Stephanie Long tries to make things better for others in wake of daughter's murder

Stephanie Long with one of her daughter Amber's paintings depicting Jessup Street. Amber, 26, was killed Jan. 19 during a purse snatching.
Stephanie Long with one of her daughter Amber's paintings depicting Jessup Street. Amber, 26, was killed Jan. 19 during a purse snatching.
Posted: May 06, 2014

PHILADELPHIA In the four months since Amber Long was killed, her mother has begun to finish her paintings.

To the untrained eye, the pieces are seamless: a sketch of a street in France or a hill in the Italian countryside looks as though it were drawn entirely by the same hand.

Stephanie Long is the one who taught her daughter to draw, and she knows Amber's style, her meticulous attention to detail. She knows how to fill in the empty spaces.

In the months since Amber Long was killed at 26 in front of her mother, Stephanie Long has done her best to stay moving. On weekends, she drives from Harrisburg to Philadelphia for fund-raising events, memorials, rallies - anything to keep Amber's name out there.

The paintings, finished and unfinished, are being sold as prints, with the proceeds going toward a scholarship at Philadelphia University, Amber's alma mater. Stephanie Long drives to Philadelphia with a stack of them, each bearing a tag with Amber's picture, the date of her birth, and the date of her murder.

By now, Stephanie Long has told the story dozens of times: She and her daughter were walking to their car on a dark stretch of Front Street in Northern Liberties when they were approached by two men who flanked them and grabbed for their purses. One snatched Stephanie Long's purse off her shoulder. The other went for Amber's, a secondhand find from Plato's Closet bought for $14 that day.

Amber Long held on, for just a moment. The man pulled out a gun, fired once, and suddenly Stephanie Long's story had two chapters: life with Amber, and life without.

The investigation has dragged on for months as detectives deal with a set of clues at once promising and agonizingly vague: clear surveillance footage of the killers - but only from the back. A video of the car speeding away from the crime - but with the license plate number obscured.

Shortly after the murder, detectives posted the footage online.

Stephanie Long has watched it more times than she can count, trying to remember anything about the men who killed her daughter. She never saw their faces. She hopes they are "eaten by guilt."

At night, she sleeps but doesn't dream.

"People can't believe that I don't have any nightmares," she said. "But I think nightmares are your brain throwing up might-have-beens and worst-case scenarios, and the worst-case scenario happened."

In the interim, Stephanie Long is trying to do what Amber would have wanted her to.

"I'm trying to keep a smile on my face because Amber didn't believe in frowning or bringing people down," she said. She's hoping to raise enough - $25,000 - to endow a scholarship at Philadelphia University, where Amber Long studied architecture. (So far, the fund has around $7,000.)

She hopes to persuade the school and others in Philadelphia to offer self-defense courses. Maybe, she thinks, if Amber had known to step back and throw her elbow up when the killer grabbed at the secondhand purse, she could have stopped him.

"It's trying to make other kids' lives better, is basically what it comes down to," she said. "I wish I had more ways of making a direct impact."

Talking about Amber isn't hard. It's the details that get to Stephanie Long - a playlist on Amber's iPod that mixes pop songs with a bagpipe air, a box of Dr. Seuss books a neighbor found in the basement of her apartment building.

"She had them when she was a child," Stephanie Long said. "And she was going to use it for her child."

Stephanie Long is a goldsmith, and the weekend Amber died, she was in Philadelphia to pick out pieces for her Harrisburg store. Amber selected a few, too - delicate necklaces and earrings, pendants in the shape of leaves. They're for sale in Stephanie Long's store now - what else could she do?

"I haven't been able to sit at my desk and work," she said. "My hands know what they're doing and then it's thinking time. I listen to music, and it's Amber's music, and sometimes it helps and sometimes it'll just set me off, and I have to go do something else."

In her shop in Harrisburg on a sunny afternoon, Stephanie Long heaved a stack of Amber's prints onto the counter. A customer browsed through a selection of necklaces nearby, overheard Long's conversation - her daughter, the murder, the prints, the scholarship still unendowed.

On her way out, she slipped Long a handful of bills. A few dollars closer to the goal.

This is what life without Amber is like: cash from strangers and art-show fund-raisers and breakdowns over Dr. Seuss books and tissues on hand for when telling the story gets too hard. But what else can Stephanie Long do?

"I don't know where people go when they die," she said, "but if she's out there and she can see me, she would hate it if I gave up. I have to do what I can."


awhelan@phillynews.com

215-854-2961 @aubreyjwhelan

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