WASHINGTON — Chandra Levy's convicted killer remains an object of fascination, even among his fellow inmates.
Now, another federal prisoner is trying to uncover documents connecting him to the trial of Ingmar Guandique, the man currently serving a 60-year sentence for murdering Levy.
Inmate Miguel Zaldivar's wide-ranging document request has set court officials to work. It also illustrates how prisoners are among the most active users of the Freedom of Information Act, which is a development the law's authors never anticipated.
"It's one thing that keeps them busy," attorney Scott Hodes, a FOIA specialist who formerly worked for the Justice Department, noted Tuesday. "They're in prison, so they have a lot of time on their hands."
The Justice Department received 63,682 FOIA requests in fiscal 2010, according to the department's annual report. Nearly one-quarter of all the department's requests, 15,640, were to the Bureau of Prisons.
Not all of the requests to the Justice Department or the Bureau of Prisons came from inmates, but the agencies are also not the only ones that receive inmate document requests.
"It makes sense," Hodes said of the myriad inmate FOIA filings. "There are a lot of federal records."
Sometimes, inmate requests are fishing expeditions. Sometimes, they may hit pay dirt.
Supporters of environmental activist Eric McDavid, for instance, proclaimed success when FOIA requests reportedly revealed how his mail was being handled while he was in Sacramento County Jail. McDavid was sentenced in 2008 to nearly 20 years in prison for conspiring to blow up Nimbus Dam and other facilities.
By chance, McDavid is now serving out his sentence at Federal Correctional Institution Victorville in Southern California. Guandique was also incarcerated at the Victorville prison complex, in a higher-security facility, up until the time he was put on trial.
In November, a Washington jury convicted Guandique of first-degree murder. Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Haines, the chief prosecutor, presented a scenario in which Guandique attacked Levy in April 2001 while Levy was on a trail in Washington's Rock Creek Park.
At the time, Levy had finished graduate studies and a Bureau of Prisons internship and was preparing to return to California. She was raised in Modesto, where her parents still live.
Guandique was raised in El Salvador, where he lived until he entered the United States illegally.
In his initial early May request, Zaldivar asked for "all documents (including) letters, memos, e-mails notes etc. containing my name and in connection with Ingmar Guandique's trial."
This week, court documents show, D.C. Superior Court officials advised Zaldivar that they needed more specific details about his request. He might also need to seek some materials from Guandique's attorneys, who are now preparing an appeal.
The 49-year-old Zaldivar is finishing a sentence at Federal Correctional Institution Coleman in Florida, and is scheduled to be released in March 2015. Though not a witness in the Guandique trial, he indirectly helped solve the long-stalled case.
The key witness against Guandique was a former Fresno Bulldogs gang member named Armando Morales. Morales said Guandique confessed to him while they were cellmates that he killed Levy. Morales, in turn, testified that he confided in Zaldivar, a man he described as his "mentor" as he sought to leave prison gangs behind.
"I trusted him to know what to do," Morales testified.
Morales further testified that Zaldivar put up a "do not disturb" sign on the cell, took seven pages of notes and then helped craft the letter to prosecutors that in time led to Ingmar Guandique's conviction.
"He told me, whatever I had to say, he'd know who to get it to," Morales said of his mentor Zalvidar, a man he called Mike.