Police defend their handling of Levy investigation

By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 28, 2010; 9:06 PM

District crime-scene and U.S. Park Police officers testifying in the Chandra Levy case on Thursday defended how they handled and processed the slain woman's remains and other items found in Rock Creek Park a year after she disappeared.

The testimony came a day after Dupont Circle cabinetmaker Phillip Palmer told the court that he found Levy's skull in the park May 22, 2002, while walking his dog. Palmer told the jury that when he called police, the responding officers "traipsed" through the area and acted "non-professional."

But officers on the stand Thursday gave a different account. Park Police Lt. Dennis Bosak testified that when he arrived, he used his baton to move the skull and saw the eye and nose openings, but did not touch anything else until other officers arrived.

Bosak said the Levy case had drawn heavy media attention and that officers were careful processing the scene.

"We took very good care of preserving everything at that crime scene," Bosak said. "We wanted to do the best we could."

Criticism of the police investigation has plagued the prosecution's case. Officers searched the park in the weeks after the federal intern disappeared, but by the time Palmer found Levy's remains and belongings a year later, key DNA evidence had been lost.

Ingmar Guandique, 29, is charged with first-degree murder and other counts in Levy's killing.

"There was no trampling of the scene of any sort," said John Allie, a D.C. Police evidence technician who also testified.

Allie, a 24-year veteran of the force, gave a detailed account of how the scene was processed and what was found. Allie testified that police searched the area with 22 cadaver-sniffing dogs from May 22, 2002, to May 28.

Then, on June 6, officers returned to the park to look for more evidence after Levy's tibia was found. Officers stayed at the scene through June 24.

Photos were shown of teams of police recruits sifting through leaves and debris for items in the area where the skull was found near the Western Ridge Trail.

Many of the items were near several bones identified as Levy's. Officers found a couple of Levy's teeth and her jawbone. A picture of the jawbone with teeth attached was displayed on a projector. Levy's mother, Susan, who was holding a stuffed animal, had left the courtroom.

Allie said officers recovered about 70 percent of Levy's remains, which filled 203 bags.

Technicians recovered hair, Allie said. Officers found an inside-out gray T-shirt that read "Southern California Trojans," referring to the University of Southern California, where Levy received her master's degree. Allie also held up a faded red sports bra.

Officers also found a pair of black running tights. The legs were looped and knotted, and might have been used by the attacker as restraints. Allie displayed for the jury a pair of black panties that were also found inside out.

Prosecutors, working without DNA evidence, think the items belonged to Levy because of their proximity to her bones.

"It was quite an operation to find as much as we could," Allie said. He said officers searched with an "overabundance of caution."

But during her cross-examination, Santha Sonenberg, one of Guandique's lawyers, began delving further into the process by which Allie and his crime scene officers handle evidence. Sonenberg only had five minutes of questioning before Judge Gerald Fisher adjourned until Monday.

Sonenberg repeatedly asked Allie how evidence was handled. Allie said officers used gloves and that evidence was sealed in envelopes.

Sonenberg's queries might be setting up a question about a hair retrieved from Levy's head and sent to her office by prosecutors. When the envelope arrived, the hair was missing. Sonenberg's co-counsel, Maria Hawilo, told Fisher about the missing hair during a pretrial hearing in January.

And there were other mistakes in evidence handling. During hearings last year, prosecutors acknowledged that a female lab technician for BODE Technology Group, used by the government to process the Levy evidence, got some of her DNA on the bra.

Also last year, DNA from an unknown male, possibly a police officer or lab technician, was found on a pair of tights. Prosecutors at the time said it was unclear whose DNA was found on the tights, but that it was not Guandique's or that of Gary Condit, the former California congressman who had an affair with Levy and fell under suspicion when Levy disappeared.

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