Just before 3 p.m., 16-year-old Erin Dunphy got off the bus in her East Greenville neighborhood and fell into her after-school routine: Check the mail, walk inside, get ready for swim practice.
On Tuesday, Oct. 10, however, Dunphy and perhaps hundreds of other residents in Montgomery County’s northwest corner found something sinister amid the bills and ads in their mailboxes.
She noticed a piece of mail with “Proud American” scrawled above her address. Her family has an American flag hanging outside, she said, so Dunphy, home alone and curious, ripped open the envelope.
“As soon as I opened the envelope, my jaw hit the ground,” said Terri Kiral-Kuenzer, 56, of Pennsburg, who also received a flier. “Who could have done this?”
Inside the hand-addressed envelopes were fliers that contained racist, white supremacist, and anti-Semitic messages, drawings, and quotes from Adolf Hitler.
Dunphy, a junior at Upper Perkiomen High School, took a photo and posted it on Snapchat: Had anyone else received one of these?
Quickly, friends reached out. Her family, Dunphy soon learned, was far from alone.
Authorities do not know exactly how many households received the fliers because not everyone reported them. But the incident was widespread, involving neighborhoods in at least three boroughs — Red Hill, Pennsburg, and East Greenville.
Some residents said they contacted police but were told there wasn’t much, if anything, that law enforcement could do: The images and words constituted free speech.
“I know a lot of people said, ‘Really? This isn’t a crime?’ ” said Hope Manion, 43, of Hereford, whose mother-in-law received a flier. “At what point does it go from some people with an evil ideology … to people really threatened in their homes?”
“The content of the fliers is abhorrent, but the content is protected by the First Amendment,” said a spokeswoman for the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office. “Some of the details surrounding the fliers could be subject to criminal charges,” she said, such as harassment or trespassing. The investigation was continuing heading into the weekend.
Some mailings were generically addressed to “Head of Household.” Others were personalized.
In Red Hill, LaBrea Huff’s family received one addressed to “Hatephobe,” likely because they have a “Hate has no home here” sign on their lawn, she said.
Huff’s neighbor, who maintains a beautiful garden, received a flier addressed to “Flower Power.”
Like Dunphy, Michelle Martin-Rahn, 29, of East Greenville, was referred to as “Proud American” because she, too, hangs an American flag.
“Are these my neighbors?” Martin-Rahn recalled asking herself. “Are these the people in my community?”
They might be, said Nancy Baron-Baer, the Anti-Defamation League’s regional director for Eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, and Delaware.
Although fliers sent in personalized envelopes are not commonly reported, she said, that likely means the person responsible was local. Even though the insignia and websites of white supremacist groups were printed on the October fliers, that does not necessarily mean the mailings were sponsored by such groups, Baron-Baer said.
“Often, fliering is done by an individual,” Baron-Baer said. “We’re not talking about large groups of white supremacists targeting a specific area.”
But some residents do believe that their community is being targeted.
Fliers with similar messages were reported in the area over the summer, but those weren’t personalized, residents said. Yet the fliers have consistently contained insignia of recognized hate groups, as well as the web address of a white nationalist site.
“When you drive through our community, it’s obvious with the use of yard signs that there is political unrest. There is controversy regarding our local police, youth athletics, and the building of a school,” Huff said. “There is also an increase in the courage of white supremacists, and that empowerment has them following a well-established method of gaining influence. They move into small towns with changing demographics and political divide.”
“I would think this is a perfect place for them to hide,” Kiral-Kuenzer said. “Just the quietness of the area, the size of the community.”
Pennsburg, East Greenville, and Red Hill have a combined population of about 9,000 people, according to census data, and about 93 percent of that population is white.
“There’s not a lot of diversity,” said Steve Grourke, 44, of Red Hill. “I have to think whoever distributed this propaganda is wanting to keep those demographics the way they are.”
Grourke and his wife Erin, who have four children between the ages of 4 and 11, buried the flier under a pile of bills.
But their older children quickly heard about the mailing. “What one did you get?” kids asked each other as they played in their cul-de-sac, he said.
So Grourke started a continuing conversation with them about racism and attempted intimidation.
In Pennsburg, Donna Sattler didn’t receive a flier, but she and her husband also used the opportunity to talk with their 13-year-old daughter.
“We had a very honest discussion about what a Nazi is and what the ideology represents,” Sattler said, “and that the USA fought in a war so this exact type of thinking should not be tolerated in 2017.”
Joan Smith, 83, an Upper Perkiomen School Board member from Marlborough Township, said she saw Martin Luther King Jr. speak in Raleigh the 1950s when she was a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. For Smith, who witnessed the civil rights movement firsthand, the messages hit particularly close to home.
“I have seven grandchildren. One of them is African American. Two of them are Chinese American. When I tape their pictures up on the refrigerator, there is no difference,” Smith said. “I’m shocked that what was once a wonderful place to raise children is now trying to deal with people” who espouse racism.
Smith and other residents said they would like to see more people run for political office, more people vote in local elections, and more elected officials publicly denounce hate.
In response to the latest mailing, Kiral-Kuenzer and six other community members organized a silent vigil Oct. 15 on Main Street in Pennsburg to denounce racism and intolerance. Hundreds showed up.
Among them were Hope Manion and her husband, Thomas, who had stood on the same corner 26 years earlier, Hope Manion said, to counter-protest a Ku Klux Klan rally.
Dunphy, the Upper Perkiomen junior, took a stand, too. As she did laps at swim practice that evening of Oct. 10, her mind raced.
“I wanted to show people, anyone who came here, that this isn’t us,” Dunphy said. “This doesn’t represent us.”
So she started a GoFundMe page to raise money for a bulk order of “Hate has no home here” lawn signs. As of Friday, she had raised more than $800, enough to purchase 150 signs.
Some families had already reached out to Dunphy, requesting signs.
She planned to distribute the rest at a central location in town, she said. “I hope we run out.”