The man he killed

Shooting victim William Long was painted as a dangerous vagrant. His friends say otherwise.

It had been 14 years since she last saw him. Now looking at her father as he lay in the casket before her, she thought that he hadn't really changed. Same round face. Same shaved head. It was as if no time had passed.

But it had. And something was missing. She didn't see his trademark broad smile.

With his 69-year-old mother footing most of the bill, William McKinley Long's body had been flown from Dallas to this funeral home in Staten Island, New York. Some 50 people--friends, relatives, an ex-wife, and two grandchildren whom he never knew--had gathered to say goodbye. None had seen Long in more than a decade. In that time, he had passed his life as a homeless man on the streets of downtown Dallas--until an early morning last November, when Robert Sanchez looked from a second-story window of his Victorian-style home in East Dallas and saw him.

In the five years Hilda Van Wormer, below, knew him, William McKinley Long worked on and off renovating homes for her.
Alyssa Banta
In the five years Hilda Van Wormer, below, knew him, William McKinley Long worked on and off renovating homes for her.
Hilda Van Wormer
Hilda Van Wormer

Sanchez's girlfriend told him that Long had a gun. On that dark night less than a minute after his girlfriend called 911, Sanchez fired his 12-gauge shotgun twice. The first shot was a warning, he later said. The shots passed through Sanchez's 6-foot fence, and one fatally struck Long on the street below, where he had been noisily stripping copper wire from an abandoned refrigerator in hopes of getting a few dollars. (Sanchez always maintained that he acted in self-defense after his girlfriend had awakened him, telling him that a man outside was holding a gun. But Long, in fact, was holding a long knife, which he was using for the refrigerator.)

In death, Dallas hasn't been particularly kind to the 50-year-old Long, say his daughter and his friends. Though Sanchez was charged with murder, he was convicted of a lesser charge, criminally negligent homicide, and sentenced to two years' probation. That victory, Long's friends say, happened because the defense vilified Long, emphasizing his criminal record and drug problems.

"I looked at him [in the courtroom], and it's like he got away with it," says 56-year-old Hilda Van Wormer, a Dallas homeowner who, like Long, grew up in New York. Standing in a yellow brick house on Worth Street that Long had been helping her renovate, she recalls meeting him five years ago. Back then, she had just moved to the city and was unloading her rented truck when she saw him coming down the block, nonchalantly pushing his shopping cart as if he hadn't a "care in the world," she says.

He asked whether she needed help. "We kind of connected," says Van Wormer in her Bronx twang.

"Yeah," she replied then. "I'll pay you." And for the next five years, she hired him off and on, giving him $5 an hour to help her restore several of the homes she is remodeling in the area. On days they worked together, she would pick him up at a nearby gas station. He was never late, never showed up drunk or high. After a hard day's work, they would often get some fried chicken at a nearby fast-food joint.

This month's jury decision doesn't satisfy his daughter Victoria Long, either.

She had traveled by train from her home in Fairfax, Virginia, to attend a few days of the trial. Before arriving, she had resolved that she would forgive her father's killer. The press, for its part, was quick to seize on that moment when--days before she learned the jury's sentencing verdict--she hugged Sanchez's wife, the woman who awoke her then-boyfriend that night. (Sanchez and the woman, Heather Hodges, married before the trial began, and she did not serve as a witness.)

But when she returned to Virginia, Long learned the trial's outcome. No jail time. She has been angry ever since.

"Mrs. Sanchez still has not apologized to me. I don't think they realize what has happened to me," says Long, 31. Every day she cries for her father.

"I just went through this on Saturday crying my heart out," says Long, a mother of two and a sergeant in the National Guard.

"I'm angry with Mr. Sanchez because he didn't have to shoot him," she says by phone, her voice shaky as she speaks through tears. "There's no way to justify that. No way. He should have been in jail for the rest of his life."

In the end, though, the defense persuaded 12 jurors that Long was nothing more than a career criminal. (An investigator had given them sketchy details of his police record, which included about a year's jail time for burglary.) David Lewis, Sanchez's court-appointed attorney, had said during the trial that his client, who had moved to the neighborhood weeks before the shooting, needed to arm himself in that "rough area" and that he had chased several homeless people off his porch.

"The jury got to hear what the press wouldn't print," says Lewis, trying to answer questions in his office, but often distracted by the stock quotes on both the television and computer near him. "The criminal record, the drugs...it's 2:30 at night in a very rough area of town, and someone's exhibiting signs that he's on drugs. He's asked nicely to leave."

But a next-door neighbor, Matthew Armstrong, says he heard racial epithets ("You fucking nigger") coming from the direction of Sanchez's house that early morning.

"I just want to get the copper." That's what Armstrong remembers hearing Long say.

Many in the Mill Creek area--an up-and-coming gentrified neighborhood with a mix of cheap boarding homes and apartments, as well as finely restored homes--believe that the defense unfairly branded the neighborhood as a dark, pervasive place, one that would have made any resident feel under siege.

"If someone was shot because East Dallas was a crummy neighborhood, there would be dead bodies lying all over the ground," says Jeff Siegel, a writer who recently moved from his Mill Creek home (about six blocks from the shooting) after 15 years there. In that time, though, he was never burglarized. He never owned a gun.

"The lawyer put the neighborhood on trial," adds Marianna Armstrong, a paralegal who lives next door to Sanchez and whose 30-year-old son Matthew heard the shots that early morning. Since she and her family moved into their two-story home six years ago, they haven't had a problem with crime.

And William Long often walked those streets. For several years, Armstrong's daughter-in-law Emily would hear Long pushing his cart at five in the morning, just as she was getting ready to start her day as a contractor at Texas Instruments. Or she would see him at the bus stop. "He never gave any trouble," says the 29-year-old woman.

A few days before the shooting, William Long saw Matthew Armstrong outside his home. Long asked for work. Armstrong didn't have anything for him at the time, he says now, but offered him a few dollars. Long declined. He didn't accept handouts.

It had been more than a decade since Long, a former postal worker from New York, had lapsed into cocaine addiction and left behind both his family and a police record in New York that included several arrests for the possession and sale of a controlled substance and grand larceny. In the years that followed, he came to Texas for reasons his daughter doesn't know.

His friend Van Wormer says simply that he had some drug problems there and that he has a sister in Dallas. Long, according to Van Wormer, was estranged from his sister. (Several family members declined to be interviewed or could not be reached for comment for this story.)

In his more sober days here, Long worked as a contract laborer, cleaning up around construction sites for $25 to $30 a day and spending many of his nights at the Austin Street Shelter. His last year, though, he became frustrated with the low pay and gave up the work, says the shelter's executive director, the Rev. Bubba Dailey. Instead, he spent most of his time wheeling his pushcart around the city, scrounging up metal to sell as scrap at the nearby shack called "Cans for Cash."

He became a particular fixture of Munger Place's streets. Often, residents would leave bags of cans outside their homes for him to pick up, and, like clockwork, he did.

"He was the most polite, respectful person, truly, that I've met in my entire life," says Nancy Sanford, a resident in the area who dutifully left a bag of cans for him to pick up every Saturday. Like many of the women whom he encountered, Long preceded her name with the title "Miss."

"He, Hilda, and I sat on the front stoop, and he wouldn't go further. He wouldn't trespass.

"He believed in God, so I rest easy that he's in heaven," she says. "[But] he never went into detail about his life."

Like most homeless people, William Long--known in homeless circles as "New York" or "New Yorker"--was always on the go.

"New Yorker was my best friend; he was my heart," says a 38-year-old homeless woman walking near the Austin Street Shelter. (She declines to give her name because she doesn't like that "publicity bullshit.") She knew him for 10 years, says the woman, whose face shows raw, red patches from severe sunburn.

"New Yorker was a good man," she adds, her breath reeking of alcohol. "He was trying to survive, dammit...He wouldn't mess with nobody, girl.

"He fed me," she says in a loud, scratchy voice. "He gave me tennis shoes, socks, pants. The last thing New Yorker gave me is a black T-shirt."

Still, in the 10 years she knew him, she never knew that he had a daughter.

"New Yorker got a daughter?" she asks, cocking her head to the side. "You're kidding."

He gave to others too. "He would bring stuff that others threw away," says 56-year-old Oscar Flores, who runs a nearby thrift shop in a small storefront, the back room of which serves as a home for himself and his wife and small son.

"He used to give cookies, toys," says Flores' young son, peering over the couch in the cramped, humid shop. "He gave us that tank of fish," he says, pointing to a tank in the back filled with goldfish and a catfish.

Old and new items--bras, sneakers, and other clothing--line the shelves of this shop in Munger Place. The day before, Flores had made $10.

"There are a lot of colored people who steal," says Flores, speaking in Spanish of Long, who was black. "But he was trustworthy," he says of the man whom he knew for six or seven years.

His chin begins to quiver. His eyes well up. "What they did to him was wrong," he says after a moment's silence, "because they let Mr. Sanchez go."

As polite as many say William Long was, though, there's a police record that paints a different picture. There's one charge for assaulting a homeless woman, another for making terroristic threats. But his defenders point out that in Texas only one conviction led to a long-term sentence, about a year in jail. Details of his life are as sketchy as his police record.

For her part, Victoria Long never stopped wondering what happened to her father.

Growing up, she always took his presence for granted. She couldn't remember a time when she lived with him or when exactly her parents had separated. Still, she always got the chance to see him, especially on weekends. Often, her mother made sure that Victoria traveled from their two-bedroom apartment in the Bronx to Harlem, where he lived. There she would pass the time with him by going clothes shopping. Or she would play a game of tag with her cousins outside, while he sat on a nearby stoop. Those are some of the most vivid memories she has of him.

Like those who knew him, she describes him as a soft-spoken man. She never heard him yell.

Now, his killer, Robert Sanchez, has been advised to lay low until "things calm down," as his attorney Lewis, puts it.

They already have. For years, Long was one of hundreds who went to the Austin Street Shelter. Whether from fear or apathy or mere forgetfulness, no homeless person there seems to recall him.

"We asked around," says a supervisor. "There's no one here who knows him."

No one at all.

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