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Lessons and Regrets

Two decades later, a woman remembers her life among killer skinheads and discusses how she has changed

Julie Belec has never forgotten the night of Nov. 13, 1988, when three racist skinheads beat to death Mulugeta Seraw, a 28-year-old graduate student and Ethiopian immigrant, outside his apartment in Portland, Ore. Belec, then 16, sat in a parked car as her boyfriend, East Side White Pride member Ken Mieske, known to his friends as “Ken Death,” repeatedly struck Seraw with a baseball bat during a late-night chance confrontation. Mieske ultimately pleaded guilty to murdering Seraw because of his race and was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

In addition to criminal cases against Mieske and two other gang members, the murder prompted a lawsuit brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) on behalf of Seraw’s son and other relatives. The SPLC suit targeted White Aryan Resistance (WAR) leader Tom Metzger and his son, John, because the Metzgers had sent a recruiter from California to help organize the Portland skinhead gang and encourage its members to attack non-white people. During that trial, Belec testified for the plaintiffs. The jury found that the Metzgers and WAR were responsible for the killing and ordered them to pay $12.5 million in damages to Seraw’s family.

Now 37, Belec is no longer the girl who helped fill the basement room she and Mieske shared with racist propaganda. She and her husband of nine years now live outside Portland with their blended family and own a business together. She’s also studying for an associate’s degree in mental health and human services and hopes to work with schoolchildren who might be vulnerable to hate group recruitment.

In a recent interview with the Intelligence Report, Belec (who asked that her maiden name be used to protect her privacy) spoke about why she became involved with East Side White Pride, her relationship with Mieske, the night Seraw was killed, and how her life has changed since she left the racist skinhead movement. 

Julie, what was your early childhood like?
I did not come from a loving family. I did not come from a physically abusive family, but there were pretty much no emotions. I don’t remember as a child ever being told anything good about myself. There were no hugs, at least not from my mother or my stepfather. I was on my own to do as I pleased.

So how did you spend your time as a young child?
I actually played a lot of imaginary games, and one of them was that I had different parents. I was just your typical kid who wanted to learn about new things. My teenage years are when things started to change.

How did that happen?
I think middle school is a big change for most people. You start forming some of your own thoughts and feelings apart from your parents. You explore more, and you see more of how other people live. In middle school we were trying things more than the kids do now, it seems. I started smoking cigarettes and smoking pot and trying beer; that was all acceptable in my house. I was trying to fit in somewhere because I never quite fit in anywhere.

How did you meet Ken Mieske?
In middle school, I was introduced to a crowd that was into heavy death metal. That led to the punk rock people, which led to more drugs. I met Ken when I was about 13 at a place called the Death House, which was just a big party house. We did not get involved until I was maybe 15. I’m not sure how we became involved. It was probably through drinking and drugs. 

Do you remember what drew you to him?
He was older, and in fact all my relationships when I was young were with older men. Maybe I was looking for a father figure, because I didn’t have that.

Was Mieske already a committed racist?
He did not have racist beliefs then. He was more of the punk-rock, troubled child. He had his own childhood issues. [Editor’s note: Mieske’s mother was unable to care for her young son, and he did not have a stable home life with the family friend who adopted him. He later spent time on the streets and in jail.] I think we all came into the skinhead group we were associating with through the whole punk rock crowd. I’m not even sure how it happened that we became part of the skinhead movement. It just kind of got thrown at all of us. I’m not sure who really deeply believed in all of it or if it was just a new group. It was something new to all of us, and I think it made us all feel a part of something.

What attracted you to the group’s racist beliefs?
I don’t take any of this lightly and I do not find it humorous now, but I think I found humor in some of the literature that was going around. I didn’t think all of the stuff was true, but you could belong when you were among these people. You felt like it was a family. I think that’s where people get kind of trapped into it. Whether or not you really are believing all of this, you feel like these people are part of a family that maybe you didn’t have. I think these kids are preyed on by the adults who form these groups. I don’t think it’s the youth that are doing it. 

So it was more the social aspects of the group that pulled you in rather than its ideology?
I finally fit somewhere. When parents are mentally abusive to their children, they [the children] have really low self-esteem. I have struggled my whole life with low self-esteem and not really being confident in myself and fitting in places. And the group seemed to accept me 100% as long as I believed what they did. So that worked for me.

Were you attending school at the time?
I dropped out of high school my sophomore year. I got my GED after that, when I was about 17. These kids in the [skinhead] group were dropouts. They were homeless kids. They were not kids who came from homes where their parents cared about them. They were just kids that no one cared about. Education was not important in my home anyway.

I do make that important to my kids now. I didn’t gain all that I could have in high school, which I’m sorry about.

What was your relationship like with Ken?
It was not good. The skinhead movement started being really anti-drug but they were not anti-alcohol. Nights were filled with drinking and abuse. Ken was very abusive. There were a few times where I was almost choked to death. There were black eyes, a broken nose. That was the thing about this group of guys. Getting together and drinking, they became angry and would find a victim. Without a victim for the evening, sometimes — I know in my case but not about anyone else’s — I was then the victim.

Ken ended up living with you in your parents’ basement. How did your parents feel about that? Did they sense something was wrong?
My mother has her own issues. As a child, I could have told her I’m going to rob a bank and she would have said, “Oh, OK, have fun.” It was kind of whatever you wanted to do.

My first thought as a mother would be, “What is my teenage daughter doing with a man who is six years her senior?” There was also evidence of abuse. There was evidence of drinking. But as long as I told her I was happy, then she was OK with it. There was never any stepping in on the part of authority figures.

Were your parents concerned about the racist beliefs of East Side White Pride?
Not at all. There was never any parental direction that this was not a good choice. In my whole growing up, I could not look to my parents for advice on anything. When you are a teenager, you really need someone directing your choices. Without that there, I made horrible decisions. 

Tell me about the night Mulugeta Seraw was killed.
We had come home from a night of drinking. We were dropping people off. There was a car in front of us with three men in it. They were kind of blocking the road, which of course isn’t anything that could be an instigator. But it did start an argument between our driver and their driver. Then it escalated into a street fight where Ken used a bat — a weapon.

Of course, the claim was that he was defending his friend. I didn’t get out of the car; I couldn’t actually physically see it with my own eyes. But, of course, we knew what had happened the next day. It has stayed with me 21 years now. I will never forget. Mulugeta is his name; it stays with me. Sometimes, I wish I could erase it. It’s a part of my life that I have not shared with very many people. My husband knows, and two of my close, close friends. No one else. I can’t even believe that I could ever have been a part of something like that.

What was your reaction to the attack at the time?
It just seemed surreal. It took a lot of years to sink in that a life was lost — not knowing the importance of life, maybe because when you are young, you think you will live forever. Death wasn’t something I really knew of. I hadn’t had anyone really close die. My father did die, but I was really young. It took a long time to really hit home. Probably after the birth of my first son was when I really could mourn for this man who had lost his life. And today I still do.

How do you think the birth of your son enabled you to do that?
I think it just was experiencing a deep, deep love toward somebody, which I had not ever had before. Just that bond. And thinking about this man, Mulugeta, and his family, and how his family must have had that bond. Even though he was a grown man, you just don’t ever get over losing a child. That, I think, is what really did it. I just became a different person.

How did the murder change your feelings about Ken?
I pretty much woke up to Ken shortly after he was in jail. In fact, I split up with him six months or so after. At that point, I ended our relationship just because he had been abusive toward me. I found a new skinhead group that included Dave Mazzella and some other individuals. [Editor’s note: Mazzella, the WAR recruiter who helped organize East Side White Pride, continued to hang around with racist groups for a period after the murder. But he ultimately provided key testimony on behalf of the Seraw family at the civil trial. According to a December report in Portland’s Willamette Week, he is now a 35-year-old father of three who says he’s raising his children to be “open and tolerant” toward others.] I still tried to hang on to that because the skinheads were the only group that kind of accepted me. But by the time I had reached 18, I was 100% done with that type of lifestyle.

Why did you finally leave the racist skinhead scene?
Not because of the death of Mulugeta, but because of a bunch of small incidents. I had gotten immunity for the death of Mulugeta, but I was still involved with skinhead groups. I was not committing any crimes, but I was there when incidents were happening. The judge who handled my case in juvenile court said, “You’re going to wind up in a lot of trouble.” So I went to the girls’ detention center in Salem. I was there for one year, from the time I was 17 to the time I was 18.

How did that happen?
That was the judge’s choice. I 100% agree with that decision. I don’t know what would have happened if I’d been in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’m just thankful.

The detention center did not straighten me out with their therapy. But just being away from the skinhead group and getting to know other people helped. I had kind of a best friend in there, and she was a girl who was in the Bloods. So she was African-American. Getting to know people of different races — which I had not done before, really, for quite a period of time —opened my eyes to the fact that there was no difference. That pretty much was the end of it. After that, I tried to forget that I had ever been involved in any of it to begin with.

I did help the woman [Elinor Langer] who wrote A Hundred Little Hitlers. I gave some of the story to her for that book.

How have you changed as a person since that time?
I’m so far from the person I was. I’m not going to say I don’t see someone’s color or ethnicity. I see it, but people just are and it doesn’t make a difference.

I’m not just tolerating people. I volunteer at a place called Our House, which is a residential care facility for people living with AIDS. A lot of the people there are of different races. There are homosexuals. And some of my good friends who I’ve made in life are different races and nationalities and genders. It just doesn’t matter.

That’s a change that was made pretty much right away after leaving that group. But it wasn’t until after I hit 30, when I really learned more about myself and became more confident in myself, that I became open to everybody and anything. I do not care how people want to live their lives as long as they are not hurting anybody.

How did you gain that confidence?
I still have my insecure moments. My best friend tells me, “You don’t seem on the outside like you are,” but I really am. It took a lot of years.

In fact, I still can barely speak up in class at points. I get so nervous. I trip on my words. It has been a struggle. I just have had to learn to accept myself. The horrible death of Mulugeta Seraw has been a part of me feeling so horrible about myself, along with all the things that I had done when I was young. And I keep having to think, “OK, I was young then. It’s not who I am now. It’s not who I have been for a long time.” But that haunts me. That has haunted me. And has made me feel like I’m not as worthy as other people. Like I don’t have the right at points to tell my kids, ‘You shouldn’t do this or you shouldn’t do that.’ Because if they looked back on the example I was as a child, they would be horrified. That has been really hard. I have to just take it day by day.

Has your experience affected the way you raise your kids?
I think it has. I try to instill in my children to be good people. My older kids are in high school. In middle school, it might be the kid at school who doesn’t dress as nicely as them. You have to say they can’t help the way they are. I don’t pinpoint race and nothing really has to do with that. It’s just that you can be friends with everybody, whether they play your sport or whether they’re interested in chess — no matter what it is. I try to make my kids open to friendships.

And because of my childhood and my ability to do whatever I wanted, my kids cannot do whatever they want. I do give them some freedom to explore. They’re in charge of what they wear and that kind of stuff. But they have rules: They have to be in at certain times. There is no drinking and smoking and any of that allowed. I try to be there for them and to parent them. 

If you didn’t grow up with people telling you how great you are, you don’t really ever believe that yourself. So, especially now with my 4-year-old daughter, she hears every day that she is just the most beautiful person ever and that she is wonderful and she’s great. I think people take for granted that their kids know that, but they don’t. That is what’s really important: You don’t want your kids to think they’re better than anyone else, but you want them to know that they are special.