- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 14, 2010

Smart, friendly, articulate and charming. “If there was a person who was Miss All-Around, that was her,” recalls Dwayne Stanton, a tinge of sad remembrance in his voice.

“Everyone who met her loved her,” the veteran detective-turned-private investigator said of Chandra Levy, a petite and vivacious graduate student from Modesto, Calif., who arrived in the nation’s capital in 2001, ambitious and driven.

“She was a class act, and it’s a shame, a real tragedy, that she didn’t get a chance to show the world what she could do,” Mr. Stanton said.

More than nine years after Mr. Stanton went on a cross-country hunt for clues in the sensational case of the then-missing 24-year-old intern, he looks back, honoring Miss Levy’s cruelly cut-short promise but moving ahead with a sense of resolution. Finally, it would be over.

Salvadoran illegal immigrant Ingmar Guandique, 29, who is serving a 10-year federal prison sentence in California on other assault charges, is set to stand trial for attempted sexual assault and first-degree murder in Miss Levy’s case on Monday in a D.C. Superior Court. He has pleaded not guilty.

Superior Court Judge Gerald I. Fisher ruled Thursday that jury selection for the trial will begin as scheduled on Monday, but only after denying efforts by Guandique’s defense team to dismiss the case because of what they said were “unethical” actions by investigators.

The defense made the motion after learning that detectives had created a fake correspondent who offered to become the defendant’s “pen pal” while he was in jail, hoping to get the suspect to implicate himself. Judge Fisher did agree to drop three charges relating to efforts by Guandique to intimidate witnesses.

“This case is going forward to trial,” the judge said at one point.

The murder trial, nearly a decade after Miss Levy disappeared, reopens the door for many on a story that continues to provoke Beltway chatter, a tale of sex, violence and politics that consumed the city in the weeks and months before the September 11 attacks.

“As soon as you mention her name, immediately everyone remembers,” said Mr. Stanton of the investigation and scandal that rocked a political town in the sultry summer of 2001.

“The case had everything that stimulates people’s interest … mystery, intrigue and romance,” Mr. Stanton recalled. The nation was so rapt by the story of the curly haired, brunette intern who had an affair with a married, veteran congressman that a CNN poll taken in July 2001 found that 63 percent of Americans were following the case. The scandal and police investigation led national newscasts for months and spurred intense media interest, with psychics prognosticating and amateur detectives complaining that not enough was being done to find her.

“Here’s this young lady with all the promise in the world, who comes from the West Coast to Washington,” Mr. Stanton said. “She meets this guy. Her world is turned upside down. And she ends up missing.”

Cold case

Despite the intense interest, the case grew cold as the years went on, only to flare up again in part because of a major investigative project by Washington Post reporters Sari Horwitz and Scott Higham in 2008.

After Miss Levy went missing in the spring of 2001, the suspense went on for more than a year before a jogger with a dog slipped down a forest ravine in Rock Creek Park and made the grisly discovery of her skeletal remains, leaving police, by then under fire for a botched investigation, with few forensic clues to track her killer.

It was not until 2007, as a new chief of the Metropolitan Police Department renewed the Levy homicide investigation, that more details emerged in what had become the District’s most famous cold case, leading investigators back to Guandique. The immigrant had been on their radar screen in the beginning of the search and was serving prison time for assaults on two joggers not far from where Miss Levy’s remains were eventually found. A reported jailhouse informant claimed Guandique told him he stabbed Miss Levy and dragged her body into the woods. Others also claimed he talked about the crime.

“Her family went through so much for so long,” said Mr. Stanton, noting the pain felt by her parents, Susan and Robert Levy. They pleaded for public information, hiring Washington lawyer Billy Martin in an attempt to keep their daughter’s name in the news as precious time ticked away with few clues as to where she might be.

“They went for 53 weeks not even knowing if she was alive,” Mr. Stanton recalled.

“I had some real sleepless nights,” he said, remembering the intense media interest, with reporters following his every move as the investigation wore on. “You want to do it because you want to bring some closure for the family. They were hoping against hope, not even knowing if she was alive. And they are genuine gems, the nicest people and one of the best families I’ve ever met in my entire life.”

A Capitol affair

Mr. Stanton grows quiet and reserves comment, however, when asked about former Rep. Gary A. Condit, a moderate “Blue Dog” Democrat and Baptist minister’s son who represented California in the House of Representatives for 14 years.

Although Mr. Condit was finally cleared of any involvement in her disappearance, revelations of the married lawmaker’s affair with the young intern from his district cost the veteran lawmaker his House seat and any political future.

“Even though Gary Condit was apparently not at all involved in the disappearance of Chandra Levy, the details of his secret life with her and other young women were creepier than anyone wanted to believe could be real — even for the most jaded of Washingtonians,” observes Cheri Jacobus, a Republican Party strategist, frequent television pundit and columnist for The Hill.

“The saga gripped all of Washington and the nation — the tragedy of a young woman missing and found murdered, on top of the shocking and salacious revelations of a middle-aged, married congressman’s sexual involvement with her was almost too much for the most conspiratorial of minds in a town where politicians’ marital infidelities are practically de rigueur,” Ms. Jacobus said. “It will be a very long time before every parent who sends their daughter to Washington in pursuit of a political career doesn’t somewhere, in the back of their mind, think of the fate of poor Chandra Levy.”

Mr. Condit moved from California in the wake of the killing and scandal, relocating to near Flagstaff, Ariz., where he is a real estate investor. He also launched legal action against author Dominick Dunne and a number of media outlets for what he contended were unfair descriptions of his role in the affair.

Mr. Condit was reportedly shopping a book manuscript in early 2009 to tell his side of the story, but his former agent said in an e-mail that he had decided not to pursue the idea. No record of a Condit memoir manuscript sale to date can be found.

Mr. Condit released a statement in February 2009 when charges were brought against Guandique, saying he was glad the investigation had produced a suspect. He noted, according to CNN, that the case drew “an insatiable appetite for sensationalism” that kept police from finding her killer.

Family regrets

His mother told CNN that the case affected her family’s life significantly. “Everyone was thinking that Gary was involved in something that he was not a part of, and it was horrible,” said Jean Condit in 2009. “It has always followed him, followed our family.”

Susan Levy, Chandra’s mother and a possible trial witness, has asked a judge to allow her to attend the trial, according to reports in the Modesto (Calif.) Bee.

“I’m a mother,” Mrs. Levy told the newspaper. “As hard as it’s going to be, it’s something a mother has to do.” On Oct. 8, a D.C. Superior Court judge ruled that she will be allowed to attend the entire trial, despite her potential role as a witness.

Charles Wellford, a University of Maryland criminologist not affiliated with the Levy investigation, said that typically, cold cases like this one are usually solved based on new information that pops up years later when the perpetrator gets careless or starts talking.

“Either they tell someone about the crime or an ex-girlfriend gets upset about the case, for example, and comes forward. There is some kind of new information that comes out” that gives the case new energy, he said.

“In those cases, there is a very high likelihood of a successful conviction, because there already has been significant investment in the investigation.”

The judge in the case has issued a gag order on lawyers, police and investigators. Media attention is expected to be high.

Mr. Stanton, who has continued his career as a private investigator with partner Joe McCann at their College Park, Md., firm, Progressive Security Consultants, said he wishes the Levy case could have been resolved sooner. But he’s not one for Monday-morning quarterbacking.

“We went out and gave it all we had,” he says. “Prior to 9/11, this was the front-page story across the nation. [The 9/11 attacks] are what took it off the front pages, but who knows if it may have prevented capturing the person or persons earlier?”

Mr. Stanton now chooses to keep his focus on remembering Chandra — keeping her memory alive.

“She never had a chance to use all those amazing skills that she had,” he lamented. “We talked to countless people, family, friends, co-workers, associates. And everyone had the same thing to say about her. … She was phenomenal.”