MECKLENBURG COUNTY, N.C. -- Sonia Long was afraid. Her husband, Tony, she informed a judge, had threatened to kill her, the children and himself.
Tony Long, depressed and angry, sought help from Mecklenburg County’s psychiatric hospital. “I’d like to strangle my wife,” he told a nurse, according to medical records.
Long was given a new prescription for antidepressants and went home with instructions to return in three to four weeks. Two days later, 32-year-old Sonia Long was dead. She’d been strangled.
Tony Long was charged with rape and murder in connection with Sonia Long’s Aug. 16, 2007, death. He also was accused of stabbing his estranged wife’s boyfriend.
Sonia Long’s death was the first of two deadly cases that focused attention on the soaring demand for mental health services and the lack of beds at the psychiatric hospital.
On Monday, Tony Long’s murder trial is set to begin. If convicted of first-degree murder, he will be sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Harvey Carpenter, Long’s lawyer, has notified prosecutors that he intends to present evidence during the trial of his 40-year-old client’s “diminished capacity.” Defense experts – a psychiatrist and two psychologists – have evaluated Long, according to court documents.
Psychiatrist Moira Artigues’ opinion was that Long’s capacity to form the specific intent to kill was impaired, according to a court document. Her report said Long was unable to weigh the consequences of his actions in “a cool state of mind” and his capacity to appreciate the criminality of his conduct was impaired.
One psychologist called Tony Long “a deeply challenged individual in need of a high level of neuro-behavioral and psychiatric care.”
The other psychologist wrote in a report: “Psychologically, it was truly not Sonia that Tony was killing but his mother. In stark opposition to Tony’s stated position that his childhood experiences are irrelevant to this killing, these early experiences and the actions of Tony’s mother planted the seeds for everything that took place on August 16, 2007.”
The court document did not disclose any details about Tony Long’s childhood or what his mother had done.
In a 2011 letter to Mecklenburg District Attorney Andrew Murray, Tony Long pleaded for mercy. He offered to plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter – a crime punishable by three years to 15 years in prison.
“Over the past three years, I have spent most of my time in mourning, fighting with sadness, regret and depression …,” he wrote. “As I look upon the death of Sonia Long, my beloved wife and the mother of my beautiful children, I can not help but feel pain and heartache.
“Any loss of life is saddening, but to know that you are responsible for taking the life of another person … is more overbearing, sickening and painful than I can ever explain.”
Tony Long called his wife’s death “accidental and unintentional.”
“I would never hurt my wife in a solid ‘stable’ state of mind!” he wrote.
Tony Long, while in jail in 2010, talked to Observer reporters against his attorney’s advice.
Long had a history of alcoholism, anger and depression. Growing up in foster homes, he said he began drinking when he was a child.
He spent five years in prison in the 1990s for burglary and grand larceny.
He met Sonia in 1998, he recalled, and within a few months they moved in together. Then Sonia became pregnant, he said, and they married in June 2000. Their daughter was born in September, and a second daughter in 2001.
Long sought help at least six times from CMC-Randolph, the county’s psychiatric hospital, between March 2006 and August 2007. He complained of depression and anger. Records show he was given new prescriptions on each visit. He was never hospitalized.
For three months in 2006, Long said he was treated for alcoholism at Rebound, a residential recovery center. While there, he said, he learned that Sonia Long was pregnant. Another man was the father.
“I feel like I’m about to explode,” records show he told a nurse at CMC-Randolph in October 2006.
In August 2007, Sonia Long sought a restraining order against Tony Long. She asked that he be barred from the house they shared in Charlotte near Central Avenue and Eastway Drive.
Sonia Long said her husband had threatened to “kill me, the kids, my friend and then himself.”
A judge ruled on Aug. 9, 2007, that because Tony Long had no history of abuse he could stay at the house. But the judge ordered him not to assault, threaten or harass his wife. Sonia Long moved that day to the battered women’s shelter.
During the interview at the jail, Tony Long said he had reached “a point of disaster.”
‘Hammered with emotions’
On Aug. 14, 2007, Tony Long returned to CMC-Randolph. He said his mood had grown worse over the past month since he had been prescribed a new antidepressant.
“I told the doctor then that the Wellbutrin she had started me on was provoking agitated, violent thoughts,” Long recalled.
He told the staff he wanted to strangle his wife.
Tony Long was given a new prescription and sent home. He didn’t have the money to get the new medicine, he said, so he kept taking the Wellbutrin. The next day, he broke down at work.
“I was hammered with emotions I couldn’t deal with,” he recalled.
The following day, Aug. 16, Tony Long said he stayed home from work. Sonia Long retuned to the house with her boyfriend. She went inside to get her children’s birth certificates.
Police say Long strangled his wife, and when her boyfriend went inside to check on her, he stabbed him.
It had been two days since Tony Long’s disclosure at the psychiatric hospital that he wanted to strangle his wife and seven days since the judge had entered a restraining order against him.
Sonia Long’s slaying would be the first of two killings that drew attention to the lack of psychiatric beds in Mecklenburg County.
Kenny Chapman had also sought help at the psychiatric hospital in 2010. He told the staff he wanted to kill his wife. He eventually told clinicians he wouldn’t act on his threats and doctors sent him home with a prescription for medication. Just hours after leaving the hospital, Chapman killed his wife and two of their children. He then killed himself after a shootout with police.
Demand for mental health services had surged over the past decade, while the number of psychiatric beds in the county dropped sharply. With perennial overcrowding at the county’s 66-bed psychiatric facility, some patients who threatened themselves and others were given medicine and sent home. Sometimes, there were disastrous results.
Following the killings of Chapman’s wife and the children, key state lawmakers said they’d work to get Mecklenburg County money for additional beds to help ease pressure on the county’s overcrowded psychiatric hospital.
Presbyterian Hospital received state approval in 2011 to transfer 15 psychiatric beds from Broughton Hospital in Morganton to its main hospital in Charlotte. The hospital now has 75 psychiatric beds.
Carolinas HealthCare System plans to build a 66-bed psychiatric hospital in Davidson.
Tony Long, in his 2011 letter to the DA, wrote that he is not “a hateful killer or monster.”
“Sonia’s death was a tragic loss for everyone that knew her and loved her, myself included,” he wrote. “Not only did I lose my wife whom I love very deeply, but our children lost their mother and friend … I can not ever possibly replace what was taken from us all when Sonia died.”
Without understanding the circumstances, Tony Long wrote, “it is very easy to see Sonia’s death as a heinous and cruel act of hatred and jealousy.”
“I would not ever hurt Sonia or anyone else in a stable frame of mind,” he wrote. “I am not a hateful killer or monster. Most of my life has been spent going out of my way helping others not hurting them … I am a caring and loving father not a monster.”