Sometime in the first week of June 2001, Chris Longo packed his wife and children into their stolen red Pontiac Montana van and drove south down State Route 23 to Toledo, Ohio. There near the banks of the Maumee River, within the shadow of the new Toledo Mud Hens baseball stadium, Chris and Maryjane Longo set up housekeeping in a decrepit brick warehouse. Chris was on the lam, and Maryjane and their three children were on the lam with him.
Today, Christian Michael Longo awaits his fate in the Lincoln County jail, charged with one of the worst crimes in recent Oregon history. Sometime this fall, Longo will face his accusers in Newport, where the dead bodies of his victims, his own family, were discovered during the two grisly weeks of Christmas last. But if justice is to be done, there will have to be an answer to the paramount question of why.
Why? Why would a 27-year-old father deliberately drown his own family, then take off for a vacation on the sun-drenched beaches of southern Mexico?
The deaths of 34-year-old Maryjane Longo and her three children--Zachary, almost 5; Sadie, 3; and baby Madison, 2--seem as inexplicable as they are horrifying: Maryjane and Madison packed into suitcases, then thrown off a dock; Zach and Sadie thrown over the side of a bridge some 15 miles away.
But for Chris Longo's in-laws, the Baker family of Michigan--Maryjane's brother Mark, his wife Cathy, and her sisters Jennie and Penny--the answer will have to contain more than just an explanation for Longo's alleged behavior; there must also be an accounting for how the rest of us, and our appointed representatives, failed repeatedly to act when it would have done some good.
By June of 2001, there had already been numerous opportunities to stop Chris Longo before the final tragedy: On probation in Ann Arbor for forging bad checks, under investigation for writing still more bad checks, for stealing trailers and construction equipment, and for selling stolen property, Chris Longo and his serial frauds were well-known to law enforcement.
In addition, given what the cops, at least, knew about Longo--that he was a thief--why on earth did Maryjane Longo go with him?
As perceived by the brother and sisters she left behind, Maryjane, herself the product of a broken home, steeped in the traditions of the Jehovah's Witnesses that put a wife completely in the power of her husband, chose to go with Chris Longo to the ends of the earth, or at least until death did them part, as Jehovah commanded.
In going to Toledo, it appears that Chris hoped to establish a temporary base while bringing several new scams to fruition. When they arrived in Toledo, the Longos had about $8,000 in cash from the sale of their house in Ypsilanti, along with a stolen construction trailer, forklift, trailer and boat, along with the red Pontiac Montana van stolen the year before from a dealership in Sylvania, Ohio, a small town just northwest of Toledo. It appears that Chris wanted to sell at least some of this hot equipment to raise more cash.
Later, the Bakers discovered that Chris had paid $2,000 a month in rent for the warehouse, which he was using as a sort of "showroom." But the "sales" took time, and the money was pouring out. Chris soon went back to what had worked so easily in Michigan the summer before: forging business checks. On June 19, 2001, Chris passed a $2,311 check at a bank in the Toledo suburb of Maumee; over the following week he would pass three other checks in Sylvania, each for $1,923.43, putting a total of just over $8,000 in his pocket.
Then Chris struck a tentative deal to sell the forklift for $5,000, which normally sold new for about $32,000. The prospective buyer got suspicious. He called the Toledo police and told them Chris was trying to unload a stolen forklift.
Just before 6 pm on Aug. 30, 2001, Sgt. Paul Hickey, the supervisor of the Toledo Police Department's stolen-vehicles section, arrived at the warehouse to question Chris. There in the warehouse, Hickey found not only the forklift, but the boat, the boat trailer, the construction trailer and a rental truck, along with the red Pontiac van. Maryjane was sitting in the van, along with the kids. Later, Hickey realized that Chris had been packed to leave even before he arrived; either he'd gotten leery of his prospective mark or someone had tipped him off.
Still, Chris "was real comfortable, not nervous at all. It wasn't as if there were clues jumping out at us," Hickey said later. Hickey's initial interest was the forklift. He checked its serial number, only to discover it wasn't listed as stolen. He checked the rental truck: not stolen. At that point, Hickey decided to "drop back five yards and punt."
"Here we were with Ma and Pa America," he said. To Hickey, Chris seemed utterly unfazed at being grilled. He told Hickey that he'd acquired the forklift in Indianapolis. When Hickey asked to see a title, Chris said he would have to fax him the paperwork later.
Flummoxed by Chris' self-assurance, Hickey, or possibly one of his fellow officers, went to speak to Maryjane in the van. She was holding Madison on her lap, and Zachary and Sadie were in the rear, keeping still.
"We apologized to her," Hickey said. "She sort of harrumphed, didn't say anything. If anything, I would say she was indifferent to our presence."
Later, when the Bakers leveled harsh criticism at Hickey for his failure to arrest Chris on Aug. 30, Hickey was indignant. There was never any indication that Maryjane was under any form of coercion, he insisted. "Hell," he said, "she could've jumped into our lap, if she thought she was in any danger."
With that, Hickey and his men left the warehouse. Back at the station, Hickey discovered that the equipment was indeed missing from an Ann Arbor-area construction site; it had just never been reported stolen.
Hickey then went back to the warehouse, intending to arrest Chris; but by then the Longos were long gone. Both the van and the rental truck were missing; and there, left all over the warehouse, were scores of boxes of the family's possessions, including photo albums, kids' clothing, favorite toys...all of which indicated that Chris and Maryjane had left in a big hurry. Hickey would now discover that the boat, the boat trailer and the construction trailer were all stolen property.
In fairness to Hickey, it has to be pointed out that at the time he questioned Chris, he naturally had no way of knowing how things would turn out: that Chris and Maryjane would flee to Oregon, that Chris would eventually be accused of drowning his wife and three children.
"Coulda, shoulda, woulda," said Hickey later. It was easy for people to complain later, he said, especially once they were gifted with hindsight.
But there were some gaps here that "coulda, shoulda, woulda" would have closed, if the system had operated with any efficiency. For one thing, there were three Michigan arrest warrants outstanding on Chris, including one for fleeing probation. But the Michigan warrants were not entered into the Ohio computer system, so Hickey had no way of knowing about them.
Still, there were other possible warrants that should have been on Hickey's radar screen: The Maumee police and the Sylvania city police both had filed complaints on Chris for his forged checks, cashed earlier that summer in his own name. Why didn't the Ohio computer system kick out Chris' name for those? That remains a mystery. But if Hickey had known that Chris was wanted for forging four checks in Ohio, chances are very good--100 percent, actually--that he would have taken him to jail.
And there was another tip-off that should have put Longo behind bars: the red van. Hickey had the red van right in front of him, with its vehicle identification number plainly visible. True, he ran its license plate, "KIDVAN," but when he learned that the plate didn't match a stolen vehicle, Hickey went no further. But more persistence on Hickey's part would have paid dividends: By checking on the red van further, Hickey would have learned that the Pontiac's plate didn't match the vehicle make (Chris had removed the plate from a Dodge Durango), and by plugging the vehicle identification number of the van into the computer, Hickey would have learned that the Montana had been stolen from a dealership in Sylvania, Ohio, about 18 months before. Then he surely would have arrested Chris Longo.
Having escaped Hickey's pinch, Chris and Maryjane began driving west, Maryjane and the kids in the stolen van, and Chris in the truck. Within a day or so they reached Sioux Falls, S.D., just over the Minnesota state line. There the Longos stopped; Chris rented a large storage locker, paying a month's rent in advance. At this point, it appears, Chris drove the half-loaded rental truck into the storage locker, then joined Maryjane and the kids in the van.
It seems that by this point Chris was concerned that the rental truck might have been reported stolen; if he were stopped in the truck, that would be the end of the outlaw trail, at least for Chris. It likewise appears that Chris may have told Maryjane that they would leave the truck in Sioux Falls and come back for it later, along with its cargo of remaining household goods.
Having ditched the rental truck, Chris and Maryjane continued west, eventually arriving in Yachats, Ore., on Sept. 12, one day after the apocalyptic attack on the World Trade Center in New York.
At this point it is not clear why the Longos went to this coast town, of all places. Both the Bakers and some Newporters later conjectured that Chris and Maryjane simply ran out of road--that it was impossible to go any farther west than Yachats. But this doesn't really answer the question; in fact, it raises another one: Did Chris have in mind some scheme that required his presence on the Oregon coast? If that's the case, and the police know what it might have been, they aren't saying, at least at this point.
Once in Yachats, Chris and Maryjane stopped at Ocean Odyssey Vacation Rentals, which manages vacation property along the coast. Chris said he'd been transferred to a new job in Oregon, that his wife and children were beat from traveling, and that they needed to find a short-term rental. He wanted to pay cash, in part because he didn't want to max out his credit card, Chris said.
The people at Ocean Odyssey felt sorry for the Longos. "She looked absolutely exhausted," recalls Cheryl LaRiccia, one of the firm's partners. Maryjane held Madison on her lap and said almost nothing. Both Zachary and Sadie were quiet and well-behaved. In the end, Ocean Odyssey rented the Longos a modest house in the Bayview section of Waldport, just north and seaward of the Alsea Bridge, for $300 a week. Chris peeled off some bills from his dwindling stash, and the Longos drove to their new home.
For the first few weeks at the Bayview house, Chris continued to pay the rent by dipping into his rapidly depleting bankroll. Eventually, he missed a weekly payment; when he called the Ocean Odyssey people to ask to extend the stay, they told him to forget it: Not only had they waived the usual credit-card procedure, but now Chris was late. There would be no extension.
At this point, Chris, Maryjane and the kids moved a few miles north to Newport, the Lincoln County seat, which has a year-round population of about 10,000 people. There, sometime around Oct. 12, they checked into the Newport Motor Inn. The rate per night was about $40. Chris again paid in cash. He soon found work at the local Fred Meyer, behind the Starbucks counter.
For the next six weeks, the Longos lived at the Newport Motor Inn, frequently taking meals at the Galley Ho restaurant next door. A number of Newport residents observed them there, including one woman who would later say that she saw Zachary Longo with a black eye one night at dinner. As usual, the kids were quiet and well-behaved, at least publicly.
Sometime around Nov. 1, Chris apparently drove the red van back to Sioux Falls, where he (or at least someone) broke into the storage locker and liberated the rental truck, which was discovered Nov. 6 in the parking lot of a Sioux Falls Federal Express office; workers thought it might contain a terrorist bomb. Sioux Falls police discovered that the truck had been reported stolen from Perrysburg, Ohio, and notified the authorities there that their missing truck had finally surfaced.
Before leaving Sioux Falls, however, Chris mailed two postcards in Maryjane's handwriting: one to her sister Sally Clark, and the other to Maryjane's mother, Susan Lowery. In both Maryjane wrote that she, Chris and the kids were touring the country, that Chris had been accepted in a "training program," and that he would soon be assigned to a permanent work location, at which point Maryjane would write again to provide their new address.
Lincoln County Sheriff's Lt. Ed Stallard, pressed as to the significance of these postcards, would say only that the mailing of the cards by Chris forms part of the "deception component" of the case against Chris. Here the linkage may be critical: Is Stallard saying that Chris mailed the cards to deceive the Bakers as to Maryjane's whereabouts, as part of some scheme to eventually kill her? Or is he suggesting that the deception was intended to throw the authorities off the Longos' tracks, to prevent his apprehension on the outstanding warrants? In the case of the first, the cards might be evidence of premeditation of murder, while the second may show nothing of the kind.
After Chris Longo's return to Newport, numerous Newporters were later to recall seeing Maryjane and the kids, and often Chris, around town during the months of November and December. According to a resident interviewed by Kelly Moyer-Wade of the Newport News-Times, at one point Chris began waxing eloquent about the prospect of laying a fiber-optic cable under Yaquina Bay. This was typical of Chris--filled to overflowing with mighty prospects. According to the Newporter, Maryjane just smiled at Chris' enthusiasm.
"He's my dreamer," she said.
Perhaps he was still dreaming, but at the end of November, Chris went to The Landing, an upscale condominium/hotel on the Yaquina Bay waterfront. There, telling the operators that he had just come to town to help set up a fiber-optic network for Qwest (a story that wouldn't fly today), Chris checked into Room 208. Several days later, Maryjane and the kids joined him. Chris continued to work at the Starbucks. He paid nothing at The Landing, telling the people there that his paycheck from Qwest had been delayed.
Now the authorities in Oregon would have one final chance to stop Chris Longo before the worst that was to come. After the Longos left the Bayview house, someone from Ocean Odyssey had gone to check the property. Noticing that two crab rings were missing from the house's inventory, the rental agents called the Lincoln County Sheriff's Office to make a theft complaint.
On Dec. 6, Lincoln County Sheriff's Deputy Brian J. Courchesne signed an affidavit swearing that Chris Longo had taken two crab rings from the Bayview house. This paper went to the Lincoln County district attorney's office, and on Dec. 11, the theft complaint, along with a request for the arrest of Chris Longo, was filed in court. The information sheet accompanying Courchesne's affidavit listed Chris Longo's address in Ypsilanti--where, after all, authorities had three earlier warrants for his arrest--along with his identifying particulars, which would have eventually led police to the Ohio warrants as well, if the police had done their job properly.
Courchesne's affidavit in support of the arrest stands as an exemplar of too-bored-to-be-bothered police work:
"On 10/12/01 at an unknown hour," he wrote, "Christian Longo did unlawfully take two crab rings from a vacation rental at 1513 Parker Street in Yachats [sic]. This incident occurred after Longo had rented this house for approximately two months. The crab rings that were taken had an estimated value of $50.00."
This was it--the works. Nowhere was there any mention of any actual evidence that would convince a reasonable person that Longo was the one who'd taken the crab rings--a fundamental requirement for any arrest. Not a scintilla of proof was offered. Even more egregiously, there was no indication that Courchesne even bothered to contact the authorities in Michigan to see if Longo was wanted there--even though Courchesne had Longo's old address, his driver's license number and his Social Security number.
While it might be understandable that a harried deputy sheriff might not take a $50 theft complaint as a high priority, even a minimal amount of checking would have revealed the outstanding warrants for Longo in Michigan and Ohio, along with the Michigan license plate, "KIDVAN." It would then have been a simple matter to put the plate on the Lincoln County "hotsheet" of stolen cars as part of an effort to locate Chris Longo in Newport. After all, how many Michigan plates reading "KIDVAN" could there be in wintertime Lincoln County? Chris could have been arrested on the strength of these warrants alone, at which point Courchesne's sloppiness in establishing valid evidence in the crab-ring case wouldn't have mattered.
Nor did the prosecutor's office do what it might have done to check Longo out: Courchesne's limp document sailed through the district attorney's office with barely a rubber stamp to indicate that anyone paid the least bit of attention to it.
The warrant request arrived on the desk of Circuit Court Judge Robert Huckleberry the next day, Dec. 12. Apparently irritated at the authorities' failure to cite any evidence whatsoever to believe that Chris was the person who had taken the crab rings, Huckleberry summarily rejected the request for the warrant.
"Denied," Huckleberry scrawled across the proposed arrest document. Then, apparently still steamed, Huckleberry fired off a letter to Lincoln County District Attorney Bernice Barnett: "The pending application by your office has been denied due to the underlying affidavit, unfortunately, providing nothing more than factual conclusions." Huckleberry noted that he had often complained before about shoddy work from the Lincoln County authorities. Huckleberry is the same judge who will hear Longo's upcoming trial.
Thus, less than a week before Maryjane Longo and her children would be murdered, some of the same people who are now trying to put Christian Longo on death row muffed the last chance they had to catch him before the worst outcome of all transpired.
From this point forward, the story has been widely recounted, both in the state and nationally: Longo told people that he and Maryjane were getting a divorce, that she and the kids had gone back to Michigan. Zachary Longo's tiny body washed up on the bank of Lint Slough on Wednesday, Dec. 19. Two days later, Macon Thompson, a "business associate" of Longo, and his wife, Denise, thought they recognized a publicized drawing of Zach's face, called the Longo apartment at The Landing, and got no answer. They reported their suspicions the next day to a "neighbor," who happened to be Lincoln County Sheriff's Lt. Ed Stallard.
The same day, police searched the area under the Lint Slough bridge and recovered the body of Sadie, still held under water by the rock-weighted pillowcase tied around her ankle. The police then began searching for Chris and Maryjane and Madison, only to be told repeatedly by the Bakers in telephone conversations that if Zach and Sadie were dead, so were Maryjane and Madison. On Dec. 27, the police divers found the body of Maryjane in the Longo family suitcase, just over the side of the dock at The Landing, and Madison in another case nearby. By then, Chris Longo was in Mexico. Two weeks later, a Montreal woman who recognized Longo tipped off the FBI, and he was arrested while in the disbelieving company of a female German photojournalist.
Eventually, it will be up to Oregonians to judge Christian Michael Longo--at least on this earth. Were his alleged acts of murder--so heinous on the surface, so cruel--the path taken by a "dreamer" who only wanted to jettison his responsibilities? Or were they something different, something rooted in the madness of an age of mass murder, symbolized by the attacks on Sept. 11, then brought to horrific flowering in the "Last Days" mentality widely prevalent among the practitioners of the faith that he had, by his own prior acts, so fundamentally repudiated? Those are among the questions that may be answered by the trial of Christian Longo.
And if the defense has any hope at all of proving Longo's innocence, it will have to explain the suitcases. In the weeks after Longo's arrest, a deputy from the Lincoln County Sheriff's Office would go back to Michigan, to see if he could get the facts straight about the Longos' life and times in Ypsilanti.
It was while talking to the Bakers that Deputy Dennis Bosque was provided with a particularly damning photograph: a snapshot that showed little Zachary Longo sitting in the very same green suitcase that eventually held the body of his murdered mother, Maryjane Irene Baker Longo, and which might answer a gruesome question: Just why were Zachary and Sadie's bodies found so far away from their mother and baby sister?
"[The police] told us," Mark Baker said later, "that he just ran out of suitcases."
Carlton Smith worked at
from 1980 to 1983. He is a former investigative reporter for
who is now a full-time true-crime writer and the author of 15 books, including the bestselling
. 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.
According to the Oregon State Police, since 1992 there have been eight instances in Oregon of a man killing his wife and children; in half of those cases, the man committed suicide as well.
In the same period there have been 115 instances in Oregon in which a man killed either his wife or his girlfriend; in 50 of those cases, the man also committed suicide.
On July 11, 2001, Sharon Yvonne Weston of Gresham strangled her 20-month-old daughter when, during a state-supervised visit, a family-services worker briefly let them out of his sight. She pled guilty to avoid a possible death sentence and was sentenced to at least 25 years in prison.
On Feb. 23, 2002, having moved to Yamhill County after breaking with the Jehovah's Witnesses in California, Robert Bryant killed his wife and five children with a shotgun, one by one, at close range. It was his 17th wedding anniversary.
On March 19, 2002, Juong Sik Lee of Beaverton was sentenced to at least 25 years in prison for drunkenly stabbing his wife to death.