November 26, 2011
About a hundred miles south of the smog-choked, rust-eaten city of Cleveland quietly sits pristine Ohio hill country, home to one of the nation’s largest concentrations of Amish people. Down there amid the hex signs and distelfinks where the Ordnung reigns supreme, nestled betwixt the small communities of Scroggsfield and Wolf Run, is the village of Bergholz, population 769. A splinter—some would say heretical—Amish sect known as the “Bergholz clan” led by 66-year-old Bishop Sam Mullet inhabits a compound near Bergholz.
Early Wednesday morning as the Mullet compound’s men slept peacefully, their full-length traditional Amish beards intact, federal authorities raided the premises and arrested seven male sect members. The accused—including patriarch Sam Mullet, his sons Johnny S. Mullet, Lester S. Mullet, and Danny S. Mullet—were connected to a series of four violent nighttime attacks starting in September wherein the Bergholz clan would set upon Amish rivals, forcibly restrain them, and hack away at their beards with garden shears and battery-powered clippers. In one case, a woman received a forced haircut that left her scalp bleeding.
On September 6, an estimated six men and six women stormed into a house in Mesopotamia, OH, knocking a married couple to the floor and furiously chopping away the man’s beard and his wife’s hair. The victims were former associates of the Bergholz clan—so closely associated that among the attackers were the victims’ sons.
Two more assaults came the night of October 4, as five members of the Bergholz clan hired a non-Amish driver—later turned state’s witness—to spirit them from one crime scene to the next and then back home. Two of the victims are thought to have been attacked for providing “aid and counseling” to one of Mullet’s sons after he’d fled the group years ago. Victims were left shorn and bleeding, and the Bergholz clan triumphantly returned home with photographic evidence of their escapades.
Then on November 9, even after five of the Bergholz clan had been arrested on state charges and the case had been nationally publicized, clan member Emanuel Schrock lured more ex-Bergholzers to his house after promising them in a series of letters that they’d be safe from harm. After having his beard whacked away with shears that were sharp enough to cut leather, one of Schrock’s victims confronted him about his false promise. Schrock reportedly shrugged and said, “I guess I lied.” Again the Bergholz clan had photographed their handiwork as a perverse sort of religious hunting trophy.
Sacred Amish tradition forbids women from cutting their hair and married men from shaving their beards. Patriarch Sam Mullet freely admits—these humble hillfolk are apparently so cloistered from the modern world, they never heard of the Fifth Amendment—that the attacks were conducted for religious reasons to purposely humiliate rivals after years-long doctrinal squabbling over who exactly had the right to shun whom. To federal authorities, the clan’s motives—rather than the crimes themselves—were the real crimes. In Ohio state court last month, authorities had charged five members of the Bergholz clan with literal crimes related to the attacks—namely, kidnapping and aggravated burglary—but they eagerly dropped all state charges and handed the baton to the feds, who on Wednesday filed an affidavit claiming probable cause to arrest Mullet and his minions for violating the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
The federal affidavit claims Samuel Mullet acted more like a depraved cult leader than a humble butter-churner:
In disregard for Amish teachings and scripture, SAMUEL MULLET, SR. has forced extreme punishments on and physical injury to those in the community who defy him, including forcing members to sleep for days at a time in a chicken coop on his property and allowing members of the Bergholz clan to beat other members who appear to disobey SAMUEL MULLET, SR. Moreover, SAMUEL MULLET, SR. has been “counseling” the married women in the Bergholz clan and taking them into his home so that he may cleanse them of the devil with acts of sexual intimacy.
A rudimentary grasp of Miranda rights may have aided the fatally unwordly Mullets and their co-conspirators. In October, Mullet’s three sons and Eli Miller all openly confessed their crimes to investigators. In a call recorded from jail, Lester Mullet warned his father about the camera containing the crime photos and spoke of possible future beard attacks. In another recorded jail call, Levi Miller discussed the time that Samuel Mullet imprisoned him in a chicken coop for twelve straight days. An unidentified male eagerly spoke with Miller about future jaunts to “go get more beard hair.”
The Mullets’ brief reign of “shear terror” reportedly sent shock waves through Amish enclaves in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana. It’s understandable—except for the extremely rare killer, sexting scandal, or wild Amish teen leading police on a buggy chase, it’s a generally placid and low-crime world. Usually it’s the Amish who are getting murdered en masse or creamed in their buggies by rampaging SUVs. The lifestyle suits at least some of them well, as the national Amish population has doubled in the past 20 years, with cancer rates only 56 percent of the national mean and suicide rates a mere half that of the general population.
The Amish are unique in American culture for their stark sense of otherness and stubborn self-sufficiency. There’s a touch of inbreeding—the quarter-million or so modern American Amish are said to be mostly derived from a gene pool of about two hundred founders—complemented by an overt sense of separateness from the world and all the worldly temptations therein. They generally operate their own schools, refuse to carry health insurance or accept welfare, and are permitted by law to refuse paying Social Security taxes. Perhaps most significantly, they tend to avoid all contact with police and prefer to settle all community problems internally.
This makes the Mullet case anomalous. Terrorized by a small, fanatical ideological gang within the community, desperate Amish victims finally turned to the government for help. Seemingly overnight, the feds galloped in on a giant white steed, arrested the perps, and held a news conference.
In their unyielding quest to render thoughts more harmful than brutally wielded garden shears, the FBI affidavit included a quote from one victim that he would have rather been “beaten black and blue than to suffer the disfigurement and humiliation of having his hair removed”—in other words, extreme physical suffering takes a back seat to the idea of religious persecution. It doesn’t matter if it’s a “hate crime” that involves Amish people attacking other Amish people—and not even for being Amish, but for not being Amish enough.
For years local sheriff Fred Abdalla had feuded with the Bergholz clan. In 2007 he removed a 12-year-old girl from the compound, alleging she’d been “brutalized and raped” although he never filed criminal charges. Abdalla, who has called Sam Mullet “evil,” claims he’s received “hundreds and hundreds of calls from people living in fear” due to the beard attacks. He told reporters he’s glad that Mullet has been removed from the community and that “You just can’t realize the power and domination he has over his people.” Abdalla apparently deems it a good thing that the federal government has more power and domination over people than Sam Mullet could ever hope to achieve.
Federal prosecutor Steven M. Dettelbach told reporters that “When people commit crimes…based on somebody’s religion, the community that’s victimized is far broader than the victim of the attack.” Dettelbach pushed the point further and said that this imaginary act of mass victimization outweighs even a literal victim’s reluctance to press charges: “It is not the victim’s job to decide or to bring charges. I think that’s a message I would like people to understand. These charges in this case are the result of our independent determination that crimes occurred.”
Point taken. You’re sending a message—some might even consider it a veiled threat—that the federal government has more power to break into people’s homes, abduct them, and stuff them into chicken coops than the Bergholz clan does. You get to decide what’s a sin and what isn’t. You determine who gets shunned and who does the shunning. We get it. We didn’t think that was ever in dispute, though.
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