(Investigator 61, 1998 July)
Review of Blood Crimes; the Pennsylvania Skinhead Murders by Fred Rosen Kensington Publishing Corporation 850 3rd Ave. New York, NY 10022 1996 Paperback $5.99
On February 26, 1995, in a suburb of Allentown, Pennsylvania, 17-year old Bryan Freeman, his 15 year old brother David and their cousin, Ben Birdwell, slit their father's throat stabbed their mother numerous times and murdered their brother Eric with a baseball bat. This crime without equal in Salisbury township captivated the world with its brutality and shocking callousness. Blood Crimes is the remarkable story of how 3 boys that were raised Jehovah's Witnesses became skinheads, active in propagating hate against blacks, Jews, "mud people" and others.
One explanation of why they became involved in the skinheads was because:
Bryan had finally found someone who accepted him. In Hitler he found his surrogate father, someone who had channelled hate into something constructive: no less than the destruction of anyone who was different. It was a philosophy with broad appeal, which is why it stood the test of time and now, fifty years later, after Hitler had died, his legacy was the hate in Bryan Freeman's heart, hate that was born from rigid, unloving parents, hate born from a religion that demanded he stay an outsider, hate born from kids looking at him funny because he didn't have a birthday or Christmas dinner, hate born from too many tears and too little love. But now, he was accepted in the white Aryan brotherhood of man (p. 145).What at first seems like 180° conversion in values is actually shown to be a refocussing of the hatred taught by the Watchtower. Both the Jehovah's Witnesses and the skinheads are hate groups; only the focus of their hate and how their hate is acted out varies. Research on the Jehovah's Witnesses in the concentration camps during World War II reveals one of the reasons why Witnesses and Nazis batted heads so often was because they were in many ways much alike – both were highly authoritarian groups convinced only they had the truth and the answers to the world's problems. They both also taught that opposers should be eliminated, the Nazis by the inevitable rule of history and the Witnesses by Jehovah God.
Fred Rosen skilfully shows the important influence of Watchtower teaching in the murder of the boys' parents and brother. The book also eloquently documents not only the failure of the Watchtower, but also the failure of secular social service agencies. The family appealed to several secular social service agencies only when they realized they had lost control of their boys, and it was in a state institution that one of the Freeman boys first discovered the skinhead philosophy which all three soon reverently embraced. Once their mother, Brenda, realized she lost control she tried everything – even going to organizations which were discouraged by the Watchtower such as psychologists and the anti-Defamation League.
The boys' active rebellion began in 1991 when Bryan was 13 and David 11. The boys then decided they would no longer attend the Watchtower meetings, and were as a result marked as bad association and consequently rejected by their entire congregation. By then they had known much rejection due to their refusal to involve themselves in many school activities including saluting the flag, celebrating birthdays and the many other Watchtower taboos. This behavior severely alienated them from their peers. The rest of the world was wrong, Brenda would tell the boys, the only religion acceptable to God is the Watchtower; consequently, they must accept being rejected by their peers at school. Rosen states that they were enjoined from celebrating all of the holidays and:
the Freeman brothers never got birthday presents either, because celebrating birthdays is prohibited under Watchtower doctrine. They had to listen to their friends' stories about how wonderful their parents treated them on their birthdays. The brothers were told that their present was being "in the truth," as Witnesses refer among themselves to their beliefs (p. 99).In short, it was critically important that: the boys' outside life was made difficult by their parents' religious beliefs. Children who grow up as Jehovah's Witnesses grow up in an atmosphere of isolation. They are not allowed to participate in after school group activities. Friendships with schoolchildren who are not Witnesses are prohibited. On the rare occasion when David and Brian questioned their parents' beliefs, which had been imposed on them, they were answered with biblical quotes from the Witnesses' version of the Bible that supported their beliefs. Obedience was the watchword (p. 98).Their father, even though he was over six foot himself and of no small build, evidently gave up trying to discipline the boys and relegated most discipline to his petite wife. It was by then evidently too late. On the inside David Freeman: developed a hate toward the authority figures in his life, specifically his mother, father, and the Watchtower. That hate imbued itself in every facet of his life (p.123).Was the callousness that others expressed towards the boys for so long because of their religion internalized so that they became calloused of the feelings of others? Even though their parents later violated Watchtower policy and sought outside help, Rosen wondered if they had earlier: sought intervention as a family and stayed with a therapeutic program, things might have turned out differently but to do so would have been to admit that the teachings of the Jehovah's Witnesses were not enough to get them through their family crisis. To do that would have been to repudiate the religion and risk disfellowship and damnation (p.126).Some children are able to deal with the conflicts between their religion and their social environment. Bryan evidently could not, for he: spent long nights alone, staring up at the ceiling, feeling unloved and unwanted, wondering what he had done that was so wrong to end up...alienated from his parents and their beliefs, which further served to alienate him from his peers... Nowhere did he belong ... (p. 127).It was at this time that skinhead Seth Monroe entered his life and Bryan became a convert. Soon his brother also became a convert, as did his cousin, Ben Birdwell who also grew up in the Watchtower. The man they began following, Mark Thomas, was a: very intelligent man who couches his anti-Semitic, racist beliefs behind logical arguments ‘derived' from the Bible. To children like the Freemans and Birdwell who grew up on the Bible and knew it forward and backward, and who had a perverted value system, Thomas' scriptural interpretation was the same as the Witnesses', only more palatable (p. 150).Soon David, Brian, and Ben Birdwell were uncritically following Thomas' rhetoric just as the Witnesses uncritically follow the Watchtower. Rosen claims that "David and Bryan Freeman and Ben Birdwell were among those faithful followers taking in everything Thomas preached" (p.170). Ironically, when they were Witnesses, a big problem was doing drugs and smoking – but when they became skinheads their drug use stopped because "when you're a skinhead, you drink, but you don't do drugs [because] skinheads are totally against drugs" (p.155). After the boys moved from their old authoritarian belief structure to a new one they were obedient to their newfound skinhead philosophy as they were to their old one. In spite of their conformity, though, due to their isolated Witness upbringing they lacked social skills, and evidently conflicts with fellow skinheads were not unusual.
Their friends felt the boys "became skinheads because...they felt left out because their family didn't care about them" (p.155). Their parents were said to be intelligent people, and they "could not have been unaware of how their sons felt, yet they apparently did nothing to show them love." (p.156). This same friend observed that their younger brother Eric received preferential treatment because he fully conformed to the Watchtower (p.156).
It is not uncommon to leave one authoritarian religion for another. The similarities of the beliefs of the new group the Freemans associated with and the Watchtower are many. For example, the Watchtower taught Armageddon is a battle fought between God and Evil people – and the skinheads teach that Armageddon is the battle between the good people and the people of Satan, and God has commanded the good people, the Whites, to exterminate the people of Satan, which included Blacks, Jews and others (p.170). The Witnesses' Kingdom will soon be established on earth and be ruled by the Watchtower. The skinheads' kingdom will also be established on Earth but will be ruled by the white anglo-saxons, the true people of Israel and of God (p.170).
The murders, according to testimony, were planned. The boys first went to the movies to see "Murder in the First" then evidently formulated the murders at a Wendy's restaurant before they went home to carry out their plans. Conflicting reports of what happened exist and of course only the boys know the truth. Nonetheless three persons were murdered and the three boys were all involved.
Aside from a few inaccuracies of the Watchtower teachings, the author has done his homework and presents an excellent review of Watchtower theology. This book would even be excellent for those who want to learn about the Watchtower and the results of their teachings. This is not the first case of Witness patricide – this writer is aware of many others involving Witnesses – nor will it be the last case.