The Levy Family's Heartache: “Grief Is Like a Marathon”

Nearly eight years after her death, killer may be nabbed

MODESTO, Calif. -- In the first weeks after her only daughter disappeared, grief hit Susan Levy so hard she could not move from a fetal position on the living room couch.

By the time Chandra Levy's skull and bones were found in a park in the nation's capitol a year later, her mother had found enough strength to dial Washington police detectives to ask why it was taking so long to find her daughter's killer.

Now, eight years after Chandra's death, Susan Levy said the sudden news late Friday that police planned to arrest a Salvadoran immigrant in the slaying may resolve the crime, but it will do nothing to stem her family's heartache.

"This helps a little," said Levy, staring listlessly in the den of her central California home. "But we still don't have our daughter and we have a life sentence without her. Grief is like a marathon. You don't get over it. It recycles itself."

Chandra Levy was 24 and had just completed an internship with the U.S. Bureau of Prisons when she disappeared in May 2001 after leaving her Washington, D.C., apartment.

After authorities questioned her congressman, Gary Condit, in the disappearance and revealed his affair with Levy, media from around the world descended on the family's split-level home amid the orchards of Modesto, a sleepy city 90 miles east of San Francisco.

Susan, her husband Bob and their son Adam retreated, and drew the blinds hoping to cope with their anguish in peace.

Another mother, Donna Raley, rang their doorbell to offer support, and said she found Susan wasn't eating.

"She was somber, she was almost in a fetal position on that couch. I told her I, too, had lost a child and we sat and cried," Raley said. "I said she could either let whoever took her daughter take her and her marriage, too, or she could stand tall and fight back."

Bit by bit, Susan emerged with the help of Raley and other friends, and started leaving the house to practice yoga or ride her horses, anything to escape the television trucks parked in two single-file lines along their cul-de-sac.

Only a year after Chandra's disappearance on May 1, 2001, she and Raley founded a nonprofit advocacy group called Wings of Protection to help family members of violent crime victims who are missing.

Then, after bungled searches by the D.C. police came the news that a dog walker had discovered Chandra's remains under the forest canopy of Rock Creek Park in May 2002.

The family's hopes that she might still be alive were extinguished.

"We used to pray for her to have a happy life, and a fulfilling career," her father Bob Levy said. "We started praying for her to be reincarnated."

Hobbled by pain, the couple explored Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity, and Chandra's father began keeping a log of signs that his daughter's spirit was present — small things, such as a rainbow after a storm, or her godmother's dream that Chandra wanted to send her parents a message.

They also looked for solace in Modesto's close-knit Jewish community, he said.

Each Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, they would fast and pray at Congregation Beth Shalom for those who had passed. And each year, the congregation would light a candle in Chandra's name and bring out a special, small Torah donated by the Levys, a collection of sacred scrolls of Hebrew Scriptures smuggled out of Germany during the Holocaust.

"We all call it the Levy Torah, and everyone feels it's an honor to hold it because it's a reminder of the recent death of Chandra," said Joyce Gandelman, a leader at the synagogue who sings with Susan in the choir. "She hasn't left Modesto. Chandra's spirit is still here."

Photos of the young intern adorn the home where she grew up.

Her parents still take sleeping pills to get through the night, though her mother said therapy has been of some help.

But as with many families struggling with the slow course of the justice system, the Levys have been largely left alone to work through their unanswered questions.

"I was hoping the detectives would call once a month and I would get an update," Susan Levy said. "But it's probably, 3, 4, 5 months and you don't hear anything from them."

Friday night's breakthrough call from Washington, D.C., Police Chief Cathy Lanier came as a surprise, she said.

"For a minute there, I felt energized and ecstatic hearing that a warrant would be served, just knowing that someone is doing something, that they hadn't forgotten about me," Susan Levy said.

Family friend Pat Hall's eyes lit up when she was told there was a break in the case.

"It was tough, hard not knowing anything, not having any answers," she said. "We all had our suspicions, which obviously were wrong, and it cost congressman Condit his job."

The Levys won't talk about Condit. The former Democratic congressman from Ceres, Calif. put out a statement after news reports surfaced that Washington, D.C. police were preparing an arrest warrant for Ingmar Guandique. The 27-year-old inmate is serving a sentence in a federal prison in Adelanto, Calif., for attacks on two women in Rock Creek Park in 2001.

"For the Levy family, we are glad they are finally getting the answers they deserve," Condit said in a statement to the Washington television station WJLA. "For my family, I am glad that their years of standing together in the face of such adversity have finally led to the truth."

Saturday, after hours of interviews, an exhausted Susan Levy said she was doing all she could to honor her daughter's passion for justice and law enforcement.

"We are just one family that has gone through this. How many other families have cold cases that are unsolved and are still looking for answers?" she said. "This is bittersweet. I still don't know if justice will be done."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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