Allison Leotta was a federal sex-crimes prosecutor in Washington DC for twelve years. She now writes thrillers drawing on her experience, and has been dubbed “the female John Grisham.” Her latest thriller, Speak of the Devil, was released by sister company Simon & Schuster/Touchstone on August 6th, 2013. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer calls the novel “sexy, brutal, and surprising.” Click here to read an excerpt.
Think of Washington, DC and you probably picture the postcard images: white marble monuments, perfectly mowed parks, photo-happy tourists swarming through museums. But for police and prosecutors like me, the city is filled with a different kind of landmark. With its combustible mix of sly politicians, doe-eyed interns, and the usual urban violence, the District has sparked many of America’s most ridiculous scandals and horrific crimes. Walk with me for a moment behind the shining monuments, into the shadows of our nation’s capital, and take a peek at the darker side of DC Here are the landmarks you won’t see on your average bus tour.
10) The Westin City Center Hotel (Formerly The Vista Hotel): The Fall Of Marion Barry
1400 M St NW
Washington, DC 20005
DC Mayor Marion Barry’s legacy includes many things, all of which were eclipsed by the police bust where he was videotaped smoking crack with his mistress in the Vista’s room #727– and his famous cry when agents rushed in: “B*tch set me up!” Less well-known was his response when police asked if he wanted medical attention: “You mind if I have a quick drink?” Barry was convicted of one count of drug possession, but a federal jury hung on more serious drug and perjury charges. Perhaps more remarkable than the mayor’s downfall was his spectacular rebirth. After serving six months in jail, Barry was re-elected Mayor, and he still serves on the City Council today.
Related: Weirdest Museums In Washington DC
9) The Mayflower: Hotel Of Choice For (Cheating) Politicians
1127 Connecticut Ave NW
Washington, DC 20036
The “Grand Dame” of Washington, the Mayflower has been a fixture in political circles from the day in opened in 1925. The swanky hotel has also been home to many of the city’s most famous sex scandals. One of JFK’s reputed mistresses, Judith Campbell Exner, lived here. An iconic photo of Monica Lewinsky hugging Bill Clinton was taken here. Most recently, New York Governor Eliot Spitzer reportedly passed an evening with a $1000-an-hour escort in room 871. The resulting scandal transformed him from a law-and-order poster boy to Client #9 in a federal affidavit faster than you can say “kept his socks on.” But political fortunes can be changed almost as quickly as one of the Mayflower’s 600-threadcount sheets. Spitzer is currently a frontrunner in the race for Comptroller of New York City.
8) The Capitol Gym: Barbells, Stairmasters, And Sexts
East Capitol St NE and First St
Washington, DC 20004
Sure, every DC tour bus will stop at the U.S. Capitol, but few tourists will detour into one of the building’s lesser-seen corners. The Capitol’s “Wellness Center” in the basement of the Rayburn Office Building is where Senators and Representatives can work out more than their political muscles. The exclusive locker room was one also one of Rep. Anthony Weiner’s favorite backdrops for the crotch shots he emailed and tweeted to female voters. After falsely claiming that his Twitter account was hacked, he eventually resigned, citing the usual excuse of “spending more time with his family.” But you can’t keep this Weiner down. He’s currently running for Mayor of New York, despite a newly uprooted sexting scandal. One of the best results of his foibles was the ad campaign it inspired for the Washington Sports Club: “Politicians, get in shape for your next scandalous photo!”
7) Capitol Hideaways: Where LBJ Brought Women To “Take Dictation”
East Capitol St NE and First St
Washington, DC 20004
While you’re poking around the Capitol, try to visit one of your Senators’ hideaways. Chances are, you won’t be able to. Hideaway doors are unmarked, their locations are secret, and the Capitol police won’t even tell one Senator where another Senator’s hideaway is. Unlike official offices in the nearby Congressional Office Buildings, hideaways are tucked into nooks and crannies of the Capitol itself, and are off-limits to the public. They can be quite luxurious – and have enabled of some of DC’s most notorious womanizers. During his Senate years, Lyndon B. Johnson amassed five hideaways, and brought women there to “take dictation.” In 1995, Senator Bob Packwood resigned from the Senate to avoid expulsion after several women accused him of sexual assault. One incident allegedly took place in his hideaway.
(My second thriller, “Discretion,” opens with a high-priced escort being pushed off the balcony of a Capitol hideaway.)
6) George Washington University Hospital: Showdown In The War On Terror
900 23rd St NW
Washington, DC 20037
The hospital was the site of a dramatic political showdown between the White House and Justice Department over the war on terror. On March 10, 2004, after Attorney General John Ashcroft was admitted for a severe case of pancreatitis, White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales and Chief of Staff Andrew Card went to the hospital to persuade Ashcroft to re-authorize President Bush’s domestic surveillance program – which the Justice Department had just determined was illegal. Ashcroft’s wife called his DOJ deputy, James Comey, who alerted FBI Director Robert Mueller and rushed, sirens blaring, to GWUH. Comey arrived moments before Gonzales and Card, and stood by the hospital bed while Ashcroft summoned enough strength to refuse to sign the papers. Comey, Mueller and Ashcroft threatened to resign over the program; the President eventually overruled Gonzales and Card. “I was angry,” Comey later testified before Congress. “I thought I just witnessed an effort to take advantage of a very sick man.”
5) The Meems Bottom Covered Bridge In Shenandoah, Virginia: Beautiful Spot For A Bloody Murder
Mount Jackson, VA 22842
Shenandoah County is a scenic day trip for DC tourists, a spot of natural beauty, old-growth trees, and a bubbling river. It was also the site of one of the most brutal murders of a government informant. Brenda Paz was a 17-year-old girl affiliated with MS-13, a violent and misogynistic street gang that’s growing virally in DC and cities around America. Paz entered the Witness Protection Program and was cooperating against the gang – but missed the street life, and, in violation of Witsec rules, kept hanging around her MS-13 friends. They found out. On the night of July 12, 2003, her MS-13 boyfriend held her in his arms as they cuddled and slept together. The next day, he and two other gang members took Paz on a day trip to the banks of the Shenandoah River, where they stabbed her to death. She was four months pregnant. The men were convicted of her murder. Since then, MS-13 does not allow women as members, although the gang routinely coerces girls into prostitution. Terrified victims of MS-13 often site the Paz murder as a reason they don’t want to testify.
(I explore the gang in my most recent thriller, “Speak of the Devil.”)
4) Rock Creek Park: A Young Intern’s Murder
Rock Creed and Potomac Pkwy NW
Washington, DC 20008
Another beautiful park, another brutal murder. 23-year-old Chandra Levy came to DC for a college internship. Her disappearance in May of 2001 sparked international media attention when she was romantically linked to married Congressman Gary Condit. Her skeletal remains were found in Rock Creek Park in May of 2002. Police never accused Condit of murder, but the cloud of suspicion contributed to his election loss in 2002. In 2010, a Salvadoran immigrant named Ingmar Guandique was convicted of attacking and murdering Levy while she was jogging in the park. Guandique had already been found guilty of sexually assaulting two other women in Rock Creek Park. (Some say the mystery of Levy’s death continues to this day: defense attorneys have recently moved for a new trial based on newly discovered information about a key government witness against Guandique.)
3) The Washington Hilton: Rawhide Down
1919 Connecticut Ave NW
Washington, DC 20009
With great power comes great responsibility – and assassination attempts. On March 30, 1981, John Hinkley Jr. tried to impress actress Jodi Foster by shooting Ronald Reagan as the President left the Hilton. No one was killed, although Press Secretary James Brady was left paralyzed and permanently disabled. (Reagan – whose Secret Service codename was “Rawhide” — was treated at George Washington University Hospital, where Ashcroft, Comey, and Gonzales would have their showdown 23 years later.) Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and currently resides at another DC landmark: St. Elizabeth’s psychiatric hospital. For a great non-fiction read about this piece of history, check out Del Quintin Wilber’s book, Rawhide Down.
(See also Ford’s Theatre, where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by actor John Wilkes Booth.)
2) The E. Barrett Prettyman Courthouse: The Ultimate DC Walk Of Shame
333 Constitution Ave NW
Washington, DC 20001
The marble-lined federal court is where politicians go for the ultimate DC walk of shame. Recent defendants include: The DC Madam, whose little black book was rumored to contain some big political names. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, who was convicted (and promptly pardoned by President Bush) of leaking the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame. Roger Clemens, who was acquitted of perjury related to his Congressional testimony about steroid use in baseball. And of course Mayor Marion Barry. Next door to the Prettyman Courthouse is DC’s crowded (and linoleum-lined) Superior Court, where local crimes like rape, homicide, and assault are tried.
1) Watergate: Mother Of All “—Gates”
2650 Virgina Ave NW
Washington DC 20037
Okay, this office/residential complex will be on any traditional DC bus tour. But no list of criminal landmarks in DC would be complete without the Watergate. Since 1972 – when operatives working for Richard Nixon broke into the Democratic National Committee Headquarters to steal information – any national issue can be characterized as a scandal simply by adding the suffix “gate” to the end of it. Appropriately, the Watergate was also where Monica Lewinsky lived while awaiting the DNA results from her little blue dress. Last summer, a three-bedroom apartment in the complex sold for over three million dollars. With prices like that, I’m guessing the Watergate’s security system has been updated since the 70’s.
Allison Leotta was a federal sex-crimes prosecutor in Washington DC for twelve years. She now writes thrillers drawing on her experience, and has been dubbed “the female John Grisham.” Her latest thriller, Speak of the Devil, was released by sister company Simon & Schuster/Touchstone on August 6th. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer calls the novel “sexy, brutal, and surprising.” Click here to read an excerpt.