Death anniversaries are hard.
Stephanie Long, whose daughter Amber was killed four years ago Friday, commemorates what for her is a difficult time of year by going to Florida and riding roller coasters, something her daughter loved.
Anything to escape the cold and awful memories of that dark night when she and her daughter were attacked while walking in the 900 block of North Front Street in Northern Liberties. Two assailants, both with light-colored hoodies pulled over their heads, approached and reached for their handbags. It all happened quickly. One of the thieves snatched Stephanie Long’s bag.
Amber, who was about 5 feet-tall and weighed around 100 pounds, managed to hold onto hers, so her assailant shot her at point-blank range with a .22-caliber pistol. She collapsed onto a sidewalk and later died at Hahnemann University Hospital. She was 26.
“I had a visual image looking up, watching these two guys running down the street, and they each got into the backseat of the car at the same time,” Stephanie Long told me earlier this week. “They pulled open the doors in the back, and they each slid in and the car took off. It was just an image that was left in my head. There had to have been somebody driving.”
Philly’s not easily shocked, but this killing got to us. What happened to those two women could have happened to any of us. In the weeks after, women took self-defense classes to try to protect themselves from being similarly victimized. Some even talked of no longer carrying handbags. Others began carrying pepper spray.
Police released a surveillance video of the terrifying moments leading up to the encounter, but still don’t have a suspect. In the years since the slaying, sadly, not much progress has been made. As far as police know, the assailants who attacked Amber and her mother that awful night are still at large.
“We had some information recently that we have been following up on, but it hasn’t borne fruit,” Philadelphia Police Homicide Capt. John Ryan told me.
Authorities hope that since more than one perpetrator was involved, that at some point one will divulge information that will make its way to them and lead to arrests.
“That’s just the breaks that you wait for,” Ryan said.
The city’s $20,000 reward in the case still stands. (Tipsters may call 215-686-3334 or 215-686-3335.)
All of these years of waiting for justice are wearing on Amber’s mother.
“This past Christmas was very, very hard for me,” said Long, 56. “You’re getting past the point where you’re trying to go day by day, and you’re looking at a future and going, ‘What the hell? What makes it worth it?’ It’s difficult.”
“I lost my father last year. And I lost my mother the year before,” Long told me. “I’m pretty much what’s left of the family.”
I admire Long’s strength, and the way she tries to focus on the good memories she has of her daughter, an architect who settled in Philly after graduating from Philadelphia University.
I think of her every year around this time. I wonder how she’s doing and whether she’s keeping up with her tradition of going someplace warm and riding roller coasters on the anniversary of her daughter’s death.
I spoke with her by phone this week and was happy to discover that she was indeed back in Orlando. She and her longtime companion arrived in Florida on Monday and have been visiting the Disney theme parks. She sent me photos of herself at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and at Pirates Cove Adventure Golf. She wasn’t sure exactly how she would spend Friday, but told me it would be doing something that made her smile.
But even that has its challenges. Being surrounded by all the kids visiting Disney isn’t a total distraction. While waiting in one line this week, she watched a mother interacting with her tired and cranky little daughter. Long really had to fight the urge to intervene and to advise the mother to lighten up.
“I was thinking, ‘Just treasure this,” Long said. “Take a picture. Sometimes that’s all you have left.”
That’s all she has now. That and her memories.