Special Reports

April 28, 2002

Searching for answers

Robert and Susan Levy are seeking answers, not closure, to the mystery surrounding their daughter Chandra's disappearance.

"When we die, that's closure," said Robert Levy, glancing at his wife seated next to him at their home just north of Modesto. "It's not closure for the families of the people in the World Trade Center."

Susan Levy bit her lip.

"Closure, it's almost a trite word," she said. "There's no closure for us, only pain."

The Levys have not heard from their daughter since May 1, when they received an e-mail from her.

In the e-mail, Levy talked about her May 11 graduation from the University of Southern California, where she was to receive her master's degree.

Levy was living in Washington, D.C., where she had just completed an internship at the Bureau of Prisons, part of the U.S. Department of Justice.

By Wednesday, the one-year anniversary of their daughter's disappearance, the Levys will have been interviewed scores of times, patiently answering questions from a host of print and broadcast journalists.

The latest round began Thursday and will wrap up Wednesday. The couple's interview with People magazine is in the edition that went on sale Friday; a segment with CNN television talk show host Larry King is scheduled for presentation Tuesday.

Either Monday or Tuesday, the Levys are due to travel to Washington, where they will participate in a Wednesday candlelight vigil for their daughter. A vigil is planned in Modesto the same night.

"It's important for us to do this," Robert Levy said Friday afternoon, "to keep the story going. Maybe someone who really knows something will hear us and come forward."

Maybe, Susan Levy added, "someone will have a pang of conscience and tell us what's happened to our daughter."

Both insist that the answers are out there. Somewhere, they believe, someone knows what has happened to their daughter.

"The Washington police, the FBI, our investigators are all still working on this," Robert Levy said. "They're working hard."

But months have passed without promising leads in the case, leaving the Levys in essentially the same tortured place that they were almost a year ago -- not knowing.

"It's just a nightmare, ongoing, every day," Robert Levy said. "Sometimes, I get depressed by all of it.

"It's been a long time. You have to think about the worst, that she's not alive anymore. But you can't give up hope because you don't know what's happened."

The couple said their 20-year-old son, Adam, is convinced that his sister is alive.

"It's just a feeling he has," Susan Levy said. "You know, that sibling bond."

The pain of uncertainty

What the Levy family is experiencing is not uncommon in missing person cases.

Dr. James Bourgeois, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California at Davis, said uncertainty about what has happened to a loved one is difficult for family members.

Without physical evidence, Bourgeois said, family and friends of the missing can be pulled in two directions.

"They continue to hope for a positive outcome," he said, "but as time goes by, the probability increases that the missing person won't return intact. There's an ambiguity that only physical evidence (of a death) can end."

Experts know little about what it is like emotionally for the family and friends of Chandra Levy.

"Because it is so uncommon," he said, "people just don't know what to say. Eventually, most people will acknowledge the (missing) person is not coming back. People in a group, however, won't necessarily work through it at the same speed."

The Levys said they are not the only ones to experience a terrible loss in the past 12 months.

"This has been a hard year for so many people," Susan Levy said. "What happened in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. Now, it's Israel and the Palestinians -- the senselessness of it all."

But in most of those tragedies, the outcome is known. There is convincing physical evidence that the person is dead, unlike the Levys' situation.

Wings of Protection

Stanislaus County has nearly a dozen active missing person cases, with the oldest one dating to 1972.

"Until it happens to you," Susan Levy said, "you don't really understand what it's like."

The Levys have formed a support group called Wings of Protection for the families and friends of missing people. There is talk, they said, of creating two chapters outside Modesto.

"The group is doing fine," Susan Levy said, even though "no one wants to belong to it. People can feel very much alone when this happens. So, we'll keep active and do whatever we can to help other people."

The couple said they are very thankful for the help that they have received in the past year, from community and religious leaders, law enforcement agencies, their synagogue and various churches, to just plain folks.

"There are a lot of people with good hearts out there," Susan Levy said. "We appreciate all their support."

A few months ago, the Levys put a statue of an angel in their front yard. Susan Levy said she saw it while shopping and connected with it immediately.

"It gives us hope," she said. "It's special. We hope our daughter's being protected by angels."

The Levys also are encouraged that a federal grand jury in Washington, D.C., continues to investigate the circumstances surrounding their daughter's disappearance.

Since grand jury proceedings are secret, no one outside the process knows exactly what is being investigated. However, the panel issued a subpoena to Ceres Rep. Gary Condit, among others.

Condit, who lost his bid for renomination to the House of Representatives in March, reportedly was called to testify earlier this month.

He has not denied having a relationship with Levy, almost 20 years his junior. Condit turned 54 a week ago.

Family says Condit knows more

Washington authorities have criticized the congressman for not immediately acknowledging the nature of the relationship when police interviewed him.

Although investigators repeatedly have said that Condit is not a suspect in Levy's disappearance, her parents believe he knows more about it than he has told authorities.

Robert Levy said he and his wife have not spoken to Condit in months. He said the congressman's son, Chad, called them as Condit was beginning his failed campaign.

Levy said Chad Condit spoke to him about the two families "mending fences," but nothing came of it.

"During his campaign," Levy said, "(Gary Condit) said if he was re-elected he would keep the case alive, that he'd do everything he could to find Chandra.

"Well, he doesn't need to be in Congress to help us find our daughter. He needs to tell us what he knows. We know he knows more than he's said about it. He just needs to tell us the truth."

Waiting and hoping

Two weeks ago, on April 14, the Levys paused for Chandra's 25th birthday. It was the first time that they had not been with their daughter on her birthday.

Three times, Susan Levy said, when they sat down to meals, they remembered their daughter's birthday.

"We haven't forgotten our daughter," she said. "We've been blessed to have very happy times with our family."

Robert Levy said he continues to look at photographs and videotapes, "just to keep her fresh."

The Levys said Chandra was shy and did not want to be the center of attention at a party. Susan Levy recalled that Chandra told her not to organize a big blowout for her graduation.

But there will be an enormous party in the Levy house, the couple said, the day their daughter returns safe and sound.

For now, though, all they can do is wait and hope.

"Time is hard," Susan Levy said, "when you're waiting."

Bee staff writer Michael G. Mooney can be reached at 578-2384 or mmooney@modbee.com.

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