One afternoon just a week shy of 15 years ago, I walked along 16th Street downtown and came upon one of the last vestiges of the strangest and perhaps busiest Modesto summer on record.
On the sidewalk in front of what in 2001 was Rep. Gary Condit’s congressional district office, black electrician’s tape formed a rectangular box shape in the 18-inches-wide, 24-inches-across range. In the middle, more tape pieces spelled out “MSNBC.” Indeed, the up-the-cable-dial NBC spinoff station had staked out its camera turf in front of the beleaguered congressman’s office.
“It was hard to do business because the street was blocked,” said Ruth Merritt, owner of the Fleur de Lis shop next door.
It didn’t matter that Condit rarely appeared there at all during the media siege as the search for Chandra Levy, a 24-year-old Bureau of Prisons intern from Modesto, continued in Washington, D.C.
Levy disappeared sometime around May 1, 2001, and later was linked romantically to the married congressman from Ceres, which triggered the media’s obsession.
Her remains were discovered in D.C.’s Rock Creek Park nearly 13 months after she vanished. A Salvadoran named Ingmar Guandique was tried and convicted of the crime in 2010. The verdict was overturned in June because the key witness in the case was recorded saying he’d lied while testifying in the 2010 trial, leaving a case once resolved suddenly unresolved again.
Modesto had never seen anything like summer 2001, though. The city became the media base of the 1999 Yosemite tourist murders after a wallet belonging to one victim was found at a north Modesto intersection. With their family members and friend still missing, the Carrington family set up search headquarters in a north Modesto hotel. It turned into a national and tragic story that kept the media here for months.
By the time Levy disappeared and was linked to Condit, most media outlets were familiar with the city. The same thing happened in December 2002, when Laci Peterson disappeared, bringing the same horde back to town.
Most days from early July into September of 2001 during the Levy case, a dozen or more reporters, cameramen, sound techs, engineers and producers camped out in front of Condit’s downtown office, awaiting any kind of statement from Condit or his staff. All of the major networks along with CNN, Fox News and local affiliates waited, and they waited a lot. The same occurred daily in front of the Levy’s north Modesto home, with vans and camera trucks parked up and down the street in both directions. Robert and Susan Levy – Chandra’s parents – frequently came out to give updates and got to know some of the media personally.
During that time, I talked with crew members who had been at every major media stakeout from the O.J. Simpson trial to the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping, the JonBenet Ramsey murder, and the Unabomber’s arrest and the Freemen standoff, both in Montana in 1996, as well as other events.
One CNN technician spent 244 days in Modesto from the time Condit came home in summer 2001 until Scott Peterson’s murder trial was moved to Redwood City in spring 2004. The CNN tech, Todd Anderson, could have bought a home in Village I when he got here, sold it when the trial moved and made about a $70,000 profit by the time he moved on.
Some members of the media got to know local downtown restaurant owners so well that they occasionally returned to Modesto to eat here during the time between the end of the siege of Condit in September 2001 and the onset of the Peterson case in winter 2002. During summer 2001 alone, the media spent an estimated $1 million locally on food, gas, hotel rooms and incidentals.
How strange did it get? From the moment her parents reported her missing in spring 2001, we began receiving tips about Chandra “sightings.” One came from an elderly Stockton man who claimed he’d been dancing with her at a club in Lodi that same weekend. Self-proclaimed seers called to tell us about their visions of her location, none matching, none even remotely accurate.
Meanwhile, the social and political pressure on Condit increased. One group began calling for his resignation and delivered a letter to that extent to his downtown office. Another group, however, supported him, and the two sides clashed verbally while one man carried a sign telling the media to “get a life already.”
Condit returned to Washington for the fall session, the media crews packed up and moved on to the next big story, which became the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He lost his bid for re-election and moved to Arizona.
Now, 15 years later, Nick Bavaro’s benefit-plan business occupies Condit’s old office on 16th Street. The black electrician’s tape that claimed part of the sidewalk as MSNBC’s sacred camera berth is gone. The intrigue is not.
An ABC “20/20” news magazine crew came to Modesto this week to interview the Levys and others for a future segment in light of the dismissal of the murder conviction of Guandique.
The Chandra Levy case, once thought resolved, is once again as unsettled as ever.