The Chandra Levy case spun out of control in mid-July 2001 with a series of sensational tabloid stories, with such headlines as "The Congressman, the Missing Intern & the Sexy Stewardess: FBI Probes His Secret Double Life."
On July 12, 2001, The Washington Post recounted a tale from a Pentecostal minister in Rep. Gary Condit's home town of Ceres, Calif., who had worked as a handyman for the Levys. He said his teenage daughter once dated the congressman, but she was afraid to talk to the FBI and had gone into hiding.
A week after the account became front-page news, the minister recanted his story to the FBI. "It really hurt me," Condit said in a recent interview. "It hurt me personally; it hurt me professionally; it accused me of committing a crime, of having sex with a minor. It put me in such a dark state, I didn't think I was going to get out."
D.C. detectives remained focused on Condit. They wanted to give him a polygraph test, but the congressman, burned by the leaks and the news coverage, refused. He and his attorney, Abbe Lowell, hired their own polygraph examiner. On July 13, Lowell announced that his client had passed the test. There were three questions: Did Condit have anything to do with Chandra's disappearance? Did he harm her or cause anyone else to harm her? And did he know where she could be found?
Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey dismissed the test as a farce with "no investigative value." FBI experts agreed. "He may have tried to sell it to us, but we're not buying it," Ramsey said.
Driven by a drumbeat of lurid disclosures, the case reached an apogee of publicity, with a remarkable 63 percent of Americans following the story closely, according to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll.
By late July, with tensions between police and Condit at an all-time high, the detectives requested a fourth interview with the congressman. This one would be conducted by Brad Garrett, a storied FBI agent with an all-black wardrobe who blended old-fashioned shoe leather with a Zen-like interviewing style.
Garrett had spent four years hunting down and obtaining a confession from Mir Aimal Kasi, a Pakistani who in 1993 killed two CIA employees outside the agency's Langley headquarters. Garrett also obtained a confession from Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. And he helped solve the 1997 slayings of three Starbucks employees in Georgetown. The former Marine from Indiana with a PhD in criminology was so successful at closing murder cases that colleagues called him "Dr. Death."
On July 26, Garrett - along with D.C. Detectives Ralph Durant and Lawrence Kennedy - interviewed Condit in Lowell's downtown Washington office. The congressman provided dates and details about his relationship with Chandra, some of them new. The investigators said they were building a profile of Chandra and needed more information about her habits.
Condit said she was a vegetarian, she was always upbeat, she took vitamins, she didn't take drugs or drink. She was mature for her age and very savvy. He described her as frugal, noting that her wardrobe looked like it came from a Macy's-type department store, not Nordstrom. He said he had been surprised that she ended the lease on her apartment because he expected her to return soon after her May 11 graduation from the University of Southern California.
Garrett came away with a gut feeling: Condit was not their guy.
The Modesto Bee had stood by Condit's side in nearly every fight of his 30-year political career, but on Aug. 12, the largest newspaper in his district called for his resignation. The Bee's editorial board concluded that the congressman "knowingly hindered" the police investigation into Chandra's disappearance. "For 15 weeks, Condit has put his own interests ahead of the effort to find Levy," the editorial said. "His self-absorption has been a lapse not only of judgment, but of human decency."
Condit launched a last-ditch public relations campaign, hiring Marina Ein, a well-connected Washington media guru. The congressman and his wife consented to a People magazine cover story.
Condit also agreed to speak publicly about Chandra for the first time on ABC's "PrimeTime Thursday," in an interview with Connie Chung. In TV news circles, this was considered the biggest "get" since Barbara Walters got Monica Lewinsky to talk about President Bill Clinton. On the eve of his appearance, Condit wrote a letter to his constituents.
"Some suggest that not talking with the media could mean I had something to do with Chandra's disappearance. I did not," he wrote. "..... I will be interviewed on television and hopefully I will be able to answer questions that help people understand. It is not something I look forward to. But things have gone on long enough."
The interview, broadcast Aug. 23, didn't go the way Condit planned. Chung rattled him with one of her first questions: Did you kill Chandra Levy? He said no, then was reserved for the rest of the session.
"She could have pulled my fingernails out. She could have started putting long knives down my throat - I would not have given her any information," Condit recently recalled in an interview with The Post.
During the ABC interview, he declined to answer questions about whether he had an affair with Chandra. He said that he was not a perfect man and that he made mistakes. "But out of respect for my family, out of a specific request by the Levy family, it is best that I not get into the details of the relationship," he said repeatedly.
Condit's performance was uniformly criticized as evasive. Robert and Susan Levy were appalled - they said they had made no "specific request" that Condit be discreet about their daughter. Political party leaders and major newspapers called for him to step down.
"I knew within a couple weeks my career was gone," he recalled in The Post interview.
While the world was focused on Condit, a Salvadoran immigrant was sitting in jail, charged with attacking women at knifepoint in Rock Creek Park. Chandra had searched the Internet for something to do in the park on the day she disappeared; the man in jail would seem to be a prime suspect for the detectives looking for her. But after the man's arrest on July 1 by the U.S. Park Police, 19 days passed before D.C. detectives in the Chandra case said they heard about the man.
On July 20, one of the detectives would later note, they got a tip that a Hispanic man had exposed himself to a woman named Karen Mosley nine weeks earlier in Rock Creek Park. The case had been investigated by the Park Police.
Toward the end of May, Mosley, 29, was walking with her dog along a path in the park that began at the old Peirce Mill when she saw a young Hispanic man exposing himself. He ran off when her dog snarled at him. Mosley ran back to the mill and called police from a pay phone. A Park Police officer told her she was lucky: There was a predator in the park who had attacked a woman jogging on a nearby trail.
On July 24, when D.C. detectives contacted the Park Police for additional details about Mosley, they said, they learned for the first time about an attack in the park. Ingmar Guandique, the Salvadoran, was being held for assaulting Christy Wiegand on July 1.
Detectives later noted that police called Mosley the day they received the tip, July 20, but Mosley said no one from the D.C. police contacted her that summer.
"That didn't happen," she later recalled. "I would have remembered that."
As Chandra's disappearance turned into a round-the-clock news story in mid-July, Mosley grew frustrated by the intense coverage of Condit.
"It was making me crazy," she recalled. "The entire focus was on this guy. I kept saying to my friends, 'They're not focusing on this guy in the woods.'."
Detectives in the Levy case would not pursue the information about Ingmar Guandique for another two months.
Mosley said she wasn't interviewed by D.C. police until the first week of September, more than three months after the incident. By then, she was unable to identify the suspect.
Next chapter: A jailhouse informant tells an extraordinary story.
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