Courts & Crime

Almost 10 years after her slaying, will trial bring justice for Chandra Levy?

MCT

WASHINGTON — Prosecutors think Ingmar Guandique killed former intern Chandra Levy. Now, they must prove it.

On Monday, nine-a-half years after Levy's death, Guandique's long-awaited murder trial begins. Its conclusion is uncertain, but its drama is guaranteed.

Prison snitches will rat out their fellow inmate. Women will speak of being stalked. A California political scandal will be revisited, and prosecutors will use Guandique's own contradictory words against him.

"The stories themselves are fantastical," Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Haines said at one hearing, but "they all have the same core. He attacked Ms. Levy in the woods. He took her off the path. He raped her. He killed her."

Guandique's attorneys say otherwise. They call the case against their 29-year-old client a gossamer web of lies and strained circumstance.

"Shine a little light . . . and you'll find the witnesses and facts don't add up," defense attorneys Santha Sonenberg and Maria Hawilo declared the day Guandique pleaded not guilty. "When 12 fair-minded jurors hear (the case), they will find it to be false and deficient."

The spotlight is shining, for sure.

A dozen journalists already have secured daily reserved seats in Courtroom 320 of the D.C. Superior Court, and at least four others have indicated interest. The courtroom will be particularly busy at moments like the opening statements expected by Thursday, once a jury is selected.

Guandique's attorneys cited the extraordinary attention, including what they called "thousands and thousands of stories" about the case, in an unsuccessful bid to move the trial out of Washington. There will be four alternate jurors in the trial, instead of the usual two.

However, the notoriety has little to do with Guandique. Although the illegal immigrant from El Salvador is the one facing life in prison, deeper roots drive the public attention.

Levy was last seen in public on April 30, 2001. The next day, prosecutors say, Guandique killed her in the course of a sexual assault while she was jogging on the Western Ridge Trail in Washington's wooded Rock Creek Park.

Levy had just turned 24. She'd completed a Bureau of Prisons internship and graduate work at the University of Southern California. She had also been involved with a much older, married man whose identity she tried to keep secret.

"Don't tell (a mutual friend) about who I'm seeing, since (she) thinks I am dating an FBI agent," Levy confided to one USC friend in a Dec. 23, 2000, e-mail. "(That) is obviously not the case, but I lied to her so she wouldn't ask any questions."

Levy's covert paramour was Rep. Gary Condit, who was three decades older and who'd represented a district in California's Central Valley since 1989. Their relationship was an intimate one, Condit would later tell investigators, though he would quibble over what terms applied.

"It wasn't a romantic relationship," Condit said during a September 2004 deposition, explaining that he considered a romantic relationship one of "unusual affection."

Condit's political career collapsed, and his former aide, Dennis Cardoza, defeated him in the 2002 Democratic primary. Condit has since largely avoided the public eye, aside from filing half a dozen defamation lawsuits and for a time running a Baskin-Robbins franchise in Arizona.

In D.C. Superior Court, Condit's name has surfaced periodically, as when defense attorneys sought evidence collected from his Washington condominium. His name could pop up as a bit player throughout a trial expected to last up to five weeks.

"Is the defense going to say that someone associated with Mr. Condit did it?" Assistant U.S. Attorney Fernando Campoamor-Sanchez asked rhetorically during one pretrial hearing.

So far, defense attorneys have made no such public claim as they go about representing Guandique, a challenging client.

A middle-school dropout who entered the U.S. illegally in 2000, according to a Washington Post investigation, Guandique speaks little or no English. He stands only 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighs about 130 pounds, but he can strike a formidable pose.

Tattoos proclaim Guandique's affiliation with the MS-13 gang. He has a devil tattooed on his head and a chest tattoo that prosecutors suggest resembles Levy. Reportedly, he's attempted one escape, and six U.S. deputy marshals stood watch in the courtroom Thursday.

In 2002, Guandique pleaded guilty to attempting to rob two women jogging in Rock Creek Park, near where Levy's body would be found. Sentenced to 10 years in federal prison, he was incarcerated at the maximum-security U.S. Penitentiary Victorville, near California's Mojave Desert, when he was charged in 2009 with Levy's murder.

Investigators had considered Guandique a potential suspect earlier, before the Levy case went cold amid a series of apparent mistakes by law enforcement. These initial errors included letting a security tape from Levy's apartment get erased and conducting a flawed search of Rock Creek Park.

"Clearly the defense is going to be able to show" errors were made, Haines acknowledged.

In recent days, prosecutors further acknowledged that detectives in 2004 and 2005 wrote false pen-pal letters to Guandique in hopes he'd write back and implicate himself. Sonenberg charged Thursday that the "unethical" letters showed prosecutors feared their case "wasn't sufficiently strong" at the time.

Prosecutors defend the tactic, which apparently was undertaken by a different law enforcement team. In 2007, D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier assigned a new team of detectives to the case, and they again turned their focus to Guandique.

No DNA evidence links Guandique to Levy's skeletal remains or evidence found nearby. Instead, prosecutors are primarily relying on Guandique's alleged confessions to fellow inmates. These confessions are both vivid and inconsistent.

Guandique allegedly told one informant that he choked Levy while he and two other men were attempting to rape her. He allegedly told another informant that he slit Levy's throat with a knife during a rape. He allegedly told a third informant yet another version of the story.

Sonenberg and Hawilo dismissed the myriad confessions as "made-up claims of unbelievable, self-serving jailhouse, quote-unquote 'informants.'" Prosecutors say the snitches, unsavory as they may be, must be heeded.

"Mr. Guandique has a compulsion to confess, and every time he confesses he tells a slightly different version," prosecutor Haines said. "He feels an almost constant need to get this off his chest."

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