WASHINGTON--More than a year after Modesto intern Chandra Levy mysteriously disappeared, a passerby discovered her remains Wednesday on a wooded slope in a remote area of Washington’s Rock Creek Park.
Medical examiners identified her through dental records. “The remains found earlier today [under a pile of decomposing leaves] are, in fact, Chandra Levy,” said Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey. “The manner and cause of death is still pending.”
The sudden recovery and identification of Levy’s body altered the dynamics of a case that had captured the nation’s attention for much of last year, only to fade after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“This is no longer a missing persons investigation,” Ramsey said. “It’s being handled as a death investigation. And once we find the manner and the cause of death, it could change again.”
Within minutes after medical examiners found a positive match between a recovered skull and dental records provided by Levy’s parents, police officials said homicide detectives and Washington-based FBI agents were concentrating on the cause of Levy’s death. Ramsey said investigators probably would re-interview a number of witnesses and “reconstruct the crime scene.”
“We have to go back over a lot of things,” he said.
Although foul play has not been established, Ramsey raised the possibility that Levy’s body might have been moved to the secluded hill where it was found.
“The body could have been deposited” at the site after police searchers went through the area last summer, Ramsey said. Noting that the bones were found on a “very steep incline” deep inside a densely wooded section of the 1,754-acre city park, Ramsey said it was “difficult at this point to say this is the scene where she died.”
Although medical examiners have not yet been able to establish a time of death, Ramsey said, the 24-year-old Levy’s body was obscured by leaves “consistent with someone who had been there for some time prior to our winter.” He added that “those leaves were from the fall.”
Ramsey said he telephoned the missing girl’s parents, Robert and Susan Levy, at their Modesto home on Wednesday afternoon, just as news reports began leaking out about their daughter’s identification. Ramsey said he had to relay the confirmation through the family’s lawyer, George Arata.
Neighbors said the parents had an inkling that the body might be Chandra’s. About 9 a.m. PDT, only an hour after he and his wife had appeared by a remote video feed on Oprah Winfrey’s television show, Robert Levy knocked at the door of neighbor Joanne Tittle.
He was in tears, Tittle said.
On Wednesday night, family representatives on both coasts spoke of the couple’s anguish. In Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Billy Martin, a Washington lawyer who represented the Levys in their dealings with police, said: “This is the worst nightmare a parent can endure.” Martin, who has led a private investigation into Levy’s disappearance, added that the discovery of her body “does not solve the mystery.”
In Modesto, Levy spokeswoman Judy Smith said that “up until the point when they received the news, they were always hopeful.” She described their reaction as “very emotional, very tough. Certainly no parent wants to bury their own child.”
Plans for a memorial service in Modesto were underway, Smith said.
Body Found in
Levy’s body was found near the rock-strewn Broad Branch Creek, on a steep, rarely traveled slope described by residents as thick with ferns, Virginia creeper vines and spreading beeches.
“It’s treacherous for walking,” said Peter Chiles, a postal worker who navigates that section of the park daily. “Dogs and deer have a ball back there, and they dig up everything they find.” Chiles said that when he drove through the area Tuesday night, it was dark and “completely barren.”
U.S. Park Police Sgt. Scott Fear said that just before 9:30 a.m. EDT Wednesday, a man walking his dog near the creek stumbled on what appeared to be a human skull. The passerby had been “hunting turtles” in the woods, Ramsey said later.
According to Fear, the dog began tugging at the object. When the man approached, he saw bones.
“He ran down to a construction site and called park police,” Fear said. The arriving officer quickly summoned city police. By 10:30 a.m., detectives were swarming the woods, finding shreds of clothing and more bones.
Within hours, Ramsey said, they had recovered much of Levy’s remains.
While police and a Smithsonian Institute forensic scientist poked through the foliage, police evidence technicians kept everything at the site until medical examiners removed the skull for the pathological dental comparison with Levy’s records.
Ramsey and other officials would not comment on reports that searchers found pieces of a tape player, shreds of a woman’s jogging suit and jewelry consistent with Levy’s possessions. But some artifacts, Ramsey said, “gave a strong suspicion they were articles worn by Chandra Levy.”
Early on, some investigators had theorized that Levy, a physical fitness enthusiast, had gone to Rock Creek Park on May 1, 2001, the last day she was seen alive. In her apartment, police recovered a laptop computer that indicated Levy had done an Internet search listing Klingle Mansion, a stone dwelling about a mile south of where the body was found.
All last summer, District of Columbia detectives and police cadets scoured the massive park, which cuts through central Washington. They paid careful attention to the Klingle Mansion area, combing for days in the high grass near the site.
But they found only animal bones, clothes and other items that could not be matched to Levy.
“You could be standing next to something and just not see it” in the vegetation, Ramsey said.
While investigators were looking into Levy’s disappearance, they met several times with Rep. Gary A. Condit (D-Ceres), who reportedly acknowledged during questioning by detectives that he had an affair with Levy.
Ramsey and other police officials said at the time that Condit was not considered a suspect. But detectives searched his apartment in the Adams-Morgan district and officials asked in vain for him to submit to an FBI polygraph exam. They publicly questioned his willingness to aid their probe into Levy’s disappearance.
An attempt to reach Condit through longtime aide Mike Lynch was unsuccessful. But the congressman released a statement saying that he and his family “express their heartfelt sorrow to the Levy family.” The Levys “will remain in our prayers,” they added.
In Washington, Condit kept to the House floor and cloakroom and was unavailable for comment.
He lost his six-term seat in a March reelection bid, apparently victimized by what many saw as an unwillingness to tell police and the public everything he knew.
Condit was summoned in April before a federal grand jury investigating Levy’s disappearance and allegations of obstruction of justice involving him and several staffers.
In Sacramento, California Gov. Gray Davis, once a political ally of Condit, said: “I think all of us realized that something probably happened to Chandra Levy. We were hoping against hope that somehow she was still alive and the story would have a happy ending.
“It is my hope that these events, tragic as they are, will bring some closure to the Levy family.”
Federal prosecutors leading the probes into Levy’s death and Condit’s dealings with police officials also talked Wednesday of closure--for the parents and for their 13-month investigation.
Channing Phillips, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney, said the identification of Levy’s remains “brings some measure of closure to the Levy family. “We still have a lot of work to do in terms of what happened to Chandra Levy--if that can be determined.”
Times staff writers Mark Arax in Fresno, Jenifer Warren in Sacramento and Faye Fiore and Megan Garvey in Washington contributed to this report.