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How The Discovery Of Her Remains Underlines Police Incompetence

Monday, May. 27, 2002

Even now that Chandra Levy's remains have been found, D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey is still asserting that "we have to determine if in fact she was murdered." Ramsey's obtuseness is hardly surprising, given that ever since Levy disappeared, he has maintained that her case is merely a missing persons investigation.

At the time of Levy's disappearance, one might have wondered, when, exactly, her case would become a murder investigation. Perhaps when Levy's body was found? But silly us - now we learn that even the discovery of Levy's remains is not enough, in Ramsey's eyes, to transform the investigation into what it should have been from the very start: a homicide case.

Ramsey has faulted his critics as "ill-informed." But what information was it that we didn't know - or that we thought we knew, but turned out to be false? And there's a crucial piece of information Ramsey didn't know until a private citizen's turtle-seeking dog revealed it: The location of Levy's remains. Certainly, the label "ill-informed" is better applied to Ramsey than his critics.

The Park Should Have Been Searched Repeatedly, Recently, and Thoroughly

But they actually haven't changed that much. Authorities knew that on the day of her disappearance, Levy had searched the Internet for information as to the location of the Klingle Mansion in D.C.'s Rock Creek Park. She had also checked out information for a Baskin Robbins located to the north of her on Connecticut Avenue, on the way to the park.

Accordingly, if authorities didn't know she was actually in the park that day, they at least knew that she was overwhelmingly likely to have visited it. The park was therefore the obvious place to search, and as was proper, they searched the park - but apparently, not well enough .

Ramsey has tried to defend his investigation by noting that Levy's remains were in a secluded area, under a foot of underbrush. But of course, secluded areas, not well-traveled ones, were the very places a body was likely to be hidden - so shouldn't the least accessible areas have been searched first? Also, this particular secluded area was reportedly not far from the Klingle mansion - Levy's probable destination the day she disappeared.

Underbrush ought to not have deterred sharp-nosed police dogs. (Certainly, it did not deter the dog that finally found Levy's remains.) Levy's bones were scattered, perhaps by animals, over a wide area. If her remains could later have been unearthed by animals or weather, then they could not have been buried that deeply or carefully in the first place. Sharp-nosed dogs searching in the right places likely could have found them from day one.

Reports suggest that the man whose dog found Levy's remains merely swept away loose dirt and leaves to uncover them - evidence of a very shallow grave or, indeed, no grave at all. Ramsey says there weren't enough dogs to search the park at the time - but if so, why not do a community sweep with all of D.C.'s dog lovers participating ? One could hardly send a stronger sign that crimes will be doggedly investigated in the District.

Executive Assistant Police Chief Terrance Gainer's explanations as to why Levy's body was not found are even weaker than Ramsey's: He said that because common practice is to only scour 100 yards from public areas, Levy's remains fell into a gap between two of the 100 yard search areas. Even if this is common practice, it is a stupid one, and should be changed.

Again, any murderer would know that the further a body was hidden from public areas, the better. And even if every inch of the park could not be searched, a circular area with the Klingle mansion at its center certainly should have been.

Taking a different tack, Ramsey has also tried to defend his initial search by claiming that the body might have been dumped in the park after that search was conducted, in succeeding months. But any murderer who would dispose of a body in that park - already the focus of scrutiny in the case - would have to be self-sabotaging to the extreme. (Even Congressman Gary Condit, who sabotaged himself by openly throwing out what may have been relevant evidence - so that a bystander observed and reported the incident - had the presence of mind to go out to Virginia to find a dumpster rather than staying in the District.)

It would have been hard, and perhaps unwise, for a murderer to try to get a body out of Rock Creek Park after he had killed Levy there - suggesting the need for a careful search. And it would have been equally difficult and unwise to get her body back into the park if he had killed her somewhere else - suggesting that the idea that the body was dumped there later is very implausible indeed.

The Likelihood Of Murder Existed From The Start

Why search repeatedly? Because this was not just another missing persons investigation - it was also a murder investigation, and it should have been called by its right name.

Two factors made it very unlikely Levy was merely missing. One was that she disappeared after looking up directions, probably so she could visit, and perhaps go jogging in, the very park where a stalker subsequently assaulted two joggers. Another was that she had been involved with a married Congressman, and she reportedly had big news to tell her relatives relating to him - although what that was, we now will never know.

When a woman disappears just after she either might have crossed a stalker's path, or given her married lover motive to kill her, you can be reasonably sure her disappearance is not just an impromptu vacation. Remember, too, that Levy had never been prone to sudden disappearances - she kept in reasonably close touch with relatives and friends - nor had she reportedly seemed, to anyone who knew her, suicidally depressed, or even, at the time, depressed at all.

Debate over whether Levy was probably killed by the stalker, the Congressman, or someone else entirely is very reasonable now. Debate as to whether she was probably killed is not. Accordingly, recent reports that Levy may have been bound when she died cannot be very surprising to any close observer of this case.

Police and Prosecutors Have Lost Crucial Advantages Through Delay

One might argue that all this argumentation about how, and how many times, the park should have been searched is moot - now that Levy's remains have been found. But the time that elapsed between Levy's disappearance and the discovery of her body means that evidence has been lost, with forensic conclusions much more difficult to make. What might have been a body is now a set of scattered bones. Was Levy assaulted or raped? It will be far more difficult to tell.

Not only has delay hampered forensics, but another, less obvious advantage that police and prosecutors might once have exploited now also has been lost. Earlier in the investigation, Gary Condit, already in office and preparing to run for reelection, therefore was bound to explain himself and cooperate with police.

Accordingly, (as I explained in a column last year), Condit effectively had been unable to invoke his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent, and his Fourth Amendment right to demand a warrant before his apartment was searched. Now a private citizen, he can, and likely will, invoke his full set of rights.

Last year, the discovery of Levy's body would have been the last thing Condit wanted, and he would never have dared - through his attorney or otherwise - to criticize the police investigation so harshly. Condit is less accountable to the public than he once was, and as a result, the investigation could suffer even more than it already has.

For a police department to have an unsolved case is no shame; some are too difficult to investigate. But for a police department to play such a strong role in the fact that a case is unsolved is a very different matter. Chandra Levy deserved better, and D.C. residents do, too.

The Terrorism Threat Underlines the Need For a New D.C. Police Chief

Critics have been correct to call the D.C. police's investigation of the Levy case incompetent. And as a nation, this should matter a great deal to us - not only because every murder matters, but also because these are the police who will help protect against and investigate terrorist attacks in our nation's capital.

While any terrorist threats, attacks, or conspiracies will no doubt be federal crimes handled by the FBI, CIA, and Secret Service, the D.C. police will be an inevitable, day-to-day backstop in making sure D.C. is secure. If they can't properly search Rock Creek Park, can they properly protect the entire District?

It's time for a new police chief for D.C. - not because this single, high profile case, sad as it is, is so overwhelmingly important, but because our capital is.

This case has provided a window into the D.C. police. It is a window through which anyone who cares to, can see that the current chief is not up to the task of policing the crucial ten-mile-square area that is the heart of our country - a task ever more important since September 11.

Julie Hilden, a FindLaw columnist and a graduate of Yale Law School, is a freelance writer and the author of the memoir "The Bad Daughter." She practiced First Amendment law as an associate at the Washington, D.C. firm of Williams & Connolly from 1996-99.

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