Once a suspect, retiree is free and uneasy

Donald Long will never forget Aug. 13, 2010.

Until that day, he was simply a 77-year-old retired postal worker enjoying his golden years with the love of his life.

Then the police came with guns and handcuffs and hauled him away, telling him he killed his wife 46 long years ago.

He was taken to Virginia and locked up for five months awaiting trial for a crime he swears he did not commit. Not until the judge threw out a key piece of evidence did prosecutors drop the case.

Long returned home to Las Vegas last week, a free man once again. But returning to the life he once enjoyed has not been easy.

He can’t sleep. He gets antsy when a police car passes.

But the worst, he said, is the neighbors who won’t talk to him anymore. Now when Long waves they just turn their backs and close their doors.

“I’m mad and I’m hurt, and I don’t want my neighbors pointing across the street saying, ‘That guy could be a killer.’ ”

■ ■ ■

The body of Naomi Fulcher Long was discovered on Dec. 28, 1964, in her apartment in Hopewell, Va., a town of about 18,000 near Richmond. The 30-year-old had been strangled.

As her husband of 11 years, Long was questioned. He and his wife were separated at the time — as they had been several times during their marriage — so police wanted to talk to him.

He told them he was at home 25 miles away after having dinner with a friend. He said police never pressured him.

Soon after his wife’s death, Long moved to Southern California to be close to his sister. He continued his postal service career and his life, remarrying and fathering two children.

As years passed, he would divorce, marry again and divorce again before meeting Beverly, whom he married in 1997 after retiring in Las Vegas.

He was enjoying his life with his new wife so much that he had stopped thinking about what happened to his first those many decades ago.

But as he left the barber shop on Aug. 13, the memories rushed back. Seven cops surrounded him. At gunpoint he was handcuffed and taken away.

Two detectives from Hopewell pressed him for long-forgotten details of the night his wife was killed. He told them what he had told detectives nearly 50 years earlier. They didn’t believe him.

“Then they started cussing me out and calling me a murderer,” he said.

Back in Virginia, a grand jury already had indicted him on a first-degree murder charge. He was booked into the Clark County Detention Center to await extradition, and his face was plastered on newspapers and television newscasts in Las Vegas and Virginia.

Hopewell Commonwealth’s Attorney Rick Newman said Long always was the primary suspect in the case, and he believed he had the right man.

“It’s never too late to serve justice,” he said Thursday.

■ ■ ■

Long spent two months locked up in Las Vegas, stalling extradition until he could find a good lawyer in Virginia. After he was extradited, his lawyer pushed for a speedy trial.

They eventually would discover that the case had resurfaced after 46 years thanks to a statement his second wife made to police that summer.

Diane Jaffe, the mother of Long’s children, came forward and told authorities that her then-husband had threatened her life during an argument in 1972.

“He basically told her if she were to leave him, he would kill her like his first wife,” Newman said.

That statement, along with other evidence, led to the indictment, he said.

After the arrest, authorities obtained Long’s DNA and compared it to a cord that might have been used to strangle the victim. But the test results found only DNA from a police evidence technician who had recently handled the now-contaminated cord, Newman said.

The prosecutor said he had other evidence, including a neighbor who could testify Long wasn’t home during the slaying, and pressed on with the case.

Meanwhile, Long adjusted to life behind bars and contemplated the possibility he would die there.

In Las Vegas, the inmates called him “Gramps” or “Pops.” In Virginia, they called him “Mr. Long.”

Soon after he arrived at the Riverside Regional Jail in Hopewell an inmate asked him what he was in for. When Long said he didn’t want to talk about it, the man noted that most old men in jail are child molesters.

“I said, ‘Murder,’ right away,” Long said.

He tried not to make waves and learned that living behind bars meant always keeping one eye open.

He kept track of visits and court dates on homemade calendars drawn on lined notebook paper. He marked each passing day with an “X.”

As bad as it was in jail, however, it didn’t compare to the horrors he saw during the Korean War.

“What I was going through was a piece of cake compared to that,” he said.

After about a month in Virginia, prosecutors offered to set Long free with time served if he pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter.

“I could have been out two months ago, but I didn’t take it,” he said.

As the trial date neared, the judge threw out the ex-wife’s statement as inadmissible under the state’s marital-communications privilege.

Long and his supporters said her statement should never have been taken as truth. She had a history of drug abuse and mental illness, and she was jealous of her former husband’s new life, they said.

Long’s daughter, Amy Long Badain, said she and her brother never doubted their father.

“We knew all along that he was innocent,” she said, adding that authorities victimized her mother by manipulating her to make their case.

Without the ex-wife’s statement, the prosecution dropped the case.

“While I had other evidence, I didn’t feel it was enough to go forward,” said Newman, who announced the collapse of his case just hours before a Jan. 5 court hearing.

Long saw it on a jail television. As he walked back to his cell he gave two thumbs up to the other inmates. They gave him a standing ovation.

“The crooks know who’s crooks,” he said, fighting back tears.

He was released after 146 days behind bars, if he were counting, he likes to say.

■ ■ ■

Before leaving Virginia, Long shared a meal with Butch Fulcher, Naomi Fulcher Long’s brother, who has remained close through the years. Fulcher looked him in the eye and asked him if he had killed her. Long said, “No.”

Speaking Thursday from his Virginia home, Fulcher said only the killer knows who took his sister’s life. Long had always been “like a brother to me,” Fulcher said. He criticized the “overzealous prosecution.”

“All they did was bring up a bunch of old stuff for no reason,” he said. “It was sad indeed for everybody involved.”

Long’s lawyer, J. Lloyd Snook III, said evidence points to a now-dead Army sergeant who had an affair with Naomi Fulcher Long. He was stationed at nearby Fort Lee, where she attended an NCO club dance the night she died, and he failed a lie-detector test, Snook said.

But Long was the only person ever charged, and he could be charged again. Newman said authorities were searching for old evidence, including a bed sheet and lingerie, collected in 1964 but since lost. Those items could hold DNA evidence.

Because the charges could resurface, Long’s lawyer told him not to talk about his case. But Long wants his friends and neighbors to know what the prosecutor put him through.

“I’m pissed at him,” he said of Newman. “He had no business doing that. Of course I’m mad at him, but what am I going to do?”

Long returned to Las Vegas a week ago to a giant “Welcome home Don!” sign on his garage. He walked inside and cried for half an hour.

But soon his friends and neighbors started stopping by to congratulate him, so the crying had to stop.

“Everybody expects me to come out like Superman,” Long said.

His experience has shown him how much he is loved by his wife and children and respected by his friends. It has made him stronger, but he rather it had never happened.

He knows he will never get back the $70,000 he spent fighting the case. And he’ll never get back the 10,000 hugs and kisses from his wife that he missed.

But he hopes he’ll get back the dignity that was taken from him that August day when he was handcuffed and called a murderer.

“I want people to know … I’m not a murderer. I’ve been a good man all my life.”

Contact reporter Brian Haynes at bhaynes@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0281.

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