A pickup pulls into the empty parking lot of Spokane Valley Fire Station 6. The passenger door opens and Elsie Mae Long’s 77-year-old legs stretch for the weedy gravel below.
“I’m OK, honey,” she says, as her shoes touch terra firma. Elsie calls everyone honey.
She wears white leather tennis shoes with extra thick soles that push her height just shy of 5 feet, 3 inches. Her makeup is applied carefully, her auburn hair is well-styled, and her yellow shirt and quilted yellow vest match perfectly. In her right hand, she clutches a reused grocery sack filled with silk flowers, filled with tragedy, filled with a pain that will not rest.
It’s Wednesday, June 6, the one-year anniversary of the last three days in Elsie’s life when everything seemed to be going OK. The firemen at Station 6 know her story. Elsie Long is the woman who regularly pulls into the parking lot of their East Sprague Avenue post, then makes her way west down the street to the I-90 overpass.
Beneath that overpass stands a stainless steel cross well over 6 feet tall marking the spot where Elsie’s only grandson, Robb Long, was killed in a hit-and-run while riding his moped home from work June 9, 2006. Robb was 29. It’s that kind of tragedy that upsets the natural order of things because, as Fire Capt. Dennis Doyle put it last week, grandparents aren’t supposed to outlive their grandchildren.
Elsie doesn’t want her grandson forgotten, and so she lays the bouquet at the base of Robb’s memorial, hoping that motorists will somehow glean Robb’s story from the petals.
Silk flowers have played a bigger role in Elsie Long’s life than she’d ever wanted. Her husband, Bob Long, died Feb. 20. Friends say that after Robb’s death, Bob quit battling the heart problems that had plagued him for years. The end didn’t seem so near for Bob a year ago, Elsie said. Robb’s death came the same week his grandparents were celebrating their 57th wedding anniversary.
“Our wedding anniversary is June 10,” Elsie said last week. She and Bob were camped at Ephrata for what was supposed to be a bang-up celebration when they heard Robb had been killed riding home from the Spokane Valley Costco, where he worked.
It was almost Christmas before police arrested a suspect in the killing of Robb Long.
Christopher J. Lynch, 24, of Edgecliff, is accused of driving a silver Dodge Intrepid over a raised concrete median before reaching the intersection, through which Robb Long, a pharmacy technician, was driving. Motorists stopped at a red light said the moped no sooner started through the intersection than the Intrepid veered left, passed the cars waiting for the light, and ran into Robb.
One witness told police he thought the Dodge briefly slowed before driving up the on-ramp onto the interstate, but the driver of the Intrepid didn’t stop, as other motorists did, who checked Robb’s facedown body for a pulse and, finding none, gathered around him to pray.
Police found the Intrepid in a garage in Mica, where the shop owner relayed that Lynch had told him the car had been involved in a fatal hit-and-run. Lynch, according to court documents, later told police he planned to fix it and sell it. He also allegedly told detectives he’d consumed about a gallon of beer at Mike’s Tavern in the hour leading up to the hit-and-run. Lynch, charged with felony vehicular homicide, has pleaded not guilty and has been free on bail for six months.
Elsie and Robb’s friends were hoping for some closure by the anniversary of Robb’s death. The vehicular homicide trial was expected to take place this month but has been put off until September.
“We don’t want people to forget about him,” says Chris Thoma, a co-worker. “We don’t want people to forget about Robb.”
Saturday night, on the one-year anniversary of Robb’s death, a crowd of 27 friends and family members gathered at the memorial. As the clock struck 8:30 p.m., the approximate time Robb was killed, they lit candles, then struggled for a few awkward moments to come up with the words that would do their friend justice. It wasn’t easy.
They hummed a few bars of “This Little Light of Mine,” said the Lord’s Prayer. Robb’s father, Robert Long, up from Wenatchee for the anniversary of his only son’s death, tried to thank the group but was overcome by tears.
Then someone standing next to the cross raised her candle into the windy draft of the passing traffic and simply said, “To Robb.”
“To Robb,” the crowd responded.
“To barbecues at the spur of the moment. To all-night poker smokers and pole dancing at the Bottom’s Up. To karaoke and always having a smile. To teaching Trena Cheeks’ young son how to play the guitar and never turning your back on another human being. To friends. …”
As unstoppable as the tide, the cars just kept rumbling through the intersection, some honking their horns as they passed by.
“Thank you,” Elsie says, waving them on. “Don’t forget my baby.”