Killer's return shreds peace in tiny Amish community

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CAMBRIDGE SPRINGS, Pa. -- Nestled at a dirt crossroads in Crawford County, the Gingerich farm is a picture of peaceful Amish life, with a red barn, muscular workhorses and a birdhouse perched high atop a pole.

But in the farmhouse of Daniel and Mary Gingerich lives a family torn by grief and fear. In 1993 their son Edward, a paranoid schizophrenic, kicked his 29-year-old wife Katie to death. His children Enos, 4, and Mary, 3, watched, while 5-year-old Danny ran for help. Ed Gingerich gutted his wife's body like a deer carcass, removing her internal organs with a kitchen knife.

In 1994 he was convicted of involuntary homicide but mentally ill and sentenced to 2 1/2 to five years in a prison psychiatric ward.

In 1998, with his condition brought under control by medication and his term served, he was released from state prison. His terrified Brownhill Amish community asked that he be locked up forever. Other Amish, saying he should be forgiven for a crime that he committed while insane and that he deeply regretted, helped move him to an Amish mental health facility in Michigan.

To outsiders, all seemed quiet until April 18, when his daughter Mary, now 17 and living with her grandparents, was reported hijacked from a buggy. Five days later she was found safe with her father and other members of her family in McKean County.

Mary is back at her grandparents farm. Her father, 42, is jailed on charges of conspiracy, concealing the whereabouts and interfering with the custody of a minor. If convicted, he could be sent back to jail for up to 22 years, according to the Crawford County district attorney.

Two of his eight brothers, Atlee, 44, and Joe, 43, are charged with conspiracy for not revealing Mary's whereabouts. They are out on bail.

Varied explanations
Interpretations of his actions vary wildly. Some say he had a psychotic relapse. A close friend says his action was a misguided act of desperation by a repentant man who had been forbidden by his fellow Amish even to try to reconcile with his family.

And an advocate for the Brownhill Amish, whose Old Order Amish community of some 30 families is located in northern Crawford County, sees it as the culmination of efforts by outcast Gingeriches to harass the settlement and drive people from their church. By default, the person who has tried to explain their feelings to the outside world has become Edinboro University criminologist Jim Fisher, who wrote "Crimson Stain" about the homicide. He has little sympathy for Ed Gingerich.

Even if no harm to Mary was intended, he said, "they certainly weren't concerned about the rest of the community who had a young woman who was missing in the company of a man who had murdered her mother."

John Otto, a New Order Amishman, believes no one had anything to fear.

"I love Ed immensely. I've prayed with the man. I've cried with the man," said Mr. Otto, who looked after him at a Michigan rehabilitation center and later moved to Crawford County.

He thinks his friend believed he had legal custody and wanted a chance to show Mary that he loved her. Authorities say it's unclear who her legal guardian was at the time she was taken from the buggy. Up to then, it had been arranged through the church. Only after her disappearance this month did her grandparents obtain a court order giving them custody.

It is hard to imagine a community more defenseless than the Brownhill Amish. Their houses have no curtains. There are no phones to call for help. Those who own hunting rifles cannot raise them against a human, even in self-defense.

Even by the standards of other Amish, their lifestyle is primitive. They have no indoor plumbing, their houses are lit by kerosene lanterns.

All agree that Ed Gingerich was insane when he killed Katie. His community had struggled for years to help him. Twice they hired drivers to take him to psychiatric centers in Erie and Jamestown, N.Y. Once they had to hog-tie him for the ride as he thrashed and raved. When hospital workers untied him, he trashed the emergency room.

Medication worked, but made him lethargic -- a shameful trait among the hard-working Amish. Some encouraged him to switch to herbal remedies. The night before he killed Katie, his family hired a car to drive him 90 miles to an "eye-reader," for herbs.

After Katie's death, his community shunned him. But New Order Amish befriended him.

Although many New Order Amish have electricity and phones, they believe their hallmark is spiritual. They preach a personal experience of rebirth, and worry that some of their Old Order brethren trust more in their simple lifestyle than in a relationship with Jesus.

New Order Amishmen visited him in prison, where medication had restored his mind. They believed he was repentant and that since God forgave him, they should too. It was the New Order Amish who arranged for him to go to Harmony Haven, an Amish-run mental health facility in Evart, Mich., after his release from prison.

Early on, according to Mr. Otto, who was a lay counselor at Harmony Haven, Mr. Gingerich was overcome with grieving for his wife. "When he got through that, his next project was that he wanted in the worst way to be with his family, with his children. And his community wouldn't let him."

The church let him visit his children once a year for one hour. Mary lived with her grandparents, who enforced the limit. Danny and Enos lived with Ed Gingerich's brother Joe, who eventually relaxed it, Mr. Otto said.

Mr. Otto said he tried to talk to the community about reconciliation, but it was clear they were scared of him.

He maintains that Ed Gingerich always took his medicine, but relapsed under stress, when he needed higher doses. Mr. Fisher believes he sometimes stops his medication. The two agree, however, that he was asked to leave Harmony Haven.

He then went to Oaklawn, a Mennonite psychiatric center in Goshen, Ind., and its Fairhaven subsidiary for Amish who need constant supervision.

Dr. Steven Nolt, of Goshen College and a leading historian of the Amish, visited him a few times over the past two years. He said Mr. Gingerich seemed normal and was so happy at Fairhaven that he wanted to encourage other Amish to start similar centers.

"He was someone who had found a new purpose in life of promoting mental health concerns among his people," he said.

He longed for his children, but was caught in a bind.

Too frightened to forgive
Normally, excommunicated Amish can be restored to church membership if they show intent to live as good Amish. That requires "coming back to a place and living there for a period of time. Then you can make a confession to the church on a Sunday and be restored," Dr. Nolt said.

But his community was too scared to allow Ed Gingerich back. Amish discipline wasn't designed for a psychotic killer.

"It more supposes someone who buys a car," Dr. Nolt said.

"He felt frustrated because he was in a position where he couldn't really make things right. I'm not saying that he should have, or that the church was wrong. I'm sympathetic to the church's fear. But that is the position he was in."

While Ed Gingerich was in Goshen, his brothers Joe and Atlee -- along with their families -- were excommunicated by the Brownhill bishop. What sparked the action is unclear, but a renewed relationship with Ed was at issue.

"Anybody from the Brownhill Amish who accepts Ed will be shunned," Mr. Otto said.

Ed Gingerich had been writing to his brothers about his own experience of spiritual renewal, Mr. Otto said. They came to share his more evangelical faith.

Although their supporters believe Joe and Atlee were shunned for forgiving him, that is probably not how the Brownhill group sees it, Dr. Nolt said.

"I really doubt that the church would say you're excommunicated for forgiving him," he said. They would likely say that "you're excommunicated for not submitting to the decision of the church."

The Brownhill Amish believed Joe and Atlee were trying to turn people against the church, Mr. Fisher said.

"They were harassing people in the community, trying to get them to move out," he said, adding that a few families had fled.

"These people consider themselves terrorized."

On July 2, some younger members of the extended Gingerich clan -- all of them shunned -- went to a youth prayer meeting and were arrested for defiant trespass. State Trooper Christopher Leskovac said everyone was calm and quiet when he arrived.

He arrested Ed Gingerich's son Danny, then 18; Joe's son Albert and Atlee's son David, both 20; and a 17-year-old. A magistrate issued a restraining order, but said he would dismiss the case if there were no more problems.

"There were some problems ... so it's still pending," the trooper said.

Mr. Otto said the boys only wanted to pray with friends. "They weren't being aggressive. They weren't evangelizing. They just wanted to be there," he said.

Joe and Atlee and their families have joined no church. They declined to have a New Order Bible study leader meet with them because they did not want to antagonize the Brownhill group, Mr. Otto said.

Mr. Fisher said he believes that Ed Gingerich hated being Amish. But Mr. Otto said Mr. Gingerich wanted to reconcile with the Brownhill community, and that he and his brothers rejected the New Order's modern ways. "Ed likes me. He doesn't like my electricity," he said.

In February, Ed Gingerich returned to Crawford County, renting a house among the Brownhill community's homes. His sons moved in. He saw an attorney to seek visits with Mary, but never filed anything in court, Mr. Otto said.

He came back set up for psychiatric care, Mr. Otto said. Every two weeks he saw a psychiatrist. A caseworker from Crawford County Mental Health monitored him and set up a support group. A visiting nurse saw him frequently, Mr. Otto said.

On the evening of April 18 Mary Gingerich was riding in a buggy with her aunt Clara Gingerich, Ed's sister, near her uncle Atlee's house.

She told police that Mary's brother Danny jumped the buggy and Enos led it into Atlee's barn. She said that Ed, Atlee and Joe coerced Mary to leave with Ed in a waiting car.

Her grandparents then obtained the court order for her return.

Mr. Otto said Atlee told him a different story. By this account, Danny flagged the buggy down to ask if she wanted to "go on vacation" with her father and brothers. In this version, Mary went voluntarily.

Crawford County District Attorney Francis Schultz disagrees with that version. "We wouldn't have filed charges against Mr. Gingerich if we had believed his daughter wanted to go with him," he said.

Mr. Otto doesn't believe his friend grasped the legal ramifications. "Ed, in his heart, was not intending to break the law," he said.

"Ed was sure that he had custody. even though he didn't go to the courthouse to make sure. In his mind he still had custody because he never surrendered it."

Mr. Otto suspects he wanted to show his daughter that she would be safe with him when she turned 18 and could make her own choice.

Even if Atlee's account was sincere, Mr. Fisher said, it doesn't take into account the community's memory. "Ed was shunned because he killed his wife," he said.

"It's amazing what sacrifices people made on his behalf. He's a very charismatic man and he's been able to befriend a lot of people in the English [non-Amish] community who see him as a victim. ... It's because he's Amish and our romantic view of the Amish," he said.

"He's gotten every break that the criminal justice system had to offer."

No matter what happens in court, Mr. Otto believes he destroyed his case for reconciliation. "Whatever confidence he may have built up is gone now," he said.

Matt Freed, Post-Gazette
The farmhouse owned by Daniel and Mary Gingerich, parents of convicted killer Ed Gingerich, in Crawford County.
Click photo for larger image.Tom Boyle, The Titusville Herald
Edward Gingerich, at right, is seen Sunday, April 22, 2007, in Titusville, Pa.
Click photo for larger image.

Ann Rodgers can be reached at arodgers@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.


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