A teen's descent into skinhead world


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.

She never considered herself a true skinhead because she never shaved off her beautiful chestnut hair. "The guys loved my hair," she said. "I was actually a skinhead girlfriend."

But she bought it all. Anyone who wasn't white belonged to the "mud people." Jews were particularly abhorrent. Blacks had "monkey lips." A bloody race war was coming. Mr. Thomas, Emily said, knew the Bible so well he could manipulate the verses and ideas to illustrate any point he wished to make.

When Emily first began hanging out with this crowd, her parents figured it was a youthful, if scary, phase that she would outgrow. They refuted her new pronouncements as best they could and thought that, surely, upon reflection, their intelligent daughter would reject the violent white-supremacist party line.

"We were worried, but we figured we'd lived our whole lives the opposite of that," Emily's mother, a homemaker, said.

But Emily slipped deeper and deeper into her alien world. After school and on weekends, she and the skinheads would drink beer and talk around Mr. Thomas' kitchen table. They'd have target practice, which Emily loved. They had their pick of pistols, revolvers and rifles bought at local gun shops or gun shows at the farmer's market in Allentown.

Her parents were beside themselves. Their Jewish friends stopped coming by. Their daughter was becoming more and more disruptive and hostile, and their other children, particularly the adopted boys, were upset all the time.

"She was hard, and they hated her. She was mean to them, saying all this stuff about racial purity. It was a very bad time," said Emily's father, who pressed her to stop going to the skinhead farm.

"I went even more," Emily said.

In October 1993, there was yet another blowup with her parents. "I told her, 'Look, I have to save the rest of the family. You can't live here and do this,'" her father recalled. Emily packed up her things and moved in with the skinheads.

On Jan. 1, 1994, Emily took a home pregnancy test that came out positive. In a panic, she abandoned the skinhead life and went back home, where for the next eight months she did not smoke, drink, do drugs or even wear makeup. She shunned the skinheads and rarely went out, spending the summer being pregnant and working on three book reports for her advanced-placement English class.

"I was making up for what I did," she said. "I felt guilty and ashamed."

Now she looks back on her skinhead days as "a learning experience." And, though she once worried about retaliation for speaking out, she is no longer afraid. "They're all talk," she said.

A high school senior who says she scored over 700 in verbal skills on her college boards, Emily has been accepted at three colleges. She wants to be a lawyer because someone told her she'd make a good one.

But how to manage all that mystifies her. She's nearly overwhelmed now. How will she ever manage college and her own apartment?

The stress of being a mother "is awful," Emily said. "I have no patience. I hardly see Zoe during the day, yet when I do, I have no patience." And she's learning that boys her own age have little interest in a girl with a baby. "I have responsibilities. I can't party," she said with a sour face.

Looking back, she sees how easy it was to be drawn in by the skinheads. And how, really, there was nothing her parents could have done about it. "Parents just need to be supportive, to pray for their kids," Emily said.

In their fear, exasperation and impotence, her parents did exactly that. That, and blame themselves for not paying more attention to Emily when they adopted their sons, an event that was -- and continues to be -- traumatic for the whole family.

Emily's father, the director of computer services for Lehigh County, feels guilty, too, for slapping his daughter a couple of times during arguments.

"I regret it," he said. "It didn't get us anywhere, of course. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone, but I was just overflowing with fear, anger and disbelief. Things were just falling apart."

They seem now to be held together by the thinnest of threads. The Heinrichs are overwhelmed to be grandparents when their own children need so much attention. Their 24-year marriage, while stable, has been strained. And although they know their family needs help, they've had bad experiences with counseling and don't plan to try again.

Emily's pregnancy gave them all something concrete to focus on. Now, her parents worry that her wildness will re-emerge, that she'll grow tired of parenthood and leave Zoe for them to raise. "This little child is wonderful; we love her, but we have a 5-year-old ourselves," said John Heinrichs.

Those fears may not be groundless. Lately, Heinrichs said, Emily has been trying to find ways to avoid the baby and to stay out later than her midnight curfew.

"Suddenly," he said, "she seems to have this longing again to do the things that got her in trouble."

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