A Walk in the Woods
- May 22, 2002: A man walking his dog in Rock Creek Park finds Chandra Levy's skeletal remains.
- June 6: Investigators hired by the Levy family find a leg bone at the crime scene that was missed by police.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 24, 2008
Shortly before 9:30 a.m. on May 22, 2002, Philip Douglas Palmer, a 42-year-old furniture maker, walked his dog down a steep ravine off the Western Ridge Trail in Rock Creek Park. Palmer had been hiking trails in the park for 30 years, and he was looking for items to add to his offbeat collection of deer antlers and animal bones.
The ravine was shaded by poplars and oaks, the forest floor covered with thorny vines, patches of poison ivy and mountain laurel. Palmer suddenly spotted a red piece of clothing and noticed a shallow depression in the ground. Beneath the brush, he saw a bleached-out object that he thought was a turtle shell. He swept away some leaves, uncovering a human skull. Palmer marked the spot by hanging a blue leash and a sweatshirt on nearby branches and left to call 911.
Ten minutes later, U.S. Park Police Sgt. Dennis Bosak arrived. He took one look and thought: Ingmar Guandique has been here. The crime scene - tucked away between the Western Ridge Trail and Broad Branch Road - was eerily similar to the site along Beach Drive where Christy Wiegand was attacked a year earlier. Guandique, a Salvadoran immigrant, had been convicted of attacking Wiegand and another woman in the park.
The new scene was near an area of the park called Grove 17, where police had searched nearly a year earlier for Chandra's body. Bosak saw a red Aero sports bra, a pair of Victoria's Secret panties and a pair of Pro Spirit black stretch pants, turned inside out. Oddly, each leg was knotted.
Bosak spotted a dirty gray T-shirt, size small, also turned inside out; printed on it in red letters was "Property of USC Athletics." Also at the scene was an Aiwa AM/FM cassette player, model TX-377; a white Reebok jogging shoe trimmed in blue; and bone fragments scattered about. Most of it was strewn down the side of the ravine in a 10-yard radius from the base of a tree.
Lawrence Kennedy, one of the D.C. detectives assigned to the Chandra Levy case, arrived a short time later and interviewed Bosak.
"Does this scene remind you of any other crime scene that you have been on?" Kennedy asked.
"Yes," Bosak replied. "The attempted sexual assault case involving Guandique."
"What about this site is reminiscent?" Kennedy asked.
"Coming from the top of the hill from where the skull was found, going towards the creek, the characteristics of the Beach Drive Guandique assault were similar to the Levy crime scene," Bosak said. "Both involved hillsides, both involved Walkman radios, the sliding down the hills and the location of the clothes."
Soon Broad Branch Road was under siege. Word quickly spread inside the D.C. police department, the FBI, the U.S. attorney's office and newsrooms across the nation. Police cordoned off the area with ribbons of yellow crime-scene tape. Officers and technicians from the Mobile Crime Unit trudged with equipment over the steep ground, some of them stumbling.
The top police brass, Chief Charles H. Ramsey and his deputy, Terrance W. Gainer, went to the scene. They were amazed at how close their searchers had come to finding Chandra.
"We were just a tad above the body," Gainer recalled.
She had been missing 386 days.
In Modesto, Calif., that morning, Robert and Susan Levy taped an interview in their living room for "The Oprah Winfrey Show," which was doing another segment on Chandra's disappearance. Afterward, Susan crawled into Chandra's bed because it always made her feel close to her daughter.
Later that morning, the phone rang. D.C. police told her they had found the remains of a woman in Rock Creek Park. It could be Chandra. In the hallway of her home, Levy fell to the floor, sobbing so hard she could barely catch her breath.
Back in Washington, Ramsey stood before the pack of reporters on Broad Branch Road. Dental records had confirmed that Chandra had been found.
Her remains had been exposed for so long that there was not much left to test during the autopsy the next day. The medical examiner found no evidence of bullets, stab marks or skull fractures. He couldn't determine whether Chandra was strangled but said the hyoid bone in her neck had been damaged. Still, the case was now officially a homicide.