It has only been three weeks since it happened, so perhaps it's not surprising that the 12-year-old boy still thinks about it every day, thinks about the night he kissed his "Mom" goodby before leaving for the movies and thinks about the horror of returning home just three hours later to a house swathed in yellow police tape.
In his Central Los Angeles neighborhood, kids like Michael Long grow up knowing that police tape "means somebody has gotten killed."
So when he was told that his grandmother, the woman who had taken care of him all his life, and two other inhabitants of the South Oxford Avenue house had been murdered, the sturdily built sixth-grader cried a little and then did what had to be done. He gave police information that helped lead to the arrest of his uncle in the triple slaying and then he started to get on with the rest of his life.
Now living with his second cousin, Michael showed just how far he's already come on Friday when he stood up before hundreds of his classmates and their parents at the 24th Street School and delivered his sixth-grade graduation address.
"I thought my grandmother would be sitting out there in the audience today, but she is not here," the straight-A student told the crowd, his voice soft but sure. "But she is here, right in the middle of my heart.
"The basis of this essay is how important my friends were to me during the time when I really needed someone to talk to. . . . To the people here, you have been wonderful. After I graduate today and leave this school, I will feel as if I am leaving a part of myself here. . . . I love you."
Afterward, his teacher wept, the exuberant audience jumped to their feet and a somber Michael, dressed in gray and black, finally smiled his impish grin.
Michael Long had lived with the woman he called "Mom," 74-year-old Clara Mae Stone, in their two-story building ever since he was a baby. His father, one of Stone's two sons, took off when Michael was a toddler. His mother hasn't been seen in years.
Although Stone's other son, Edward McGee, drifted in and out of the household, it was Michael who kept the elderly woman going. She taught him the lessons of life, from how to be cordial to others to how to strive for the best. And, Michael said, she taught him how to accept the unthinkable.
"She had a little prayer she used to call the Serenity Prayer," the curly haired boy explained a few days before Friday's graduation. "It went like this: 'May God give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, may he give me the strength to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference,' " he said, reciting the prayer that is attributed to the late theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.
"That's the attitude I'm using and I think I'm getting over it well, considering what happened. To have had my own uncle (charged), I think I'm getting over it well."
Michael, who has been enrolled in classes for the gifted at the 24th Street School, is known by teachers and friends for his drive to succeed, his imagination and for a graciousness that is more adult than childlike.
'He's a Unique Kid'
Even the police who investigated the June 6 slayings spotted something special in him.
"He's a unique kid," said Los Angeles Police Detective Frank Bishop, one of the officers on the scene when Michael arrived home that night. "He's the kind of kid everybody wishes they had. . . . a great kid."
Michael figures he left for the Saturday night showing of "Beverly Hills Cop II" about an hour before his grandmother; his cousin, 54-year-old Bobbie Smith, and a boarder, Duane McCauley, were stabbed to death. Police say Edward McGee attacked his mother and the others during a bitter dispute over his use of drugs. McGee is in jail, charged with three counts of murder in what authorities say may be a death penalty case.
"When I left for the movies, I said, 'I love you, Grandma,' and I kissed her on the cheek," Michael said, repeating what he has already repeated countless times before. "As I was running down the stairs, she said, 'Michael, be a good boy.' "
Accompanied by his best friend and the friend's mother, Michael returned home hours later to a panorama of police flares and the zigzagging yellow tape. He saw blood. His grandmother didn't come out to greet him. Michael didn't have to be told anything else.
Whisked to Police Station
"I was there when he arrived and we quickly whisked him off to the police station," Detective Bishop said. "He helped clear up a problem for us right in the beginning. . . . The suspect had given us a story that the kid verified was not true.
"Here, he was the only survivor of the immediate family. . . . You don't see too many kids of his kind around."
Early the next morning, Michael moved in with his second cousin, Marva Scranton, her husband, Joe, and the couple's four children, who live minutes from Mrs. Stone's house. He's been there ever since and the family plans to seek permanent custody.
"The only mother he knows is murdered and . . . we're just trying to keep as much stability as we can in this kid's life," said Marva Scranton, a friendly woman who took leave from her job as a health clinic supervisor the week after the killings. "We have three kids at home and one in college, so we may have to eat beans. . . . But he's going to stay here with us. He's not going anywhere."
Return to School
Michael was back in school the Monday after the tragedy. Returning so soon was his choice, he said. As soon as he walked in, he knew it was the right choice.
"I had to get in contact with my friends," Michael explained. "I needed to talk to somebody who would understand and it helped. It helped a lot."
The school principal and psychologist met with him that first morning and more counseling is planned by the family. But it was in the classroom, said teacher Joyce Hampton, that Michael really found solace.
"He didn't need another thing from me other than a safe haven and we had that here," Hampton said. "He was a little quiet that day. . . . I told him I needed his help and got him started with projects and he went to work.
"Only at one point, did he say to me, 'Mrs. Hampton, she didn't deserve to die like that.' "
Scheduled to Testify
On July 24, Michael, with Scranton and other family members at his side, is scheduled to testify at his uncle's preliminary hearing. His feelings about seeing McGee confuse him but he said he will do what must be done.
"Another lesson she taught me was to forgive people," Michael said. "If I did something wrong, I'd want God to forgive me, so I should forgive others.
"But he had no right to do this. . . . And sometimes I surprise myself with some of my bad thoughts."
He doesn't like to think about what might have happened had he stayed home that night and hopes that the "shock" and the "sick feelings" he still has will diminish once the case has run its course. Until then, he plans on crying when he feels blue and talking about it when it feels right to talk.
"I've heard," he said, "that a true man cries. . . . If I don't get it out, it just eats away inside."
On Monday, Michael will begin summer school at Audubon Junior High School, sort of a warm-up, he explains, for starting seventh grade there in the fall.
"Eventually I want to go to UCLA," he said. "I'd like to get into computers because I think they'll be taking over the world when I'm at my peak, when I'm 19 or 20."
In order to help with his college education, KCOP Channel 13 has established the Michael Long Scholarship Fund through the Figueroa Street branch of the Bank of the West. His teachers and classmates also have taken up a collection.
"My grandma used to say it was like every time I left the house, an angel would watch over me and that nothing would ever happen to me," Michael said. "I guess I'm really lucky."