The East Hampton Chain-Saw Incident

Photo: Mark Peterson

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.

Photo: Redux

“I’m drinking with some friends in the shed if you want to come chill,” Opie offered. The Latino boys knew who Opie was, but their group, the skaters and surfers, didn’t really mix with the Bubs. Still, it was free alcohol, the high-school equivalent of a peace pipe.

“Let’s just go to town, man,” Carlo said. Though he didn’t know that these were the guys who had been carving swastikas into the desks at school, didn’t know why they had all shaved their heads several weeks before, he had a bad feeling about these Bub kids. Besides, there would be plenty to drink where they were going—and people they actually liked to do their drinking with. Christian ignored him and went inside. What follows is his account of what happened next.

The two groups gathered around a table in the garage and started doing shots. Country music played in the background. Large tools hung on the walls. A bald construction bulb cast deep shadows.

For the first twenty minutes, everything was fine. “We kind of just chilled and drank,” says Carlo. They talked mostly about other kids at school, and about each other. “We were kind of making fun of each other and shit because we were already kind of tipsy. I didn’t take it personally,” says Christian. “We were even making racial jokes. John was like, ‘You know what I hate? Those damn Jews, man.’ Because everyone is always talking about Jews, even kids whose parents are Jews will make Jewish jokes. I don’t know why. Everyone out here is Jewish.”

Then, as if no one in the garage were Latino, Opie announced, “I don’t like the Spanish kids in the high school.”

John, who is Colombian, went along with it. “Oh, yeah, man, I hate those Spanish kids who think they’re gangsters and wear those long shirts that look like pajamas.”

“Yeah, we don’t like those kids who think they’re all hard-core, like from the city,” added Christian.

“But we’re not that type of Spanish kid,” Carlo broke in.

By this point, Opie was visibly drunk, erratic, unsteady. “What the fuck did you say?” He reeled toward Carlo, uncomprehending. “Did you say I was Spanish?”

Carlo backed away. “No, I didn’t say that. What I meant was—”

Suddenly, Opie had him by the throat, pushing him back against the wall. At first, Christian and John thought he was joking, but after Opie didn’t let go, didn’t laugh the whole thing off, they stiffened.

“Leave the kid alone, man,” said Christian.

Opie backed away from Carlo and then moved to the back of the shed. “All I heard was the chain saw being turned on, him revving that shit,” Christian says. “Next thing I know, he’s chasing Carlo around, saying, ‘You fucking wetback. You fucking spics. This is how I chase you across the fucking border.’ That’s when I was really scared, when he had the chain saw up to Carlo’s face. It was so close, I know he felt the air from the chain on his face. I’m thinking, Wow, Opie’s drunk, he could slip and fuck this kid up. With a chain saw, all it has to do is touch you and then it’s gonna tear you apart. Carlo had a look on his face like his life was already out of him.”

Christian and John watched, powerless to help their friend. “His friend Jon was egging him on,” says Christian. “But I knew that girl was totally against it. I could tell in her face. And his little brother had a blank stare the whole time, like he was scared. I knew Mike also knew it was wrong, but he just had a really cold look. Maybe he didn’t want to be called a pussy or something.”

Opie finally put the chain saw down, snatched up the bottle of vodka, and took a long swig. That’s when Christian first noticed the giant swastika carved on the table. Opie saw him staring.

“You know what I fucking hate?” he asked.

“What?” Christian breathed.

“I hate jewbags, I hate niggers, and I hate spics.”

Then he turned to the wall behind him, grabbed a long machete-like knife, and started moving toward Christian. “He had the machete up to my neck. It was pushing into my neck like this,” says Christian, holding two fingers to his throat. “He threatened me and called me a fucking spic. He was talking about how he wanted to kill every nigger in the high school. That’s what he said, every nigger in the high school. It didn’t seem like it was really happening—I couldn’t make out if it were true or not. I didn’t move. I didn’t do anything. I guess it must have been the liquor or something, but I felt anger instead of fear.”

Christian at Main Beach.Photo: Doug Kuntz

Eventually, Mike stepped up to Opie and grabbed him by the arm. “Just chill out, man.”

Opie allowed himself to be pulled away, but he wouldn’t calm down. “The only reason I let you spics on my property was to get you drunk and slice your throat and bury you in the backyard where no one would ever find you,” he raged.

“That’s fucked up, man,” John managed to respond.

“I don’t give a fuck,” Opie said. “Get out.”

He opened the door and walked outside, and everyone followed after him. Once on the lawn, Carlo broke into a run. “Physically he was okay,” Christian says, “but mentally he was pretty damaged. Even days later, he was really paranoid, really worried about it.”

Christian just stood there. “I was pissed off. And he kept going on about all this Hitler shit, about how Hitler was doing the right thing. He was just kind of fucked up in the head. I had this skateboard in my hand, and the whole time I was thinking about whether or not I should slam him in the face.”

When Christian and John didn’t leave, Opie sent his little brother back into the garage for the machete. The boy dutifully ran to get it, and again, Opie moved toward Christian.

“Get out of here,” he screamed. “You Mexicans get off my fucking property.” Shouts of “Heil Hitler” followed them as Christian and John ran down the dark street, shaken and incredulous.

“No one ever knew there was so much racism in this town until now,” Carlo says quietly.

In the fields around East Hampton High School, rows of corn flank pumpkin patches. A chicken farm selling fresh eggs edges up to the football field. It looks more like the rural Midwest than one of the most moneyed and storied resort towns in America—but it’s this image of idyllic life that has been drawing people to the Hamptons for well over a century.

The fields are smaller than they used to be, though. They’ve been bought up, plowed under, and paved to make tennis courts, dug up and displaced for decks and pools. It’s no longer possible to live off the land or, thanks to fishing regulations and the rising cost of living, the sea. The jobs now available to locals mostly involve tending to the nonlocals, building and cleaning their mansions, watering their lawns, watching their kids, preparing and serving their food, making paradise as carefree as possible.

Still, the Bonackers have stayed. The town was founded by seven families in the seventeenth century, and the original last names still crop up year after year on the backs of high-school jerseys and the rosters of town meetings. “Don’t tell me you’re from East Hampton unless you’ve walked down a dirt road and shook a few hands along the way,” says Opie’s father, a heavyset man with a round face weathered from his job on a landscaping crew. He’s lived in East Hampton all his life.

Opie’s mother grew up on a farm out west and came to East Hampton one summer to be a nanny, then met her husband and never went home. Once they had a family, she wanted to quit working and take care of their children, but the family’s finances made it impossible. “It’s not like we live extravagantly at all,” she says, “but we both have to work to make ends meet.” When her second son was born, she started cleaning houses because it gave her a more flexible schedule, though at one point she was paying over half of what she made for child care. Now that both boys are in school, she works in a real-estate office helping to sell homes she could never afford to Manhattan transplants.

When she first moved to East Hampton twenty years ago, it still had a small-town feel. Outside the summer season, you rarely saw a face you didn’t recognize. People greeted each other on the street. There was a sense of community, of continuity. But each summer more people came and, particularly after 9/11, a lot of them stayed, flushing the town with money, buying up property, demanding goods and services the locals scrambled to provide.

In fact, the locals alone couldn’t satisfy the demands of the prosperous influx. As the economy in East Hampton swelled, America began experiencing the largest immigrant wave in its history, and East Hampton, with its money and its insatiable appetite for labor, attracted its fair share, particularly from South and Central America. In East Hampton, the Latino population was 14.8 percent in the 2000 Census, up from 2.1 percent in 1980. Most people would call that figure outrageously low today, especially factoring in the number of undocumented immigrants. A better indication is perhaps the public-school population: 1 percent of students were Latino in 1990; today, the number is closer to 35 percent.

Day laborers wait for work near the 7-Eleven in Southampton.Photo: Mark Peterson for New York Magazine

And according to old-timers like Opie’s father, the parents of those new Latino students are making it hard for people like them to stay afloat. “They’ve taken away a lot of jobs from a lot of people,” he says. “There’s people here working fifteen years and they’re losing their jobs. That’s the way it is. You’re gonna get passed by and somebody else is gonna take your place. It’s a do-or-die situation.”

Opie’s father was able to keep his position as the head of a landscaping crew—the company needed crew leaders who could speak English—but most of the men under him lost their jobs to immigrants. “It started out with all just local guys,” Opie’s mother says of her husband’s team. “But the last six years, it’s been pretty much him and another guy and the rest are all Latinos. I remember in the beginning he would get frustrated because of the communication barrier. He was trying to explain to them how to do things, but then he would just get frustrated and do it himself.”

Even holding onto a job didn’t necessarily mean holding onto a middle-class standard of living. Wealthy summer residents were pushing costs up while immigrant labor was driving wages down. Already second-class citizens in the town they had always called home, many Bonackers feared they could no longer afford to stay.

Opie’s family started thinking about leaving a few years ago. It had always been their goal to buy a home, but property costs had become untouchable. Even families who had owned their homes for generations could no longer pay the rising taxes on them. “It’s amazing how quickly things can change,” Opie’s mother says, shaking her head. “It seems like every summer it gets worse. Just the attitude. There used to be a few stores that you could actually shop at, but now the high-end stores just come and go. It’s a really hard lifestyle to grow up in for kids belonging to a working-class family.”

About the same time that his family was talking about relocating, Opie started to notice the Latino men lined up outside the East Hampton train station, waiting for a car to pull up and offer work. From the front lawn of the middle school, he could squint his eyes and see them there. At first it was just a handful, then a dozen, then too many to count. Locals began showing up with cameras to capture the license plates of cars that picked up day laborers and the crowd scattered, but everyone knew they just went other places—to the bus stop in town or to the 7-Eleven in Southampton, where men in camouflage and Border Patrol T-shirts eventually picketed with signs reading INS, DO YOUR JOB!!!! and NO AMNESTY.

Opie seemed hardwired to understand the pressures of the working class. According to a favorite family story, when he was 3 years old he was so affected by the plight of a harried diner waitress that when she came to his table, he put his arms around her and said, “She’s working so hard.” Politics fascinated him, and he formed opinions quickly and concretely, talking over anyone who disagreed—the sort of overly self-assured kid who in another life might have been a debate champ or student-council president.

Opie soaked up the conversations around the dinner table, heard how Latinos were driving without licenses, not paying taxes, taking away jobs, and overcrowding schools and hospitals. Like many Bonackers, Opie began to see immigrants as East Hampton’s main problem, and he didn’t understand why laws that could safeguard his family’s way of life weren’t being enforced.

“The government could stop it if it wanted to,” Opie says of the illegal immigration, his voice as smooth and fast as a politician’s or a preacher’s. “The government doesn’t want to, though. You know why? Because this country is run by big business; it always has been run by big business. And big business runs off these people coming here doing these jobs for $5 an hour. That’s making the big businessmen money, which is running the country. They don’t care about the middleman; they don’t want the middleman anymore. Regardless of what color you are. If you’re an African-American middleman, if you’re a Hispanic middleman, they don’t want you anymore. They just want poor and rich. That’s how they want it in every society, not just in East Hampton. They want that everywhere. Because the middleman is the only one who will stand up and say, ‘You know, this is not right. I think it should be done differently.’ The poor people are too busy working to say anything, and the rich people already have everything.”

In high school, Opie fell in with the Bubs. “I feel like he was really kind of lost his freshman year,” his mother explains. Though he was smart and his teachers were fond of him, a learning disability in reading meant his academic performance was never impressive. “He didn’t belong to any sports and he didn’t belong to any groups. His interests, fishing and hunting, not a lot of people around here really do. So I think he kind of clung to whoever.”

Opie and his friends called themselves the True Blue Americans, after the anti-immigrant gang in the movie Gangs of New York. His mother didn’t think the name had racial connotations, but she worried that he had fallen in with a wayward crowd and was starting to get concerned about the way he talked about Latinos. One night he came home from the movies furious that a couple of Latino guys had been looking at his girlfriend. “I just wanted to punch them,” he told his mother.

“Just ignore it,” she responded mildly.

“Well, that’s not right,” he said of their behavior, “and that’s the way they are.”

“Not everyone’s like that,” she said with a sigh.

Over dinner, he would bring up problems in school and complain about Latino students. His father, who mostly got along with the Latinos in his landscaping crew, told his son not to generalize.

“But you don’t understand, Dad,” Opie would reply. “I have to go to school with them.”

“Whoever says there’s not a lot of racismhere is just lying. Youdon’t know what hidesbehind thesmiles.”

Both his parents knew that there was racial tension at the high school. They had heard from other parents about the segregated lunchroom, about the fights and scuffles between races in the halls. “Just from hearing him and his friends, I guess a lot of the Latino kids have an attitude like, ‘This is my place now,’ so I guess they feel threatened,” his mother says. “He had been going to counseling for almost a year because I knew he was having racial problems with the Hispanics. That was one of my concerns, and the counselor was very aware of that. It was something they were working on.” She pauses. “Obviously not enough.”

No one can say exactly when Opie’s group first began aligning their ideas with Nazi ideology. They had always worn camouflage and combat boots. They had always seemed a little odd. What they hadn’t always been was militant. During the last school year, the TBA tag, short for True Blue Americans, started showing up around East Hampton. Benches and furniture with swastikas carved into them had to be sanded or removed from the school. “They wrote it all over the town, would scrape it into the desks,” says a sophomore girl. They made openly racist comments to other students at school. One day last winter, they came to school with shaved heads. “It was weird,” she says. “Like at first I thought the kid in my class just got a haircut, but then I see all of them showing up with their heads shaved.” They began trying to recruit other kids. “My friend was being asked to join them, because he had a shaved head,” another student says. “They were like, ‘We could use someone like you.’ ”

Though Opie admitted to police that he was a neo-Nazi skinhead, he was not affiliated with any formal neo-Nazi group. It may be that the association was just for shock value. It may have been a way of finally feeling elite in the most elite of places. Or it might have been a reflection, childish and extreme, of the prevailing attitudes of the adults in his life. Perhaps it’s difficult for a teenager to see the fine line between Nazi youth and camouflaged men with NO AMNESTY signs at the local 7-Eleven.

On the Monday after the chain-saw incident—which happened to be the national Day Without Immigrants, when Latinos around the country rallied to the illegal-immigrant cause—the atmosphere at East Hampton High School was charged. The story had spread over the weekend, and every group Opie had insulted was fuming. One Jewish senior found a Nazi-inspired Web page that Opie had created and posted pictures of “them with, like, steel-toe boots, bats, like, hailing Hitler” all over school. “My black friends were like, ‘We’re gonna go fuck that nigger up,’ ” says Christian. “I’m sure he was shitting in his pants. Officer Rodriguez, the school cop, escorted him out of school, like, protected and shit.”

On Thursday, the principal, Scott Farina, held a conference with Opie and his parents, asking that he be homeschooled the remainder of the year to prevent further disruption. So Opie was at his house on Friday, lying on the sofa with headphones on, when the police came to arrest him. His mother opened the door to a search warrant and a swarm of officers. “I didn’t really know why they were there. I was just in shock,” she says. Opie met the police calmly, and without being asked, he put his hands behind his back to be handcuffed.

“Now what do I do?” his mother frantically asked an officer as they led Opie away.

“You get a good lawyer,” he told her, “because this is going to get messy.”

Things did get messy, but not in the way anyone expected. At a party that weekend, a student started a rumor that on Monday during sixth period, as an act of retaliation for Opie’s arrest, there was going to be a Columbine-like attack on the school. (Opie says he only learned of the threat when he read about it in the newspaper.) Rumors of a “hit list” of Jewish, black, and Latino students spread so rapidly that on Monday, about a third of the student body stayed home. Only one entrance to the building, monitored by police, was open, and once the bell rang, classroom doors were locked. More than 700 people came to a meeting in the high school’s auditorium that afternoon.

It had been an empty threat: Searches of all the lockers at the school revealed no guns or weapons; no hit list was ever discovered. But that didn’t matter. Because of what had happened in Opie’s shed, everything was now indicative of a larger problem: the segregated lunchroom, the fights in the halls, students calling their classmates “dirty Jews” and throwing coins at them, Latino kids wearing the colors of where they come from like gangs.

The principal tried to allay the fears. “We have tensions in the community and they spill over into the school,” Farina tells me. “It’s only natural. When I was in school all the jocks ate together and the artsy people ate together. You eat with and you socialize with people when you have common interests and common backgrounds.” But the night of April 29 had been a fissure in the community’s framework, and indignation frothed over from all sides. In a small town that takes pride in its youth and had for years deluded itself into thinking racial tension was not a problem, the realization that a child could practice such hate could not have been more unsettling.

Opie’s version of what happened that night in the garage is much milder, leaving out much of the racial slurring and physical proximity, but it includes the basic elements: a chain saw, a knife, drunken anger. And so on Monday, May 8, as his school reacted to the Columbine-like threat, Opie pleaded guilty to two counts of menacing. He was sentenced to incarceration in a nonsecure detention facility where he could receive psychiatric counseling. He will stay there for six months to a year, until the counselors testify to a judge that he is ready to leave.

“The police said, ‘Let’s nip this in the bud. Let’s make an example,’ ” says Opie’s father. “They had to do what they had to do.” But even Christian thinks it’s a harsh punishment. “I feel like it’s unfair because, first of all, he was drunk. He probably wouldn’t have done it if he was sober.” And having served jail time himself for theft, he doesn’t recommend it. “You committed a mistake, and you’re young and you’re not gonna do it again. The judge puts you there thinking you’re bad, but really you come out worse.”

Besides, making an example out of Opie hasn’t changed much at East Hampton High. “The principal got a mural painted in the cafeteria with a bunch of words like love, peace, all that crap,” Christian says. “Everyone knew it was bullshit. Once you grow up thinking a certain way, you’re gonna stick to it and you’re gonna spread it to your family. You can’t change it. Whoever says there’s not a lot of racism in this community is just lying. You don’t know what hides behind the smiles out here.”

It’s getting close to nine now, when Opie has to be back at the detention facility. His family starts to slowly gather the remains of their dinner, a pizza box, paper plates, empty Coke bottles. Opie’s mother always brings him food when she comes to visit, but tonight he didn’t eat anything. Since he’s been incarcerated, he says, he hasn’t had much of an appetite.

The aftermath has been difficult for the whole family. Shortly after Opie’s arrest, his father lost the landscaping job he’d had for twenty years; his boss worried that the Latino men would no longer want to work under him. Their house has been vandalized. His mother’s voice catches when she talks about it. “I’ve had nightmares that he was hurt,” she told me. “I’ve had nightmares that people came in the house, broke in. I’ve had many nightmares, many dreams just to get away from here.”

Once Opie is released from prison, the family will leave East Hampton. They have finally bought a home out west on twelve acres of land. Although their decision to leave so soon is motivated by what happened this spring, they believe they are part of a larger migration. “It seems like every other person you talk to is moving; everyone is getting out of here,” Opie’s mother says about the decision. “I think it’s just going to be rich people and Latinos in the end.”

“It’s the children who suffer the most,” says Opie’s father, peering at his two sons across the picnic table. “The kids that have been born and raised on Long Island. They’re the ones who are going to lose out on opportunities, because those opportunities are being taken away by other people.”

As for Opie, he knows how inappropriate his actions were, but he can’t help but feel like he’s being punished for the anger of an entire community. “It’s not a new thing,” he says. “It’s not like it’s just me.”

The East Hampton Chain-Saw Incident