Jeffrey Leen, Sylvia Moreno, Scott Higham and Sari Horwitz.
Washington Post Investigative Desk
Monday, July 21, 2008 12:00 PM
Reporters Sylvia Moreno, Scott Higham and Sari Horwitz and Investigative editor Jeffrey Leen were online Monday, July 21 at noon ET with to discuss The Post's multi-part narrative investigation of the murder of Chandra Levy.
A transcript follows.
(Editor's note: While Jeffrey Leen was the only participant logged in during the discussion, the reporters were with him and contributed to the answers.)
Jeffrey Leen: Thank you all for joining us. The reporters from the Chandra Levy team are eager to answer your questions. We have been overwhelmed by the response, both online and in print, and look forward to a spirited discussion.
Arlington, Va.: Judging by the reaction I have seen in other discussions there are many people angry about the length of this series and the fact that it is being done at all. Are you surprised by the criticism? Why this story? Why now?
Jeffrey Leen: We are not surprised by the criticism. We expected it. Any experimentation draws criticism. People are focusing on the fact that the series unfolds in 12 chapters. But the series is actually not as long as people think when they compare it to other investigative projects we have done. The Chandra Levy series averages around 1,700 words per chapter, where our other major projects usually average 4,000 to 6,000 words per piece. The Cheney series, for example, was actually longer than the Chandra series. We have heard from many readers who believe the chapters are too short. The Chandra Levy case is one of the most famous unsolved murders in Washington. Over the years we have received tips and information about problems in the police investigation. As time passes, sources in a case like this become more willing to talk. We decided to take advantage of that and also explore a new way of story telling on the Web and in the paper.
Alexandria, Va.: Why did you decide to do this story in serial format? I'll be honest, I find it very hard to wait each day for the new revelations. Would rather gobble this all up in one sitting!
Jeffrey Leen: Thank you for your interest. We felt the material was rich enough to lend itself to a serial narrative treatment, which has been done successfully in other newspapers but rarely in The Post. People can either read it as it unfolds or wait until the end and read it in one sitting.
Washington, D.C.: Has your investigation led to any information or links (however tenuous) to the death of Joyce Chiang?
Jeffrey Leen: We looked at this question and found no evidence linking the two cases.
Overseas: Wondering if the Levys knew of the affair with Condit before Chandra Levy went missing? The story seems to say they contacted Condit coincidentally. Archives say otherwise.
Jeffrey Leen: Chandra's mother, Susan, believed her daughter was having an affair with Congressman Gary Condit before Chandra went missing. Chandra would not talk to her mother about it, but she confided in her aunt, Linda Zamsky. When Chandra went missing Susan Levy told her husband, Robert, about her suspicion and Robert contacted the congressman and the D.C. police.
Boston: I've read every episode of the series so far. The writing and reporting are outstanding. It really does have the feel of an old-school serial. But my question is, why this story? It seemed that the whole Chandra scandal was really, really old news. Did you get a hot tip? Do I need to wait until the end to find out? What made you decide this story was ripe for a revisit?
Jeffrey Leen: We have a continuing interest in investigating various aspects of the D.C. police department. We looked at police shootings in 1999 and unsolved homicide investigations in 2000. We had been hearing increasingly in the last year that the D.C. police made critical mistakes throughout the highly visible Chandra Levy case.
Riveting Piece -- Thank You For Writing This: This has been such a well done series about a sad true life crime. I followed the story closely at the time and I always wondered about the next question. Why did Condit become so combative? Either he had some incredibly bad luck in that the girl he was sleeping with was killed or he was involved. If he was not involved -- he should immediately have admitted that he was sleeping with her and try to prove his innocence. It was over the day she went missing and he should have accepted that and worked to help find the "real killer."
I can't wait to read the rest of the series. Thank you.
Jeffrey Leen: Gary Condit cooperated with the police from the time he was first contacted. Although he did try to protect certain aspects of his personal life, he consented to several interviews with the police, permitted his apartment to be searched without a warrant, voluntarily submitted to a DNA test and met with Chandra's mother to answer questions she had. To this day, Condit and his attorney, Abbe Lowell, deny that he had anything to do with her disappearance.
Impact on Condit?: Hi,
My sympathies are of course with the Levys, but was also wondering if due to Condit's dalliance with Chandra his political career was harmed? It seems sometimes that sorta thing kills a career, other times, it doesn't.
Jeffrey Leen: In this case, Gary Condit lost his career. He ran for re-election in 2002 and lost in the primary by a wide margin. He has since left politics.
District Heights, Md.: Why didn't the Post interview these people 7 years ago? Maybe you could have solved this instead of blaming the brave D.C. metro officers who are just trying to excel.
Jeffrey Leen: Two of us, Sari and Sylvia, did interview several of these people at the time, and tried to interview more. But during the height of the media frenzy over this case, most people did not want to talk to the press. The passage of time makes that easier, and more people are willing to come forward and speak publicly for the first time in the hopes of solving this case. We know that the police worked incredibly hard at trying to solve this, and followed many fruitless leads.
Anonymous: I'm not angry, just frustrated waiting for the final chapters. If I'm following things correctly, you've found the killer and it isn't Condit.
Jeffrey Leen: You'll have to keep reading and make up your own mind.
D.C.: Was the lack of contact between the Park Police and D.C. police due to some rivalry or disagreement over jurisdiction? The park police detective sounded very standoffish about about not contacting D.C. police and mentioned that it was not "his case." I also found it odd that the detective did not pursue the issue further when the suspect admitted to having recognized Levy. After all, the suspect had only moments before implicated himself in the other attacks after initially admitting only to seeing them or accidentally bumping into them.
Jeffrey Leen: Our investigation has not uncovered a turf war between the departments over this issue. Former Park Police Detective Joe Green says he simply does not remember if he told the D.C. police about his interview with Guandique. The information -- Green says that Guandique told him that he saw Chandra in the park -- did not seem important to him at the time. At that point, police did not know Chandra's remains were in the park and thought she could have been anywhere.
Greenville, N.C.: I too have followed every chapter and thank you for publishing it. I have learned many new facts, particularly involving the Hispanic male in the part. Are future chapters going to delve in more detail about him, and what has happened to him since. Surely, a likely suspect.
Jeffrey Leen: Yes. Keep reading.
Arlington, Va.: How did the Levy's react when you approached them about the series?
Jeffrey Leen: Although it is difficult for the Levys to relive this period of time, they believe that it important to keep the case in the public eye in the hopes that someone will come forward with new information. They were very generous with their time and memories, and welcomed the reporters, a photographer and a video journalist into their home.
Baltimore: Gene Weingarten entertained some questions about this series in his chat and posed the hypothesis that maybe by the end of the series, readers may end up with a strong leaning toward who may be responsible for Chandra's death and understand why that person will never be charged. Is this a strong hypothesis?
Jeffrey Leen: Gene is very smart. But keep reading.
Arlington, Va.: Your editors should be ASHAMED that they gave the go-ahead for this series. You couldn't think of anything else that warrants investigation, like, say, the mortgage meltdown and how Bush's policies got the ball rolling. Or, perhaps the connection between the war in Iraq and the price at the pump, and how speculators (and China) are driving up the price of oil. But no, you spend TWO WEEKS on rehashing a seven-year old murder. Did you hear there's an election coming up? There may be some interesting stories on the candidates and issues, if you would just do a little digging. Or, a little closer to home, how Governor Goodhair approved spying on peace groups and anti-death penalty protesters.
Jeffrey Leen: The Post produced a three-part series on the mortgage meltdown in June. Last year, the investigative unit produced a four-part series on the hidden activities of Vice President Cheney. In the past few years, the paper has also done projects on the poor treatment of returning soldiers at Walter Reed, the problems with D.C. public schools, the hardships faced by black men in America, the problems that U.S. troops in Iraq face with IEDs, the global food shortage, the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, $15 billion in wasted farm subsidies, waste and fraud in homeland security contracting, and a plethora of other issues, including intensive coverage of the political campaigns. We believe there is room to do deep reporting on all kinds of subjects, local, national and international.
Washington, D.C.: WHO CARES?
In a city where 13-year-old boys are being gunned down on city streets, for The Post to waste 12 days of page one space for a now-ancient murder story of a pretty white girl with connections is the epitome of misplaced journalistic priorities.
You'd be showing the city and your readers a lot more respect if you devoted the same time and energy into finding out who killed Alonzo Robinson.
Let Chandra Levy rest in peace.
Jeffrey Leen: Homicide in D.C. is a subject The Post cares deeply about and has covered in depth on many occasions. In 2000, we did a four-part series on problems in D.C. homicide investigation called Fatal Flaws showing that files and critical documents were missing from more than 200 homicide cases.
Carrboro, N.C.: First off, congratulations on the series -- while I have my own set of both doubt and optimism about the project, it's good to see The Post trying something new.
While I think there are a lot of good aspects to the series, ultimately I have to find it a little sensational. I know many hours of fresh reporting have gone into this project, and there are certainly new revelations here. But if the "new" news were really the news, so to speak, wouldn't this have been structured differently? As a more straightforward news story?
When I weigh the pros and cons of this structure, it really seems to be a narrative retelling of one of the most compelling mysteries Washington has had recently. Which is to say, its the format that seems to make this a big deal - not so much the content.
I guess to put all that into a question: Do you think the content and reporting you've done has been overshadowed by the format you chose?
Jeffrey Leen: The reporting contains many new revelations, some of which were unknown to the investigators involved in the case. That in itself is news. We have been talking about some of these revelations on our investigative blog washingtonpost.com/investigations, and will continue to do so.
We chose the unusual, for us, format, because we wanted to experiment with new types of storytelling. The serial was an honored form of journalism in the 19th Century, and we wanted to see if it could be adapted to modern times in a case like this. We also wanted the reader to experience this case in real time, from the point of view of the investigators and those they were investigating, so the reader could understand the pressures and obstacles presented by the case.
Thanks Again: Thanks for writing this. It helps too that the news is rather slow currently.
If people learned anything, it's that it is not safe (for women) to be in the park or other parts of the city alone.
This might not relate to Chandra, but it did for the other joggers mentioned.
Jeffrey Leen: Thank you.
The park is not known for violent crime, but police advise anybody jogging or walking on isolated paths to be aware of their surroundings, not wear headphones that may prove distracting. They also advise walking with a friend or a dog.
Shrewsbury, Mass.: Did any of the participants of the Chandra Levy murder case that you interviewed express personal pride in their impact, their efforts on the case?
Jeffrey Leen: Many of the investigators look back and are haunted by the case because it remains unsolved. Some of them second guess the decisions they made or didn't make at the time of the investigation.
Des Moines, Iowa: To Arlington, Va.
The Washington Post covers all of the subjects you are so passionate about on a daily basis. They also cover sports and have the comics every day. Why, because the majority of people like to take a break from "serious" issues and expand their interests and mind to other areas. To the writers of this series, thank you for a great and fascinating read.
Jeffrey Leen: Thanks for reading.
Alexandria, Va.: Do you honestly believe this 12-part series is relevant and worth this amount of space in the newspaper at this time?
Jeffrey Leen: We believe it was an important project that takes the reader inside an investigation and allows them to see the difficulties faced when a story goes international. There are lessons to be learned here for the press and law enforcement. We have given this amount of space and much more to other projects. The difference here is the format: shorter stories over a longer period of time.
Girl with the fiance: Was there any update on the girl whose fiance ran ahead and was attacked? How is she doing? Did they get married?
Jeffrey Leen: They did get married and she is now a federal prosecutor.
Rockville, Md.: I see a lot of anger towards the Post for doing this story, one which says "Let Chandra Levy rest in peace." I don't believe anyone can rest in peace when their killer has never been brought to justice. I think this is an important story and hope you will continue to look into these types of cases in the future.
Jeffrey Leen: Thank you for your comment.
Alexandria, Va.: "We have been talking about some of these revelations on our investigative blog washingtonpost.com/investigations, and will continue to do so. "
So this means the real meat of the story is in the blog, not in the paper itself? Are people who read the paper-version of the paper, instead of the online version, not getting the full story of why you're writing this?
Jeffrey Leen: No. The revelations are all in the stories. We merely use the blog to discuss some of the revelations in more detail and to answer questions in more space than we have in the newspaper. For instance, today's story contains a disclosure about DNA testing that has never been reported before.
Alexandria, Va.: I really enjoy the series and the perspective from all the characters involved. How did you get the Levys, various MPD detectives, and others to open up after so many years? Was it difficult to garner cooperation since there were so many leads that you uncover here (in a linear and common sense manner) that wasn't shared or uncovered in 2001?
Jeffrey Leen: The Levys still want to see the case solved. Several D.C. police officials have retired or moved on to other jobs, and feel freer to talk about the case, even though it is still and open homicide. The lead detectives on the case, Ralph Durant and Larry Kennedy, declined to be interviewed, despite repeated requests. The more that we discovered in our reporting, the more various people connected with the case were willing to talk to us about their roles or perspective.
Downtown D.C.: What happened to Ingmar? Was he deported, in jail, or is he free/on the streets and still in the area?
Jeffrey Leen: Keep reading.
Brookeville, Md.: Thank you for taking questions. You told us what happened to the watch box, but what happened to the Tag Heuer watch itself? Did he throw that away, too, or does he still own it, and wear it.
Jeffrey Leen: He did not throw the watch away with the box. We have no idea what happened to the watch, which was a gift from one of his congressional aides and not Chandra. When we interviewed Condit he told us that he does not like to wear watches and never has.
Sykesville, Md.: Reading this series, I have felt like I'm living through this. I feel sadness, then anger and back again. I find myself yelling at the paper. It dives so far into this mystery, was it difficult to not become consumed by this story? How did you distract yourself from becoming taken over my the emotions of it?
Jeffrey Leen: All of the reporters lost sleep and dreamt about the case. This is the editor speaking: the series has been a grueling emotional experience for all concerned.
Jeffrey Leen: That's all we have time for. Sorry we couldn't get to all of your questions. Visit our blog at washingtonpost.com/investigations and we will try to answer more in the coming days.
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