Paper's Levy series concludes media distracted investigators

WASHINGTON -- There's seemingly nothing more to write about Chandra Levy until her killer confesses or is caught.

With an online discussion Monday, the Washington Post concluded a controversial and exhaustive 13-part investigation into the murder of the former Modesto resident. The series left no stone unturned. It also illustrated what has endured and what has changed about journalism in the seven years since Levy disappeared.

"We have always seen the story as an investigation into police mistakes, driven by human foibles and intense media scrutiny," the Post's investigative editor Jeffrey Leen declared online Monday. "As such, it is a story of our time."

Three Post reporters, two of them Pulitzer Prize winners, spent a year investigating Levy's death. The reporters concluded that the initial "white hot" focus on then-Rep. Gary Condit, D-Ceres, distracted investigators.

The series made clear that investigators don't consider Condit a suspect in Levy's death.

By the end of the 19,000-word multimedia series, the Post pinpointed an illegal immigrant from El Salvador named Ingmar Guandique as the leading potential suspect. The paper encircled Guandique with numerous interviews and assembled documentary evidence.

"They've put a lot of work into it," Levy's mother Susan said Monday. "It's been painful for me, as a mother, but ... I think it's worth the attention. They handled it very sensitively."

Levy said her husband, Robert, has not been able to read the series; the wound is too raw.

Guandique is in federal prison on charges of attacking two other women in Washington's Rock Creek Park, where Levy's skeletal remains were found in 2002. He granted the Post his first Spanish-language interview, and has denied killing Levy.

Story still interests readers

The Levy series served up bite-sized stories over two weeks, marketed like a summertime whodunit.

The Levy series demonstrated anew the power of sex, murder and political sizzle to draw readers. The Post's series attracted a sizable audience, though editors won't divulge numbers.

"The online readership of this series is among the largest of any investigative series we have done," Leen said Monday.

The public fascination, in turn, still spurs questions over newsroom priorities. The Washington City Paper obtained one internal memo from a disgruntled Post reporter calling his colleagues' Levy project "unconscionable" and "absolutely absurd." Reader criticisms outnumbered praise by a 410-70 margin, Post ombudsman Deborah Howell reported Friday. The blogosphere -- itself a relatively new term in 2001 -- has been ablaze with pro and con commentary.

'My reputation was being raped'

Condit granted the Post a rare interview, in which he said the harsh media coverage felt like an assault against which he could not defend himself.

"I felt like my reputation was being raped," Condit told the Post. "That I was being assaulted physically and I could not defend myself. It was the equivalent to me of a rape."

While illuminating the Levy case, the series sidestepped some of the grim specifics of Condit's post-congressional life.

An Arizona newspaper is placing a lien on Condit's former Ceres home for nonpayment of a $43,680 court judgment. Baskin-Robbins is awaiting a judge's ruling in a mismanagement lawsuit against the Condit family. And the attorney who represented Condit in a recently dismissed defamation lawsuit against author Dominick Dunne is quitting, citing Condit's failure to pay legal bills.

"Presently, Condit owes (the firm) $93,563.77," attorney Deborah Drooz stated in a July 22 legal filing obtained by The Bee. "Despite numerous written and oral demands ... no such payment has been made to date."

When Drooz repeatedly tried contacting Condit directly, Condit's daughter Cadee informed her the former congressman was "out of pocket."

"I understand that," Drooz wrote, "to mean unreachable."

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

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