When Life is Stranger Than Fiction

True Story of Michael Finkel

Pat Hill

A story about a bizarre chapter in a Bozeman writer’s life hit the big screen last month with the release of the film True Story.  

A story assignment first brought Mike Finkel to southwest Montana in 1993, and he’s called Bozeman home base ever since. Finkel, an avid skier, came to Bozeman while working on a story that fit perfectly into his life at the time: what it’s like to be a ski bum for a year. He was working for Skiing magazine, which had also provided him with his first real job in the world of journalism. Though he “hit all the ski hills in Montana” that year, he rented a house in Bozeman and stayed. Within a few short years, Finkel developed a sound reputation as a nationally-known outdoors writer.

“Bozeman has profoundly affected my career,” said Finkel in a 2005 interview, when his book True Story first hit bookstores. “I’d never ridden a mountain bike, rock-climbed, or back-country skied until I came here. The exposure to the sports, and the excitement, enabled me to write the [outdoor adventure] articles.” Finkel added other publishers to his resume along the way, among them the New York Times magazine, which had coincidentally run Finkel’s first published piece when he was still in college. A story involving child slavery and chocolate eventually led Finkel on an amazing investigative chase for the Times in Africa, but the resulting story was fudged a bit—enough for the publication to both fire Finkel and run a six-paragraph article with the simple headline “Editor’s Note”-- informing the world that Finkel would no longer work for the Times.

“I got fired for being overly creative,” Finkel said. “I broke the rules and I knew it.” But the story was about to get bizarre. While pondering what seemed like an end to a promising career in journalism, Finkel got a phone call from a reporter in Oregon; assuming that word of the Editor’s Note had already begun to circulate in the journalism world, Finkel informed the reporter that he was “the first to call,” but the reporter wasn’t inquiring about Finkel…not the real Mike Finkel.

“I’m calling about the murders,” said the reporter. Finkel then learned that a man named Christian Longo, accused of murdering his wife and children, had assumed Finkel’s identity while on the run in Mexico. Finkel also learned that Longo had been captured in Mexico and was awaiting trial in Oregon; it was the beginning of a strange relationship between the writer and the accused murderer who had taken on his identity, not unlike the relationship between murderer and author in Truman Capote’s award-winning booke In Cold Blood. The relationship would not only restart Finkel’s writing career, but would help shape his life as well.

“The book is completely truthful,” he said in 2005. “In a weird way, Bozeman is like a character in the book. I couldn’t have asked for a better place to convalesce and get myself together. Nobody in Bozeman judged me…it was the best place on Planet Earth for me to have been. In a weird way, I am married because of a murder.” Finkel weaves the story of the fallen reporter and the murderer together in a clever chronological style that, while not common, keeps the reader wanting to know what comes out in the wash: the end of the story may surprise you. Reviews concerning True Story have been upbeat. Finkel said that he even got a review from Christian Longo himself when the book was published. Longo is still awaiting execution in Oregon.

“He told me he did not ‘like the tone’ of the book, but didn’t dispute the facts,” Finkel said. “I don’t want to meet anyone like Christian Longo ever again.”
True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa (2005, Harper-Collins Publishers), is available at most major book stores, and can also be purchased online. The movie, True Story, has been shown at theaters nationwide since its April 17 release date, but a DVD/Blue Ray release date is not yet certain.   

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Pat Hill

Pat Hill is a freelance writer in Bozeman. A native Montanan and former advisor to Montana State University’s Exponent newspaper, Pat has been writing about the history and politics of the Treasure State for nearly three decades.

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