Where in the World Is Chandra Levy?

An NYPD detective's eye on crime.
June 21 2001 3:00 AM

Where in the World Is Chandra Levy?

A detective puzzles through the possibilities.

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The story of the disappearance of Washington intern Chandra Levy seems destined to take an increasingly dark course. She has been missing for almost two months now, and if other disappeared-persons cases are any guide, the chance of finding her alive and well diminishes each day. Levy seems too responsible, too ambitious, and too cash-poor to have fled the Washington rat race for some tropical beach, as her mother originally speculated. It seems much more likely that she has come to a tragic end. Did she commit suicide? Was she murdered and, if so, by whom? Was it a random, senseless killing? Was it the work of a stalker?

First, some background on missing-persons cases. They are by no means rare. According to the FBI, close to 850,000 people were reported missing last year. People disappear for a wide variety of reasons, which can usually be organized by age group. Kids get lost, or they're abducted by parents who've been denied custody rights. Old people often suffer from forgetfulness. Young men and women run away (though when someone over the age of 18 who is of sound mental and physical health takes off, it is not necessarily a police matter—something that relatives find upsetting).

The police work involved in searching for a missing person is just as varied as the cases themselves. It might involve tracking a runaway, matching dental records and fingerprints to an unidentified corpse, seeking out a mentally ill runaway, or as in the now famous case of Sante and Kenneth Kimes, conducting a homicide investigation. And some cases are not solved. The Washington, D.C., police don't keep comprehensive statistics on missing adults, but they report that last year 96 percent of the children reported missing were found. According to the Washington Post, 558 of the missing-persons cases opened in D.C. this year are still outstanding. The D.C. police don't seem to know how many were filed in the first place, which makes this number almost meaningless. But any cop can tell you that most missing-persons cases that haven't been closed after two months don't end happily.

In searching for the most likely explanation of a disappearance, police first research the person who's missing. Is he schizophrenic? Does he have a drug problem? Is he suicidal? Did an argument precipitate the disappearance? Police will then begin searching in a widening spiral from the place where the person was last seen. Sometimes, the cases are resolved quickly and easily: Many people who are reported missing return in a short time on their own, and young children are often found in the vicinity of where they disappeared.

Currently, both the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department and the FBI are investigating Levy's disappearance. Detective work is mostly the application of common sense to circumstance and evidence. So given what little evidence has been made public and using the general rules of missing-persons cases, let's play along with the investigation.

One theory, of course, is that Levy did herself in. No note was found, but suicides often fail to leave notes. The absence of a body is troubling, but if Levy found a secluded enough place, her body could remain undisturbed. However, according to her friends and family, she has no history of suicidal attempts. And according to press accounts, the detectives who searched Levy's apartment found her packed bags, along with credit cards, a cell phone, and a diary, all presumably readied for a return trip to California (a credit check will reveal if she had any credit cards besides the ones that were found in her apartment, and a trap has presumably been set to notify police if they're used). The condition of her apartment doesn't preclude suicide, but it is tough to imagine Levy planning her return home, packing her bags, canceling a gym membership, and then suddenly, instead of getting on a plane, hitching a ride far into the Virginia countryside to take her own life. Investigators did not reveal anything from the diary, but given the pressure to solve this case, if her entries even hinted at suicide or even profound unhappiness, they would have informed her parents.

It seems more likely that Levy met her fate at the hands of another. As any fan of Law and Order, NYPD Blue, or even Kojak can tell you, the first guy we look at in the murder of a young woman is her boyfriend. Who was Levy's boyfriend? Well, if you listen to his spokesman, it sure wasn't Rep. Gary Condit, D-Calif. And if you listen to his new attorney, Condit feels his relationship (whatever its nature) with Levy is "irrelevant." I would be very interested in what the congressman has to say for himself, but so far, all we've heard is his mouthpieces making statements that don't really answer any questions. Levy's mother has now confirmed the romance, although initially, she too denied it. (Click here for Explainer's roundup of everything we know about the Levy case to date.)

Let's examine the possibility that Levy was the victim of a more random act of violence. Washington has its share of crime, and she was a striking-looking girl. She could have attracted the attention of some monster who lured her into his van, threw her in a pit and, unless Clarice Starling comes along quick, will make her into a dress, never to be heard from again. The fact of the matter is that such monsters do exist. (And believe me, I have asked every FBI agent I know, Clarice Starling does not.) Another fact of the matter is that those monsters are very rare compared to guys who simply off their girlfriends.

Right now, the investigators have to be asking, where's the body? Almost anyone can find the equipment to kill, but disposing of a corpse so that it won't be found is much more difficult, especially if the killer is alone. In fact, there's no foolproof way to get rid of a body. Despite our being relatively fragile creatures, our earthly remains are surprisingly durable. Our bodies don't burn very well because we contain so much water. Common accelerants can't produce a fire hot enough to destroy a skeleton. Corpses make a mess wherever they are dragged, and they float in all but very cold water. You can bury them, of course, but unless you have a backhoe, there is almost no way to keep the ground from looking like, well, like a fresh grave.

And even if Levy is never found, her killer might still be punished. Think again of Sante and Kenneth Kimes, convicted of the murder of Irene Silverman despite the absence of a body. However, to win a conviction, prosecutors will need to amass a lot of circumstantial evidence. They might look for accomplices: Levy could have been lured somewhere, especially by a boyfriend, but unless a killer had done some extraordinary preparation, s/he would probably need some help. Where could a murderer turn for help? If I were one of the investigators and I had a suspect, I would look for possible connections to organized crime. By that, I don't necessarily mean Tony Soprano; drug dealers, motorcycle gangs, and urban gangs such as the Bloods all qualify as "organized."

If the Chandra Levy case is never solved, it probably won't ever be closed: With homicides and missing persons, cases are never closed without a resolution. This month in New York City, the father of Etan Patz, who disappeared in 1979 when he was 6 years old, asked a judge to declare his son legally dead in order to allow a wrongful death suit against the leading suspect. The judge agreed, but the case will still remain open for the NYPD.

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