August 13, 2001 12:00 PM

Two teenage lovers raced a shiny new Corvette down a quiet street in Tulsa in the dead of night long ago. Police officer Rick Knight clocked the car doing 65 mph before it eluded him. But he later spotted the yellow Corvette in a drive-way with its lights turned off. Behind the wheel: a 19-year-old preacher’s son named Gary Condit, sitting beside his 19-year-old wife, Carolyn, who only days earlier had given birth to the couple’s first child, Chad. Officer Knight promptly arrested Condit for reckless driving.

Thirty-four years after that July 23, 1967, incident, Gary Condit, now 53, is again in the hot seat. On July 26 authorities interviewed the California congressman for a fourth time in connection with the case of Chandra Levy, the former Washington intern who vanished May 1 and had had an affair with Condit. As before, the silent woman by Condit’s side as he undergoes scrutiny is Carolyn, 53, an enigmatic, extremely private figure who has become the mystery within the mystery of Levy’s disappearance.

While Condit’s public image as a clean-cut family man has been shattered by news of his romance with Levy and allegations of at least two other infidelities, Carolyn has, like her husband, refused to speak out about Levy or the nature of her relationship with Condit. Indeed she has shunned the spotlight in much the same way she has throughout the couple’s long marriage. “They’ve always been a team, but she’s not a Hillary Clinton,” says family friend Sandy Lucas, a Democratic party official who lives in the Condits’ hometown of Ceres, Calif. “She’s a typical wife you see at the grocery store. She decided to keep the home fires burning while he moved up the political ladder.”

District of Columbia police are saying publicly that the trail for Levy is cold and that the chances of finding her are no better than 50-50. Still, “the case is by no means dead,” says one FBI source. And while police continue to maintain that Condit is not a suspect, and are unlikely to ask him to take a lie detector test, “there are new questions for him every day,” says the source.

As for Carolyn, who has also been interviewed by police, her low profile both at home in Ceres and in the capital has led to wild and false speculation, including reports that she had a nasty argument with Levy when the intern answered the phone at Condit’s D.C. condo and that she threatened to kill herself if her husband ever left her. Friends and neighbors say that Carolyn—who rarely ventured to Washington and mainly saw Condit when he returned to Ceres on weekends—is a poised woman respected in her community and dedicated to her two grown children and three grandchildren. “She is just a wonderful lady,” says Leona Garrison, 86, a longtime friend and retired Ceres city clerk. “She comes over and we visit a little and she takes me to have my hair done. She is just so sweet to me.”

Her polished appearance and gracious demeanor, however, offer no clue to the suffering she has endured. For years Carolyn was plagued by severe headaches that could not be explained and often kept her indoors for long stretches. “They would be so painful she would have to go into a dark room and sometimes to the emergency room,” says Mark Garrett, 45, a former aide to Gary Condit. It now appears that the headaches may have been caused by a childhood bout of encephalitis. “That’s why she didn’t like to fly to Washington, because the change in air pressure would bring on these severe headaches,” says a family friend. The headaches, he adds, are now under control. How the soft-spoken Carolyn has held up under the pressure of her husband’s powerful personality—and how much she knew of his alleged affairs—is less clear. “Gary has got her under his spell; he just owns her,” says Vince Flammini, Condit’s longtime aide who retired last year. “She will always be loyal to him, but I think her heart is split in a million pieces.”

Friends credit Carolyn with toning down Condit’s early wild streak and making his rise through the political ranks possible. She was the oldest of three children born to Robert and Mary Theresa Berry, owners of a successful bargain clothing store in Tulsa. (Her father died several years ago; her mother retired and lives in Tampa, near Carolyn’s sister Lisa, 35. Brother Robert, 43, lives in Sacramento.) Carolyn met Condit when both were juniors at Nathan Hale High in the mid-’60s. “I don’t recall her ever saying anything bad about anybody,” says Gary Underwood, a Tulsa attorney who has known her since the sixth grade. “She was almost naive she was so sweet.” By contrast, Condit, son of a Baptist minister, was known to drink and skip school—”a James Dean kind of guy,” Underwood calls him. “I think that was why Carolyn was attracted to him.” But after meeting her, Condit quit drinking and changed his ways. “He knew there was no way to have her,” says a friend of the couple’s, “other than to straighten up.”

A justice of the peace married the two in Miami, Okla., in 1967, six months before Chad was born. Not much later they moved to Ceres, where Condit’s father had a ministry. Condit began a career that led to his election to Congress in 1989 for the first of his seven terms. Carolyn, who had daughter Cadee in 1975, stayed behind in the couple’s four-bedroom, $200,000 ranch house in Ceres because “she wanted the kids to be established there,” says Bob Sava, a close friend. Media-shy and all but invisible in Washington, she campaigned in Ceres for her husband and appeared at functions with him. “She did what good political wives do: She smiled, she greeted people,” says Pat Paul, a county official. “She knows what to do, but it’s not an easy life for her.”

Most Wednesdays Carolyn lunches at Ceres’s Peachtree restaurant with other members of the Soroptomists, a women’s club dedicated to civic projects such as combatting teen pregnancy. She also visits frequently with Chad—an aide to California Gov. Gray Davis, a family friend—and his three children, who live nearby. “I’ve seen her light up when she takes care of her grandchildren,” says Vince Flammini.

Such moments may bring some relief from the controversy that has consumed the Condits since Levy vanished. But no matter how the mystery is resolved, there is little doubt that many lives, including Carolyn’s, will never be the same. “I pray for both families, the Levys and the Condits, but I really pray for Carolyn,” says her neighbor Sharon Mott. “What woman wouldn’t?”

Alex Tresniowski

Michael Haederle and Debi Turley in Tulsa, Champ Clark, Maureen Harrington, Colleen O’Connor and John Hannah in Modesto, Calif., Kristin Harmel in Tampa and Colleen A. O’Connor in Washington, D.C.

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