amber long

Amber Long’s murder: DNA, cell phone records drive year-long investigation

Welcome to “What ever happened with,” Billy Penn’s ongoing series that will look at older stories that may have been forgotten about or otherwise not followed up on. Whether it’s a delayed development project or an unsolved murder mystery, “What ever happened with” strives to tell you what’s up with that Philly thing that fell out of the headlines.

It’s been nearly a year since 26-year-old Amber Long was shot dead in Northern Liberties in what police called a purse-snatching gone wrong.

She was killed in cold blood.

And it happened in front of her mother.

Philadelphia Police have searched for the two men who attacked the women at about 10:30 p.m. on Jan. 19, 2014 near the 900 block of Front Street in the relatively safe neighborhood. They’ve turned up nothing. Though the incident stunned the city, the dozens of tips that came in over the past year yielded nothing credible. Police are still trying to put together the pieces by working with small bits of DNA evidence and through the process of analyzing hundreds of thousands of phone records.

“This is a person who was out for entertainment, and she got slaughtered in front of her parent,” Det. John McNamee, the homicide unit detective who’s been assigned to the case for the past year, told Billy Penn this week. “That doesn’t necessarily happen all the time. That strikes a nerve with everybody who has a child. You see the video, this poor lady, she’s helpless.”

Not long after the shooting, police released a chilling surveillance video. The camera was about 15 feet away from the incident, and anyone who watches can see the entire confrontation. McNamee said because of the industries in the area of the shooting, the case yielded more video evidence than any case in Philadelphia history. It led to no one.

“This is one of the saddest videos I’ve seen,” said Homicide Unit Captain James Clark said at the time. On YouTube, the incident has been watched nearly 60,000 times.

Philadelphia University graduate Amber Long lived in an apartment on Ritner Street in South Philadelphia, and was living out her dream of being an architect in the city. Her mother Stephanie, a goldsmith from Harrisburg, told the Inquirer not long after her funeral that Amber had “felt safe in her city.”

After dancing for hours at a gala at the Art Museum, the two were walking to Amber’s car along a largely abandoned stretch of Front Street when two men in hoodies began walking next to them.

The men went for their purses, and after Amber briefly struggled, one of the men pulled out a gun and shot her once in the chest. A car pulled up, picked up the assailants, and sped away. They got away with a $14 second-hand purse that she’d just picked up at Plato’s Closet.

Police said shortly after the shooting that they had two men in custody, but those men were later released, and a tipster was charged for knowingly providing false information to police. After the setback, plenty of leads were coming in, but they weren’t going anywhere promising.

McNamee said these days, detectives with the Special Investigations Unit aren’t zeroing in on any one lead in particular, but he said the case is still open and is being actively investigated. But there are issues with the case that’ll make it more difficult to solve: There weren’t any witnesses.

“These cases stay open forever and in certain cases, information comes in and works out right away, and this case is just not getting a whole lot,” he said. “It’s difficult because of where it happened. If this murder would have happened in front of Johnny Brenda’s, we might have had a little luck.”

He said police do have a small sample of DNA from the scene, but it hasn’t yielded a match. Ballistic tests have been run to see if they find a gun to match small-caliber casings found at the scene, but the tests have yielded nothing. Detectives working with the FBI are running tests and taking steps in this case that they’ve never used before.

McNamee said police have gathered cell phone information from towers in the general vicinity of the shooting from 40 minutes before and 40 minutes after it occurred. They’ve pulled records of data usage, texts being sent and phone calls being made.

Police have run the same search on towers near 11th and Poplar where they found Stephanie Long’s purse dumped. The searches have yielded hundreds of thousands of cell phone records. With the help of the FBI, police are cross-referencing cell phone usage from the Northern Liberties location with the North Philly one to see if anyone was in both places at the times in question.

They’ve run the search several times, with no match yet. They’ll continue running it, just in case they missed something. For now, they have their fingers crossed that a credible tip will come in.

A nearly $50,000 reward was offered in the immediate wake of the murder. The city of Philadelphia still has $20,000 on the table for information, and the Citizen’s Crime Commission, which handles rewards in the area, will renew its call for tips as the one-year anniversary of the slaying approaches.

For now, police are continuing to communicate with Stephanie Long, and they’re continuing to hold out hope.

“Earlier this year, I locked up a guy for two murders that happened 25 years ago,” McNamee said. “There’s no time constraint on homicide.”

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