Pro skateboarder Neil Heddings carved out a reputation based almost as much on the pentagram tattoo on his chest and his rebellious lifestyle as his mastery of backyard pools and plywood half-pipes.
He named his youngest son Budweiser, sported a shaved head and traveled the globe performing for young crowds and earning thousands of dollars a year from skateboard companies to help hawk their newest boards and gear.
That image served him well in West Coast skating circles. Heddings says it worked against him the morning of Nov. 23, 2002, when a San Jacinto police officer walked into a bedroom and found the skater with the lifeless body of his 2-year-old son, Marcus, cradled in his arms.
Three months later, Heddings, 30, and his 25-year-old girlfriend, Christine "Pinky" Rams, were charged with beating the boy to death. They are scheduled to stand trial on first-degree murder charges Feb. 1 in Riverside County.
Heddings blames the boy's death on an undiagnosed medical condition or neglect by Marcus' mother in San Diego. An autopsy determined that Marcus sustained nearly a dozen sharp blows to the head, probably with a fist. The injuries were at most 2 days old, and Heddings and Rams were the only adults with Marcus during that time, prosecutors allege.
Yet Heddings' claims of innocence have drawn support not only from many fellow skateboarders but also from usually cautious corporate America. The Vans skateboard shoe company contributed $1,000 to Heddings' defense fund, and a former subsidiary of Nike held a fundraiser for him at a Portland, Ore., skate park.
"In no way are we trying to pass judgment on this case or get in the police's way, but the skateboarding community is in his corner," said Chris Strain, vice president of marketing for Vans. "The guy needs help."
For most corporations, supporting an accused child murderer would be unthinkable. But skateboard companies are different. They know that the subculture they market to revels in its fringe, anarchist reputation, said David Carter, a sports business author and instructor at USC's Marshall School of Business.
"Vans and the others understand the role [Heddings] plays in their critical target market," Carter said.
Many of Heddings' supporters call the prosecution a sham, saying police prejudice against skateboarders runs deep."Neil is one of us," said Jake Phelps, a friend of Heddings and editor in chief of Thrasher, a skateboarding magazine. "He's the type who'd kick in your fence to go skate in your empty pool. He chose that path, this beer-swilling, wild life. But you live by that blade and you die by that blade. The pig sees you do something, and he'll fry you. It's religious zealotry, man. It's us versus them."
Heddings said he found Marcus dead on a Saturday morning on the boy's homemade bed, a few unpainted two-by-fours cobbled together around a mattress. At least 10 minutes went by before Heddings called 911, prosecutors allege.
San Jacinto police arrived at the sparsely furnished home to find bruises on the boy's head and body, and started to investigate the death as a homicide.
When questioned, Heddings dropped hints that Marcus' mother might be responsible. He told police that his son had visited his mother in San Diego four days earlier and had come back lethargic and throwing up.
Rams offered another explanation. She told the officers that Marcus slipped and struck his head while she was giving him a bath the day before his death.
As a precaution, county child protective services was called in to take custody of the two other children in the home: Heddings and Rams' son, Budweiser, and Rams' other child by a different father.
"Look, I'm a pro skater. People still draw conclusions when they look at you, and I really believe I was preconceived from the start by police," Heddings said in a telephone interview from jail. "When they first came into my house, they didn't look at the toys we had for the kids. They looked at me, and they looked at [Rams] and they said, 'Take their kids.' Guilty."
Rams' former husband, Ronald Rams, told detectives that on the night before Marcus was found dead, Christine had phoned him in tears saying the kids were "driving her crazy." He told police that Christine referred to Marcus as an "ugly" child and a "little piece of ... ," according to court testimony.
Heddings and Rams were arrested together March 3, 2003, and secretly tape-recorded while in the backseat of a patrol car -- a key piece of evidence already used against them in a preliminary hearing.
"Don't turn on me," Rams told Heddings.
"You don't turn on me, I won't turn on you," he said.
Both were charged with murder, even though the prosecutor handling the case said he didn't know which one allegedly delivered the fatal blows.
"They both had a duty to protect that child," Riverside County Deputy Dist. Atty. Kelly Hansen said. "One person either inflicted the damage or failed miserably to protect Marcus."