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Days of Torment for Intern's Parents

THE NATION

Search: Chandra wasn't foolish or needy and certainly wasn't suicidal, the Levys say. Yet her case remains unsolved.

July 01, 2001|MARK ARAX and STEPHEN BRAUN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

MODESTO — 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.

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