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Original Essays

The Whole, True Story

by Michael Finkel
  1. True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa
    $9.95 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "[S]imply terrific from the first page to the last." Jeffrey Toobin, CNN senior legal analyst and New Yorker staff writer

    "...Finkel's superb blend of true-crime storytelling and memoir raises this book above many in both genres. You won't be able to put this one down." Georgie,

The phone rang, my caller ID read INMATE PHONE, and I answered. Perhaps that was my mistake right there. Maybe I never should have spoken with Christian Longo, a man who'd recently been captured in Mexico by the FBI on charges that he'd murdered his wife and three young children.

Under normal circumstances, I might have thought twice about answering. But I was not operating under normal circumstances. For all of my adult life — until February of 2002, a few weeks before Longo called — I'd worked as a journalist, and had recently earned a position as a full-time writer for the New York Times Magazine.

I was thirty-two years old when I landed the Times job, and extremely ambitious — arrogantly ambitious. So ambitious that, when I was sent to West Africa to report on child laborers and wasn't able to obtain an ideal interview, I combined several inadequate interviews into one and invented the perfect protagonist. Each individual piece of my story was accurate — every quote and detail came straight from my notes — and the general premise was sound, but the whole was almost entirely untrue. This was the article I handed in.

I was eventually caught for my deception and fired by the Times. I was branded a liar; my career as a journalist, I figured, was finished. And then I found out about Christian Longo.

Longo was accused of one of the most horrific crimes imaginable. The bodies of his wife and children were found in the waters off the Oregon coast. Longo, police said, had murdered them and fled to Mexico. After he was arrested there — just as I was in the process of losing my identity as Michael Finkel of the New York Times — it was discovered that, while on the run, Longo had adopted a new persona: He'd been pretending to be Michael Finkel of the New York Times.

÷ ÷ ÷

So it was by no means an ordinary moment when Longo called. I'd ruined my career, and felt buried in shame. But I hadn't lost my instincts. When I learned about Longo's impersonation, I sensed a profoundly strange story. I wrote him a letter, asking him to contact me. A month later, he did.

I had no idea what I was in for. I'd never encountered a person like Longo — he was almost certainly guilty of four murders, yet he sounded calm and self-confident. In fact, although it was he who'd impersonated me, he was the suspicious one. "How do I know," he asked at the outset of our first conversation, "that this is the real Michael Finkel?"

Once I proved that I was actually me, Longo told me that he'd long been a fan of my work and often wished he had the freedom to become a globe-trotting journalist. When he finally did have his independence, in Mexico, he took on my identity. His impersonation was startlingly intricate — he chatted with other tourists about "his" published articles; he said he was traveling in the Cancún area on assignment; he took detailed notes; he even teamed up with a photographer. Then the FBI found him.

Longo and I soon established regular communication, including weekly phone calls and frequent letters. During the year between his arrest and the start of his trial, I visited him several times in jail. He was twenty-eight years old, with a baby face — red hair, freckles across his nose, wide-angled ears. He was unfailingly polite and well-spoken. Nothing about him seemed even remotely frightening.

Early in our communication, Longo asked me a favor. He said he understood that because of my dishonest Times story, I'd been stripped of my credibility. He said he was in a similar position. He asked me to listen to him without leaping to conclusions, to pay attention to facts rather than yielding to assumptions. I said I would. We promised to be completely honest with one another. Then he told me that he was innocent of the murders — and, if I were patient, he'd tell me the "whole, true story" and prove his innocence to me.

I asked him to tell me the story. And this is when I started to become sucked into his world. Longo was charming and charismatic; funny at times, introspective at others. And he had an ingenious way of skewing the truth to cast himself in the most sympathetic possible light.

His ability to deceive was astonishing. He never contradicted any fact I could independently verify, but he was able to manipulate me so subtly, with such skill and aplomb, that I never realized when his tale became detached from reality. Despite the damning evidence against him — four dead bodies found in Oregon, one live man found in Mexico — there were times when I began to believe his innocence.

I was snapped out of this belief only at his trial. Once the police photos of Longo's wife and children were displayed, the spell was broken. Longo's testimony — in which he tried to blame his wife for initiating the killings — was utterly implausible. He was sentenced to death. I'd never been a supporter of capital punishment, but the trial generated in me such fury that it was a judgment I felt he deserved.

Though Longo now resides on death row, I've yet to fully recover from my association with him. I'm still haunted by Longo. All the time I spent with him forced me to take a lengthy and uncomfortable look at what I'd done at the Times. Some parts of my own character, I confess — the runaway egotism, the capacity to deceive — appeared mirrored and magnified in him. In my fake Times story, I'd spun a phony tale around genuine details. This was Longo's specialty. His ability to distort the truth seemed on par with the most gifted of magicians.

My year with Longo showed me how a person's life could spiral completely out of control; how one could get lost in a haze of dishonesty; and how these things can have dire consequences. I might have learned the same lessons if I had never met him, but not so quickly and clearly and profoundly.

It was only at the end of our relationship, at his trial, that I saw the truth about Longo — that he was a liar and a murderer. This was not a simple truth to uncover. Longo was married to MaryJane for eight years. My guess is that MaryJane, perhaps in a similar vein as Laci Peterson, saw her husband only as a captivating, well-adjusted man. MaryJane may have had no idea who Christian Longo really was, until the moment his hands were around her neck. spacer

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