Roanoke Times Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: WEDNESDAY, March 8, 1995 TAG: 9503080074 SECTION: NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL PAGE: A-1 EDITION: METRO SOURCE: FRED BAYLES ASSOCIATED PRESS DATELINE: ALLENTOWN, PA. LENGTH: Long
There is little disagreement Dennis and Brenda Freeman were having trouble with their sons Bryan and David long before the teens shaved their heads and started spouting neo-Nazi hate.
The tragedy that left them and their youngest son dead and the two boys and a cousin in jail played out over an agonizing four years of gradual decline into terror. The boys fought with their parents and rebelled against their religion. There were problems with alcohol and drugs.
There also was a long history of counseling, and three years ago, the Freemans even tried institutionalizing their sons. Finally, in the last, desperate week, they threw out the boys' hate literature and sold the car the boys had used to travel 800 miles to Michigan for meetings with other skinheads.
Five days later, the Freemans and their youngest son were dead - battered and stabbed.
``You never know when you're going to die,'' 11-year-old Erik Freeman had told an aunt two days before he was bludgeoned beyond recognition in his bed, a police affidavit said.
On Wednesday, two days after the bodies were discovered, Bryan Freeman, 17, and his 16-year-old brother, David, were arrested in a rural Michigan house along with a cousin, Nelson Birdwell III, who police believe was in the home during the murders.
Each brother was charged with three counts of homicide and conspiracy and jailed without bail, and Birdwell was jailed under $150,000 bail on car theft and probation violation charges.
Birdwell agreed Monday to waive extradition proceedings.
The Freeman brothers are due in court today for an extradition hearing. They had refused to waive the hearing, but plan to tell the judge they no longer wish to fight their return, Bryan Freeman's attorney, James Branson III, said Tuesday.
In the police affidavit, neighbor Joshua Wirth said Bryan told him ``he would have killed his parents for selling the car'' if he had been awake.
``The parents and the son knew this was going to happen,'' said Lehigh District Attorney Robert Steinberg. ``They just didn't know where this was going to happen.''
Nevertheless, there was little the parents or authorities could do to prevent the tragedy, he said.
``The family was obviously not willing to give up hope,'' he said. ``Maybe they should have. Maybe it would have saved their lives. But you're dealing with a 16- and 17-year-old. Just because their conduct escalates, you as a parent can't say, `I'm not going to try.'''
There is no doubt they tried.
The parents sought help from at least eight clinics and organizations. Brenda took courses in family counseling. They put the boys in residential treatment - where Bryan attacked his father and first was introduced to skinhead beliefs by another youth.
``In the conversations I had with Mrs. Freeman, the entire focus was `help for my kids,' it was not help for Brenda Freeman,'' said one counselor who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Dennis, 54, and Brenda, 48, were devout, lifelong members of the Jehovah's Witnesses. They met when Dennis came to speak to Brenda's congregation and lived for a time across the street from the local Kingdom Hall.
Initially, their sons shared their devotion.
``Bryan was an excellent public speaker,'' said his grandfather Nelson Birdwell. ``When he was 10, he put a lot of the adults to shame.''
Birdwell believes the family's troubles began four years ago, when Dennis became involved in a disagreement at the church.
``It was something of a personal nature between Dennis and his peers. The boys became aware of this, and they lost respect for their father,'' Birdwell said. ``The boys respect strength.''
An elder with the congregation, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said Bryan and David stopped coming to meetings about that time. But he blamed their interest in heavy-metal music.
``There had to be an outside influence,'' he said. ``Brother Freeman did his best in raising the children in their beliefs.''
Birdwell also said there were problems with drugs and alcohol. Steinberg said there was at least one arrest for underage drinking.
When the boys returned to school from residential treatment two years ago, classmates noticed a change. Once neatly dressed in ties, they started wearing engineer boots, black jeans and T-shirts reading ``Eternal Hatred.'' They talked of Satanism and, increasingly, of racial hatred and violence.
``They were real quiet, real mellow people who wouldn't bother no one,'' said classmate Dana Hersch, who has known them since childhood.
``Then they started to be more aggressive with their words. They started saying skinheads were the right ones in the world. They said one day they were going to come and kill all the black people.''
Troubles escalated at home. Allen Stiles, police chief of Salisbury Township, said police were called to the Freemans' two-story home at least five times over the past two years. No charges were brought.
Nelson Birdwell said the boys began sneaking out, driving to Michigan and Atlantic City, N.J., to meet other skinheads.
``There was complete disorder in the household,'' he said.
By last December, the family seemed on a collision course. Bryan showed up with a swastika made from human bones tattooed on his neck. Three weeks ago, David, an imposing 6-foot-3, 245 pounds, had ``Sieg Heil!'' etched above his eyebrows. Bryan, 6 feet and 215 pounds, tattooed ``Berzerker'' on his forehead.
The Thursday before the murders, Bryan was suspended from school for filling a standardized test with racist slogans and lewd drawings. The next day, in a lunchroom confrontation with school principal Michael Platt, students say Bryan snarled, ``Shut up, or I'll throw you in the oven, you kike!''
Police were called, but Bryan left before they arrived. Three days later, in the early hours of Monday morning, Dennis and Erik Freeman were bludgeoned and stabbed to death in their beds. Brenda Freeman was found beaten and stabbed in the basement.
``Sometimes people just go bad,'' said Steinberg, the district attorney. ``I have seen enough that I believe that there are some people who are either born evil or turn evil.''