The Short, Sad Life of Christina Long
The altar girl and cheerleader who looked for love on the Internet.
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
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
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
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
Christina Long was born in
Joyce Merletti met Bruce Long while working at
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
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
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
Like Christina, the man who was working that Saturday inside his mother’s and stepfather’s restaurant, Cafe
Saul Dos Reis was adopted as a newborn by Silviani and Saul Dos Reis Sr. in
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
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
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
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
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
To: HOT ES300
Date: May 12, 1:36 p.m. Hey hun, ... u can tell
From: HOT ES300
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
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
There were other e-mails, according to Shelley, e-mails from a 22-year-old man from
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
In the ensuing days and months, Dos Reis would be charged by the state of
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
Daniel Grindlinger is a freelance writer and playwright living in