It had nearly all the elements of a gripping crime novel: pretty, ambitious young intern has an affair with a handsome married congressman, before being mysteriously murdered in one of Washington DC's best-known parks. Media frenzy and police bungling ensue. But up to now Chandra Levy's tale has lacked one essential ingredient – a conclusion.
As police get ready to arrest a man already serving a 10-year sentence for attacking two other women in the same park, the eight-year riddle of what happened to Levy might at last be solved, and the suspicions surrounding a former lover finally put to rest.
Rock Creek Park in northwestern Washington DC is an interlinked series of long and winding green spaces, popular with joggers and walkers. Its leafy perimeters stretch to the affluent Chevy Chase, Maryland, on its northern end, and past the city's zoological gardens on its southern side. It's near this end of the park, nestled between the trendy student enclave of Georgetown and the 10-block distance to the White House, that several of Capitol Hill's enthusiastic young interns and staffers reside, and it was here where Chandra Levy lived until she disappeared in early May 2001.
Levy was a fairly typical 23-year-old Washington wannabe, studying for a masters in public administration. Bright, ambitious, with a mop of unruly curls and hazel eyes, she had come from the University of Southern California seven months earlier to intern at the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Friends said she had ambitions of becoming an FBI agent after her graduation on 11 May, 2001.
But on 6 May her parents, frantic with worry back in California, called police in DC saying they hadn't heard from their daughter in five days. Levy had been due home and her lack of communication was very untypical.
Pouring over her mobile-phone bills the same day, Levy's parents noticed one number, the office of congressman Gary Condit, kept repeating. Her father, Dr Robert Levy, an oncologist, and his wife Susan, an artist, called the congressman and left a message with his wife Carolyn. Condit called back an hour later explaining the multiple calls were probably because a former intern in his office had been friends with their daughter. He promised to do what he could to help find her.
From a previous conversation they'd had, Levy's mother had a hunch her daughter was having an affair with the 53-year-old Condit. That was quickly confirmed by an aunt in whom Chandra had confided. They passed the information onto DC police.
Four days later, police entered Levy's apartment, seizing her computer and answering machine. The machine had several messages including two concerned-sounding ones from Gary Condit, left two days after Chandra had disappeared. One of the officers made an attempt to see what the last internet searches were on her laptop but by not waiting for a computer expert managed to delete the search history. It took technicians a further month to identify that Levy had surfed information about Rock Creek Park the day she disappeared.
Gary Condit's rise from Tulsa, Oklahoma – where he was born and married his childhood sweetheart right after high school – to the halls of power in DC had been admirable. As newlyweds, he and wife Carolyn moved to Ceres, the bread-basket region of California, where he became mayor at 26. By 41 he was a congressman. The son of a Baptist preacher, he led a band of conservative Democrats and had been one of the few in his party pushing President Bill Clinton to be more forthcoming about his affair with Monica Lewinsky.
Condit had first met Chandra Levy by chance, when she and a fellow Californian student stopped by his office in mid-2000. The friend said Chandra had likened the fit, tanned and coiffed Condit to Harrison Ford, an actor she'd had a long-standing crush on. By November 2000 Condit and Levy had begun an affair, with Condit eventually admitting to police that she would stay over in his apartment in the trendy Adams Morgan neighbourhood of the city two or three nights a week.
Slowly, rumours of other women started to emerge. There was Joleen Argentini McKay, a 22-year-old former junior aide in his office who claimed Condit and she had had a three-year affair. There was Anne Marie Smith, a flight attendant, who also said she'd been involved with the congressman since July 2000. In May 2001 he had told her he couldn't call her for a while and may have to disappear. She said he wouldn't say why. Levy's parents were convinced Condit was hiding information that might help find their daughter. In early June, they took the step of holding a news conference begging him to help police. They also retained a lawyer. So did Gary Condit.
Between them the lawyers agreed to a private meeting of prearranged questions between the Levys and Condit. Chandra's father, Robert, was too upset to attend and Susan Levy later admitted she was so distraught she remembered little of the meeting except at the end when Condit asked if he could hug her. She replied, "Absolutely not!"
Condit agreed to a second police interview the same month. He told authorities that on the day Chandra disappeared he had worked from 11am until 6.30pm, which included a meeting with then vice president Dick Cheney. He said he'd gone for dinner at 6.30pm in Adams Morgan and had spent the following day in his Capitol Hill office.
As news of the affair grew, the world's media took up residence outside Condit's apartment. The congressman's every move was noted and life for his family back home in California was becoming unbearable.
It was now well over a month since Chandra Levy had disappeared and police were still no nearer a breakthrough on the case. The rumours, if not the clues, got more and more elaborate. One doing the rounds was that a pregnant Levy had left for Nevada and a botched abortion that had resulted in her death out west. All leads came back cold. The buzz that Levy was pregnant persisted however, adding fuel to the growing media fire that would later consume Condit's career.
When police officers showed up to search his apartment in front of the media one night in July, frenzy ensued. July 2001 was not a good month for Gary Condit. A pentecostal minister from Condit's home town said the congressman had dated his underage daughter. Anne Marie Smith, the air stewardess, went on TV and claimed he had made her sign an affidavit saying they hadn't had an affair.
But while the media attention and police investigation continue to centre on Condit, a far more dramatic piece in the puzzle that had occurred six weeks earlier had somehow gotten overlooked. On 14 May, Halle Shilling, a writer, was jogging as usual through Rock Creek Park at around 6.30pm when a young Hispanic man jumped on her from behind. She fell, and they tussled, her screams drowned out by the rush-hour traffic just beyond the hidden trail she'd been running on. Shilling said the man had a knife, and grabbed her around the throat. Having taken a self-defence class years earlier she managed to break free, immediately reporting the crime to police. Despite a large engagement ring on her hand and the fact she was carrying a walkman, she said the attacker hadn't seemed to want to rob her. Instead she believed he was going to rape or kill her.
In July a similar event also took place in the same park. Christy Wiegand, a lawyer, was jogging with her fiancé. When he ran off ahead of her, she was attacked at knifepoint. She and her attacker fell into a ravine and Wiegand said she believed she was about to be raped or killed. When the man took his hand off her mouth for a few seconds her screams caused him to run away. Park police scrambled to search the area and less than an hour after the attack they picked up Ingmar Guandique, an illegal Salvadoran immigrant who'd been seen hanging around the park. Guandique later implicated himself under questioning in both the attacks on Wiegand, and the earlier one on Shilling.
When the detective who led the interrogation on Guandique showed him a picture of Chandra Levy and asked him if he'd ever seen her in the park, Guandique said he had.
Remarkably, that piece of evidence never made it into the detective's report. As Levy's disappearance was being looked after by the Metropolitan police force and the Gaundique episode was uncovered by Park police, it would be several months before a connection was made.
Arguably, if it hadn't been for yet another police misstep, Chandra Levy's body would have been found much earlier. In July 2001, on a steamy hot DC summer's day, over 30 police officers had combed the area narrowed down as Levy's likely running path. The DC police chief at the time had given the order that the searchers concentrate on areas 100 yards from the park's trails. The trails, unlike the park's roads, curve their way deep through forests and undergrowth. But somewhere along the line the order got misinterpreted. Instead the hunters searched 100 yards on either side of the park's criss-crossing road system, and missed Levy's body. When she was found 10 months later, she was lying less than 80 yards off one of the trails that should have been searched initially. By then it was 386 days from when she'd disappeared, and essential forensic evidence that might have helped identify her killer earlier had been lost.
It would be February 2002 before Guandique was given a polygraph test the results of which were inconclusive. Four days later he appeared in court charged with the assaults on the other two women in Rock Creek Park. The prosecutor argued that based on the polygraph evidence there was nothing to suggest Guandique had been involved in the Levy case. He was sentenced to 10 years in a federal penitentiary, where he remains.
Eight years on and police are said to be close to finally charging Guandique for Chandra Levy's murder. Most law enforcement who worked on the case now say they privately believe Gary Condit had nothing to do with her disappearance. The congressman was largely disowned by the Democratic party and bulldozed in the 2002 primary elections for his House of Representatives seat in California. He has since divided his time between that state and Arizona and has operated two Baskin-Robbins ice-cream stores.