As images of District of Columbia police cadets searching under bushes and bridges in Rock Creek Park flashed across TV screens this week, the 2 1/2-month probe into Chandra Levy's disappearance was fast approaching a crossroads.
Despite the outward impression that police activity was intensifying, former detectives and those familiar with the case say there are growing indications that the inquiry is nearing a decelerated, long-range phase. And that possibly could mean fewer resources and the expectation that results will be slow in coming--if they come at all.
In the last week, Washington police officials redoubled efforts, making public appeals for help, retracing their steps in parks and abandoned buildings and re-interviewing many of the missing 25-year-old woman's fellow tenants. And reports that an FBI unit specializing in unsolved cases has been added to the Levy probe hint that "we're getting close to hitting the wall," one investigator said.
FBI agents assigned to focus on the Levy case met Wednesday with Barry Colvert, the private polygraph examiner who administered a test to Rep. Gary A. Condit (D-Ceres). Condit earlier this month reportedly admitted to having had an affair with Levy. According to a source familiar with the probe, the purpose of the 1 1/2-hour meeting in the FBI's Washington field office was to assess the polygraph test, which reportedly indicates the congressman has no knowledge of Levy's whereabouts.
D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey, who has said he is highly skeptical of the test, said in an interview that "we still have a lot of ground to cover." But Ramsey conceded that without more solid leads, "you get to the point when you may have to start thinking about scaling back."
Not satisfied with Condit's description of his last contacts with Levy, detectives are mulling a request for a fourth interview. (The FBI has yet to release its analysis of a stained window blind and other items taken from Condit's condominium during a search.)
Authorities also are looking at others who were close to Levy. At least two acquaintances, including a government co-worker, have been given polygraph tests by police. Also, detectives have begun revisiting several old, unsolved cases previously thought to be unrelated to Levy's vanishing, one investigator said.
Two major-crimes detectives are working the case full time, augmented by at least eight detectives with homicide experience. Other investigators have been brought in as needed to examine everything from Levy's last contacts with Condit to tips that she had purposely vanished, a source said.
But with Washington's violent crime rate ticking upward in the summer months, "the natural tendency will be to pull some of these people off [the Levy investigation] for other cases," said W. Louis Hennessey, a lawyer who once headed the D.C. department's homicide unit.
Ramsey insisted that there are no acute staffing pressures on the 3,600-officer force that would tilt him toward cutting the size of the Levy probe. But Hennessey and other former D.C. police officials said that the mere passage of time, and ebb and flow of violent crime, eventually will take hold.
"If you're not making progress," said Ed Spurlock, who was deputy chief of the D.C. force in the 1980s, "there's a reasonable management decision to start cutting back, regardless of the pressures you get from the public or anyone else."
Even Ramsey's decision to send several dozen police trainees out this week to search for clues in four D.C. parks ran into internal criticism. Some officials felt the cadets were missing crucial training days at the police academy; others argued the search gave them valuable experience in dealing with a high-profile case.
As the investigation shifts toward a long-range status, police officials may be confronted with a thicket of difficult decisions: Can they scale back the probe without alienating the Levy family, which is pleading for more action and has launched its own private investigation? How do police continue to deal with Condit, who presumably remains a key player in the probe but who is not being called a suspect? And how will they contend with a media voracious for every scrap of information about an investigation that may begin to move at a slower pace?
Despite the steady supply of TV-sparked tips that overflow his voicemail and computer each morning, Ramsey chafes at the nonstop media coverage.
When the chief went before cameras Wednesday to appeal for tips in the shooting of a 12-year-old girl, her case was ignored by reporters desperate for new nuggets about Levy.
"It creates the perception that the Chandra Levy case is the only thing the department's doing," Ramsey said crossly. "You know, we can protect the city and chew gum at the same time."
But the department is being buffeted by heavy crosswinds.
From Modesto, Chandra Levy's parents have kept up a steady drumbeat, urging police to push Condit to tell everything he knows. So has their Washington lawyer, William R. "Billy" Martin. The strategy played a large part, the Levys believe, in forcing Condit to acknowledge his relationship with Chandra Levy during his third interview with detectives.
"The Levys want to feel like everything is being done," a source close to the family said.
But Martin and private investigators hired by the family also have been preparing Robert and Susan Levy for the likelihood that the police probe soon may move at a slower pace. "They now understand that an investigation of this size will go in phases," the source said. "But it's hard when every day is a roller coaster."
At the same time, tension between police and Condit's legal and public relations team is complicating the investigation. Condit's lawyer, Abbe Lowell, arranged last week's polygraph exam, he said at the time, to show that the congressman had "exhausted the information that he can provide."
But Ramsey and Assistant Police Chief Terrance A. Gainer questioned the exam's accuracy and labeled Lowell's move "self-serving." Ramsey said he has "little hope" of persuading Condit to submit to a police polygraph.
But even if the focus on Condit shrinks, an investigator said, authorities are under no obligation "to cut him loose publicly because we've never said he's a suspect."
The FBI agents brought into the Levy investigation are part of a unit that specializes in difficult cases. They have worked baffling kidnap, assault and extortion cases, and were part of a team that apprehended a Pakistani sniper who had killed two people outside CIA headquarters in 1993.
"They're going to cover any lead they think is relevant," said Robert M. Bryant, a former FBI deputy director who now is president and chief executive of the Chicago-based National Insurance Crime Bureau. "They have a pretty static caseload, so they have the luxury of going as deep as they want. If the leads dwindle, they know how to adjust and keep going."
Some detectives reportedly are interested in Condit's finances. Lowell did not offer to turn over the congressman's bank and credit records to investigators when he promised cooperation, and police have not asked for them publicly.
Asked if investigators had neglected to press for Condit's financial documents, Ramsey would only say that "we've got everything we've asked for. We can get subpoenas for what we don't get willingly."