Washington Post journalists tell compelling true crime story

Finding Chandra

By Elaine K. Alexander, Special to the Light

Washington Post investigative reporters Scott Higham and Sari Horwitz won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for a series on D.C.’s child welfare system. Their recently published book, “Finding Chandra: A True Washington Murder Mystery” (Scribner, $26) is about the botched police investigation in the case of a missing person: Chandra Levy, a 24-year old government intern who sent her mother an email on May 1, 2001 and then vanished. 

Afterwards, in a partnership of wrongful suspicion, police and press focused exclusively on Gary Condit, the 52-year old, married congressman from California with whom Chandra had been secretly involved. Law enforcers interviewed him repeatedly, ransacked his condo and matched his DNA (without significant outcome) to semen stains on Levy’s underwear.

It would have been apparent that Condit was guilty only of having another in a series of affairs with younger women. But the tragedy of errors began within the first 48 hours of the investigation, when the police failed to secure the surveillance videos from Levy’s apartment building and corrupted her laptop’s hard drive. After that, it was six weeks before an FBI analysis could recover her final Internet history. Even then a search, properly located in Washington’s Rock Creek Park, was critically misdirected to extend 100 yards from park roads rather than roads and paths. When, one year after Levy’s disappearance, a hiker stumbled upon her scattered, skeletal remains (and all possible evidence about the cause of her death and the DNA identity of her murderer had been irretrievably lost), the crime scene was only 50 yards from the parameters of the original search. 

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The predictable, global “media frenzy” was fed by police leaks and near daily, news conferences obligingly conducted by the assistant chief of police. Condit staunchly evaded the press and paparazzi. But in August 2001, in a naive (and ultimately unsuccessful) effort to win back his Modesto-area constituency, the congressman gave pop-news personality, Connie Chung, an exclusive interview. Twenty-four million Americans tuned in as she shamelessly urged Condit to “come clean.” Meanwhile, he repeatedly emphasized his total cooperation with the police, but, pleading privacy, refused details of his involvement with Levy, failing even to acknowledge that it had a sexual dimension. 

But who did kill Chandra Levy? In 2007, when Higham and Horwitz began their “burn it to the ground” investigation, the case had gone stone cold. Since then a Salvadoran immigrant, Ingmar Adalid Guandique, has been charged with Levy’s murder, and during book talks, the authors have given Oct. 4 as the date of the trial. The purely circumstantial evidence includes a witness report of Guandique’s appearance the day that Levy disappeared. He reportedly had scratches on his throat, a blood bruise in one eye and a bruised and swollen lip-chilling suggestions of an intense and desperate struggle. 

It has taken nine years for Washington law enforcers to develop a case against Guandique, and that story makes for an engaging and maddening read, although the murder mystery is shadowed by another puzzle. Levy had been reared in an upper middle-class family in Modesto, Calif. by attentive and sensitive, baby-boomer parents who freely blended new-age spirituality with their Jewish roots. She had arrived in D.C. with plans to become an agent of the FBI or CIA. She was about to receive a master’s diploma from the University of Southern California in public policy.

Yet a large part of her life in Washington was confined to sneaky evenings with Condit. She had confided to some that her congressman would eventually leave his wife, retire from Congress and start a new family with her. Levy was intelligent, ambitious and admired by her peers. But even before her murder, she had let her life be derailed by Condit. Why didn’t she know that she deserved better and more?

Elaine K. Alexander is a free-lance writer living in Creve Coeur.