I was irritated with myself the other day for something I didn’t do. I wrote a short post on my blog about a condemned murderer named Christian Longo, who wrote a column in Sunday’s New York Times asking to donate his organs after his execution. Longo didn’t mention the names of his dead wife and children in his piece, and I hadn’t either. My wife, syndicated columnist Debra J. Saunders, strongly advocates that whenever the fate of a convicted murderer is discussed in the media, the names of his or her victims should be included so they don’t become abstract and dehumanized. For the record: They were Mary Jane, 34, Zachery, 4, Sadie, 3, and Madison, 2. Longo strangled Mary Jane and Madison, stuffed their bodies in suitcases, and threw them in a bay. Then he drove Zachery and Sadie to a nearby bridge, tied rocks to their legs, and tossed them into water to drown.
While researching the names, I learned that there was far more to the story of Christian Longo’s self-described remorse and attempt at redemption through organ donation than his column disclosed. Longo, it seems, has long been quite the con artist.
While south of the border, Longo assumed the identity of a New York Times reporter named Michael Finkel, who was fired for misconduct at the very time his identity was being used by the murderer. From Finkel’s story on his relationship with Longo, published in the December 2009 Esquire:
Christian Longo entered my life at a moment of extreme weakness for me. At the same time I learned that Longo had become Michael Finkel of The New York Times — I mean the exact day — I was officially no longer Michael Finkel of The New York Times. I’d been fired by the paper because I fabricated an article I wrote about child labor in West Africa, combining quotations from several individual laborers into one fictitious composite character. A local aid agency uncovered my lie, and after it was reported to my editors, my career there was finished. At this instant of panic and vulnerability and shame, along came Longo.
Longo tried to convince Finkel he was innocent:
I was drawn into Longo’s life through the most improbable of circumstances — after the murders, while on the lam in Mexico, he took on my identity, even though we’d never met. Starting from this bizarre connection, using charm and guile and a steady stoking of my journalist’s natural curiosity (he was innocent, he was framed, he had proof, he would show me), he soon became deeply enmeshed in my own life. In the first year, we exchanged more than a thousand pages of handwritten letters. I wrote a book about him.
After Longo was caught and convicted, Finkel used Longo to help his own career, writing the 2006 book he mentioned above and promoting himself on the television program 48 Hours in 2005, telling the interviewer at the time that he was “disgusted” by Longo’s lies.
Meanwhile, Longo continued his sociopathological ways on death row. In the Esquire piece, Finkel reports that Longo made money by writing explicit sex letters to gay men, who paid him for the raw prose (these people are known in prison parlance as “ATMs”). And despite Finkel’s “disgust,” Longo soon induced the journalist to help him promote organ donation after executions.
Finkel’s wife objected. They have three children, and she was understandably uncomfortable with her husband’s relationship with a man who murdered his own family. But Finkel decided to help figure out a way to help Longo achieve his new goal of organ donation anyway:
Longo, I believed, really wanted to “enhance someone else’s life,” as he wrote, by sacrificing his own, a real-life version of the Will Smith movie.
However, I’d spoken with a transplant surgeon and learned that the execution procedure — sodium pentothal then pancuronium bromide then potassium chloride poured into the veins — rendered all organs useless. Some skin tissue could be saved. Maybe the heart valves. Then his body could be donated to a medical school.
It wasn’t much — it didn’t seem to fulfill his goal — and I told him so in my letter. The problem, I wrote, was that the state-administered death cocktail produced heart failure. If you were able to change the procedure (the law isn’t specific about the precise drugs used) so that it induced brain death instead, the organs could be transplanted. And then, I continued, if you signed up other inmates and the idea went national, you might save the lives of dozens of people who would’ve died on organ waiting lists. “Sounds like 10 years work to me, minimum,” I wrote, though I also noted that he could quit, any time, and resume his current plan. “What’s your reaction?” Longo was astounded. When he read my letter, he told me, something inside of him clicked. A switch was thrown. He felt an enthusiasm he hadn’t experienced in years. He felt inspired. It’s “giving me goose bumps,” he wrote. And so, in his single-minded way, Longo promptly dedicated himself to making the idea a reality. He came up with a name: GAVE. Gifts of Anatomical Value from the Executed.
Longo and Finkel make a deal: If Finkel would help promote the organ donation idea, Longo would tell Finkel the true details of the murders and allow him to be a witness at the execution. Finkel grabbed the bargain, which culminated in his Esquire article. (My description of the murders above is a very condensed version of the details presented in Finkel’s account.)
But Longo double-crossed his Boswell. According to Finkel, Longo became so caught up with the organ-donation project, he decided he wanted to live! Finkel — who, we should recall, had used Longo to help his own faltering career — suddenly felt used:
Longo works on the project every day, from breakfast (served at 5:00 A.M.) to midnight, with notes left on his desk reminding him where to start in the morning. “Yard was cancelled today & I’m actually grateful for the extra 90 minutes,” he wrote in one letter. I have never, in all the years I’ve known him, seen him so driven, so excited about something.
And yes: so happy. He has a mission, a focus, a purpose. In a way, the project has transported him beyond the prison walls. He decided not to drop his appeals after all; rather he’s aggressively pursuing them full force, likely putting off his execution date by at least a decade. He needs the time, he says, to work on GAVE. He wants to live. It’s odd. He was the one person on earth I wanted to die, and instead I’ve helped to save his [expletive] life.
Why was Finkel surprised? Has he never heard the fable of the frog and the scorpion?
And now, 15 months later, Longo continues his self-promotion in the rarefied air of the New York Times, although he now claims to have given up his appeal.
What a sordid mess. Let’s recap: The New York Times gave a coveted “Week in Review” slot to a man who viciously murdered his wife and three small children, then fled to Mexico to live the high life, where he pretended to be a writer for the New York Times. While on death row, Longo made money writing explicit letters to fetishists and then made a deal with the man whose identity he borrowed to tell the full truth about the murders in return for the writer’s pushing the organ-donation idea, which the killer himself then promoted in the New York Times.
I think this convoluted tale raises important questions about the New York Times:
- Did its editors know these facts when they decided to run the column? If not, why didn’t they learn them? I discovered the above in less than two minutes, just by searching for the victims’ names.
- If they did know the above history, why did the editors agree to run an obvious con man’s column?
- If they thought the column so worthwhile despite its author’s past, then why didn’t they better inform readers about Longo’s past? Surely we deserved to know more than the brief, impersonal mention of the murders in Longo’s column, both to judge the propriety of the Times’ publishing the piece and in order to consider Longo’s credibility.
Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism.