The Pretender Unmasked

Accused Killer Assumes The Identity Of New York Times Reporter

This story was originally broadcast on May 31, 2005.

Author Michael Finkel's curiosity had taken him to the far corners of the globe. But now, it was about to take him into the heart of darkness. Correspondent Maureen Maher reports.

In 2001, Finkel was a prize-winning feature writer for the New York Times. He had a gorgeous home in Bozeman, Mont., and a beautiful, intelligent girlfriend who had moved all the way from Alabama to be with him.

"We felt like there was something deeper here that had to be explored," says Jill Barker, Finkel's girlfriend. "It just seemed like we should give this a chance."

But Finkel's ambition had a darker side. "He had built his self-esteem around being Michael Finkel of The New York Times, and he was starting to get really intoxicated with all the attention," says Barker. "Pretty soon, I realized that I had to walk away from this relationship."

His drive to outdo his competition and himself resulted in Finkel fabricating a portion of a story on child slavery in West Africa. His bosses found out and he was fired. "It was something I wish I could take back," says Finkel. "Really badly."

In an instant, Finkel lost the career he'd been building his entire life. Scorned by his colleagues, Finkel retreated to Montana, awaiting the merciless media inquiries that were sure to come. The first call came sooner than expected, but the reporter wasn't interested in Finkel's fall from grace.

Instead, he was calling about a murder of a family in Oregon.

Astonished, Finkel learned about Christian Longo, who's now under arrest in Oregon for the murders of his wife and three children. "That's the first time I've ever heard that name in my life," recalls Finkel.

But once Finkel learned that Longo had been posing as "Michael Finkel" of The New York Times, his journalistic instincts went into overdrive. He had to find out exactly who had been playing him.

"I basically said, 'I know that you're facing a trial. And there's things you don't want to talk about. But I'm really curious about why you chose to become me,'" says Finkel.

Several weeks later, Finkel received a collect call from Longo, who agreed to meet with him in person. After that meeting, Longo began writing a series of meticulously handwritten letters. "Each page covered top to bottom, left to right, front to back," says Finkel.

The two also scheduled weekly phone calls, calls that Finkel recorded. And so began a journey into the mind of an accused murderer, which would later, become a book. "This was a great story," says Finkel. "Whether or not it actually saw the light of print, it was a great story."

For Finkel, and the Oregon investigators, that story centered on one baffling question: How could a seemingly devoted family man become a cold-blooded killer? The mystery began in the quiet Oregon coastal county where Longo's wife and three children were last seen alive.