Truth is stranger than fiction
BOZEMAN, Mont. – It has all the elements of a perfect murder mystery – identity theft, the killings of an entire family and a public firing from a prestigious job, but the most intriguing aspect of this plot is that every word is true.It would have been difficult for any author to concoct a story as coincidental as Michael Finkel’s 300-page memoir, “True Story,” documenting his year-long relationship with a convicted family killer.Finkel’s adventure begins on Feb. 20, 2002, the night before his firing from the New York Times Magazine is scheduled to be printed as an Editor’s Note in the Times.The week before, Finkel lost his respected journalism job for fabricating a character in a story about childhood slavery on chocolate plantations along Africa’s Ivory Coast.Finkel concludes to hide away in his Montana home and prepares to cut off all lines of communication as soon as the online version of the story on his firing is set to be released.
But, 90 minutes before his “cutoff time,” his phone rings. Expecting an inquiry about his dismissal, Finkel is perplexed to hear a reporter from the Oregonian newspaper on the other end of the line asking what Finkel thinks of the murders. Finkel soon discovers an Oregon man, accused of killing his wife and three young children and dumping their bodies in the chilly waters off the Oregon coast, has just been arrested in Mexico. Christian Michael Longo, then 27, had been on the FBI’s Top Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list days before his capture.While on the lam, Longo assumed the role of a freelance writer on assignment in the Yucatan Peninsula. He had gone so far as to pair up with an aspiring photographer, promising to get her work published and easily convincing all his travel acquaintances of his journalism profession. Longo was billing himself as Michael Finkel from the New York Times.Thus begins a roller coaster of a relationship between Longo and Finkel, the only journalist with whom Longo will speak.
The correspondence between the two starts with lengthy letters and phone calls, but eventually Finkel travels to Oregon to visit Longo in jail, then temporarily moves to the small coastal town of Newport so he can attend the trial.Along the journey, the two men become friends – even confidants – though Longo never divulges the details surrounding his family’s murders to Finkel.There are points in the book when it’s possible for the reader to actually begin to feel sorry for Longo, as if his desire to please spurred a web of lies that he couldn’t escape. Ultimately, the men’s relationship begins to unravel during Longo’s trial as his deceitful personality surfaces when he accuses his dead wife, Mary Jane, of murdering the couple’s two eldest children.The well-written, sometimes day-by-day account of the strange connection between the two men locks the reader in suspense as to the outcome of the murder trial, as well as the future of Finkel’s seemingly shattered career.
“It was a very unsettling experience,” Finkel said of his relationship with Longo during a phone interview last week. “I just felt I had to be as rawly open and honest as humanly possible (in the book).”Finkel, whose parents live in Breckenridge, is a self-admitted ski bum who began his career writing for Skiing Magazine. He has skied in Summit County since he was in elementary school.”All of my great memories from my youth – from ages 5 to 15 – took place in Summit County,” Finkel said. Nicole Formosa can be reached at (970) 668-3998 ext. 229, or at firstname.lastname@example.org