SALT LAKE CITY — 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.