The recording that undid the Chandra Levy murder case
Ingmar Guandique is escorted from the Violent Crimes Unit in Washington by detectives in 2009. Prosecutors dismissed murder charges against him in the death of Chandra Levy in late July, saying they were no longer able to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
By Scott Higham
, Keith L. Alexander
and Ben St. Clair August 6
During a recorded conversation, the star witness in the Chandra Levy murder case made a series of boastful claims. Armando Morales bragged about shooting gang rivals, obtaining hand grenades and making prison shanks out of melted foam cups.
Then he made a chilling announcement. He said he was plotting to ambush a man he thought had stolen jewelry from the woman who was recording him. He said that he planned to execute his plan in a “thug way,” and that he had collected a black hoodie and some dark clothing so no one could see him coming.
“I came ready to do battle with that f------ thief,” Morales said on the audio recording, according to a copy reviewed by The Washington Post.
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But the one thing Morales did not say during the seven-hour recording: that he lied on the witness stand and sent an innocent man to prison in the case of the Washington intern who disappeared in 2001 while dating a married congressman.
The claim that Morales lied came from the woman who recorded him. She identified herself as an actress named Babs Proller and said she secretly recorded Morales on July 11 after meeting him in an Annapolis hotel. She told prosecutors, defense attorneys and the news media that Morales admitted to falsely testifying that former cellmate Ingmar Guandique had confessed to attacking Levy in Rock Creek Park.
This undated file photo shows Chandra Ann Levy, a 24-year-old graduate student. Levy vanished May 1, 2001. A year later, a hiker found her skeletal remains in the District’s Rock Creek Park. (AP)
She said she had the recording to prove it. But there is no evidence that that recording exists.
The woman, whose real name is Beate Maria Brandl, provided copies of one seven-hour recording to prosecutors, defense attorneys and The Post.
It was the beginning of the end to a sensational murder case that captivated the nation with round-the-clock media coverage.
After listening to the recording, prosecutors last week took the extraordinary step of dismissing the murder charges against Guandique, 34, saying they were no longer able to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. The U.S. attorney’s office declined to discuss the recording. But Morales’s boastful claims and threats of violence stand in stark contrast to his testimony during the November 2010 trial that he had become a reformed man in prison.
A law enforcement source confirmed that it is Morales’s voice on the recording. Morales’s attorney is out of the country and could not be reached for comment.
Legal experts said Morales’s statements, coupled with Brandl’s claims, would most likely have shattered the credibility of the prosecution’s star witness, who was scheduled to testify at a retrial of Guandique this fall. An undocumented immigrant from El Salvador, Guandique now faces deportation. He has maintained his innocence in Levy’s death.
“The guy said he was now reformed, one of Christ’s apostles,” said Bernard S. Grimm, a Washington defense lawyer who watched Morales testify in 2010. “But if you listen to him on that tape, he’s still the same gang thug he was years ago. It comes down to general credibility.”
The turn of events could signal the final chapter in a case that once riveted the country with speculation that a California congressman, Gary A. Condit, then 54, might have had something to do with the disappearance of Levy, a 24-year-old intern for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. She vanished May 1, 2001. A year later, a hiker found her skeletal remains in Rock Creek Park.
In the months after Levy disappeared, police and prosecutors focused on Condit before eventually clearing him as a suspect.
While they were investigating Condit, Guandique was attacking women in Rock Creek Park. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison after pleading guilty to assaulting two female joggers in the park; one shortly before Levy vanished, the other shortly after.
Police made numerous mistakes and missteps during their investigation. Some of the errors set the investigation back by weeks, even months, according to law enforcement officials familiar with the investigation.
The case went cold until 2009, when prosecutors charged Guandique with Levy’s murder. They had no forensic evidence, eyewitnesses or murder weapon. Instead, they built a circumstantial case largely on the testimony of the two female joggers, with Morales as their key witness.
Morales, a five-time convicted felon and leader of a gang called the Fresno Bulldogs, told jurors that he met Guandique in 2006 in a federal prison in Kentucky while serving a 21-year sentence for drugs and weapons convictions. He testified that Guandique confessed to attacking Levy in Rock Creek Park.
He said Guandique told him: “Homeboy, I killed the [expletive], but I didn’t rape her.”
Morales held himself out as a changed man who had turned his life around. He said he had been part of a “life skills” mentoring program in prison.
“I got tired of all the violence,” he testified.
Morales’s testimony was all that directly linked Guandique to Levy’s death.
The jury deliberated for 3Ĺ days before finding Guandique guilty.
One juror, Sharae Bacon, said Morales had been the key to the case.
“There were no holes in his testimony,” she told The Post after the verdict was delivered.
Guandique was sentenced to 60 years in prison.
The case began to unravel in late 2012, when attorneys for Guandique argued that Morales had lied when he testified that he had never previously cooperated with law enforcement authorities. That information surfaced after a prosecutor in California who had known Morales contacted prosecutors in Washington to alert them to Morales’s past. The prosecutors then notified the trial judge and Guandique’s attorneys.
Prosecutors last year withdrew their objections to defense motions demanding a new trial. The second trial was scheduled to start Oct. 11.
The case began to unravel again July 17, when Levy’s mother, Susan, said she received a Facebook message from a woman identifying herself as Babs Washington. The woman, who was really Brandl, said she had important information about the case and asked Levy to call her. Levy said she called the woman the next day. Brandl told Levy that she had secretly recorded the star witness in her daughter’s murder trial and that he admitted that he had concocted his trial testimony.
Levy said she told the woman to contact the U.S. attorney’s office and the D.C. Public Defender Service, which represents Guandique.
Brandl, 51, told The Post that she met the 55-year-old Morales at the Country Inn & Suites in Annapolis on July 6 by “simple coincidence.” She said she is an actress who has appeared on the Netflix series “House of Cards.”
She said she was moving out of her Annapolis home, staying at the hotel, when a sliding glass lobby door accidently closed on her dog, Buddy. She said that the golden retriever refused to go back into the hotel and that a man offered to help carry the dog into the hotel lobby.
“I thought he was a dog lover,” she told The Post.
Over several days, she said, the man told her that he had just been released from prison and showed her his prison identification. She said that on the weekend of July 9-10, she learned that the man was Morales, the key witness in the Levy case. She also said she was afraid that Morales might make good on threats he allegedly made to hurt her ex-husband. She said she decided to record Morales to protect herself.
She said that on July 11, she recorded the conversation with Morales as they moved her belongings into a storage facility and drove around Annapolis. They engaged in meandering small talk that included Buddhism, Morales’s love of the military and how he lost touch with his daughter because of his criminal life. He said his mother had given him a gun as a child for protection, telling him: “I can go to you in prison, but I can’t have you dead.”
According to a copy of the recording Brandl provided to The Post, Morales does not say he was planning to harm Brandl’s ex-husband. Instead, he said he was planning to ambush a man who had supposedly stolen jewelry from Brandl. On the recording, Morales said that he was going to “confront that f------ ass----. He’s not gonna get away with that,” he said. “I gotta good plan, man. I really do. I thought on it, you know. I’ll scare the s--- out of this motherf-----.”
Brandl told Morales she feared that he could go back to prison. Morales then walked back his plan. He assured Brandl that he was not going to break the law because he didn’t want to go back to prison. “I have to follow the rules,” he said.
He also bragged on the recording that he could make shanks out of 10 melted foam cups, and then stick the shank into somebody’s eye and “penetrate that shell into their brain and take their life.”
He talked about having the car windows at a dealership shot out and then warning the owner of the business to hire his brother’s glass replacement company if “you don’t want this to happen again.”
Brandl said that after recording Morales and speaking with Susan Levy, she contacted the U.S. attorney’s office and the Public Defender Service.
Prosecutors and Guandique’s defense counsel interviewed Brandl. On July 21, prosecutors told the judge in the case that they had new information about Morales but did not elaborate. Three days later, prosecutors confiscated Brandl’s digital recorder, calling it evidence in the case.
Brandl insisted that she made additional recordings and had captured Morales saying he fabricated his trial testimony. Those recordings, if they exist, have not been provided to the U.S. attorney’s office.
On the recording provided to The Post and prosecutors, Brandl repeatedly prodded Morales to admit that he did not testify truthfully at the 2010 trial. At several points during the recording, Morales stood by his testimony, saying that Guandique confessed to him that he had killed Levy.
“It was an accident. He didn’t know he killed her,” Morales told Brandl on the recording. “He went back. That was his area to steal and rob and whatever he was doing. That was his location. He went back.”
Officials with the Public Defender Service said they have not listened to the recording because it was illegally recorded in violation of Maryland wiretap statutes, which bar recording a second party without consent.
On July 26, prosecutors reinterviewed Brandl. She told The Post that they asked her whether she was working for the Public Defender Service, whether members of the office had directed her or whether someone was paying her to entrap Morales.
Eugene Ohm, one of Guandique’s attorneys, said the defense had nothing to do with the recording. He told The Post that his office did not speak to Brandl, whom he referred to as Proller, until prosecutors told his office about her.
“We were told that Ms. Proller had contacted Mrs. Levy, who then encouraged Ms. Proller to reach out to authorities and the defense,” Ohm said.
Brandl insisted to The Post that she alone decided to record Morales.
After prosecutors announced July 28 that they were dropping the charges against Guandique, Brandl posted a message on her Facebook page, where she goes by the name Babs Washington.
“I became aware of information relevant to the case and I conveyed that information to the all of the appropriate people -- the prosecutors, and defense attorneys and Ms. Levy,” the Facebook message says. “I did this because I believed then, and believes now, that it was the right thing to do. I have no further information to provide regarding this tragic case and will make no further statements.”
A D.C. police official said the case remains closed for now.
“We have not uncovered any information during the course of the investigation that would warrant reopening the case,” Assistant Chief Peter Newsham said. “MPD will continue to pursue any new leads that are uncovered or brought to our attention.”
Levy’s parents, Susan and Bob, said they are stunned by the turn of events that led to the undoing of the entire case. They questioned Brandl’s motives and said they do not understand why prosecutors dropped the case so quickly.
“I’m shocked at how something could unravel so fast. I’m distraught that the prosecutors dropped this case,” Susan Levy said. “It’s unbelievable that one person can disrupt so much.”
Alice Crites and Derek Hawkins contributed to this report. Hawkins and Ben St. Clair are attached to the Washington Post’s Investigative Unit through a program with American University.