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For Chandra Levy's family, trial won't bring an end to grief

By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 18, 2010; 1:12 AM

MODESTO, CALIF. - The Levys had just finished a family vacation to Hershey, Pa. Robert Levy drove the rental car to Metro Center in the District, kissed his daughter, Chandra, on the head, said goodbye and headed to the airport with his wife.

It was the last time Robert and Susan Levy would ever see their only daughter. A week later, about May 1, 2001, Chandra went missing. Ever since, Robert Levy has been haunted by a feeling he had that evening, a feeling he didn't share with anyone.

"Something inside of me knew it was going to be the last time I ever saw her. I just wish I had done something. I wish I had said something," said Levy, sitting next to Susan in their ranch-style home in the Central Valley of Northern California.

The disclosure stunned his wife. "What? God damn it. I wish you had said something before now," she said.

Now, nine years after Chandra Levy's disappearance and slaying, as the suspect in her death is set to stand trial Monday in D.C. Superior Court, the Levy family still can't escape the grief, the nagging feelings, the anger and regret that come with the death of a child.

A D.C. story

It was the quintessential Washington story. An ambitious college student flies across the country to intern in the nation's capital, a city innocent of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that would happen four months later.

With dreams of success, she works hard. She also has an affair with her married hometown congressman. The tale turns tragic.

Chandra Levy, 24, had completed her internship with the Federal Bureau of Prisons and was preparing to return to California for her college graduation. But she never made it out of Washington.

She left her Dupont Circle apartment and never returned. As news of her affair with then-Rep. Gary A. Condit (D) became public, the case became an international media sensation.

Pictures of Levy were aired on newscasts and published in papers across the globe.

When she vanished, police questioned Condit, making the story even hotter.

The Levys, perhaps inadvertently, fueled the flames, holding vigils and news conferences, hoping to help find their daughter.

About a year after Chandra Levy disappeared, on May 22, 2002, a man looking for antlers and animal bones with his dog in Rock Creek Park found her skeletal remains.

The suspect

Ingmar Guandique's story is far different from that of a college intern. Guandique, 29, entered the United States illegally from El Salvador in 2000 and worked as a day laborer. He is a gang member and is charged with first-degree murder, kidnapping and sexual assault in Levy's death.

Authorities are convinced that Guandique attacked, raped and killed Levy in a secluded area of Rock Creek Park about May 1, 2001. But securing a conviction could be difficult. There is no DNA or eyewitness.

Prosecutors are pinning their case primarily on statements that Guandique allegedly made to other prisoners and in letters he wrote. He confessed to assaulting two female joggers in the park about the same time Levy was killed. He was sentenced to 10 years for those attacks and was serving his sentence in a California prison.

The Levys spoke to The Washington Post in the weeks before a Superior Court judge ordered the Levys, lawyers and detectives associated with the trial not to speak publicly about the case.

The grieving parents

Robert Levy, 64, said he is "pretty sure" that authorities have the man responsible for his daughter's killing. And he wants Guandique to pay with his life while he's locked up. "I would prefer someone take care of him in prison," Levy said. "He shouldn't die right away. That would be too easy."

While Robert Levy ponders Guandique's fate, his wife isn't convinced that the accused is guilty. Or whether Condit is entirely innocent, although authorities say he didn't have anything to do with Chandra Levy's death. "I don't know. There's still a lot of questions that I have, and I don't know if I will ever get answers," she said.

Susan Levy still has a hard time with everything. Her husband can lose himself in 12- and 14-hour days at his oncology practice. His wife often stays home and "mopes" while caring for their feisty dachshund, Baba, aging golden retriever, California, and their two horses. Susan also cares for her 93-year-old mother, who recently moved from Florida to a retirement home near them.

Susan Levy, 63, has had trouble with her eyes and one of her knees, ailments that slow her a little. She's long given up painting, although pieces of her artwork adorn their house. "I'm just such a mess," she said, laughing.

Having so much time and living with the "trauma," as she calls it, Levy often ponders theories of what led to her daughter's death. "Was she in the wrong place at the wrong time? Or it could have been because of who she knew? I don't know," she said.

Susan Levy met Condit one time, just after their daughter disappeared. "He wasn't anything like I thought. I wasn't impressed. I don't know what she was thinking," Susan Levy said with a slight laugh.

When Susan Levy does leave the house, she can often be found at functions, mostly on the West Coast, for families of missing and slain children.

Levy and her friend Boni Driskill recently rallied in Sacramento for families of missing and slain children. Driskill's adult daughter Laci was fatally shot in 2003 when she was accidentally caught in a drive-by shooting. The women formed a nonprofit support group, Wings of Protection.

"She's a strong woman, but as this trial gets closer and closer, it has become more difficult for her to cope, it seems," Driskill said of Susan Levy.

After their daughter went missing, the Levys went on talk shows. Over the years, people have forgotten Susan Levy's face. But when she tells people her daughter's name, the handshakes turn into hugs. It's that East Indian name, which means "higher than the stars and the moon," that people remember, she said.

At the Sacramento rally, Jannel Rap of Lincoln, Neb., asked Levy for advice on getting media attention for her sister who went missing 10 years ago. Rap said outlets refused to carry her story because her 40-year-old sister "was not associated with a scandal or connected to a famous person," Rap said.

Meeting grieving families and seeing pictures of missing or slain children has taken its toll on Levy. She doesn't attend nearly as many rallies as she used to.

"This is a lot of pain. It's painful to see these children, but we have to make a difference," Levy said. "I just want to feel like we made a difference in our child's name."

Robert Levy said he didn't plan to attend the trial and "sit around and be aggravated by the thing." But Susan Levy plans to be there. "As the mother, as all mothers in most cases, we do show up for the trials for our loved ones," she said. "I gave birth to her. . . . I have to be her voice now. I have to hear what they will be saying about her."

Even if the jury finds Guandique guilty, it will not bring closure. Closure, the Levys say, is when a company goes out of business or a building is boarded up. A parent, they say, never stops grieving for their child.

The Levys said their daughter's slaying has affected all aspects of their life. Relationships with longtime friends have changed, largely because their friends are becoming grandparents. And although they still have Chandra's brother, Adam, 29, an animator who lives in the Boston area, they grieve at not being able to watch their daughter mature, get married and have children.

Robert Levy continues to search for signs that he thinks Chandra sends from heaven: the picture of her that recently fell out of a storage bin and landed at his feet, for example.

And he continues to wonder about what might have happened if he had done something different, anything, after watching his daughter walk into the Metro station nine years ago. "It doesn't go away," he said.

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