Scoundrels: Political Scandals in American History—Chandra Levy and Gary Condit
As I discuss in my forthcoming book, Scoundrels: Political Scandals in American History, Congressman Gary Condit was a conservative “Blue Dog Democrat” from California when he became involved with a young intern 30 years his junior. Chandra Ann Levy, the intern, hailed from Condit’s district. She met him in the fall of 2000, not long after she moved to Washington, D.C., to pursue an internship with the United States Bureau of Prisons. The congressman might have kept the affair secret, but Levy disappeared seemingly without a trace on May 1, 2001, as she prepared to return to California.
When he was questioned about his relationship with Levy, Condit admitted that he knew her, but he denied that they were anything more than friends. It was a lie. Family members told police that the congressman had been meeting with her in secret, and that Chandra Levy was in love. Forced to admit that he had lied, Condit soon found himself engulfed in a scandal that generated headlines across the country and around the world. If he had lied about the relationship, he might have lied about other things. Perhaps he knew who had taken Chandra Levy. Perhaps he had kidnapped and/or killed her. With no clues about what had happened, who could say?
The case began when Levy arrived in Washington, D.C., during the fall of 2000, excited at the prospect of interning at the Bureau of Prisons. One day in October of that year, she and a friend from the University of Southern California, Jennifer Baker, marched up to Capitol Hill. To earn their degrees, the students needed to complete an internship. Although Levy had already snagged a position, Baker had not. The plan was to make the rounds and see if they could find an internship for Baker. The logical place to start was in the offices of the California senators and congressmen who represented them.
Normally, a low-level staffer meets with constituents who drop into a representative’s office. Sometimes the staffer can provide tickets to upcoming events at the Kennedy Center or offer access to the gallery when the House of Representatives or the Senate is in session. On this day, however, Congressman Gary Condit was in the office. He stepped out to greet the two fresh-faced, excited young women, and he escorted them around the building, even showing them the House chamber. When Jennifer Baker mentioned that she needed an internship, Condit immediately offered her a job. He also agreed to pose for a photograph, a common occurrence. Members of Congress enjoy meeting with constituents. Photographs for the folks back home encourage voters to remember their elected official at election time. Condit posed in the middle, with Chandra Levy on his right, and Jennifer Baker on his left.
Baker was happy to find a job on Capitol Hill, but that was the extent of her reaction. Chandra Levy, however, felt something different. She thought that Congressman Condit was charming and handsome. In her view, he resembled the actor Harrison Ford, one of her favorite Hollywood stars. A few days later, after she had stopped in the office to see how Baker’s internship was working out, Levy again encountered Congressman Condit. They spoke briefly before exchanging phone numbers and email addresses.
Several days later, the smitten young intern called the congressman. They engaged in small talk and Condit offered career advice. At the end of the call, Condit gave Levy his private phone number. Their relationship, such as it was, might have ended there.
Shortly before thanksgiving, however, they took the next step. Levy called Condit and he invited her to his condominium in the posh Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Condit’s wife mostly stayed at their home in California while the congressman lived alone in his chic fourth-floor apartment overlooking Rock Creek Park. She accepted the invitation and they fell into bed together.
It was more than a one-night stand. The couple developed a routine, but Condit and Levy did not go out in public. Instead, they ordered take-out food and cuddled up to watch movies on HBO. Condit continually admonished his young lover to tell no one of the affair, and she mostly complied. When Jennifer Baker repeatedly asked her friend to go out on the town, Levy invented excuses. She eventually said that she was dating an FBI agent.
The young woman confided in only one person, her aunt, Linda Zamsky. Whether Gary Condit loved her remains a mystery, but Levy certainly loved him. She told her aunt how much she cared for “her man,” the Harrison Ford look-alike who had changed her life. Condit had promised to leave his wife and make a new life with Chandra. The young lady knew the promises might be false, and she knew that she could get hurt, but it was a risk she was willing to take. She swore her aunt to secrecy, and Zamaksy agreed. She honored her promise until her niece disappeared under suspicious circumstances.
The affair continued for approximately five months. In April 2001, Chandra Levy learned that her internship was ending earlier than she had expected. With graduation day approaching, she decided to return to California to attend her commencement ceremony for her master’s program. Ideally, she would return to Washington afterward, diploma in hand, to find a permanent job and continue her relationship with Gary Condit. She last spoke to him on April 29, when she told him of her plans.
Not long thereafter, Chandra Levy disappeared. Reconstructing her steps, investigators found that Chandra had emailed her landlord on April 28 to say that she would vacate her apartment on May 5 or 6. On May 1, she signed onto her computer and searched for flights home. She also searched hiking trails in Rock Creek park. She signed off at 12:24 p.m. and seemingly disappeared into thin air.
By May 6, when no one had heard from Chandra Levy in days, her father, Robert Levy, called the Washington police. The department dispatched an officer to her apartment. The manager opened the door and let him inside. Nothing seemed out of place except that her wallet was still there. He also found two open suitcases, but there was no sign of Chandra Levy.
Robert Levy called the Bureau of Prisons, where his daughter had been working, but no one had seen her since the internship had ended. Desperate for information, he called Washington area hospitals, but no patients answering her description had been admitted. The Levy family normally paid Chandra’s cell phone bills. Anxious to find her, they thought they could uncover clues in her phone records. Robert and his wife, Susan, divided up the list of callers and combed through the frequently called numbers.
Susan had discovered the Condit affair in April and had confronted her daughter. Chandra assured her mother that all would be well, and begged her to keep the secret. Susan Levy begrudgingly agreed. Now that the young woman was missing, Susan told her husband.
Having learned of his daughter’s affair with the much older congressman, Robert Levy shared his wife’s concern. He found a phone book, looked up Condit’s home number, and dialed the man’s residence. The congressman was not home, but his wife, Carolyn, answered. Robert Levy said that he needed Condit’s help to find his missing daughter. Carolyn said she would pass along the message.
Condit called shortly thereafter.
“Do you know my daughter?” Robert Levy asked. His voice trembled. “Where is she? Do you know where she went?”
Condit assured the frantic father that he did not know where Chandra was. He said he knew her in passing, and that he had given her career advice. He promised to call the police and urge them to continue their investigation.
Robert Levy was upset with Condit’s lie, but Susan Levy was incensed. She knew that her daughter and Condit were involved in an intimate relationship. If he would lie about the affair, he probably would lie about other things, too, such as what had happened to Chandra.
As for Gary Condit, he had carefully crafted a secret life over many years. Chandra Levy was not his first affair with a much younger woman. Whenever he took a lover, he instituted clear ground rules. No one must know. They must meet far away from prying eyes. Nothing must interfere with his political career, for Gary Condit’s star was ascending. He was a man who might have a truly stellar career as a Washington mover and shaker—provided that his private life remained private. With the young intern’s disappearance, his career was jeopardized.
As unnerving as Robert Levy’s call was for the seemingly strait-laced congressman, he was especially perturbed when a District of Columbia missing persons detective, Ralph Durant, called to inquire about the vanished intern. Condit repeated the same story he had given Chandra’s father. Durant arranged to meet with Condit on May 9 at the latter’s Adams Morgan condominium to take a formal statement.
Durant and a police sergeant, Ronald Wyatt, arrived at the condominium at 9:55 p.m. on May 9. Condit welcomed them into his home and repeated his original story. He added that Chandra had not appeared nervous or upset when they had last spoken. After he explained how he had met Chandra and hired her friend, Jennifer Baker, the two investigators pushed for more details. It was clear that the congressman had not been completely forthcoming. Durant had spoken to Levy’s aunt, Linda Zamsky, before the May 9 appointment, so he knew more than he initially revealed.
When Condit finally admitted that Chandra Levy had spent the night at his condominium on numerous occasions, Sergeant Wyatt’s patience was almost exhausted. “Did you have an intimate relationship with Ms. Levy?” he asked. The officers wanted to see how Condit answered the question.
The congressman knew that his secret was out, but he remained reluctant to speak about the matter. “I don’t think we need to go there,” he said, “and you can infer what you want with that.” Durant and Wyatt understood the inference. They also knew that it was only a matter of time before the press got wind of a scandal. Gary Condit’s privacy would soon be a thing of the past.
The first new story, buried in the back of the Metro section of the Washington Post on May 11, 2001, mentioned the missing woman and asked for tips, but it refrained from discussing Congressman Condit. A second story, published on May 16, referred to Condit and contained a quote from him expressing his hope that Chandra, “a great person and a good friend,” would be found safe and sound. The affair was not mentioned.
Unfortunately for Condit, reporters were working their police sources, and by May 16, they believed that the congressman had been involved in a sexual relationship with the missing intern. In response to a flood of media inquiries, Condit’s chief of staff in Modesto, California, Michael Lynch, told reporters from the Washington Post that notion of an affair was preposterous. “Totally did not occur,” he said without hesitation or equivocation. “It’s really distressing that a lot of people are focusing on that issue when the focus should be on finding where Chandra is.”
Gary Condit’s life soon was consumed by the growing scandal. News media followed him everywhere he went, frequently calling out “where's Chandra?” The congressman tried to go about his business, but night after night lurid tales of the missing intern and her powerful lover dominated the headlines. Robert and Susan Levy ratcheted up the pressure when they went on television on June 14, 2001, begging Condit to reveal what he knew. They were convinced that Condit had had an affair with their daughter, and that he knew where she had gone.
Police did not have enough evidence to charge him with a crime in a court of law, but he was roundly crucified in the court of public opinion. Condit agreed to an on-camera interview with the journalist Connie Chung, but he appeared shifty and evasive. The appearance damaged his reputation further. He could do nothing right.
Nineteen days after the Connie Chung interview, the ongoing Chandra Levy media saga abruptly ended. The television trucks that had been parked outside of Gary Condit’s condominium swiftly packed up and raced away from the premises. Susan Levy had planned to fly to Chicago to appear on the popular Oprah television program, followed by a trip to New York for an appearance on the Today show, but she did not go to the airport. The terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001, changed the world forever. As the media focused on wall-to-wall coverage of the worst terrorist attacks in American history, the story of a missing intern and her congressman lover quickly became yesterday’s news.
It wasn’t yesterday’s news to Gary Condit. He still hoped to salvage his career in Congress. On December 7, 2001, he announced that he would seek reelection. He knew he faced an uphill battle, but Condit believed that he should be judged on his entire record representing his constituents in the House, not on the Levy scandal.
He faced a former aide, Dennis Cardoza, then serving as a California Assemblyman, in the Democratic primary in March 2002. Condit was bitter because he had helped Cardoza earlier in his career, and now a former friend and subordinate was challenging him for the congressional seat. He was right to be worried. When the votes came in, Condit had lost with 37.5 percent of the vote to Cardozo’s 55.3 percent. Gary Condit’s public service career had ended. He tried to be sanguine about it. “Things happen in life that you can’t explain,” he mused. “Whatever happens, happens. I’ll do something else.”
The media hoopla died out, but the mystery remained. It wasn’t until a 42-year-old furniture maker, Philip Palmer, was walking his dog near the Western Ridge Trail in Rock Creek Park on May 22, 2002, that the authorities found out where Chandra Levy was. Palmer stumbled upon a decomposed body, and immediately alerted the police. It was a trail that had been searched, but this area off the trail was well hidden. Subsequent tests confirmed that Levy had been found.
D.C. police investigators felt enormous pressure to solve the homicide case, but they had few clues. The body was so badly decomposed that determining a cause of death or finding physical evidence was impossible. If a stranger had come out of the woods and attacked Chandra while she was walking or jogging, any evidence of that encounter was long gone after exposure to the elements for a year. Despite the investigators’ best efforts, the search for a killer was stalled.
Eight months earlier, a lawyer for Ramón Alvarez, an inmate in the D.C. jail, had called the U.S. Attorney in Washington to tell an interesting story. The lawyer said that Alvarez had spoken with another inmate, 20-year-old El Salvador native Ingmar Adalid Guandique, and the inmate claimed to have killed Chandra Levy. According to Alvarez, Guandique said that Gary Condit had paid him $25,000 to murder the young woman. Guandique had ambushed Levy while she was jogging on a path in Rock Creek Park. After stabbing her in the neck and stomach with a knife, Guandique supposedly dug out a small hole in the woods and buried her body under leaves and tree branches.
The story sounded farfetched, especially the tale about Condit’s involvement. Police had combed through the congressman’s life with a fine-tooth comb. They had found no suspicious financial transactions suggesting that Condit had accessed a large amount of cash. Nonetheless, with few credible tips to guide their investigation, detectives met with Guandique and showed him a photograph of Chandra Levy. He denied having ever seen her other than in news reports on television.
Information provided by jailhouse snitches is notoriously unreliable. Alvarez might have lied, or perhaps Guandique had said something after all. Either Guandique or Alvarez possibly embellished the tale. On November 28, 2001, police administered a polygraph to Alvarez. He failed. Guandique sat for his polygraph on February 4, 2002. The examiner rated the results as inconclusive, although in his opinion Guandique was “not deceptive.” Alvarez and Guandique spoke little English, and the examiners were not bilingual, which further complicated the results.
Guandique’s record suggested that he might have attacked and killed Chandra Levy. He had been implicated in assaults on two other women in Rock Creek Park. On May 14, 2001, a strange man wielding a knife had attacked 30-year-old journalist Halle Shilling as she jogged in the park. After a brief physical altercation, she escaped and alerted the U.S. Park Police. The man disappeared before the police could find him.
Six week later, on July 1, 2001, a man matching the same description as the attacker in the Shilling case—a Hispanic man wearing baggy pants, a T-short, and sneakers—attacked another jogger, 25-year-old Christy Wiegand, who was running with her fiancé in Rock Creek Park. As the couple became separated, a man came out of the brush with a knife and forced Wiegand into a ravine. She fought him off, flagged down a passing motorist, and they located her fiancé. This time, however, when the Park Police received the report, they found the man and took him into custody. He was Ingmar Guandique.
Faced with strong evidence against him in the Shilling and Wiegand cases, Guandique agreed to plead guilty. He may have been involved in two other assaults on women as well, but those cases were not before the court. Based on the defendant’s guilty plea, Judge Noel Anketell Kramer sentenced him to serve 10 years in prison.
Shortly before the sentencing, U.S. Attorney Kristen Ament informed the judge about Guandique’s possible involvement in the Levy disappearance. Prosecutors told Judge Kramer that Guandique had cooperated in the Levy case, and had even consented to take a polygraph test, which he passed. Based on the record, the judge concluded that “This is such a satellite issue. To me it doesn’t have anything to do with this case.” Consequently, Chandra Levy’s disappearance did not factor into the judge’s sentence.
Even with the heightened interest in the case, investigators did not aggressively follow up with Guandique. Their indifference eventually changed owing to several events. First, an inmate named Armando Morales had shared a cell with Guandique, and Morales claimed that his roommate confessed to murdering Chandra Levy. This was the second time that an inmate had snitched on Guandique. The information was surprisingly detailed and believable.
Another factor was a change in police personnel. A new D.C. police chief, Cathy L. Lanier, believed that it was time to revisit the case. She met with Susan Levy in 2007 and pledged to reexamine the evidence with new detectives at the helm and a fresh perspective on the case. Chief Lanier assigned three experienced homicide investigators to take the lead.
The third occurrence involved reporters at the Washington Post. A new team of reporters began to examine the original police investigation. In a series of long newspaper articles than ran in the Post beginning on Sunday, July 13, 2008, the reporters outlined numerous police errors. Some mistakes, such as failing to secure surveillance videotapes in Chandra Levy’s apartment building and corrupting her computer files, were already known, but other errors had only recently been discovered. The error that garnered the most attention was the failure to investigate Ingmar Guandique’s connection to Chandra Levy or to interview the two women he confessed to attacking in Rock Creek Park.
The new detectives—Kenneth Williams, Anthony Brigidini, and Emilio Martinez—dug into the case and planned to re-interview key witnesses. On September 8, 2008, they met with Guandique. Martinez spoke Spanish, so he translated the conversation. Although Guandique never confessed, he made several incriminating statements. While he spoke with the detectives, prison authorities searched his cell and discovered a picture of Chandra he had ripped from a magazine. They also learned that Guandique had confessed to several people, including Armando Morales, that he had killed Levy. Although there was no smoking gun, so to speak, investigators believed they had built a strong case based on circumstantial evidence.
On March 3, 2009, the District of Columbia Superior Court issued an arrest warrant for Ingmar Guandique. He remained incarcerated in the Victorville facility in California, and so authorities knew where to find him. After he was transferred back into the custody of the D.C. Department of Corrections, Guandique was indicted by a grand jury on six counts: kidnapping, first-degree murder committed during a kidnapping, attempted first-degree sexual abuse, first-degree murder committed during a sexual offense, attempted robbery, and first-degree murder committed during a robbery. He pleaded not guilty.
His trial commenced on October 4, 2010. Halle Shilling and Christy Wiegand testified about their terrifying experiences with Guandique, and prosecutors noted the similarities in circumstances and locations between those attacks and the Chandra Levy attack. Coupled with Armando Morales’ testimony, it was a persuasive case. The trial lasted a month. On November 22, 2010, the jury convicted Guandique of first-degree murder. On February 11, 2011, Judge Gerald Fisher sentenced him to 60 years in prison.
The case appeared to be closed, but it was not. In May 2015, defense attorneys succeeded in convincing Judge Fisher that the defendant deserved a new trial. After much back-and-forth between prosecutors and defense attorneys, the date was set for October 11, 2016. As in the first case, the verdict would depend largely on Morales’ credibility.
The retrial was in trouble almost at the beginning. Prosecutors are required by law to reveal possibly exculpatory evidence to the defense, but they had not done so during Guandique’s first trial. When the defense attorneys learned of this failure, they filed motions to dismiss the case.
Even more troubling for the prosecution was new information about Armando Morales’ veracity. During a seemingly routine pretrial hearing on July 21, 2016, a prosecutor divulged that a part-time actress named Babs Proller had contacted his office and said that she had information about Morales concerning the Levy case. According to Proller, she had become acquainted with Morales, who had been released from prison and was living in Maryland, on July 6 of that year. During their discussions, Morales threatened Proller’s ex-husband. Fearful of what might happen, Proller tape recorded the conversation. Morales admitted on tape that he had lied about Guandique’s confession to improve his standing with prosecutors and secure an earlier release from prison.
Proller contacted Susan Levy and told her about the recording. Levy told Proller to contact prosecutors, but she declined to listen to the recordings. “I can’t believe we are going through this all over again,” Susan Levy later remarked.
After hearing the recording, prosecutors conceded that their case against Ingmar Guandique had collapsed. Morales had no credibility whatsoever. Without his testimony, the case against Guandique could not proceed.
On July 28, 2016, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Washington, D.C., issued a brief statement: “Today, in the interests of justice and based on recent unforeseen developments that were investigated over the past week, the office moved to dismiss the case charging Ingmar Guandique with the May 2001 murder of Chandra Levy. The office has concluded that it can no longer prove the murder case against Mr. Guandique beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Even without the conviction for Chandra Levy’s murder hanging over his head, Guandique was not a free man. He had illegally entered the United States, and he had committed other crimes while in the country. Prosecutors turned him over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). After exhausting his hearings and appeals, Guandique could not remain in the United States. On May 5, 2017, ICE deported him to El Salvador.
Robert Levy, among others, was outraged by the prosecutors’ decision to dismiss the case. He was adamant that Guandique had murdered his daughter. “Who is this woman?” he asked during a telephone interview, referring to Babs Proller. “What is her motivation for doing this? Maybe she tricked him into saying these things.” Of course, a distraught family member is seldom a good judge of guilt or innocence in a murder trial. Robert Levy had once been just as adamant that Gary Condit had killed his daughter.
As for Condit, after he lost his reelection bid for his congressional seat, he moved to Arizona and faded from the public spotlight. He operated two Baskin-Robbins ice cream stores with his wife and son until he became embroiled in a franchise dispute with the company. Later, he lost his breach of contract lawsuit. Searching for employment, Condit registered as a lobbyist with the state of California.
He filed a lawsuit against Vanity Fair writer Dominick Dunne, who had published unsubstantiated rumors about Condit’s involvement in affairs with prostitutes at Middle Eastern embassies. Dunne also had detailed Condit’s search for someone to kill Chandra Levy. As part of a settlement, Condit received an undisclosed settlement. He also settled a case against the tabloid publication The National Enquirer.
Gary Condit never publicly admitted to having an affair with Chandra Levy, but his refusal to deny the existence of a sexual relationship strongly suggests that they were involved. He suffered the grave misfortune of becoming a suspect in her death. To this day, some observers believe that he was involved in her disappearance and murder. As one of Condit’s lawyers, Betram Fields, put it after the police had eliminated the congressman as a suspect, “Who gives him his career back? That career has been destroyed and his life turned upside down, and that will never change.”
As of this writing, Chandra Levy’s murder remains unsolved.