The editorial department at Riverfront Times receives a lot of phone calls. Occasionally, they're cries for help.
For two weeks in late March and early April, a 49-year-old man named Dennis Long repeatedly called and tried to convince us to write an investigative story about his sisters. He claimed they were conspiring to keep him from seeing their mother, who was afflicted with Alzheimer's and lived at St. Sophia Health & Rehabilitation Center, a nursing home in Florissant.
His accusations reeked of paranoia and, from what could be gathered from his rambling responses to questions, the situation was mostly due to his own erratic behavior. There didn't seem to be anything the paper could do in terms of a story.
Long would not take no for an answer. He continued to phone several times a day. When his calls weren't picked up, he left panicked messages, pleading for a call back.
On Wednesday, April 1, the calls to the paper stopped. On Friday Long was all over the local news — but the headlines weren't what he had in mind when he pitched his story to RFT.
He stole a Mercedes-Benz, doused himself in gasoline, lit a match and crashed the car through the front door of St. Sophia, injuring one resident and causing minor fire and structural damage to the building. He was taken to the burn unit at St. John's Mercy Medical Center, where doctors used drugs to induce a coma.
Over the weekend on April 3, police discovered that before the crash, Long took a hammer and nearly beat to death a 51-year-old woman named Joyce McGill. The owner of the wrecked Mercedes, McGill was a friend who had taken in Long and given him a place to live. At this writing she is hospitalized in critical condition and has reportedly suffered brain damage as a result of the attack.
What caused Dennis Long to snap?
Whenever he called, Long spoke of nothing but how desperately he wanted to see his mother. He kept a running tally of how long it had been since he had seen her. His last report was that it had been 115 days.
"I know this is not right. My sisters playing politics and telling lies," he said. "I got like five sisters — all of them was involved in setting me up and trying to take my mom from me and everything. They all in it together. They like criminals."
Long was his mother's legal guardian for several years. The pair lived together in a home in south city. Long was unemployed. He had HIV, so he received a disability check. Combined with his mother's social security, it was enough to live on. In 2007 Charlene Jones, Long's eldest sister, sued for guardianship of their mother and won when Long didn't show up for the court hearing.
"Dennis was a very troubled person for a very long time," Jones says. "All of his sisters, including myself, obtained restraining orders against him because of his behavior, and all of us are very uncomfortable talking about it. We're sad about what happened. It's a horrible, horrible tragedy."
Terry Hall, Long's youngest sister, says her brother was addicted to crack. She says he took advantage of their mother — stole her social security checks, attempted to hijack her identity to obtain loans and even sold off her furniture.
A friend, Everett James, says that before getting hooked on drugs, Long had held down a steady job at a warehouse. He enjoyed bike riding, at times notching twenty miles a day. He was also confrontational, a tendency that was only exacerbated when he couldn't be with his mother whenever he pleased.
"I been knowing him for ten years and he was in conflict with somebody the whole time," James says. "We'd bring him over to the house. My wife enjoyed his conversation. He'd tell us about his problems, his sisters. He'd get worked up, and he'd always say, 'I'm going to do this or that.' We'd say, 'Wait it out, Dennis, it'll be all right.'"
After removing their mother from Long's care, the sisters moved her to four nursing homes in two years. "They trying to hide my mom from me," Long claimed.
His sisters say that in each instance the nursing home asked them to transfer their mother to another facility. They say Long would harass the staff and demand that he be permitted to sit with his mother all day, regardless of visiting hours.
Long conceded that he had gotten into similar trouble at St. Sophia.
"The administrator said I threatened her, and I got kicked out on a suspicion of carrying a gun," he said. "They've put me out four times now. One time I harassed a housekeeper. I just want to go visit my mom. My sister, she paying them girls to initiate that stuff."
By April 1, Long was at the end of his rope.
He believed he could regain guardianship of his mother and went to the pro bono law clinic at Saint Louis University to see if it'd take up his cause. The attorneys' take was much the same as RFT's.
"'We have determined there's nothing we can do for you in a legal capacity,'" Long said, reciting aloud the clinic's assessment of his case. "'The best advice we can give is to straighten things out with your sister. The court would not have left Charlene Jones as guardian if it were not [in] your mother's best interest. We understand how difficult your situation must be. We will close your file in our office and take no action on your behalf.'"
Long never emerged from the coma. He died in the hospital on Monday, April 13. Criminal charges weren't filed in the incident; Florissant Police Chief William Karabas had said he would wait until Long's condition stabilized.
Tragically, Dennis Long wound up hurting the person he said he cared most about: his mother.
"I have no idea how we move on," his sister Terry Hall says. "We have to take it one day at a time. We have to stick together and stay strong for my mom, because she saw him when he was on fire. If that's not horrific for her, at the age she is, then I just don't know what is."