From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
For the moment, she is the nation's most prominent missing person, her dark eyes and crooked smile the face of every family's nightmare. But Chandra Levy is only one of hundreds of women who vanish across the country each year. According to the National Crime Information Center, there are 98,697 missing persons in the U.S. today, 55 percent of whom are female. While the majority are children—and most of those ran away or were abducted by parents—3,492 are women between 22 and 29. Many go into hiding voluntarily. Others, however, disappear against their will, leaving police few or no clues as to their whereabouts. And, says Kym Pasqualini, president of the Arizona-based Nation's Missing Children Organization & Center for Missing Adults, "the likelihood of a missing person coming back safe diminishes with each passing day." As the following stories reveal, little compares to the agony of not knowing if a loved one will ever come home.

Chandra Levy, 24

No closer to finding her after 10 frustrating weeks, her family tries to turn up the pressure on Rep. Gary Condit

It was not something they wanted to do, but such was their desperation that they could not leave it until done. And so Bob and Sue Levy, their lives altered forever by the May 1 disappearance of their daughter Chandra, authorized a close friend to seek the help of a psychic. "They didn't want to hear anything bad," says Joanne Tittle, a Modesto, Calif., neighbor who has known the Levys since their daughter was a child. "But the psychic told me Chandra was alive. She saw her in an apartment in a bad area of town. She came up with the words 'east' and 'Brookline.' Chandra wants to go home, but she can't get out. I told Bob and Sue right away, and I called detectives that night."

Ultimately the psychic's suggestions would prove as unenlightening as so many other early tips, leads, theories and tantalizing bits of evidence that did little in the first 10 weeks after her disappearance to solve the mystery of Chandra Levy, the 24-year-old former Washington, D.C., intern. Even the best efforts of two law-enforcement agencies and the relentless scrutiny of the media—much of it directed at California Congressman Gary Condit, 53, who on July 6 finally admitted to police that he had been having an affair with Chandra—were unable to ease the anguish and uncertainty felt by her family. "It's like one continuous car crash that doesn't let up," says her mother, Sue, 54, a sculptor. "Every day you wake up with the same knots in your stomach, the same fears, the same scariness that won't go away." Sue's husband, Bob, 55, an oncologist, only recently returned to his practice in Modesto after weeks of hounding D.C. police to do more. "I wish I could go back in time and change this, but you can't," he says. "This is long-term hell."

Finding hope where they can, the Levys hang on every new revelation in the case, though none so far has brought them closer to Chandra. After insisting in previous statements that the two had only been good friends, Condit admitted in his third interview with police that he had had a sexual relationship with Chandra. And while D.C. police emphasized once again that Condit, a married father of two grown children, has not been named a suspect in her disappearance, they did accept the congressman's offer to submit a DNA sample and to have them search his condo in Washington's trendy Adams-Morgan section. Police were also interested in having Condit take a lie detector test. "Any other guy—a gas station attendant, a school teacher—would have been polygraphed," says Sue Levy, who called for Condit to take the test last week.

The Levys remain deeply suspicious of Condit, who at the same time he was seeing Chandra also allegedly had an affair with United Airlines flight attendant Anne Marie Smith. Chandra's aunt Linda Zamsky says that her niece often shared with her details of her furtive affair with Condit. "They liked to eat chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream," says Zamsky, 40. "He bought her a gold bracelet and he gave her chocolates on Valentine's Day." But according to Zamsky, Chandra also described Condit's demand for total discretion, which included strict rules for the couple's meetings. Chandra would visit Condit at his condo and "if someone else got on the elevator [with Chandra], she was not to get off on Condit's floor, but go to another floor," says Zamsky. "He was emphatic about keeping this a secret."

Even so, Zamsky says her niece told her she had reason to believe the relationship would go to another level. "Chandra talked about how she was going to get rid of her apartment and move in with him," says Zamsky. "They were going to keep it a secret for five years and then get married and have a baby. She talked about him leaving his wife and being with her. I warned her to be careful."

D.C. police are tight-lipped about their conclusions in the Levy case. But in the matter of a missing woman, says Roger Depue, a former FBI profiler and now a violent-behavior consultant, "If her background is sound, the longer she's gone, the greater the chance of foul play." Indeed, John Walsh, host of FOX's America's Most Wanted and himself the father of a small boy who was kidnapped and later found murdered, believes Chandra may have been the victim of a serial killer in Washington. "Two women who look very much like Chandra and are close in age were abducted and killed [in 1998 and 1999], and those homicides have not been solved," says Walsh. "I believe police should look closely at a connection between those women and Chandra."

One theory that police have admitted they are close to ruling out is the possibility that Chandra killed herself, a scenario her friends and parents have always rejected. By all accounts Chandra was an intelligent, determined young woman not given to rash decisions. When she saved her earnings from part-time jobs and bought a used BMW last year, "she really researched it," says Sue Levy, who with her husband raised Chandra and her brother Adam, 18, in Modesto, 90 miles east of San Francisco. "She looked for the best and safest car before she went out and bought it." In her teens Chandra became a vegetarian, something "she decided on her own," says Sue. "She didn't believe in hurting animals."

After earning a journalism degree from San Francisco State University in only three years, Chandra obtained a master's in public administration from the University of Southern California in just 18 months. "She was not someone who would be fooled into doing something," says Matt Szabo, 25, a friend and former USC classmate. "She knew how to take care of herself." Chandra covered sports for SFSU's Golden Gater and spent a summer operating the scoreboard for her favorite baseball team, the San Francisco Giants, at Candlestick Park.

But her true love was law enforcement, and while at USC she arranged internships with Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and, later, California Gov. Gray Davis. In October she began her last internship, at the Department of Justice's Bureau of Prisons in Washington. "She had a real sense of mission in her life," says a friend from D.C. "We had deep conversations about that, about how she didn't want any shortcuts."

There is no question that Chandra thrived during her time in Washington. "She loved it," says her mother. "She got to go to [George W. Bush's] Inauguration and to one of the Inaugural balls, and that was exciting for a young person." Intent on one day working for the FBI, Chandra expected to be kept on as a full-time employee at the Bureau of Prisons when her internship ran out, and she was disappointed when no job was offered. Still, she was thrilled to be going home for her May 11 graduation ceremony at USC. "She missed being in California," says Sue. "She missed the weather, her friends, her car. She was looking forward to coming home and maybe staying home for a while."

As the world now knows, Chandra never made it. Though the case continues to be classified as a missing persons investigation, police are sending cadaver-sniffing dogs to garbage dumps in the Washington area. That gruesome scenario, however, is not one Chandra's loved ones want to contemplate. For now, it is important that they keep her alive in their minds, and they are quick to recall small, random details about her: how she has a tattoo of a rose near her right ankle; how she wears a gold ring engraved with the letters C and L; how she was an astronomy buff; how she loved Reese's Peanut Butter Cups; how the family had a wonderful time April 14, when they drove to a spa in Hershey, Pa., to celebrate her 24th birthday—the last time the Levys saw their daughter.

Such moments have been replaced by sad, sustaining rituals. Every now and then Bob Levy takes a walk from his Modesto home to the nearby house of his friend Joanne Tittle. "Bob keeps coming here and asking, 'Tell me Chandra is still alive,' " says Tittle. "And I tell him, 'She's alive, Bob.' And until there is a body or some fact that shows otherwise, Chandra is alive."

Amy Bradley, 23

Five months after she disappeared from the balcony of a cruise ship, a reported sighting gives her family hope

Iva Bradley delighted in the way other passengers on the Norwegian-registered cruise ship Rhapsody of the Seas reacted to her vivacious daughter Amy, then 23. "I remember watching people watch her admiringly," she says, "I felt proud."

Now she is convinced that at least one of those admirers got too close. At 1:30 a.m. on March 24, 1998, Iva and her husband, Ron, 49, an insurance executive, retired to the eighth-deck cabin the family shared, leaving Amy and her brother Brad, then 21, at a calypso party. Four hours later Ron woke briefly and noticed Amy resting on a lounge chair on their cabin's private balcony. When he stirred again at 6 a.m., she was gone, along with her cigarettes and lighter. He and his wife immediately reported Amy missing and pleaded in vain with the crew to keep the other passengers from leaving the ship when it docked that morning at the Caribbean island of Curaçao.

A search of the ship and an aerial hunt turned up nothing, so the Bradleys stayed on Curacao hoping for word. After four fruitless days they returned to their home in suburban Chesterfield County, Va., setting up a hotline and Web site for information about Amy. The most intriguing lead came from David Carmichael, 46, a Canadian computer engineer and avid scuba diver, who is certain he saw Amy with two men on the beach in Curaçao in August 1998—five months after she disappeared. "She looked frightened, like she was about to say something, when one of the guys motioned her away and gave me a menacing look," says Carmichael. He thought nothing of it until that December, when he saw a picture of Amy on America's Most Wanted. "I was stunned," says Carmichael, who flew to Virginia to meet the Bradleys. "I am haunted by that encounter with Amy. I know it was her."

A Norwegian government inquiry found no sign of foul play. And though the FBI found marks on the ship's balcony railing consistent with someone having sat on it, investigators say there is no evidence that Amy, a trained lifeguard, fell overboard, was pushed or committed suicide. The case is still open. Meanwhile, the Bradleys, who sued the Royal Caribbean Cruise Line for negligence and wrongful death last year and lost (they're appealing), can only wait and hope. "I just know she is alive," says Iva, 48. "I can feel it."

Molly Bish, 16

A lifeguard disappears from a secluded pond where her mother had spotted a suspicious-looking man a day earlier

No day goes by that Magi Bish doesn't close her eyes and see his face. The stocky, mustached man in his 50s was sitting in the only other car in the parking lot when Magi dropped off her 16-year-old daughter Molly at Comins Pond, outside Warren, Mass., on June 26, 2000. Uneasy, Magi walked Molly to the secluded beach where the girl worked as a lifeguard. When she returned to her car 10 minutes later, the man was still there, smoking a cigarette in his old white sedan. "He looked right at me and stared," Magi, 50, recalls of the stranger, who drove off while she pretended to look for something on the floor of her car. "Something inside didn't feel good."

That night, Magi asked her daughter if she felt safe at the pond and warned her about the man. "Don't worry, Mom," she replied. "It's just a fisherman. I'm okay." But at 1:30 the next afternoon, police called Magi, a teacher, and told her Molly's belongings, including her shoes, were lying on the beach, but that Molly—by all accounts a responsible girl who never skipped a day of school—had vanished. "We know Molly," says her mother, who alerted her husband, John Bish, 52, a parole officer, and rushed to the beach with Molly's older sister Heather, 24, "so our fears were immediate."

And well-founded. A search involving police dogs, helicopters and even satellite pictures of the area failed to turn up a clue. Molly's brother John, 21, a former lifeguard at the same pond, frantically checked its depths with other divers, and Warren residents walked shoulder to shoulder through the dense surrounding forests and found nothing. A year later, police, treating the case as a criminal investigation, have "a handful of suspects," including prior sex offenders, says Worcester County D.A. John Conte, who adds, "That she's alive out there is a hope. It's not based on substantial evidence."

Ironically the Bishes had moved to Warren from Detroit in 1979 after a friend's daughter was abducted and murdered. "We believed it to be safer," says John, "but predators and sex offenders come to the suburbs too."

Jill Behrman, 19

Her bike, found far from home, provides the last known trace of a missing Indiana college student

Jill Behrman was due to join her father, Eric, for lunch at a restaurant at 3 p.m., May 31 last year. But when he dropped by the family's Bloomington, Ind., home at 2:45 p.m., he was surprised to find the lights on and music blaring from the radio in Jill's room. Plus, the backpack she usually took to her part-time job at the student recreational sports center at Indiana University, where she was an undergrad, sat by the door to the garage.

When Jill was a no-show at lunch, Eric walked to the sports center, where she was supposed to have worked the noon to 3 p.m. shift. Noticing that her bike wasn't in the rack, he assumed she had gone for a ride with friends. "I was a bit irritated," says Eric, 51, a director of the university's alumni association. But when Jill hadn't returned home by 10 that night, he and his wife, Marilyn, 49, called police. "You don't want them to think you're overreacting," says Marilyn, a development analyst for the Indiana University Foundation, "but things were not right."

That night, while Marilyn waited at home, Eric went looking for his daughter. "I drove the roads with a flashlight, trying to think of different routes where Jill took bike rides," he says. Meanwhile, Marilyn called Jill's friends, vacuumed, cleaned the blinds—anything to distract herself from her darkest fears. "These thoughts go through your head," she says. " 'Where could she be? Who could she be with? Where are they taking her? Is she hurt? She must be cold.' "

The next day 500 locals joined the search. But the biggest lead came from a motorist who found an abandoned bicycle near a cornfield 10 miles away on the day Jill disappeared. It turned out to be her $1,200 Cannondale road bike. IU administrators and Behrman supporters have posted a $100,000 reward for help in finding Jill on behalf of the couple, whose only other child, Brian, 22, is a recent IU graduate. And over the past 14 months FBI agents and police detectives have interviewed close to 3,000 people concerning the case and conducted land and lake searches. "She was the all-American girl, everybody's daughter," says agent Gary Dunn. "She maintained several different jobs, loved her family. She was looking forward to her future."

For one family, a happy ending

Nicole Madere, says her father, Norman, was unfailingly punctual. So on July 24 of last year, when her boss at the Williams-Sonoma store at the Lakeside mall outside New Orleans called to say she was 20 minutes late for her 7 a.m. shift, Norman, 53, and his wife, Karen, 52, panicked. Says Karen: "I remember knowing deep down something bad had happened."

In fact, Nicole, then 18, was already heading north on I.S. 59, a prisoner of Paul Will, 28, a heroin addict who car-jacked her 1999 Nissan Altima at gunpoint as she pulled into the Lakeside parking lot. But thanks to fast action by the local sheriff's department—and by Bank One, which put a trace on Nicole's ATM card and kept her credit line open so she could continue to withdraw money—the Maderes were able to track what they hoped were their daughter's movements.

By mid-afternoon the locations began trickling in, then kept on coming: a Chevron station 130 miles away in Ellisville, Miss., an ATM in Livingston, Ala., another in Chattanooga, Tenn. Still, says Norman, "we had no idea if Nicole was still alive or if somebody was using her card." Then, at 7:12 p.m., came hope: A receipt from a gas station in Bristol, Tenn., showed that Nicole had signed for the charge.

Meanwhile Nicole kept her abductor talking, slowly convincing him she was an ally as he sped erratically up the highway. "I thought either I'd die in a car accident or from him shooting me," she says. Then, without explanation, he released her at 2:30 a.m. in Philadelphia. "I was hysterical," Nicole recalls. "There was this shopping center, and I'm banging frantically on the doors screaming for help."

Finally, aided by two men in a passing car, Nicole reached a police squad car where she called her relieved parents. An hour later, police found Will, whose trial on kidnapping charges begins July 25. Though she made it back alive, Nicole, who has just finished her sophomore year at Louisiana State University, is not unscathed. Still afraid to go out alone, she took her first solo trip in a year just a couple of weeks ago—to the bank. "I was ready to conquer the world," she says. "He took that away from me."

Alex Tresniowski and Anne-Marie O'Neill
Champ Clark in Modesto, Michael Fleeman in Los Angeles, Macon Morehouse in Washington, D.C., Barbara Sandler in Bloomington, Debbie Seaman in Warren, Colleen O'Connor in Chesterfield County, Va., Marianne Armshaw in Miami and Chris Coats and Chris Rose in New Orleans

  • Contributors:
  • Champ Clark,
  • Michael Fleeman,
  • Macon Morehouse,
  • Barbara Sandler,
  • Debbie Seaman,
  • Colleen O'Connor,
  • Marianne Armshaw,
  • Chris Coats,
  • Chris Rose.