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Levy Case Places Modesto at Center of Media Storm

Communities: In the town where the intern was raised and Gary Condit campaigned, residents sadly watch the saga unfold.

July 18, 2001|BETTINA BOXALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MODESTO — Phyllis Atilano saw her town on national television a few days ago and was appalled.

A crime show on the case of Chandra Levy, the missing Modesto intern, portrayed the city as a place of simple country bumpkins hanging out by the barber shop.

"I resented it. We do have intelligent people. We are educated. I think Modesto is very diverse now," said Atilano, a special education aide in the local school system.

Life in this flat Central Valley city of old tree-lined residential streets and new subdivisions is more complicated than proclaimed by a huge downtown sign from a more innocent era: "Modesto--Water, Wealth, Contentment, Health."

Townspeople have watched the unfolding saga of Levy's disappearance and her relationship with their congressman with sadness and a certain world-weariness. Locals know they aren't immune from the scandal that has held them captive and brought flocks of television trucks to their doorstep.

"It's a great place to raise a family," said Josh Bridegroom, holding his toddler son. "But it's different from Mayberry."

Husbands and wives dissect the case daily. Missing person posters of Levy hang in workplaces. Local radio shows drone on about Rep. Gary Condit and Levy. Mothers warn their teenage children of the pitfalls of infidelity.

Loss, betrayal, the possibility of violence--the elements of the Levy case that both repel and transfix--are underscored here under the hot valley sun, where Levy was raised and Condit (D-Ceres) campaigned.

Modesto may not be Mayberry, but it's still small enough that Condit is more than just a name on the ballot and the Levys more than just names in the headlines.

Daniel McGar went to high school with Levy, who vanished from her Washington apartment May 1, just before she was to return home after a federal internship in the nation's capital.

"I want justice to be done and whoever did this to be caught," said McGar, a 22-year-old local college student who was a year behind Levy at Davis High School. He asks for justice without knowing if a crime has been committed, still hoping the young woman he said "hi" to in the halls is alive and well.

"It's not just affecting the family," McGar emphasized. "It's affecting the community."

Shawn Gray knows Condit's parents. "It's just terrible that he would throw his wife and career and family away for a lie," she said as she loaded the family car with groceries outside of a supermarket not far from California 99, the Central Valley spine across which Modesto sprawls.

After initial denials, Condit reportedly admitted to Washington police that he had an affair with Levy. Gray has pointed to the relationship as a lesson, talking to her two oldest children, both teenagers, about "the deception of sex and pleasure. It's a lie. You'll always be found out in the end."

This is not the first time Modesto has been caught up in a sensational national story.

In 1999, when three sightseers disappeared from a motel at the edge of Yosemite National Park and one of their wallets turned up on a Modesto street corner, scores of federal investigators and news crews swooped in, plumbing the depths of the city to search for every last clue.

It was a mystery that played out in one surprise after another, with amateur detectives and conspiracy theorists weighing in before hotel handyman Cary Stayner confessed to the murders nearly six months after Carole Sund, her daughter Juli and their Argentine friend Silvina Pelosso were last seen.

As then, teams of television and newspaper reporters are climbing fences and walking through backyards, besieging even the most peripheral characters who might offer a morsel or two, perhaps a random scoop.

And like before, theories abound about what happened to Levy.

"Everybody's playing detective," said Bertha Warren, a life-long resident of Modesto. "It's always talked about."

Actually, not always.

There are some who are trying to ignore the headlines and breathless broadcasts echoing through this town edged by orchards and fields.

"You get tired of all that kind of stuff," said a woman who would only identify herself as Wilma.

She was referring to politics and scandal. "They kind of run together now, it seems."

Jeff Elwood isn't paying much heed either. "It's like O.J. [Simpson]. You don't care if the guy is innocent or guilty. You just want him off your TV."

And some are even beginning to talk back to their televisions.

When local stations broadcast a group of about 50 protesters chanting "Where's Chandra?" and "Liar, liar, pants on fire" in front of Condit's Modesto office Tuesday afternoon, Opal Hawkins yelled at her screen.

"Leave him alone."

Times staff writer Christine Hanley contributed to this story.

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