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Who Killed Chandra Levy? - Chapter Four: The Levys

By Sari Horwitz, Scott Higham and Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writers
July 16, 2008

Chandra Levy didn't show up for her graduation ceremony at the University of Southern California on May 11, 2001. Her parents were in agony, collapsing on their sofas, unable to sleep. They had not heard from their daughter for 10 days, and they believed that the police in Washington were not moving quickly enough to find her. They felt the police did not share their urgency, and they wanted answers.

For help, they turned to the Carole Sund/Carrington Memorial Reward Foundation, a nonprofit group based in Modesto that was created after three hikers were found slain in Yosemite National Park in 1999. The group knew how to attract media attention, and on May 15 it held a candlelight vigil in Modesto. Organizers handed out Chandra's favorite candy: Reese's peanut butter cups.

The crisis forced the Levys to draw on a spiritual foundation they had spent a lifetime cultivating. With bushy eyebrows, receding salt-and-pepper hair and a kind smile, Robert Levy was a gentle soul, an oncologist grounded in science but captivated by New Age philosophy and various religious beliefs. His wife, Susan, was his muse - a tall, outdoorsy woman with high cheekbones and a hearty laugh who loved to ride horses, paint and sing.

The couple met at a mixer in 1968 while they were both students at Ohio State University. Robert Levy was an ROTC graduate and microbiologist who would go on to medical school. Susan Katz was an art education major. When he started his practice, Robert could choose among several cities that needed oncologists: Zanesville, Ohio; Council Bluffs, Iowa; Las Cruces, N.M.; Richmond, Va.; and Modesto, Calif. They picked Modesto out of a baseball cap.

By the time they moved, Chandra was 4. Soon, the family added a son, Adam. Robert Levy slowly built his practice and became known as "Last Chance Bob" for his aggressive yet holistic approach to treating cancer. Sometimes, he would come home after losing a patient and cry.

As Chandra and Adam grew up, the family traveled the world: Africa and Costa Rica, Israel, Jamaica and the Galapagos Islands. The parents delved deeply into spirituality, exploring their Judaism and blending in Buddhism, Pentecostalism and Hinduism.

With Chandra gone, none of it seemed to be helping. Robert and Susan hoped she would once again walk into their great room, which was adorned with Asian screens and stained-glass butterflies hung in windows high above the wooden floors. But their hope was fading.

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The Levys concluded that the story of their missing daughter, which had received scant notice in Washington, needed national attention from the news media. On May 15, they flew to D.C. to press their case directly with the police and the media.

As they drove around the city, Robert Levy looked out the window. He knew it was crazy, but he was trying to catch a glimpse of his daughter. "I'm looking in the grass, in the trees," he recalled. The Levys visited Chandra's apartment. For 2 1/2 hours, they met with FBI agents and D.C. police officials, including lead Detective Ralph Durant and the chief of detectives, Jack Barrett.

A Washington Post story the day after their arrival described the couple as "fuming" at the lack of cooperation from the D.C. police. A friend told reporters that they had "no idea what's going on with the investigation."

Executive Assistant Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer defended his department. Gregarious and smooth-talking, the former Chicago homicide detective told reporters that he understood the couple's frustrations. "They're looking for answers, and we don't have them yet," he said.

The Post story also contained the first statement about the case from the Levys' hometown congressman, Gary Condit, who had added $10,000 to a reward fund. "Chandra is a great person and a good friend," Condit said. "We hope she is found safe and sound."

Condit's relationship with Chandra had not surfaced publicly. That was about to change.

Reporters were hearing from their police sources that Condit had an ongoing relationship with Chandra, and Condit's aides were trying to knock down the rumors. A romance between the two "totally did not occur," Michael Lynch, Condit's chief of staff in Modesto, told reporters.

On May 17, the Levys' second full day in Washington, they went to Capitol Hill to meet with their state's senators, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein. Then they held a news conference at the Key Bridge Marriott in Arlington County. Susan Levy tried to stay strong as her husband collapsed, leaning into his wife, weeping on her shoulder. The story was perfect for prime time. CNN and "Dateline NBC" began to air pieces about the missing intern. The Chandra Levy media frenzy was beginning.

At 5:10 that afternoon, the Levys had another meeting with D.C. police. Susan Levy told them that she had a cryptic conversation with her daughter the previous month. Chandra had said she was dating someone, but she wouldn't say who: "He's highly visible. You'll understand in five years," she had said.

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On May 18, police convened a meeting with the FBI of what they called a "task force." They drew up a list of "suspect areas." Among them: Chandra's gym; the Bureau of Prisons, where she interned; Robert Kurkjian, one of the last people to spend time with Chandra, and his two roommates - a group of men the detectives had dubbed the "Pizza Party Acquaintances." FBI agents later gave polygraphs to Kurkjian and one of his roommates and determined that they had nothing to do with her disappearance.

The task force also listed Sven Jones, a colleague of Chandra's at the Bureau of Prisons who worked out at the same gym, the Washington Sports Club. Chandra made her last cellphone call to him, three days before she disappeared. With rugged good looks, Jones painted and sculpted in his spare time and liked to quote Nietzsche.

Jones cooperated with the police and told them that he and Chandra were friends and that she had told him about her affair with someone powerful in government. He also said he was in Canada with his girlfriend on the day Chandra called him. Detectives found that Jones was crossing the Canadian border around the time of Chandra's disappearance; he took a polygraph, passed and was excluded as a suspect.

They listed one more suspect area: Condit, whom they referred to as the "C.M.," for the "congressman."

The same day the task force met, The Post published a story that added more details about the rumors of an affair between Chandra and the congressman. It quoted Assistant Police Chief Ronald Monroe as saying Chandra had visited Condit's apartment "more than a couple times."

Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey tried to tamp down the story. He told reporters that Monroe's statement was inaccurate - even though behind the scenes, Condit had told Ramsey's detectives that Chandra had visited him at his apartment several times, spending the night on a couple of occasions.

"My assistant chief was speaking of a rumor," Ramsey said, "and there is nothing we have that confirms the young lady was at the congressman's apartment."

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By early June 2001, teams of police officers were trudging through the woods near Condit's condominium in Adams Morgan, looking for signs of Chandra. Ramsey said the location of the searches had nothing to do with the congressman. Gainer, Ramsey's top deputy, declared Condit "not a suspect."

But the searches fueled speculation within the gathering pack of reporters and cameramen. Condit's Washington office began fielding calls from journalists preparing to report that Chandra had spent the night at his apartment. Reporters also were hearing that Chandra had talked about Condit to a relative, who had called police.

There were also rumors on Capitol Hill and within the press corps that Condit's wife, Carolyn, was in Washington the weekend before Chandra disappeared. She attended a luncheon event for first lady Laura Bush on May 3, and she was reportedly upset, wearing a ball cap and sunglasses. It turned out that Carolyn was at the luncheon, but the tip about her being upset was based on bogus secondhand information.

On the evening of June 6, Condit called lead detective Durant and complained that the police were leaking information about Chandra that he gave them in his May 9 interview. Durant denied that he did it and asked to talk to Condit again, informally.

The congressman said he did not know if he would consent to another interview. He was too angry about the leaks and was losing his faith in the police department.

Next chapter: Chandra's mother confronts Condit at a secret meeting.

The Washington Post spent a year reconstructing the disappearance of Chandra Levy and the investigation of her death. Reporters interviewed scores of people, including police officials, investigators and suspects — many for the first time — and obtained details about dozens of previously unknown private conversations and events.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company