Ohio Amish sect linked to beard-cutting attacks

Two families have come forward to press charges

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MECHANICSTOWN, Ohio -- Myron and Arlene Miller were lying in bed about 10:45 p.m. Wednesday when their 15-year-old daughter woke them to say a pickup truck and trailer had just pulled into their driveway.

Four to six men got out of the truck and knocked on the door, asking for her father, the bishop for the Mechanicstown Amish church.

When Mr. Miller walked to the door, a man grabbed him by his long, traditional beard and forced him out the front door.

"The other guys came up and surrounded him," Mrs. Miller said.

Then, they used scissors to cut out a chunk of Mr. Miller's beard. They were unable to get any more, he said, because he struggled so hard against them. As the tussle continued, the leader of the group got scared and ordered everyone to flee.

The Millers said they were the fifth Amish family targeted in the last several weeks to be terrorized by what the Millers believe is a group that once was Amish but is now believed to have formed a cult in nearby Bergholz, Jefferson County.

Officials in Jefferson County were interviewing four suspects late Friday night. The Millers and another man who was assaulted the same night in nearby Holmes County have decided to go forward with criminal charges, something unusual among the Amish.

"In pressing charges, this isn't revenge," Mrs. Miller said. "This is to help those people. There are a lot of children in that community."

"This is different," Mr. Miller, 45, added. "They're like hate crimes. They're terrorizing people and communities."

The Bergholz group, which lives in a valley near the Ohio River, has formed its own compound, neighbors say. The group, which consists of about 16 families -- including the families of several of his own grown children -- has its own schoolhouse, and the property includes a number of houses, barns and outbuildings. Several young men in Amish dress were working on the property Friday.

The leader of the group, who is about 70 years old, does construction work. Mrs. Miller described him as a smooth talker who convinces his followers that he is a good man. She said she's been told that he uses sleep deprivation and brain-washing methods to keep his followers. There are also stories of violence and torture, she said.

Mrs. Miller said that the cult was formed five to seven years ago by an Amish man, who until that point had been a regular member of the community.

"They totally separate themselves from the Amish," Mrs. Miller said Friday.

Jefferson County Sheriff Fred Abdalla has been trying to pursue the cult leader, but until the most recent victims of the attacks decided to press charges, he was stuck.

"You see this crime being committed, and I'm sitting here with my hands tied," he said. "I can't do a thing."

The leader of the families resisted a conciliation attempt by Amish leaders several years ago, Sheriff Abdalla said.

"He's just like a lone wolf out there," he said.

The attacks occurred over the past three weeks in Carroll, Holmes, Jefferson and Trumbull counties, which form the heart of Ohio's Amish population, one of the nation's largest.

There have been only minor injuries. Each time, beards have been targeted.

"What they've been doing to everybody else is shaving the entire head and beard," Mrs. Miller said. "We believe their intent was to do the same things here.

"They say this is to uncover sins, and it's to straighten us out."

Then, she continued, "They've been making threats they're going to do worse things."

One Amish man from Mechanicstown, who was working in Bergholz on Friday, said that about a year ago the members of the group shaved their own beards and hair.

"They were under the impression that would cleanse them before God," said the young man, who asked that his name not be used.

"They long ago moved from being a church to a cult," he continued. "None of the other communities have dealt with them for a long time."

Mrs. Miller believes her husband was targeted because he helped the son of the alleged cult leader leave the group several years ago.

She said the Holmes County attack on Wednesday was for the same reason.

In that case, the victim, who is 74, was in bed with his wife, when six men broke into their home and held him in a chair. They then used scissors and some kind of clippers to remove the man's beard.

Another Amish man from Kilgore, Carroll County, who asked that his name not be used, visited the victim in Holmes County on Thursday. The man was so upset by what happened to him that he was unable to attend his granddaughter's wedding the next day, the man from Kilgore said.

"He said he was glad I came up and visited with him. He said it made him feel like someone was thinking of him."

Mrs. Miller said that an older man and woman in Mesopotamia, Trumbull County, were attacked three weeks ago. They were targeted because they had fled the Berghholz cult, Mrs. Miller said. Their children are still involved in the group and are the ones who attacked them, she said.

Since the beard cuttings have occurred, the Holmes County bishop told one member of the Bergholz group, "'This isn't a Christian way to act,'" Mrs. Miller recounted. The man replied, "'Well, we're not Christian.'"

Mr. Miller, who evened out his beard after the attack, said it represents tradition from the Bible.

"There's Scripture that talks about the beard," he said.

It is generally only worn by married Amish men.

"This is not a religious fight," Mrs. Miller said. "This is a man that's sick. He's power hungry. He's separated.

"We believe we're in danger."

Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620. The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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