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Who Killed Chandra Levy? - Chapter Twelve: Pursuit of the Predator

By Sari Horwitz, Scott Higham and Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writers
June 25, 2008

When Chandra Levy's remains were found in May 2002 in Rock Creek Park, Halle Shilling felt a chill.

Shilling, a Washington writer who was teaching a nonfiction workshop at Johns Hopkins University, was one of two women attacked in the park the previous summer; Shilling was assaulted two weeks after Chandra disappeared.

She was struck by the similarities between the spot where she was assaulted and the scene where Chandra's remains were found. Both were off isolated trails, along ravines, not far from the old Peirce Mill. A Salvadoran immigrant named Ingmar Guandique was charged in July 2001 with attacking Shilling and, later, another female jogger in the park. A parking lot and picnic area near the mill were among his favorite hangouts.

Shilling couldn't understand why the police detectives investigating Chandra's disappearance never interviewed her about Guandique. She talked to reporters, and Guandique's name surfaced publicly for the first time May 23, 2002.

When reporters questioned D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey, he downplayed Guandique as a suspect. "The press is making too big a deal of it," Ramsey said.

But behind the scenes, D.C. detectives and federal prosecutors were trying to re-interview Guandique, who was now imprisoned in North Carolina. It had been 10 months since they learned that he had attacked the two women in the park. It had been seven months since a jailhouse informant told police that Guandique told him he had stabbed Chandra in Rock Creek Park and dragged her deep into the woods. Guandique had taken a polygraph, denying he had anything to do with Chandra's disappearance.

Prosecutors told detectives to find Guandique's associates, friends and family members. But by now, Guandique's attorney had contacted him in prison advising him not to talk to anyone - detectives, FBI agents or private investigators.

Many of Guandique's family members and friends did not speak English, and the D.C. detectives assigned to the case, Ralph Durant and Lawrence Kennedy, did not speak Spanish. The language barrier slowed the interview process, bogging down the investigation.

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After the discovery of Chandra's remains, prosecutors urged D.C. detectives to interview Guandique's relatives and friends. Nearly two months went by before Durant and Kennedy visited the scene where Shilling was attacked. On July 12, the detectives and a federal prosecutor met U.S. Park Police Detective Joe Green in the parking lot near the Peirce Mill, and Green showed them where Guandique was sitting when he spotted Shilling. He then took them up the isolated trail to the site where Guandique jumped his victim.

The detectives realized that the site was within easy walking distance of the Chandra Levy crime scene.

Then, four more weeks passed before Durant and Kennedy interviewed Guandique's ex-girlfriend and her mother. On Aug. 11 - 13 months after Guandique's arrest - the detectives went to his old neighborhood with a translator. Maria Portillo, the mother, told them about Guandique's drinking and his violent behavior toward her daughter, Iris. Durant and Kennedy then interviewed Iris, who confirmed her mother's account and said her mother kicked Guandique out of the apartment in late April 2001 - shortly before Chandra vanished.

Police were also searching for physical evidence that could tie someone to the murder, such as Chandra's pinkie ring. Toward the end of the summer of 2002, Durant and Kennedy still had not tracked down Guandique's belongings.

On Aug. 12, Durant and Kennedy met with one of Guandique's friends, Jaime Flores. He and Guandique came from the same small town in El Salvador. The detectives learned from Flores that Guandique's half-brother, Huber, had picked up Guandique's belongings. Twelve days later, the detectives interviewed Huber, who told them he thought a man known as "Juan the Pig" had the belongings.

By then, the original prosecutors had been replaced by a new hard-charging lawyer, Elisa Poteat. She was a young, promising assistant U.S. attorney who specialized in prosecuting sex crimes and spoke fluent Spanish. She began to sit in on interviews with Guandique's associates.

Poteat made an intriguing discovery during the interviews: It appeared that Guandique had not been at work the day Chandra disappeared. He lost his job that same day.

On Sept. 22, Poteat, frustrated by the slow pace of the lead detectives, stepped up the tempo of the investigation. While Durant and Kennedy were temporarily detailed to work on protests at the International Monetary Fund, Poteat moved to get two bilingual detectives assigned to the case.

The officers, Sgt. Raul Figueras and Detective Emilio Martinez, immediately tracked down Guandique's associates and brought them in for interviews.

On Oct. 2, Washington Post reporters interviewed Guandique's former landlady, Sheila Phillips Cruz. She recalled that Guandique had a fat lip and scratches on his throat in late April or early May 2001, around the time Chandra disappeared. Cruz said Guandique told her he got into a fight with his waifish girlfriend, but Portillo told the reporters that she never struck Guandique.

Cruz said Guandique started drinking during that period.

"Ingmar just got really strange," she said. "Half the time he didn't know where he was."

Cruz also said Guandique left behind two bags of his belongings in a stairwell when he moved out of the apartment on Somerset Place in May 2001. She said they contained the T-shirts, baggy pants and baseball cap Guandique liked to wear. That summer, she had a maintenance man throw away the bags.

Cruz said the police had not interviewed her about Guandique. After learning that she was interviewed by The Post, police rushed to talk to her.

Poteat redoubled her efforts to find the rest of Guandique's belongings. The bilingual detectives learned that Juan the Pig's real name was Juan Jose Arevalo Escobar and that he was locked up on a DUI charge in Newport News, Va. He was about to be released. On Oct. 10, 2002, Poteat pleaded with the police to send the detectives immediately.

They made it to Newport News before Escobar's release, and he told them he did indeed have some of Guandique's belongings. They were back in Maryland with a friend whom police had interviewed previously. But by the time the detectives got to the friend, he told them he had thrown the belongings out - after they interviewed him the first time.

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In May 2003, nearly a year after they were found in Rock Creek Park, Chandra's bones were returned to Robert and Susan Levy in Modesto, Calif. They were taken to the Lakewood Memorial Park Cemetery in Hughson, not far from where Chandra grew up.

On May 27, the Levys held a private graveside service for their daughter. A rabbi recited prayers, and a choir from the family's temple sang. Susan Levy read a poem. Twelve white doves were released.

But Chandra's parents don't plan to mark her grave site until her killer is found. Only then will they put up a stone. Robert Levy knows what it will say: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

Next chapter: A cold case.

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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