By Scott Higham and Sari Horwitz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, November 28, 2010;
Soon after Chandra Levy's remains were discovered deep in Rock Creek Park on a May morning eight years ago, the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call broke what appeared to be a big story. A Salvadoran illegal immigrant named Ingmar Guandique had been attacking women in the park around the time of Levy's disappearance a year earlier.
Charles H. Ramsey, then the D.C. chief of police, quickly warned reporters covering the case that they were on the wrong track, that they shouldn't make "too big a deal" of Guandique. Ramsey's second in command went even further. If Guandique were a viable suspect, Terrance W. Gainer told reporters, D.C. detectives would have been on him "like flies on honey."
With those assurances, the reporters shifted their attention back to the man many of them thought to be responsible all along: Democratic Rep. Gary Condit of California. The possibility that a married congressman might have had a hand in the murder of his mistress provided the police with a compelling investigation and the press with an irresistible, career-changing story.
Everyone, it seemed, wanted Condit to be the guy.
This past Monday, following a month-long trial and 3½ days of deliberation, D.C. jurors found Guandique guilty on two counts of first-degree murder for killing Chandra Levy during a daytime robbery. Even though the verdict officially exonerates Condit after so many years of living under suspicion, the former congressman remains at the center of the story.
Network news shows are competing for the right to broadcast Condit's first post-verdict television appearance. A Hollywood lawyer is shopping Condit's book proposal, purportedly detailing his love for his wife and how his life was shattered by overzealous police, prosecutors and the press. A movie deal can't be far behind.
In 2001, Condit was a person of interest in the Levy case. Today, he still is - not only because his name will be forever linked to the saga in the public imagination, but also because the obsession with him derailed the investigation and delayed justice for years.
When Washington Post investigative editors Jeff Leen and Larry Roberts assigned us to take a year and examine the entire case in 2007, we tried to keep an open mind about who may have killed Levy.
First, there was Condit, who had never been publicly exonerated by D.C. police. Some detectives thought he had motive, means and a cast of loyalists around him who might have wanted to make a messy situation for a married man disappear.
Guandique was also worth another look. He had attacked women in Rock Creek Park around the time Levy vanished on May 1, 2001. When his name first emerged in the news media in connection to the case in 2002, Washington Post reporters spoke to his landlady - before the police interviewed her - and she recalled that he had scratches and bruises on his face about the time of Levy's disappearance.
Other possibilities merited attention: a man Levy met in Washington; associates from her Connecticut Avenue gym; a man convicted of killing a jogger in the Maryland section of Rock Creek Park. Or maybe the killer had never surfaced on the radar of the police or prosecutors; perhaps he or she was a confidante or a stranger, someone Levy met in a bar, in her building, in her neighborhood.
Yet, from the beginning, D.C. police, federal prosecutors and the national press corps had been consumed with Condit. Days after Levy donned her gym clothes, left her Dupont Circle apartment and was never heard from again, police sources began leaking to reporters about the congressman's months-long affair with the intern for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Between May 11, 2001, when the first stories about Levy appeared, and Sept. 11, when the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon wiped the case off the front pages and the evening news, the phrase "law enforcement sources" was cited at least 338 times in newscasts and newspaper stories about Levy and Condit.
In public, D.C. police officials - mindful of how Richard Jewell was wrongfully accused of setting off a bomb during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta - were careful to emphasize that Condit was not a suspect. But behind the scenes, he was very much their prime target.
Police searched the woods behind his Adams Morgan condominium with cadaver dogs. They bathed his apartment in ultraviolet lights, looking for evidence of foul play. They searched the car of a staff member for fibers, hair and blood, anything that might connect Condit to the crime. Each time, law enforcement sources alerted members of the media, who put the developments on their front pages and at the top of their newscasts.
During the summer of 2001, years before YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, the story went viral. Cable news shows updated the tale of the intern and the congressman every 10 minutes or so, even if there was nothing new to report. Rumors masqueraded as facts, and parades of law enforcement experts who knew nothing about the case appeared on television to theorize about how Condit might have been responsible.
The case captivated the nation; about two-thirds of Americans followed it closely. The scandal became the talk of the summer - and the story couldn't have been more wrong.
While everyone was chasing Condit, Guandique was chasing female joggers in Rock Creek Park at knifepoint. He jumped Halle Shilling on May 14, two weeks after Levy disappeared, and Christy Wiegand on July 1. Both women fought back and escaped.
Arrested shortly after the assault on Wiegand, Guandique pleaded guilty to the crimes. Later that summer, an inmate at the D.C. jail came forward to say that Guandique told him he had murdered the girl who was the subject of all those nightly newscasts. (This was nine months before a hiker would find Levy's remains in the park, not far from where Shilling and Wiegand were attacked.) However, the inmate failed an FBI polygraph in late 2001, while Guandique passed. That was enough for police and prosecutors to dismiss him as a suspect.
The judge who sentenced Guandique in February 2002 had serious doubts about his potential involvement in the Levy case. "This is such a satellite issue," Judge Noel Anketell Kramer said from the bench before handing down her 10-year sentence. "To me it doesn't have anything to do with this case."
The police, prosecutors and the press remained focused on Condit, and the congressman did little to help his cause. He brushed past the cameras. He threw away a box that once contained a watch given to him by a former girlfriend. He tried to avoid the media stakeouts at his Capitol Hill office and his Adams Morgan condo. Natural reactions, perhaps, but to the public and the news media, it seemed that he had something to hide.
Although Condit was quietly cooperating with detectives, he grew to despise the press and believed he didn't owe the public an explanation. His private life was private; he thought that a public mea culpa about the affair with his wife by his side would be undignified.
In 2008, after spending nearly a year investigating the case, reviewing thousands of confidential documents and speaking with dozens of people involved, we finally interviewed Condit in his lawyer's office in Los Angeles. He had lost his congressional seat to his former chief of staff and relocated to Arizona, where he had opened - and then lost - two Baskin-Robbins ice cream stores. He was trying to figure out his next move while keeping close to his children, his grandchildren and his wife, Carolyn, whom he had known since high school.
We told Condit that our investigation was centered on Guandique and that The Post was preparing to publish a series of articles that would exonerate the former congressman. But he remained bitter. "I regret that I did not sue The Washington Post," he told us at the start of the interview, and he spoke at length about how he felt he had been "raped" by the police and the press.
Condit had a tougher time articulating how he felt about Levy and her murder. In the course of the hour-long interview, he didn't offer a personal or caring word about his relationship with her. He was more comfortable saying how hard it must be for Susan and Robert Levy to have lost their only daughter.
In July 2008, The Post published a 13-part series titled "Who Killed Chandra Levy?," which concluded that all the evidence pointed to Guandique, not Condit, as the prime suspect. Two months later, the new D.C. homicide detectives who had been assigned to the case - Kenneth "Todd" Williams, Anthony Brigidini and Emilio Martinez - visited Guandique in prison. It was the first time since 2001 that D.C. police had met with him. They then interviewed the two women who were attacked, as well as inmates at multiple prisons who said Guandique had confessed to the crime. Working alongside veteran prosecutors Amanda Haines and Fernando Campoamor, the detectives built what would prove to be a powerful circumstantial case against Guandique.
Still, from the start of Guandique's murder trial last month, Condit remained the star of the show. Toward the end of the first week of the proceedings, when testimony turned to the minutiae of the crime scene, many of the seats reserved for the press and the public in Courtroom 320 in D.C. Superior Court were empty. That changed on Monday, Nov. 1, when word spread that Condit would be testifying as a witness for the prosecution. Reporters, lawyers and curiosity-seekers now filled every seat, and a waiting line stretched down the third-floor hallway.
Prosecutors called Condit to the stand hoping to blunt the defense's argument that he might still be a suspect. After the former congressman railed against the police and the media for destroying his career and ruining his life, one of Guandique's lawyers from the Public Defender Service, Maria Hawilo, stood and began her cross-examination.
"Mr. Condit, from the beginning of this case, you have lied," she began, in one of the most dramatic moments of the trial. Hawilo hammered Condit, pressing him to describe the nature of his relationship with Levy. He refused to answer, saying the question wasn't relevant to the case. "Seems like in this country we've lost a sense of decency," he said.
Hawilo asked Judge Gerald I. Fisher to order Condit to answer, but he declined, leaving it to the jurors to imagine how Condit felt about Levy. (They would later learn that a 2001 DNA test had linked him to semen found on a pair of Levy's underwear in her apartment.)
For her part, Levy had clearly been in love with the congressman, even telling her friends that they might marry one day. When she spent Passover with family in Maryland before she disappeared, she showed her aunt a gold bracelet Condit had given her for Valentine's Day. To her, it was a symbol of a meaningful relationship.
In court, however, Condit testified that the bracelet didn't mean much to him. He said he had a drawer full of them in his congressional office, and he would frequently hand them out to constituents. He couldn't remember if the one he gave Levy was silver or gold.
As Condit stepped down from the witness stand and walked into the hallway, he was surrounded by police officers and U.S. marshals. They cleared a path through the pack of reporters, allowing him to avoid a crush of questions. Condit took an elevator to the courthouse basement and tried to slip out the back door, only to find more reporters and photographers in wait. Without saying a word, he stepped into a car and sped away.
With the guilty verdicts against Guandique secure, the case of the congressman and the intern is all but over. There is some measure of justice for Levy and her family, but no closure, a word Susan Levy loathes. Condit can try to win back his name with his book, but as long as people remember the name Chandra Levy, they will connect it with his.
When Condit's obituary is written, it won't focus on the former congressman's legislative accomplishments or the adoration voters had for him in the swath of the Central Valley of California once known as "Condit Country." Instead, it will be about his relationship with Levy, and how the pursuit of him as a suspect helped delay justice for nearly a decade.
In the long, sad story of Chandra Levy, Gary Condit will forever be a person of interest.
Scott Higham and Sari Horwitz are investigative reporters at The Washington Post and the authors of "Finding Chandra: A True Washington Murder Mystery."