The most recent feeding frenzy over the disappearance and murder of Chandra Levy has occupied many hours on cable new shows and filled pages of newspapers, especially the Washington Post. It revolved around reports that an arrest was imminent in the nine-year-old mystery.
This latest media spasm about the case of the missing intern began with shoe leather reporting by Pat Collins, still the premier cop reporter in Washington, D.C. What follows is the anatomy of a news story’s new life.
Levy, 24, went missing on May 1, 2001. A California native, she had come to the capital to work for Congressman Gary Condit. Reports in the media alleged they had had an affair; though police questioned him, they never considered him a suspect. Condit was tarred by the stories and lost his seat in Congress.
In the weeks after she vanished, coverage of the Levy case became feverish in cable new programs, tabloids, and the Post. Police scoured Rock Creek Park, where she had apparently gone to jog, but found no trace.
A year after Levy disappeared, a man walking his dog in Rock Creek Park found her remains. The discovery triggered another round of articles and a magazine story in the Washington Post—but no arrests. Police had suspected Ingmar Guandique, a laborer from El Salvador, who had been convicted of assaulting two women in the park around the time Levy disappeared. They interviewed him but never charged him. He is serving a 10-year sentence for the assaults.
The story lay fallow until the Post published a long series last summer on the unsolved murder. It focused on Guandique but didn’t make the case he was the murderer.
About two weeks ago Pat Collins received a tip from a law enforcement source. Detectives were in the process of assembling new evidence that linked Guandique to Levy. The source said an arrest was coming soon. Collins, who has been the principal crime reporter for NBC’s WRC-TV for decades, confirmed the story with a second source.
On Friday, February 20, Collins called the DC Police Department for comment. Police Chief Cathy Lanier declined to speak with Collins; instead, she phoned Chandra Levy’s parents in California.
Lanier had developed a relationship with Levy’s parents, Susan and Robert. Knowing that Collins was about to break the story, she felt it was her responsibility to alert them, rather than have them hear news about their daughter’s case from the media.
Collins broke his story on Friday. At the same time Levy’s parents contacted media in the San Francisco area. Cameras were quickly dispatched to their home in Modesto; they quoted Lanier as saying an arrest was “imminent.”
Following Collins’ scoop, the Washington Post and other news outlets scrambled to report details of the investigation. The Post sent a reporter to “Condit country” to write an article about whether his former constituents were following in the case. Few were.
CNN and Fox News devoted hours to the new material, but it proved thin. The Post reported that new evidence against Guandique included forensic evidence, but my sources in the US Attorney’s office said that was not the case.
Former Post executive editor Len Downie said the Post’s series on Levy last summer pressured cops to develop new leads; police officials said they had been working on leads long before the Post last year wrote about the case.
Prosecutors announced charges against Guandique today. Expect another feeding frenzy.