Searching for Chandra

updated 06/25/2001 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/25/2001 AT 01:00 AM EDT

A yellow ribbon is affixed to every tree on the block where Bob and Susan Levy live in Modesto, Calif. Yet despite the public display of support, the Levys are no closer to finding their daughter Chandra than they were seven weeks ago, when she disappeared from Washington, D.C. "Only with the strength of God can we get by," says Susan, 54, an artist, "and with the strength of our friends."

Even with that the Levys have become increasingly desperate since May 6, when Bob Levy, 55, an oncologist, contacted Washington police, frantic that his 24-year-old daughter had not returned calls for five days. Though the case quickly made national headlines, with Chandra's photograph telecast around the country and the Levys appearing on morning news shows, Chandra's disappearance has only become more perplexing. "Technically it remains a missing persons case," says D.C. police spokesman Sgt. Joe Gentile. "There is no evidence of foul play."

But that hasn't stopped speculation, particularly since it involves a California congressman, Gary Condit. A source has told PEOPLE that Chandra had revealed that she was involved in a relationship with an older married man. "Every time we spoke it was always that nobody could ever know this," says the source. "She didn't want to wreck his career—she was in love." And The Washington Post reported on June 7 that Condit (D-Calif.), 53, who is married and who represents the Levys' central California district, had told police that Chandra had "spent the night" at his Washington apartment. Condit's lawyer demanded a retraction. (The Post says it "has no plans to retract.") Then came a New York Post report that Chandra's cell-phone records show she made several calls to Condit's private answering service on the day before she was last heard from. Though Condit has called Chandra "a good friend" who "often visited" him, spokesman Mike Lynch said the congressman would not comment on the phone-record report. "Gary," says Lynch, "believes the focus has got to be on Chandra."

Like thousands of career-driven twentysomethings each year, Chandra—who had planned to attend a May 11 commencement to formally receive her master's degree in public administration at the University of Southern California—came to Washington last fall for an internship. Hers was at the Federal Bureau of Prisons, where she worked in the public information office, mostly handling press inquiries. It was her first extended stay away from her native California, and she thrived on the excitement of the capital, renting an apartment, taking in the sights and even attending one of President Bush's Inaugural balls. "She loved the city," says Matt Szabo, a friend. "She liked the excitement of being around the centers of power."

Though Chandra, who aspired to work for the FBI, hoped the internship would lead to a permanent job, she was surprised to learn on April 20 that her term at the Bureau of Prisons was to end in just a few days. Preparing to head home, she was in the midst of making arrangements when she was last seen on the evening of April 30 at her neighborhood health club, where she showed up to cancel her membership. The next morning she e-mailed home her flight plans, but then failed to return repeated phone messages and e-mails from her parents. When police, responding to Bob Levy's call, entered her apartment on May 7, they found her neatly packed luggage, her cell phone, her laptop computer and her wallet. "Everything was there," says Susan Levy, "but not Chandra."

Since then, police have questioned scores of Chandra's acquaintances and coworkers, scoured e-mail and telephone records and even brought cadaver-sniffing dogs to several locations, including the jogging path in Rock Creek Park, where Chandra regularly walked. "It's just unusual," says Gentile. "Usually you would find something, or someone would tell you why someone would disappear."

By all accounts Chandra was close to her parents and her brother Adam, 19, a Modesto Junior College student. When she attended San Francisco State University, where she majored in journalism, she would return home almost every weekend. Though she considered a career as a sportswriter, her first job was with the Modesto Police Department, where she wrote tickets for expired dog licenses. Interested in public service, she enrolled in the fall of 1999 in USC's public administration program, through which she landed internships in the office of L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan and, later, with California Gov. Gray Davis. "She was exceedingly independent," says Szabo, a USC classmate. "From the first day of class, she was sure that she wanted to go into law enforcement."

That led her to apply for the job at the prisons bureau, where she started last October. "She told me it was the prize internship," recalls Susan Levy. "Chandra found it very exciting." She quickly made friends with young people who shared her interest in government. "We were getting a taste and feel of everything," says Jennifer Baker, 25, a student at USC's Sacramento campus, who became a close friend in Washington, "really trying to immerse ourselves in the whole D.C. culture." Last November Baker went with Chandra to Capitol Hill to meet Condit, in whose office Baker was later an intern. "The only time I know that Chandra ever met him was when we had our picture taken with him there," says Baker.

Though relatives say Levy was quiet by nature, she did tell a few close friends that she was having a relationship. According to the Modesto Bee, Chandra e-mailed one that "my man will be coming back here when Congress starts up again." And she told her parents she was involved with a man—whom she didn't name—who, she said, had arranged for her plane ticket from Washington to California late last year. "It was very secretive," says Bob Levy. "We respected her privacy."

When Chandra's disappearance became public, Condit, a conservative with a reputation for helping crime victims and their families, contributed $10,000 from his campaign money to help start a reward fund for information in the case. But after his name was linked to Chandra's in press reports, he stopped speaking publicly about her, and when the Levys traveled to Washington in mid-May, they did not meet with him. D.C. police say that since the disappearance has not been called a crime, there are no suspects. The congressman's spokesman, Mike Lynch, says the attention paid to Condit "distracts from efforts to find Chandra."

In fact, many of Condit's constituents are disturbed by the media's focus on the man who has represented them in Congress since 1989. The son of a Baptist minister, Condit has been married since he was 19 to Carolyn, 53, a homemaker with whom he has a grown son and daughter. "These people are good old all-American people," says Betty Wells, a longtime neighbor of the Condits in Ceres, Calif., where Carolyn Condit lives when her husband is in Washington. "In this community, if anybody's got a problem, they call Gary."

That includes Susan and Bob Levy, who spoke with him soon after their daughter disappeared. But they have not talked to him in a month. In the meantime, they are still waiting for Chandra's mysterious lover to come forward. They are painfully aware that with every passing day it seems increasingly unlikely their daughter's story will end happily, but they cling to their hopes. "It's hard to believe, but we have to have faith," says Bob Levy. "It keeps us going."

Thomas Fields-Meyer
Champ Clark in Modesto, Michael Fleeman in Los Angeles and Macon Morehouse and J. Todd Foster in Washington, D.C.

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