Excerpt from the book 'Finding Chandra: A True Washington Murder Mystery'

By Scott Higham and Sari Horwitz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 7, 2010; C01

Adapted from

"Finding Chandra: A True Washington Murder Mystery," by Scott Higham and Sari Horwitz. Copyright 2010 by Scott Higham and Sari Horwitz. Adapted with the permission of Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster Inc.

The three D.C. detectives traveled 3,000 miles with a carefully crafted plan.

At a sand-colored, maximum-security federal prison on the edge of the Mojave Desert, they prepared to interview the man they suspected of raping and murdering Washington intern Chandra Ann Levy. It was Sept. 9, 2008.

For seven years, Ingmar Guandique, a Salvadoran immigrant with a penchant for violence toward women, had eluded the police and FBI as a viable suspect in the city's most famous unsolved murder. The original detectives failed to connect him to the crime that captured the attention of the nation during the summer of 2001 with its subplots of sex and scandal and the possibility that a member of Congress might have been involved.

Now it was up to the new detectives. They put their plan into play. They took a sample of Guandique's DNA and, bluffing, told him they expected it would match DNA collected during the murder investigation.

"So what if I touched her?" Guandique said.

Not quite a confession, the incriminating remark is now part of the circumstantial case that prosecutors are putting together for one of Washington's highest-profile murder trials, scheduled to begin Oct. 4. Among the new disclosures: Prosecutors have revealed that lab technicians discovered unknown male DNA on Chandra's black ProSpirit stretch pants found in Rock Creek Park. The pants had been turned inside out, each leg knotted at the end, leaving investigators to theorize that they may have been used to restrain Chandra.

The DNA does not belong to Guandique or Gary Condit, the former congressman from California who was having an affair with Chandra. Prosecutors say they believe that a police officer or evidence technician inadvertently touched the pants, but defense lawyers could argue that the DNA belongs to Chandra's true killer.

Next Friday, prosecutors and Guandique's defense attorneys will fight over some of the more contentious issues in D.C. Superior Court. Judge Gerald I. Fisher will determine how much the jury will learn about Guandique's past attacks on women in Rock Creek Park. He will decide whether to grant a defense request to move the trial outside of Washington because of pretrial publicity. He will also determine whether jurors hear about the "so what if I touched her" remark.

Defense attorneys have argued that the remark should be suppressed because Guandique had invoked his right to an attorney after Chandra's remains were discovered in May 2002, and he was interviewed without a lawyer in 2008. In February, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that police can question inmates without a lawyer, as long as 14 days have passed since invocation of the right.

Still, prosecutors have an uphill battle. There is no confession to police, no eyewitnesses, and no fingerprints or DNA tying Guandique to the crime. What they have instead are statements by a half-dozen informants, many of whom are prison inmates and associates, who say Guandique confessed to the murder. Their credibility will no doubt come under attack from defense attorneys.

New momentum

The prosecution's case is haunted by mistakes of the past. The initial investigation was marred by police missteps and a singular focus on the congressman. Detectives and prosecutors didn't link Guandique to the murder, even though he had attacked two women in the same area at the same time. When Chandra's remains were discovered a year later, much of the evidence had been lost.

Serving a 10-year sentence for the two attacks, Guandique refused to talk to the Levy detectives. The case languished for years.

In 2007, a new D.C. police chief, Cathy Lanier, said she wanted to solve the cold case, and assigned two new detectives. In July 2008, The Washington Post published a 13-part series that focused on Guandique and exonerated Condit. Police boxed up the records relating to Condit, who lost his congressional seat because of the scandal and faded into obscurity after he lost the franchise for two Baskin-Robbins ice cream stores in Arizona.

The new detectives searched for fresh clues in old files. Police retrieved clothing belonging to Guandique and Chandra from storage lockers and had a private laboratory test them for DNA. They monitored Guandique's prison phone calls and mail.

That September the detectives interviewed Guandique in the California prison, and noticed that he had a tattoo on his neck that read "Mara Salvatrucha," the violent Salvadoran street gang known as MS-13. He had a tattoo of the devil on his shaved head, and a tattoo on his back depicting the horror-film character Chucky holding a knife. On his chest was a large tattoo of a naked woman with long black hair. They asked him if the tattoo was a "souvenir" of the Levy murder. Guandique smirked, then giggled, but didn't say a word.

While the detectives interviewed Guandique, prison officials searched his cell. They found a photograph of Chandra clipped from a magazine.

The detectives met with inmates who said Guandique had confessed. While their details varied -- sometimes wildly -- the central claim, that Guandique had murdered a woman in the woods of a park, remained the same, according to court records.

One man told them Guandique claimed that he had committed numerous rapes and robberies, the records show. He said Guandique was known as "Chucky" because of his fondness for cutting up his victims, and that Guandique had bragged that he and other gang members would hide on dirt paths and snatch young women as they walked by. Guandique said he would bind their hands and feet.

Guandique was specific about one incident, the witness said. He said he and two men were in a park one day when they spotted a woman who looked to be Italian. She had thick, dark hair and was jogging alone. Guandique said he lassoed her and dragged her into the woods, where she was knocked unconscious. He and another man tied her feet, stuffed something in her mouth, then raped her. When she began to regain consciousness, Guandique stabbed her and slashed her throat.

The detectives also interviewed a friend who had corresponded with Guandique five years earlier. Guandique wrote that he had spent time in a park in Washington and murdered a young woman. In a recorded phone conversation with the friend, Guandique talked about the "girl who's dead," records show, without describing the context.

In the old case files, the detectives discovered a lead that had been dropped. A young lawyer named Amber Fitzgerald had been chased in the woods near the Peirce Mill in Rock Creek Park in spring 2001 by a man fitting Guandique's description. Fitzgerald had left the country to study in Prague and missed the media frenzy surrounding Chandra's disappearance that summer. In 2003, after Fitzgerald returned to Washington, she saw a photograph of Guandique on a newscast and told police he was the man who had chased her. The original detectives never followed up.

Post reporters found her and interviewed her in 2008. A prosecutor subsequently interviewed Fitzgerald and the man she was dating in 2001. They reviewed their calendars and determined that she had been stalked on May 1, 2001, the day Chandra disappeared.

As 2008 drew to a close, the new detectives and prosecutors contacted one of the women Guandique had attacked at knifepoint in Rock Creek Park. Halle Shilling had been running alone on May 14, 2001, when Guandique jumped her. She escaped. Six weeks later, Guandique attacked another woman and was arrested. He confessed to both attacks and was sentenced to 10 years. The original detectives investigating Chandra's disappearance had never interviewed the women who were attacked.

Seven years later, on Dec. 14, 2008, Shilling took the new detectives and prosecutors to the spot where Guandique had jumped her on the trail above Beach Drive. She reenacted the crime, and the next day, testified before a grand jury.

In private, investigators told Shilling they were sorry their predecessors had never interviewed her. They also said they were baffled that so much time had been wasted on Condit. "I can't believe Gary Condit was even a suspect," one investigator told her.

In February last year, another inmate told the detectives that Guandique said he and two teenagers were smoking cocaine-laced marijuana in a "big park" when a young woman jogged by. Guandique said she had curly hair and "looked good." He told the others he was going to get her, and the three caught up to her and pulled her into the bushes. She fought back, badly scratching his face. He grabbed her by the neck and choked her to death, and they buried her under leaves, the inmate said.

When Guandique heard in prison that he was about to be arrested, he told an inmate: "It's over. They got me now." He said he was "not going out alone," records show. He vowed that when the detectives came to arrest him, he'd cause a distraction by starting a fire with a battery and tissue, and use a key he had made from toenail clippers and a piece of metal to unlock his handcuffs. He would then kill the detectives with a prison shank he made from razor blades and toothbrush handles.

The inmate reported the plot, and on Feb. 26, 2009, prison officials removed Guandique from his cell. They found a AA battery and tissue, a piece of a toenail clipper, a sharp sliver of metal, loose razor blades and a razor-blade shank.

Grisly details

Early on the afternoon of March 3, 2009, the police chief stood in a conference room inside police headquarters. With Lanier were the detectives who made the case: Kenneth "Todd" Williams, Anthony Brigidini and Emilio Martinez. She announced that Guandique would be charged with first-degree murder. She said she had spoken to Robert and Susan Levy, preparing them for the grisly details that were about to be made public: how their daughter was allegedly raped, sodomized and stabbed to death.

Seven weeks later, U.S. marshals led Guandique into a basement courtroom, where reporters had gathered to catch their first glimpse of him. His hands and feet were shackled, and he stared vacantly.

Public defenders Santha Sonenberg and Maria Hawilo ridiculed the case. Sonenberg is considered one of the best public defenders in town; Hawilo, a rising star. "This flawed investigation, characterized by the many 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," they said.

In the months that followed, assistant U.S. attorneys Amanda Haines and Fernando Campoamor disclosed more details of their case. Haines is a veteran homicide prosecutor who has handled some of the highest-profile cases in the city, including the murders of Shaquita Bell and New York Times reporter David Rosenbaum. Campoamor has investigated numerous cases involving gangs, including MS-13.

They said the detectives had located a new witness who claimed to have been stabbed on a jogging trail by a man matching Guandique's description. Then yet another inmate said Guandique had sodomized and raped him at knifepoint, tying his legs up with a sheet. During the assault, the inmate said Guandique told him "he liked to do it to women like that." The inmate told the detectives that Guandique confessed to tying up a woman in Washington before raping and killing her.

Guandique's defense team began to craft a strategy of their own: Another man, possibly someone connected to Condit, may have been responsible for the murder of Chandra Levy.

At an Oct. 16 hearing, Campoamor publicly disclosed the unknown male DNA on Chandra's pants. Guandique's defense attorneys requested permission to test three dozen pieces of evidence, including items seized from Condit's apartment.

On Dec. 2, prosecutors disclosed that a grand jury had returned a fresh indictment against Guandique, alleging that he and an associate threatened to murder one of the jailhouse informants. Guandique has pleaded not guilty.

In a few seconds

Hours after Halle Shilling reenacted her attack, she met two Post reporters at Kramerbooks & Afterwords in Dupont Circle, not far from Chandra's condominium. She was accompanied by her father and her sister. She began to recount her attack, but when she saw her father's eyes fill with tears, she changed the subject. She said her life was complete with so many good things -- a solid marriage, fulfilling work as a writer and a teacher, three children.

She opened her purse, her hand shaking slightly, and pulled out a picture of her children, born after the attack.

If she hadn't been able to fight off Guandique, Shilling knew these things would never have happened. Her entire life turned on what took place inside a few seconds, on a self-defense class she took, and maybe on a little luck, her fingers thrusting into Guandique's mouth at precisely the right angle, causing him to let go. What if Chandra had been able to free herself? The two women had many of the same dreams and aspirations: finding their place, their standing in one of the most powerful cities in the world.

Shilling tucked the picture back into her purse. "I was her," she said.

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