Days of Torment for Intern's Parents

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

In the 62 days since Chandra Levy vanished, since the streets of Washington swallowed up one of Modesto's brightest and left behind not a clue, Bob and Susan Levy have lost their daughter twice.

She not only disappeared on the morning of May 1 after completing a semester of government study in the nation's capital, packing her bags and dashing off a cryptic e-mail about her plans to come home, but in the long weeks of waiting since, her parents say, the real Chandra has been all but erased in the swirl of tabloid speculations--a daughter blurred beyond recognition in the circus-like pursuit of the congressman and the missing intern.

Here in the middle of California's sweeping farm belt, a world away from the frenzy of Washington, the Levys have a hard time recognizing the striking young woman with the mane of unruly brown hair whose smiling face seems to pop up every 15 minutes on the cable news. That isn't their daughter, they say, who has become a politician's scandal and a cruel punch line for Beltway humorists.

Seated inside their elegant suburban home, with horses hitched out back, the Levys have no doubt that Chandra's seven months in Washington were marked by intense graduate study and a challenging internship at the federal Bureau of Prisons. They also believe--but have no solid proof--that Chandra carried on an affair with their congressman, Rep. Gary A. Condit (D-Ceres), a relationship she managed to hide from her parents and one that the married Condit has denied.

Yet the daughter they describe defies cardboard cutouts of star-struck interns in the clutches of powerful Washington politicians. She wasn't foolish and she wasn't needy, family and friends say. And she wasn't suicidal over a romance gone bad. She was a 25-year-old woman headed home to cap two years of hard work and share her graduation from a USC master's program with those she loved most. And then she was gone.

Now they run to catch every ring of a phone that one day or the next will almost certainly bring terrible news.

"I don't count the days. Everyone else, including my husband, is counting, but I can't," said Susan Levy, who has waged an aggressive media campaign on two coasts to find her daughter. "I go moment to moment, almost frozen in time. No past. No future. Just the present. Waiting. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night when the tranquilizers don't take and I hear certain voices. But I don't remember them very well. It's not Chandra's voice. It's not Chandra's laughter.

"I don't know what happened. I want to believe she is safe and hiding. That's what I want to believe. I can't tell you the scenarios that I play over in my mind. I'm scared to tell you. I try to have faith. I believe miracles can happen and mountains can be moved . . . but every day it gets harder."

For two months, as family and friends have marked their vigil with growing foreboding and neighbors have decked their Golden Estate Acres subdivision in yellow ribbons, teams of Washington police detectives and FBI agents have come up with little more than theories. So far, there is no evidence of a crime, the city's police chief, Charles H. Ramsey, repeats like a mantra.

It's as if Chandra Levy had stepped off the face of the Earth and discarded taunting scraps for all the people she left behind. Front door locked. Credit and identification cards atop her bed. Luggage packed. Peanut butter cups in the refrigerator. A closed laptop. Only her apartment keys gone.

The search for clues has been exhaustive. Teams of cadaver-sniffing dogs have scrambled through the underbrush of downtown D.C. parks. A team of 40 police cadets went door to door along the Dupont Circle area Levy frequented, asking store owners if the 5-foot-3, 110-pound intern had shopped there. Police helicopters have flown regular sorties over the capital and its parks, looking for signs of a corpse hidden on a rooftop or wedged against a tree branch. Old files on abductions and missing persons were scanned and rescanned, and riverbanks were scoured for evidence that might point to a bridge suicide or a secluded murder.

No closer to a single answer that explains the mystery, detectives still are holding fast to three theories--none with "any more weight than the other," said Police Cmdr. Jack Barrett, the department's chief of detectives.

There is the possibility of abduction or murder, despite the lack of evidence. There is the chance that she is hiding. And there is the possibility of suicide. Yet those who know her best, including her parents and neighbors and a former boyfriend, find the last two theories preposterous.

The corridors of power in Washington, they say, might have carried some trepidation for any other intern who grew up surrounded by almond and peach fields in a small town where the main drag inspired the motion picture "American Graffiti." But Chandra's move East, they say, was simply one more steady step forward in the rounding out of a young woman with promise.

She had come a long way from the little girl who spent so much of her youth locked away in her bedroom poring over statistics of her favorite baseball team, the San Francisco Giants, and dreaming of the day when she might cover them as a reporter. "Look out sports world, here I come. I cannot wait to write about you," she vowed in the back of her high school yearbook in 1995.

Six years later, as she boarded the plane for a final semester of graduate work, an adventure that would take an inexplicable veer and turn her into "America's missing intern," there was nothing wide-eyed or naive about her.

She had traveled the world with her daring parents, from the ghettos of Jamaica to the black markets of the Middle East. Bob Levy, an oncologist loved by his patients, and Susan Levy, a tireless community volunteer and Neighborhood Watch organizer, taught Chandra and her 19-year-old brother, Adam, to trust their gut.

She knew love and heartbreak. A boyfriend nearly 10 years older, a hometown cop, had ended their yearlong relationship; she took it hard at first and kept pursuing him. Once the finality set in, she seemed tougher and more philosophical for it. She had set her eyes on a new path after graduation, a career in the FBI, and soon would apply for a slot in the bureau's academy.

"The Chandra I knew was street smart as well as book smart, and she had her feet firmly planted and was very independent," said Mark Steele, the former Modesto police officer who encouraged her to pursue a life outside Modesto.

"This idea of suicide because of a breakup or because she was depressed over a job not coming through doesn't make sense. She was packed and ready to come home."

She was a born cop, according to family and friends, with a sixth sense for danger and how best to avert it. As a teenager, she had the uncanny ability to discern whenever her brother or his friends had stepped foot inside her room. She would return home and notice something amiss on her bookshelf or desk--something imperceptible to anyone else--and complain that they knew better than to cross her line of privacy.

Later, after she got her driver's license and was followed home by strange men once or twice, she showed enough savvy to drive past her block and lead them away from her house.

"She was a cool cookie, very sophisticated, very directed and strong," said Modesto neighbor and confidant Joanne Tittle. "She didn't dabble in drugs and she didn't drink. She wasn't someone who trusted strangers and she wasn't easily led into danger. She was way too keen to what was going on around her to be fooled by anyone."

Investigators, aided by an FBI profiling team, are piecing together what they know of Levy, her life and her disappearance, as if constructing a mosaic. Piece by piece, tile by tile, they are building a portrait, learning about her public and private sides, what delighted her and what left her distraught, the routines of her school and work life and the tangles of her social relationships.

It is no easy task. She was incredibly private, family and police agree, capable of telling cover stories to protect the real identity of a boyfriend. Before she turned up missing, she had told one fellow intern that she was dating an FBI agent, while she confided to her aunt in Maryland that she was having an affair with a member of Congress.

The biggest gap in her mosaic remains the section marked "Gary Condit."

Just days after police began searching for Levy, the six-term California congressman--a conservative Democrat who leads the maverick Blue Dog faction in the House--described the intern as a "good friend." Seeking to understand Condit's full relationship with Levy, police have slowly pressured him to provide more details. Even as the Levys have openly expressed the belief that their daughter was romantically involved with Condit, he has not budged from his vague characterization of their friendship--either in public or in two private sessions with detectives.

Investigators now are seeking to talk to Condit's wife, Carolyn, who lives in nearby Ceres but was in Washington the weekend Levy was last seen. In an effort to satisfy critics who question his public silence, Condit's aides and lawyers are preparing to release a detailed inventory of his movements that weekend. Most of that information, a source close to Condit said, already has been given to detectives.

"We're upset, we're angry, but we're not out there to go for national attention to ruin someone's career," said Susan Levy, 54.

"If I come off looking mean and nasty, it's because I'm scared to death. This is a daughter who never ran away from home in her life. She is responsible. She's not a flake. She worked real hard to get her degree, and she had every intention of coming home."

On Saturday, one week after returning home from yet another whirlwind trip to Washington to meet with detectives and keep their daughter in the public eye, the Levys still felt exhausted. The media attention had catapulted the case to front and center all right, but the endless speculation about Condit now had obscured the child they knew. No one was asking about Chandra, who she is, the forces that shaped her life.

"It's pretty hard to face the media circus every day, especially on a few hours of sleep and in a state of shock," Susan Levy said. "The media magnify, and people wonder why we're talking," Susan Levy said. "But we need to keep up the pressure. The media have become our friend and our foe."

Bob Levy, 55, who lost his father and younger brother when he was just a kid and who grew up without an extended family because so many were killed in the Holocaust, can hardly bear to utter his daughter's name. Her childhood tantrums of turning toilet paper into confetti, their Indian Guide trips to the Sierra, her high school prom with the long-distance runner, the trips to Candlestick Park to watch the Giants--each memory was too much. He began to sob.

"Chandra loved going to the ballpark," he said, catching himself using the past tense. "I mean 'love.' We need to use the present tense. We went to the World Series in 1989. The Giants and the A's. Scalped tickets. We went to the fourth game, and Chandra sat in a seat that was split by the earthquake."

His busy practice meant long hours away from the family, he said. It was hard to believe that 25 years had passed since they had brought Chandra home from Mt. Sinai Hospital in Cleveland, where he was doing his residency. He and Susan had grown up in Ohio, and when it came time for them to pick a city to raise their new family, they threw half a dozen into a hat--places without tornadoes where the job prospects were good and the ski slopes close by.

"We literally picked Modesto out of a hat," said Susan Levy, laughing. "Neither of us knew anything about this valley."

It was more conservative and hidebound than Cleveland, but the people were genuine and close to the dirt, the Levys said. Amid the farms and suburban sprawl on both sides of Highway 99, they discovered an ethnic mix of 80 nationalities--Hmong, Punjabi, Armenian, Mexican, even a tiny Jewish community--that made life interesting.

Every time a tax refund came back from Uncle Sam, they traveled to another faraway place: Greece, England, France, Tanzania, Kenya, Australia, Israel and Jordan. Susan Levy--raised Jewish but a believer in Jesus and Buddha--was on a spiritual quest, and the notion of crossing divides became a theme in their lives. In Jamaica, she was warned by the fancy hotel where they were staying to avoid the impoverished locals. She promptly befriended a Rastafarian named Dr. B, who took her to his hillside ghetto where the villagers were smoking hash and gambling. She made sure to take her husband and children, but Chandra, then 13, stayed in the cab for the longest time before venturing out.

"She was really hesitant. . . . I try to believe the best in people. But Chandra was more wary," she said. "I think she thought I was always a little bit flaky about people."

If her mother tended to be sloppy around the house, Chandra couldn't be more meticulous. She collected coins and stamps and memorized the on-base percentage of Giants first baseman Will Clark.

On a drive to Stockton, she and her mom once came upon four dead cows on the side of the road, their legs sticking straight in the air like upside-down chairs. She vowed to never again eat beef, poultry or fish. She was a vegan from the age of 14.

She wasn't a sullen teenager, but her grades did suffer for a time and she seemed to lack direction. If there was a turning point, her mother said, it came when a bout of mononucleosis sidelined her from school for two months, and she decided to sign up to be an Explorer Scout for the Modesto Police Department. She loved the hustle of police work and helped with records and knocked on the doors of residents delinquent on their dog licenses. A few times, she even played undercover cop and bought alcohol from convenience stores selling to minors.

"She was flunking out, bored, and the Explorer Scouts changed her around," Susan Levy said. "Her grades shot up and she began writing for the school newspaper."

Her love of journalism took her to San Francisco State and, for a time, she wavered between a career in newspapers and law enforcement. She got a job working for the affiliate that televised the Giants home games. Her daily encounters with sports reporters, many of whom struck her as too cynical, left her wondering about her dream.

More and more, she found herself fascinated with government and decided to attend USC's graduate program in government management. She took classes at the school's satellite campus in Sacramento and interned for Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan. Her final term of study included a stint on the East Coast, and on a summer's day nearly a year ago she waved goodbye to her family and Modesto and headed to Washington.

She had landed a paid internship at the Bureau of Prisons and moved into an apartment in Arlington, Va. It was expensive and jet planes roared overhead and it didn't feel safe. On a visit, her parents raised concerns and she moved to a tree-lined neighborhood near Dupont Circle.

On her subway ride to work, she became friends with Sven Jones, a fellow Californian who worked out at the same health club. They talked politics and drank coffee at the neighborhood Starbucks, and he would walk her home at night. "It seemed a pretty iffy area," he recalled. When he mentioned the spooky seclusion to Chandra, she dismissed it.

"She was clearly aware of the danger," Jones said, "but she was realistic about it too."

Last October, Levy and another friend, Jennifer Baker, who grew up near Modesto and was enrolled in the same graduate program, were touring Capitol Hill when they decided to visit the office of their local congressman. They chatted with his staff and the next thing they knew, Condit himself was taking them to the House gallery to watch him vote. At the end of the tour, Baker managed to wangle an internship.

Over the next few months, Chandra would visit Condit's office to take Baker to lunch. But if a relationship developed with the congressman, she kept it hidden from her friend.

The last time Bob and Susan Levy saw their daughter was during Passover, when they flew East to spent a week with Chandra. Bob Levy, a notoriously bad cameraman, videotaped the trip, and they have been scanning it ever since for clues.

Chandra's father apparently had picked up from other relatives that she might be dating a congressman, and he can be heard gently asking her. She politely waved him off. "Dad, it's none of your business."

They know only bits and pieces of the last few weeks before her disappearance. Her internship abruptly ended when it was discovered that she had completed her course assignments in December and could no longer be considered a student intern. Jones says Levy was surprised by the news but began considering other agencies, in addition to the FBI, where she might apply.

Her parents had marked May 11 on their calendar as the date for her graduation from USC. She would fly home from Washington and they would either drive or fly to Los Angeles as a family. On May 1, unbeknownst to her parents, she already had packed her bags and ended her lease and gym membership. Sometime that morning, she forwarded an e-mail to Modesto. It arrived at the Levy home at 7 a.m., bearing a snippet of information about a sale fare from Southwest Airlines. If she was buying a ticket, she never finished the purchase.

"Was she planning to come home by plane or train? Was she coming home that day or another day? If she was planning to tell us when or where, she never got the chance," Susan Levy said.

*

Arax reported from Modesto, Braun from Washington.

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