The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Lifestyles

April 14, 2014

Patty Crane: Reporter's mea culpa found in identity theft

JOPLIN, Mo. — As I was browsing the library's list of new materials for March, "True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa" by Michael Finkel caught my attention.

The summary begins, "In February 2002, a reporter in Oregon contacts New York Times Magazine writer Michael Finkel with a startling piece of news: A young, highly intelligent man named Christian Longo, on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list for killing his entire family, has recently been captured in Mexico, where he'd taken on a new identity -- Michael Finkel's."

I was intrigued. How does someone react to the news that a fugitive on the Ten Most Wanted list is impersonating them? Finkel's reaction was to be flattered (a little), curious and relief for the distraction.

Finkel had just become an ex-writer for the New York Times Magazine and was awaiting the vilification he'd receive when the announcement was made.

He created a character from people he interviewed for an investigative piece on cocoa plantations and child slavery. Finkel used the name of one of the interviewees, Youssouf Male, but not his story and got caught.

After the story of his deception and firing had played itself out, Finkel reached out to Christian Longo, asking for a chance to talk.

A month later, Longo called.

Thus began a long relationship between Finkel and Longo. With Longo incarcerated, their communications were by letter, weekly phone calls and rare face to face meetings separated by a wall of glass.

Finkel knew that having an exclusive on Chris Longo's story might save his career. What he didn't know was that getting to know Longo would force him to examine his own character and the choices he'd made.

This book is a mix of true crime, biography and confession/apology. The narrative switches back and forth between Longo and Finkel. Finkel's part begins with the assignment to write the cocoa plantations piece.

The story was a hot topic, and many news agencies were in West Africa covering it.

But as Finkel delved deeper, he discovered the issue was not slavery but extreme poverty. Children came willingly to work because as bad as it was on the plantations, it was better than home.

After three weeks, he came home with a different story than what was assigned. His editor approved the new storyline but wanted a human interest angle. He needed to tell the story through one character. Finkel agreed to do the story without admitting that he hadn't conducted the interview needed to write the story through one person.

Longo's tale begins in Oregon with the discovery of the bodies of his son, 5-year-old Zachery, and daughter, 3-year-old Sadie. The bodies of his wife, MaryJane, and 2-year-old daughter Madison were found a few days later. By the time the bodies were discovered and identified, Chris Longo had fled to San Francisco and from there to Mexico.

In Mexico, Christian Longo became Michael Finkel, reporter for the New York Times.

He made no attempt to hide other than the name change and was friendly with fellow tourists. He was memorable to many including a Canadian tourist who, on the day that he was placed on the FBI's wanted list, reported seeing him in Cancun. Two days later, he was arrested and returned to Oregon to be tried on four counts of murder.

Many of the details about Longo's movements after the murders and his time in Mexico are provided by him. He wrote and sent to Finkel thousands of pages about his life before and after the deaths of his wife and children.

Finkel came to like Chris Longo even as he was using him to get a story. And Longo was using Finkel -- to see how his story was received and to refine the parts Finkel questioned. Longo, Finkel realized, was a good liar, and he saw some of himself in Longo.

This is an intriguing and disturbing tale. Finkel makes Chris Longo come alive, and he is unsparing about both of their failures. As the story moves through Longo's life and the murder trial, I was reminded why I usually avoid true crime books. I prefer to read about murder as fiction, not fact. I sleep better at night.

 

Patty Crane is reference librarian for the Joplin Public Library.

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