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A Wild Tale of Murder for Hire

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

By Sari Horwitz, Scott Higham and Sylvia Moreno

Washington Post Staff Writers

On Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the Chandra Levy story quickly dropped off the front pages of newspapers around the world.

In Modesto, Calif., the satellite television trucks that had been parked outside Robert and Susan Levy's home pulled away. In Washington, law enforcement resources were shifted from Chandra's case to terrorism-related tasks.

It had been four months since Chandra disappeared. During one of her last Internet searches on the day she vanished, she had pulled up a map of Rock Creek Park. Police recruits had looked for her there. But neither the D.C. detectives nor the prosecutors on the case had focused on a man who confessed July 2 to his involvement in attacks on two women in the park.

The man, a 20-year-old Salvadoran named Ingmar Guandique, did not catch the attention of prosecutors until mid-September, when they heard that he allegedly told a jailhouse informant that he had killed Chandra.

On Sept. 21, Guandique was removed from his jail cell and brought to the U.S. attorney's office in Washington for questioning by prosecutors and D.C. detectives. He was accompanied by a public defender.

Guandique was shown a picture of Chandra. He said the only place he had ever seen her was on television.

That contradicted what a former Park Police detective later told The Washington Post. Joe Green, who interrogated Guandique on July 2, said that at that time he showed Chandra's picture to Guandique and the Salvadoran said he had seen her in the park.

Green was present at the meeting in the U.S. attorney's office. To this day, he does not remember that meeting or whether he passed on to D.C. police or prosecutors the information he said he got from Guandique. "I should have said something," Green would later comment.

* * *

On Oct. 19, D.C. police and federal prosecutors went to the D.C. jail to interview the informant, whose name is being withheld by The Post to protect him against reprisals from other prisoners.

The informant said he had befriended Guandique during strolls around the jail's exercise yard. Guandique was awaiting trial on charges in the attacks in the park on May 14 and July 1. The informant said that one day in August, Guandique looked depressed and said something was weighing on him.

Guandique, the informant said, confessed to murdering a woman in the park named Chandra Levy, the intern whose picture had been splashed all over television. There was more: Guandique said Rep. Gary Condit paid him to do it. He didn't realize who Condit was until he later saw his picture on TV. Guandique had been walking in the Adams Morgan neighborhood when a car pulled to the curb. Condit offered him money -- $25,000 to kill a woman. The congressman provided him with her picture and a location where he could find her.

The informant said Guandique told him he took drugs and drank alcohol to steel himself for the attack. He went to the location Condit gave him and saw Chandra running on a path. Guandique hid in the bushes. When Chandra circled back, he jumped out and attacked her, stabbing her in the neck and the stomach. She fell to the ground, and Guandique carried her body far into the woods. He dug a hole with his hands and covered Chandra with dirt, leaves and sticks. He left the knife in her body and later considered retrieving it but never did. He sent the $25,000 to his family in El Salvador.

The informant called his lawyer and said that he wanted to come forward because he felt badly for Chandra's parents after seeing them on TV. The informant recently repeated his story to The Post.

* * *

D.C. police and prosecutors weren't sure what to make of the informant's story. They thought the part about Condit was ridiculous, but they wondered if Guandique still might have been involved in Chandra's disappearance. Could he have embellished his account with a Condit angle to make himself a big man in prison?

On Nov. 28, the informant, who spoke little English, took a polygraph exam at the U.S. attorney's office. He failed it. The results of the FBI-administered test showed that the informant was "deceptive" when he answered yes to two questions: Did Guandique tell you he stabbed Chandra Levy? And did Guandique tell you he received $25,000 from a congressman for stabbing Chandra Levy?

Nearly nine weeks later, on Feb. 4, 2002, Guandique was given a polygraph test by the FBI. When asked whether he was involved in Chandra's disappearance and whether he caused her disappearance, he answered no. The readings were inconclusive, falling into a gray area between truth and deception. But the official result, a judgment call of the polygraph examiner, was "not deceptive."

Polygraphs can be a helpful law enforcement tool, but the results are not admissible in court because the science behind them is considered unreliable. And there was a problem with the polygraph exams in the Chandra case: Neither the informant nor Guandique spoke much English, and the FBI polygraph examiners were not bilingual. A translator was used for both exams, a variable that can compromise test results, according to polygraph experts. Polygraph equipment measures minute changes in breathing, sweating, blood pressure and other bodily functions. If the polygraph examiner and the translator are not in sync, the test results can be skewed.

"If I had my druthers, I would have wanted to get a Spanish-speaking polygraph examiner," Jack Barrett, D.C. chief of detectives, later recalled. "It's so much cleaner." But he would have had to wait for months because of different priorities within the FBI.

The police relied heavily on the polygraph results to eliminate Guandique as a suspect. Detectives didn't interview his victims. They didn't visit the crime scenes in Rock Creek Park. They didn't assign Spanish-speaking detectives to talk to Guandique's friends and relatives. And they didn't look for his possessions to test them for forensic evidence.

* * *

On Feb. 8, four days after his FBI polygraph, Guandique was escorted into Room 321 of the D.C. Superior Courthouse to be sentenced after pleading guilty to the attacks on Halle Shilling and Christy Wiegand. A court-ordered report noted that Guandique had a wide range of behavioral, alcohol and drug problems.

"When I'm about to commit an offense, I tell myself to go ahead and do it, but afterwards, I feel bad about it," Guandique said through a translator in the report. "I feel good when I see someone alone and carrying something of value on their person because it makes it easy for me to take it from them. Then it crosses my mind, that after doing it so many times, I will eventually get caught. Sometimes, I cannot control myself when I see someone alone in a secluded area with something of value."

The prosecutor, Kristina Ament, told the judge that Guandique was a cooperative defendant. She said that he spoke to prosecutors and police about the Chandra case as part of his plea agreement and that he passed a polygraph exam that asked if he knew anything about her disappearance.

Ament said Guandique cleared his name by taking the polygraph.

"In other words, there's no suggestion that he is involved in the Chandra Levy case?" asked D.C. Superior Court Judge Noel Anketell Kramer.

"There is no suggestion at this point now that he is involved," Ament said. "And his polygraph went a long way in diffusing the suggestion."

The judge said she never believed that Guandique had anything to do with Chandra's disappearance. "This is such a satellite issue," Kramer said. "I never for a moment thought that . . . he had anything to do with Chandra Levy."

Gladys Joseph, a lawyer with the D.C. Public Defender Service who was assigned to represent Guandique, tried to persuade the judge to give her client a light sentence. "Mr. Guandique was trying to get a Walkman and go. And really just did something incredibly stupid, and incredibly dangerous, even to himself," Joseph said.

Shilling had a different take.

"I reject the notion that he intended to simply rob me," she told the judge that day. "This attack was a physical one, pure and simple. He stalked me for a mile. He attacked me with a knife. We struggled on the ground. He left my valuables on the path when he fled. I do not doubt for a second that, given the chance, he would repeat this crime against another woman. I would request that this person be given the harshest possible sentence for his crime."

Wiegand spoke next.

"Being attacked by Mr. Guandique was a terrifying experience, and it changed me, and it changed how I will view the world," she said. "I completely agree . . . that given the opportunity, Mr. Guandique will attack another woman."

The judge asked Guandique if he had anything to say.

"Well, I would like to ask the judge for forgiveness," he replied. "And also of the two people I assaulted. I am sincerely repentant for the two offenses I committed. And please give me another chance in order so that I would be able to work and help my family."

At the end of the 38-minute hearing, the judge sentenced Guandique to 10 years in a federal penitentiary.

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

Tomorrow: A discovery in the park.

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