It Began With a Lie
GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:
Welcome back to SNAP JUDGMENT "The Big Payback." Today, we're exploring stories where people, in one way or another, are getting back from the universe what they put in. Our next piece comes from a journalist who's been all over the world, but found his craziest story a bit closer to home.
MIKE FINKEL: I had pretty much been going through the worst week of my life at least professionally. Perhaps just call it the worst week of my life ever. Forty-eight hours earlier, I was on top of the world. I had the best job on planet Earth for me, which was a writer for the New York Times Magazine with no topic at all. Just go to the most interesting contentious places in the world with your pen and your notebook. Hang out there for as long as you want. Write any length story you want, and we'll put it in one of the most influential and prestigious publications in the world. And we'll pay you to do that.
ANNA SUSSMAN, BYLINE: Mike Finkel devoted himself to his dream job. His friends said he kind of dropped off the radar.
FINKEL: More than one person told me I'd been a (bleep) to them and, you know, got too consumed with the job.
SUSSMAN: And he was so singularly focused on this dream job, he kind of lost sight of the big picture. He went to West Africa for an assignment. And when he came back, his editor asked for a particular story that he just didn't have the reporting for.
FINKEL: I should, of course, told my editor at that very moment, but I was very young and coveting a job. And in my mind, there was a line behind me of people wanting to take my job that stretched around the block. And so I was like, OK, I'll do that story. Sat down with my notes. I was like, I don't really have this story. Probably should've sent an e-mail or call to my editor.
SUSSMAN: But instead, he reported on a person that didn't really exist. He made up a composite character. A character just made up from a handful of actual people. He got found out, and he was unceremoniously fired. His friends almost saw it coming.
FINKEL: The general consensus was, you know, Mike I think you were being an arrogant bastard, and you were too enamored of maybe the name, the publication and maybe you sort of lost your way.
SUSSMAN: As soon as he admitted his mistake to his editors, Mike retreated to a log cabin in Montana. And he waited for the news to break publicly. And then it did. The New York Times printed an editor's note on page A3 describing what Mike had done. Mike waited for the media feeding frenzy to begin.
FINKEL: And I was planning to hide out for, who knows - weeks, a month, the rest of my life. It was all like a very dark future. I was in my pickup truck driving to my house when the phone rang. I answered the phone. Guy introduced himself as a reporter for the Portland Oregonian. And immediately, I was like, oh I shouldn't have answered the phone. I said something to the effect of, you know, I'm sure you're calling about the editor's note. And then he says the sentence that sort of changed rest of my life. He said to me, no I'm calling about the murders. And that's when I think I pulled my truck over to the side of the road, and I was like what?
And the story unfolded. So he backed up, and he said I'm calling about Christian Longo. This guy is accused and looks very guilty of murdering his entire family, which consisted of his three young children and his wife. And he says to me, you know, and he went around telling everyone his name was Michael Finkel, and he was a reporter for the New York Times. Oh yeah. My name happens to be Michael Finkel, and maybe 48 hours earlier, I was Michael Finkel of the New York Times. At that moment, I had just lost my identity. There was something that was completely topsy-turvy. So yes, a person who apparently murdered his family went around telling everyone that he was me at the same time that I basically felt like I was no longer myself. Now the cosmic coincidence or the divine intervention or whatever you want to call it of those two things was so crazy, so profound that a million questions went through my mind, all on the phone with this poor reporter.
SUSSMAN: Then it occurs to Mike that even though he's just been defrocked, he's a reporter to.
FINKEL: I remember driving up to my house. And I took out a yellow pad of paper - lined, and I wrote a relatively brief, but exceedingly odd letter saying hi, my name is Michael Finkel of the New York Times. I hear that you took on my name. And I felt a little, you know, in the United States, you know, you're innocent until proven guilty. So I didn't say before you murdered your family. I sort of decided to let that lay aside for a little bit. And I was like, you know, I'm wondering if you'd like to explain why you took on my identity. I'm, you know, washed up at the age of 33 or so, and there's nothing more to live for.
Fortuitously this whole Christian Longo thing fell like a gift from the journalism gods into my lap. One day, approximately a month after I wrote the letter, my phone rings. It's a collect call from the Lincoln County jail in Newport, Oregon. And I knew exactly who it was, and you pick up the phone. And I remember this sort of very nervous feeling.
SUSSMAN: What were your impressions of him, Mike?
FINKEL: The creepiest thing I could tell you about Christian Longo - the absolute most unsettling thing I can tell you about him is that there is nothing at all creepy about him. Yeah, OK, I mean, I need to make a blanket statement. I would love for you to not cut out.
FINKEL: At the heart of this story, there are three dead children and a beautiful young wife also murdered. And that can never be forgotten. In fact, right it brings on sort of anger and a little sweat to my brow just thinking about it. That's always in the background playing like a ticker tape around my mind. You killed your family. You killed your family. You killed your family. It's never not an echo.
SUSSMAN: What happened to Christian Longo's family was awful. His wife and three very young children were strangled and drowned to death. All four were found in the icy waters of the Oregon coast.
FINKEL: The guy calls, and that's not the first thing I say to him - you killed your family. I don't speak the line that's writing through my head. You killed your family. I actually, as a journalist, as a human, I know that sometimes you have to build up to the question you really want to ask. OK, so that put a little bit to the side. He was complementary and enthusiastic in a way that wasn't cheesy. It was genuine. But it was subtle so it wasn't like, ah this guy is trying to work to make me like him. That would be kind of obvious. You know, I'm not that dumb, but...
SUSSMAN: But in truth, Mike did like the fact that Christian Longo was a fan, especially in a moment when he didn't have a lot of glory to bask in.
FINKEL: It turns out that, you know, literally I had one fan. I don't care if he's calling collect from the county jail, I had a fan. And it was a genuine one, and it sort of melts your defenses. He said to me in the beginning, like, he was going to tell me the whole entire story and three-part harmony in full detail, and I would see that he was innocent.
SUSSMAN: Christian told Mike that he wanted to get his side of the story out. There was a reason he had stolen Mike Finkel's identity because he thought Mike was a good reporter, and he said he trusted that Mike was the guy to help him. And Mike thought this was exactly what his injured career needed. And, Mike, I have a question, and I hope this question is OK to ask, but I wonder if it crossed your mind that working with someone who was clearly a liar was not an easy way to restore your credibility.
FINKEL: Yeah I found it to be, again, you know, maybe I'm convincing myself. I found it to be, like, ideal. Like the grandest challenge is, you know, to talk to someone, basically a pathological liar. And to draw the truth out of him. And, you know, and this whole idea of truth. I will write a story that's unquestionably accurate, the most - you know, the ultimate version of the truth. And it will save my career therefore my spirits, my life, everything this is all dependent on this one story. And I just wanted one thing from him. I just wanted him to tell me the truth. I started writing him a letter about once a week - 5, 10, 12 pages.
I started writing anything that came to mind. I'm not sure if I'm embarrassed about this because, again, you have to remember, I would like to remind everyone that this was a point in my life where I had no work. I had no significant other. I had been so consumed with my job that I wasn't even able to hold down a girlfriend. I had no future, as we talked about, that I could imagine. This was it. It was a very bizarre sort of thing. Like, here's a guy - I mean, I was embarrassed about myself because I had cheated on a story for the New York Times. And here was a guy who was in jail possibly for murder. I was - he was like the only person I was morally superior to that I'd knew.
SUSSMAN: Longo starts telling Mike the ways he's had it tough - the mistakes he's made, how we told small lies that spiraled into big lies, but that he's not a bad guy. Surely Mike can relate.
FINKEL: He was very good at sort of currying, you know, solidarity on some level. Like, hey, we're in this together. And he's self-educated, and he started writing me letters - 10 pages, 30 pages, 50 pages, 70 pages, 80 pages. The only writing instrument he was allowed to use in the Lincoln County Jail was a golf pencil. You try to write three sentences with a golf pencil. He wrote, in the end, more than 1,000 pages of letters. Not only that, he was permitted one called phone call a week for an hour, and he called me.
SUSSMAN: Did you ever let your professional guard down? Did it become personal with you guys?
FINKEL: Absolutely. Did we become friends? Yeah. I mean, the person on the phone seemed like the most - a dude I would want to go play pool with and drink a couple of beers with in a bar, and have a couple of laughs. I was thinking, you know, here it is. I can prove this guy innocent, find the real killer, write the most spectacular story, have everything on tape. I have a scoop on a spectacular murder story.
SUSSMAN: By the time Christian Longo's trial arrives, Longo had spent about a year sharing almost every detail of his life with Mike. So Mike travels to Oregon, and sits down to hear this man testify on the stand.
FINKEL: He goes to trial without telling me what happened the night his family was killed, except hinting obliquely that he didn't do it.
SUSSMAN: And it's not until the trial itself that Mike gets his reality check.
FINKEL: In the trial, horrifically, he blames his wife, essentially, for killing two of their children and attempting to kill the third.
SUSSMAN: Christian Longo's testimony, that it was all actually his deceased wife's fault, left the courtroom stunned, most especially Mike.
FINKEL: It was so clearly a lie that the moment at his trial when he says that sort of was like, finally I saw this guy as I probably she should've seen it a little earlier for who he really was - a person who murdered his family. You know, if anybody is listening to this and thinking, you know, what an idiot Mike is. He fell for this guy's charms. I would say, well, you know, they were skillful charms. And yes, I fell for them. Again, I would be upset if you didn't say I understand perspective here. Yeah, sure poor Mike. He got, you know, lied to by a liar. In the chess game that is a journalist subject-relationship that is a person-to-person relationship, he always seemed to be a step or two ahead. And I thought, OK, well, that's over, but I felt this need to write one last letter in which I said you bastard. You're a murderer. I was hoping there was a one percent chance, a one tenth of of one percent chance that you would just admit it. You both lied, you broke all promises and you are a murderer. You know, and you killed your family. And I just had to write one last thing.
And I thought, OK, now we're finished. But as always with Longo, there's another move. And I received a letter - first one written in pen. He no longer had to use a golf pencil. On death row, it turns out you get a pen. But there was this familiar, extremely neat, neat as boxcars printed handwriting, and it's my first letter from him from death row. And I'm like oh what the (bleep) is he going to say now about how he's innocent, he's not this. And I'm like, here we go. You know, I don't even want to read this. And I open it up, and as always with Longo, it's a surprise. And in his first letter to me from death row, he admitted fully to murdering his whole family. I was appreciative of the truth, but then, unfortunately, the truth was that he murdered his family.
SUSSMAN: So there was Mike's truth. Yes, both men had been liars, but Christian Longo was a murderer. And Mike was a journalist again .Now might has a family - a wife and kids. He says he works more slowly now. He takes his time.
FINKEL: It seems like understating it to say a cautionary tale. But I use parts of Longo's as way - as motivation for, you know what? Let's be careful with - let's not be loose with the truth. Let's be careful with it.
WASHINGTON: Thanks to Mike Finkel for speaking with us here at SNAP. That piece was produced by Anna Sussman with assistance from Julia DeWitt.
WASHINGTON: When SNAP continues, find out when it pays to be a little kid. I'm talking real cash money here, Snappers, on "The Big Payback." From PRX and NPR, stay tuned.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.