By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 23, 2009
CERES, Calif., Feb. 22 -- In this farm town named for a Roman goddess, Sunday mornings would find Gary Condit in the Village Chapel Free Will Baptist Church, listening to his father's sermons, shaking the hands of fellow worshipers and generally accumulating the reputation that flew to pieces in just days after an intern from his congressional office vanished on an spring day in 2001.
More than seven years after Chandra Levy's body was found, and six years after Condit lost his reelection bid in a campaign shadowed by reports of a sexual relationship with the intern, D.C. police are seeking an arrest warrant for a Salvadoran immigrant in the case, according to sources with knowledge of the investigation.
"We don't know yet how this is going to turn out, so I don't want to make a statement," said the Rev. Adrian Condit, offering a reporter a gentle handshake as he made his way across the church parking lot to his white Ford F-150.
"If I was going to give you something," he added with a significant look, "I'd say I wish they'd done this a long time ago."
In "Condit Country," as the midsection of the Central Valley came to be known over the 14 years during which the minister's son represented it in Congress, the scandal clings to the name even as the details recede. The headline in Sunday's Modesto Bee was huge: "Arrest in Levy case imminent, police say."
But in the years since the last big development in the Levy case, other missing women have taken her place in the cable news spotlight.
"I haven't given it a thought in a long time," said Tony Guidace, 45, a cabinetmaker having breakfast with his girlfriend at Bob's Coffee Shop, a block down Central Avenue from the church.
"And then all that with Scott Peterson kind of swept it all away," Michele Martinez, 36, said as the omelets arrived. The Laci Peterson case came out of Modesto, too. "That kind of put us on the map, sadly," Martinez said.
"All I can think about him," Guidace said of Gary Condit, "is he's a dirty old man."
The conservative Democrat consistently denied that his relationship with Levy was sexual, but with a guardedness that served to feed public suspicions, especially in the 13 months before her remains were found in Rock Creek Park.
"We were just talking about it today, and I said, 'I still think he's guilty,' " said Tony Borba, 36.
"Of hiding things," said Borba, a school maintenance worker.
"There were too many coincidences," Nilza Borba, his wife, said as they lingered outside the diner. "I remember they thought parts of her were buried under the parking lot. Maybe it was new. I don't remember."
D.C. detectives always said publicly that Condit was not a suspect in their investigation. But first impressions are strong, and often made before charges are brought. That bothered Jeremiah Parrott, who tapped the front-page photo of Ingmar A. Guandique, the man police have told major newspapers will be charged with Levy's death.
"If you're this guy, you don't have the benefit of the doubt," he said.
Condit did not get that benefit, either.
"Is that because of the way the press portrayed it for us?" asked Parrott, 30, a teacher's aide.
"Or is it because we don't trust our government?" said Christine Olave, 32, his breakfast companion, a shift supervisor at Starbucks.
"Right," said Parrott. "Or is it a combination of the two?
"There's doubt," he said. "There's doubt."
Not for some. Burl Condit, 62, said his younger brother's election loss was a consequence of having his congressional district redrawn. His primary opponent thumped Condit in new territory "where he was defined by the media."
"I have nothing to hide, and neither does our family," said Burl Condit, retired from the police force in Ceres, named for the Roman goddess of agriculture. "Gary's a fine man. He'd still be congressman if it wasn't for redistricting. They just believed what they read in the paper and saw on cable news."
His older brother said Condit "looked me in the eye" and denied that his relationship with Levy had been sexual, as Levy's aunt said she had confided to her, after comparing Condit to Harrison Ford. In the media storm that ensued, the harried officeholder began to look more like William H. Macy.
"The reason they think something was hidden was the way it was all portrayed in the press," Burl Condit said. "All I can say about the Washington, D.C., police department is let them stand on their record. What does that record say?
"My family is still upset. He didn't do anything wrong, and it's taken all this time to prove that. They took innuendo and half-truths and lies and made facts of it."
Friends agree. As a kid, Scott Campbell used to hand out ice cream cones for Condit along parade routes. The congressman helped his mother get a marriage annulled, earning the support Campbell voiced after purchasing a pair of cigarettes for a quarter each at George's Liquor.
"Well, wouldn't you deny the affair?" he said. "He had a lot riding on it -- you know what I mean? Where's old Gary at these days?"
The family moved to Arizona, far from Condit Country. Condit himself made one comment about the new development in the case to an ABC News affiliate on Saturday and has said nothing else since.
"Whether he got a raw deal or not, he probably got what's coming to him, because he did do what he did," said Tony Borba, whose house is around the corner from the house where Condit's wife and two children lived while the congressman stayed in Washington. Borba recalled that Condit once campaigned with the slogan "Setting a good example."
"That's what I'm saying," Borba said. "If you're running for public office, you have to set an example."