Arrests made in Ohio Amish attacks
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Ohio authorities have charged three men with cutting off the beard of a 74-year-old Amish man in Holmes County -- an act degrading to the Amish -- and promise more arrests involving members of a group of former Amish who have split from the main community.
Two of the three men are sons of Sam Mullet, 66, who heads the breakaway group that lives in a compound with houses, barns, outbuildings and a schoolhouse in a valley near the Ohio River in Bergholz, Jefferson County.
Arrested early Saturday morning in Jefferson County on charges of kidnapping and burglary were Mr. Mullet's sons Johnny, 38, and Lester, 26, and a third man, Levi Miller, 53. The three suspects are members of the Bergholz group of about 16 families, said Jefferson County Sheriff Fred Abdalla, in whose jurisdiction the sect resides.
Police said the men and other suspects might be involved in three similar attacks being investigated.
The most recent attack occurred Tuesday in Holmes County. Police said the victim 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.
The three suspects were being held in Jefferson County Jail on $250,000 bond pending extradition to Holmes County.
Authorities on Saturday morning initially arrested Lester Miller (no relation to Levi Miller), 38, of Hammandsville, but released him because he did not participate in the attack even though he was at the scene, Sheriff Abdalla said. Two more arrests are pending in the Holmes County case, Sheriff Abdalla said.
He plans to bring additional charges against Levi Miller this week in connection with an attack on his brother-in-law in Jefferson County on Sept. 24.
Additionally, a grand jury is considering charges in an attack on Myron Miller in Mechanicstown, Carroll County, also on Tuesday. Mr. Miller is bishop for the Mechanicstown Amish church.
A Sept. 6 attack in Mesopotamia, Trumbull County, is also under investigation. In that case, a couple who had left the Bergholz group were attacked by their children, who are still in the group, according to a report on the incident.
The 57-year-old woman in that attack said her sons and a son-in-law attacked her and her husband. The sons and son-in-law "did that to him," the woman told deputies, pointing at her husband's ragged, short beard.
Then she took off a bandana and showed bare scalp patches and said, "They did this to me."
In all of the cases, the attackers either cut the beards of Amish men or the hair of Amish women. Once married, Amish men let their beards grow and women do the same with their hair, following what they believe is a Biblical prescript. They shave their mustaches because long ago the mustaches were associated with soldiers.
Cutting off an Amish man's beard or an Amish woman's hair represents more than a religious as well as a physical attack.
"One Amish told me he'd rather die than have his beard cut off. It's humiliating, embarrassing, degrading to them," Sheriff Abdalla said.
"It's bizarre," he said of the crimes, which have been covered by national and some international media outlets. "I guess the reason it's gaining so much publicity is that no one has ever heard of Amish on Amish crime like this.
"[The suspects] call themselves Amish, but I don't believe they are. This is not what Amish people do. I've talked to so many Amish and have been in their homes. They are good and loving people."
Sheriff Abdalla said it is believed the attacks stem from an upbraiding the elder Mr. Mullet received four years ago when 300 bishops from Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York convened and criticized him for his leadership of his group, and for ordering the "shunning" of two families. "They brought him on the carpet and he told them to go to hell. He thumbed his nose at them."
David L. McConnell, an anthropology professor at The College of Wooster for almost 20 years, said the Amish punish church members through excommunication by a bishop, which is usually followed by a vote by the church congregation.
"It is a process with variables and tests, enabling the offenders to change their ways and make things right," he said. "The door is always left open a crack, so if they repent they are welcomed back.
"Once a person is excommunicated, he is shunned. Others will not share meals, not accept gifts from the hand of that person. It's social ostracism and it's a powerful social tool because nobody likes to be rejected. But it is done out of love, to bring you back into the church.
"Does it work or is it right? There is a lot of debate among the Amish about that and different affiliations practice it to different degrees. There is a lot of variation, with some strict, some lenient."
Mr. McConnell said cutting a man's beard or a woman's hair is very rare and has no basis in Amish religious practices or punishments. He also said the Amish would not treat the victims differently -- except for extending their sympathy.
"It's symbolically very powerful because the beard is such a visible symbol of Amish identity," said Mr. McConnell, who is co-author of "An Amish Paradox." The book is based on an eight-year study of the Amish settlement in Holmes County, which is now regarded as the largest and most diverse in the world.
"This is not a punishment that would be sanctioned by any Amish district or church bishop that I know of. That's evidence that this Sam Mullett is just in his own world. The Amish do not shave beards and they are not into revenge attacks. This guy is somewhat of a renegade and somebody that has been disavowed by most other Amish. This is a very, very unusual case."
Mr. Mullet moved his family and followers to Jefferson County after he was excommunicated. The community has grown and has had an adversarial relationship with local law enforcement, said Sheriff Abdalla, who said one of Mr. Mullet's sons threatened his life.
"He's not Amish, but he says he's Amish. He's a wolf in sheep's clothing," said the sheriff. He believes the recent attacks are Mr. Mullet's response to the reprimand from the bishops. "Two of these attacks involved bishops so you could say it is retaliation with religious implications."
Asked if Mr. Mullet would be charged in the crimes, Sheriff Abdalla said: "Not at this time."
Asked if Mr. Mullet were a person of interest in the investigations, he said, "He's more than that. Nothing moves without him saying it's OK, everybody out there answers to him. Nobody does anything without him putting his blessing on it."
Sheriff Abdalla said he has been investigating activities of the elder Mr. Mullet and his group for years but until the most recent victims of the attacks decided to press charges, he was stuck.
The sheriff said he had previously received reports, but had not been able to confirm, that the group held a man in a chicken coop for 10 to 15 days. He said that the suspects confirmed during questioning that they had held the man against his will.
The attacks have caused fear throughout the Amish community nationwide, he said.
"These people had a hit list. We know four other people they were going to target. Who knows when it would have ended."
Mr. McConnell said it was interesting that the victims went to the police. "That is unusual. The Amish prefer to try to settle their disputes internally," he said. "The fact that they turned to local law enforcement shows how serious they view this offense and how it's outside the norm of Amish practice.
"It's sad. This kind of feeds the perception that the Amish are a cult. And what's ironic is that the Amish themselves view this particular leader and his church as a cult. [I was] told that nobody will have a fellowship with this group, they're so radical and so far out there that they just stand alone."
First Published October 9, 2011 12:00 am