Chandra Levy series proves who did it not only controversy

Former Rep. Gary Condit of California in 2001.
Former Rep. Gary Condit of California in 2001. Chuck Kennedy / MCT

WASHINGTON — There's seemingly nothing more to write about Chandra Levy until her killer confesses or is caught.

With an online discussion Monday, the Washington Post concluded a controversial and exhaustive 13-part investigation into the murder of the former Bureau of Prisons intern whose disappearance in 2001 led to months of speculation about her relationship with then Congressman Gary Condit and whether he might have had something to do with her vanishing.

The conclusion: Condit isn't considered a suspect in Levy's death — her body was found in 2002 — and the initial white hot focus on him distracted from the most likely suspect, an illegal immigrant from El Salvador named Ingmar Guandique. By the time Levy's body was found there was little evidence remaining to link Guandique to the crime, however.

The series left no stone unturned. It also illustrated what has endured and what has changed about journalism in the seven years since Levy disappeared.

"We have always seen the story as an investigation into police mistakes, driven by human foibles and intense media scrutiny," the Post's investigative editor, Jeff Leen, declared online Monday. "As such, it is a story of our time."

Three Post reporters, two of them Pulitzer Prize winners, spent a year investigating Levy's death. The resulting series totaled 19,000 words.

"They’ve put a lot of work into it," Levy's mother, Susan, said Monday. "It’s been painful for me, as a mother, but…I think it’s worth the attention. They handled it very sensitively."

Levy said her husband, Robert, has not been able to read the series; the wound is too raw.

Guandique is now in federal prison on charges of attacking two other women in Washington’s Rock Creek Park, where Levy’s skeletal remains were found in 2002. He granted the Post his first interview and denied killing Levy.

Traditionally, newspapers have put the most compelling news first. This is called the lead; or, as old-time newspaper guys prefer it, the lede. The Post series didn't fully introduce Guandique until the sixth day.

Traditionally, newspapers have unveiled their major investigative projects in multi-page spreads that run on Sundays and tax the reader's stamina. The Levy series served up bite-sized stories over two weeks, marketed like a summertime who-dun-it.

Traditionally, newspapers have emphasized the paper part, ink splayed on dead trees. The Post series offered online features, including videos, document posting and interactive chats, which were still relatively rare when the Levy case first electrified the media in 2001.

Newspapers like the Post are trying these new techniques as they struggle to retain readers. The Post’s daily circulation now totals 673,000, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation. In 2001, the Post’s daily circulation was about 781,000.

But while techniques evolve, the elements of a compelling yarn remain constant. So does controversy over what stories are worth telling.The Levy series demonstrated anew the power of sex, murder and political sizzle to attract readers. The Post's series attracted a sizeable audience, though editors won't divulge numbers.

"The online readership of this series is among the largest of any investigative series we have done," Leen said Monday.

The public fascination, in turn, still spurs questions over newsroom priorities. The Washington City Paper obtained one internal memo from a disgruntled Post reporter calling his colleagues' Levy project "unconscionable" and "absolutely absurd." Reader criticisms outnumbered praise by a 410-70 margin, Post ombudsman Deborah Howell reported Friday. The blogosphere — itself a relatively new term in 2001 — has been ablaze with pro-and-con commentary.

While illuminating the Levy case, the series sidestepped some of the grim specifics of Condit's current post-congressional life.

An Arizona newspaper is placing a lien on Condit's former Ceres, Calif., home for non-payment of a $43,680 court judgment. Baskin-Robbins is awaiting a judge's ruling in a mismanagement lawsuit against the Condit family. And the attorney who represented Condit in a recently dismissed defamation lawsuit against author Dominick Dunne is quitting, citing Condit's failure to pay legal bills.

"Presently, Condit owes (the firm) $93,563.77," attorney Deborah Drooz stated in a July 22 legal filing. "Despite numerous written and oral demands…no such payment has been made to date."

When Drooz repeatedly tried contacting Condit directly, Condit's daughter Cadee informed her the former congressman was "out of pocket."

"I understand that," Drooz wrote, "to mean unreachable."

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