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Lost in a Washington mystery


WASHINGTON - It should come as no surprise that the Dalai Lama has instructed his monks to pray for Chandra Levy's safe return or that her parents have received sympathetic e-mails from as far as England and Germany. After all, the Washington intern who vanished this month has been the focus of a publicity blitz rarely seen in missing-persons cases.

But it is not just a sophisticated media campaign that has sent the story of the missing graduate student around the globe. It is her relationship with the congressman who represents her central California district, whom police questioned soon after she disappeared from her Northwest Washington neighborhood.

Levy's is a capital tale gone awry: Bright-eyed intern falls in love with life in Washington, then vanishes just days before traveling home to receive her master's degree, all while a married congressman who called her "a good friend" is surrounded by reporters asking about the nature of their relationship whenever he leaves his Capitol Hill office.

Rep. Gary Condit, 53, a conservative California Democrat and the son of a Baptist minister, has remained largely silent on the matter. But his aides have denied that there were romantic ties to Levy, a 24-year-old paid intern in the public relations office of the Bureau of Prisons.

Police are puzzling over Levy's whereabouts. This week, according to sources close to the Levys, police performed a "grid search" to retrace the steps Levy might have taken in her neighborhood and around Condit's condominium complex before she disappeared. Authorities also spent time following a fruitless tip that she had been spotted in Reno, Nev.

"I hope we will be able to find her, and I have to believe that," her mother, Susan Levy, said in an interview this week from the family's home in Modesto, Calif. "It's been three weeks of waiting and sitting and not knowing where your daughter is. How would any mother feel? I'm not doing well."

Levy's hometown paper, the Modesto Bee, published excerpts from an e-mail in which Levy described a man who would meet her when business reconvened on Capitol Hill. "My man will be coming back here when Congress starts up again," she wrote in the Dec. 23 message to a friend. "I'm looking forward to seeing him."

Police told theWashington Post that Levy had visited Condit at his apartment, but later said they had accidentally passed on an unconfirmed rumor. Police are calling this a missing-persons case, have named no suspects and have not even concluded that a crime has been committed.

"Everybody, or I should say the media, wants to know about the congressman's relationship to her," says Sgt. Joe Gentile, a spokesman for district police. "We've heard all the rumors, hearsay, second-party information. At this time, there's nothing to substantiate those rumors."

When Congress is not in session, Condit, who often bucks Democratic Party leaders, lives in California with his two children and wife.

In Washington, the seven-term congressman lives in the Adams Morgan neighborhood. He is sometimes called "Mr. Blow Dry" for his perfect hairdo - and is remembered for jumping into a mosh pit at a Pearl Jam concert.

During the past two weeks, camera crews have staked out Condit's home and office while the congressman has worked to avoid the press. At the height of the media scrutiny, Condit remained out of sight in his Capitol Hill office and missed several votes, though his aides blamed that on a scheduling conflict.

When Levy's parents sought help from California lawmakers on Capitol Hill this month, they avoided Condit's office; they said it was because they could easily see him in his district office 10 minutes from their home.

Condit has released two statements since Levy's disappearance. In the first, he called her "a great person and a good friend" and announced that he would donate $10,000 from his campaign coffers to a reward fund to help in the search.

In the second statement, issued in mid-May amid questions about his relationship with Levy, Condit would not elaborate on their friendship and said: "This is about Chandra Levy. All of us should focus our efforts on getting her home."

Investigators have taken Levy's computer, analyzed phone records, and collected hair and fiber samples from her apartment. Police also said they searched wooded areas and the banks of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers but found nothing.

By all accounts, Levy enjoyed the look inside political and media circles that intern life afforded her. Her mother says she appeared in a student-oriented edition of the CNN public affairs show "Crossfire," asking a question that aired on the program. She attended an inaugural ball for George W. Bush. And she visited Capitol Hill: Aides to Condit say she showed up in their office about six times during her six-month internship, most of the time looking for tickets for White House tours.

A charitable group that offers cash for information on missing persons, the Carole Sund/Carrington Memorial Reward Foundation in Modesto, has used Washington political and media contacts in an attempt to find Levy. The group has offered a $35,000 reward and orchestrated more than 40 press interviews with Levy's parents during the past two weeks.

Levy is a petite woman about 5 feet 3 inches tall with dark corkscrew curls and a rose tattoo over her right ankle. She was last seen April 30 at the Washington Sports Club, a bustling gym near her home in the Dupont Circle neighborhood. Officials from the Metropolitan Police Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. attorney's office are investigating the case.

Every day, Robert Levy, an oncologist, and his wife, Susan, look for clues by replaying in their minds their last conversation with her. Susan Levy wonders why her daughter had been so fuzzy about her travel plans home. "She wasn't giving us any details or times exactly when she was coming in," she recalls. "It was kind of unlike her."

In another conversation with her mother, Levy had talked about taking Amtrak because, her mother recalls, she liked the idea of looking out the window as the country rolled by. The last communication the Levys received was an e-mail about a super-saver airline ticket, sent from their daughter's computer at 7:45 a.m. May 1.

Levy planned to return home the next week before receiving her master's in public administration from the University of Southern California, an event her 84-year-old grandmother planned to attend. She hoped to return to Washington, perhaps to work for the FBI.

The day Levy disappeared, her clothes were neatly folded in her bags, and her credit cards, driver's license and cell phone were sitting in her locked apartment. All that was missing were her keys. Investigators believe that she might have gone to run a quick errand or meet someone.

But authorities, as well as her parents, remain lost in the mystery. "She's a pretty responsible young woman," Susan Levy says. "When we talked, she said, 'I'm coming home.'"

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