Mom of Slain Architect: 'She Felt Safe in Her City'

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    NEWSLETTERS

    The family of Amber Long speaks and asks for someone to come forward in the case. (Published Thursday, Jan 23, 2014)

    Amber Long doesn't live here anymore.

    But traces of the 26-year-old architect are everywhere in the sunny second-floor walk-up on Ritner Street.

    Plants cover nearly every flat surface, vines twining down the sides of the fireplace, around the front door, over the windowsill. A pair of her gloves are still draped over a chair. A pool cue leans against the door. A library book — a fantasy novel — rests on the coffee table.

    An enormous, unfinished canvas, a detailed landscape showing a river cutting through towering cliffs, sits propped by the big bay windows in the living room.

    "Amber surrounded herself with beautiful things, and this apartment was one of them," said Stephanie Long, her mother.

    Amber Long had lived in the apartment for three years and in the city for nearly eight. She was one of the thousands of young people who move into lofts in Fishtown or rowhouses in East Passyunk with a dream for their adopted city and a desire to carve out their own place in it.

    Two weeks ago, she and her mother, a goldsmith from Harrisburg, had planned a weekend together from that apartment: searching for Restaurant Week specials, streaming TV episodes on the couch, dressing up for a gala at the Art Museum.

    Now, returning to Ritner Street is almost unbearable for Stephanie Long.

    On Jan. 19 — the tail end of their weekend together — the Longs were accosted by two men as they walked to their car on a desolate stretch of Front Street in Northern Liberties.

    One man grabbed Stephanie Long's purse. The other, struggling for Amber's, pulled out a handgun and fired a single shot.

    And on Wednesday, Stephanie Long was back in Philadelphia, back from her daughter's funeral, back to clean out the place her daughter called home for three years.

    She stared across the living room at the canvas by the window. She remembered, years before, teaching Amber to sketch, to shade, to put together a portfolio.

    "I've been debating with myself whether or not I should work on her unfinished pieces," she said, "or whether I should just leave them unfinished."

    ___

    Amber Long stood barely 5 feet tall and weighed less than 100 pounds.

    But she was "always scrappy," her mother said.

    At elementary school in Williamsport, Pa., when a classmate complained of being bullied, Long, an only child, reassured her concerned mother that all was well.

    "I'm the bullies' worst nightmare," she said, laughing.

    She loved to ride roller coasters, traveling to Virginia and Florida and California for bigger, higher, scarier rides. Instead of family portraits, the Longs have souvenir shots from amusement parks: Stephanie, Amber, and her father, Troy, side by side on the roller coasters, screaming in delight.

    Long picked up gymnastics at 13 and excelled almost immediately, winning the all-around Pennsylvania Level 9 State Championship her junior year of high school — two levels below Olympic caliber. Coaches encouraged her to compete on a national level the next year, but Long dropped everything to apply to architecture school.

    It was a dream she'd harbored since childhood, her mother said.

    And she'd never liked competing, anyway.

    "What was important to her was doing her best," Stephanie Long said.

    Eventually, Long chose Philadelphia University, where she worked on a thesis project designing "a new model for the suburbs" with an emphasis on green design.

    She spent a semester in Rome and traveled on the weekends. She called her mother from Switzerland and told her she was planning to skydive over the Alps, wearing a flight suit that made her look like "a big blue Smurf."

    "Yes, I actually jumped out of a flying plane . . . on purpose!" she wrote in a giddy Facebook update.

    She took a job at U.S Construction in Philadelphia after graduating, rented the apartment on Ritner — a quiet block in South Philadelphia populated mostly by families, with a Catholic school on the corner — and set about making a life in her city.

    October brought a big break: a job at the Lebanon, Pa., architecture firm Nest, which was opening a Philadelphia office. Her bosses liked her quiet resolve and almost-single-minded focus. Long wanted to work as an architect and, one day, run her own firm, and she was entirely confident that that was exactly what would happen.

    "She was a very self-willed and determined person," her mother said. "And yet she took time to live."

    Long liked a good craft beer but didn't party. She joined a pool league and took her cue to work each Tuesday. Her team had just won a citywide 8-ball championship. She had promised a teammate she'd do a back flip in the middle of the bar if he hit the winning shot.

    She loved to cook, and grew potted herbs in the sun from the bay windows in the living room. She played music constantly, everything from the Shins to Verdi's Requiem, and sang along in perfect pitch.

    She loved the roof deck on her building on Ritner — from three stories up, she could see the whole city stretched out before her.

    ___

    Stephanie Long didn't want to walk back to the car.

    On the night of Jan. 19, Amber Long had parked on Front Street near the Spring Garden El stop. It's a bleak stretch of pavement, bisected by I-95, that has seen less of the development that has sprung up in Northern Liberties in recent years.

    The sidewalk was uneven. Stephanie Long was in four-inch heels.

    "This is mama abuse," she joked as the two made their way to Long's car, parked near her boyfriend's house. She'd parked here dozens of times, she told her mother, and was determined to retrieve the car that night.

    Northern Liberties, she assured her mother, "is much better than it looks."

    "She felt safe in her city," Stephanie Long said.

    Long pointed out the townhouses lining the street — designed by U.S. Construction, where she had worked for two years.

    The purse she was carrying cost $14, bought earlier in the day to replace a bag so old that Stephanie Long had encouraged her to throw it out. Amber was an avid thrifter, frequenting the Salvation Army and Goodwill and hunting for bargains. The new purse was a Plato's Closet find. She'd stashed a pair of flats inside for the walk home from a gala at the Art Museum, where she and her mother had danced for hours.

    "Next time you'll know to bring a pair," she told her mother on the way to the car.

    They were steps from the car when it happened, and it happened in seconds.

    There were two men, flanking mother and daughter. There was a brief struggle, the men grabbing at the women's purses.

    There was a pop.

    There was a car that pulled to the curb and sped off into the night.

    And there was Amber Long staggering backward, falling to the ground, curling up at her mother's feet, a single gunshot wound in her chest.

    Stephanie Long never saw the men's faces.

    "I couldn't give the police anything," she said, on the couch in Amber's apartment, her voice shaking.

    She paused.

    "Everybody says, 'I wish there was something I could do.' Well, I was there. And there was nothing I could do."

    ___

    The day after Amber Long's death, police announced they had two men in custody in connection with the killing.

    A day later, detectives learned that they'd been misled by a tipster. The "men of interest" were released. The hunt began anew.

    Now the investigation is gaining momentum, said Lt. Mark Deegan of Homicide's Special Investigations Unit, which is handling the case and fielding dozens of tips.

    They have ballistic evidence, from a small-caliber handgun.

    They have tape of the men approaching the Longs, with their hoodies up, on Front Street. They have video of the men's getaway car, a dark Chevy Impala, that's being analyzed by the FBI.

    They have the state the car is registered in. They believe the car may have been a rental - and are interviewing area rental-car agencies, scouring their records.

    They're hoping for a tag number soon.

    They have data from Stephanie Long's cellphone, pointing them to an area where the suspects may have fled after the robbery, Deegan said. Through surveillance footage, they're tracking the suspects' getaway route, starting on Front Street.

    They have a DNA sample from Stephanie Long, taken on Thursday, which they're comparing to samples taken from Amber's purse. She was still holding the bag when she was shot, but police hope her killer — who had a strong grip on the purse as he fired - left his own DNA behind.

    There's a $30,000 reward in the case, $10,000 of which will be paid up front.

    "As the investigation intensifies, it's in the best interest of the people involved to come forward now and speak to detectives about their involvement," Deegan said.

    ___

    Stephanie Long is sleeping on an air mattress on her daughter's living-room floor while she cleans. There's a lot to take home: the loose tea piled on the kitchen windowsill, the photographs that line the mantel, Long's big tabby cat, Jovi, who, her mother has decided, will stay in the family.

    On Thursday, she collected her daughter's effects from work. Homicide detectives gave her back the contents of Long's purse.

    Talking about her daughter is hard sometimes. Talking about that night is even harder, but Stephanie Long pushes herself to do it anyway. If she keeps telling the story, there's a chance someone might step forward to finish it.

    "This is somebody we couldn't afford to lose," she said. "This is someone Philadelphia couldn't afford to lose. She could have done so much good for this city. They can't possibly understand what they destroyed."