, even in a universe where we know that individuals who are treated and whose viral load is undetectable can't transmit.”
Too Much Too Soon
Crispell’s death became a footnote of the chapter of New York City plagued by HIV/AIDS, a crack epidemic, high crime and high opulence.
Many of the journalists of the era who covered the case for local and national press outlets told Inside Edition Digital they didn’t recall Crispell’s murder. A former NYPD spokeswoman who spoke on the case at the time also did not remember the story.
Yet the tragedy of Connie Crispell isn’t just what happened to her but how it happened.
"The glamor and quickness of New York overcame her, like a cancer,” a former office colleague told The Washington Post after her passing.
The fear of AIDS that may have led to Crispell’s death paralleled the fear the country had of the illness. With time and thanks to activists like Larry Kramer and ACT UP, attitudes towards HIV/AIDS began to change. But a stigma connected to the condition does persist.
“At the Department of Health, we've been working so hard to help people shake the stigma of HIV and realize that stigma that's over 40 years old is very hard to shake off,” Daskalakis said. “I think that there's really clear there's still an association between being gay or bisexual or transgender and HIV, even though we know that this epidemic includes a lot of other folks.”
The 1990s ushered in a new era of New York nightlife as places like Tunnel, Palladium, Club USA, Webster Hall and Limelight began to replace and oftentimes replicate what Studio 54 had. Now a theater owned and operated by the Roundabout Theater Company, it still has the same glass doors and lobby decor as it did back in its heyday.
In 1985, a Manhattan jury convicted Ransom of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to 25 to life. After spending 33 years in prison, he was released in 2017. About three months later, he died of a heart attack.
It was not clear if Crispell was ever found to be HIV-positive or had AIDS. She was buried back home in Virginia. In 1984, New York magazine categorized Crispell’s killing as “the loss of the girl who always wanted one more moment of fun.”