FROM LEFT: Sari Horwitz and Scott Higham

Inside Media: The Chandra Levy Murder and the Media

May 03, 2009

Guests: Sari Horwitz and Scott Higham

By Lesette R. Heath, special programs coordinator

Six years after the disappearance and death of government intern Chandra Levy, two Washington Post investigative reporters revisited the case at the urging of their editors.

For Sari Horwitz and Scott Higham, it would involve unraveling "the most famous unsolved murder in modern Washington." From examining police evidence to interviewing key players, the two were told to "turn over every stone."

A year later, Horwitz and Higham produced a gripping 13-part serial that ran in the Post during the summer of 2008. Ingmar Guandique, one of the people profiled in the series, was arrested recently for Levy’s murder. The reporters said the police missed a number of opportunities to solve the case early on.

"The police made a critical mistake and corrupted the history of her computer," said Horwitz. "If the police hadn’t done that, they would have seen that that morning, Chandra looked up the weather and information about hiking trails in Rock Creek Park. They would have focused on Rock Creek Park and not Gary Condit."

Former California congressman Gary Condit, who admitted to having an affair with Levy, was the reason for the media frenzy in 2001.

"If it had been reported that Chandra was murdered by an immigrant stalking people in Rock Creek Park, the story would have lasted two days," Higham said. "Cable television could not get enough — the fact that a congressman might be involved. The story was repeated every 12 minutes on Fox, MSNBC and CNN."

"The case had every element that attracted the press," added Horwitz. "It had a young 24-year-old intern who was missing. It had a congressman who was linked to her romantically. It had high-powered attorneys and anguished parents."

All the drama withstanding, the story faded away after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. And although Levy’s remains were found in May 2002, the D.C. sniper attacks soon overshadowed that development.

As Horwitz put it, "The story disappeared for five years." Then she and Higham began their investigation.

Higham said the Levy story got more hits than any other investigative piece he and Horwitz have worked on. Reader feedback was immediate.

"There were people who liked what we did and others who thought we were wasting our time. They said ‘Why are you investigating an eight-year-old homicide?’ We looked at it as a public accountability project to show what the police did wrong and to make sure they don’t do it again," he said.

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