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Who Killed Chandra Levy? - Chapter One: A Young Woman Disappears

By Sari Horwitz, Scott Higham and Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writers
July 13, 2008

It was above 80 degrees, the start of another steamy summer day in Washington. At 8:58 on the morning of July 25, 2001, three D.C. police sergeants gathered 28 cadets along Glover Road in Rock Creek Park. They were looking for any trace of a government intern named Chandra Ann Levy.

The 24-year-old woman from California, with hazel eyes and a head full of unruly brown curls, had left her Dupont Circle apartment and then simply disappeared. She had been missing for 85 days, and the search for her had captivated the city and the nation. Her laptop computer's history showed that she was interested in visiting the vast 1,750-acre park on the day she vanished.

Now, the line of cadets executed the order of the city's chief of detectives, Cmdr. Jack Barrett: Search 100 yards from the roads that crisscross the park. But someone had made a mistake. D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey had wanted the cadets to search 100 yards off the park's trails. By limiting the search to the areas near the roads, the police would canvass a far smaller portion of the park and not go deep into the woods. Either Ramsey miscommunicated his order, or Barrett misunderstood it.

After 1 that afternoon, the sergeants called off the search, and the weary cadets boarded a bus and headed for another area of the park.

Off the Western Ridge Trail near Glover Road, beneath the dark green canopy of the forest, a pair of sunglasses rested on the ground. Not far away was a white Reebok sneaker trimmed in blue. A little farther, on the edge of a ravine, was a pair of black Pro Spirit stretch pants turned inside out, each leg tied in a knot. And nearby lay the body of Chandra Levy. It was 79 yards below the trail.

"We were unbelievably close, but we missed — we just missed her," Terrance W. Gainer, the second-ranking D.C. police official at the time, later recalled. "We were so darn close to finding that poor girl."

It would be another 10 months before Chandra's body was found. By then, the forensic evidence that might have identified a killer — blood, hair, fiber — would be gone.

****

The Chandra Levy case is the most famous unsolved murder in modern Washington, a mystery involving sex, power and secrets. At its center is a vivacious young intern who had crossed paths with a handsome, married congressman. The story triggered months of feverish worldwide media attention in 2001, before the Sept. 11 attacks shoved it aside and the investigation stalled.

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

The Post's examination of the case will unfold in a 12-chapter serial and epilogue in print and online. The serial will show how the sensational nature of the media coverage quickly overwhelmed the investigation. It will expose the fleeting acts that later loomed large and will reveal undisclosed clues, meaningful and false: a DNA swab in a dark parking lot, Chandra's last computer search, a conversation with a jailhouse informant who said he had the key to the case.

In the end, the serial will reveal how an enormous effort by the D.C. police, the FBI and prosecutors was undercut by a chain of mistakes, a misdirected focus and missed opportunities that allowed a killer to escape justice.

****

The case began on Sunday, May 6, 2001, with an urgent call about 4 p.m. to the D.C. police department's 2nd District stationhouse on Idaho Avenue in Northwest Washington. On the line was Robert Levy, a doctor from Modesto, Calif. He hadn't heard from his daughter, Chandra, for five days, not since she sent an e-mail listing Southwest Airlines fares for her planned trip back west. She should have been home by now.

She had been in Washington for seven months, interning at the Bureau of Prisons. She was supposed to graduate May 11 from the University of Southern California with a master's degree in public administration. She was a planner. She would have called or sent another e-mail.

The seemingly routine missing-persons case was caught by D.C. Detective Ralph Durant in the 2nd District, a place so placid the cops there are jokingly called "squirrel chasers" by some officers in the tougher parts of town. The stationhouse serves the tony neighborhoods of Cleveland Park and Georgetown, and the threats are mainly drunks, burglars and petty thieves.

Durant, a journeyman with 33 years on the force, had little homicide experience. He wore parachute pants, cowboy boots and hair pulled back in a ponytail.

Durant took the information from Levy. That day, May 6, police went to Chandra's Dupont Circle apartment, No. 315 in the Newport Condominium at 1260 21st St. NW, and found no indication of foul play. Hospitals and the medical examiner's office were called.

Officers visited the apartment four days in a row, going inside with the help of an apartment manager, and opening Chandra's mailbox. The modern, third-floor studio was neatly furnished with a futon, sleek stainless-steel chairs and a glass coffee table. An open suitcase rested on the floor.

****

Back in California, Robert Levy and his wife, Susan, frantically sifted through Chandra's cellphone bills for clues. There was one number she called over and over. It turned out to be the office of Rep. Gary Condit, who represented the Levys' district in the Central Valley of California.

On May 6, the same day he called police, Robert Levy called Condit at his home in Ceres, a town on the outskirts of Modesto. The congressman's wife, Carolyn, took a message, and Condit returned the call about an hour later.

Levy told Condit he was the father of Chandra Levy, an intern in Washington. She was missing. Could he help?

Condit said Chandra was a friend of one of his former interns, and he pledged to do anything he could, even contribute to a reward fund. After Levy got off the phone, his wife told him that she believed their daughter was dating the 53-year-old Condit. Robert Levy relayed that information the next day to Durant, who called the congressman.

On May 8, Chandra's aunt, Linda Zamsky, called Durant to say Chandra had confided in her about the affair.

Also that day, Condit returned Durant's call. He told the detective that Chandra called him occasionally for career advice. Condit said he had not heard from Chandra for about a week.

On May 10, police obtained a warrant and formally searched Chandra's apartment. They inventoried what they found: Two partially packed Ciao suitcases. A cellphone, credit cards and a driver's license in a purse. Dirty dishes in the sink. A refrigerator that was empty except for some leftover pasta and Reese's peanut butter cups. A Williams-Sonoma bag on the breakfast countertop containing dirty laundry: blue jeans, socks and panties.

Her telephone answering machine was full, with 25 messages. Several were from her mother and godparents. Two were from Condit; they were left on May 3, two days after Chandra disappeared. The congressman seemed concerned that he hadn't heard from her.

****

Chandra's blue Sony Vaio laptop was left open on a makeshift desk in a hallway nook of her apartment. A D.C. police sergeant who was not a trained computer technician turned it on and tried to find her last Internet searches. But he accidentally corrupted the search history on the computer. The mistake would set the investigation back because it would take technicians a month to produce an accurate list of the last Web sites Chandra visited.

On the day she disappeared, May 1, Chandra signed on to the Internet at 10:27 a.m. She went to Condit's home page, Southwest Airlines, Amtrak, Baskin-Robbins. At 11:26, she went to washingtonpost.com. She clicked on the weather report. The forecast called for fair skies.

At 11:33, Chandra clicked on a washingtonpost.com "Entertainment Guide" to Rock Creek Park. At the top of the page was the administrative address of the park: 3545 Williamsburg Ln. NW — the address of the Klingle Mansion, a three-story stone farmhouse that serves as park headquarters. A minute later, she clicked on a link for a map of the park. Her last search was at 12:24 p.m.

The detectives would later theorize that Chandra may have planned to meet someone at Klingle Mansion. Was it one of her friends from the Bureau of Prisons? More intriguing: Was it Condit, who didn't live far from Rock Creek Park? The Klingle Mansion theory quickly gained currency, and police would spend days searching the site.

But there was another possibility that was given less credence by investigators: The page with the Klingle Mansion address included information about the park's hiking trails. It also had details about the horse stables, the old Peirce Mill, and the Nature Center and Planetarium — all of them not far from where Chandra's body lay. She could have been looking for a place to walk on a beautiful spring day. She liked to exercise and she loved the outdoors, and she had just canceled her gym membership.

If she had gone to the park on her own, she could have been a victim of random violence.

And there was another piece of potential evidence the police missed.

Chandra's apartment building had multiple security cameras, which fed a tape that was recorded over every seven days. By the time police obtained the tape, it was too late. Gone were answers to several key questions: What time did she leave? Was she alone? The front desk clerk didn't know. And the detectives didn't have a clue.

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.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company