Finding Chandra

A True Washington Murder Mystery

Scribner, May 11, 2010
Hardcover, 304 pages

Reviews

Click on a publication title to read its review.

New York Times - Sunday Book Review

THE SUMMER BEFORE - By Elyssa East

Gary Condit was a congressman and a serial adulterer with a taste for younger women. Chandra Levy, the 24-year-old Washington intern who was having an affair with him, thought he looked like Harrison Ford. She was also naïve enough to believe that a 52-year-old representative who had served 11 years in the House was planning to give up his seat and his wife of 34 years to start a new life with her.

Levy, a constituent from Condit’s district in California, had recently lost her internship at the Federal Bureau of Prisons and was about to return home to attend her graduation ceremony for her master’s degree from the University of Southern California. On May 1, 2001, she went for a walk in Rock Creek Park. She was never heard from again.

Once the press latched on to the story of Levy’s disappearance and Condit’s possible involvement, it would not let go. Meanwhile, as Scott Higham and Sari Horwitz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning team of Washington Post reporters, meticulously recount in their extraordinarily complex, suspenseful new book, “Finding Chandra,” the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington was bungling the investigation. The mistakes were not limited to the police alone, but they carry most of the blame for mismanaging the search for Levy and failing at basic detective work — missing seemingly obvious connections, for example, and mishandling potentially valuable evidence. Then they further under­mined the case by leaking sensitive, confidential information to a scandal-hungry press corps.

Dan Rather once compared such pack journalists to a flock of turkeys; as the authors put it, “If two of the turkeys leaped over a cliff, the rest of the flock would follow.” Soon the turkeys were cliff-diving, and the nation watched in fascination. Americans were hooked on a story rife with rumors — and with the same instruments that Condit apparently used to seduce Levy, innuendoes and falsehoods — and remained obsessed until Sept. 11.

The authorities eventually cleared Condit, but the court of public opinion, over which the news media hold sway, did not. His career was ruined. Unfortunately, because of the fixation on Condit, whose efforts to protect his privacy only made him seem more suspicious in the eyes of the law and the media, the investigation was in shambles. Time, which is so critical in a murder case, had been wasted. Levy’s corpse had been rotting away at the bottom of a ravine in Rock Creek Park. More than a year after her disappearance, her badly decomposed remains were discovered just beyond an area the police had searched in 2001. Wild animals had gnawed her flesh to the bone.

To this day, Chandra Levy’s murder is still unsolved, but by the end of the book Higham and Horwitz have built a convincing case for a probable killer: a Salvadoran immigrant named Ingmar Guandique, who is now under indictment. Yet the authors are fully aware of the lack of physical evidence linking Guandique to Levy’s murder — perhaps a result of the misplaced attention police investigators paid to Condit. (Guandique’s trial is scheduled for October.)

Nonetheless, Higham and Horwitz have written a remarkably detailed, straight-up exposé of bureaucratic incompetence and human folly, set against the alluring backdrop of Washington. Inspired by a series of articles that appeared in The Post in 2008, 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.

One only wishes, for the sake of the Levy family and also Condit, that it were all a great fiction. “Finding Chandra” certainly has the makings of such stuff.

Elyssa East is the author of “Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town.”

People Magazine

The '01 disappearance of D.C. intern Chandra Levy, and the revelation that she was having an affair with Congressman Gary Condit, went from hot news to cold case in the wake of 9/11. This book reveals how the investigation was botched: most shockingly, how for too long police ignored the inmate who confessed and later recanted. Disturbing and unforgettable.

Reviewed by Caroline Leavitt

Miami Herald

'Finding Chandra': And restoring her humanity, too - By Kathleen Krog

Reporters deconstruct botched investigation of murdered intern.

There's not a spare word or pointless sentence in Finding Chandra, a crisp retelling of the missing-intern mystery that consumed cable news in the summer of 2001. Even readers repelled by the endless coverage will consider the book an absorbing, sober account of Chandra Levy's sad story. It gives Levy her due as a human being, not as the object of endless breathless updates that often amounted to nothing.

On May 1, 2001, the 24-year-old signed off her computer at 12:24 p.m. in her Washington, D.C., apartment -- and disappeared. Soon revelations of Levy's affair with Gary Condit, a U.S. House member representing the California district where her family lives, would turn her disappearance into the summer's overblown story -- until 9/11 subsumed it.

Washington Post reporters Scott Higham and Sari Horwitz have expanded on a 10-part series they researched and wrote on the case in 2009, the year the man accused of killing Levy was indicted. Ingmar Adalid Guandique, a Guatemalan immigrant, is set to stand trial for the murder in October, but there is no direct evidence linking him with Levy, only a strong circumstantial case.

The authors meticulously document how much was done wrong in the investigation. The D.C. police didn't retrieve surveillance tapes at Levy's apartment before they were taped over. The officer who entered the apartment after her parents reported her missing contaminated the evidence on her computer that could have shown where she was headed when she disappeared.

Levy's remains weren't found in Washington's Rock Creek Park until May 2002, even though the D.C. police had long before searched the park. They hadn't searched beyond the trails because of a misconstrued order. A hiker found the decomposed body well away from a marked trail.

Once the police knew of Condit's romantic involvement with Levy, they concentrated exclusively on him for months, even as Guandique was arrested for attacking two women in the same park around the time Levy disappeared. One problem was that national park police investigated the park attacks and arrested Guandique, while the D.C. police were investigating Levy's disappearance. The two agencies long failed to make the connection.

Such information is infuriating, as is the fact that thousands of hours of cable news were devoted to the disappearance of one young white woman in a city where hundreds of black residents are killed every year.

Levy's parents haven't come to terms with Chandra's death. They hate the word closure, and with the trial coming up, they're nowhere near seeing an end to this tragedy. As for Condit, he lost his next election bid; news of other affairs surfaced during the media circus. The authors strive to be even-handed, but Condit looks even worse in this book than he did at the time.

Kathleen Krog is a member of The Miami Herald's Editorial Board.

Read more at the Miami Herald website.

Wall Street Journal

The formula of sex, murder and politics caused nearly everyone to point accusingly at Rep. Gary Condit—wrongly, as it turned out.

It seems astonishing, in retrospect, but the dominant news story in America in the handful of months leading up to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks was the disappearance, and presumed murder, of a 24-year-old intern at the Federal Bureau of Prisons. It is now nearly a decade since Chandra Levy walked out of her Washington apartment on a balmy May morning and was never seen alive again. But the man accused of her murder stands trial this fall, and now comes "Finding Chandra: A True Washington Murder Mystery" by Scott Higham and Sari Horwitz, two Washington Post reporters who have written an exhaustive and authoritative account of the whole sorry episode.

It is an interesting story, and a true Washington murder mystery; but what makes it interesting, and instructive, is not so much the crime itself—which is, in its sad details, not especially uncommon—but its sensational aftermath. We still do not know, and may never learn, what happened, precisely, to Chandra Levy, and why. The last thing we do know about her is that she logged onto her computer to obtain information about a landmark in Washington's Rock Creek Park; she seems to have gone jogging by herself and was attacked and killed there.

In Washington, as in any modern metropolis, hundreds of people are murdered each year, including innumerable young women; and random assaults, rapes, robberies and homicides are committed in forested parks, secluded roadsides and quiet apartments. The difference, in this instance, is that once the Washington police took up the case it became known that Chandra Levy had been having an affair with her hometown (and married) member of Congress, Gary Condit, of Modesto, Calif.

Read the full review at the Wall Street Journal website.

-Philip Terzian

Washington Post

The frenzy over the 2001 disappearance of Chandra Levy cooled twice, first because of the Sept. 11 attacks, then because attention was diverted to the sniper murders throughout the Washington region. Police never arrested prime suspect Gary Condit, the congressman with whom Levy had been having an affair, and the case went cold.

But in 2007, editors at The Washington Post decided to revisit the case because they "wondered why the murder had never been solved, whether the homicide investigation had been mishandled, and if anyone would ever stand trial for the crime." They assigned the story to reporters Scott Higham and Sari Horwitz. Even if Horwitz and Higham were to fail to solve the case, their editors believed that at minimum, a reinvestigation would produce a law enforcement procedural that would both grip and educate readers.

They were right on both counts. "Finding Chandra," an expanded version of a series that ran in the paper in 2008, is a well-reported, well-written chronicle of a botched criminal investigation and its disturbing aftermath.

And Higham and Horwitz do seem to have solved the case. About a year after Levy disappeared, a hiker in Rock Creek Park spotted her remains. That portion of the park had been the site of previous violent assaults by Ingmar Adalid Guandique, an El Salvadoran immigrant who eventually went to prison for two of the attacks. Some police officials and prosecutors believed Guandique also assaulted and killed Levy. Those in charge of the investigation continued to focus on Condit. The case is still not closed, but Higham and Horwitz strongly suggest that Guandique killed Levy.

-Steve Weinberg

San Francisco Chronicle

The summer of 2001 was the summer of Chandra Levy. The 24-year-old Washington intern, who grew up in Modesto, disappeared on May 2, days before she was set to return home for her graduation from the University of Southern California. When her family - and soon thereafter the media - discovered that Levy had been having an affair with Central Valley U.S. Rep. Gary Condit, a married Democrat who'd gone to great lengths to conceal his serial philandering, the story quickly became an international curiosity. It was pre-Sept. 11, and cable news covered the mystery of the cheating congressman and his missing mistress around the clock until Condit was quickly convicted in the minds of many Americans.

But there was one problem: Condit (probably) didn't do it.

This fall, nearly 10 years after her death, a Salvadoran immigrant named Ingmar Guandique will stand trial for Levy's murder. It will be a difficult case to prosecute - Levy's body was not discovered for a year - but it arguably might not be taking place at all if not for the remarkable investigative work of Washington Post reporters Scott Higham and Sari Horwitz.

Higham and Horwitz, both Pulitzer Prize winners, spent an entire year re-examining the Levy case, which by 2006 had gone cold. Their efforts culminated in a 19,000-word, 13-part series that ran in the Post in the summer of 2008; "Finding Chandra" is the book-length version of this investigation. In both, the authors re-create Levy's final days and the media frenzy that surrounded, and perhaps doomed, the case. They also lay out a damning indictment of the Washington Metro Police Department's handling of the case.

"The series," write Higham and Horwitz in the book's final chapter, "highlighted the many missteps that plagued the investigation and helped blind investigators to the possibility that someone other than Condit was responsible for Chandra's disappearance."

Among the missteps the authors document was the failure of the D.C. police to find Levy's body, though they'd conducted several searches of Washington's Rock Creek Park, and their failure to interview Guandique, who had been arrested (and was later convicted) for attacking two women in the spring of 2001 within half a mile of where Chandra's remains were discovered. It wasn't until months later, after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 had kicked the summer's scandal off the front pages, that detectives finally interviewed him. And it wasn't until the next February that he was given a polygraph test, and then without a bilingual technician.

"Finding Chandra" is, as its subtitle advertises, "A True Washington Murder Mystery." From the very beginning, the murder seemed almost fated to become a cold case. The police had no body, so the first crucial days and weeks of the investigation were slowed by doubt about whether Levy may simply have run away, a possibility her desperate parents took to the media to deny. And then there was Condit himself, who acted guilty by, among other things, denying the affair and disposing of evidence of his other dalliances.

Add the kind of small but significant screwups that often plague a murder case (an unqualified officer accidentally corrupting Levy's hard drive; the department's failure to obtain surveillance footage before it was erased by Levy's building) and you've got a perfect storm for an unsolved crime.

Read the full review at the San Franciso Chronicle website.

-Julia Dahl, Special to The Chronicle

Publisher's 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)

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

Booklist

Higham and Horwitz, both Pulitzer Prize winners, wrote a 13-part investigative series for The Washington Post, starting in 2007, that examined the mystery surrounding the murder of D.C. intern Chandra Levy, whose remains were found in Rock Creek Park in 2001. In 2007, the Levy case was still cold. This riveting book represents Higham and Horwitz's expanded coverage of the Levy tragedy, based on the Post series, but with their accounts (similar to Woodward and Bernstein's in All the President's Men) of how they got the story that led to the police to renew their efforts and eventually to succeed in arresting a suspect. The authors are adept at both giving documentation and sustaining suspense. Fine reporting and behind-the-scenes drama; a must for true-crime fans. -Connie Fletcher

Kirkus

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 of opportunity. 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)