The five New Jersey teens who called themselves the Agnostic Neo-Nazis never managed antisocial behavior beyond graffiti, tattoos and big talk, but showed how easily homogenous suburbs can become a cradle for hate.
One Sunday morning last July, cops in Middletown, N.J., got a call reporting that a six-foot statue of the Virgin Mary had been decapitated outside St. Catherine's Roman Catholic Church. Ho-hum.
Chief John Pollinger and his officers figured it was just "one more case of criminal mischief," probably perpetrated by bored teenagers. Even in a sedate little bedroom community like Middletown, a one-hour commute from New York City, there's nothing new about that.
But when the police department's phones started ringing the next morning, Pollinger changed his mind. A four-block radius around St. Catherine's was newly awash in hateful graffiti.
"Anti-black, anti-God, anti-Semitic, anti-Puerto Rican, anti-gay — you name it," Pollinger says. Swastikas, pentagrams, white-supremacist slogans and death threats — some specifically targeting local high-school girls — had been sprayed on every available surface: sidewalks, streets, statues, fences, houses, the neighborhood recreation center.
Whoever the perpetrators were, Pollinger said, one thing was clear enough: "They hated everybody."
In a matter of hours, police arrested five teenagers from the mostly white, lower-middle-class neighborhood around St. Catherine's — three girls and two boys, ages 14 to 16. (Under New Jersey law, the names of juvenile offenders are not released.)
A tight-knit bunch, they dressed in black, grooved on heavy metal and got stuck with a stereotype of their own: "outcasts."
"These were the kids people were afraid of because they looked different," Meaghan Pearlstein, a junior at Middletown High School North, told the local Asbury Park Press.
Their ideas were far more "different" than their attire. When police searched the bedroom of the group's ringleader, a 14-year-old boy who'd been expelled from local schools, they discovered the gang of five had started their own organization.
It had some of the quaint, age-old trappings of kids' secret clubs — membership tests, matching rings, official-sounding rules and regulations. But this was not something you'd expect Beaver Cleaver and his pals to cook up.
These kids called themselves the Agnostic Neo-Nazis, and a wirebound notebook containing their secrets included a mishmash of white-supremacist ideas downloaded from the Internet — "just about every piece of hate imaginable, spelled out — or misspelled," said Monmouth County Prosecutor Jonathan Kaye.
New members were not only required to demonstrate their knowledge of neo-Nazi ideology, they also had to get a swastika tattoo. And the Agnostic Neo-Nazis weren't meeting in anybody's treehouse or basement rec room.
"We found a spot under a bridge where they'd gather," says Pollinger, decorated with both hate graffiti and "images of lynchings."
Serious as it sounds, the arrests appear to have nipped the group in the bud. Miles away from "planning a race war," as one local newspaper gravely warned, the members had not yet advanced beyond breaking into unlocked cars to earn money for the secret rings and collecting Nazi memorabilia from World War II.
Besides, Pollinger says with a chuckle, "They'd have to travel a great distance to find a race other than their own to target." That's only a slight exaggeration: Middletown is more than 90% white, notes the chief.
Typical enough, say hate-crime experts: most white-supremacist kids spring up in homogenous suburbs like Middletown. And most of them pick up their knowledge of white supremacy from the Internet, assembling collections of "bizarre, loose ideas and goals," as Pollinger puts it.
What's not typical is how quickly the Agnostic Neo-Nazis were discovered and disbanded. Charged with up to 22 criminal counts apiece, the kids ended up with combinations of juvenile detention, community service and mandatory bias education — working in a Jewish retirement home, visiting a Holocaust museum, dishing out meals at the local shelter.
Pollinger hopes the lesson for Middletown's other disaffected youth is clear: "Hateful, terroristic behavior won't be tolerated." As for their parents, he hopes they've learned something, too: "Be nosy."