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Who Killed Chandra Levy? - Chapter Two: The Gentleman From California

By Sari Horwitz, Scott Higham and Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writers
July 14, 2008

Chandra Levy came to Washington in the fall of 2000, a fresh-faced intern awestruck by her surroundings. She was one of many ambitious young people who arrive in the nation's capital excited by their proximity to power.

Chandra's ticket to Washington was an internship for the Federal Bureau of Prisons during her final semester of graduate school. She was a smart California girl, fit and petite at 108 pounds, who liked to work out at the gym. At 23, she exuded a blend of innocence and sensuality, but she was not a party girl. At heart, Chandra was a bit of a nerd.

In high school, she liked to wear her Modesto police explorer uniform as she strode down the hallways, ignoring the ridicule from the cool kids. She was fiercely independent, stubborn to a fault. She was free-spirited but could be cautious. Once, when her family went camping in Yosemite National Park, Chandra slept in the car, fearing a bear attack.

Chandra, whose name meant "moon" in Sanskrit, was raised in a spacious ranch home with horses out back in the almond groves of small-town Modesto, a 90-minute drive east from San Francisco. Its motto: "Water, Wealth, Contentment, Health."

Chandra had big-city dreams of leaving the flat, dusty town in the middle of nowhere and seeing the world as an FBI agent. She was driven. She had liked older men as far back as high school, when she swooned for everything Harrison Ford. She dated a police officer in Modesto.

As an undergraduate at San Francisco State University, she interned for the mayor of Los Angeles. As a graduate student at USC, she interned for the governor of California.

In fall 2000, she was walking down the polished marble hallways of the Rayburn House Office Building with Jennifer Baker, another graduate student at the University of Southern California. They stopped by the office of the congressman from Chandra's district, Gary A. Condit. They expected to meet a low-ranking aide, but instead the lawmaker himself appeared.

With his winning smile, carefully coiffed hair and charming man-about-town swagger, Condit, at 52, reminded Chandra of Harrison Ford. The congressman offered to show the pretty pair around, escorting them up to the gallery of the Capitol, with its commanding view of the historic House floor. He gave Baker, who didn't have a job, an internship in his office. The trio posed for a picture, Condit beaming with a broad smile as Chandra stood on his right, Baker on his left. Behind them was a large mural of a blue dog, the mascot for a group of conservative-leaning House Democrats led by Condit.

For the past 11 years, Condit had been building a reputation as a renegade within the Democratic Party. A photo of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican, hung on his office wall. He was one of the few Democrats to publicly push President Bill Clinton to be forthcoming about his relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky. Condit's conservative stances were so popular in the San Joaquin Valley that his district became known as "Condit Country."

The son of a Baptist preacher, Condit was raised in Tulsa, Okla. As a child, he tagged along with his father to tent revivals. By the time he reached high school, Condit had turned rebellious. He was a handsome, swashbuckling teenager who liked fast cars and found himself in trouble with the law, racking up traffic tickets and a conviction for reckless driving. Despite his penchant for running with a fast crowd, he fell for a girl who lived on the good side of town: Carolyn Berry, a sweet-natured blonde from a well-respected family.

After graduating from high school, Condit married Berry on Jan. 18, 1967. That summer, their first child, Chad, was born. A daughter, Cadee, would follow. The newlyweds went with Gary's father, Adrian, to Ceres (pronounced SEER-ies), a slowpoke town in California's Central Valley named after the Roman goddess of agriculture.

Here, among the vast groves of almonds and walnuts and fields of sweet strawberries, Condit's father found work as the pastor of the Village Chapel Free Will Baptist Church. Condit's career took off soon after college, when he was elected to the Ceres City Council. Two years later, at the age of 26, he became mayor. His ascent was steady: At 28, he was a member of the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors; at 35, a state assemblyman; at 41, a member of Congress.

He cultivated a wholesome image as the hometown boy who made it big but never forgot where he came from.

****

Chandra was swept away by Condit's charm. By Thanksgiving in 2000, Condit would later tell police, Chandra was coming over two or three times a week, often after working out at the Washington Sports Club on Connecticut Avenue near Dupont Circle. Chandra would take the Metro to the Woodley Park station. From there, she would walk over the Calvert Street bridge to Condit's apartment in the trendy neighborhood of Adams Morgan. She typically spent the night.

They rarely went out in public, preferring to stay in, eat pasta and watch movies on HBO. On her cellphone, she listed "Gary" as speed dial No. 7. She listed Condit's Capitol Hill office number as speed dial No. 8.

Chandra told a relative that Condit insisted that their relationship be confidential. At first, she complied. She told her friend Baker that she was dating an FBI agent. But Chandra was so excited she couldn't contain herself. She started to tell a few people that she was seeing a congressman and that he looked like Harrison Ford.

****

Chandra had a pair of tickets to a ball for George W. Bush's inauguration on Jan. 20, 2001, and she needed a date. She turned to Robert Kurkjian, a USC alum whom she had met at the Washington Sports Club. Kurkjian was an accountant with a gentle charm who, at 28, was five years her senior.

That afternoon, with few friends in town, Chandra asked this man she barely knew to accompany her. He donned a tuxedo; she slipped into an evening gown.

That night, they drove to Adams Morgan, where Chandra said she needed to pick up the tickets to the ball from her boyfriend. It was cold and snowy, but instead of directing Kurkjian to her boyfriend's home, Chandra asked him to pull into the parking lot of a gas station near Columbia Road. She opened the car door and ran into the wintry night.

Kurkjian was confused. Who was her boyfriend, and why wasn't he taking her? Why did she tell Kurkjian to stay in the car? About 10 minutes later, Chandra reappeared, clutching an envelope with a pair of tickets to the Ball After the Ball, a $1,000-per-ticket event featuring R&B singer Macy Gray.

Once inside the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Chandra wasn't interested in dancing. She didn't want a drink or anything to eat. She and her date climbed the grandiose staircase of the museum and looked out over the crowded dance floor.

Kurkjian asked her about her boyfriend. Chandra was evasive. She said he was a member of Congress, but she wouldn't say more, Kurkjian would later tell police.

****

Three months later, Chandra called Kurkjian. He hadn't spent any time with her and was surprised when she asked if he wanted to meet at a bar.

It was April 27, 2001, a Friday, her last weekend in town. The Bureau of Prisons had ended her internship abruptly: The agency discovered she had completed her graduate coursework in December, so she was technically no longer a student and no longer eligible for the internship. Chandra was getting ready to return to Los Angeles to receive her diploma from USC on May 11.

Kurkjian did not feel like going to a bar. Instead, he invited Chandra for beer, pizza and a movie with his roommates at their Dupont Circle apartment. Once there, she poured her heart out to him. She was disappointed to be leaving Washington, especially her boyfriend, the congressman. She said he planned to give up his seat, become a lobbyist, divorce his wife, marry Chandra and start a second family.

Kurkjian was stunned by her naiveté and said so, telling her she was being played. Chandra refused to believe it. She was in love, she said, and her boyfriend was promising it would all work out.

Chandra wanted to watch another movie and continue talking about her boyfriend. But it was after 1 in the morning. Kurkjian began to nod off and decided it was time for her to go. He walked Chandra to 16th and R streets, flagged down a cab and sent her on her way. He would never see her again.

Next chapter: Police delve into Congressman Condit's sex life.

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