Chandra Levy murder mystery deepens as prosecutors drop case

In this April 22, 2009, file photo, Ingmar Guandique is escorted from the Violent Crimes Unit in Washington.
In this April 22, 2009, file photo, Ingmar Guandique is escorted from the Violent Crimes Unit in Washington. AP

In another stunning reversal, federal prosecutors on Thursday abruptly dropped murder charges against the Salvadoran immigrant previously convicted of killing former intern and Modesto, California, resident Chandra Levy.

The unexpected decision casts back into mystery the question of what really happened to Levy more than 15 years ago when she disappeared while apparently jogging through the capital’s Rock Creek Park. It follows years of defense lawyers’ investigation into the prosecutors’ chief witness, who claimed Ingmar Guandique confessed to the crime while the two shared a jail cell.

Citing the “interests of justice” and “recent unforeseen developments that were investigated over the past week,” the U.S. attorney’s office for the District of Columbia said that Guandique would now be turned over to immigration authorities for deportation proceedings.

“The office has concluded that it can no longer prove the murder case against Mr. Guandique beyond a reasonable doubt,” U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesman William Miller said in a statement.

Guandique was convicted of Levy’s murder in 2010, eight years after her skeletal remains were found along a jogging trail in the park. He was sentenced to 60 years in prison, but his defense team appealed and won a new trial, which was set to start in October.

Prosecutors did not elaborate on the exact nature of the “unforeseen developments” that prompted them to ask D.C. Superior Court Judge Robert E. Morin to dismiss Guandique’s indictment “without prejudice.” This means prosecutors could, in theory, seek to revive the case later, although that seems highly unlikely.

Morin quickly granted the motion and dismissed the indictment without prejudice Thursday afternoon.

“This dismissal vindicates Mr. Guandique,” Laura E. Hankins, general counsel of the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, said in a statement. “Finally, the government has had to concede the flaws in its ill-gotten conviction.”

Hankins further asserted that the original team of federal prosecutors engaged in “deliberately hiding evidence that would have exposed the false testimony of their star witness” during the first trial in November 2010.

Guandique has already completed a 10-year sentence he received for attacking two other women in Rock Creek Park in May and July of 2001. Levy disappeared May 1, 2001.

Until now, defense attorneys had been pressing hard to discover more about Armando Morales, a former Fresno, California, gang leader whose testimony that Guandique had confessed to him while they were cellmates in 2006 proved crucial in Guandique’s first trial.

“He said, ‘Homeboy, I killed that bitch, but I didn’t rape her,’ ” Morales testified.

Morales also said Guandique told him that he hadn’t meant to kill Levy but that she died in a robbery gone bad. No eyewitness or DNA evidence connected Guandique to Levy, making the Morales testimony all the more crucial.

Morales’s criminal track record and his prior history of cooperating with law enforcement, which defense attorneys didn’t know about during Guandique’s first trial, would have prompted a potentially withering cross-examination during a second trial.

“Armando Morales lied to the jury in this case, and the Department of Justice had proof of those lies before and during the trial,” defense attorney Jon Anderson said at a 2013 hearing.

The prosecutors’ move marks the latest twist in a tumultuous crime saga that began with Levy’s disappearance shortly before she was to return to her family’s Modesto home after months in Washington as an intern at the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. Her remains were found in May 2002.

Levy’s disappearance, Guandique’s trial nine years later and every development in between remained fixed on the public stage in large part because of rumors and revelations about her relationship with then-Congressman Gary Condit.

In the fall of 2000 and at the age of 23, family members and outside investigations subsequently revealed, Levy entered into an affair with the married and much older Condit.

In a deposition, Condit was asked to describe his relationship with the younger woman.

“We were friends,” Condit said.

“Did your relationship ever become a romantic relationship?” an attorney asked.

“No,” Condit answered.

“Did it ever become more than just friendship?” the attorney asked.

“No,” Condit replied.

But the reported affair between Condit and Levy became the focus of much of the coverage of Levy’s disappearance, and in 2001, Levy’s aunt, Linda Zamsky, issued a 15-page statement, saying the “Levy family is frustrated and outraged that Congressman Gary Condit and his associates have mischaracterized Chandra Levy’s relationship with the congressman.”

Some investigators eventually came to believe that the public attention to the affair distracted them from properly investigating the case. A prosecutor in 2010 stated in open court that Condit and Levy had had an affair.

Condit lost his San Joaquin Valley congressional seat in a 2002 Democratic primary.

As they prepared for Guandique’s retrial, defense attorneys made clear that they might try to target Condit as an alternative suspect. In August, the defense attorneys were scheduled to take a deposition from a woman who previously told investigators she had had a sexual relationship with Condit.

The defense attorneys with the Public Defenders Service for the District of Columbia also have been pressing hard on what the original prosecution team members knew and when they knew it concerning Armando Morales’s complete background.

Last year, just days before the initial lead prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Haines, was going to be questioned under oath about the Morales matter, the U.S. Attorney’s Office sidestepped the issue and dropped its objections to a new trial for Guandique.

Since then, in the face of a sometimes slow-moving federal bureaucracy, the defense attorneys have been continuing to collect evidence about the extent of the various forms of assistance Morales provided to law enforcement officers in Fresno County and elsewhere, among other matters.

“It is now clear that the jailhouse informant, who was central to the government’s case, was a perjurer who too easily manipulated the prosecutors,” said Hankins, of the Public Defender Service.

Members of the Levy family could not be reached to comment Thursday.

Garth Stapley of the Modesto Bee also contributed to this story.

Michael Doyle: 202-383-6153, @MichaelDoyle10