On the evening of Jan. 8, 2018, I was in New York City, just leaving a Broadway theater when I felt my phone vibrate. It was Charles Roberts, the 99-year-old father of my dear college friend Susan Roberts.
“Charles! Happy New Year! What’s up?”
“That bastard killed Susan,” he said in a ragged voice.
My knees started to give; I leaned on a wall in the theater lobby for support.
Charles could only mean one person: Susan’s husband, Mark Long, the man she married in September 2015 after a whirlwind courtship.
How could this be?
Susan and I had been friends for 40 years. Partners in crime when we were students at Cal, we hung out at Brennan’s bar, crashed the parties of strangers and helped write each other’s English papers. We spent many weekends at her parents’ home in Los Gatos, near San Jose. I was the maid of honor at her first wedding.
Susan had a razor wit and a big heart. She was sophisticated; her father was an Air Force colonel-turned-businessman, and the family was well traveled, well read and well off. The only girl and youngest child in a family of seven, she was loved and spoiled. Her father’s yacht, the Susan Jean, was named for his baby.
Susan, an attorney, worked as an analyst for the state Department of Social Services in the division that oversees foster homes and critical care facilities.
Susan was nobody’s victim.
Over the years, our closeness had waxed and waned, but our bond remained strong.
Though she’d lived in Sacramento for many years, Facebook made it easy for Susan to reconnect with friends from her high school days on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. It was through a mutual high school friend that she met Long, an intermittently employed contractor in Temecula. He was also a secret alcoholic with little to his name and a host of physical problems related to his drinking.
To this day, I believe that Susan, who had been single for years, fell in love with his Facebook profile photo. It’s a handsome black-and-white shot. His hat brim is pulled low over his brow. You would never guess you’re looking at the face of a sociopath. Neither did she.
I have spent much of my career writing about domestic violence, about men who murder the women they profess to love. Even the strongest among us can fall prey.
My colleague Nicole Santa Cruz reported last month that while the homicide rate in general is falling, there has been a disturbing surge in the number of female victims, most of whom are killed by intimate partners or people they know. Domestic violence experts are at a loss to explain why.
We used to talk a lot about partner violence, but we don’t so much anymore. These days, we’re more attuned to mass shootings. Domestic violence almost always takes place behind closed doors. Often, you see the red flags in retrospect — he is controlling, isolating; she keeps walking into doors. With Long, I saw none of these signs. He didn’t have a history of violence, had no ex-wives. At their wedding, he seemed genuinely moved, and even shed tears of joy.
Susan’s memorial took place in Los Gatos on May 12, 2018. At the reception, I met a lovely woman named Louise Graham, a 52-year-old health aide from Belize who worked for Susan’s brother, Bill Roberts, then nearing the end of his fight with cancer.
Fifteen days after Susan’s memorial, Louise, a single mother of two, missed work. She had been bludgeoned and then drowned in her bathtub, allegedly by her partner, whom she was leaving.
Bill died a few weeks later.
For the second time in less than a year, Charles Roberts eulogized one of his children.
Susan had been married a little more than two years when she came to the conclusion that she’d married a parasitic alcoholic. She told me — and I testified to this in court — that she had made a mistake.
On Jan. 2, 2018, she told Long it was over. She told him he could move into the extra bedroom until he found a place.
She asked Long’s only friend if he could help get Long into rehab. She would be leaving Sacramento for a while to spend time with her father in Los Gatos.
“No double drownings,” she texted Long’s friend. “Save yourself first. I care very much for Mark, but he’s pretty much killed my feelings of romance.”
Two nights later, Long took a hatchet to the back of her head, 11 times. She had defensive wounds on the backs of her hands; he attacked her while her back was to him.
Three days after that, when the body was starting to smell, a Sacramento police SWAT team broke in to arrest Long.
Susan’s torso was face down on the floor. A cutting board was wedged under her shoulder. A circular saw was on the counter, still plugged in. Nearby, her severed legs were in bags.
In a videotaped interview with police, Long said he couldn’t remember anything. He said he and Susan had a “phenomenal” marriage.
By the time he testified 19 months later, however, he had concocted a self-defense story so flimsy that jurors convicted him of first-degree murder on their first day of deliberations.
On Sept. 18, 2018, about three months before his 100th birthday, Charles Roberts died of natural causes. He never got to see his daughter’s killer convicted.
At Long’s sentencing on Friday, the judge allowed prosecutor Caroline Park to play a 10-minute video tribute to Susan, featuring dozens of photos. She had a beautiful smile.
Charles “Rob” Roberts, Susan’s eldest brother, asked that Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Eugene Balonon impose the most severe penalty the law allows.
“How do you quantify the suffering and pain and the impact elicited by such a depraved and horrible act?” asked Susan’s brother, his voice breaking. “How do you measure the broken heart of an old man that lost the love of his life, his only daughter? Like throwing a stone in a pond, the waves of impact keep extending outward.”
Balonon sentenced the 61-year-old Long to 25 years to life for the murder, and another year for using a weapon. He will be eligible for parole in 26 years, should he live that long.
After the judge finished, a hush fell over the courtroom. The only sound we heard was the deeply satisfying metallic zip of handcuffs being placed on the murderer before they led him away.