Leader in Ohio Amish beard-cutting attacks gets 15 years in prison

Chris Togneri
| Friday, Feb. 8, 2013, 2:40 p.m.

CLEVELAND — An outlaw Amish bishop who orchestrated a series of beard- and hair-cutting attacks on other Amish will spend 15 years in prison, a federal judge ruled on Friday.

Samuel Mullet Sr., 67, ran his ultraconservative breakaway Amish sect in Bergholz, Ohio, about 60 miles west of Pittsburgh, like a cult, authorities said. He used his sway to manipulate members of his family and church to commit home invasion-style attacks on mainstream Amish who disagreed with his often messianic leadership methods, they said.

“Mr. Mullet is a cult leader. He is a thug. He is a bully. And Mr. Mullet belongs where criminals belong: in federal prison,” said U.S. Attorney Steven Dettenbach.

A federal jury in September convicted Mullet of hate crimes and kidnapping. His three sons, daughter and 11 other family and community members were convicted on related charges. They received sentences ranging from one to seven years.

Mullet denied orchestrating the attacks, despite recorded jailhouse phone calls in which he spoke of more attacks to come. He remained defiant in court.

“I'm being blamed for a cult leader, and I'm an old man,” Mullet said. “If somebody needs to be punished for this, and I'm a cult leader, then I want to take the punishment for everybody. There's a lot more I could say, but everything I say gets twisted and turned from what I intended it to be, so I don't have much else to say.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Bridget Brennan, who argued for a life sentence for Mullet, said the attacks went beyond unwanted hair and beard shearings.

“They were intended to be as terrifying as possible; they were designed to strike fear into the heart of every Amish,” she said. “These attacks were never just about hair. They were about religious symbols.”

U.S. District Judge Dan Polster said he gave Mullet the longest sentence because he showed no remorse for masterminding the attacks and because his dominance over others in the community left them little choice but to follow his orders.

The attacks deprived others of religious freedom, making the acts “particularly reprehensible” because the Amish enjoy privileges most Americans don't under the First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of religion, Polster said. Amish children do not have to stay in school until they're 16, and Amish adults do not have to serve on juries, he noted.

“You trampled on the Constitution,” Polster said. “You have received benefits of the First Amendment, and yet you deprived those same rights to other Amish citizens.”

Mullet and his followers conspired to cut the hair and beards of nine victims during home invasions in 2011, armed with clippers and 8-inch horse-mane scissors. They assaulted people who tried to intervene, lured victims into attacks and in one case drugged a victim.

The attacks were revenge against mainstream Amish who tried to excommunicate Mullet, authorities said. They reported public beatings, men locked in chicken coops and Mullet's “cleansing” younger, married women in his clan by having sex with them.

His attorney, federal Public Defender Ed Bryan, said Mullet has no criminal past and argued that the victims were not physically harmed. Bryan argued the life sentence that prosecutors sought should be reserved for mass murderers and terrorists.

“And the government has the wherewithal to suggest that Samuel Mullet, an Amish farmer of 67 years, warrants life in prison?” Bryan asked.

Mullet and the others have 14 days to appeal, Polster said.

Chris Burke, a spokesman for the federal Bureau of Prisons, said rules allow inmates to keep their beards.

In addition to the elder Mullet, Johnny Mullet, Lester Mullet, Levi Miller and Eli Miller received seven-year sentences; Emanuel Shrock, Danny Mullet and Lester Miller got five-year sentences; Linda Shrock and Raymond Miller got two-year sentences; and Freeman Burkholder, Lovina Miller, Anna Miller, Emma Miller, Elizabeth Miller and Kathryn Miller received one-year-and-one-day sentences.

About 100 people packed the courtroom, including members of the Bergholz clan and family of the shearing victims. Many declined to comment.

Amish men start growing beards upon marriage as a sign of passage into adulthood and conformity to the church. They consider it a sacred symbol.

Donald Kraybill, a professor and senior fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College in Lancaster County, said he never had heard of beard- shearing as a form of punishment.

“It was a public shaming. It would be like if you had a tattoo on your forehead suddenly,” said Kraybill, who testified as a cultural witness for the prosecution and wrote a book, “The Amish,” due out in March.

The Amish typically do not cooperate with police. In this case, however, many did, even those who had been shamed by having their beards shaved, said Holmes County Prosecutor Steve Knowling, who handled the case before the federal government took over.

“It was a landmark situation, (and) that's what alerted me that this was really serious,” he said. “The attacks had such a chilling impact. They were afraid of this person.”

Chris Togneri is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5632 or ctogneri@tribweb.com.

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