April 12, 2013

In Chandra Levy case, ex-gang enforcer plays pivotal role

Armando Morales handled illicit business a street gang. Then his testimony against a former cellmate secured the conviction of the man accused of killing Modesto's Chandra Levy. Now he might have a hand in turning the Levy murder mystery upside down.

Armando Morales can be a dangerous man, whichever side he's on.

At one time, Morales handled illicit business for the Fresno Bulldogs street gang. Then his compelling testimony against a former cellmate he called a "good friend" secured the conviction of the man accused of killing Chandra Levy.

Now, amid new questions about his credibility, the former gang enforcer turned prison snitch is back on the hot seat. What happens next might turn the Levy murder mystery upside down, while raising questions about what prosecutors knew and when they knew it. At the very least, it will shine a spotlight on a street-smart man with a violent past and, he says, a changed heart.

"This is a gentleman who, every time, operates on his own self-interest," said defense attorney Santha Sonenberg. Her characterization came during the November 2010 trial of Ingmar Guandique, the man convicted of killing Levy in Washington's Rock Creek Park. At the time of her 2001 death, the 24-year-old Levy was about to return to her home in Modesto after graduate school and a Federal Bureau of Prisons internship.

In recent months, attorneys have argued about potential problems with a witness but have not revealed the person's identity. But a trial judge Thursday revealed Morales as that prosecution witness about whom new evidence has arisen. The evidence itself remains secret, but defense attorneys say it casts enough doubt on Morales' credibility that they will request a new trial for Guandique.

It's a remarkable development for a case that's already had more than its share. Levy's disappearance attracted national attention after revelations of an affair with Rep. Gary Condit, D-Ceres. Condit testified at Guandique's 2010 trial, essentially to put to rest defense suggestions that he might have had something to do with Levy's disappearance.

Condit's testimony, though, was a sideshow. The trial's main event came when Morales arrived on the eighth day, shackled and dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit. He had a black mustache and a shaved head. He wore glasses. He sounded sincere when he testified about what Guandique allegedly had told him, with devastating results for the defense.

"He said, 'Homeboy, I killed that b----, but I didn't rape her,' " Morales testified.

Morales briefly had shared a cell with Guandique in 2006 at U.S. Penitentiary, Big Sandy, in Kentucky.

Morales turned 52 on Feb. 18. An unmarried father, he was sentenced on gun and drug charges in 1997 to 22 years in prison. The public Bureau of Prisons inmate-locator database no longer lists his status, a possible indicator that he's in protective custody.

Wherever Morales is, he bears the evidence of a hard life. On his left hand, he has a gang tattoo of a bulldog's paw; on his back, a gang tattoo of what he describes as "my neighborhood." He has a string of convictions, according to his trial testimony.

Although uneducated, Morales comes across as intelligent. Some might call him canny. He speaks some Tagalog, a language of the Philippines, as well as some Japanese and Chinese, in addition to English and Spanish. In prison, he covertly made a set of handcuff keys by filing down staples, he testified in 2010. He also made a prison shank by melting plastic utensils in a tiny flame sparked from a battery, and he enrolled in a prison skills program.

According to court records, his criminal career officially began in May 1982 when he robbed a Fresno 7-Eleven store and a Winchell's Donut House. The next month, Morales robbed a liquor store clerk. After his arrest, he was charged with assaulting a jail guard. He spent time at the California state prisons at Folsom and San Quentin.

Freed for a few years, Morales was arrested again in 1996 on drug and firearms charges. An informant wearing a wire recorded him at his Fresno home and at several Mexican restaurants in town, selling methamphetamine, crack and a .38-caliber Derringer pistol.

Morales ultimately pleaded guilty. He also says he left the gangs behind.

Attorneys will be sorting through the information that allegedly undercuts Morales' credibility. Defense attorneys think that prosecutors should have known it, and shared it with the defense, at the time of the trial, but that has yet to be proved.

Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com or (202) 383-0006.

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