In the seven-plus years that the crime has languished unsolved, the 2001 murder of Chandra Levy, a 24-year-old intern in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, has become Washington, D.C.'s best-known cold case. But the trail heated up this week, with Levy's parents and law enforcement sources indicating an arrest was imminent. The likely suspect: Ingmar Guandique, a 27-year-old Salvadoran immigrant currently serving time for assaulting two women in the spring and summer of 2001 in the same park where Levy's remains were found. Guandique had also been implicated in the murder by a fellow inmate, who claimed the ex-construction worker had confessed to the crime.
While an arrest might bring a measure of closure to her grieving family, it also raises a battery of questions none more important than how D.C. police failed to mount a case against such a compelling suspect.
D.C. police were alerted to Levy's disappearance on May 6, 2001, when the parents of the 24-year-old intern in the Federal Bureau of Prisoners called to say they hadn't heard from their daughter in five days. The Levys and investigators quickly zeroed in on Gary Condit, an immaculately coiffed representative from Ceres, Calif. with a wife and two children and with whom Levy was conducting a clandestine affair.
When her ties to Condit emerged, the familiar twist the fresh-faced intern besotted with an older Washington power-broker transfixed the country. As police combed Rock Creek Park in Northwest Washington for signs of the missing woman, tips rushed in: Levy was buried in Virginia, or at the bottom of the Potomac, or had become pregnant and fled. Not until the attacks of Sept. 11 did the media spotlight trained on the case begin to flicker. Finally, on May 22, 2002, a man walking his dog in a Rock Creek Park ravine discovered Levy's remains. What he thought was a turtle shell turned out to be her skull.
Avid followers of the case were incredulous that the body lay less than 100 yards from the park's trail. But the inability to find Levy's body for more than a year during which time hopes of unearthing physical evidence from the scene slowly seeped away was only one in a battery of mistakes committed during a bungled investigation. Investigators failed to realize security cameras installed at Levy's apartment building might have offered valuable clues until after the tapes had been erased. While examining Levy's laptop for clues, an unseasoned sergeant mangled her Internet search history, forcing a month-long delay before police were able to discover that she may have planned to visit the park on the day of her disappearance. The police were criticized for fanning the media fury and impeding the investigation by holding press conferences. Most significantly, they honed in on Condit at the exclusion of other suspects.
And there was one in particular who bore careful scrutiny. Guandique attacked two female joggers in Rock Creek Park in the months surrounding Levy's disappearance, on May 14 and July 1. In both cases, brandishing a knife, he attacked his victims from behind and wrestled them to the ground. (Both struggled to free themselves and were able to escape relatively unscathed.) Apprehended after the second attack, Guandique admitted during questioning that he had seen Chandra Levy in Rock Creek Park.
Several months later, in October 2001, an informant told police that while in jail, Guandique had confessed to murdering Levy. Polygraphs were administered to both the informant, who "failed," and the suspect, who was judged "not deceptive." Relying on the polygraph results a far from exact science caused police to apparently eliminate Guandique as a suspect. He was sentenced in Feb. 2002 to 10 years in prison for his attacks on the two joggers; today he is an inmate at a federal prison in California. Years later, noting that the pattern of assaults and the fact that the attacks in Rock Creek Park stopped after the Salvadoran was jailed, one police profiler told the Washington Post: "Guandique stands out like a neon sign."
"You have to have faith in your detectives, and we did," as another senior police official told the Post, explaining how Guandique had been overlooked. (The paper's exhaustive investigation of the case is available online). But the exclusion of a key suspect exacted a steep price on many people. By exposing his adultery and painting him, however briefly, as a suspected murderer, the case torpedoed Condit's career and left his reputation in tatters. He was ousted in a 2002 primary challenge, and left the House when his term expired in 2003. Aside from a tumultuous stint running two Baskin-Robbins franchises, he and his wife have filed several lawsuits to rehabilitate his shattered image. Levy's family, meanwhile, was forced to endure the prolonged nightmare of their daughters' disappearance under a media spotlight and a long-delayed wait for justice. "This helps a little," Susan Levy said of reports that Guandique's arrest is imminent. "But we still don't have our daughter and we have a life sentence without her. Grief is like a marathon. You don't get over it."