By Sari Horwitz and Scott Higham
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
D.C. police and prosecutors said yesterday that they will charge a 27-year-old Salvadoran man with first-degree murder in the killing of Chandra Levy nearly eight years ago during a sexual assault along a desolate hiking trail deep in Rock Creek Park.
Saying they had solved a case that transfixed the nation, authorities issued an arrest warrant for Ingmar Guandique, who is serving a 10-year prison sentence for attacking two other women at knifepoint in the park around the time the 24-year-old federal government intern disappeared.
Guandique, who entered the United States illegally in 2000 and had trouble scraping together a new life in Washington, will be brought to the city within weeks to face the new charge, police and prosecutors said.
Levy's disappearance in May 2001 triggered an international sensation because she had been having an affair with her congressman, Gary A. Condit, who fell under suspicion and later was voted out of office.
The case that police and prosecutors unveiled yesterday is based on a compilation of statements from victims of Guandique and from unidentified witnesses who said he confessed in letters and conversations, often in grisly detail, how he attacked, sexually assaulted and killed Levy in the park. He said he acted with the help of two accomplices who are not named in the police affidavit.
The affidavit released yesterday did not disclose any physical evidence linking Guandique to the crime, such as a DNA match. Still, prosecutors and police said they are confident in the case. At a news conference, D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier, U.S. Attorney Jeffrey A. Taylor and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) said the "cumulative" circumstantial evidence would be enough to win a conviction.
Said Taylor: "Today marks a significant step forward in our effort to achieve justice for the Levy family."
Lanier said in an interview that she called Levy's parents before the news conference. "I feel so badly for the family, what they've been through and what they will continue to go through. The only thing I can offer them is the possibility of justice."
News of the warrant provided some solace for the Levys, but the details were difficult to take. "It's very, very hard," Robert Levy said from their home in Modesto, Calif.
The D.C. public defenders appointed to represent Guandique issued a statement criticizing the case and saying they look forward to trying it before a jury.
"This flawed investigation, characterized by the many mistakes and missteps of the Metropolitan Police Department and every federal agency that has attempted to solve this case, will not end with the simple issuance of an arrest warrant against Mr. Guandique," said the defense attorneys, Santha Sonenberg and Maria Hawilo. "The public should not draw any conclusions based on speculation by the media and incomplete information."
A 13-part Washington Post series last summer detailed numerous police mistakes that led investigators to focus much of their attention and resources on Condit, a married Democratic congressman from California. While they investigated Condit and his romantic links to Levy and other women, they failed to fully investigate Guandique, who had attacked women in the park not far from where Levy's remains would eventually be found a year later, on May 22, 2002.
In a phone interview last year with The Post from the U.S. Penitentiary-Victorville in Adelanto, Calif., Guandique denied any involvement in Levy's slaying. "I have nothing to do with the death of that girl. I am innocent, and I am not afraid of the police investigation," he said.
Authorities said the new evidence was gathered by veteran homicide investigators and prosecutors who reinvigorated the cold case. They said they will charge Guandique with first-degree murder because the crime was committed during an act of first-degree sexual abuse. If convicted, he faces 30 to 60 years in prison.
According to the affidavit, on May 1, 2001, the day Levy disappeared, another young woman walking in the park was accosted by a Hispanic man. The woman said she ran away and later left the country on a preplanned trip. A year later, still living abroad, she saw a photograph of Guandique in a newspaper when his name first surfaced as a possible suspect in the Levy case. The affidavit says the woman recognized him as the man she saw in the park the day Levy disappeared.
Police and prosecutors also interviewed two women who were attacked by Guandique in the park within weeks of Levy's disappearance: Halle Shilling, who was assaulted May 14, 2001, and Christy Wiegand, who was attacked July 1, 2001. Both women said during Guandique's sentencing hearing that they believed Guandique intended to kill them. Neither woman was interviewed by investigators assigned to the Levy probe until after The Post published its investigation.
Late last year, detectives interviewed key witnesses, including one who said Guandique had written letters claiming responsibility for the killing. The witness became nervous and later during a phone conversation questioned Guandique about the alleged admission. "During this recorded conversation Guandique acknowledged that he had told [the witness] about the 'girl who's dead,' " the police affidavit said.
Another witness told police in November that he had known Guandique for many years and that Guandique boasted that he was a member of the Salvadoran gang Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13. He allegedly said that he was known in the gang as "Chuckie" -- after a demonic doll from a series of horror movies -- because he had a reputation for "killing and chopping up people." Guandique allegedly told the witness that he had raped many women after lying in wait near a dirt path in the park, that he would tie them up and then sexually assault them.
During one conversation with that witness, Guandique allegedly said that he and two other men were in the park when they saw a female jogger who "looked Italian with thick, dark hair." One of the men jumped in front of her, and Guandique allegedly grabbed her around the neck and dragged her off. Once in the woods, the men knocked her unconscious, bound her feet and sexually assaulted her. Guandique allegedly told this witness that the woman began to regain consciousness during the rape, "so he cut her throat and stabbed her."
Another witness, identified as "W11," told police that Guandique confessed to killing Levy, but some of the details were different. This witness said Guandique told him he saw a curly-haired woman in the park who "looked good" and that he and two other men chased her. Guandique allegedly grabbed Levy by the neck and took her into some bushes. She began to fight back, scratching him on the face. The witness said Guandique told him that he choked her to death to stop her from screaming and concocted a cover story about the scratches, that they were sustained during a fight with his girlfriend.
Shelia Cruz, Guandique's landlady, told police that around the time of Levy's disappearance, Guandique came home one night with scratches on his face. When she asked him what had happened, he told her his girlfriend attacked him during a fight.
In the past week, after WRC-TV (Channel 4) reported that police were seeking an arrest warrant in the case, the news reached Guandique in federal prison in California. According to the affidavit, W11 told police that Guandique said: "They got me now. What am I gonna do." This witness said Guandique then said he was "not going out alone" and devised a plan to escape when detectives came to arrest him. He would free himself from his handcuffs with a key fashioned from toenail clippers, start a fire with batteries and tissue, and attack the detectives with weapons made out of razor blades and toothbrush handles.
On Feb. 26, Guandique was removed from his cell without incident. Inside, authorities found AA batteries, tissue paper, a broken piece of a toenail clipper and several loose razor blades. During an earlier search of his cell in September, police found a photograph of Levy, apparently from a magazine. They also noted that Guandique had a tattoo on his back of "Chuckie" holding a knife.
Guandique, a day laborer, came under the scrutiny of investigators months after Levy disappeared, but a series of delays and missteps allowed the case to languish. Nine months before Levy's remains were found in Rock Creek Park, a D.C. inmate came forward to say that Guandique had confessed to the crime while they were in jail, but the inmate's account was dismissed after he failed an FBI-administered polygraph exam. A polygraph test taken by Guandique before he was sentenced in the other two attacks was deemed "inconclusive." Neither exam was administered by a bilingual polygrapher, even though Guandique and the other inmate speak little or no English. Polygraph results can be skewed if there are translation problems, experts say.
The case went cold for years until Lanier, who became police chief in 2006, eventually replaced the lead detective, who had little homicide experience, with three veterans to put "a fresh set of eyes" on the case: Kenneth "Todd" Williams, Anthony Brigidini and Emilio Martinez. Late last year, detectives and prosecutors brought people connected to the case before a grand jury in the District. In December, one of the women attacked by Guandique at knifepoint in 2001 was asked to return to the spot in Rock Creek Park and reenact the incident for the detectives and prosecutor.
In an interview this week, former D.C. police chief Charles H. Ramsey, who had been in charge of the original Levy investigation, said he was surprised last summer by some of the findings of The Post's series. "There were a couple of things, when I read the series, I said, 'Oh man,' " Ramsey said.
For example, Ramsey said, he had not known that his two original detectives on the Levy case never interviewed the two women whom Guandique had attacked at knifepoint.
"That's ridiculous. That's fundamental and basic," said Ramsey, who now is the police commissioner in Philadelphia. "There are a few things that I assumed had been done. People criticized us for micromanaging. In retrospect, we should have micromanaged more."