For more than five years, Jefferson County Sheriff Fred Abdalla has been dealing with breakaway Amish bishop Sam Mullet and his cult-like control over his community of Bergholz, outside Steubenville, Ohio.
He fielded the complaints of forced sex, of beatings, of men locked up in chicken coops for infractions of religious rules. He was the one who faced down Sam Mullet in a 2007 custody dispute that required a SWAT unit and generated a protracted federal civil rights battle.
But it's all over now.
On Thursday, a federal jury in Cleveland convicted Mr. Mullet, 66, of hate crimes and related offenses in ordering 15 of his followers to forcibly shear the beards and hair of perceived enemies in other Amish communities.
All 15 followers, including several of Mr. Mullet's sons, were also convicted for their roles in violent attacks that shook the normally placid Amish world in 2011.
"I feel great, because I'm happy for the Amish people," said Sheriff Abdalla, who had been scheduled to testify but was not needed. "I've said all along that those folks out there were under his total control. They were victims of Sam Mullet. The government and this jury freed these individuals out there of their bondage."
The jury deliberated more than four days, not surprising considering that federal prosecutors chose to try all 16 defendants at once.
Sheriff Abdalla said Mr. Mullet maintained complete control over his followers to the end, and it cost them their freedom. They were offered plea deals by federal prosecutors that in some cases would have let them go free.
"They refused to do that," the sheriff said. "All because of him, of course. And now 15 people are going to jail."
Sam Mullet is facing at least 10 years in prison. Sentencing is set for Jan. 24.
The case was the first in Ohio brought under the expanded 2009 federal hate crimes statute. Prosecutors had to persuade jurors that the attacks were more than mere assaults and rose to the level of religiously-motivated hate crimes.
Defense lawyers attempted to have the case tossed by arguing that the hate crimes statute was being misapplied because the attacks involved people within the same religion.
But U.S. District Judge Dan Polster rejected attempts and allowed the case to proceed.
During three weeks of trial, prosecutors and witnesses described how sons pulled their father out of bed and chopped off his beard in the moonlight and how women surrounded their mother-in-law and cut off two feet of her hair, slicing it down to the scalp in some places.
Mr. Mullet wasn't accused of cutting anyone's hair, but prosecutors said he orchestrated the attacks, mocked the victims in recorded jailhouse phone calls and received a paper bag stuffed with the hair of one victim.
One bishop told jurors his chest-length beard was chopped to within 1 ?? inches of his chin when four or five men dragged him out of his farmhouse in a late-night home invasion.
Prosecutors told jurors that Mr. Mullet thought he was above the law and free to discipline those who defied him. Before his arrest by the FBI last November, he defended what he believes is his right to punish people who break church laws.
"You have your laws on the road and the town ??? if somebody doesn???t obey them, you punish them. But I'm not allowed to punish the church people?" Mr. Mullet said last October.
The hair cuttings, he said, were a response to continuous criticism he'd received from other Amish religious leaders about him being too strict, including shunning people in his own group for defying his orders.
All the victims, prosecutors said, were people who had a dispute with Mr. Mullet over his religious practices and his authoritarian rule.
Witnesses testified that Mr. Mullet had complete control over the settlement that he founded two decades ago and described how his religious teachings and methods of punishments deviated from Amish traditions.
One woman described how Mr. Mullet forced himself on her as part of sexual "counseling" of married women, a complaint that Sheriff Abdalla had heard for many years, among other allegations of Mr. Mullet???s ultimate control in Bergholz.
"I have had Amish people call me from around the country, from Indiana and Kentucky, as well as from here in Ohio, they've called me over the years and wanted me to do something about Sam Mullet," he said. "The Amish people got what they want."region
Torsten Ove: email@example.com or 412-263-1510. The Associated Press contributed. First Published September 21, 2012 4:00 AM