Book review: Finding Chandra, by Scott Higham and Sari Horwitz
Washington Post reporters and Pulitzer Prize winners Scott Higham and Sari Horwitz expand on their thirteen-part series about the truth of the Chandra Levy disappearance and murder investigations, revealing how police focused on Congressman Gary Condit, with whom the Bureau of Prisons intern was having an affair, at the expense of more viable suspects, one of whom almost certainly murdered Levy.
I got re-interested in this story after hearing it mentioned on My Favorite Murder, my newly-discovered podcast obsession. I’ve been catching up, listening to back episodes, and when they mentioned it, just the sound of Chandra Levy’s name took me back to that time – especially the media circus and the press’s relentless dogging of Condit, who I assumed was involved, otherwise why was he so evasive and the press so persistent? He was convicted in the court of public opinion before any evidence for or against him even appeared.
In fact, Gary Condit comes off as a sad casualty, collateral damage of what seems to be an unfortunate case of a striking young woman in the wrong place at the wrong time. His political career was destroyed after the scandal, and he became the owner with his wife of two Baskin Robbins’ franchises in Arizona, which closed after disputes with the company. This after being a rising Democrat who fostered across-the-aisle bipartisanship, back in the days when that was even still possible, I guess.
The book’s reconstruction of events makes it clear that he’s not likely involved; one investigator who interviewed him had the impression “Condit simply didn’t care enough about Chandra to harm her or kill her.”
Besides the media drama, a lot went wrong investigation-wise, especially with police laser-focused on Condit. The WaPo series these journalists wrote thoroughly exposed those mistakes, and the book drives them home. What did go wrong? Making a list of what went right would be much shorter, but here’s a fraction of it:
“Failure to immediately secure surveillance videotapes, the mismanagement of the examination of Chandra’s computer, the missed connection between Chandra’s disappearance and other attacks in Rock Creek Park, the failure by Park Police to report Guandique’s statement two months after her disappearance that he had seen Chandra in the park, the failure by D.C. detectives to interview the two women he attacked, the failure to properly search the park…the fourteen months that passed before investigators interviewed his landlady, who said Guandique looked like he’d been in a fight around the time of Chandra’s disappearance…”
This isn’t even touching on something that astounded me, how police focused apparently boundless energy on “psychic tips” instead of searching deeper in the park, more than a couple hundred yards off the trails. Instead, they spend time and resources on psychic tips. Common sense apparently abandoned this investigation.
“Dozens of psychics and oddballs were calling with their hunches, their visions, and their sightings…All took time away from the case…Police were frustrated…spending an unprecedented amount of time on the case and not getting a meaningful break…Instead they were hearing about ghostly visions…One psychic said that Chandra’s throat had been slashed and that she was put in a body bag and stowed in the basement of a Smithsonian storage building. Police checked the building but found nothing…Another caller said Chandra was a victim of a suicide bombing in Israel. Police called their counterparts there, it wasn’t true…One tipster said that Chandra died in Nevada during a botched abortion by a veterinarian and that she was buried in the desert…two private investigators for the Levy family went out West, but they came back empty-handed.”
Even the Levys focused on this instead of on searching the park. Is this why there are so many unsolved crimes? Because authorities wait to hear Miss Cleo’s ideas instead of looking themselves? Everyone involved should go their rooms and think about what they did.
It’s written in a straightforward tone, enough to be page-turning but lacking narrative embellishments, which would’ve made it a better book. But it delivers the information, I learned the truth of what transpired during that media-frenzied time, which was of course difficult to ascertain while it unfolded, then eclipsed a few months later by 9/11.
So the book isn’t a work of art, apart from the cover, but it gets the job done. Background info about Chandra and her parents was helpful, as well as of periphery figures and their roles, the political climate, a little about racial tensions in D.C. and its reputation for drug-related murders, the focus on Chandra and not on so many other homicides.
In May 2017, Chandra’s alleged killer Ingmar Guandique, who’d been stalking and attempting to rape other women jogging in Rock Creek around the time of her disappearance, was deported to his native El Salvador. He’d been in the U.S. illegally, and after being released from prison when his murder sentence was overturned thanks to issues with another inmate’s testimony of a confession, prosecutors decided not to retry his case. The frustrating thing is that judging by the circumstantial evidence presented here, it seems remarkably likely that he’s guilty. But there’s no physical or forensic evidence tying him to the crime.
The book shows what a monster he is though. He had an awful upbringing in unstable El Salvador with a bad family, but he let evil win and became a barf bag of a human being. In addition to everything he did to land him there, in prison he raped another inmate, stockpiled makeshift weapons in a plot to kill guards and detectives coming to interview him, and apparently told anyone who’d listen that he’d killed a woman in Washington. I’m horrified that the courts let him free, but relieved he was deported. We don’t need fuckers like him around strengthening Donald Trump’s hate rhetoric.
And I learned something both interesting and awful from this book: another of Condit’s paramours, Anne Marie Smith, was instructed by her attorney to go public quickly about her affair although she didn’t want to. Why? “She could head off Condit and the media, take control of the story, and prevent the congressman from casting her as a whore angling for fame and money. It was a common ploy used by many men caught having affairs. Crudely referred to as the ‘Nuts or Sluts Defense,’ it was often used to portray female accusers as sexually promiscuous or so crazy they made it up, and sometimes both. President Clinton’s proxies had used the defense…when Paula Jones came forward to allege he had groped her…”
Gross. I knew this tactic obviously, because nothing has changed since 2001, but I didn’t know it was called Nuts or Sluts. I don’t know why I’m surprised.
And, is this weird, but how appealing is that cover? I want to go to there. That’s Washington’s Rock Creek Park, where Chandra went running and her body was eventually found in a ravine. I try not to pick my must-visit spots from true crime books, but this one is definitely an exception.
Finding Chandra: A True Washington Murder Mystery
by Scott Higham and Sari Horwitz
published May 11, 2010 by Scribner