Competing views

May 6, 2011

Nazi tattoo on his chest, spray-paint can in hand, Ian Baron approached a Montgomery County synagogue shortly before midnight.

The 22-year-old seemed an unlikely neo-Nazi. Born in Honduras, he was adopted and raised by Conservative Jewish parents who lived four blocks away — at a home in Olney where he still showed up for occasional Friday Shabbat dinners.

“Death2Zionists,” he wrote.

“Arbeit Macht Frei,” Baron added, the German phrase that hung above the entrance to Auschwitz and translates to “Work will make you free.”

He painted swastikas and more anti-Semitic graffiti that night in July and was locked up the next week. A jury quickly convicted him in February of hate-crime vandalism.

The case concluded Friday, when Montgomery County Circuit Judge Thomas Craven decided what punishment to impose. Before doing so, he heard two markedly different versions of who Baron is.

Prosecutors say he’s unrepentant, is still given to racist views and has the potential to be extremely dangerous. Family members and two rabbis who know him well say he is saddled with deep identity issues and drug and alcohol abuse.

“He has anger problems. He has incredible violent tendencies,” said prosecutor Sherri Koch, who described a series of bizarre letters Baron wrote to his girlfriend from jail.

Baron wrote about bleaching his skin and starting his own neo-Nazi group. He talked up plans to buy an AK-47 — “Me Want!” he wrote next to a photo of one. And he wrote that he would remember the faces of the jurors, “just in case I need to take action.”

“We cannot ignore what he is saying about himself in these letters,” Koch said.

Those who know Baron said the threats were written under the frustration of being jailed and called them bravado more than reality. And they note that he also talks about his Jewish faith in the letters, his plans to move to Israel and raise a family.

“There’s nothing wrong with knowing about World War II and Germany, but I need to cut the Nazi [stuff] out,” Baron wrote. “I’m Jewish for God’s sake.”

Rabbi Reuben Landman, who has known Baron for 11 years, took the witness stand.

“I don’t see a neo-Nazi there,” he said, looking at Baron. “I see a very sick kid.”

Steven and Marla Baron first saw Ian when he was 3 weeks old. The adoption wasn’t final. They had to fly home without him. Marla returned early.

“I couldn’t wait. I had to be around him,” she remembered.

Baron grew up in a traditional Jewish home with two siblings. He joined the Cub Scouts, played Little League. At 13, more than 400 people went to Har Tzeon-Agudath Achim synagogue in Silver Spring for his bar mitzvah.

School proved difficult, and Baron was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. Other students couldn’t figure him out, and some let him know — using Jewish slurs that made him feel as if he wasn’t Hispanic, and Hispanic slurs that made him feel as if he wasn’t Jewish.

Baron became “increasingly defiant,” tried to run away and by his senior year in high school, was drinking heavily, according to court records and his parents. He would go on to abuse marijuana, cocaine and pain pills.

In 2007, a girlfriend accused him of choking and punching her, according to court records. He was given probation. Later, he pleaded guilty to punching a car windshield.

Things looked better, briefly, in 2008 when Baron joined people his age for a Taglit-Birthright trip to Israel. It was there that he saw darker-skinned Jews from Latin America, Greece and Africa. “He felt for the first time that he didn’t have a wall” in front of him, said Rabbi Dan Sikowitz, who knows him well.

But by fall 2009, Baron was a regular at Olney Beer and Fine Wine, usually buying beer. One day, an owner of the shop noticed Baron at the Kosher wine selection. He walked over to help.

“It’s the holidays. My parents are Jewish,” Scott Yates remembers Baron telling him. “I’m adopted, but I think I’ve got a lot of German descent in me.”

No one really knows where that belief came from. Looking back, his parents say, he always held an interest in the Holocaust and World War II, and somehow things got turned on their ear.

Baron drifted into homelessness. He sometimes stayed in an abandoned shack in Olney. Inside, next to beer cans, he scrawled swastikas, Nazi slogans and more: “Send the Spics Packen,” he wrote.

On July 25, about 9 p.m., Baron arrived at his parents’ house. It was a moment Steven Baron recounted Friday in court, his voice choking up at times.

They sat at the kitchen table.

“Dad, when was the last time you were proud of me?” Ian Baron asked his father.

Steven Baron said he hesitated, trying to come up with the right words. But his answer, and the long pause before he delivered it, cut his son to the core: “I’m always proud of you. I’m just not proud of what you do.”

Ian Baron left and headed to B’nai Shalom of Olney synagogue.

What he did, synagogue President Debbie Kovalsky told the judge, was horrifying: “Image after image of German text, references to Holocaust death camps, Nazi symbols.”

In a videotaped confession, Ian Baron explained his motivation. “I was [angry] at my dad, that’s probably why I did it,” he said.

On Friday, Ian Baron, wearing khaki pants, a shirt and tie, stood in court. He apologized to the members of B’nai Shalom. He spoke of his impulsive, criminal past.

“I do need help,” he told Craven. “I am running out of chances.”

“It’s not the court’s role to determine whether you are a good Jew or a bad Jew or no Jew at all. Or to determine whether you’re anti-Semitic or a Nazi,” the judge told him.

The primary goal, Craven said, was to make sure Baron didn’t commit crimes when he returned to society.

Craven fashioned a partially suspended sentence, and the gist of it comes down to this: By this fall, Baron will be released from the county jail. He has about five years of “suspended time” hanging over his head, meaning if fouls up he could face prison. And over time, he must pay B’nai Shalom about $24,000 for repair costs.

The judge imposed probation and another requirement, which was proposed by Baron’s attorney: Complete the addiction treatment program, which averages about nine months, at Jewish Recovery Houses, outside Baltimore. Clients must be Jewish.

Post staff writer Dan Morse covers courts and crime in Montgomery County, Md.
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