Is the Search for Chandra Levy Nearing an End?
Aired July 30, 2001 – 20:30 ET
|ANNOUNCER: THE POINT WITH GRETA VAN SUSTEREN.
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SUSAN LEVY, CHANDRA LEVY’S MOTHER: I’m not giving up, but my heart aches.
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ANNOUNCER: Police say there is only a 50-50 chance we will ever know what happened to their daughter. Our “Flashpoint”: Is the search for Chandra Levy nearing an end? Tonight, the FBI’s perspective, and a look to Congressman Gary Condit’s political future.
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ASSISTANT CHIEF TERRANCE GAINER, D.C. METROPOLITAN POLICE: The congressman, although interesting to a lot of people, is not the central figure in this nor is his wife.
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ANNOUNCER: “Missing in America”: He was two weeks away from graduating and then he vanished. After eight months, no sign of Matthew Pendergrast. Tonight, we’ll talk to his parents.
Plus: from statesmanship to showmanship…
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COLIN POWELL, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE (singing): … out in the West Texas town of El Paso I fell in love with a Vietnamese girl…
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ANNOUNCER: THE POINT. Now from Washington, Greta Van Susteren.
GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, HOST: Tempers are getting short, but clues are as scarce as ever. Tonight’s “Flashpoint”: Is the search for Chandra Levy nearing an end?
Police academy cadets were back searching Washington-area parks today. Different ones this time, so they did find some things. But investigators say the items — including a sweater, some jeans and a knife — probably are not related to the Levy disappearance. This morning, a police official hinted the search will not be going on much longer.
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GAINER: We still have a lot of area to search this week, and we think we’ll conclude that. As you know, we searched all the abandoned buildings in two of seven districts in the District of Columbia. But aside from eliminating possibilities, we just don’t know where she’s at.
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VAN SUSTEREN: The media stakeout cannot end soon enough for Congressman Gary Condit. Late this afternoon, he zoomed away from his apartment, leaving a top aide and a photographer arguing about just who shoved whom.
Like I said, tempers are short. What will it take to get everyone cooled down, and if possible, rehabilitate Condit’s reputation.
Joining me to discuss what is ahead for the congressman are “USA Today” national correspondent Tom Squitieri, and Mike Doyle, Washington correspondent for Gary Condit’s hometown newspaper, “The Modesto Bee.”
Tom, first to you, today there was a little bit of a pushing match between an AP freelance photographer and the congressman. What do you make of that?
TOM SQUITIERI, “USA TODAY”: Well, it shows that the staff and the congressman and the reporters who are covering him, the tempers are starting to get a little bit on edge. It’s been a long story, and as more allegations about the congressman arise as well as allegations about his aides, what they may or may not have done, of course, they’re going to get mad and they’re going to lash out at who they think are responsible for their problems: in this case, the press.
The press, on the other hand, has been staking out the congressman, chasing him around, and don’t feel they’ve gotten a lot of answers from him, so they’re getting testy as well.
This could come to an end, of course, at the end of this week, Greta, because the congressional recess is coming up, which means that Congressman Condit is expected to go back to his district in California.
VAN SUSTEREN: Tom, do you think the media is going to at least for a while, are they going to let up on the congressman, because at least the police seem to be backing off the congressman? I mean, they’ve always said he wasn’t a suspect, but now they seem to be moving even farther away from him.
SQUITIERI: Yeah, I think you’re right on that, Greta. The confluence of what the police have been saying to the media, the lessening of action in the searches as they draw to a close this week, and as I said earlier, the congressman going back to California, all of those things kind of come together to reduce the focus on the congressman. Out of sight, out of mind.
VAN SUSTEREN: Mike, the recess is coming up: What’s the congressman going to do?
MIKE DOYLE, “MODESTO BEE”: Well, he’s going back to California for the most sustained period in his district since this episode began. And he’s probably going to be facing some pretty tough questions, both from his constituents and within his own circle, which is what does he talk to his constituents about. His attorney, Abbe Lowell, has to balance the legal issue of perhaps where staying quiet is rational.
VAN SUSTEREN: But Mike, I assume that Abbe Lowell is telling him not to talk. He’s got to go back. He’s going to run into constituents who are going to say, hey, what’s happening. He’s going to run into reporters, even the few that even — there are going to be some, even if some drop off.
But I mean, Mike, how does he avoid the questions from people and can he avoid them?
DOYLE: Well, he can’t ultimately avoid them. The August work period is a time to go out to see communities that don’t often see their congressman during the regular part of the year, and he will be shadowed certainly by reporters and the curious. And I think the question they are having to face right now is whether to use this period as a time to address public questions in a way to try to alleviate some of the pressure.
VAN SUSTEREN: Tom, do you think he’s going to answer those questions or is he going to dodge them? It seems almost like he’s walking through a mine field when he goes back.
SQUITIERI: Well, if he goes out in public at all, as I think Mike and I think he has to at some point and will do at some point, those questions are going to be there. Whether they’re (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in a legitimate form by concerned constituents or the media who are chasing him or just groups who want to see him resign, that — he’s going to start hearing these questions, literally hearing these questions in public, and others will hear them. And I don’t think that helps him at all to come to a sane political conclusion about his future.
VAN SUSTEREN: Tom, does he sort of bite — is smart to sort of bite the bullet, just face it head on and say — you know, and call his constituents together and answer the questions rather than having to sort of dodge during the recess?
SQUITIERI: Well, most people think that would be a smart course, Greta. Mike’s paper in Modesto, the biggest paper in the district, would be a logical forum for him to do that, for example: sit down with them and have a good on-the-record interview and kind of address all the issues that are out there. He has new issues now. Because of the Chandra Levy disappearance, his office is under scrutiny for a lot of things: possible obstruction of justice and perhaps other violations that the House Ethics Committee would frown upon — staff members perhaps doing improper things. So now the issue has broadened out from his role in the Chandra Levy matter to his own political handling — his own handling of his office.
VAN SUSTEREN: Mike, how is your paper going to handle this? I assume that your editorial staff at least has invited him to come in and talk.
DOYLE: On repeated occasions, and his former attorney, Joe Cotchett, had urged him as well to speak to us and others, and eventually Mr. Cotchett left the case. You alluded to Abbe Lowell, Greta, and just to complete the thought: For Abbe Lowell as the attorney, there are two issues that aren’t in alignment. One is the legal rational basis to stay quiet, and the other is his prominence and the political obligation at a certain point to talk.
My paper will handle it by continuing to press him to speak up, and we hope that he does.
VAN SUSTEREN: OK. When you press him, though, Mike, what happens? What do you hear from his — from either the congressman or his staff?
DOYLE: There are members of the congressman’s staff that have in the past believed that he should be speaking. We believe that there is maybe some division amongst the staff. And we hear that at the proper time, what they construe to be the proper time, there will be a discussion.
Up until now, the proper time has been defined by the Condit camp as when the police investigation is at an end or at a proper conclusion. It may be in August, with the public searching at an end, they may construe this as being the proper time to have a public discussion with the constituents.
VAN SUSTEREN: Mike, is your paper geared up for his return for the recess?
DOYLE: We are.
VAN SUSTEREN: Does that mean more reporters are assigned to it and you’ve made more requests to him, and you’re saying, welcome home, come talk to us?
DOYLE: We always welcome the congressman and always look forward to his talking to us. Our paper has made a full commitment to the coverage, not just “The Modesto Bee,” but “The Fresno Bee” as well, which covers part of his district. And for us, as the hometown papers, the challenge is to cover him on this issue, at the same time, deal with him on others that he’s involved with, such as the farm bill.
VAN SUSTEREN: Tom, how has he been doing this summer here in Washington? Has he gotten any work done?
SQUITIERI: Well, he doesn’t seem to be getting much work done, but then again, Congress doesn’t seem to be getting much work done at- large, so he can’t really single out Congressman Condit for it.
As Mike said, the farm bill is a big deal for Congressman Condit. He’s a high-ranking Democrat on the House Ag Committee. And he seems to have been able to focus a lot on that issue. Ironically, I talked to his office early on in this matter, not on the Chandra Levy story, but on California raisins, which agriculture happens to be one of my beats as well, although I haven’t been spending a lot more time on that as the other part of Congressman Condit.
VAN SUSTEREN: Tom, do you think if he ran tomorrow he would be re-elected?
SQUITIERI: Yeah, I do. I think there are no Republicans out there really who are challenging him except for the one guy — Mike knows this better than I — who ran against him once before.
He doesn’t seem to have a lot of support at the moment. However, that — if he ran against somebody with a good credible reputation, such as maybe a state senator or something like that from California, I think who could challenge him on the issues as well as the ability to function here in Washington, it might be a pretty good race.
VAN SUSTEREN: All right. My thanks to Tom Squitieri and Mike Doyle for joining me this evening.
Despite the screaming headlines in the tabloids, police in Washington say Congressman Gary Condit is not a central figure in the Levy investigation. The FBI also has a part in the search for Chandra Levy.
CNN justice correspondent Kelli Arena is here.
Kelli, I’m sort of struck by the fact first he wasn’t a suspect. Now he’s not a central figure. Does this mean anything? Is this…
KELLI ARENA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: No. It…
VAN SUSTEREN: It’s just the lawyer in me like parsing words.
ARENA: Exactly. He — the police have always said he was never a suspect, and as you know, when they took all of the stuff out of his apartment and out of his staffer’s car, brought it in for FBI analysis, nothing was found that was conclusive in any way that forwarded this investigation. So they say while the media likes to pay a lot of attention to Gary Condit, the police say, look, we’ve interviewed 100 people in this investigation, he is not a central figure, nor is his wife. And I say that because some — some reports have suggested that his wife is the subject of this investigation, and she is not.
VAN SUSTEREN: What about the FBI or even the police coming out and clearing him? Of course, there’s no crime that’s been committed, but has there been any sort of discussion? Because the media has dogged this guy. I mean, we have been all over him, and the fact that there was a pushing match today of some sort — do you think the FBI or the police will be able to come out and go even a little bit further than they have?
ARENA: Well, I don’t think they’re going to clear anybody until they have absolute evidence or they find a body and can link it to somebody else. I mean, I think that everyone remains in question and in play until there’s some conclusion, if there’s ever a conclusion.
We did hear from D.C. police that said there’s a 50/50 chance that this woman will never be found.
VAN SUSTEREN: But now the FBI has got it on their unit, their crack unit…
ARENA: Right. Major cases unit.
VAN SUSTEREN: … so — major cases unit. Does that — is that a good sign, even though the police say 50/50 is not going to be discovered? This is a particularly good unit.
ARENA: It’s a good unit. It has good investigators, good profilers and behavioral scientists. That doesn’t mean that they’ll necessarily come up with anything that the D.C. police have not been able to come up with.
As I said, no leads. And when I say no leads, Greta, I mean, no leads for the D.C. police, no leads for the FBI. They are at ground zero. There are no further in this investigation than they were three months ago when this woman disappeared.
VAN SUSTEREN: Tips still pouring in or no?
ARENA: Tips are pouring in, but you have to understand, with the great amount of media attention on this case, there’s been a great amount of phone calls coming in…
VAN SUSTEREN: Some crackpot…
ARENA: … some helpful, many not helpful. And that does take away from the energy that needs to be put into — in the investigation. And how long this investigation goes on and what capacity is also up for grabs. You noted that the recruits are going to be scaled back. They search for this week. They’re still searching the wooded areas around D.C.
VAN SUSTEREN: But this is it, they searched the wooded areas around D.C. You go across the bridge, which is only probably about a block long across the Potomac, you’ve got all the wooded area of Virginia…
ARENA: And Virginia and Maryland.
VAN SUSTEREN: Why — why aren’t they — and Maryland. I mean, it’s not just (UNINTELLIGIBLE) they’re looking in D.C. Why not look in those areas?
ARENA: It’s a matter of resources. She lived in D.C. She socialized in D.C. They focused on D.C. That was a choice tat investigators made. I mean, you could — you could go as far as West Virginia if you wanted to use that — that argument.
They have to go on — they have to basically structure this investigation based on solid leads and evidence, and there is none.
VAN SUSTEREN: And of which they have none. And so you paint such a grim picture. The congressman seems virtually in the clear. They take everything out of his apartment and nothing. They say he’s not a central figure. They’re getting no tips. They’ve searched the whole area of Washington, D.C. — or Rock Creek Park. They have found nothing. There’s nothing out of the apartment. And they now say, we don’t think we’re going to find her. It sounds like it’s over.
VAN SUSTEREN: Unless someone fortuitously stumbles…
ARENA: Maybe for us, everyday coverage…
VAN SUSTEREN: Unless she calls home…
ARENA: Unless she calls home and says, here I am, I’ve been hiding all this time, which more and more experts say is highly unlikely. Most law enforcement experts that I have spoken to say that they really do think that she ran into some foul play.
But this is not over. The major cases unit works on cases for years, Greta. This is a — this is a unit that uncover something two years, three years down the road.
The longer a case goes on and the attention dies down, sometimes that’s when people start to talk. You never know. It could be somebody who gets arrested on another crime, who’s in jail and confides in his cell mate and says, oh, you never know what I know. That type of stuff happens all the time.
VAN SUSTEREN: And in the meantime, of course, the Levys suffer tremendously. My thanks to Kelli Arena for joining us tonight.
ARENA: Thank you.
VAN SUSTEREN: Chandra Levy’s disappearance has rekindled interest in other missing person cases around the country. Tonight, we focus on a young man who was two weeks away from graduating from college. He disappeared and his SUV turned up in a swamp. I’ll talk with his parents when THE POINT returns.
VAN SUSTEREN: There are thousands of people missing in America. Matthew Pendergrast is one of them. He disappeared last December, first in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was attending college. His SUV turned up about 130 miles away in an Arkansas swamp. Searchers found his clothes and wallet nearby. But there has been no trace of Matthew for eight months. His parents, Mary Ellen and Jeff Pendergrast, are here, joining us tonight from Atlanta.
Let me go first to you, Mary Ellen: December 1st of last year, who was the last person to see your son?
MARY ELLEN PENDERGRAST, MATTHEW PENDERGRAST’S MOTHER: I believe that his landlady saw him last.
VAN SUSTEREN: And when had you seen him prior to December 1st?
M.E. PENDERGRAST: He was home for Thanksgiving vacation, and we had a wonderful visit. He was in good spirits. And we just had a good Thanksgiving break.
VAN SUSTEREN: Was there anything unusual, Mary Ellen, that you noticed when he was home on Thanksgiving?
M.E. PENDERGRAST: He was a little worried about papers he had due when he was getting back, you know, to finish up his degree, but other than that he was in good spirits. And he always got his his things done a little bit at the last minute.
VAN SUSTEREN: Jeff, when he was home for Thanksgiving prior to his disturbance (sic), did you notice anything unusual about his behavior?
JEFF PENDERGRAST, MATTHEW PENDERGRAST’S FATHER: Greta, he was a wonderful, excited young man who was looking forward to graduating from college. He had plans after graduation to work in the nonprofit sector with the plans of starting his own nonprofit organization to help those in need in Third World countries.
So he was acting — looking forward like he had a bright future with the direction and meaning in his life.
VAN SUSTEREN: Jeff, his truck was found about 130 miles west of where he was going to school. Any explanation in your mind as to how his SUV got there?
J. PENDERGRAST: We have no idea. If Matt were interested in some type of respite or retreat, he would have begun to the mountains. We were unaware of any knowledge he might have had of this particular area and how his car would have ended up there.
VAN SUSTEREN: Now, I did a little reading on it. From what I understand, his clothes were found some distance from the SUV and that his wallet was there with cash in it.
J. PENDERGRAST: That’s correct. His wallet with cash, his ATM card, his credit cards. Everything — all of his personal belongings appeared undisturbed.
VAN SUSTEREN: Did you use dogs to see if his scent was anywhere near those clothes so you could do some sort of tracking? J. PENDERGRAST: Yes, we did. They did a lot of tracking with dogs. They found his scent from his clothes to the water’s edge in the bayou, but the mystery is that there was no scent from his clothes to his car. And it’s an absolute mystery to us and the authorities to explain that.
VAN SUSTEREN: Mary Ellen, do you have any clue why he would be going to that area? Was he — I mean, is this an area he might swim or that he might have some recreation of some sort?
M.E. PENDERGRAST: I do not believe that he had a reason to go to that area. If you could go there, there is nothing that would draw you — your attention to get off the interstate at that particular place.
VAN SUSTEREN: How about tips, Mary Ellen? Have there been any tips or spottings of your son?
M.E. PENDERGRAST: No, there have been no tips whatsoever. We have offered a reward, and there’s been no response.
VAN SUSTEREN: Jeff, I can’t imagine — I mean, this must be — I mean, this is the unthinkable, the most horrible experience. How do you — how do you deal with these months that have passed since your son has disappeared? You just sort of wait and hope?
J. PENDERGRAST: Well, to be told this is — just puts you in a state of awful emotions. And the way we’ve been able to stand this entire experience was — has been the support of our relatives, our friends and our church. They’ve been wonderful.
VAN SUSTEREN: Jeff, do you — I mean, I assume you have hope. I mean, there’s no indication of robbery, which is certainly a positive sign. And there’s no indication that — that he was having troubles during Thanksgiving. I assume you still have hope, don’t you, for your son?
J. PENDERGRAST: You have to have hope. That’s what keeps you going. We still have hope he may be alive and someone out there knows where he is, and will contact us or the authorities so we have an answer.
VAN SUSTEREN: Mary Ellen, how about the police and the people that searched. Are you satisfied they did everything they could do and that this is still an active investigation?
M. PENDERGRAST: I can’t tell you how wonderful the folks have been that searched for Matt. They have been caring and personally determined to figure out the mystery. But it remains a mystery. The investigation continues to be active, and we have been very pleased.
VAN SUSTEREN: Jeff, what do you think happened? I mean, putting these pieces of the puzzle together, what is your theory?
J. PENDERGRAST: Greta, there are several theories, and I can’t give you one, because we just don’t know. The investigation is going on actively. They are continuing to have additional leads, and we hope we will find an answer soon.
VAN SUSTEREN: Mary Ellen, do you have any theory as to what happened, because here, your son was doing well in school, had an exciting life — as I understand, even had plans for post-graduation, great Thanksgiving, goes back to school, his SUV is found 130 miles west of his school, and he has vanished.
M. PENDERGRAST: We have no clue what could have possibly happened. It truly is a mystery. You would think this kind of thing only happens on television or the movies, but man, when it happens to you, it is awful.
VAN SUSTEREN: I hope tonight, maybe somebody is watching and they have seen the pictures of your son that they will call, and maybe we will be lucky someone spotted your son.
My thanks tonight to Jeff and Mary Ellen Pendergrast for joining us.
M. PENDERGRAST: Thank you so much for having us.
VAN SUSTEREN: Statesmanship is not all fun and games. But sometimes, it is only fun and games. You will see some of our national leaders like you have never seen, or heard them before, after a quick break and our MONEYLINE update.
VAN SUSTEREN: They dance. They sing. They bask in the attention of their audience. Hey, who says you have to be under 40 to have a good time?
Tonight’s “Final Point”: the old kids on the block. That dynamic trio was former President Clinton, Representative Charlie Rangel and Senator Charles Schumer, at the opening of Clinton’s office in Harlem. OK, maybe R&B isn’t your thing. No problem.
Catch this “Country and Eastern” act. That’s Secretary of State Colin Powell, hamming it up last week in Vietnam.
My point: Until these guys get in sync, I don’t think ‘N Sync has anything to worry about. But as long as our leaders can have this much fun on the job, the world cannot be in too bad a shape, can it?
Let me know what you think. Send an e-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s one word, askgreta.
I’m Greta Van Susteren in Washington.
Up next on “LARRY KING LIVE,” Larry’s panel continues CNN’s coverage of the Chandra Levy case and its impact on Congressman Gary Condit’s career.
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