Finding Chandra: A True Washington Murder Mystery
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Finding Chandra: A True Washington Murder Mystery

by Scott Higham, Sari Horwitz
     
 

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It was the mystery that gripped the nation during the summer of 2001: the sudden disappearance of Chandra Levy, a young, promising intern, and the possible involvement of Congressman Gary Condit. And then the case went cold. By 2007, satellite trucks and reporters had long since abandoned the story of the congressman and the intern in search of other news,

Overview

It was the mystery that gripped the nation during the summer of 2001: the sudden disappearance of Chandra Levy, a young, promising intern, and the possible involvement of Congressman Gary Condit. And then the case went cold. By 2007, satellite trucks and reporters had long since abandoned the story of the congressman and the intern in search of other news, fresh scandals. Across the country, Chandra’s parents tried to resume their daily lives, desperately hoping that someday there might be a break in the investigation.
And in Washington, the old game of who’s up and who’s down played on without interruption.

But Chandra Levy haunted. Six years after the young intern’s disappearance, investigative editors of the Washington Post pitched two Pulitzer Prize– winning reporters their idea: Revisit the unsolved case and find out what happened to Chandra, a task that had eluded police and the FBI.

Scott Higham and Sari Horwitz went to work. e result was a thirteen-part series in the Washington Post that focused on a prime suspect the police and the FBI had passed over years before. They had wrongly pursued Condit and chased numerous false leads, including a claim that Chandra had been kidnapped and taken to the Middle East.

But the most likely culprit was far less glamorous: an immigrant from El Salvador, a young man in the clutches of alcohol, drugs, and violence who had been stalking the running paths of Rock Creek Park, assaulting female joggers at knifepoint. He had attacked again, even as the police and the press concentrated on a congressman romantically linked to the intern.

Finding Chandra explores the bungled police efforts to locate the crime scene and catch a killer, the ambition and hubris of Washington’s power elite and press corps, the twisted culture of politics, the dark nature of political scandal, and the agony of parents struggling to comprehend the loss of a child. Above all, it is a quintessential portrait of a cast of outsiders who came to Washington with dreams of something better, only to be forever changed.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A remarkably detailed, straight-up exposé of bureaucratic incompetence and human folly, set against the alluring backdrop of Washington. It’s an impressive feat of reporting and storytelling, full of the kind of plot elements that seem unbelievable and are made all the more engrossing because they’re true.”

—The New York Times Book Review

“[A] triumph of investigative journalism. Its authors did what the D.C. police and the FBI had not done: They exonerated Condit and identified Guandique as Levy's likely killer. Their reporting was thorough and focused, and they provide readers with detailed notes about where their facts come from.”

San Francisco Chronicle

“An exhaustive and authoritative account.”

Wall Street Journal

"A meticulous study of the case and the media circus surrounding it... Higham and Horwitz's compelling story brings hope that justice may finally come for Levys."

– Publisher's Weekly

"Fine reporting and behind-the-scenes drama; a must for true-crime fans."

– Booklist

"Essential for those interested in true crime mysteries or the world of Washington, DC, politics."

– Library Journal

"A well-reported, well-written chronicle of a botched criminal investigation and its disturbing aftermath."

– Kirkus

Steven Weinberg
Finding Chandra…is a well-reported, well-written chronicle of a botched criminal investigation and its disturbing aftermath.
—The Washington Post
Elyssa East
…Higham and Horwitz have written a remarkably detailed, straight-up exposé of bureaucratic incompetence and human folly, set against the alluring backdrop of Washington…the book sheds new light on this sex scandal turned murder mystery and media circus. It builds suspense through the careful articulation of the things that the police and the media botched, and through the revelation of how various players in the case had a hand in their own undoing. It's an impressive feat of reporting and storytelling, full of the kind of plot elements that seem unbelievable and are made all the more engrossing because they're true.
—The New York Times
Library Journal
The case of missing congressional intern Chandra Levy gripped the nation during spring 2001. After leaving her apartment in Washington, DC, she was never seen alive again. As presented here by two esteemed Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters from the Washington Post, the mystery of Chandra's disappearance is a riveting one, filled with the details of many false starts and frustrations on the part of her parents and the police agencies assigned to solve the case. Added to the mystery are questions about Rep. Gary Condit, with whom she was involved. After a summer of constant media attention, her story was abruptly pushed from the headlines by the events of 9/11. The authors show how her parents continued their efforts, both in California and in Washington, to find out what happened to their daughter. After many setbacks, and with a wide range of experts trying to solve the case, evidence of what happened to Chandra was ultimately found by accident near the apartment where she lived. VERDICT Essential for those interested in true crime mysteries or the world of Washington, DC, politics.—Claire Franek, MSLS, Brockport, NY
Kirkus Reviews
Two Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists for the Washington Post document what went wrong during the investigation of the high-profile Chandra Levy case. Upon her mysterious death in spring 2001, Levy had been serving as an intern at the U.S. Bureau of Prisons just before graduating from college. While visiting Congressional offices with a friend seeking a job, Levy met Gary Condit, an elected representative from California. Levy and Condit, a married man more than twice her age, became involved romantically, and only a few people knew about the relationship. But when Levy disappeared after telling her parents that she would return to their California home just before the college graduation ceremony, those who knew mentioned Condit to D.C. police. What began as a missing-persons case morphed into a criminal investigation with Condit as the lead suspect. Although Condit seemed like a natural suspect, tunnel vision prevented the investigators from considering other credible alternatives. Higham and Horwitz (co-author: Sniper: Inside the Hunt for the Killers Who Terrorized the Nation, 2003) covered the case for the Post in 2001-02 amid the media frenzy. Police never arrested Condit and the case went cold, but the Post reporters kept looking for leads. Almost one year after Levy disappeared, a hiker in Rock Creek Park located Levy's remains in an area supposedly searched previously by law-enforcement officers. That portion of the park had experienced violent attacks on other women by Ingmar Adalid Guandique, a 19-year-old immigrant from El Salvador who eventually ended up in prison for two of the attacks. Some police and prosecutors believed the immigrant had killed Levy in a crime ofopportunity. But those in charge continued to focus on Condit, and he lost his Congressional seat in the next election. The case is still not closed-and the publisher promises "new material on recent developments"-but the Post investigation forming the basis of the book strongly suggests that Guandique was the murderer. A well-reported, well-written chronicle of a botched criminal investigation and its disturbing aftermath. Agent: Gail Ross/Gail Ross Literary Agency
Publishers Weekly
The 2001 disappearance of Washington, D.C., intern Chandra Levy, and the discovery of her remains a year later in a remote area of D.C.'s Rock Creek Park, made headlines, especially when her affair with Congressman Gary Condit became known. Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters Higham and Horwitz expand on their 13-part Washington Post investigation that in 2008 identified Levy's likely killer, delivering a meticulous study of the case and the media circus surrounding it. The police immediately focused on Condit in Levy's disappearance. Though the California Democrat eventually admitted to the liaison, he denied involvement in her death. Higham and Horwitz draw attention to the critical mistakes of law enforcement and the media's dogged pursuit of Condit despite the lack of evidence linking him to Levy's murder. In their Post reporting, the authors pointed instead to Salvadoran immigrant Ingmar Guandique, already convicted of two similar assaults on women committed in the same park around the time Levy disappeared. Guandique is now facing trial on first-degree murder charges; he has pleaded not guilty. Higham and Horwitz's compelling story brings hope that justice may finally come for Levy. Photos. (May)

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781439138694
Publisher:
Scribner
Publication date:
04/26/2011
Pages:
336
Sales rank:
1,251,361
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Finding Chandra

  • The Crime Scene

     

    On the slope of a steep ravine, deep in the woods of Washington’s Rock Creek Park, Philip Palmer spotted an out-of-place object resting on the forest floor. He saw a patch of white, bleached out and barely visible through a thin layer of leaves.

    Walking these woods was a ritual for Palmer, an attempt to flee the madness of the city. Each morning, the furniture maker tried to lose himself in the nine-mile-long oasis of forests, fields, and streams twice the size of New York’s Central Park that slices through the center of the nation’s capital. On this morning, May 22, 2002, the sun filtered through the leaves of the poplar and oak trees shading the hillside off the Western Ridge Trail, a solitary lane that begins near a centuries-old stone mill and winds its way north through the woods to the border of Maryland. Palmer moved closer to the object, his dog Paco by his side. The object, the size of a silver dollar, stood out against the leaves.

    Palmer’s quest seemed unusual for a man of forty-two who was raised in Chevy Chase, a neighborhood largely reserved for Washington’s upper middle class on the northern edge of Rock Creek Park. Thin and wiry, with a mustache, beard, and an earring in his left ear, he looked like someone who belonged in the wilderness of the Colorado Rocky Mountains. He preferred the solace of the park to the bustle and affluence that surrounded him, and he prided himself on knowing every trail and path and glen. As a boy, he would head alone to the woods after school, sift through the dirt and leaves, and look for bits and pieces of animal bones. On good days, he’d find a complete skeleton, a mouse or a rat, a vole, maybe a raccoon, prizes he would keep and cherish. The finest examples of his collection from forgotten places in the park would later be carefully displayed on the shelves that lined the sitting parlor of his Victorian home in one of Washington’s trendier neighborhoods, Dupont Circle.

    By the spring of 2002, the park had become even more of a refuge for Palmer. Eight months earlier, on September 11, Washington watched as acrid smoke billowed from the Pentagon across the Potomac River. People in the streets looked skyward for the last of the four hijacked planes still trying to reach its Washington target. Rumors coursed through the city. The White House was next, maybe the U.S. Capitol. Since that day, the city had been under siege, awash in fear, prompted by security barricades, color-coded warnings, and police carrying automatic weapons. Congress rushed to create the biggest federal bureaucracy since World War II, the Department of Homeland Security. The nation prepared for war in the Middle East. Washington braced for a second wave of terror: a dirty bomb, another anthrax mailing, a suicide attacker on the National Mall or in the tunnels of the Metro that carried hundreds of thousands to work every day.

    All that seemed a world away beneath the dark green canopy of Rock Creek Park. At the northern end of the park was a popular stable, its horses carrying riders along broad, leafy bridle paths. During the day, visitors picnicked in meadows and on tables perched along the creek. At night, children gazed at the stars near the only planetarium in the national park system. Founded in 1890, Rock Creek Park consists of 2,800 acres and is the country’s oldest natural urban park. The heart of the park, the original “pleasure ground” approved by Congress, is where Palmer spotted the object, between the National Zoo and the border of Maryland. The park also includes Fort Stevens, the site of the lone Confederate attack on Washington. By the turn of the century, the park on the edge of the growing capital provided a cooling respite for city dwellers. They would ride in horse-drawn carriages, and relax on giant boulders in the middle of the creek. President Theodore Roosevelt took long walks in Rock Creek Park.

    The park remained a pleasure ground, but over the years it had come to symbolize something else. Like many other urban parks, it had become the geographic dividing line of a racially polarized city with its vast wealth, abject poverty, corrupt and incompetent local governance, and some of the most abysmal crime statistics in the nation. On the west side were the city’s well-to-do, middle-class, and mostly white neighborhoods—the stately foreign embassies along Massachusetts Avenue, the mansions of Georgetown, the soaring Gothic arches of the Washington National Cathedral, and the exclusive enclave of Cleveland Park with its Victorian homes and wraparound porches. “West of the Park” had become a euphemism for good schools and safe streets.

    Southeast of the park were the city’s museums and Capitol Hill, but some of the neighborhoods were home to the city’s most impoverished residents. Not far from where Palmer spotted the object, the cityscape began to change, the street scene growing edgier with each passing block. The transformation started east of Eighteenth Street, a thoroughfare lined with Cuban, Salvadoran, and Ethiopian restaurants and popular nightclubs in a section of the city known as Adams Morgan. Farther east were the largely Latino and African-American neighborhoods of Mount Pleasant, Columbia Heights, and Shaw, the city’s nearly all-black public schools, and the dilapidated housing projects of northeast and southeast Washington, where guns and drugs claimed hundreds of lives each year, many of them young black men.

    Dupont Circle, where Palmer lived, was a southern gateway to the park. The three-story, turreted brownstone built in 1892 that he shared with his wife, a Washington defense lawyer, stood out among the rows of more traditional homes. Deer antlers and a large peace symbol adorned the façade. To earn a living, Palmer built and restored furniture in his workshop. He didn’t watch television and he refused to take photographs. He wanted to live in the moment, and photographs, he thought, tarnished memories because they could only capture what things looked like, not the smells or sounds or sensations that made them whole. He had a simple philosophy—“We’re like animals, we come and go”—and he was childlike in his wonder and fascination with the outdoors. “You never know what you’re going to find,” he liked to say.

    May 22 was one of those mornings that would prove him right. At about 9 A.M., Palmer parked his truck at the top of a hill near the horse corral of Rock Creek Park. He decided to walk near the Western Ridge Trail, which he hadn’t been on for nearly five years. He noticed with disgust several beer bottles amid the thorny vines, patches of poison ivy, and mountain laurel that covered the forest floor. As he and Paco trudged farther into the woods, off the trail and down the ravine, he spotted a piece of red clothing. He kept walking and a few moments later came to a shallow depression in the ground. The remote spot was less than one hundred yards down the steep hillside from the top of the trail. He could hear the cars along Broad Branch Road another hundred yards below him.

    At first Palmer thought that the bleached-out object he spotted was a turtle shell beneath the leaves. He bent down and swept the leaves aside. Then he abruptly stood up and backed away. He marked the spot with Paco’s blue leash, and his dog bounded after him as he scrambled down the hillside toward Broad Branch Road. At the bottom, Palmer hung his sweatshirt over another branch so he could find his way back up. He crossed the creek bed, clambered up the other side, and went to the first house he saw. He knocked on the door. No answer. He went next door to a house that was being renovated and asked a construction worker if he could borrow his phone to call 911. As Palmer waited for the police, his mind raced, the tranquility of the morning shattered by what he had seen: molars, missing front teeth, dental fillings, a human skull.

  • Meet the Author

    Scott Higham is a Pulitzer Prize-winning member of The Washington Post's investigations unit. He has conducted numerous investigations for the news organization, including an examination of abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison, and waste and fraud in Homeland Security contracting. He lives in Washington, D.C. with his family.

    Sari Horwitz is also a Pulitzer-Prize winning member of The Washington Post’s investigation unit. A reporter for The Washington Post for twenty-six years, she has covered crime, homeland security, federal law enforcement, education, and social services. Among her other awards are the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for reporting on the disadvantaged and the Investigative Reporters and Editors Medal. She lives in Washington with her husband and daughter.

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