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The East Hampton Chain-Saw Incident

A swastika-loving 16-year-old, a Latino classmate, a bottle of vodka, and a power tool. The battle over immigration gets ugly in the shadow of wealth and privilege.

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The boy who called himself a Nazi is 16 years old. He wears a collared shirt tucked neatly into his jeans and covers his shaved head with a black baseball cap. He has blue eyes and slight dimples, little gaps between his teeth, and a wisp of a mustache. He is handsome, if a bit wolfish. He sits on a bench, broad shoulders hunched over, lean body caved in, and holds his girlfriend’s hands in his lap, leaning in to whisper in her ear. In a few minutes, their time will be up. He’ll return to a nonsecure detention facility, and she’ll return to East Hampton, the town where this whole mess started. But for now, they sit on a bench in a park, watching evening fall, like any other teenage couple in love.

Because his criminal record will one day be sealed and he’ll be allowed to retreat into anonymity, we will call this boy Opie. It’s a childhood nickname, earned during an improbable time when he seemed the perfect child, polite and affable in a way that was almost old-fashioned. He shoveled neighbors’ driveways in the winter and woke before dawn so he and his brother could watch the sun rise over the water as they cast fishing lines into the surf. In character references given to the court, he is described as sensitive, affectionate. And troubled.

His days now are structured, broken into tiny, near-palatable pieces. Breakfast, gym, lunch, therapy, gym, dinner, group therapy, lights out. In his spare time, he listens to the radio or sits alone and reads. He keeps mostly to himself. As a white boy, he is a minority at the prison, perhaps even more isolated because of what he did to land himself there. “I know what I did was wrong,” he says about that night. “I know what I did wasn’t a nice thing to do. But I want to go home.”

The house where Opie grew up sits back from the road, between tall trees that cast a perpetual shade. The street is a modest one—across the train tracks from the luxury boutiques and the lively parade of tanned, well-heeled families on the main East Hampton drag—and Opie’s house is perhaps the most modest of all, with the chicken-wire fence, the pile of logs, the sign out front reading FIREWOOD $5 in uneven block letters. Attempts to make it more cheerful—a coat of peach paint, a pot of flowers on the front lawn, an American flag flapping on a pole in the backyard—do not overcome the bleak aspect of a hard-won life.

On the night of Saturday, April 29, Opie was home with his little brother while his parents were out. A few friends had come over, a lanky sophomore named Jon; Jon’s girlfriend, Lacy; and a hefty freshman named Mike. They were part of a crowd at East Hampton High School known as the “Bubs,” short for “Bonacker,” which in turn is a nickname taken from Accobonac Harbor and a way of designating people whose families have been in the East Hampton area for generations. The Bubs were mostly blue-collar kids, the ones who liked to hunt and fish, whose parents and grandparents had wrested their livings from the surrounding land and sea. Though Bonacker is the name of the school mascot, there are no longer very many of them left at the school—fewer, it seems, each year. They tend to stick together.

That night, the boys were drinking heavily, vodka straight from the bottle. Opie’s little brother, then 12, flitted on the periphery, happy to be hanging out with the older kids. Around nine or ten o’clock, Opie heard voices outside. The night was black and windy, the smell of the coming summer blowing in off the ocean. In the darkness, three figures began to take shape down the road.

“Who is that?” Opie called out from the yard.

“It’s Christian,” one of the figures answered back. Under the streetlight, Opie could just make out the compact, athletic frame and long, sun-bleached curls of a Colombian kid by that name, a well-known high-school bad boy, a fixture at beach parties, and, more important, someone a friend of Opie’s had once fought. He was with two other boys, also Latino.

“Hey,” Opie said, walking out to meet them. “What are you guys doing?”

“Just hanging out,” answered Christian. He and his friends Carlo and John had started the night drinking at their apartment complex—a crowded bundle of vinyl-sided buildings, hemmed in by scruffy pines and secondhand cars, where Spanish is the dominant language—before deciding to walk to town to catch a ride to a party in Montauk. Opie’s house was on the way.


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