One Family's Nightmare

As the police told it, the triple murder uncovered in Salisbury Township, Pa., last week was every parent's nightmare -- the ghastly culmination of a long-running battle of wills between Brenda and Dennis Freeman and their loutish, hulking sons Bryan, 17, and David, 16. The Freemans, who were Jehovah's Witnesses, were by all accounts devoted parents. Bryan and David are skinheads -- dabblers in the dead-end ideology of neo-Nazism and glorifiers of drunken violence. Family quarrels were escalating, and police said Bryan had recently threatened to kill his parents in a dispute over a car. Finally, it all boiled over -- and one night, Bryan and David allegedly ambushed their mother in a downstairs hallway and stabbed and bludgeoned her to death. They also allegedly killed their father as he lay in bed -- and in what may have been a gruesome afterthought, killed their 11-year-old brother, Erik, as well.

The slayings terrified Salisbury Township, a trim, middle-class suburb of Allentown, Pa. But relatives and others who knew the family seemed unsurprised by the explosion of mindless violence. The boys' grandfather, Nelson Birdwell Sr., said Bryan and David had ""looked like monsters'' since becoming skinheads about two years earlier. Bryan is 6 feet tall and weighs 215 pounds; his brother David, still baby-faced, is 6 feet 3 and weighs 245 pounds. Though they had no local police record, Salisbury Police Chief Allen Stiles said the boys stood out everywhere they went. Together with their cousin, Nelson (Benny) Birdwell, 18, the boys had recently gotten skinhead tattoos across their foreheads. David's was the Nazi salute sieg heil; Bryan and Birdwell had berzerker tattooed across theirs. To skinheads, a Berzerker is someone who ""gets drunk and kills people.'' It is also the name of a skinhead rock band and, according to police, may refer to a skinhead gang that the brothers were trying to form.

Prime suspects from the moment the carnage was discovered, Bryan and David Freeman disappeared the day of the murders and drove the family car to the home of some skinhead friends in Hope, Mich. Michigan state police bagged them two days later together with Benny Birdwell. Charged with three counts of murder and conspiracy, Bryan and David were held without bail pending extradition to Pennsylvania. Birdwell was held as a parole violator, although police said they had evidence that he was present in the Freeman home during or just after the killings.

Both parents apparently saw tragedy coming. The boys' aunt, Valerie Freeman, told police she had moved out of the Freeman home in December after an argument with David -- and after Dennis Freeman said he was concerned for her safety. Brenda Freeman tried repeatedly to get counseling for her sons, both of whom reportedly have a history of drug or alcohol use. Earlier this year she turned to Barry Morrison, regional director for the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith. Morrison said she told him that both boys had had emotional problems before becoming skinheads and that Bryan suffered from depression but refused to take lithium, a drug commonly used to treat patients with manic-depressive syndrome. In late January, Morrison said, Brenda Freeman ""seemed distraught'' and said ""she thought something terrible was going to happen.'' Morrison called again on Feb. 27 but did not get through -- the night before, if police are right, her nightmare had come horribly true.