Courts & Crime

Chandra Levy case returns with former Fresno gang chief as key witness

In this April 22, 2009, photo, Ingmar Guandique is escorted from the Violent Crimes Unit in Washington. A judge has set a new trial date for a man convicted of killing Washington intern Chandra Levy.
In this April 22, 2009, photo, Ingmar Guandique is escorted from the Violent Crimes Unit in Washington. A judge has set a new trial date for a man convicted of killing Washington intern Chandra Levy. AP

A former Fresno gang leader with a history of both violence and snitching will return as the key witness in the retrial of the man convicted of killing former intern Chandra Levy, prosecutors said Friday.

This time, however, the witness’s past is likely to be a major issue.

During a pretrial hearing Friday, defense attorneys made clear their intention to attack the witness, Armando Morales, using volumes of information they didn’t have last time – including suggestions that he might seek immunity from prosecution for a Fresno murder two decades ago.

“We want to know, are they providing him immunity for the premeditated murder he committed in California, or at least claims he committed?” defense attorney Jonathan Anderson asked pointedly.

Anderson also pressed whether Morales would get immunity for allegedly committing perjury at the first trial of Ingmar Guandique, the Salvadoran immigrant eventually convicted of killing Levy. Morales testified then that he’d never cooperated with law enforcement before, when, it was learned later, he’d provided key information to investigators on at least three separate occasions.

D.C. Superior Court Judge Robert E. Morin responded that those details would come out later, though there’s no doubting that Morales will face a brutal cross-examination when he next appears in the witness stand.

“It’ll take a long time,” defense attorney Eugene Ohm told Morin.

We will be calling Mr. Morales as a witness.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Deborah Sines

The hearing was the latest twist in the long of saga of the 24-year-old Levy, a former federal Bureau of Prisons intern who disappeared May 1, 2001, shortly before she was to return to her family’s Modesto, California, home from Washington.

Levy’s disappearance triggered months of breathless news coverage after it was learned that she’d been having an affair with then-Rep. Gary Condit, the Democrat from Ceres, California, who represented Levy’s home district.

Nine years later, attention to the case resumed when Guandique was tried for her murder. At that trial in November 2010, Morales testified compellingly that Guandique had told him he’d killed Levy as she was jogging in Washington’s Rock Creek Park.

Condit, whose political career ended with the Levy publicity, testified at Guandique’s first trial, essentially to say he had nothing to do with Levy’s disappearance and death. Though it’s not yet known whether the former congressman will testify again, defense attorneys have been demanding that prosecutors turn over all law enforcement information concerning Condit. That information would include “any documents describing or documenting Gary Condit’s whereabouts on and around the time of Ms. Levy’s disappearance and the discovery of her remains.”

Ohm said Friday that information received by the defense indicated that Condit had “misled the jury under oath when he testified during the first trial.” Defense attorneys would not elaborate on that statement, and Condit’s attorney could not be reached to comment Friday.

Levy’s remains were found in 2002.

The trustworthiness of Morales’ testimony, however, is likely to be the most crucial point raised during Guandique’s eventual retrial. Lacking eyewitnesses or forensic evidence, prosecutors relied heavily on Morales’ testimony.

The first trial’s turning point occurred when Morales testified that Guandique had confessed to him while they were cellmates in U.S. Penitentiary Big Sandy in Kentucky.

“He said, ‘Homeboy, I killed that bitch, but I didn’t rape her,’ ” Morales said, describing a conversation he indicated took place in Spanish.

Morales said Guandique said he hadn’t meant to kill Levy but that she’d died in a robbery gone bad.

“He told me that he didn’t even know that he had killed her,’” Morales testified.

A jury subsequently convicted Guandique of first-degree murder, and a judge sentenced him to 60 years in prion. He has maintained his innocence.

Morales is nearing the end of the 21-year, 10-month sentence he received after pleading guilty in Fresno to guns and weapons charges. He is scheduled to be released next year and is being held in an undisclosed location.

While jurors in Guandique’s first trial heard about Morales’ past as a Fresno Bulldog Nation gang leader, they did not hear about his alleged role in the old murder nor about his prior cooperation with law enforcement. Guandique’s lawyers didn’t re-examine what they knew about Morales until after the Fresno Police Department reopened the cold case and tried to track down Morales.

Details of the alleged Fresno-area killing from 1996, including the identity of the alleged victim, were not discussed in open court Friday, but in a prior court filing, defense attorneys recounted that Morales, in a 1998 interview with Fresno County Sheriff’s Department investigators, “claimed to have participated in a murder.”

As for Morales’ previous cooperation with police, defense lawyers have determined that in 1996 he provided information to investigators from the Fresno-based FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives concerning the Fresno Bulldogs and Bulldog Nation gangs. In 1998, he provided information to Fresno County Sheriff’s Department investigators looking into three slayings, and he tipped off prison officials to drug dealing and weapons at U.S. Penitentiary Atlanta.

Michael Doyle: 202-383-0006, @MichaelDoyle10

Sean Cockerham: 202-383-6016, @seancockerham