Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Allentown Massacres

Hate Group

Neo-Nazi skinheads, who idolize Hitler's ideas on racial purity, appeared in the United States during the mid-1980s. Rosen says that by 1993 their membership had grown to about 4,000 and their tendency toward racial violence was exhibited in the number and intensity of the hate crimes they committed, including murder. Many members come from middle class homes, often where tension is evident. They keep contact via networks, chapters, Web sites, and publications, and share values through music filled with messages of superiority and hatred.

Fred Rosen, portrait
Fred Rosen, portrait

Pennsylvania was then a hotbed for white supremacy groups, and they often hooked alienated adolescents by becoming their surrogate family. At this time in the early 1990s, 64 known white supremacist groups were operating around Pennsylvania. Adams writes about how, since 1990, there had been hundreds of incidents of violence from these groups, with people under the age of 20 responsible for the greater portion. Apparently, the ideology, combined with biblical phrases, offered something to kids rejecting traditional religion but not ready to give up on it entirely, and they were flocking to the teachings of prejudice and hate. White people, they learned, were the descendants of Abel, the good and noble son of Adam and Eve, slain by his brother, Cain. All the other races of the world fell into the category of "beasts of the field." 

Upon their return to the home, Bryan got David involved in the skinheads and after they went to several meetings they decided to form their own group with Benny Birdwell. They all shaved their heads, got tattoos, and proclaimed their loyalty to the white movement. That meant that they would view themselves as part of a superior race and would have no form of communication with other races, who were considered "the enemy." Lehigh County District Attorney Robert L. Steinberg, who was to prosecute the case, commented for A&E, "I don't believe the problem was David Freeman coming back into the household. I think the problem was David Freeman being in the household with his brother, and also with Ben Birdwell as a frequent visitor."

Bryan had most of his body tattooed with skinhead art. He was angry that his parents had placed him in what he viewed as a "mental institution" and he was going to show them who was boss. Like the contagion effect portrayed in the film, American History X, David adopted the same attitudes and behavior. Together, they terrorized Erik, whom they considered a "mama's boy," and they were joined in this whenever cousin Benny came over. He, too, became a skinhead, and they located the local skinhead gang in Allentown. They were attracted to a group that met at Mark Thomas' farm, a meeting place for his Christian Identity Group, which relied on scripture to prove its superiority.

Nelson Birdwell III, skinhead
Nelson Birdwell III, skinhead

As the brothers' resentment toward their parents grew, they threatened to kill them. They had once threatened Brenda with a hatchet. She sought help from the Anti-Defamation League of the B'Nai Brith, supposed experts on cult behavior, especially hate groups. They sent her to an anti-prejudice coordinator, but she received little help. She had also tried Toughlove, a group for parents with difficult children, and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. No one had answers. Having no legal grounds to remove the children to detention, they had to hope that the brothers would pass through this fad and grow up. Dennis reportedly kept a baseball bat by his bed for protection.

On February 4, 1995, Brenda sold her sons' cars, and the next day they tattooed their foreheads. Brenda and Dennis then went through their rooms and removed clothing and paraphernalia that seemed to confirm and exacerbate the hate. They stripped down the Nazi posters and threw away pamphlets and books. Brenda kept a book that described killing one's parents for one's beliefs. These actions only made the brothers angry. They started to talk to friends about stealing a gun, killing a cop and going south. On Monday, February 20, David mentioned that he was going to kill his mother. On February 23, Bryan was suspended from school for five days. He'd had an altercation, which erupted into threats of violence, with the principal.

But young Erik sensed what was coming. When his aunt asked him around this time, according to the Morning Call, how he was getting along with his fearsome brothers, he said, "You never know when you're going to die."


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