Two years ago, Clinton Colby Ellerman announced a shift that made his parents sigh with relief: He'd sworn off alcohol, drugs, smoking--even sex--and taken up the cause of animal rights.
Never mind that he'd also had crossed M-16 assault rifles tattooed on the back of his head and was inspired by the deafening and aggressive anthems of a hard-core punk movement calling itself "Straight Edge."
"At first, my mom and dad thought it was good thing," recalled Ellerman, 21, during an interview at the Salt Lake Metro Jail. "It would have been a good thing if the violence had been taken out of it."
A month ago, a state court judge ordered Ellerman to spend two years in jail for his role in a July 1996 raid on a local mink farm. His 19-year-old brother, Joshua, also a Straight Edger, is facing federal charges carrying a minimum 30-year prison sentence in connection with the March 1997 bombing of a fur breeders cooperative.
What's Straight Edge? That's what everyone in Utah wants to know as federal agents and state and local police chase its local followers from one fur farm raid, arson or bloody melee to another.
Gradually, the story of a vicious offshoot of a national subculture is emerging here. Straight Edge--whose followers favor shaved heads, combat fatigues, Doc Martens and pierced and tattooed flesh--began in New York in the mid-1980s as a quiet rebellion against apathy and addiction.
The movement still exists, with factions acting mostly as peaceful "moral watchdogs" wherever there is punk rock. Lately, however, Straight Edge groups from Irvine to New York City have been trying to disavow their Utah brethren.
"The California Straight Edge scene is very positive because the kids are tolerant of people around them," said Hollywood musician Rick Rodney, whose Straight Edge band is called Strife. "But I've had arguments with Utah kids who think we're too complacent."
In Utah, no sooner had police detectives noticed the Straight Edgers in the early 1990s than they began receiving reports of bombings and arson attacks that targeted animal-product stores--including leather furriers and fast-food stands--and assaults and stabbings at punk rock concerts.
Ever since, Straight Edgers have been destroying notions about the causes of gang violence in a state where growing up these days can be a pretty safe and comfortable affair.
These are mostly young, middle-class, Anglo vegetarians who communicate through their own Web sites and view themselves as courageous sober soldiers in a dangerously corrupt and polluted society. And they enforce their mantra-- True 'Til Death--with brass knuckles, baseball bats, knives, Molotov cocktails and pipe bombs.
According to Utah law enforcement authorities, the number of these "suburban terrorists" has jumped from a few dozen to more than 1,000 in five years--and shows every sign of growing further. At least 40 cases of arson, vandalism and serious assault--including the torching of a Salt Lake City McDonald's--have been traced to Straight Edgers.
'Fastest-Growing Gang in Utah'
The fact that several high schools have become gathering places for Utah's Straight Edge scene has prompted officials to ban students from scrawling phrases such as "Drug Free" and "Stay Sober" on their backpacks.
"Straight Edge is the fastest-growing gang in Utah," said Salt Lake City Police Det. Brent Larsen, who is assigned to a special task force. "We're cracking down on the violent ones. We've got to keep the pressure on them."
Before Straight Edge arrived, Salt Lake County's gang culture was multiethnic and largely influenced by the more violent and better organized Crips and Bloods of Los Angeles and Folks and People of Chicago.
Now the strong presence of Straight Edgers bent on enforcing their beliefs has led to the formation of rival groups, such as SMP, which stands for Smoke More Pot.
A 23-year-old man clad in black fatigues who was waiting for a delivery of marijuana across the street from the Mormon Temple said SMP was formed solely to anger Straight Edge. "I've been in plenty of fights with them," he said. "They see us drinking and smoking and don't like it."
Salt Lake City psychologist and gang expert Terie Weiderhold is trying to make sense of what she has dubbed "Utah's home-grown, upper-class gang."
"Perhaps our Straight Edgers are different because in the Mormon culture, kids are told from Day One, 'Don't do drugs, alcohol, tobacco or premarital sex,' " she said. "What is not emphasized, however, is, 'Don't fight.'
"Of course, that's not to say that Mormons are violent," she added. "But since they don't participate in things that other gangs are involved in, our Straight Edgers may be finding an escape from boredom and a source of identification in violence."
Salt Lake County Sheriff's Deputy Scott Perry, who is in charge of security at Kearns High School, a few miles southwest of Salt Lake City, would not argue with that.
At Kearns, five Straight Edgers recently "put the boots to another student who needed stitches to put his face back together," he said.
Just around the corner from the principal's office, Perry keeps a closetful of confiscated Straight Edge clothing, weapons and "hard-line" pamphlets. Some of these 'zines are illustrated with depictions of big-game animals brought down by hunters, decapitated nude women awash in blood, and men and children dangling from nooses.
For local Straight Edgers, these graphic scenes apparently symbolize what happens to people who get swept up by what they believe is a damaging mainstream culture of materialism, sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.
"It's the darndest thing I've ever seen," Perry said. "We only have about 100 Edgers out of a total student body of 2,100 students. But they're predatory, travel in packs and go out of their way to fight.
"Their weapon of choice is pepper Mace, which they spray at each other for laughs," Perry said. "Now they're immune to the stuff, which makes it hard on us when there's a gang fight. I've hosed them down with Mace and they just kept on fighting."
One Edger Blames His Background
It's not just Kearns High. Conflicts between Straight Edgers and outsiders have become almost routine at schools, shopping malls and punk-rock hangouts throughout the 100-mile Wasatch Front.
"I don't like the things they do," said Taylor Slae, 16, a student at Brighton High School. "They'll put someone's jaw on a curb and then kick them in the back of the head."
Some Edgers insist that they only resort to violence when peers give them flak for their lifestyle and views--or deliberately blow cigarette or pot smoke in their faces at school or at concerts.
Leaning back in a chair in his parents' living room, David Snodgrass is a lanky, 19-year-old Straight Edger with a huge fanged skull tattooed on his back under block letters spelling out "X STRAIGHT EDGE X." He offered another explanation.
"Maybe we feel like the world thinks of us as good little Mormon boys, so we act out to get away from that image," Snodgrass said. "I was prone to violence because everyone gave me crap about that. And I had friends who backed me up.
"When my parents found out their dear children were into it [Straight Edge], they were broken up," he added. "But I can't stop being Straight Edge for my parents. I can't compromise."
Such tough talk is painful for Snodgrass' 46-year-old father, Jack, who supervises janitorial services at a junior high school.
"I'd rather that he not become involved in this," he said, clasping his hands. "I don't agree with many of the attitudes that tend to thrive under the Straight Edge umbrella. There's always someone out there with a bigger fist."
Besides, he added, "law enforcement is cracking down, with good reason. The Straight Edge violence is happening here. Why not in Los Angeles, New York or Denver? I don't know. Nobody does."
With a dozen Straight Edgers in jail or facing serious criminal charges, and dozens more under law enforcement surveillance, even die-hard Salt Lake City animal-rights activists are severing ties with the group they once depended on for recruits.
"Generally, Straight Edge has been a boost for the animal-rights movement--they've added fresh blood," said J. P. Goodwin, spokesman for the Dallas-based Coalition to Abolish the Fur Trade. "In other cities, they've helped organize activities. But they're nothing like the weird scene in Salt Lake City."
Straight Edge's penchant for violence--and the intense law enforcement attention that that has attracted--are among the reasons the coalition's Salt Lake City representative, David Wilson, 20, is leaving town after a year of organizing.
Wilson once bragged that 35% of his members were Straight Edge--and he has had nothing but praise for a series of mink farm attacks linked to the movement. He made a point of leaving stacks of animal-rights literature at their concerts and chumming up to members, including the Ellerman brothers.
But a mosh pit stabbing he witnessed at a Straight Edge rock concert changed all that for Wilson, who has yet to visit any Edger in jail for animal-rights-related attacks.
The Ellerman brothers' parents now wonder whether their sons were swayed by animal activists' propaganda and pleas for "direct action."
Their mother, DeeAnn Taylor, tearfully recalled how they first became Straight Edgers, then vegetarians, then vegans--who eschew all animal products--then animal-rights activists obsessed by videos with militant messages.
The videos showed animals being slaughtered for food, dosed with diseases in laboratory experiments and skinned at fur farms. They ended with scenes of creatures being set free in clandestine raids.
The 47-year-old beautician also remembered the night her sons tried to console her by insisting that, although police wanted them for questioning, "there are people out there who will raise money to help us."
"Guess what? I never saw a dime from anyone else--and I had to come up with $7,000 for legal fees," she said. "How? I borrowed, and begged all my clients to come in for appointments whether they needed them or not."
Youth in Jail Fears Reprisals
More worrisome for her these days is a judge's offer to reduce Clinton Ellerman's sentence by half if he provides investigators information about others involved in the mink farm raid in which he participated.
Ellerman has refused the offer out of fear of reprisals. Joshua Ellerman declined comment on advice of his lawyers.
"No way," said rail-thin Clinton Ellerman, from behind the plate-glass window of the downtown jail's visitors room. "If I tell, they might retaliate against me or my parents."
As for Straight Edge in general, Ellerman has had a change of heart since going to jail.
"It turned into trouble and fighting. All I want now is to do my time, get married, start a family and all that stuff," he said. "I'm even covering up a Straight Edge tattoo on my back with a new one of angels and devils fighting over the Earth and its people."