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From Kid to Killer

From the beginning, there was something different about Matthaeus Jaehnig. According to his sister, Jelena, he lay so inert in his mother's womb while she was carrying him that she once went to the hospital, afraid he had died. And when Jelena helped her father take care of her baby brother one evening, Matthaeus lay still in his crib, hour after hour, frightening her.

Matthaeus's silence and inertia persisted. "He would sit at the dinner table and just look at the person in the face, without taking his eyes off, without saying a single word," says his mother, Ina Jaehnig. "And that made people very uncomfortable."

But the family has some warm memories. Ina describes how her children--Matthaeus, Jelena and Sam, the older brother--played together when they were little. "They had all the dolls lined up on the floor," she says. "Sam was the doctor who would give orders. Jelena was the nurse who wrote everything carefully down, and Matthaeus was the ambulance who would bring the patients in with his little truck."

Matthaeus liked gardening, Jelena remembers. He'd bring in worms and bugs and put them under his pillow, then take them out to play with after his mother had said goodnight.

Matthaeus had severe learning disabilities and struggled in school. A family friend, Lyman Jackson, believes his journey into racism began after he moved to South High from the Waldorf School that his father, Diethart, had founded and where his mother still taught. At South he was put in a class for the learning disabled and was harassed and bullied by other students, many of them black.

"My mother worried about him all along," Jelena says. "She spent a lot of effort trying to get him into schools that would work for him, getting tutors, trying to get him jobs."

He had an enormous appetite--for food, and later for drugs. He was immensely stubborn.

Sam became involved with the Denver Skins in his early teens, and Matthaeus followed suit soon after. One Halloween, when Ina was out of town, the boys carved a swastika on a pumpkin. Neighbors became nervous about the activities at the Jaehnig house--the comings and goings, the roaming habits of Mugger, the family dog.

Ina argued with Matthaeus about his drug use and his growing collection of guns. She told him that violence could only lead to violence. She did not see the tattoos covering his body, according to Jelena, because he made a point of wearing long-sleeved shirts in her presence.

When he was eighteen, Matthaeus became the father of a son. He adored this boy, who is half-Mexican, but the mother, who had been staying with the Jaehnigs, soon moved out, Jelena says, taking the boy with her. Within a week of leaving, she'd married another man.

Matthaeus was always dragging castaways into the Jaehnig house, Sam remembers, insisting they be fed and housed--from the bum on the corner to some kid who'd been beaten up at school.

"We were all loners," Sam says of the Skins. "We found a bunch of guys that fit in. We'd go downtown and get in fights."

"This was a group of guys who'd had difficult childhoods," adds Jelena. "Abandoned by their parents, disillusioned and disempowered. And they'd get together because they enjoyed each other's trust. They were racist at the time; they could be very violent; they did some things I objected to to the depths of my being. But they were not a political organization."

There seemed to be little ideology behind the brothers' activities. When Ina asked Matthaeus why he'd had a swastika tattooed on his arm, he said it was to irritate people.

"I grew up with these guys," Jelena says, "and as soon as they started turning toward some of these ways, I faced a choice: Am I going to reject my brothers or remain friends with them and try to talk to them and see what I can find there that I can agree with and like?"

She believes that although Sam remains friends with many of the people he knew in his teens, he has outgrown his racism. Matthaeus, too, had grown out of it by November 1997, she says.

Shortly after his father's death in 1991 (Diethart had been a priest in the Rudolf Steiner-inspired Christian Community and founder of a peace organization, Oberlin House, in Europe, before starting Denver's Waldorf School), Matthaeus made contact with a onetime Black Panther who was now the leader of a biker group called the Sons of Darkness. He came home and told his mother he had found a surrogate father. Matthaeus remained close to this man until he died, becoming a link between the Sons of Darkness and the Denver Skins.

Sam remembers working with his brother on a crew setting up for a U2 concert. Black and white crew members sat in separate groups to eat lunch. It was Matthaeus who plopped himself down among the black workers, peeled off his shirt--revealing tattoos of a swastika, a dragon's head and the words "blood" and "honor"--and started eating. Sam laughs, remembering the expressions on everyone's faces. Within two or three days, he says, all the crew members were friends.

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