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.

The entire family flatly denies newspaper reports that Matthaeus spent a summer in Idaho training with members of the Aryan Nation.

But no matter how confused or qualified his political ideology, Matthaeus Jaehnig stacked up a formidable record of violence and run-ins with police. By the summer of 1997, his family was profoundly worried about him. "Drugs had destroyed his scaffolding as a human being," Lyman Jackson says. "He was shattered by drugs."

Jelena has been living in Oregon since 1993, teaching at a Waldorf School in Eugene. When she left town, she lost her ability to communicate with Matthaeus. "Part of him wasn't at ease with me anymore," she says. "You could only get to know him well if you were sitting next to him--he would never make any effort to step toward you. Sometimes you'd have to sit there for an hour before he'd be willing to say anything." Visiting that summer, she found her brother withdrawn and angry. In particular, he was angry with police for injustices he felt had been visited on some of his black and Hispanic friends, she says.

Three weeks before the shooting, on Matthaeus's 25th birthday, Jelena called from Oregon and found him sullenly unresponsive.

When she received news of Matthaeus's death--and how he'd died--Jelena was not surprised. "Part of me was always afraid I'd get a phone call like that," she says.

Sam first heard about the events at Monaco Place over the radio. He learned that his brother was involved and that a cop was down and concluded Matthaeus was doomed. "He wouldn't survive having shot a cop," he says. For the next three hours, until the announcement that Matthaeus's body had been found, Sam sat alone, trying to imagine what his brother was feeling. "I kept thinking he was waiting for me," he says. "Hoping I'd show up and rescue him. Just scoop him up under my jacket and get him out of there."

The next day, Sam went to the coroner's office to identify Matthaeus's body. "His face was tense," Sam says, his own eyes haunted. "I believe his spirit got ripped out of him so quick he got lost for a while. Later at the funeral, with all his friends there, he didn't look so...desperate."

Until his brother murdered Bruce VanderJagt, Sam himself hadn't been in trouble with the law for ten years. He owns his own business and helps support his three children. Since that day, however, Sam has been stopped several times and sometimes arrested--for arson and weapons possession, on drug charges. He is spending a great deal of time and money defending himself in court; the family believes police are deliberately harassing him.

Jelena worries about Sam and her mother, who, she says, has been shattered by the deaths at Monaco Place. As for Matthaeus: "I send prayers to him. I hope that he would move away from the spirit of darkness and find the light."


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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman