Thursday 21 November 2019

Inside the mind of a monster... Christian Longo

In 2001, Christian Longo murdered his wife and three children before going on the run. Now, his story is the subject of a new film starring James Franco. But is it right to elevate his awful crime

James Franco as Christian Longo in True Story
James Franco as Christian Longo in True Story
Christian Longo at his trial in 2001
Michael Finkel and James Franco on the set of True Story
Christian Long who killed his wife and family
Christian Longo and family

Alex Hannaford

On a winter night in 2001, Penny Baker-Dupuie sat on the sofa of her home in Michigan. Her two children, a newborn and a three-year-old, were asleep in their beds upstairs, and Penny watched in silence as her husband, John, sitting opposite her, demonstrated slowly and meticulously how to load, empty, and reload a shotgun.

Two days before, Penny's brother-in-law, Christian Longo, had killed his entire family: Penny's sister, MaryJane, was 34 years old. Her three small children, Zachery, Sadie and Madison, were four, three and two respectively.

If Longo could do this to his own wife and children, Penny reasoned, he could do it to anyone. Now he was on the run and Penny wanted to know how to protect her family.

What she didn't know was that Longo had already fled to Mexico. And even though he was just days away from being apprehended by the police, the trauma for Penny's own family would last for years.

As well as coming to terms with the violent death of her sister and her sister's children, she had to endure Longo's trial and the media circus that inevitably surrounded it.

A few years later, there was even a book written on the subject, by a former New York Times journalist. Now comes True Story, a Hollywood film directed by British theatre director Rupert Goold, starring James Franco, Jonah Hill and Felicity Jones. Longo's crimes have cast a long shadow.

The bald facts of the case are horrifying. Frustrated with his life of domesticity, and battling serious financial problems, Longo strangled MaryJane in the couple's bedroom, killed his youngest daughter Madison the same way, then stuffed their bodies into two suitcases.

He drove his other two, still sleeping children to a nearby bridge over Lint Slough, a coastal inlet off Oregon's Alsea River, tied pillowcases containing rocks to their ankles, and threw them over the side of the bridge.

Police found Zachery's body floating in the water several days later and issued a warrant for Longo's arrest. Then police divers located Sadie's bloated body beneath the bridge. Almost a week passed before the large green suitcases containing the bodies of MaryJane and Madison were discovered in a marina not far from the flat the family rented in the town of Waldport.

Using a stolen credit card number, Longo had boarded a plane to Mexico, and for the next fortnight told people he met in the resort town of Cancún (including a woman he started sleeping with) that he was a New York Times journalist called Michael Finkel. It's this unlikely - almost incidental - detail in this terrible story that forms the central pillar of both the book and the film.

In November 2001, a month before Longo murdered his family, the real Michael Finkel was working as a writer for the New York Times magazine.

It had just published an article by Finkel about the modern-day slave trade in Mali. But while Longo was on the run in Mexico, Finkel was exposed for inventing the protagonist in his article. As a result, he was fired from his post at the Times and publicly disgraced.

It wasn't until February the following year that Finkel heard about the Longo killings. A journalist in Oregon called to tell him about his tenuous connection to the case. By now, Longo was in prison, awaiting trial.

Over the following years, Finkel became, in his own words, "obsessed" with Longo's story. At first, Longo hoped the man whose identity he had assumed would help him get acquitted (his initial defence was that MaryJane had killed Zachery and Sadie, and that when he'd discovered what she had done he'd flown into a rage, killing both her and Madison).

Later, after Longo had admitted his guilt, Finkel said he wanted to understand how a man could kill his entire family.

He spoke to Longo on the phone for hours, visited him in prison 10 times, and rented a cottage near the court where Longo's trial was held so he could hear every word. Then he began work on the book he hoped would restore his reputation as a journalist.

As the San Francisco Chronicle commented in 2005, a few years earlier Finkel's career had been "as dead as yesterday's newspaper". Now, he had "banked a half-million dollar advance on his first book [and] sold its film rights to Brad Pitt's production company".

But according to Penny Baker-Dupuie, Finkel is merely profiting from the brutal murder of her family. To Dupuie, Longo is a monster who has never repented his horrendous crimes and should never have become the subject of a book or film.

When I speak to Finkel by phone, he tells me it was the story that chose him; a story that he'd been dragged into. "It was an incredibly odd story," he says. "Creepy. Uncomfortable. Chris Longo may be a monster but I'd say if you turn away and ignore someone like Chris, you might miss something. If we look him in the eye we might learn something."

Finkel said he wanted to reconcile the man he had got to know well - "the bright and drily funny person I… sometimes referred to as my friend", as he wrote in Esquire magazine - with the "man who'd been convicted of the most unimaginable crimes".

Dupuie felt that the Esquire article, published in 2009, a few years after Finkel's book came out, was sickening. Its central theme was a plan Longo had come up with to donate his organs after he had been executed.

He was inspired, he said, by the Will Smith film Seven Pounds, in which Smith's character kills seven people in a car crash and by way of reparation, pledges to donate his organs, saving the lives of seven others, after he has committed suicide.

Longo wanted Finkel to help him start a non-profit organisation called GAVE - Gifts of Anatomical Value from the Executed. Longo told Finkel that lethal injection rendered organs inviable, but that a change in the execution procedure could change that, and he wanted to confront the ethical issues that stood in the way of condemned men and women donating their organs after death.

If he was successful, Longo told Finkel, he would waive the rest of his legal appeals, speeding up his own journey to the death chamber.

Finkel agreed to Longo's request on the condition that Longo told him the full story of what happened that night in 2001. The result was a feature article that went into forensic detail about Longo's life on death row: his pornography collection, prison etiquette, even the snacks he ate.

Finkel wrote that Longo's fabricated life extended behind the prison walls. He had apparently told fellow prisoners that he was a stock market wunderkind, still making big bucks via a broker on the outside.

Longo told Finkel that he had been too ashamed to ask his father for money; that he was a failure who had no choice but to kill his family. It was the first time he'd admitted everything - and Finkel in turn recounted the intricate details of the killings in his book.

The question Dupuie asks is: why? Why, when a jury had taken less than a day to find Longo guilty and sentence him to death, did Finkel want to hear him recount in such detail how he killed four members of her family? Was this simply to ensure Finkel's own rehabilitation? And why, if Longo really felt compelled to donate his organs, did he have to do it so publicly?

Towards the end of his Esquire article, Finkel also revealed that Longo had "decided not to drop his appeals after all". (In any case, there is currently a moratorium on executions in Oregon. The state hasn't enforced the death penalty since 1997.)

For Dupuie and the rest of Mary Jane's family, Longo has always been a liar. And Finkel is just the latest in a long line of people he has duped: "Every time Chris thinks he's been forgotten he'll do something else to bring himself back into the news," she says. "But [Finkel] has made his money off my sister's murder and I have a problem with that."

"She's right," Finkel tells me from France, where he is working on a new book. "But it's not like I went chasing after an ambulance. I make my living as a writer, as a journalist, so… Yes, she's right. I'm guilty as charged, I'm making some money off her family's suffering… and I don't feel good about that."

I ask how much of True Story is about the rehabilitation of Mike Finkel the disgraced journalist. "A huge amount," he says. "The story is not an examination of a murderer. It's not a whodunnit. We know who did it. It's more about the relationship between a murderer and one guy who had a moral quagmire in his life. I chose a very unorthodox form of therapy, but there you have it."

But perhaps, Finkel wonders, there is a silver lining.

"Deeply, I know Penny is less than pleased by my existence. I don't blame her. But maybe a future MaryJane - someone else in the same situation -will say, 'Holy s***, I'm married to a guy like Chris. I need protection.' People marry psychopaths who are charming, good-looking guys. So perhaps there is some good that could be done here."

When Longo was in prison awaiting trial, Penny and her sister Sally tried to see him in person. "Finally he agreed to talk to us," she says. "And one of the things I asked him was this: the minute you put your hands around your child's neck… how do you do that? But he didn't want to go there with me. That's when the conversation ended. [After I left] he apologised to Sally in a way but he didn't answer her questions. He did say that Zach had woken up before he threw him off that bridge. How does that not stop you?"

Penny says the only time she saw Longo cry during the trial was when he was sentenced. "The only remorse Chris has shown is over what this did to his own life."

She says she received a letter from Longo before his trial asking her to tell prosecutors not to seek the death penalty.

"Instead I published his letter," she says. "How dare he come and ask me to save his life?" He contacted her again about his plan to donate his organs and set up a charity. "He wanted my family to support that, too. I told him he could have saved four lives and he chose not to. I knew it was a con, that he was doing it for publicity."

(In 2014, Longo offered his kidneys to an Oregon man so desperate for a transplant that he'd stood at the side of a road holding a sign; the man declined.)

The actor James Franco made no attempt to meet Longo before playing him in True Story: "I don't find any need to humanise him," he has said. "He's the worst human being I've ever played. I hate this guy... I don't want to give him any kind of positive reinforcement whatsoever."

Penny has seen the film - she went on the day it opened in the US, choosing a 1pm screening so the cinema would be empty. "It made me very angry," she says. "There should be a disclaimer at the beginning: it's a story by Mike Finkel to somehow excuse the things he's done and make money. It's about a murderer and con man. There is not one thing about this film that does any good for the world. Nothing.

"If you were to know MaryJane, she was the sweetest, kindest, most giving person I knew. And that's the only reason Chris was able to do what he did - because she loved him so much, no matter how many times he lied to her. I'd like people to hear MaryJane's story. Not the one by two people with everything to gain. That's the real true story."

© Telegraph Group Ltd

Weekend Magazine

Editors Choice

Also in Life