Survivor in 'bum's town' gains inheritance, family


December 15, 1997|By DAN RODRICKS

The night before he found out about his inheritance, Jerry Long slept where he almost always sleeps -- on the floor of a dank warehouse in Fells Point. The warehouse has been his home for the last 10 years. Long stays there with a few other men of the street. "Why should I pay rent?" he asks.

He's a tough bird, this one. Fifty-eight years old and still physically strapping, with calloused hands and a workingman's dirty fingernails. He has an expressive face with strong cheeks, a sharp nose and eyes like a winter night. When he grins, it's a bit sly.

Long was born in 1939 up in Minnesota; his ancestors were Scandinavian settlers and farmers. He grew up in Chicago, the son of a tavern owner and his wife.

Over the last 40 years, Jerry Long has been in the Navy. He's been a merchant seaman and a truck driver. He's done time in federal prison. He's been homeless. He's sold his blood.

Now he's a junk hauler and salvage man who lives off the land, which is mainly the streets of Baltimore. Over the years, when he needed to make money, Long worked as a caddy at the most exclusive golf courses around here. He's hitchhiked to them. He's taken a bus to some. He's even walked, when he had to, all the way to Caves Valley, in Baltimore County, to carry some rich man's clubs. He'd pick up a 12-pack of beer at the end of the day and walk back to Fells Point, drinking all the way.

He's lived in missions, and he's eaten in soup kitchens. He's done this for years now. "This is a bum's town, Baltimore," he says with that grin. "You never have to go hungry in this town. You can eat from 6 in the morning till 6 at night if you want."

Starting soon, Long could treat himself to a few nice dinners at the Prime Rib.

He just came into some money -- about $20,000.

But more than that, he just came into some family, too.

He hasn't been in any kind of family loop for a long time. Last Christmas, he slept in a mission in Baltimore. This Christmas, he hopes to sleep in the California home of a sister he hasn't seen in more than 30 years.

"The last I saw Jerry?" says Arlene Kline, his sister in Santa Ana, Calif. "Let's see. He'd been stationed in Long Beach and San Diego in the Navy. He'd come out of the service [in 1965] and was staying with us for a while. He said he had a job with a moving company and that he was going east. We never heard from him again. ... And, all these years, I've never understood why. It wasn't like Jerry to just disappear like that. My mother had five children, and Jerry was very bright, the most intelligent one."

The story gets a little murky during Jerry Long's early and apparently wild Baltimore years.

"Bank robberies," he says when I asked what he did after quitting various jobs in shipping and trucking. He's told Baltimore attorney William A. Swisher and Swisher's assistant, Jack Ryan, that he robbed more than two dozen banks in the Baltimore region, but was convicted for robbing only a few of them. He says he spent a few years in the federal prison at Lewisburg, Pa.

His family had no idea he was in prison until after he was paroled.

"I didn't want anyone to see me in prison," Long says. "My mother knew where I was."

But she didn't visit him, and she apparently told no one that her son was a convict.

"My mother told me, eventually, that Jerry had been in prison until some time in the mid-1970s, and that he was somewhere in the Baltimore area after that," Kline says. "But I don't know why he was in prison. My mother had Alzheimer's and lived in Chicago. I lived in California, so I never really got the whole story. ... Mother died in 1989."

And, after Amelia Long's house was sold, each of her four surviving children inherited $20,000.

But Jerry was nowhere to be found. His inheritance went into an escrow account in Chicago. And seven more years flew by.

"For a time, I thought he was dead," Kline says. "We just never heard from him. We hired private detectives. We checked with the Police Department in Baltimore. We wrote to the [Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration] and got a record of a Gerald E. Long with the same birth date at Jerry's, but he wasn't at the address they gave us. He hadn't been there in 10 or 15 years."

The clock was ticking. If his relatives did not locate Jerry Long soon, his inheritance would go to the state of Illinois. Within the last few months, a friend of Kline's took matters into his own hands.

"He's a man who travels a lot, and knows some things about government," she says of her friend, whom she'd identity only as "Bill."

Bill decided to check with the Veterans Administration and, when he did, he found a Gerald E. Long in Baltimore, his last known address 4 N. Central Ave. That's the Baltimore Rescue Mission. A Gerald Long had signed himself in there Christmas Eve 1996. He listed his next of kin as his mother: Amelia Long, Kildaire Avenue, Chicago.

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