They cut off his beard and left him bleeding: The cruelest Amish hate crime ever committed

Violence, brainwashing, sexual abuse, fracking: How one scary sect revealed the flaws in hate crime legislation

Published September 14, 2014 11:00PM (EDT)

Amish leader Sam Mullet     (AP/Amy Sancetta)
Amish leader Sam Mullet (AP/Amy Sancetta)

For the dimwitted habitués of comments threads, it was the news item that launched a thousand lame puns. But the case of the Bergholz Barbers is funny only as long as it remains a sound bite. Donald B. Kraybill's new book, "Renegade Amish: Beard Cutting, Hate Crimes and the Trial of the Bergholz Barbers," digs deep into a story that, for all its seeming quaintness, has the power both to rock the underpinnings of hate crime legislation and to break the human heart.

Here are the basics: Over the course of the fall of 2011, five different assaults were perpetrated on nine members of the Amish community in northeastern Ohio. Acting in groups, the attackers forced their way into their victims' homes, overpowered and restrained them and then forcibly shaved off the beards of the men and cut the hair of both men and women, typically to the scalp. Some were left cut and bleeding. In a few cases, the assailants took souvenir photos of their shorn victims.

The particular meaning of these attacks isn't always apparent to outsiders. As the prosecution would argue when the perpetrators were tried for hate crimes the following year, in Amish culture, the untrimmed beards of men and the hair of both men and women are "sacred religious symbols." Amish men who trim or cut their beards will be disciplined by their church and even excommunicated if they fail to repent. Hair cutting has been used by many societies to humiliate people -- particularly women -- from the "heretics" persecuted by the Catholic Church to Frenchwomen accused of sleeping with Nazi soldiers. But for the Amish it is a particularly shameful and degrading experience, since their beards and hair are central emblems of both their membership in their community and their faith. Many of the victims of these attacks became depressed afterward and refused to appear in public.

There is yet another painful twist to these assaults. The assailants were all members of a community in Bergholz, Ohio, who had broken away from the larger Amish world. Whether they could still be called "Amish" is a matter of much debate. Most Amish repudiate them, and some members of the group, which consists of less than 100 people (almost all related to each other), have also told outsiders that they're not Amish. Before the trial in 2012, the group, which Kraybill characterizes as a "clan," was under the iron control of its patriarch, Sam Mullet, who claims the Amish title of bishop. Among the victims targeted in the fall of 2011 were Amish leaders who had crossed Mullet; others were Bergholz defectors and/or estranged relatives of Bergholz members.

In the cruelest instance, an elderly couple was lured to Bergholz by the offer of a visit to their son (married to one of Mullet's nine daughters) and the grandchildren they had not seen for several years. The grandfather was seriously ill and believed this would be his last chance. Their son promised the couple, who had heard of the other attacks, that they would be safe. However, at the end of the two-hour visit, the same teenage grandsons the old man had been so longing to see turned on him. They held him down as his own son hacked off his beard with a pair of scissors. Later that evening, the son turned up at a gathering at Mullet's house, crowing that he'd bagged "a whole bushel of hair." Two months later, his father was dead.

Only five years before the Bergholz attacks, an Amish community had humbled the world by extending their forgiveness to a non-Amish gunman who invaded a Pennsylvania schoolhouse and shot 10 little girls before killing himself. The violent and vengeful behavior of the Bergholz group seems impossible to reconcile with the popular image of the Amish as paragons of saintly forbearance and pacifism. That aspect of Amish love does have a presence in this story, however: several of the victims refused to press charges against their assailants and could only be persuaded to do so after authorities convinced them that it was the only way to prevent further, and perhaps more violent, attacks.

But as for Bergholz itself: What happened? Mullet's vendetta against other Amish leaders in the region originated in two disputes. One was over the custody of two little girls whose father had left the clan but whose mother remained. But perhaps more important was the decision an assembly of ministers made to disregard Mullet's authority to excommunicate members of his flock. In the Amish faith, the good of the community and the will of God take priority over individual desires, and excommunication is a drastic measure. It places the transgressor outside the community and forbids him from attending meetings, going to church or taking Holy Communion. It also prohibits other members from engaging in some (though not all) interactions with him; this is called shunning. Only by confessing and repenting their faults to the very same church leader who excommunicated them can banned Amish be restored to "full fellowship" in the Gmay, or congregation.

In the eyes of believers, this means that a bishop has the power to bar one of his flock from the faith and therefore from heaven, itself, until the member submits. As one bishop told Kraybill, excommunication is "death to the soul," and a sanction not meant to be imposed lightly. The elders concluded that Mullet was using excommunication without warning, explanation or scriptural justification, as a tool to stifle dissent in his Gmay and to prevent members from leaving. The elders' decision allowed banned Bergholz defectors to join other Gmays without having to confess their nonexistent sins to Mullet. And this deprived Mullet of one of his most potent tools in securing the obedience of his flock.

Although Bergholz didn't meet all of the key criteria for a "cult" -- defense attorneys sought to keep the word from even being mentioned during the trial -- it's remarkable how much Mullet's MO resembles that of such paranoid charismatic leaders as Warren Jeffs of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and Jim Jones of the People's Temple. No matter what ideology or theology these guys profess, they seem to end up looking an awful lot alike: some old goat who wants to boss everyone else around and have sex with as many young women as possible, whether they like it or not.

Mullet, who was 67 at the time of his trial, imposed a regime of complete and unquestioning obedience on his followers and had a habit of "persuading" the wives of younger group members to move into his house for weeks at a time. This facilitated activities that Mullet portrayed as marriage counseling. Although Mullet denied any misconduct, his daughter-in-law testified at his trial that she was pressured into "sexual intimacies" with him until she was able to convince her husband to leave Bergholz. When law enforcement arrived at Mullet's house in the early morning to arrest him, he emerged from his bedroom with the 28-year-old wife of his nephew.

A big fan of (surprise!) the Old Testament, Mullet remarked to one follower that he wanted to return to "the time of Abraham" when "men could have multiple wives and use physical punishment," two practices in flagrant violation of Amish doctrine. In its isolation, Bergholz adopt several bizarre and disturbing rituals, such as confining out-of-favor members in unheated chicken coops, dog kennels and pens for extended periods. The pens were not locked, but as one member put it, "no one left because they were afraid of Sam." On more than one occasion, when a man was confined to one of these "Amish jails," his wife would be sent to live with Mullet, and Mullet's own wife would be conveniently dispatched to one of her daughters' homes. Equally troubling were rituals in which, before the assembled group, one member spanked another with a wooden paddle. Some of the Bergholz men shaved their own beards in an act of contrition meant to get them "right with God."

The beard-cutting attacks on the Amish elders were later portrayed by the defendants and their counsel as along the same line: "compassionate" interventions meant to force the victims to repent their sins -- sins that largely consisted of not agreeing with Mullet. Neither the jury nor the judge bought that argument. The trial, which involved 16 defendants, nine victims, five separate attacks and a total of 90 different charges, presented many puzzles. Does forcibly cutting someone's beard, however much it might mean to them spiritually, constitute "disfigurement"? It would have to if the attacks were going to qualify under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009. Were the victims targeted because of their religious beliefs or as part of a personal quarrel? Is it even possible to commit a hate crime against a member of your own religious group? Then again were the people of Bergholz really Amish anymore?

The federal trial highlighted some of the nagging problems with hate crimes laws. Because deeming an assault a hate crime involves deducing the perpetrator's intent, jurors had to sort out what role religion played in the attack. Did the motivation hinge on the victims' religion or on their past history with Mullet? Some observers saw the whole trial as excessive, particularly when prosecutors went so far as to propose a life sentence for Mullet. "Their hair and beards will grow back," his wife protested, referring to the victims, "but they don't want our families to have any lives at all." In the end, Mullet was sentenced to 15 years and the other defendants received sentences ranging from one to seven years. Judge Daniel Aaron Polster told Mullet he was responsible because it was evident that nothing happened in Bergholz "without your direction and approval."

The verdict and sentences were controversial. Anti-government commentators like the conservative radio host Michael Savage held the case up as an example of absurd federal overreach, and, preposterously, of President Obama "persecuting the Amish." Savage even set up a legal defense fund for the convicts' appeals, which was hardly necessary given that Mullet had funded their defense by selling multimillion-dollar fracking rights to his land holdings around Bergholz. Add high-tech environmental degradation to violent retribution and sexual abuse on his list of non-Amish shenanigans. (We won't even get into the small quantities of marijuana and cocaine found in Mullet's barn.)

Then, less than three weeks ago (after Kraybill's book went to press), the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the hate crimes convictions. Two of the justices on a three-judge panel ruled that the jury had been improperly instructed and that the attacks did not meet a recently established criteria for determining hate crimes. Under this guideline, the crime must be deemed to have been predominantly caused by religion, to the extent that it would not have occurred if religion were removed from the equation. Sorting out how much of the Bergholzers' motivation arose out of religious differences and how much amounted to a private feud is a brain-bending task. Mullet endorsed the attacks as a pious "corrective" to those who had sinned by thwarting him, but since he and his followers viewed his orders as infused with divine authority, any personal hissy fit he threw could easily be elevated to a matter of faith.

The case isn't necessarily closed yet, but if prosecutors choose not to pursue it, Mullet and his underlings may be released. Or, if they are tried again, they may be released on bond. This is almost certainly the situation authorities hoped to avoid by trying the group for high-penalty hate crimes in the first place. Many Amish living in the area, including those who have angered Mullet, fear there will be further retaliation if he gets out any time soon.

The difficulty with the Bergholz Barbers trial is that Mullet doesn't match the profile of the average hate criminal -- that is, some angry, feckless young loser lashing out at those he perceives to be responsible for the catastrophe of his life. Mullet is something much scarier, and given how closely his progress maps to that of similar autocratic figures who have come before, there was good cause to assume that his violence and perversity would continue to escalate. Maybe Bergholz wasn't a cult, or maybe it just wasn't a cult yet. If it took a misapplication of federal law to stop Mullet, or even just to slow him down, maybe it was worth it.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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