Unsure of future, tiny Amish sect clings together after beard-cutting convictions
BERGHOLZ, Ohio (RNS) Inside a one-room schoolhouse, Lizzie Mullet pulls her attention away from her students and focuses on the biggest issue facing them: their families.
“We’re doing the best we can to keep our spirits up,” she said, “but we’re worried about what will happen next.”
A month after a federal jury convicted Lizzie Mullet’s father, Samuel, and 15 followers of hate crimes for beard-cutting attacks, this tiny Amish community continues on, tightly bonded and unwavering, yet troubled by fears of the future.
The settlement, about 100 miles south of Cleveland, tries to hang onto its old-world beliefs in the face of an unforgiving federal justice system. Its members believe in Sam Mullet’s teachings, appear content in their reclusive lifestyle and cannot understand why others want to intrude.
During the trial, federal prosecutors offered an unflinching look at the settlement and its leader: They argued that Mullet considered himself a god and above the law. Witnesses portrayed him as a scowling preacher who imposed bizarre discipline that included spankings and confinements in chicken coops.
He offered marital counseling to women in the community by having sex with them, witnesses said. And when Amish members opposed him, Mullet unleashed a band of henchmen to terrorize them, prosecutors said.
The five raids in the fall of 2011 typically took place at night, as the attackers from Bergholz sheared the victims’ beards and hair with battery-operated clippers and horse-mane scissors.
Prosecutors said the attacks took place over religious disagreements.
“Our nation was founded on the bedrock principle that everyone is free to worship how they see fit,” U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach said after the trial. “Violent attempts to attack this most basic freedom have no place in our country.”
Members of the Bergholz community, meanwhile, scoff at the government’s portrayal. They said they are tired of being treated like zoo animals by others in different Amish communities, who stop, whisper and watch their every move.
They said the beard cuttings had nothing to do with avenging religious feuds. Instead, they involved family squabbles, a theory the federal jury rejected in convicting Mullet and the 15 others.
And now, they worry about what will happen when U.S. District Judge Dan Aaron Polster sentences Sam Mullet and his followers Jan. 24 — and how it will affect their community. Nine of the 16 are in jail, awaiting their sentencing.
The community lacks trust in law enforcement and fears that authorities, through the courts, may try to take the children of parents headed off to prison and pull them from the settlement.
Lizzie Mullet sees the fear daily.
When a sheriff’s cruiser drives by the school, many of the school’s 44 students cringe, fearing someone will be arrested, she said. Since the arrests last November, usually timid students have become rebellious, she said; others cry more easily. But she and other members say the community pushes on.
Sam Mullet remains the group’s religious leader, even as he sits in a holding cell in Youngstown. The 18 families in the settlement — about 40 adult members and scores of children — meet Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays for gatherings. They talk, listen and sing hymns.
Members said they want to be among the most conservative of the Amish. “We’re doing what the old-timers did for years,” said Crist Mullet, one of Sam Mullet’s sons. “We’re going to keep going. We are not going to disperse. We’ll deal with whatever happens when we get to it.”
More than anything, they want their family members and friends who were convicted in September brought home. They hope the judge would simply release them, based on the amount of time they already have served in jail.
“Justice has been served,” Crist Mullet said.
But federal sentencing guidelines indicate Sam Mullet, the 67-year-old bishop, could face life in prison. Dettelbach, the federal prosecutor, would not discuss the sentencings, saying it was up to the judge. His office has said that while Sam Mullet did not take part in the attacks, he orchestrated them, just as he did most of daily life in the Bergholz community.
The others could get more than 10 years in prison. The potential sentences have caused some fear that grandparents and relatives from outside the community might attempt to gain custody of the children.
“I don’t think that will happen, though,” said Jefferson County Sheriff Fred Abdalla, who for years has been one of Sam Mullet’s fiercest critics. “I think the children will be fine.”
In 1995, Sam Mullet left an Amish community in Fredericktown, near Mansfield, Ohio, and headed to Bergholz, seeking to lead an ultra-conservative group. He and his wife, Martha, raised many of their 18 children on an 800-acre farm. Mullet formed a successful construction company, and the community of believers grew.
After a series of squabbles that began in 2006, Sam Mullet excommunicated a handful of families from the church. A committee of Amish bishops reviewed the rulings and overruled Mullet, saying his decisions were not based on the scriptures.
The committee allowed the families to join other Amish communities, and about five years later, in October 2011, 15 of Mullet’s family members and followers carried out the attacks.
Mullet’s supporters said the first talk of beard cuttings came in about 2009 within the Bergholz community, when some members believed the community’s troubles were caused by some members living in sin.
The women had suggested the cuttings as a way to grow closer to God, said Sam Mullet’s attorney, Edward Bryan. The men in Bergholz allowed their beards to be cut and acknowledged their wrongdoing. Bryan said they believed it marked a fresh start with God.
But the attacks on those outside the community were anything but voluntary, according to court records and testimony at the trial.
To most Amish, the cuttings are meant to degrade men, who grow their beards after marriage based on their religious beliefs. Sam Mullet’s supporters said the beard cuttings, like stays in the chicken coop, became a symbol to members that they needed to straighten out their lives and become better people.
Bryan said federal authorities overreached in their decision to charge Mullet and his followers with hate crimes.
“The government jumped in before it knew all of the facts,” Bryan said.
But many who followed the trial questioned an Amish bishop sleeping with women in his community. Crist Mullet said the accusations of his father’s sexual relationships had nothing to do with the allegations of the beard cuttings. But prosecutors said the issue of Mullet having sex with women in his community showed his power over it and his cultlike control over his followers.
“They tell us that we’re a cult, and it upsets all of us,” Crist Mullet said. “They can’t see what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to straighten up our lives and live closer to God.”
(John Caniglia writes for The Plain-Dealer in Cleveland)