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Police Investigate Tip About Chandra Levy's Disappearance; How Reliable Are Such Leads?

Aired August 2, 2001 - 12:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID ECKERT, WETIP PROGRAM DIRECTOR: We just received an anonymous tip giving information about the possible location of the body of Chandra Levy.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

It would have to be information that was known firsthand. They described the surroundings and some details of where the body might be buried that if it were a hoax, it was quite elaborate.

ROGER COSSACK, CO-HOST: Today on BURDEN OF PROOF, a tip regarding Chandra Levy came to the attention of authorities. What happens if this tip is a hoax, and how do federal investigators track down someone who may have caused it?

ANNOUNCER: This is BURDEN OF PROOF, with Roger Cossack and Greta Van Susteren.

COSSACK: Hello, and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF.

Yesterday, a crime tip Web site made news when a tip it received claimed to have information on the whereabouts of missing intern Chandra Levy. The tip claimed Levy was buried in a parking lot under construction at Fort Lee Military Installation, near Petersburg, Virginia.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, CO-HOST: Investigators are now deciding whether to send out a search team and cadaver dogs to investigate the site. Police have stressed that the latest tip is just one of dozens they receive each day, none of which has produced a solid lead in what authorities have openly described as a frustrating case.

COSSACK: Joining us today, here in Washington, is Lauren Martin (ph); Lou Hennessy, former commander of the D.C. Homicide Squad; and former federal prosecutor Marty Rogers.

VAN SUSTEREN: And from New York, Robert Castelli, former New York state police investigator, who's now a professor of criminal justice.

And from Sacramento, California, Susan Aguilar, national director of wetip.com.

Susan, first to you. In what form did this tip come in? Did it come in by phone over the Internet, and what did your people do?

SUSAN AGUILAR, WETIP.COM: Well, the tip did come in over our phone banks. We have about 365,000 tips that have come in over the history of WeTip into our phone lines, at 1-800-78-CRIME.

VAN SUSTEREN: Let me ask how many of those tips have come in relating to Chandra Levy?

AGUILAR: This is the only one that I know of that has come in on Chandra Levy. We have taken several tips on other missing persons, probably related to the media attention that disappearance of Chandra Levy has caused, but this is the only one that I know of that has come in on Chandra. We took this tip -- it was taken Sunday night -- on one of our phone lines, and it was immediately relayed on to law enforcement.

COSSACK: Judy, this was a tip of some length and some substance; in fact, it's been reported that it was three pages long. Is that unusual, for a tip to be that long and that detailed?

AGUILAR: The first thing is that most of our tips are taken on three pages: We have the initial tip, then we have suspect information, and then we have additional MO type of information that's taken. So many of our tips are already three pages; that doesn't mean that there's three pages of pure information. I've heard reports there were three pages of single-spaced total information on this tip, and what was the reality of that is that probably about maybe a half a page of single-spaced information about exactly what was going on was on this tip.

VAN SUSTEREN: Susan, in order to pass the test that it is not a hoax right from outside and worthy of investigation, I assume you read it to determine whether or not any of the facts match the reality of the situation. What were the facts that you thought made this tip a particularly important one?

AGUILAR: Well, the fact is is that because WeTip takes so many tips -- we take about 1,000 tips a month -- we don't determine what is good information or bad information.

VAN SUSTEREN: Did it just have Chandra Levy's name in it, or did it say Chandra Levy, intern of Bureau of Prisons? What were the details?

AGUILAR: Well, details were that there was some information about a high-profile case, and we simply called it in immediately to the law enforcement agency as well as to the task force and the FBI. We didn't determine if it is good or bad; that's not our job. Our job is simply to take the information and to relay it on to investigating officers so that they can determine if it is good or bad.

VAN SUSTEREN: Let me tell you that we have some news coming out of the state of California as well, the statement of U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein. Let me read the statement to you: "I have been quoted as saying, in relation to a comment I made regarding Congressman Condit, that I cannot forgive. If I gave that impression, I apologize, because, of course, I can forgive. What concerns me has been the Congressman's reluctance to come forward with a full and honest accounting of the relationship when this information would have been the most useful. Chandra Levy has been missing for more than 90 days. With each day, the probability that she is lost to her family increases. Congressman Condit's failure to come forward and to be fully candid, combined with the conduct involved, really does violate the public trust and affects his integrity and credibility as a legislator. That is what I meant to convey, and if I did otherwise, I am sorry." The statement of United States Senator Dianne Feinstein, out of the state of California.

COSSACK: Not exactly a vote of confidence.

VAN SUSTEREN: Not exactly a vote of confidence at all.

Marty, what do you make of the statement, Dianne Feinstein correcting what she thinks has been a misconception of what she said.

MARTY ROGERS, FORMER D.C. ASSISTANT U.S. ATTORNEY: I heard on the news this morning something about Dianne Feinstein condemning Congressman Condit, and remember being surprised about that, because it doesn't strike me something that Senator Feinstein would do. I think it is smart for her to put out something that corrects a misimpression. But as Roger said, I guess it's not a ringing endorsement.

I think most people wish that Congressman Condit had been more forthcoming at the very beginning about his relationship with her only to the extent that it would help the police locate her.

VAN SUSTEREN: The way I read it is that she can forgive, but she certainly...

COSSACK: She can't forget.

VAN SUSTEREN: This certainly is not an endorsement, by any means, for Congressman Condit.

COSSACK: Let me go back and ask Susan another question.

Susan, what kind of protection do people have who call in WeTip, in terms of keeping their anonymity.

AGUILAR: WeTip is absolutely anonymous, and the protections that we give to them are pretty simple. When the operator answers the phone, they say do not give your name or identify yourself in any way. If for any reason, the informant accidentally gives some kind of personal information, we ask them to please hang up and call back and get another operator. We have about 35 operators staffing the phones 24-hours a day, 365 days a year, so the chances they will get the same operator are pretty slim.

After they give their information, we give them a case number, and if they are interested in a cash reward upon conviction, we give them a three-part fictitious code name.

We never want to know the identity of the caller. We don't have taping, tracing, or caller ID. We never know the identity of our caller.

VAN SUSTEREN: Lou, sounds like it would be impossible to track something down on this on the caller.

W. LOUIS HENNESSY, FORMER D.C. HOMICIDE SQUAD COMMANDER: It looks like they have intentionally tried to ensure that these people won't be contacted unless they put out some type of a feeler to the callers through the media and ask them to call back; it is not uncommon for tipsters lines to operate that way.

COSSACK: Lou, you obviously, in your experience, had a lot of tips that people called in. How do decide which is a good one and which isn't?

HENNESSY: Two things that you look at right away. Tips that come in from somebody who identifies themselves are immediately given a little bit more credibility because then we can actually go out and talk to that person, we can establish and support what we have heard.

Anonymous tips are a little more difficult to evaluate, but you look at the detail. If they have details about the offense that people in the general public don't know -- only that the police or the suspect would know -- then, obviously, you would immediately you begin to give credence to that, and you put it in a higher priority category, even though it is an anonymous tip.

VAN SUSTEREN: Susan, did you have any of that in this tip? Is there anything to give it any credence in your mind?

AGUILAR: I believe this was a very good tip. It had a lot of detailed information.

VAN SUSTEREN: Like? Give me an example of what makes it a good tip to you?

AGUILAR: Well, it's exactly what was just said, when there's some detailed information about specifics.

VAN SUSTEREN: Like? In this one, give us an example. What was it about this one?

AGUILAR: It is not really my place to be able to say what was on the tip, because that's the place of law enforcement. That's their area of expertise. We simply take the information; we're the conduit between the informant and the law enforcement agency. It's really not appropriate for me to discuss what is in the tip. That's really the place of law enforcement.

VAN SUSTEREN: We're going to take a quick break.

Wetip.com has received more than 300,000 tips since it started, in 1972. What if this tip is a hoax? (BEGIN LEGAL BRIEF)

The Connecticut Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal by Michael Skakel that challenges the decision that transferred his case from juvenile to adult court.

Skakel is charged in the 1975 death of his neighbor, Martha Moxley.

(END LEGAL BRIEF)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VAN SUSTEREN: Officials at Wetip.com say they received an anonymous tip about Chandra Levy. The tip claims her body is under a parking lot construction site in Fort Lee, Virginia.

Joining us here in Washington is CNN justice correspondent Kelli Arena.

Kelli, what's FBI's reaction to this anonymous tip?

KELLI ARENA, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, the FBI has said that they are trying to determine whether or not the tip is credible. There are no plans to go out and search, there are no plans to go out and to launch an investigation into that just yet. Just let's determine whether it's credible, and then from there, we will proceed. It's actually the Richmond field office of the FBI that has jurisdiction over the Fort Lee area.

VAN SUSTEREN: That begs the question which I'm trying to get Susan to answer as well, is that, how did they determine whether it is credible? I mean, what is the -- how do you do it?

ARENA: Well, I think we've heard a little bit before, Greta. You have to determine whether or not this is information hasn't been out in the general public, and quite frankly, on this case, there's been so much information out in the public that would be hard to do, so that would be one clue this is for real. It would have been better, as we also heard earlier, if there had been a name attached to the tip, not anonymous. But there's ways, you know, FBI has its major cases unit looking at this. There's lots of investigators, behavior sciences, looking at this to determine whether or not this is for real.

And many tips have been pursued, Greta. I mean, there are hundreds of tips that have come into D.C. police and the FBI on Chandra levy, many of them we have not heard about it, and have not gotten attention merely because they never got out to the public. So this is not very unusual, and the caution has been, look, this may turn out to be absolutely nothing.

COSSACK: Bob Castelli, you are familiar with tips how you decide whether they're good or whether they're bad. What about this one?

ROBERT CASTELLI, PROFESSOR OF CRIMINAL JUSTICE: Well, you know, the simple answer is this, good investigators have a healthy curious about everything, and you can't really discount a tip. I think what you do, as the gentleman said earlier, is you prioritize these tips based upon the sound of the credibility of the caller initially, whether or not they identify themselves, and if in fact they have information not available to the general public, only available to the investigators in the case.

But having said that, you know, you really do have to exhaust every single one of these, and it requires tremendous amount in case that's got this type of profile, of investigative resources.

VAN SUSTEREN: Why, Marty, let's assume for a second this is flat-out hoax, a hoax not going to police department, but going to a private organization. Any crime, you think?

ROGERS: Making false report to the police or something?

VAN SUSTEREN: Yes, is there anything...

ROGERS: You know, I don't really know the answer to that question, because the woman who's in charge of WeTip was saying how they're basically just a conduit for the information. It seems to me that if you are calling into WeTip, you have to know it will be provided to the police, and it seems to me that if you are, you know, making a false report, creating a hoax that you're really a disgruntle construction worker, who wants them to jackhammer up this parking lot, that could be the case as well. It seems to me you bear a responsibility for that. But where is venue for that? WeTip is out in California. The call, who knows writ came from, and there's venue for the charge where ultimately the tip will be furthered? That's a difficult case.

VAN SUSTEREN: It seems like fertile field for our legislators when they go about making new laws, because you can think of the havoc you create by sending a zillion hoaxes.

COSSACK: What about -- Lou, suppose police wanted to follow up on this and said, you know, we want to try and find out who it is that actually us give this tip. Would there would be any way.

HENNESSY: Yes, the way they would do this, go back to WeTip. WeTip gave these people code names, which a lot of these tip lines do, then they would reach out to their viewership, or however they communicate with the public, saying, a person with this code name please call back, either for, a, reward or, b, we need additional information from you, and this happens all the time with tip lines.

ROGERS: So do you know that persons in that geographic area would even hear that thing on the news? What if in they live in Idaho?

HENNESSY: They may have a Web site. And I think most of these do have Web sites now, where they put things on a Web site, saying we need these callers to call back, and they'll list a number, give them a thumb to call, and it may designate whether there's a cash reward waiting for you, or, b, we want to talk to you further about the skies.

ROGERS: Or there's an obstruction of justice charge or making a false report waiting for you. Very few of those call back.

COSSACK: Those people don't want to call back.

VAN SUSTEREN: Susan, let me go back to you on this. There's a reward, is that right, through your organization?

AGUILAR: There is reward through WeTip.

VAN SUSTEREN: Where do you get that money, I'm just curious, to give this reward?

AGUILAR: Well, a part of WeTip's program, because we're a nonprofit organization, part of our program is to offer up to a $1,000 reward. In this case, I believe it was stated there was something like $200,000 from various organizations that are being offered to the public. But that has not been accumulated through WeTip.

VAN SUSTEREN: So I mean, where do you get the people, how do you make the $1,000 to give to people for giving good tips? Where does this come from?

AGUILAR: It comes from private memberships through the WeTip program, because we're a nonprofit. We have corporations, and cities and counties that are all contributors to a WeTip program.

COSSACK: Bob, would you try to profile the tipster, somehow?

CASTELLI: Well, certainly if there's any opportunity to do so -- and the FBI has fabulous profiling capabilities -- you would do this.

But just to articulate something the other gentleman said, too, there's also another method. If this, in fact, turns out to be an individual who's involved somehow in the crime, if in fact this is a crime -- and it certainly looks like that way -- you can also go back to telephone company records and subpoena that, because they've got tracking computer software which allows them to build the calls, so certainly they know the calls origin, and they can certainly find its destination. So the police and the FBI can subpoena those records if they need to, and with a little bit of regularity, track that back to its individual source.

VAN SUSTEREN: Bob, would this be waste -- let's assume this is a hoax, and we don't know either way -- but assuming it's a hoax, is this worthy of spending the resources to track down the person, try to collar the person, or do you wait until the place gets flooded with hoaxes make sort of point of someone.

CASTELLI: Well, at some point in time, you have to make value judgment on these things. Because of the high-profile nature of this case, you've got thousands of these things coming in. Every time we have a high-profile case such as this, whether it's Son of Sam or the Hillside Strangler, you're going to get a lot of hoaxes, you're going to get people perhaps copycat killings. So the reality is, you can't investigate everything as thoroughly as you'd like to, but at some point in time, you have to did this. You prioritize them well. And then in those cases where you want to target that, so as convey to the public, if people do this, they are going to be will be prosecuted.

As you know, here in New York, you know, falsely reporting an incident is class a misdemeanor in New York, it is punishable by a year in jail and a $10,000 fine. So law enforcement can prosecute this effectively if they want to.

VAN SUSTEREN: This is to a private organization, which makes it a little bit different, but anyway.

COSSACK: Let's take a break. If authorities decide to go forward with this tip, how will investigators search under this parking lot? Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN Q&A)

Why was a former University of Wisconsin-Madison professor sentenced to four years in prison.

For embezzling $450,000 in research money from the University and evading taxes. Edward Oplinger was an agronomy professor.

(END Q&A)

COSSACK: Yesterday, the FBI issued a statement saying that if the tip regarding the whereabouts of Chandra Levy is deemed credible, appropriate steps will be taken.

So joining us on the phone is Dr. Edward David, a deputy chief medical examiner for the state of Maine, and the author of "Cadaver Dog Handbook: A Forensic Guide for Training, Handling and Searching."

All right, doctor, tell us about how they would go about trying to search this parking lot if in fact it turned out that the FBI decides they want to go forward. They would use cadaver dogs, what would they do?

DR. EDWARD DAVID, AUTHOR, "CADAVER DOG HANDBOOK": Well, I think the first question is, would they use cadaver dogs? They would have to know that the surface that they were testing was porous enough to allow scent to pass through it so the dog could alert on something, or that there was significant run-off, ground water beneath that would allow them to get an alert from one of the edge drainage areas of the parking area. If you have a thick, nonporous surface, then no scent would escape, and you would probably be better served using something like ground-penetrating radar to do your search.

VAN SUSTEREN: Dr. David, it may not come as huge surprise. I don't know a lot about cement. Are there different pores. Is some asphalt more porous than others?

DAVID: Yes, depending on the grade and the density, cement can be mixed to different densities. Asphalts and macadam can be set up at different densities and thicknesses. If this is, as I've been told, a major parking area on a military base, then they are probably using a very high standard with high compaction -- that is density -- so the ability of scent to permeate would be limited. If, however, there were cracks in it or they were not finished with the construction, then there might be areas that were amenable to search.

COSSACK: Tell us about the ground radar you referred to earlier, doctor. How does that work?

DAVID: Well, there is an instrument -- I'm not an expert in it, but I've seen it used -- which basically uses radar, which is radio waves, and it is dragged over the surface, and it detects anomalies in the ground beneath it, and so if they were dragging this along, and they would get a reading, and then all of a sudden, there was anomaly. And if that anomaly was of the size that you would expect, say of a human body to be, that would give them probable cause to go and dig in that area.

Basically -- get ahead.

VAN SUSTEREN: Dr. David, there's an awful lot of wooded area in the Washington D.C. area,. Police are done here in D.C., but right across the river, more wooded area. Could a cadaver-sniffing dog quickly search a wooded area so we could find out if there is, by any chance, there's bad news over in those woods.

DAVID: Well, I quickly -- you know, a term I don't want to get into, but a well-trained dog or team cadaver dog team could certainly cover that area and clear it for the police much more rapidly than a shoulder-to-shoulder search, and much more effectively than any other means, you know, such as flying over it with heat-detecting equipment at night, that sort of thing. So it would be a relatively quick way of clearing large areas. Again, that's weather dependent. If it's very, very hot, the dogs can't work long, etcetera, but if you have good temperature and a nice prevailing breeze, then dogs can cover fairly significant areas and rule them out or tragically in when you're searching for human remains.

COSSACK: Let me go back to Susan Aguilar for second. Susan, it was stated earlier that perhaps the police would be able to find out who this tipster was by perhaps use of software or other informative ways. Is that possible?

AGUILAR: With WeTip, no, that's not possible. That's what makes WeTip totally unique from other hot lines around the nation. Because we've been around 30 years, we've never had a tipster identified. We have had our records subpoenaed, and what they get exactly what we already sent to law enforcement.; that's copy of the tip. We don't keep our phone records, they are destroyed, there is no way to trace back to our informant, and they are absolutely anonymous.

VAN SUSTEREN: OK. That's unfortunately, all the time we have today on this topic. Thanks to our guests, and thank you for watching.

COSSACK: Join us again tomorrow for another edition of BURDEN OF PROOF. We'll see you then.

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