District of Columbia detectives boarded a plane Wednesday for California, where a suspect in the slaying of Chandra Levy is serving a 10-year sentence in federal prison for other crimes.
The detectives' flight, earlier reported by Washington's WTOP radio, came five days after Washington Police Chief Cathy Lanier advised Levy's parents that an arrest warrant was imminent.
Notwithstanding Lanier's heads-up, however, no arrest warrant has been announced. That's not unusual: Often, police and prosecutors run on different timetables in obtaining arrest warrants.
"In a case like this, everyone recognizes that you want to have everything nailed down as tight as you can," Kenneth L. Wainstein, a former U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, said in an interview Wednesday.
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Police Department spokeswoman Traci Hughes confirmed Wednesday to McClatchy Newspapers that the detectives had departed for California. Further details on the trip were not forthcoming - Hughes said she couldn't even confirm that the trip was tied to the Levy investigation. WTOP, however, further reported that one of the detectives is a Spanish speaker.
Ingmar A. Guandique, a 27-year-old illegal immigrant from El Salvador who's known to be of interest to investigators in the Levy case, is held in the U.S. Penitentiary at Victorville, Calif., about 85 miles northeast of Los Angeles.
The high-security Victorville facility, on the southern edge of the Mojave Desert, holds about 1,600 inmates. Guandique arrived in August 2006, after earlier passing through other federal prisons.
"I know he's been declining interviews," Chuck Ringwood, an executive assistant at the Victorville prison, said by telephone Wednesday.
Guandique previously has been identified as what investigators termed "a person of interest" in Levy's death. Levy, a 24-year-old former Bureau of Prisons intern from Modesto, Calif., was last seen publicly on April 30, 2001. Her skeletal remains were found in Washington's Rock Creek Park a year later, in May 2002.
Guandique pleaded guilty to attacking two women in Rock Creek Park within several weeks of Levy's disappearance and is now serving his sentence.
The fact that a suspect is imprisoned on other charges can affect the pace at which prosecutors move, lawyers say. Suspects walking free pose a potential risk, which can incite quick action to get them behind bars. When suspects are off the streets anyway, however, prosecutors can take more time to develop their case.
"If a defendant is already incarcerated, that public safety concern (for speed) is not as great," said Wainstein, now with law firm O'Melveny & Myers after 20 years in the Justice Department.
The Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, which represented Guandique in his earlier D.C. criminal cases, declined to comment on developments Wednesday.
Lanier didn't tell Chandra Levy's mother, Susan Levy, the name of the suspect, but she did indicate investigators had developed "substantial" evidence, according to Levy. Levy thought an arrest would be forthcoming by early this week. The fact that it hasn't happened could reflect differences between police and prosecutors.
The police have one standard for obtaining an arrest warrant: probable cause. The lead detective will prepare a draft warrant, summing up forensic evidence or testimony from witnesses who are not identified by name.
A prosecutor from the U.S. Attorney's homicide section must then approve the warrant application, before the detective can go before a D.C. Superior Court judge. Judges will typically decide in one closed-door session whether to issue the warrant, although they could ask for more information, experienced prosecutors say.
The time lag can occur when prosecutors insist on higher standards than the "probable cause" used by police. These include "clear and convincing," which is the evidentiary threshold that's needed to keep a suspect locked up if they aren't already in prison, and "beyond a reasonable doubt," which is the standard necessary for conviction.
"Given the tragic circumstances of his case, and the grief it has caused, it would be very gratifying to see the perpetrator identified, prosecuted and convicted," Wainstein said.