Special Reports

September 1, 2002

Levy family left waiting for daughter's remains

WASHINGTON -- Chandra Levy's skeletal remains belong, by and large, to her family. That much no one disputes.

Today, though, the bones of the murdered Modesto woman remain locked up in the District of Columbia.

And while the medical examiner said in mid-July that he was prepared to release most of Levy's remains, there is no sign that it is going to happen soon.

That is a problem for the family, struggling to move on with their lives in Modesto. And it is a problem for outside experts who want to conduct their own inquiry into how Levy died.

"There's nothing to report, regrettably," said Dr. Cyril Wecht, one of three forensic pathologists who hope to evaluate Levy's remains.

Levy, 24, disappeared April 30, 2001, a week after completing an internship at the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. Her remains were found May 22 of this year in Rock Creek Park.

The medical examiner, Dr. Jonathan Arden, declared May 28 that Levy was a homicide victim. No arrests have been made, nor have any suspects been named.

On July 15, Arden announced: "We are completely ready to release her remains" -- except for some skeletal pieces for potential use as the investigation warrants.

The Levy family has not taken possession of anything while their attorney, Billy Martin, remains in discussion with the medical examiner's office over what it wants to hold back.

Arden could not be reached for comment.

Martin announced July 19 that he had pulled together Drs. Wecht, Michael Baden and Henry Lee to follow up Arden's official examination.

While he declared Levy to be a homicide victim, Arden said he had insufficient evidence to rule on the manner of death.

He noted, however, some suggestion of damage to the hyoid bone in her neck, which could be an indication of strangulation.

Arden's conclusions were the subject of super-heated journalism, drawn by the notoriety that surrounded the Levy investigation after reports surfaced that she had been romantically involved with Democratic Rep. Gary Condit of Ceres.

Condit publicly characterized Levy as a "very close" friend, but has not denied published reports that he told police in a third interview that he had an affair with her.

The fallout from the investigation eventually led to the 54-year-old Condit's defeat in his bid for an eighth term in Congress, and his tenure there ends in January.

'Markings' on teeth

One day in July, Arden showed Levy's remains to the three privately retained experts. They want more.

Some "markings" on Levy's teeth merit closer examination, Wecht said. Even more important, Wecht said, the 2-inch-long, horseshoe-shaped hyoid needs a look by something more powerful than the naked eye.

"In order to see what we're looking for, we need to look at it under a microscope," Wecht said.

To do this, investigators would first decalcify the bone with a solution that would let them take a slice for microscopic examination. It would cause minimal damage to the remaining bone, Wecht said.

He questioned just how valuable it is for officials to hold on to every last piece.

"Nobody's going to take the hyoid bone and pass it around to a jury; they have photographs and slides," Wecht said. "It's not as if they're going to show this hyoid bone to someone to get them to confess."

Under District of Columbia law, the chief medical examiner "shall release the body" once the official autopsy is done, and the remains shall go to the next of kin, in this case Levy's parents, Robert and Susan.

Wecht, likewise, repeatedly noted that Levy's body belongs to the family.

Religious concerns

However, this does not necessarily mean the entire body. Title 5 of District of Columbia law also states: When "further investigation into the cause or manner of death is required, or the public interest so requires," the medical examiner shall conduct both an autopsy and "retain tissues and biological specimens deemed necessary to an investigation."

That can complicate religious observances, particularly when the Jewish faith is involved -- and Levy was Jewish.

"In the Jewish faith, you have to have the body intact" for burial, said Calaveras County Coroner Kevin Raggio. Recently his office dealt with a body that was pulled from New Melones Reservoir, then held in storage pending identification.

After the office identified the man as Meyer Muscatel, a Southern California developer, Raggio fielded calls from several rabbis concerned about how much the Jewish man's remains might have been disturbed during the five months that it took to make the identification, the coroner said.

"Any invasive procedure is seen as a desecration," according to an Internet site maintained by the Shema Yisrael Torah Network.

"Any delay in the burial and anything other than the burial of the entire body is seen as painful to the spirit and is contrary to Jewish law."

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

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