Always a step ahead - until the end
Murder suspect wove a tapestry of deceit.
Sunday, February 24, 2002
By BRYAN DENSON
NEWHOUSE NEWS SERVICE
NEWPORT, Ore. - On the first day of winter, Chris Longo walked out of a cloudy coastal morning into the fluorescent brilliance of the Fred Meyer superstore on U.S. 101. All across town, blue newspaper boxes carried a cover story - "Boy found dead in Alsea Bay."
If Longo took notice of the news about his only son, he didn't let on.
At 10:30 a.m., the lanky 27-year-old picked up his paycheck and walked out. He was expected to return for a 3-to-11 shift that evening, Dec. 21, the height of the Christmas rush. But he didn't show.
The former Ypsilanti Township resident moved through town that day just as he had through two other cities in the previous six months - a ghost on the run from creditors and cops, and always a half-stride ahead.
But this departure was different. Over the past couple of years, Longo popped in and out of people's lives, getting from them what he needed - money, possessions, a place to stay. Yet a constant in his life was his young family: wife, MaryJane; son, Zach, 4; and daughters, Sadie, 3, and Madison, 2.
This time, Longo would leave town alone.
Police, who describe him a con man, counterfeiter and thief, said Longo had left a 14-month trail of arrest warrants from Michigan to Ohio to Oregon, making scant efforts to conceal his identity. Within the next few weeks, Longo would be the subject of a nationwide manhunt and earn a spot on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list of fugitives.
But on that quiet Friday in December, he was just another motorist moving through another cold, cloudy morning on the way out of town.
The move to Oregon
One day late last summer, Chris Longo walked into Ocean Odyssey Vacation Rentals in Yachats, Ore., wearing khakis, a button-down shirt and a shy smile. He led his young family to the desk of office manager Clarice Weathers.
MaryJane Longo, 34, wearing jeans and not a trace of makeup, looked spent. She held 2-year-old Madison in a blanket in her arms. Sadie and Zach crumpled wearily in chairs.
Longo said he'd be traveling to Eugene on business and needed a safe place for his family. He settled on an $800-a-month rental house just outside Waldport. Trouble was, he told co-owner Susan Thompson, he didn't want to run up his credit card bill. So if it was OK, he'd like to leave his credit card number but pay each week in cash.
Thompson agreed, but if he was late on a payment, she said, the company would bill his card.
Longo moved his family into the small cream-colored house, trimmed in sea-foam green, on a quiet side street just a few hundred yards from the sandy beaches of the Pacific Ocean. Five days after moving in, he made the first of seven trips to a Newport pawnshop called Fast Cash. He would sell a pair of Cobra two-way radios, a digital camera, binoculars, a VCR, diving gear, crab traps and other equipment. His forays would yield less than $400.
On Sept. 24, Longo went to work at the Starbucks coffee stand just inside the main entrance to Newport's Fred Meyer store. A couple of weeks later, he phoned Ocean Odyssey asking to extend his week-to-week rental agreement. But Thompson, unhappy that he was late with his rent, turned him down.
The Longos cleared out owing $220.
On the lam
By early fall, MaryJane's family was worried sick. Weeks had passed since any of them had heard from her. MaryJane's cell phone had been disconnected, and she wasn't answering phone messages.
On Sept. 22 - about the time Longo applied for work at the Newport Starbucks - three of MaryJane's sisters met in Ann Arbor where MaryJane had grown up and drove 40 minutes down U.S. 23 to Toledo, where the Longos had moved in June. They found the house abandoned. The family had apparently left in a hurry, leaving behind the childrens' bikes, MaryJane's Huron High School yearbook and boxes of clothes and photos. Food sat in the refrigerator.
Worried, the women drove to a Toledo police station and filed a missing-persons report.
Toledo police were already looking for Longo. On Aug. 30, a day before the Longos moved out, they had recovered $55,000 in stolen merchandise, including a powerboat and construction equipment, and named Longo as their sole suspect. Also that day, Longo rented a Penske moving truck in a Toledo suburb.
MaryJane's family knew a little about Longo's troubles in Ypsilanti. He had failed in a business he ran out of their home, bouncing payroll checks and losing small-claims judgments to employees he had hired to clean newly built houses. He had been stripped of membership at the Golfside Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses. Longo was on probation in Michigan after a felony conviction for writing nearly $30,000 in counterfeit checks to himself. In July, a judge issued a warrant for his arrest after he failed repeatedly to see his probation officer.
The criminal warrant was one of four filed against Longo between October 2000 and September 2001 in Ohio and Michigan. He was wanted for theft, larceny and counterfeiting checks.
MaryJane's family knew it was unlike her to cut herself off from family, and they blamed her husband. While they wanted to like him, the marriage seemed a portrait in opposites. MaryJane was pious and reserved. She became a Jehovah's Witness as a youth and lived with her parents until marrying Longo, nearly seven years younger, when she was 26. She had a way of looking past the faults of people she loved, and she adored her children.
Longo was charming, animated and seemed to be a loving family man. He also seemed to lie a lot and took pride at talking his way out of tight spots. Wherever he wanted to go, whatever he wanted to do, MaryJane followed dutifully with the children in tow.
Susan Lowery, MaryJane's mom, was so worried about her daughter that in August she phoned MaryJane, asking her to bring the kids to Alabama for an extended visit. It seemed to Lowery that Longo was pulling MaryJane away, and she hoped her daughter would come without him. But MaryJane said she wouldn't visit without her husband. "I'm afraid," Lowery said.
Why? MaryJane asked.
"I'm afraid I'll never see you again."
In early November, Lowery got a postcard from MaryJane. She wrote that things had not worked out in Toledo, so they moved, although she didn't say where. She wrote that Longo had sent out some resumes and was taking an eight-week training program. But she didn't say what kind of work it was. She closed the note, "Love, MaryJane. P.S. I'll keep in touch."
The card was postmarked Nov. 5 in Sioux Falls, S.D.
A day earlier, police in Sioux Falls had recovered the Penske moving truck Longo had rented in Ohio.
A room overlooking the bay
Sarah Johnson, a desk clerk at The Landing at Newport in Oregon watched as the young man walked into the lobby Nov. 30. He was dressed in slacks and a brown leather jacket, his hair laid down neatly.
The man said his name was Chris Longo and he worked for Qwest as a community surveyor. He planned to be in town three months to determine local interest in high-speed Internet lines. Longo wanted to rent a room at the three-story condominium complex on Yaquina Bay, which overlooks rows of pleasure boats docked at the Embarcadero Marina and the arched spans of the U.S. 101 bridge.
He declined the daily housekeeping service to get a $300 break on the $1,800-a-month rent. Johnson handed him a key card for room 208.
Longo stopped by Johnson's desk now and again to chat, and to complain that Qwest hadn't sent him a check, so he couldn't pay for his room.
When a Lincoln County sheriff's detective came looking for Longo late the next month, he was gone.
He hadn't paid The Landing a dime.
Debbie Thomas watched the Longo family step out of a blowing rain Dec. 16 and push through the doors of Dining Collections, a Salem furniture store. She found Longo chatty and outgoing, while MaryJane seemed aloof and weary.
The saleswoman bent down and asked Zach his age. The child kept his eyes locked on his dad as he shyly lifted four fingers. Thomas asked Zach if she could shake his hand, and he let her, but only after dad gave the OK.
Later, Thomas complimented the Longos on their well-behaved kids.
"They're my whole life," MaryJane said.
A unique license plate
Two days later, Chris Longo and a tall, slim man stepped into the 86,000-square-foot showroom of Town & Country Dodge, in Wilsonville. A sales agent approached, but Longo waved him away. He knew what he wanted. He and MaryJane had test-driven a white 2001 Dodge Durango sport utility vehicle at the dealership the same day they were furniture shopping in Salem.
Hours after their return to the dealership Dec. 18, workers there noticed a green Durango missing from the showroom; and a Pontiac minivan, with missing license plates, sat in the lot. Hoping the Durango would turn up, they waited until the next morning, Dec. 19, to phone police.
Clackamas County sheriff's deputies determined the Pontiac had been stolen from a suburban Toledo auto dealership nearly two years before. Investigators said the metal sleeve that had held the minivan's license plate bore an unmistakable imprint: KIDVAN.
The vanity plate had been issued to a Michigan man named Christian Michael Longo.
The first body
That same chilly morning, in Waldport, Von Mader, 37, took a final drag from his Marlboro and began to flick it into the grass from the deck of his parents' doublewide. He thought better of it, figuring the olive-green waters of the slough next to the Bayview Mobile Home Park would be a better place to toss the butt. As he ambled to the water's edge, something caught his eye.
Ten feet below, face down in the water, floated the pallid body of a little boy. Clad only in animal-print underwear, the child was curled in a near-fetal position. The water in Lint Slough, in the backwaters of Alsea Bay, was so shallow that the back of the boy's hands were dragging on the muddy bottom.
Mader could only stare and hear the words tumbling from his lips: "Oh my God ... Oh my God ... Oh my God ..." He turned for the house to phone 9-1-1.
A Lincoln County sheriff's spokesman said the boy probably died in the first hours of Dec. 19. No one stepped forward to claim the boy's body.
On Dec. 22, Mader sat in a recliner at his parents' place when the phone rang. A family friend told him to look outside. Mader grabbed a pair of binoculars and peered out the picture window to see a dive team under the Oregon 34 bridge that crosses the slough. They lifted a sleeping bag out of the chilly water and placed it on the bank. Divers later pulled the body of a 3-year-old girl from the bottom of the same murky water.
"Angels among us"
The Rev. Jim Howe's gray cleric's robe swayed with each step as he walked out of the prayer chapel to take a phone call from his friend Sheriff John O'Brien. It was minutes before noon on Christmas Eve, and people were taking seats in the Community Presbyterian Church of Waldport.
Howe was ready to lead a memorial service for the two unidentified children found in Lint Slough. Many of Waldport's 2,050 residents had taken the deaths hard. A makeshift memorial - stuffed animals, helium balloons and Hot Wheels - dotted a 20-foot section of the Lint Slough bridge, where one of many notes read, "Angels among us!"
"I can't be there today," the sheriff told Howe over the phone. "We just identified the children." They'd been living in Newport, he said.
The news stunned Howe, who hung up and glanced at the words he'd written for the service. They would do.
Candle flames licked the air as he moved to the rostrum. The sanctuary, dressed in garland and red bows, was set up to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, not mourn the slayings of innocents.
"We have adopted these children," he told 120 mourners, some weeping in the cushioned pews. "They are ours."
Then, almost in passing, he said the children had been neighbors.
Later that day, authorities reluctantly acknowledged that the two children had been identified as Zachery Michael Longo and Sadie Ann Longo. Still missing: Their mother, MaryJane Longo; their sister, Madison Jeanne Longo; and their father, Christian Michael Longo.
In San Francisco that day, Chris Longo walked out of the low-rent hostel where he'd spent the night. He was looking for work and had picked up an application at the Union Street Starbucks downtown.
The day after Christmas, he dropped off the application. On the form, he listed a callback number from the cell phone he had just purchased. Under references, he listed the real numbers of Starbucks employees in Newport, but gave false area codes.
Also that day, Longo logged into a computer terminal and booked a flight to Mexico using a stolen credit card number. He booked a return flight for Jan. 26.
Longo walked into San Francisco International Airport before dawn on the morning of Dec. 27 and boarded American Airlines Flight 1048 bound for Cancun.
That afternoon, in a cold drizzle back in Newport, a dive team searching the water 50 yards below Longo's room at The Landing made a gruesome discovery. At the end of the pier they pulled two large bags from the murky water. Inside were the bodies of MaryJane and Madison. Investigators knew Chris Longo was their suspect.
Starbucks officials in San Francisco had learned that police in Oregon were searching for Longo and - at the behest of the FBI - agreed to lure him in for a job interview the next morning at 9. The manager of the Union Street store left a message on Longo's voice mail.
The next morning, Dec. 28, several agents blended into the crowd of coffee drinkers and waited. But Longo had already been in Mexico nearly 12 hours.
From Cancun International Airport it's a 30-minute bus ride to the resort town's $10-a-night Mexico Hostels, a two-story adobe building with a thatched roof and Internet cafe.
The 50-bed hostel sits on Mexico's sunny Caribbean coast, attracting a colorful blend of spring breakers, Europeans on holiday and - from time to time - fugitives from the United States.
Longo checked in and quickly made friends with a Canadian woman and her boyfriend, arousing some suspicion when he first introduced himself as Brad, then later as Mike. He struck up a more intimate relationship with a German woman who was a photojournalist.
Clues at the airport
On the morning of Jan. 6, two San Francisco police officers assigned to the city's international airport discovered the Durango on the second floor of a short-term parking garage. The officers confirmed the SUV with Oregon plates was stolen.
Investigators found a pair of parking receipts dated Dec. 26 in the Durango, along with a blanket, Triscuits, cheese and a half-empty bottle of cabernet sauvignon. The SUV also yielded a computer and evidence that Longo had been using two aliases.
Investigators also found a vanity license plate issued in Michigan: KIDVAN.
Traveling in Mexico
Longo was in a tight spot. An Argentine man he'd roomed with at the hostel had discovered money missing from his belongings.
So on Jan. 7, he and his new German companion pushed on for Tulum, a beach town 60 miles south along the sandy white coastline. She wanted to photograph the nearby Mayan ruins. They checked into a beach camp called the Santa Fe, paying $10 a night for a palm-thatched cabana and partying with a band of travelers who seemed to prefer the camp's primitive chic to Cancun's high-end hotels.
Fifteen hundred miles north, MaryJane's family laid her and the children to rest in Ann Arbor's snow-covered Bethlehem Cemetery.
They were buried in a private ceremony the way they were found beneath the coastal waters of Oregon. Zach and Sadie, found together in Lint Slough, were placed in one adult-sized casket. Beside them, MaryJane and Madison, found together in the Embarcadero Marina, were buried in another.
Longo, going by the name Mike, spent his days snorkeling, touring the Mayan pyramids and knocking around the jungle. By night, he drank beer, danced at Don Armando's disco and smoked pot with his new friends.
He carried few belongings and wore a plaid Abercrombie & Fitch shirt day after day. He presented himself as a rich kid delightfully slumming it at the Santa Fe.
The stories he told were contradictory. He told some he wasn't married and had no kids, and that his travels as a journalist were too hard on relationships. He told others he had once taken his wife on a $12,000 vacation to Jamaica.
Longo told two Minnesota women he had a writing job that took him to zoos across the United States. That job, he said, helped him pay for a new Dodge Durango. He boasted of free-lancing travel pieces to The New York Times. He said his latest piece was on "Mayan mysticism."
On an early morning tour of the Mayan pyramids, Longo and his German companion were all business. Longo scribbled mounds of notes as she snapped frame after frame.
The duo talked aloud about bolting for Belize, maybe Guatemala.
The trail gets hot
As Longo frolicked, the FBI manhunt intensified.
On Jan. 11, Charles Mathews, 57, the agent in charge of the FBI for Oregon, announced that the bureau added Longo to the Ten Most Wanted list of fugitives with a $50,000 reward for information leading to his apprehension. The agent waited to deliver bigger news: Longo was now thought to have jetted to Cancun, where wanted posters in Spanish were being circulated.
That evening, a woman living near Montreal phoned the FBI in Washington, D.C., to say she recognized Longo after seeing his photo on a TV news program. The woman and her boyfriend recalled making friends with Longo at a hostel in Mexico. To be sure, she checked out his photo on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted Web page.
That's your man, she said.
The next day, someone phoned the FBI in Mexico City to say they spotted Longo's wanted poster on a telephone booth in Tulum and that he was still there.
On the evening of Jan. 13, truckloads of police, immigration officials and FBI agents pulled into the Santa Fe, headlights flooding the night-blackened beach camp.
Longo and a few friends were drinking beer and smoking pot in one of the Santa Fe's cabanas when a police officer kicked open the flimsy wooden door. The room filled with police officers, who handcuffed Longo and three Englishmen. When the officers determined Longo was an American, they focused on him, asking him to identify himself.
"I am Christian Michael Longo," he said.
FBI agents gave Longo two options: Accompany them back to the United States to face trial or spend months in one of Mexico's notoriously squalid prisons.
Back in Oregon
A raw breeze blew through Newport the night of Jan. 15, chilling a crowd huddled outside the Lincoln County Jail. They had gathered after 10 p.m. hoping to catch a glimpse of the man who had moved through their town like a ghost and now, after 25 days away, was returning in chains.
By 11 p.m., about 40 people waited outside, sharing details of Longo's life on the run and debating his motives. Thirty minutes later, the crowd hushed as a dark, four-door sedan arrived.
Lamps on the street were too weak to penetrate the dark windows of the car, which descended a concrete ramp into the bowels of the Lincoln County Jail. The crowd outside strained for a glimpse. But before Longo climbed from the car, the metal door slowly clanged shut.
On the afternoon of Jan. 23, Longo's 28th birthday, a Lincoln County grand jury indicted him on seven counts of aggravated murder. Under Oregon law, killing children or more than one person is a crime punishable by death.
Hours later, Longo appeared by closed-circuit television in a courtroom where prosecutor Paulette Sanders announced he would face the death penalty. He showed no emotion.
A few people in the courtroom quietly applauded.
Alex Pulaski of The Oregonian staff contributed to this report.