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2 Brothers Raised As Devout Christians Become Neo Nazis, Then Kill Their Family
A gruesome murder scene at the Freeman family's suburban Pennsylvania home led investigators to a dark, hate-filled subculture — and a horrifying conclusion about the parents' two eldest sons.
It was a tranquil Monday evening in suburban Salisbury Township, Pennsylvania — 55 miles northwest of Philadelphia — when Valerie Freeman called 911 on Feb. 27, 1995.
What she'd see across the street in her brother and sister-in-law's home was anything but.
"She told us that her nephew, Erik Freeman, would usually stop by her house, basically across the street, every day after school and he had not stopped there. So she went looking for him," Salisbury Township Police Officer Jeffrey Renninger told "Killer Siblings," airing Fridays at 8/7c on Oxygen. "She told us she found him and the room was just covered with blood."
Police then decided to make a tactical entry to try and clear the home that Erik, 11, shared with his father, 54-year-old Dennis Freeman, mother, 48-year-old Brenda Freeman, and brothers, Bryan and David, 17 and 16, respectively.
But when they entered the first large room of the home, they saw no signs of forced entry and nothing seemed amiss ... until they noticed a bloody baseball bat lying against the far wall.
"We knew something horrible had happened,” said Renninger. “... The first room we made entry into was the master bedroom. The room was just covered with blood spatter. We found a male, obviously bludgeoned to death. We backed out of that room ... The next room we checked, we found an 11-year-old male laying half on the bed. It was obvious that he had been bludgeoned to death also."
They headed to the basement, where they found a woman dead.
"Because of the injuries, the victims are unrecognizable," retired FBI Special Agent Michael Tabman told "Killer Siblings." "But after speaking to Valerie Freeman, police believe these are the bodies of Dennis Freeman, his wife, Brenda Freeman and their son, 11-year-old Erik Freeman.”
What police didn't know was where the two eldest sons, Bryan and David Freeman, were.
At 7:00, the Lehigh County Coroner's office arrived.They determined that the woman had been stabbed multiple times and then bludgeoned with a barbell from the nearby weight rack.
In the master bedroom, the scene was different.
"The injuries were just massive, blunt force injuries to his face and head," LCCO supervisor Scott Grim told "Killer Siblings." "It was extremely violent. Looking at the position of the body, he was probably laying in bed sleeping when he initially was bludgeoned.”
There was blood spatter on all four walls and the ceiling of the master bedroom, and the mattress underneath the body was soaked in blood. But there was one thing Grim and his team noticed.
“There was a void pattern on the one bedroom wall," he explained. "You could basically see where somebody may have been standing during the assault, while somebody else on the other side of the bed was inflicting injury and causing the blood spatter in that direction of that other person, causing the void pattern on the bedroom wall there.”
Erik, they determined, was also bludgeoned to death in his pajamas in bed, with most of the injuries being to his face and head.
The forensics team was able to determine that the family had likely been killed on Sunday night. They also found a third weapon, a pickaxe handle covered in blood and hair, that had been left in the kitchen. There was no evidence of the two older boys, but they did note that Brenda Freeman's 1988 black Pontiac Sunbird was missing from the driveway. The local police put out a statewide BOLO for the car.
The following morning, on Feb. 28, the police department briefed the media that they were looking for the older boys, and set up checkpoints to try and find the missing car to no avail.
Ultimately, it was determined that Brenda Freeman had been stabbed four time in the torso, with one wound perforating her lung. That lung filled with blood for several minutes before she was bludgeoned with the barbell. The autopsy and investigation confirmed that Dennis had been bludgeoned to death with the baseball bat first discovered by the police, and that Erik had been struck six times with the pickaxe handle, killing him.
Investigators believed that, given the four different weapons, there were at least two and maybe three perpetrators.
In interviews with the Freemans' extended family, they discovered that there was trouble at home with the two teen boys. Both parents had met in the local congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses and brought their sons up in their faith, but the two older boys had begun rejecting it in junior high when they were bullied for their differences. By 1991 — and the ages of 13 and 12 — Bryan and David had begun experimenting with drugs and alcohol, leading their parents to send them to a rehabilitation facility by 1993.
That, the extended family told police, is where Bryan and David Freeman met their first neo-Nazi skinhead and became enamored of the violent ideology and personal freedom they felt violence could bring them.
(Notably, Jehovah's Witnesses were among the non-Jewish groups severely persecuted by the Nazis during the Holocaust; estimates are that there were 30,000 Jehovah's Witnesses in Germany before the Nazis came to power, and about 10,000 were convicted of and jailed for practicing their faith, with another 10,000 renouncing it. Across the Nazi-controlled territories, an estimated 3,000 Jehovah's Witnesses were sent to Nazi concentration camps and the Nazis executed about 1,700 Jehovah's Witnesses during their time in power.)
“In 10th grade, there’s a very dramatic change where the Freeman brothers started dressing like neo-Nazis, wearing Doc Marten boots, Army fatigue pants," their classmate Joe Pochron told "Killer Siblings."
The brothers apparently openly wore swastika armbands, Nazi-style medals and, eventually, neo-Nazi tattoos. Bryan Freeman had the word "Berzerker" (a neo-Nazi band) tattooed along his then-hairline and a skull and bones swastika on his neck; David Freeman got "Sieg Heil" along his then-hairline.
The boys were also growing: By the time of the murders, both were over six feet tall and well over 200 pounds. The family told police they'd already come to blows with their father, Dennis, and both Erik and Brenda were afraid of them. Kids at the high school recounted other incidents, including an altercation with the driver's education teacher and one with the school principal the Friday before the murders in which Bryan referred to the man by an anti-Semitic slur and threatened him with violence, the AP reported.
Multiple visits by police to the home prior to the murder failed to result in any arrests; the Allentown Morning Call reported that Dennis and Brenda also sought help from multiple organizations before they were murdered.
A few weeks before the murder, to prevent their sons from driving to various neo-Nazi events, the Freemans sold the boys' car. A classmate told police that Bryan was enraged, and had said that, if he had been there at the time, he would have killed his parents on the spot.
All of it was enough to convince the police that the two older sons had committed the unspeakable acts they saw in the Freeman house, and warrants were issued for their arrest on Feb. 28.
The police then began trying to figure out where the boys would have gone and discovered they were close with one of their cousins on their mother's side: Nelson Birdwell, 18, who had also become a neo-Nazi and gotten the word "Berzerker" tattooed on his own hairline. Birdwell's parents told police they hadn't seen their son since Feb. 26.
Armed with that knowledge, the state police sent out a nationwide BOLO for all three boys and the black Pontiac Firebird.
On March 1, a trucker who had been stopped at a truck stop motel in Hubbard, Ohio the night before called in to say he'd seen three neo-Nazi kids at that hotel. The Hubbard police headed over but the three men — who the clerk identified as Bryan, David and Nelson — were gone, leaving only an empty pizza box and a record of two phone calls behind.
One phone call was for the pizza and the other was to a landline in Hope, Michigan belonging to a man named Frank Hess.
“We were knowledgeable of the Hesses," Midland County, Michigan prosecutor Norman Donker told "Killer Siblings." "The Hesses were known to be skinheads but we’re not aware of any criminal activity on their part.”
Michigan State Police Det. Sergeant Thomas Mynsberge and his partner agreed to head over to the Hess place to check things out, not thinking they'd find much based on one phone call.
Instead, they spotted the Pontiac.
“We looked at each other in kind of amazement and said, 'I think the boys are here,’” Mynsberge told "Killer Siblings."
The partners called it in but stayed out of sight, surveilling the place for any sign of the three as State Police Det. Thomas Forsberg headed over as backup. But by the time Forsberg arrived, the Freeman brothers, Birdwell and Hess got into the Pontiac and set out. The three officers then followed them to a pole barn in the middle of the woods... and called for more backup.
With 10 officers surrounding the property, police yelled for the four men to come out with their hands up. They complied.
“They were meek and mild at that time because they were so caught by surprise. They had no idea we were even out there,” Mynesberg said.
Officered separated all four, took them to the Midland Police Department, and removed their clothes as evidence, finding tiny drops of blood on Birdwell's T-shirt.
Hess explained that he'd met the brothers at a skinhead concert in Ohio and invited them to hang out if they were ever in the area; they'd called on the 27 and told him they'd be nearby. They hadn't mentioned the murder. (His story was verified and he was released.)
Birdwell told police that he only heard about the murders once the three were on their way to Michigan.
The Freeman brothers refused to talk — at first. But when the Pennsylvania prosecutor announced his intention to try them as adults and seek the death penalty, their public defenders negotiated a deal: The brothers would confess if the death penalty was off the table.
The deal was accepted and, on March 6, Michigan authorities interviewed the brothers.
They told police that all three of them had gone to to the movies the night of the murder and returned to the Freeman home after the brothers' 11:00 p.m. curfew. Brenda was angry that they broke curfew again and told Birdwell to leave; he pretended to go out the back door, but came back in after his aunt went upstairs and the three headed down to the basement.
But she came back down shortly thereafter, found them hanging out in the basement, and ordered Nelson out again. That, the brothers said, was when Bryan went upstairs to the kitchen, got a kitchen knife, and stabbed his mother.
David then said he'd beaten his father to death with the baseball bat.
“He stated that his skull was crushed and it sounded like a watermelon being dropped” Mynesberg told "Killer Siblings." “Just in a monotone voice with so little emotion, it still haunts me today.”
David eventually claimed that Birdwell beat 11-year-old Erik with the handle of the pickaxe; Nelson has always denied it.
(At trial, prosecutors said Bryan confessed to gagging his mother with a pair of shorts before stabbing her, the Morning Call reported. At Birdwell's trial, they presented evidence that Birdwell assisted David in the bludgeoning of Dennis by hitting him with the barbell, the paper said, and believed that he alone killed Erik. The also noted that the pickaxe head had been pried off the handle, and the rubber grip was missing from the end of the barbell, suggesting the weapons had been prepped in advance.)
All three were extradited to Pennsylvania on March 8. Eventually, fingerprints tied Bryan to the knife and David to the baseball bat, while the blood police noticed on Birdwell's shirt put him in the room when Dennis Freeman was murdered.
On March 6, Bryan and David entered guilty pleas and were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Birdwell went to trial in April 1996 and was convicted of the murder of Dennis Freeman, but acquitted in the two other murders, according to the Morning Call. He also received a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
None ever took responsibility for 11-year-old Erik's brutal death.
Following the Supreme Court's 2016 decision about life sentences for people convicted as adults while juveniles, both Bryan and David were granted re-sentencing hearings. Both re-sentencings are reportedly on hold pending decisions in other cases, Allentown news station WMFZ reported last year.
Birdwell's sentence is unaffected by the ruling, as he was 18 at the time of the murders. He remains incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution at Frackville. Bryan Freeman is currently incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution – Coal Township, while his brother, David, is at the State Correctional Institution – Mahanoy.
In a 2015 interview with The Morning Call, their maternal aunt said that both brothers had expressed remorse. In a 2017 interview with WMFX, Bryan acknowledged his guilt and said he deserved to be in prison.
"Even after 20 years, it still haunts me and haunts a lot of people," he said. "I did a terrible thing and I absolutely deserve to be punished."