Interview by Sandra Parshall
When 24-year-old Washington intern Chandra Levy disappeared on May 1, 2001, the story became a worldwide sensation. Her romantic relationship with a married Congressman, Rep. Gary Condit (D) of California, made him the prime suspect and focused relentless press attention on every aspect of his life, but no evidence linking him to her disappearance was ever found. The terrorist attacks on September 11 of that year eclipsed the story of the missing intern.
By the time her skeletal remains were found in D.C.’s Rock Creek Park the following May, and the medical examiner declared her death a homicide, Condit’s political career was in ruins and police were no closer to learning the truth about Chandra’s disappearance and death. The case went cold.
In the summer of 2008, The Washington Post ran a 13-part series about the case, the culmination of a year’s work by Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporters Scott Higham and Sari Horwitz. The series pointed to a suspect the police had considered briefly but dismissed: Ingmar Guandique, who had assaulted at least two women in Rock Creek Park. Police renewed their investigation, and in March 2009 Guandique was arrested for Chandra Levy’s murder. He goes on trial in October.
Scott Higham and Sari Horwitz went on to write Finding Chandra, a look back at the case and their own investigation that includes some details never before published. The book was published yesterday. Today Scott and Sari talk about their work.
Q. When the two of you began your investigation of the Levy murder, many people probably considered it a cold case that would never be solved. Did the DC police have that attitude, or were detectives still working on it?
A. For many years, the D.C. police had given up on solving the case. In 2007, the new police chief, Cathy Lanier, assigned two new detectives to the case and promised Chandra’s mother, Susan, that she would do everything in her power to solve it.
Q. How did the police and the US Attorney’s office react to your investigation? How cooperative -- or uncooperative -- were they?
A. Police and prosecutors did not cooperate with us before the Post published our investigation. After publication, they boxed up the police files relating to Congressman Gary Condit and redoubled their efforts to find Chandra’s killer. One of their first steps was to interview the prime suspect, Ingmar Guandique, in prison and obtain a sample of his DNA. And for the first time, they interviewed a woman he followed and two women he attacked in Rock Creek Park around the time of Chandra’s disappearance.
Q. In the book, you mention that unidentified sources provided you with hundreds of confidential documents regarding the case. What do you believe motivated these people to take what was obviously a great risk? To your knowledge, has any of your sources suffered any consequences for sharing inside information with you?
A. Many people in law enforcement knew the murder investigation had been badly botched and they wanted justice for the Levy family. They turned to the press because they felt the case was no longer a high priority inside the police department or the FBI. To our knowledge, there have been no repercussions.
Q. Your Post series detailed an incredible string of mistakes made by law enforcement investigators. They seem to have done almost everything wrong. After the series was published, did you get any blowback from them about any part of it? Do you expect to hear from them about your book?
A. Most everyone involved in the case has acknowledged the mistakes that were made, although sometimes grudgingly. The former police chief and two of his top commanders said there were aspects of the case they did not know about until they read our investigation. As the case proceeds to trial, the new team of detectives and prosecutors will have to overcome those mistakes if they hope to win a conviction.
Q. Did your conclusion that Ingmar Guandique was most likely the killer take shape gradually? Or was there a lightbulb moment, a single revelation or piece of information that convinced you?
A. It took shape over many months as we interviewed nearly everyone involved in the investigation. The closer we looked at Guandique’s pattern of behavior in the weeks before and after Chandra disappeared, the more convinced we became that the police should have focused on him as a key suspect after his July 1, 2001 arrest.
Q. In your opinion, why did investigators cling to their belief that Gary Condit killed Chandra even when they failed to turn up any evidence of his guilt? Guandique looked like the perfect suspect, so why did they resist the idea for so long?
A. In the early days of the investigation, Condit was less forthcoming about his relationship with Chandra because he was trying to keep his private life private in an effort to protect his family and his career. That decision, along with some his behavior during the summer of 2001, made him appear suspicious to police and prosecutors. It also seemed as though the police, prosecutors and the press were captivated by the idea that a congressman might be involved in a murder. It made for a better criminal case, and it made for a better story.
Q. Has Condit, or anyone close to him, ever thanked you for exonerating him?
A. The congressman has not, though we understand why. He blames the news media for destroying his career. His lawyer said he appreciated that The Post cleared his client, but he is quick to note that his client’s exoneration came at an unacceptable price.
Q. Coverage of the Levy case has been called a media frenzy, a media circus – and you’ve called it “pack journalism” at its worst. Can you give some examples of irresponsible news reports about the case? Do you think the press coverage interfered in any way with the search for the truth, or was it a sideshow? If Chandra had disappeared yesterday, do you think the coverage would differ from what we saw in 2001?
A. A book could be written about this subject. Overheated press coverage frequently distorts the public’s view of high-profile criminal cases, and investigators frequently find themselves paying more attention to the press than to the facts. In this case, the press reported rumors and innuendo about Condit that were repeated in stories around the nation. Several false stories, such as a report that Chandra and Condit’s wife had a fight before Chandra’s disappearance, resulted in libel suits. Unfortunately, with the proliferation of blogs and the advent of the 24-hour news cycle, the rush to be first rather than right has become more intense over the years and the facts continue to suffer. When Guandique was arrested last year, the Associated Press reported that DNA had tied him to the crime. The story was picked up around the country and it was not true.
Q. How did the two of you work together on the series and the book? Were you always together for interviews and research, or did you split up assignments to save time?
A. We conducted all the major interviews together and traveled around the country together, spending a lot of time in California, home to Chandra, the congressman, and their friends and associates. We split up other interviews and many of the menial tasks of building the foundation of an investigation to save time and keep our momentum going.
Q. Your story sounds like the plot of a thriller, in which an intrepid reporter uncovers the truth that eluded police. Isn’t this rare in real life? Do you know of other cases in which reporters have helped solve murders?
A. It’s a rare opportunity to investigate a murder, and there have been reporters around the nation who have done amazing work in the field. The work by Jerry Miller, an investigative reporter for the Clarion-Ledger in Mississippi, prompted authorities to reopen several unsolved homicides by the Klu Klux Klan. We didn’t solve the Chandra Levy case. Our investigation ignited police interest in the case and the new detectives put together a circumstantial case against Guandique. The strength of that case will be tested at the October trial.
Q. Do you still work for the Post? Do you anticipate teaming up again?
A. Yes, we are assigned to the Investigative Staff. We are currently working on different projects with new partners, but we would love to work together again. Finding a great work partner is a once-in-a-lifetime prospect.
Q. Finally, a question that I'm sure the mystery writers and fans who visit our blog would love to ask: Do you read crime fiction, and if so, who are your favorite authors?
A. We do, though because of our work, we read a lot of non-fiction, which can read like top-flight fiction if done right. Poe, of course, The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Agatha Christie, George Pelecanos, one of our local crime fiction heroes. Scott, who worked for The Miami Herald before joining The Post, is a big fan of Carl Hiassen and Elmore Leonard. South Florida is stranger than fiction. Sari likes Daniel Silva, John Grisham, and Michael Connelly.
For more information about the book, the authors, and their appearance schedule, visit www.findingchandra.com.