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Who Killed Chandra Levy? - Chapter Eleven: A Walk in the Woods

By Sari Horwitz, Scott Higham and Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writers
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. All of it was strewn down the side of the ravine in a 10-yard radius from the skull.

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.

For more than a week, Mobile Crime Unit technicians and police recruits conducted a search of the woods around Chandra's remains. They sifted through dirt and leaves and brought in cadaver dogs. They found small bones and some teeth. They also found a silver-colored lipstick case with the lipstick intact, a foam-rubber shoe lining and a dirty white sock.

****

Two weeks later, on June 6, 2002, the private investigators hired by the Levy family took a drive to Rock Creek Park. The police had finished their search, and the retired D.C. homicide detectives, Dwayne Stanton and J.T. "Joe" McCann, wanted to have a look. They brought a shovel, an ax and two rakes.

About an hour and a half into their search, McCann began to look in an area about 25 yards from where Palmer found Chandra's skull. He raked some leaves and spotted what appeared to be a 12- to 14-inch bone embedded in the dirt. It turned out to be Chandra's left tibia. McCann and Stanton called their former employer, the D.C. police department.

Ramsey was incredulous, then furious. He demanded to know how his crime-scene technicians missed the bone. He launched an internal review of the incident and lit into Alfred J. Broadbent, the assistant police chief who was ultimately in charge of the search and the Chandra investigation. Broadbent wanted Ramsey to go to the scene to see the difficult terrain for himself, but the chief was not interested.

Top police officials were already red-faced: During the initial searches of the park the year before, they had missed Chandra's remains. Now, Ramsey sent search teams back into the woods, along with a zoologist to explore animal burrows and other locations that might have been overlooked.

The police issued a news release that said there was a "strong possibility" that the bone was moved. "It appears that department technicians did not pass over the bone during the original search," the release said. "There appears to be a greater likelihood that the bone was reintroduced into the area by wildlife."

D.C. police couldn't believe that McCann and Stanton found something they had missed. The detectives asked McCann to take a polygraph exam. He refused, insulted by the insinuation that he might have tampered with a crime scene.

The detectives then turned their attention to Palmer, asking him whether he might have taken the bone and returned it when he realized it was part of a crime scene. Palmer provided a videotaped statement denying that he tampered with the bone.

The police department was ridiculed again when their own search teams went back and found more remains: small bones from Chandra's hands, feet and back, a heel bone, and a femur, the largest bone in the human body. It was discovered 170 feet west of the crime scene.

The discoveries highlighted long-standing problems within the understaffed and under-budgeted Mobile Crime Unit. Training was inconsistent, and equipment was lacking. Some technicians used their own money to buy markers, cotton swabs and evidence bags. Gainer, the department's second in command, acknowledged that his police force was not "forensically oriented."

****

The D.C. detectives and the FBI now had a murder on their hands and few clues to follow. Investigators turned to Kim Rossmo, director of research for the Police Foundation in Washington, who was known for his work as a geographical profiler. He had created a widely respected computerized method of analyzing patterns in murders, rapes, arsons and other crimes.

When Rossmo looked into Chandra's case, he became particularly interested in Guandique and the violent crimes he committed in Rock Creek Park. Rossmo noted that around the time of Chandra's disappearance, the Salvadoran immigrant lived on the outskirts of the park and attacked two women with a knife on isolated trails that traversed steep inclines. Such serial attacks were rare in the park, and they had stopped after Guandique was arrested.

To Rossmo, statistically, behaviorally and geographically, Guandique looked like he might be their man.

"This is not evidence, but both attacks were on women, and the geography and the time period match the attack on Chandra," Rossmo would later tell The Washington Post. "When you consider the relatively low violent crime rate in Rock Creek Park, Guandique stands out like a neon sign."

Next chapter: D.C. police pursue the Guandique lead.

The Washington Post spent a year reconstructing the disappearance of Chandra Levy and the investigation of her death. Reporters interviewed scores of people, including police officials, investigators and suspects — many for the first time — and obtained details about dozens of previously unknown private conversations and events.

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