Courts & Crime

In new trial hearing for Levy killer, what did prosecutors know and when?

An FBI special agent and a longtime federal prosecutor from Fresno on Thursday faced two of D.C.’s favorite questions:

What did officials know, and when did they know it?

The questions arose repeatedly during a high-stakes, occasionally pointed hearing that’s supposed to help determine whether the man convicted of killing Chandra Levy gets a new trial. The hearing Thursday, though, also provided a peak behind the scenes of real-world law enforcement.

The hearing illuminated how documents can get misfiled, investigations can get derailed and competing agencies can get crosswise with one another. In one telling moment, FBI Special Agent Julio Cordero recalled the tension that existed in the late 1990s between the Fresno Police Department and the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office.

“There was some animosity between both agencies,” said Cordero, who was assigned to Fresno for about four years starting in 1997.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Dawrence “Duce” Rice, who has been based in Fresno for 20 years, agreed that “there was some friction” between the two law enforcement agencies as “people butt heads.”

At another point, Cordero, his voice rising, recalled how a new FBI supervisor ordered him to shut down a promising investigation into a top Fresno gang leader, in order to focus on other priorities. The target, referred to only as “S1” during the testimony, was not prosecuted, and Cordero was upset.

The real focus of the hearing Thursday, though, was what authorities knew about former Fresno gang leader Armando Morales, who in 2010, was the pivotal witness against Ingmar Guandique, the man accused of killing Levy. Morales testified that Guandique had confided in him while they were cellmates in Kentucky.

Levy, a 24-year-old former federal government intern, disappeared May 1, 2001, shortly before she was to return to her family’s Modesto, Calif., home from Washington. She was on the verge of obtaining a graduate degree from the University of Southern California.

Levy’s disappearance, and Guandique’s eventual trial nine years later, triggered national attention because of revelations that she had been having an affair with then-Rep. Gary Condit. Levy’s remains were found in Washington’s Rock Creek Park in 2002.

Guandique is now serving a 60-year prison sentence after being found guilty of first-degree murder. He has maintained his innocence.

During Guandique’s trial, Morales presented himself as unaccustomed to cooperating with law enforcement. His credibility, as well as questions about what Guandique’s prosecutors knew about him prior to putting him on the stand, now stand at the center of defense efforts to obtain a new trial.

Testimony presented Thursday shed more light on the kind of information previously provided by Morales, including details about three murders he gave in 1998 to two Fresno County sheriff’s detectives. The incriminating details provided by Morales included small touches, like how one killer allegedly used a bicycle and how the killers changed their clothes

“I thought it was very interesting,” said Cordero, who is now based in El Paso, Texas.

Cordero in 1999 wrote a memo summarizing what he was told about the information provided by Morales. But the memo wasn’t discovered by D.C.-based prosecutors until after Guandique’s trial was over. In an apparent effort to explain the lapse, a Justice Department attorney on Thursday had Cordero discuss the difficulties involved with the FBI’s old case filing system and his apparent failure to include index search terms on a document.

Also undiscovered at the time of Guandique’s trial were several documents from Rice, the federal prosecutor who went after Morales in the 1990s. In one note, Rice told a detective to be “very cautious” in relying on information provided by Morales. In another, Rice asked federal prison officials to separate Morales from other gang members.

On Thursday, Rice said he wanted the inmates separated for their own safety, and he said he never offered any benefits to Morales.

“He was the head of the snake, if you will,” Rice said. “He was the brains of the outfit. If you cut off the brains, the rest of the snake will fall away.”

Guandique’s prosecutors would have obligated to inform his defense team about Morales’s previous assistance to law enforcement if they were aware of it.

The hearing continues Friday, and will resume in February, when Morales is slated to testify.

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