“I committed pretty much the worst thing you can do, which is defraud the readers,” he says. “Even right now, talking about it, I get this prickly sweat of shame on my forehead and it’s like I can’t believe I did that.”So why, then, did he do it? After all, his record as a journalist, writing for various magazines, was otherwise spotless. The simplistic answer, as comes through in the book, is that he thought it made a better story.”I deluded myself into thinking I was serving a higher truth,” he says. “I knew it was a one-time idiotic act, but I felt like it was an error of creativity rather than evilness. I didn’t think I would get caught, but that’s no excuse.”
Finkel retreated to his Montana home to wait for the Times editor’s note that would undoubtedly send his career into a tailspin. The day before the note was published, he got a call from a reporter in Oregon. He assumed the word was already out about his disgrace, but the reporter didn’t know about Finkel’s dismissal: Instead, he wanted to talk about a murder suspect named Christian Longo who was using Finkel’s name when he was apprehended in Cancun, Mexico.When Finkel heard the story, he wanted to know more, initially just about why Longo decided to pretend to be Michael Finkel. Something told him that there was a story here and perhaps a way to redeem his career.
“It felt like this was divine intervention. I had no idea what sense would be made of it, but it seemed just so far beyond coincidence that Longo was using my name,” he says.Longo came from a devout Jehovah’s Witness family in the Midwest, fell in love as a teenager with a woman seven years his senior, married her and set out to live a middle-class version of the American dream. He had several jobs, including delivering the New York Times, and also started his own business, with financial support from his father, getting newly built homes ready for occupancy.