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August 14th, 2002 Carlton Smith | News Stories
 

The Making of a Murderer

THE LIFE AND CRIMES OF CHRISTIAN LONGO

     
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The rustic Mexican beach resort where Christian Longo was arrested last January after an international manhunt, two weeks after his wife and three children were murdered on the Oregon coast.

Editor's Note: This is the first half of a two- part series.
The conclusion will appear in next week's
WW.

Sometime around two in the morning of Dec. 17, 2001, 27-year- old Christian Michael Longo allegedly drove his stolen red Pontiac Montana van onto the narrow bridge over Lint Slough on the outskirts of tiny Waldport, Ore. There, according to authorities who have charged Longo with four murders, he tied pillowcases weighted with stones around the ankles of two of his children, put them inside a sleeping bag, then threw the bag over the rail into the Stygian waters.

Based on what police apparently told Longo's in-laws, 4- yea r-old Zachary and 3-year-old Sadie were still alive when their father cast them into the rainy darkness; both children followed their mother, Maryjane Baker Longo, and their baby sister, Madison, already on the far side of the divide between the living and the dead.

And if the state of Oregon has its way, Christian Longo himself will someday join them, courtesy of a publicly owned hypodermic needle.

For sheer callousness, it's almost impossible to imagine a more atrocious deed than throwing your own living children off a bridge to drown them--as if they were a brood of unwanted puppies. It doesn't take much imagination to hear a small child shrieking, "No, Daddy, no..." as a trusted father prepares to hurl them into eternity.

While such family massacres are hardly new, the Longo case stands out primarily because of what the accused perpetrator did not do: take his own life as the last act of whatever desperation had driven him to such extremes--witness, for example, the murder-suicide of the six members of the Bryant family in McMinnville just three months after the Longo madness. Instead, as is now well known, Longo headed for the Mexican Riviera for an apparent fun-filled vacation.

After his arrest Jan. 13 at a grass shack on a beach some 60 miles south of Cancun by Mexican authorities and the FBI, Longo was returned to Newport, where he has been in the Lincoln County jail for the past eight months. As things now stand, Longo has yet to enter a plea to seven counts of murder (the kids count double under Oregon law). That will happen, it appears, sometime this fall, when Circuit Court Judge Robert Huckleberry has scheduled a round of hearings on a series of motions brought by Longo's public defenders, Kenneth Hadley and Steven Krasik.

At this stage, of course, only part of the Longo story has been told; as the October hearings unfold, a defense to the charges will doubtless be erected, possibly in the area of diminished capacity. It is even possible--although it doesn't seem likely--that Longo's lawyers may show that Longo is factually innocent: that the murders were committed by someone else. But the brutal facts of the case seem to indicate otherwise.

For one thing, there are the suitcases: Maryjane Longo's 100-pound body, apparently the victim of blunt-force trauma and strangulation, was found stuffed inside the couple's large green suitcase, which was in turn found under water just off the dock at The Landing, the upscale Newport resort condominium where the Longos had been living at the time of the crimes.

Who else would have had access to the Longo family luggage in the early-morning hours of Dec. 17, 2001, if not Longo? Who else would have had access to the Longo sleeping bag, and the Longo pillowcases? And even if someone else did commit the crimes, why would Longo then run away to Mexico?

Thus, the Longo trial will almost certainly come down to the so-far-unanswered question: Why? Why would a 27-year-old father of three, by all accounts a bright, extroverted, socially skilled, good-looking young man with marvelous potential, suddenly decide to murder his beautiful wife and three lovely children?

This is hardly an academic matter: Indeed, the answer to the question may help determine whether Longo himself lives or dies.

But killing Chris Longo won't resolve all the culpability that the tragic case has engendered: It won't do a single thing to improve the indifference and incompetence in the nation's law-enforcement network that helped permit the horror to come to pass. And in a nation where the capacity of law-enforcement agencies to connect the dots may be critical in preventing the next 9/11, the official failures in the Longo case are most disquieting.

Christian Michael Longo was born Jan. 23, 1974, somewhere in the state of Iowa. According to his in-laws, the Baker family of Michigan, Christian was the elder of two sons born to a young woman and her abusive husband.

When the boys were still quite small, the Bakers said they were told, Christian's mother, Joy, obtained a divorce from Christian's natural father. Soon thereafter, she became involved in the Jehovah's Witnesses church, where she met Joseph Longo, the man who became her second husband and apparently adopted both boys. As a result, Christian and his younger brother were both raised within the strictures of the Jehovah's Witnesses faith, a circumstance that would eventually have significance for both the Longos and the Bakers.

The Jehovah's Witnesses believe in earthly resurrection: that at some point in the future, all the dead of the earth will be raised to join the living, and all will be as it was in the time of Adam and Eve.

"The children and Maryjane are basically asleep, and they're not dreaming," said Joseph Flowers, a member of the church, at the Longos' funeral services in Ann Arbor last January. "They're not suffering. They're not in Purgatory.... They're just asleep, waiting for the resurrection."

As a millenarian sect, Jehovah's Witnesses believe that the earth is in its "last days" and that the world is now under the grip of Satan, but awaiting redemption by the resurrected Jesus; as biblical literalists, they accept Satan as real, not a myth, and believe in the possibility of demonic possession.

The pertinent question here, from a defense point of view, is not whether these assertions are true or false, but whether a man like Longo might actually believe them--or indeed, even act on them. In other words, if Longo were to say that he intended only to spare his wife and children from suffering the tribulations of Satan's Rule, or even that the Devil made him do it, who would be able to authoritatively say he was wrong? Depending on the Longo defense attorneys' final strategy, it is thus possible that the stage might be set, in Longo's forthcoming trial, for a discordant clash between the rule of law and the rule of religion.

After their marriage, Joe and Joy Longo moved to the Louisville, Ky., area, where Joe Longo worked as a rising executive for a national retail chain. Again according to the Bakers, the Longo family, while not wealthy by most material measurements, was comfortably well off; and it appears that young Christian was denied little, if anything, in the way of material things.

In the early 1990s, the Longos moved to Ypsilanti, Mich., just east of the university town of Ann Arbor, where Joseph Longo continued to rise in his career as a retail executive. Christian was 18. About this time he met Maryjane Irene Baker, a fellow member of a Jehovah's Witnesses congregation in Ypsilanti.

At 25, Maryjane was almost seven years older than Christian. That she would find herself involved with Christian Longo--still a teenager, still unformed as an adult, and apparently directionless at that stage of his life--had as much to do with the Jehovah's Witnesses as anything else.

"The Jehovah's Witnesses are not allowed to go outside of their religion to find mates," says Jennifer Kegley, Maryjane's older sister and a former Jehovah's Witnesses congregant. "So that leaves them to what's there [in the church]. And he was a very nice guy, very well-spoken, very nice-looking."

In taking up with Christian Longo, it seems, Maryjane was striving for the sort of idealized marriage that her church propounded; and in hanging onto it even when it was obviously turning very sour, she may be said to have become a very real martyr to her unflagging faith--that, no matter what trials and tribulations awaited her, she would remain true to her creed, even unto death.

Maryjane Irene Baker was born on April 25, 1967, the third of five children born to Jim and Susan Baker of the Ann Arbor area. According to the Baker siblings, the couple divorced in the early 1970s. About the same time, Susan Baker joined the Jehovah's Witnesses. The five Baker children--brother Mark and sisters Jennie Kegley, Maryjane, Sally Clark and Penny Dupuie--went with Susan, and all of them were raised as Jehovah's Witnesses, although three of the five would fall away as adults. Maryjane and her younger sister Sally kept the faith, however.

When she met Christian, Maryjane was a secretary for the University of Michigan School of Dentistry. When Chris began courting Maryjane, he had just moved out of his parents' home in southeastern Ypsilanti and had begun work, first at a camera shop and later at an outlet that sold and installed spas and fireplaces. Later, his future in-laws would remark on his penchant for spending money that he did not have. "He had to have the best of everything," they would say.

Maryjane and Chris were married in Ann Arbor in the spring of 1993. They soon moved to a small apartment over a nice family restaurant, Cady's, in Depot Town, Ypsilanti's historic district. The Bakers believe that Maryjane was paying most of the bills.

"That's the way she was brought up," Jenny said later. "To obey your husband, to love him, to do everything for him.... I mean, he's 'the master.' He is it. Because their vows are: I will obey."

The Bakers all saw Maryjane's fondest ambition as being a wife and mother.

"She wanted to be a wife, a mother, you know--in love, married," says Jenny. "Her kids were her life," says Cathy Baker, Mark Baker's wife.

That summer, Maryjane was overjoyed to discover she was pregnant. She and Chris sent around a photograph to family members, with the two of them sitting in front of a Ouija board, spelling out the message: "We Are Prego." Zachary was born on the last day of February 1997.

Fourteen months later, on the last day of April 1998, Zachary was joined by a sister, Sadie. By now the apartment over Cady's was too small, so Chris and Maryjane bought a small tract house owned by her mother's second husband, James Lowery, in the shadow of the old Ford plant at Willow Run near Ypsilanti. Maryjane quit her job to stay home with the babies, and it appears that this was about the time that things first started going wrong, because soon Chris quit his job, too.

He told Maryjane's family that he had a new job, working as a "correspondent" for the Wall Street Journal. Or maybe it was The New York Times--Jenny Kegley and Cathy Baker were never really sure where Chris was getting his money, only that he seemed to go out of town a lot. And they also knew that whatever story he told Maryjane, she would believe him, because Jehovah's Witnesses didn't lie.

In the fall of 1999, there was another baby: Madison, born Oct. 29. By this time, some of Chris' financial juggling was beginning to fall to earth: He began to bounce house-payment checks to Susan and James Lowery, Maryjane's mother and her husband.

"It was like she took care of him, and then she had the kids," Mark Baker says. "So [then] it was time for him to take care of them, and he couldn't keep up with that lifestyle...and so, in order to do that, he had to steal."

Late in the afternoon of Feb. 16, 2000, a man using the name Jason Joseph Fortner walked into a Pontiac dealership in Sylvania, Ohio, just across the state line from Michigan. Approaching saleswoman Pamela Modlin while she was busy with another customer, the neatly groomed young man said he wanted to take a new Pontiac Montana van out for a test drive to "show my wife." The man gave Modlin his driver's license to photocopy, and Modlin gave him the keys to a loaded red Montana worth $33,445. "Jason Joseph Fortner" drove off the lot, and the van would be missing for most of the next two years.

Police in Sylvania checked out the copy of the driver's license left by "Fortner" and soon discovered it was a phony. The vehicle identification number of the van was put into the computer system to identify the van as stolen, and nothing further was done.

The red Montana soon popped up at Chris and Maryjane's house in Ypsilanti. Chris removed the vanity plate, "KIDVAN," that had been used on another Longo vehicle, a Dodge Durango, and put it on the Montana, even though the plate didn't link to the make and model--a sure sign of possible trouble to any observant police officer.

Two weeks later, Chris incorporated his own business, Final Touch Construction Cleaning, a business name that would eventually come to have a highly ironic, and perhaps intentional, double meaning.

Final Touch soon had contracts with several home-construction companies in the Ann Arbor area, including an outfit called Wexford Builders, to do last-minute clean-up work in homes that had just been built.

The history of Final Touch is likely to become an issue in Longo's upcoming trial, assuming that a trial takes place. From one perspective, it can be argued that from the time he established the company, Chris Longo's intent was to cheat and defraud as many people as possible; even the name--"Final Touch"--seems to indicate a possible con job.

What is abundantly clear is that by the spring of the year 2000, Chris was engaged in all manner of deceptions. He had begun an affair with another woman, a fellow congregant among the Jehovah's Witnesses; according to the Bakers, Maryjane discovered this unfaithfulness on Chris' part in May 2000 and confronted him about it after reading some of Chris' email.

But this wasn't the end of Chris' duplicity. Having obtained a line of credit in his adoptive father's name, he ran up huge balances on it, a total that would eventually reach as much as $100,000, at least according to the Bakers and the Michigan State Police. He defaulted on a loan from the University of Michigan Credit Union and cashed a bad check there for another $5,900; he hired temporary workers for his business, but failed to pay them. He somehow obtained possession of two construction trailers and a forklift, then sold the forklift to a used equipment dealer for $5,000; the dealer soon learned the forklift was stolen property, and sued Chris to get his money back.

Then, in June 2000, Chris began forging checks to himself from Wexford Builders, the homebuilding company, which was his primary client. Between June 16 and the middle of July, Chris passed six fake Wexford checks totaling $29,868 at various Ann Arbor-area banks. When the checks began appearing at Wexford, the controller of the company called the Michigan State Police, who began an investigation.

On July 14, 2000, Chris attempted to cash another bogus check; this time, the teller had someone call the police. Chris fled the bank before they arrived, but left his driver's license behind. Late that afternoon, the police arrested him. Taken to the Michigan State Police post in Ypsilanti, Chris readily admitted forging the Wexford checks. Chris told Detective Fred Farkas that he'd forged the checks because Wexford owed his company money and had been slow in paying its bills. Chris said he'd warned Wexford to pay up or he'd begin his own efforts to collect. He used the money to pay his living expenses and to take his family on a vacation, Chris said.

The state police called Maryjane. She drove to the station in the red van. Farkas explained what was going on. He was struck by Maryjane's demeanor: She didn't seem surprised at Chris' predicament, nor did she seem upset. At first Farkas wondered whether Maryjane was in on the scam, but he eventually concluded that she was not.

"She made no incriminating statements," Farkas noted in his report.

And here is one of the first instances, but not the last, of the police investigatory breakdowns that would eventually occur throughout the tragedy of the Longos.

For if the police--having originally suspected that Maryjane might be part of the forged-check scam--had gone the extra mile to check the vehicle identification number of the van Maryjane was driving, they would have discovered that it had been stolen six months earlier in Ohio. At that point, Chris (and possibly Maryjane) would probably have been taken to jail; and once Chris was in jail, a great number of future events might have turned out quite differently.

Chris was eventually charged with four felonies in Washtenaw County Circuit Court related to the Wexford checks, each of which could have netted him 14 years in prison. He pleaded guilty to the four counts after eight other possible charges were dropped; he was sentenced to three years' probation and restitution. That he drew no jail time was due to his circumstances: no previous criminal history, his quick guilty plea, his seeming contrition, and the fact that he was the sole support of his wife and three children. He was required to meet monthly with a probation officer, Michael Echlin, to perform 80 hours of community service and to repay the banks at a rate of $905 a month.

But even before the guilty plea, Farkas discovered that yet another investigation of Chris Longo was under way: Another small community near Ypsilanti, Pittsfield Township, was about to ask for a felony arrest warrant for Chris, charging him with "larceny by conversion" in connection with one of the two trailers Chris had somehow acquired earlier that summer. But because this was another agency's case, Farkas took no action.

Three weeks after Chris' guilty plea, Farkas began hearing from a number of Jehovah's Witnesses Chris had hired to work for Final Touch; they complained that the paychecks Chris had given them were made of rubber. Farkas contacted Chris, who assured him that he would make all the checks good before his formal sentencing; he did not do so, however.

Farkas acquainted Chris' probation officer, Echlin, with these new charges, but Echlin appears to have done nothing with this information; he continued to meet with Chris monthly until May 2001, and never acted to rescind his probation, despite the fact that the district attorney's office had a felony warrant (still unserved) out for Chris on the Pittsfield Township trailer scam as of December 2000, and despite the fact that Chris was under investigation by the state police for his bad checks to the Final Touch workers.

Nor did Echlin apparently ever bother to check the bona fides of the red van, despite the fact that Chris dutifully listed it as his family's primary vehicle on his supervision forms.

(Echlin declined to be interviewed; he referred all inquiries on Longo to the Michigan Department of Corrections. That department, in response to a Michigan Freedom of Information request, elected to withhold all of Echlin's reports on Longo's probationary progress, citing confidentiality rules.)

After meeting with Echlin one final time--Echlin didn't then realize it, of course--on May 21, 2001, Chris made plans to get out of town. He had already sold the tract house; the sale closed on May 23, the day before Chris opened a new checking account at a bank that had branches in both Michigan and Ohio--a bit of foresight on Chris' part, as things would turn out. When the house sale closed, Chris and Maryjane received just under $8,000 for their equity.

Then they left Ypsilanti, never to return: or at least, not until Maryjane and her three children came back, in two caskets--a final gift from the state of Oregon.

NEXT WEEK: The Longos' outlaw trail leads to Ohio and eventually a small resort community in Oregon, and how the police kept missing Longo--until it was too late.

Carlton Smith worked at Willamette Week from 1980 to 1983. He is a former investigative reporter for The Los Angeles Times and the Seattle Times who is now a full-time true-crime writer and the author of 15 books, including the bestselling Search for the Green River Killer. Currently he is writing a book on the Longo family murders for St. Martin's Press, which is due to be published early next year. To obtain information for use in the book and for this story, Smith traveled to Oregon, Michigan, Ohio and South Dakota, conducting interviews and collecting documents. He resides in San Francisco.


Additional defense motions in the Longo case are due to be filed in court in the first week of September. Pre- trial hearings are now scheduled for the first three weeks of October, at which time Longo is expected finally to enter a plea to the charges.

There are an estimated 6 million Jehovah's Witnesses, in about 90,000 congregations in 230 countries worldwide.

A millenarian denomination, Jehovah's Witnesses believe we are in the biblically predicted "Last Days" before the end of the earth as we know it.

Ann Arbor is a city of about 110, 000 people, and the site of the University of Michigan.

Ypsilanti-- pronounced "Ipp-si- LAN-ti"-- has about 25,000 residents. It was named for two Greek brothers who were generals in the Greek War of Independence against Turkey in the 19th century.

Each year there are about 1.1 million motor vehicles stolen in the United States, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The advent of easy- to- obtain computer equipment and software has led to a drastic upsurge in check and currency forgery throughout the nation, according to an official of the United States Secret Service; the vast majority of these forgers are relative amateurs and are often easily apprehended.

 
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