A Family’s Murder
Nov. 21, 2003
With his boyish good looks, well-spoken demeanor and religious upbringing, Christian Longo seemed an unlikely candidate for the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. But when the bodies of his wife and three small children were discovered floating in waters near their Newport, Ore., home, Longo vanished and quickly became the prime suspect.
When authorities finally caught up to him in Mexico — where he had been staying on the beach allegedly impersonating a New York Times travel writer and courting a young German photographer — the 29-year-old Christian Longo returned to Oregon to face charges that he murdered his 34-year-old wife Mary Jane and the couple’s three children — Madison, 2, Sadie, 3, and Zachery, 4.
A Serial Liar
Prosecutors called Christian Longo an ice-cold, calculating serial liar who grew tired of his family. The defense, however, contended Longo was broken by extreme financial hardships — and that he was not responsible for two of the deaths.
Though Christian Longo faced the death penalty if convicted, he pleaded guilty to murdering his wife and youngest child before his trial even began on March 10, 2003. In a bizarre move, Longo admitted to Mary Jane and Madison’s murders without any plea deal being offered by prosecutors.
A Lincoln County jury was left to decide whether he was also guilty of murdering his two elder children, and whether he deserved to die by lethal injection. In weighing their decision, jurors considered the words of Longo himself, who offered chilling testimony from the stand. During his testimony he revealed for the first time his claim that it was his wife who murdered Sadie and Zachery, which he said prompted him to strangle Mary Jane and then kill his youngest child.
A House of Cards
Raised in Ypsilanti Township, Mich., by strict Jehovah’s Witness parents, Christian Longo told investigators that he had a happy childhood. Actively involved in his church, he received training at a young age to participate in the door-to-door ministry.
Though he didn’t date until his late teens, he was married at 19 to a woman seven years older, Mary Jane Baker, whom he first met in the church parking lot.
Even before the wedding, Christian Longo began to experience money problems when he bought Baker a three-and-a-half carat diamond engagement ring on a payment plan. One month, he didn’t have enough money to cover both the rent and the ring payment, so he stole $108 from the camera store where he worked. When the employees were questioned about the missing money, Longo kept quiet.
But the next morning, he said, his conscience got to him and he left a check for the missing money on the counter along with a letter of resignation. Rent didn’t get paid that month.
Longo’s roommates, also Jehovah Witnesses, informed congregation elders of the incident and Christian Longo was sanctioned, losing some of his responsibilities within the congregation. Mary Jane stood by him, but because of the sanctions the two were not able to get married in the Kingdom Hall. Longo says he was repentant, and felt he’d learned his lesson.
“I was determined that I would never do anything along those lines again; anything that was not only illegal, but immoral, unsavory.”
But Longo’s admitted addiction to new cars, nice clothes and tropical vacations tapped out most of his credit even before the birth of the couple’s first child, Zachery. Things only got harder financially since Mary Jane Longo stopped working to take care of the baby, and two more children came within the next two years. While the couple was thrilled about the kids, finances continued to deteriorate. Christian Longo says he could not go to his parents for help, because of pride.
Christian Longo started a construction clean-up subcontracting business with another Jehovah’s Witness. The business took off quickly, but despite a booming start was soon in debt because of a too rapid expansion.
The Longo family’s credit cards were maxed out and nothing was coming in, but to their relatives and other church members, everything seemed fine. To keep up appearances, Longo exaggerated the success of his company — so convincingly that his own father invested tens of thousands of dollars in the business.
Soon after, Longo was showing off a boat and two jet skis he told friends he’d won in a contest and bought two cars. But the Longo’s money problems were far from over. One morning, Longo said, he was awoken to the noise of a tow truck in his driveway, repossessing his Ford Taurus. When their other car broke down, he made himself a fake driver’s license, presented it to take a Pontiac Montana for a test drive and never returned the car to the dealership lot.
When his wife began asking him why they hadn’t received any billing statements in the mail for the new vehicle, Longo created bogus ones on his computer and mailed them to their address.
Things were not going well in the Longo marriage either. In May 2000, Mary Jane Longo called her sister, saying she had discovered e-mails from her husband to another woman. When she confronted him about them, he allegedly told her that she hadn’t been any fun since having children and that he didn’t love her anymore. In spite of the troubles, Mary Jane Longo stayed with her husband. She did, however, tell the elders in the congregation about the situation. Though there is no indication that Longo had a physical relationship with another woman, Christian Longo was sanctioned by his church once again.
Soon, the cash-strapped Longo put his computer to more use. He printed false checks from companies that owed his business money and cashed them. Before long, the companies contacted police, and Longo found himself in a courtroom for the first time in September of 2000.
He pleaded guilty and received three years’ probation, but because he exaggerated his income out of his persistent concern for appearances, he was ordered to pay restitution payments far greater than he could handle. When elders from the congregation read about Longo’s check forgeries in a local newspaper, Christian Longo was finally disfellowshipped from the Jehovah’s Witnesses altogether.
Longo claimed the incident led to a “watershed moment” with his wife, in which he promised her he would be truthful and that they’d straighten out their finances, but not before giving “one last present to each other” — corrective eye surgery for Mary Jane and scuba diving lessons for Longo.
With their finances in shambles and their credit run out, Christian Longo obtained a credit card in his father’s name. He amassed nearly $100,000 in debt in Joseph Longo’s name without his knowledge.
On the Move
With friends and church members concerned about Mary Jane stopping by and creditors relentlessly calling, Christian Longo decided it was time to make a new start. Though moving out of state would violate the conditions of Christian’s probation, the Longos picked up and moved from Michigan to a warehouse in Toledo, Ohio.
Longo said he planned to renovate the warehouse into a loft-style living space. But in the meantime, the family of five had to make due without kitchen facilities or adequate plumbing. Longo lied to his wife, telling her the rent had been paid for six months, but meanwhile was cashing more forged checks around the area to stay afloat.
After the move, Mary Jane Longo drifted out of touch with her family. Her sister, Sally Clark, finally managed to find them by driving to Toledo, canvassing the area and spotting their dog outside the building. According to Clark, she spoke to Mary Jane to make sure everything was all right, but Mary Jane refused to leave her husband and return to Michigan.
Christian Longo was unnerved when cops caught on to stolen machinery he was attempting to sell. Before he could be charged with receiving stolen construction equipment and passing bad checks, Longo had already picked up his family moved once again.
Now On The Run
At one point, Mary Jane and her husband were driving separately down the road in the stolen SUV and a stolen Penske moving truck, essentially running from the law. Mary Jane, he says, had no idea that anything was wrong. They kept moving, staying at campsites and motels, spending little. Later, they hocked Mary Jane’s wedding ring for a few hundred dollars.
Mary Jane’s siblings had by this time filed missing person’s reports with authorities. Christian Longo’s parents were also worried, and his mother said she told one federal agency, “Does somebody have to die before you do something?”
The Longo’s eventually went to Oregon, where they rented a small vacation house in Waldport. Only a few weeks after their arrival, however, he fell behind on payments and was denied a reprieve.
He pawned some “crab rings” he stole from the property before leaving, and used the money for a room at a Newport, Ore., motor inn.
They moved onward and upward when Christian Longo convinced the manager of a nearby bay-front condominium complex that he was a telephone company employee waiting for a paycheck. The manager bought his story, and allowed the Longo’s to move in to the $1,500 a month condo with no money up front.
Longo found a part-time job at the Starbucks counter in a Fred Meyer variety store. Humiliated, he told his boss and fellow employees that he lived off a lucrative Internet business but took the part-time job because he liked Starbucks coffee.
The family struggled, running out of money only days after paychecks arrived. The rent on the condo did not get paid and groceries were scarce. Longo says he was forced to pump a tank of gas and drive away without paying. In a police interview after his arrest, Longo described standing on the balcony of his condo with his family sleeping inside, looking out over the dark bay.
He knew they would soon have to leave the condominium but hadn’t broken the news to his wife yet. Christian Longo would later describe this night on Dec. 16, 2001, as “the beginning of the end.”
On Dec. 19, 2001, a man in a Waldport RV park notified police about a gruesome find — the body of a small boy floating face down in the water near his lot. The boy’s digitally enhanced photograph was quickly released to the news media.
A couple who occasionally babysat the children came forward and told police that the child in the photo looked like 4-year-old Zachery Longo.
Three days later, as divers searched the shallow slough where Zach was found, the body of a small girl was discovered weighed down with a rock in a pillowcase tied to her ankle. Both children were clad only in underwear.
On Dec. 27, divers deployed to search local waterways in the days that followed found two suitcases under a dock at a marina adjacent to the condominium complex where the Longo family had been staying. One contained the tiny body of Madison, 2, some clothing and a dumbbell. Wisps of hair stuck out of the other, which contained the naked remains of Mary Jane Longo.
Autopsies later determined the four victims had likely died of asphyxia, and that there was evidence of blunt force trauma on the face of Mary Jane Longo. There was also some evidence, although disputed, that Zachery and Sadie died from drowning.
Police initially sought Christian Longo for questioning as a witness. But by Dec. 28, the missing Longo had been charged with murdering his family. He made the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list, while Longo’s parents cooperated with “America’s Most Wanted.” A tip led authorities to the Mexican cabana where Longo was staying with a German photographer, whom he allegedly identified himself to as Michael Finkel, a former travel writer for the New York Times.
On Jan. 13, 2002, Mexican federales and FBI Agent Dan Clegg nabbed Longo.
Following his arrest, Longo detailed for authorities the days following his family’s demise, but stopped short of providing them with a confession. Longo said that after Dec. 16 he tried to distract himself by renting a movie, going to the gym and attending the Starbucks Christmas party at a local pizzeria, where he told co-workers that his wife had left him for another man. A day after hearing reports on the news that the body of a little boy had been discovered, he picked up his final paycheck and drove to San Francisco. Though he applied for another Starbucks job there, he left the country and headed for Cancun, Mexico.
According to authorities, upon his arrival he rented a cabana, began spending time with a group of young British travelers, smoked pot, toured ruins and, pretending to be a journalist himself, was seen cuddling with an attractive travel photographer, Janina Franke.
He allegedly admitted to a federal agent that his looks and speaking skills had helped him get away with innumerable cons and crimes along the way. “That’s been my downfall,” he said.
A flurry of pretrial activity concerned the defense’s claim that Christian Longo had been “tricked” into returning to the United States after his capture. Clegg, they contended, failed to inform Longo of his right to counsel, who would have undoubtedly assured Longo that Mexico would not extradite a criminal with the death penalty on the table.
Instead, the defense charged, Clegg told Longo that unless he returned voluntarily, he’d likely spend months in a Mexican prison, prompting Longo to quickly agree to accompany Clegg on his own volition.
Before boarding their flight at the Cancun airport, Christian Longo signed a waiver of rights. The first time Longo learned that Oregon has the death penalty was reportedly on the flight to their first stop in Houston, when Clegg casually said, “I don’t think they’ll give you the death penalty,” the defense claimed.
Longo’s attorneys said they tried to bargain with prosecutors to avoid the death penalty but that the state would not negotiate.
Shortly before trial, Longo pleaded guilty to the murders of Mary Jane and Madison Longo, without a deal. At that time, he refused to enter a plea on the charges of killing Sadie and Zachery, and the court entered a not guilty plea on his behalf.
The defense failed to convince Judge Robert Huckleberry to grant them a change of venue. The community sentiment, claimed the attorneys, made a fair trial impossible. Huckleberry, however, ruled that, short of moving the trial out of state, it would be impossible to escape the effects of permeating media coverage.
The Prosecution’s Case
The prosecution contended Christian Longo was a cold-hearted killer who simply decided that his family was too much of a burden for him. There is evidence, according to prosecutors Steven Briggs and Paulette Sanders, that Longo planned the murders months in advance.
On his computer, investigators found information from a Web site called “Hitman Online,” which offers advice on methods of murder. They also found obituaries with personal information scribbled in the margins, implying Christian Longo was planning an identity change.
Longo also made sure that Mary Jane was isolated from her relatives, they said, even sending a card from her to her sister from another state to lay a false trail. Perhaps most telling, argued prosecutors, is that many personal belongings were ditched along the way, such as family photos, clothing and the children’s baby books.
Although they admitted they have no direct evidence to link Longo with the killings, one witness placed Longo on the Lint Slough Bridge in the early morning hours of Dec. 17, 2001. A local man, Dick Hoch, contacted authorities after he heard about the bodies found in the waters and reported he had encountered a man in a reddish minivan that stopped on the narrow bridge.
Prosecutors contend that that was when the bodies of Longo’s two elder children were thrown into the water.
A couple staying at the same condo complex as the Longo’s complained to management the next day about loud “dragging” sounds coming from a nearby room.
Longo’s own statements also trapped him, claimed prosecutors. Although he steadfastly refused to discuss with police how the deaths occurred, agent Dan Clegg claimed Christian Longo told him, “I sent them to a better place.”
The Defense’s Case
Defense lawyers Steven Krasik and Ken Hadley argued there was only a single piece of evidence connecting Christian Longo in any way to the murders of his two older children —Hoch’s testimony. But the attorneys argued the photo identification by Hoch was conducted in a questionable manner at best. The detectives’ office was “a shrine” to the Longo family, they said, with pictures posted all over the room. Hoch identified Longo from the FBI wanted poster, stipulating that it looked like the man he saw except for a fuller face and thinning hair. This “identification,” argued the defense, tainted any further testimony by Hoch.
The defense claimed that the family was still alive on Dec. 17 and that they had visited Longo at work. But security tapes from Fred Meyer that could have proved their contention had already been recycled, destroying the only concrete proof that the prosecution’s theory is erroneous, they said.
The couple claiming to hear loud noises likely were hearing rambunctious guests returning from a Christmas party, they said.
The defense also pointed out that the bodies of Mary Jane and Madison Longo were disposed in a very different manner and location than Zachery and Sadie Longo. In addition, they said, there is that the two older children drowned, further setting their deaths apart from Mary Jane’s and Madison’s. Why, ask the attorneys, would Christian Longo kill two members of his family by asphyxiation yet leave Zachery and Sadie alive until he threw them into the dark slough?
As for the interviews with investigators, the defense denied there was anything incriminating about them. Clegg’s statement that Longo told him, “I sent them to a better place,” is simply untrue, his lawyers said. It is inconsistent with his religious upbringing, they said, since a Jehovah’s Witness would not use such terminology.
Christian Longo was his own key witness. Two days into his testimony, the defendant revealed for the first time his version of the events that led to the deaths of his wife and children.
He said he and Mary Jane had a date on Dec. 15, when she told her husband she felt things were going well for the family, but confronted him about lies she suspected he had been telling.
After the conversation, Christian Longo said, he struggled with whether he should come clean with his wife. Realizing their days were numbered in the condo because of the unpaid rent, he returned from work on Dec. 16 and had some wine and cheese while pondering his situation.
Longo said he finally went to bed but couldn’t sleep. When Mary Jane asked him what was wrong, he slowly began disclosing many things to her. During an all-night conversation, he said, Mary Jane became emotional in a way he’d never seen before. After admitting to her that even the family van was stolen and contained stolen gasoline, and that their condo had not been paid for, Mary Jane became fed up, he testified. Longo said that she berated him for 45 minutes, slapped him and told him she would never be able to trust him again.
Longo said he left her in the bedroom and went to get a few hours of sleep on the couch, and was woken up by a playful Zachery. When he returned to check on Mary Jane, he found that she had vomited on the floor.
The morning of Dec. 17, Longo said he pleaded with his wife to let him stay home from work and offered to take care of the children so she could have time alone. She yelled at him that he had to get to work, he testified, and that she eventually drove him there. Longo said he kissed his children goodbye. Madison reached up so that her Scooby-Doo toy could also give him a kiss before he left the van and went to work.
After his shift ended, Mary Jane was in the parking lot waiting for him as usual to pick him up, only she was dressed in nothing but a bathrobe and was barefoot. The children were not with her, he said. She would not speak to him on the way home.
When the couple reached their apartment, Mary Jane began to hesitate and whimper, he said, and he had to pick her up and help her inside the house where she slumped on the floor.
Longo claimed he found Madison lifeless on the bed, and then began to try to shake an answer out of his hysterical wife, who told him, “You did this, you killed us,” and told him the other two children were “in the water.”
Longo said he lost control at that moment, and wrapped his hands around Mary Jane’s neck, dropped her, picked her up, repositioned his hands, and squeezed until he was unable to hold her up any longer.
After Mary Jane was dead, Longo said he decided to dispose of the bodies in two large suitcases. But when he went to his baby daughter he suddenly realized that the child was still alive.
“Even though she was breathing, I thought of her as dead at that point,” he said on the stand, so he began smothering Madison. He stopped, saw her breathing again, and gripped her throat. After she too, had stopped breathing, he said he felt as if the big suitcase was too big for her tiny body. He filled it with her clothes “to make it more comfortable.” He threw the suitcases in the water behind the condominium.
While Longo’s detailed account stunned the courtroom, prosecutors would later try to debunk his version of events. Not only did Mary Jane have no history of violence or even a bad temper, but at 110 pounds would be physically unable to dump her children in the water with heavy rocks attached, they pointed out.
On April 7, 2003, after approximately four hours of deliberation, the jury found Christian Longo guilty of the aggravated murders of two of his children, 4-year-old Zachery and 3-year-old Sadie. One juror commented that, while the circumstantial evidence alone did not convince him, Longo’s own testimony “did him in.”
The same jury reconvened to hear testimony in the penalty phase of the trial to determine if Christian Longo deserved the death penalty for all four murders.
The Penalty Phase
The prosecution contended Christian Longo was a professional con man who manipulated everyone he encountered with amazing proficiency. If not confined to death row and eventually put to death, prosecutors argued, Longo would pose a clear danger to even the prison community.
Since his capture and incarceration in Lincoln County Jail, where he was held while awaiting trial, Longo committed several infractions such as chipping a hole in his cell window in a purported escape plan that included enlisting the help of a fellow inmate.
Along with other infractions, Longo sent letters to other inmates, including females ones. Prosecutors argued such behavior would pose a grave security risk if Christian Longo were allowed into the general population of the institution.
The defense, however, pointed out there was no evidence of violence in Longo’s history. He didn’t have any signs of being violent as a child, never beat his wife and never started any fights behind bars. In fact, Longo’s lawyers argued, his behavior during his incarceration was generally good, and his infractions were minor and very common. The “escape attempt,” they say, was simply an effort to make a small hole to see outside. This has been attempted by many prisoners since the windows of the jail were sandblasted, following community complaints that prisoners had better ocean views than the town’s law-abiding citizens.
Defense attorneys also said that Joseph Longo, the man who raised Christian Longo, is actually his stepfather and adoptive father. Christian Longo’s biological father, they said, was a violent alcoholic who abused Longo’s mother Joy, including an outburst while she was pregnant with Christian. The defense claimed Longo’s biological father whipped his pregnant wife across the stomach with a bicycle chain in an attempt to make her miscarry. He occasionally beat Christian as well, they said, until Longo’s parents split up.
On April 16, 2003, the same jury deliberated for six hours before sentencing Christian Longo to death for all four killings. Several of the jurors said they felt that someone with Longo’s intelligence and people skills would be a threat — not a victim — in any situation, and that they therefore had no choice but to put him on death row.
When the trial first began, one of the jurors said he thought authorities must have made a mistake when he saw the boyish, clean-cut young man sitting in the defendant’s chair.
But by the time they delivered their final verdict, the jury agreed to “look Christian Longo squarely in the eye” while the sentence was read to send him a message that he didn’t “fool” them and that he was no longer in control.