Who Killed Chandra Levy?
Chapter Nine: Media Frenzy
Monday, July 21, 2008; 12:58 PM
The Chandra Levy case spun out of control in mid-July 2001 with a series of sensational stories.
On July 12, 2001, The Washington Post recounted a tale from a Pentecostal minister in Rep. Gary Condit's home town of Ceres, Calif., who had worked as a handyman for the Levys. He said his teenage daughter once dated the congressman, but she was afraid to talk to the FBI and had gone into hiding.
A week after the account became front-page news, the minister recanted his story to the FBI. "It really hurt me," Condit said in a recent interview. "It hurt me personally; it hurt me professionally; it accused me of committing a crime, of having sex with a minor. It put me in such a dark state, I didn't think I was going to get out."
D.C. detectives remained focused on Condit. They wanted to give him a polygraph test, but the congressman, burned by the leaks and the news coverage, refused. He and his attorney, Abbe Lowell, hired their own polygraph examiner. On July 13, Lowell announced that his client had passed the test. There were three questions: Did Condit have anything to do with Chandra's disappearance? Did he harm her or cause anyone else to harm her? And did he know where she could be found?
Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey dismissed the test as a farce with "no investigative value." FBI experts agreed. "He may have tried to sell it to us, but we're not buying it," Ramsey said.
Driven by a drumbeat of lurid disclosures, the case reached an apogee of publicity, with a remarkable 63 percent of Americans following the story closely, according to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll.
By late July, with tensions between police and Condit at an all-time high, the detectives requested a fourth interview with the congressman. This one would be conducted by Brad Garrett, a storied FBI agent with an all-black wardrobe who blended old-fashioned shoe leather with a Zen-like interviewing style.
Garrett had spent four years hunting down and obtaining a confession from Mir Aimal Kasi, a Pakistani who in 1993 killed two CIA employees outside the agency's Langley headquarters. Garrett also obtained a confession from Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. And he helped solve the 1997 slayings of three Starbucks employees in Georgetown. The former Marine from Indiana with a PhD in criminology was so successful at closing murder cases that colleagues called him "Dr. Death."
On July 26, Garrett - along with D.C. Detectives Ralph Durant and Lawrence Kennedy - interviewed Condit in Lowell's downtown Washington office. The congressman provided dates and details about his relationship with Chandra, some of them new. The investigators said they were building a profile of Chandra and needed more information about her habits.
Condit said she was a vegetarian, she was always upbeat, she took vitamins, she didn't take drugs or drink. She was mature for her age and very savvy. He described her as frugal, noting that her wardrobe looked like it came from a Macy's-type department store, not Nordstrom. He said he had been surprised that she ended the lease on her apartment because he expected her to return soon after her May 11 graduation from the University of Southern California.
Garrett came away with a gut feeling: Condit was not their guy.