A teen's descent into skinhead world

April 10, 1995|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

MACUNGIE, Pa. -- Emily Heinrichs' first encounter with skinheads came one day in August 1992, as she was walking her dog past a neighborhood farm that, unknown to her, was a hangout of theirs.

"They whistled at me as I walked by and invited me over the next day," said Emily, who was 14 at the time. The next day, out of curiosity, she went back.

That was the innocuous beginning of her journey into the menacing white-supremacist world. It was a world she eagerly embraced, a persona she easily assumed. Then, about a year ago, almost as quickly as she had taken it on, she threw it all off -- the hateful rhetoric and foul language, the guns and target practice, the storm-trooper boots and bomber jacket with the Nazi, white-power and Ku Klux Klan patches.

She considers it all "too disgusting" now. But she remains a turbulent 17-year-old who may never be able to move on completely. Everywhere she turns, she is reminded of that brief, troubled time in her life.

Mostly, that is because of Zoe, her 6 1/2 -month-old daughter by a skinhead. Sweet and wide-eyed, the baby claims almost all of Emily's free time. Such dependence is hard enough for an adult, but for a headstrong teen-ager, even one temporarily tamed, it's prison.

Her family is struggling. She is not entirely to blame for that; like most families, this one has had its problems. But John and Marcia Heinrichs, who have five other children, are exhausted from the strain of their oldest daughter's rebellion and bewildered by her provocative and ugly behavior.

Theirs was a house, after all, where ethnic jokes were never tolerated; where "Roots," "The Grapes of Wrath," "Schindler's List" and "The Diary of Anne Frank" were seen or read and discussed together; where tolerance was promoted and diversity applauded.

Her siblings were hurt by her skinhead phase, too. Her racist rantings scared them and made no sense on two very basic levels -- Emily had dated black students before, and her two adopted brothers are of Puerto Rican heritage.

And, if she needs another reminder of that old life, there is always the monotonous, unreal rhythm of her new life -- school, work, child care, church. Day after day after day.

Zoe is in day care while Emily goes to school in the mornings and works at a mini-mart for five hours in the afternoon. The Heinrichs baby-sit on Friday or Saturday night when Emily is allowed to go out, on Wednesday night when she has choir practice, and on Sunday night when she goes to her Baptist church youth group.

Otherwise, Zoe is Emily's responsibility. Emily's never-ending responsibility. "Sometimes I'm, like, 'Zoe, go away,' " Emily confessed. "I don't think I'll mind as much when she's older. I hate babies."

She chafes at her new existence even as she accepts its necessity, acknowledging that she is angry, depressed and torn by conflicting emotions. "I can't stand living here, but it's impractical to live on my own," Emily said.

She hasn't been able to stand living at home since she was 13. It was around that time that the family moved from Allentown "to the country" -- to Macungie, in Longswamp Township -- in search of a quiet life and smaller, better schools. Little did the Heinrichs know that they had moved down the street from Mark Thomas' compound, a gathering place for haters of all kinds -- among RTC them skinheads, Posse Comitatus, Christian Identity, Aryan Nation and members of the Klan, whom Emily called "dirty old men."

By then, she had already shed her interests in swimming, the school band, dance groups and church plays. Her good grades began to drop. She was mouthing off at her parents, having temper tantrums. She began sneaking around at night, climbing out an upstairs window and down a tree to join a tough, older crowd that regularly partied, drank beer and did pot, acid and cocaine.

"I was a psycho," said Emily, who ended up briefly in rehab. There, she met Bryan Freeman, one of a pair of skinhead brothers accused of murdering their parents and younger brother Feb. 27. She described Bryan, who apparently was not yet a Thomas devotee, as "the sweetest guy but kinda dorky." He pressed her (unsuccessfully) to be his girlfriend, gave her rings that she still wears, and later wrote her letters in which he confided that he had beaten up his father.

"His father used to beat him all the time. What else is new?" Emily said with a shrug.

Drugs weren't her only problem. She was skipping school and shoplifting. She had tried to kill herself. And now, she was spending more and more time with her new skinhead friends.

In hindsight, Emily said, they were misguided, their beliefs "a joke." Then, she felt accepted by them, wanted and important. She quickly adopted their rough, rude mannerisms, their extreme clothing and "religion." She happily clomped around in what she now calls "gross black boots" with white laces for white power, red laces for the Nazis.

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