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Who Killed Chandra Levy? - Chapter Eight: A Singular Focus

By Sari Horwitz, Scott Higham and Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writers
June 21, 2008

About 10 p.m. on July 9, Gary Condit and his lawyer met lead Detective Ralph Durant in the dimly lit parking lot behind the Giant supermarket on Wisconsin Avenue near the National Cathedral. Cooler heads had prevailed, and Condit had agreed to give a DNA sample.

Durant used a cotton swab to quickly take a sample of saliva from the congressman's mouth. No words were exchanged. The procedure took less than a minute. The detective turned the sample over to the D.C. Police Mobile Crime Unit, which sent it to the FBI laboratory at Quantico for testing.

During their initial search of Chandra's apartment, D.C. police found a pair of black panties stained with semen. Prosecutors wanted to know if the semen belonged to Condit or if Chandra was seeing another man.

The DNA from Condit's saliva was compared with the DNA on the panties. It was a match.

To D.C. Chief of Detectives Jack Barrett, the match added little to the case. It just confirmed what he already knew: The congressman had been having an affair with the missing intern. Barrett thought Condit was simply trying to save his marriage and his political career.

But Barrett said the DNA match strengthened the suspicions of the prosecutors overseeing the investigation, Assistant U.S. Attorneys Barbara Kittay and Heidi Pasichow. "The prosecutors think this is more proof that he did it," Barrett recalled. "To the prosecutors, it was an aha moment."

Barrett thought the prosecutors were too focused on Condit's relationships with women as a possible key to Chandra's disappearance. He thought they were placing too many demands on his detectives, ordering them to follow all leads relating to Condit and his aides, leaving little time to follow other investigative paths.

The prosecutors saw it differently. The DNA match was one piece of a large puzzle surrounding Chandra and Condit that they were trying to assemble. Kittay said they would have been remiss not to focus on Condit because he knew Chandra's patterns of behavior. "We spent the most amount of time on the person that spent the most amount of time with Chandra," she said.

The media frenzy was adding to the tension between the police and the prosecutors. While the DNA match was one of the investigation's few details that did not leak out, the prosecutors were furious at the police over the many other leaks, which created an enormous distraction for everyone and had the potential to compromise the case. "It was an impossible situation to manage," Kittay recalled. "Everyone wanted to be a hero. Everyone wanted to solve it." She said the prosecutor's office, unlike the police, did not leak or hold news conferences.

Kittay was so upset by the leaks, she said, that she eventually asked to be taken off the case. Behind the scenes, Barrett had asked that new prosecutors be assigned to it.

****

On July 10, the day after Condit gave his DNA sample, television satellite trucks were camped outside his apartment building. Pedestrians could barely squeeze by. In the halls of Congress, reporters were hounding him. The summertime scandal was attracting worldwide attention and getting picked up by news outlets around the globe, from the Daily Mail in London to the Mercury in Hobart, Australia, to the Xinhua News Agency in China.

Reporters had been tipped off that the police were about to search Condit's apartment for the first time. Tabloid reporters were offering cash for information. The story had become a national soap opera, with wall-to-wall coverage on cable television shows such as "Crossfire," "Hannity & Colmes" and "Hardball."

At 11:15 that night, with the media looking on, police officers and crime-scene technicians pulled up in unmarked cars, entered the building and began searching the congressman's fourth-floor apartment. Mobile Crime Unit technicians took swabs from his bathroom's floor, doorknob, walls and bathtub. During the 361/27-hour search, they collected hair from a shoe in a closet and took lint from a clothes dryer. The cameramen on the street shot footage of technicians inside the darkened apartment using ultraviolet lights to search for forensic evidence - blood, fingerprints, fibers - bathing the scene in an eerie purple glow.

"I never counted on them wanting to focus all this attention on me," Condit later recalled. "I've been around politics a long time and really never felt that the press was as brutal and as incompetent as they were going to be."

****

About three hours before police started to search his apartment, the congressman and one of his top aides, Michael Dayton, drove to Alexandria in Dayton's black Volkswagen Jetta.

About 8 p.m., the Jetta pulled up to the curb at Route 1 and Vernon Street, near a McDonald's. Daniel Olson, a law firm temp who lived in the neighborhood, was driving home when he saw a man he recognized as Condit step out of the passenger side of the car. He watched Condit stroll over to a trash can, push something deep inside and return to the Jetta, which pulled away.

Olson was intrigued. He would later tell police that he walked over to the trash can and looked in. He saw a little black square, the size of a computer disk, and pulled it out. It was a black cardboard box for a Tag Heuer watch. The box was torn and flattened. Inside, Olson found a manual and a warranty, but no watch. He brought the box to his apartment and showed it to his roommates.

The next day, Olson tossed it back into the same trash can and went to work, where a colleague who once worked for the Baltimore Police Department urged him to call the D.C. police. Detective Lawrence Kennedy drove to Alexandria and retrieved the box, the manual and the warranty. Police determined that the box had contained a watch that Joleen Argentini McKay, a former member of Condit's congressional staff, gave to him.

Today, Condit says the watch box incident was the result of a misunderstanding. He said police and tabloid reporters were going through his garbage, and he merely wanted to preserve his privacy. "They're saying a woman gave me a watch and I threw the watch box away," he said recently. "Even if that's true, so? What's that? What does that mean? It was nothing."

At the time, detectives were puzzled. They tried to eliminate Condit as a suspect, but he was making it difficult. Why did he keep a watch box for nearly seven years? And why did he throw it out hours before their search of his apartment? They believed that the congressman, at the very least, was obstructing the investigation.

"He did foolish things over the course of time," Barrett recalled. "We had to address him. There was so much energy that was wasted on this issue. ..... He goes and gets real goofy on us. We couldn't eliminate him."

Next chapter: D.C. police receive another possible 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.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company