Courts & Crime

Prosecutors admit focus on Condit hurt Levy homicide investigation

WASHINGTON — Prosecutors on Monday opened the trial of the man accused of killing Chandra Levy by conceding police errors that included excessive attention to Levy’s involvement with former California congressman Gary Condit.

In a 30-minute opening statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Haines told jurors that investigators initially were “distracted” by the romantic entanglement between the 24-year-old Levy and the much older Condit. Haines described the 2001 relationship as one of several “secrets” that color the case.

“This is also a case about the secrets of a man named Gary Condit,” Haines said. “He was having an affair with Chandra Levy but it has nothing to do with the murder of Chandra Levy.

Condit has been identified as a potential witness in the trial, with Haines suggesting the former lawmaker still might hesitate to characterize his relationship with Levy as an affair.

Attorney for accused killer Ingmar Guandique likewise stressed police errors, in a much shorter opening statement that lasted less than 15 minutes.

“Ingmar Guandique is not guilty, and nothing that happens in this trial will prove that he is,” defense attorney Maria Hawilo said. “From the beginning, the police failed and fumbled in this investigation.”

Prosecutors say Guandique killed Levy on May 1, 2001, during an attempted sexual assault in Washington’s Rock Creek Park. At the time, Levy had finished a Bureau of Prisons internship and graduate studies and was reportedly planning on returning to California.

“Picture a beautiful spring day in May 2001,” Haines began, “(There is) a young woman who is going deep into the woods she is running into a dream, into a nightmare from which she will never return.”

Haines acknowledged that no DNA evidence or eyewitness links Guandique to Levy’s murder. Instead, the prosecution’s case revolves around circumstantial evidence that includes Guandique’s alleged confessions to prison snitches as well as several attacks on other women in Rock Creek Park.

By the time proceedings concluded late Monday afternoon, five prosecution witnesses had taken the stand. Some appeared more useful to the prosecution than others.

One woman, Southern California resident Halle Shilling, testified Monday as the second witness to describe how Guandique jumped her on May 14, 2001.

“I felt as afraid and as alone as I have ever felt in my life,” said Shilling, a former journalist and writing teacher.

Now a mother of three children, Shilling periodically wiped away tears as she recalled how she fought off Guandique. At 5 foot 10 inches tall, and weighing about 160 pounds, Shilling is larger than her assailant.

After fighting with Guandique for about a minute on a remote Rock Creek Park trail, Shilling said she was able to drive him away by shoving her fingers into his mouth. He bit her, and then ran away.

Guandique subsequently pleaded guilty to attempted robbery in the attack on Shilling and another woman who also will testify during a trial expected to last up to five weeks. Prosecutors, though, tried to make the case that the attack on Shilling and the other woman was similar to what they describe as the earlier attack on Levy.

“She saw the face of Ingmar Guandique,” Haines said, pointing dramatically to the defendant.

But a second woman who testified Monday, 38-year-old attorney Amber Fitzgerald, was less definitive in identifying Guandique as the man she felt was threatening her during a Rock Creek Park jog in the spring of 2001.

The first witness, a National Park Service staffer, described the relative proximity of several attacks in Rock Creek Park. Prosecutors want to convince jurors that the attacks were all closely related.

Levy’s mother, Susan Levy, sat in the second row of the courtroom flanked by an attorney and a crime victims’ representative from the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Dressed in a gray pantsuit, purple shirt and colorful scarf, Susan Levy periodically took notes on a yellow legal pad.

Susan Levy largely declined opportunities to comment Monday, aside from saying she hopes to attend every day of the trial. Susan Levy and her husband, Robert, live in Modesto, where Chandra was raised.