The Short, Sad Life of Christina Long

The altar girl and cheerleader who looked for love on the Internet.



The Short, Sad Life  of  Christina  Long

 

The altar girl and cheerleader who looked for love on the Internet.

 

By Daniel Grindlinger

 

The St. Peter cheerleading team took possession of the hardwood court in Immaculate High School’s half-empty gymnasium. The girls, ten of them in all, were about to begin the last cheer of their academic year. They went by names like Nicole and Crystal and Jessica, and wore blue-and-white school sweaters and matching hair ribbons. This cheer, their season finale, began with a kneel. They knelt like the genuflecting altar girls so many of them were, and the girl that knelt at center court, inside the circle, was Christina Long, the 13-year-old co-captain of this grammar school team. She was the newcomer, having spent most of her school years away from Danbury, and she was nearly the tallest.

So when the team rose like an ocean wave foaming with pom-poms, she appeared to rise the highest. And then she snapped her fingers, her head tilted back, a smile plastered her face, her hips and wrists swiveled, she voiced the barely decipherable cheer and then crossed the floor and began the lift. And that is the way Christina Long began the last cheer of her life, on March 17 of last year, her 13th birthday. Two months later, most of the citizens of the city of Danbury, CT, would know that she was allegedly killed by a man she had met over the Internet.

 

They heard about her death from their newspapers and their television stations, their parish priests, their parents and the FBI. Christina Long, who had very much wanted to become a star, became, at the very least, known. In the media, her name underscored a rising American issue. For that reason, and, in all likelihood that reason alone, her death was reported in the pages of The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times. Her story was featured on CNN and “60 Minutes II” and, like an occupying force, television vans advanced onto the girl’s home on Peace Street and her three-story school on Main Street. The people of Danbury, few of whom really knew the girl, began to recall her in fine detail. “She used to order her bagels with strawberry cream cheese,” said Francesca Lima, a former manager of the Dunkin Donuts on Millridge Road. Other people had some thoughts as well. She dressed too provocatively. She wore too much makeup. She danced too sexy. On Main Street, the populace had little difficulty reciting how Christina’s life, according to the police, came to an end: strangled inside of a car in a McDonald’s parking lot near the Danbury Fair Mall after having sex with a man nearly twice her age.

 

From the inside, the Danbury Fair Mall has the look of a large airplane hangar, the kind of establishment that during a great war might contain bombers and fighters, gallant pilots and gas-pouring crewmen. This operation is a two-floored assemblage of clothes and music and pizza and cash. An impressive place, the modern day mall is, if just for its sheer braggadocio. The mall in Danbury has all the chain stores one might expect, Macy’s and The Gap, Filene’s and Banana Republic. It has a large, tiled fountain and a carousel, perhaps to remind those students of history that there once was a state fair on these grounds. On weekends, the local teenagers, boys with their baseball hats on backwards and girls in hip hugger jeans holding conversations at breakneck speed, flock to this temple of retail. On May 17, Christina Long told her aunt that she was supposed to meet Hannah, a school friend, by the carousel to spend three Friday night hours shopping. Court documents would later claim she was scheduled to meet a 24-year-old Port Chester restaurant worker who went by the screen name HOTES300.    

 

The next day, like any given Saturday, fathers were sending their children into the queue for the mall’s carousel. The toy horses adorned with fake flowers and colored saddles give these future mallrats a few minutes of excitement for a one-dollar bill. Once they are safely on top, safe enough for parents to stand ten feet away, a bell would ring and the ride would begin. On this Saturday morning, while the children rode in a circle on an old-fashioned style carousel beneath a large skylight revealing the Connecticut sky, Missing Person signs were being tacked on the walls in a desperate search for Christina Long. The mall security department couldn’t find her. The Danbury police couldn’t find her. Her friend, Jessica Robbins (her name has been changed at the request of her mother), didn’t know where she was. Like the sweater folded over and again by the teenage girl in the Banana Republic, the Danbury Fair Mall is supposed to be creaseless. It might have also been a crime scene.

 

By the afternoon, in the Greenwich Police Station, waiting, was a 24-year-old Brazilian national. He walked into the station house to answer questions about a girl with whom he had an e-mail correspondence via his mother’s AOL account. He sat there eating corn chips, drinking a glass of water and nursing an injured hand. At approximately 5:30 p.m.,  court documents claim, the man admitted to having had a sexual relationship with the teenager on two different occasions but didn’t know her “whereabouts.”

 

At first, Jessica Robbins didn’t like the broad shouldered, brown-haired, full-lipped 11-year-old girl dancing in the playground at the St. Peter’s school. “Maybe it was because I never saw her before or met her before or because she was a little different,” says Jessica. Christina’s style of dancing, or for that matter, her personal style was different, more mature, sexier, than the other girls in a school known around town as the “good girls” school. Still Jessica recognized Christina Long’s talent for dancing. “The girl was a really good dancer,” admits Jessica. And although there were sparks of jealousy and mistrust about the new girl, the cheerleading squad inquired about whether Christina wanted to join the team.

 

Christina did want to join the team. She loved to dance, studied the moves she saw on MTV and implemented them into her routines. She taught neighbors new dances. By the age of 12, Christina Long was fully developed, stood 5’2” and by year’s end would weigh 125 pounds. She became co-captain of the cheerleading squad. She fit in nicely in her new school and her new life in Danbury with her Aunt Shelley. Within a year, Christina was baptized, became an altar girl, an honor student and a popular girl at St. Peter School, all the while hiding from her friends a biography that some now say reads like an inventory of neglect. Sure, there were rumors alleging that her mother had a drug habit and rumors  about her parents’ divorce being bitter, but Christina never told her friends about her past.

 

Christina Long was born in Connecticut on March 17, 1989, to Bruce and Joyce Long. After dropping out of high school and, her sister Shelley maintains, being abandoned by her parents, Joyce had moved in with her and, according to Shelley, as often as not, was unemployed, unmotivated and increasingly difficult to be around. Joyce entered her first marriage, which produced a child, Shawna. She divorced and found herself, in her twenties,  a single mother.

 

Joyce Merletti met Bruce Long while working at Danbury Hospital. Bruce was a maintenance man at the hospital and Joyce worked in the records department. The couple fought constantly and the marriage turned sour. By the time Christina was 2-years-old, her parents were divorced as a consequence of, Shelley maintains, drinking (on his part), and cheating (on her part). “Yeah, I drank—I drink a few beers—but no more than when she first met me,” says Bruce Long. According to court documents, custody of Christina was granted to her father.

 

Relatives say Christina’s early life was filled with miserable apartments, shuffling custody and, they allege, neglect. As a 2-year-old, Shelley asserts, Christina was left on a daily basis in the care of a mentally retarded babysitter. It was in these early years of Christina’s life that Aunt Shelley realized she needed to do more than just “be involved with this one,” as she says she had promised Joyce. She needed to be her savior. (Christina’s mom did not return several calls asking for comment; Christina’s father says Christina’s mother “manipulated the situation” so that he could not see his daughter.)

According to Christina’s half-sister, Shawna, she and Christina never questioned or stood up to their mother, fearful of a temper that often exploded in insults and swearing at her daughters. “She is angry at the world,” says Shawna, “a very, very bitter woman.” When it came  to taking care of Christina, who was returned to her mother’s care after she went to court to contest custody,  Joyce would say, Shawna maintains, “Christina can take care of herself.” The daily chores of looking after the child, Shawna says, usually fell upon either her or Aunt Shelley. Shelley says it was she who potty-trained the girl and took her to the park. Joyce took Christina to school so rarely, Shelley charges, that she was left back a grade, so Shelley says, she helped the child get back to grade level. “Shelley used to say, ‘I think God put me on this earth to take care of that child,”’ says Luann Byman, a family friend. Most days, with Shelley at work and Shawna at school, Christina was left in her room all day, Shawna asserts, while her mother pursued what she believed was going to be her profession: karaoke.

 

In 1991, according to Shawna, Joyce and her third husband, Wayne, uprooted the family and headed north for upstate New York where the karaoke scene was rumored to be more lucrative. Less than a year later, Joyce was separated from Wayne and heading back to Connecticut to raise her two daughters.

 

In 1999, when Shawna arrived in Connecticut from Japan (she had  married an airman at the age of 16 and they were stationed in Asia), she says she found her family’s lives in even worse condition than when she had left two years earlier. The small, slatternly apartment was home to more than just her mother and sister. Shawna says it also housed a teenage couple, karaoke groupies, a slovenly 20-year-old man named John and Joyce’s new boyfriend, a burly  machinist. It wasn’t long before Shelley went to court to fight for custody which was granted when Joyce, she says, didn’t even bother to show up for the hearing. As her mother did years earlier, Christina Long moved into Shelley Riling’s duplex in August of 2000.

 

Christina’s room, its dimensions, its décor, its lighting, its contents illustrated the changes in her life after moving to Danbury. That brown wooden desk and the leopard print bedcover and the rose given to her by a boyfriend nicknamed John John gave the place a feeling of suburban innocence. The only thing missing was the innocence itself. It was as though the last two years, the Danbury years, covered Christina’s past like a thick coat of paint. She loved cars and had car posters taped to her wall. Shelley had bought her a new computer with her own AOL account, and she spent a few hours every night online.

 

Christina even told her aunt about her new boyfriend, Carlos. He is 14 and a very sweet boy, said Christina. He has a stutter, which doesn’t bother me, and he asked me out in front of all of my friends. From the outside, Christina Long showed few signs of being a troubled teen.

 

Let’s go for a ride. That was the idea Christina had when she woke up the next morning. And what she wanted to ride in was an Audi TT Roadster, her favorite car. She asked her aunt if they could go to the dealership on Route 6 and test-drive this turbo-charged five-valves-per-cylinder convertible, the very car she had a poster of on her bedroom wall. On this day Christina and Shelley must have inherited that Connecticut brand of P.T. Barnum showmanship. They drove that car past her church and her school, past the library and the police station, down Main Street, pretending the car was their very own. The way Shelley tells the story, her niece inhabited that red car like it was a white wedding dress, a fantastic promise draped over a fraudulent body. The following week, the girl taking a ride through her hometown signed on to an AOL account that listed her marital status as “I might be single, I might not be,” and began an online relationship with a 24-year-old Port Chester restaurant worker, court documents state.

 

Like Christina, the man who was working that Saturday inside his mother’s and stepfather’s restaurant, Cafe Brazil, in Port Chester, also loved cars. Saul Dos Reis, Jr. read stacks of car magazines, attended car shows, researched them on his Compaq Presario computer and spent many hours improving his Infinity G-20. Dos Reis’s car had power boosters to improve the braking system. It had a lowered suspension to make the car look more like a performance automobile. He enhanced the stereo system so that he could listen to his hip-hop at louder volumes with better quality speakers. And he listed fast cars as one of his interests in his AOL profile. Everyone called Dos Reis Junior, and customers say he was a bit of a grease monkey.

 

Saul Dos Reis was adopted as a newborn by Silviani and Saul Dos Reis Sr. in Brazil. The marriage ended in 1981.  According to Estado de S. Paulo, Brazil’s largest newspaper, there have been accusations of sexual abuse of minors against Dos Reis Junior’s adopted father, who has done missionary work. Silviani had not heard from her ex-husband since 1981 and neither had Junior. In 1986, Silviani met Isaias Arruda in their home province in Brazil. With a downtrodden economy, the couple decided to come to America for the prospect of a better life. They brought Saul Jr. with them and settled in Connecticut. Junior attended Greenwich High School, where he was an average student, studied computers at Norwalk Community College and worked at Cafe Brazil.

 

The last few years have been trying for Junior. In 1999, his 19-year-old Brazilian wife Tatiana was diagnosed with lymphoma cancer and Junior worked like a devil seven days a week to pay for her medical bills. He dropped out of community college and rarely went out with friends. This skinny Greenwich kid began to put on the girth of adulthood as the pressures began to mount. He found some refuge in his car and his computer and in the prospect of the new restaurant. (Isaias Arruda had been looking for a location for a new restaurant that Junior was going to run). And then,  Dos Reis’s stepfather maintains, while Junior was online bidding for car parts under the screen name HOTES300, he received an instant message from the screen name LongToohot4u. On May 10, Saul Dos Reis and LongToohot4u met for the first time and had sexual relations, according to e-mails obtained by the police.

 

The night of Thursday, May 16, while her niece was upstairs online, Shelley sat on her couch to watch the season finale of E.R. When Christina came downstairs wearing her bedclothes, she found her aunt sobbing “Chrissy, I don’t know what I’d do if I’d lose you. They would have to put me in an asylum.” “It’s all good,” said Christina. “Nothing is going to happen to me.” And then she smiled, went back upstairs to her room and went to sleep. Prior to coming downstairs, while fictional television stars were saving the lives of children, Christina logged on to her AOL account under the screen name LongToohot4u and sent Saul Dos Reis an e-mail agreeing to meet him the next day, Friday May 17, at “6 p.m. sharp” in the Danbury Fair Mall.

 

Saul Dos Reis arrived at work close to 9 a.m. that Friday, wearing his green and white work shirt with the word “Jesus” on the sleeve. Café Brazil is a working-class establishment and gives the general impression of being a local joint. In general, it is a takeout place, but has 11 tables for those customers who prefer to cozy up. At 2:30 p.m., Junior’s mother said goodbye and left the restaurant to pick up her two young boys from school. Sometime before 6 p.m., when he arrived at the Danbury Fair Mall, Saul Dos Reis left work in Port Chester with the intent of meeting up with Christina, according to court documents.

 

The St. Peter’s school lets out a little before 3 p.m. Like catch-and-release fishermen, school bus drivers reel in children and let them out minutes later near their homes. Christina’s school bus dropped her off at the top of the hill where she lived on Peace Street. When Shelley came through the door 45 minutes later, Christina was talking on the portable phone in her room. “Chrissy, who are you talking to?” asked Shelley. “Carlos,” replied Christina. The teenager was dressed in black shoes, a black halter-top and jeans with rhinestones down the side. She also had on a gold band, a baptism present from her friend Betsy. Christina told her aunt that she was meeting her classmate Hannah by the carousel in the mall at 6 p.m. Shelley agreed to drive her. They arrived a little before 6 p.m. Christina walked into the mall through the sliding glass doors, came out a few minutes later, and told her aunt that Hannah was there. Christina asked to be picked up at 9:30. “Nine o’clock,” replied Shelley. They compromised on 9:15. When Shelley returned three hours later, her 13-year-old niece was missing.

 

Mall security tried paging her, looking for her, exhaustively searching for her, then called the Danbury Police. By 10:21, Christina Long was reported missing. At 3 a.m., Detective Sergeant Mark Williams of the Danbury Police arrived at the Riling home. The police officer called Christina’s friends and with Shelley’s help tried to obtain access to Christina’s AOL account. At 6 a.m., AOL granted access to Christina’s account and provided Shelley with her niece’s password. Shelley logged on and read her e-mail hoping to find out where her niece might have gone:

 

To: HOT ES300

Date: (unknown)

hey, its christina. thuoght id say hi. u wanted to kno wat iv done during sex ... i like it ruff and deep. im getiing all turnd on thinking abuot it.... iv alsoe had soft slow sex. thats nice to .... ummm thats all i can think of at the moment. it shuold be cool seein u friday. well g2g. christina

 

From: LongToohot4u

To: HOT ES300

Date: May 12, 1:36 p.m.  Hey hun, ... u can tell ur friends we [had sex] its not a bigg deal. i want u to tell them. ur so cute. thanx for saying all those nice things abuot me. it made me happy cuz sumtimes i dont like the way i look and when ppl compliment me it makes me happy so thank you. and by the way u dont have to feel like u werent good in bed. u were fine so stop putting urself down. anyways talk to u later bye hun

 

From: HOT ES300

To: LongToohot4u

Date: May 12, 1:57 p.m.

hi princess ... i just want hyou to know that your the best and always count on me if you ever need anything ok plus if you want me to show my friends your pics i will but i would like to get new ones ... and i dont know how to say this but would you be wiling to ... give me some lesons or kinda like help me get good at it, if not i can understand but it would be of great help for me ... well thanks for being my friend. i apreciate you showing up that day

 

From: LongToohot4u

To: HOT ES300

Date: May 13, 8:21 a.m.

hey hun, actually this friday i kinda have plans. sorry but ummm maybe next friday. look i just wanted to make sure ur not getting to attached to me or anything. i mean ur really nice and its very cute but i dont want u to get hurt because u allready kno im iterested in someone and the truth is im a playa. i just cant be with one guy unless i had a relationship kinde of feeelings for him but with u its just friends. im srry but i do wanna be ur really good friend. u are very nice. i gatta go bye.

 

There were other e-mails, according to Shelley, e-mails from a 22-year-old man from Bethel, telling Christina he would wear a condom next time and that he was glad she wasn’t pregnant. In his e-mails, the young man talked about having sex with Christina in her home while Shelley was at work. And a third person e-mailed, asking Christina to go to the beach in New Jersey with him.

 

Following a polygraph test on Sunday May 19, court documents showed that Saul Dos Reis confessed to strangling Christina Long in his car during sex in a Danbury parking lot. He further stated that he dumped her body in a brook in Greenwich, CT, 35 miles away, and threw the girl’s purse in a gas station dumpster. Lawyers for Dos Reis have since challenged the validity of his confession. The FBI placed Saul Dos Reis under arrest for “using the Internet to entice a minor into sexual activity,” a federal crime, after he admitted to meeting Christina Long online and having sex with her on two different occasions. The following day he led investigators to her body, court documents say.

In the ensuing days and months, Dos Reis would be charged by the state of Connecticut with one count of first-degree manslaughter and three counts of sexual assault and one count of risk of injury to a minor. His wife, Tatiana, would file for divorce. And the Federal Government charged him with two counts of using the Internet to entice a minor and two counts of interstate travel to engage in sexual activity with a minor, plus one count for using the Internet to entice another minor in the summer of 1998.

 

The case has brought to the surface a frightening underbelly of sexual practices made easier by the Internet. “It is the perception that adults are the only ones going online looking for sexual activity,” says Detective James Held of NYPD’s sexual exploitation of children squad. “There are children doing the same. And it is more prevalent than people think.” The reasons an adult man has sex with a 13-year-old girl can be “sexual inadequacies, social inadequacies, power, machismo, or the thrill of forbidden fruit,” says Ruben Rodriguez, director of the exploited child unit at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.  These kinds of cases rarely end with physical violence, says Held. “They usually don’t want to do anything to end the relationship.” Dos Reis has stated that Christina’s death was an accident and that he believed she was 18 years old. Dos Reis is currently in federal prison in Rhode Island awaiting trial.

 

Daniel Grindlinger is a freelance writer and playwright living in New York City.