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'Shoot me first,' victim said

| Friday, Oct. 6, 2006

NICKEL MINES - As they stood, their feet bound, in a line near the blackboard in the one-room schoolhouse, Marian Fisher spoke to her captor.

"Marian said, 'Shoot me first,' " said Rita Rhoads, a midwife who helped deliver Fisher 13 years ago.

Barbie Fisher, 12, spoke up just after her big sister, and asked Charles Carl Roberts IV to shoot her next, Rhoads said. They were trying to protect the younger girls, ages 6 to 13, who were taken prisoner Monday when Roberts barricaded them inside the West Nickel Mine Amish School, Rhoads said.

"He asked them to pray for him," she said. "I think that's amazing. He recognized they had something he didn't."

Rhoads learned about the exchange from the Fisher family, who were able to talk to the younger daughter in Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Barbie Fisher is recovering from gunshot wounds. Her big sister was buried Thursday.

This bloody and confusing debacle began its slow, quiet end in a secluded cemetery where cold soil now covers the bodies of Marian Fisher and three other Amish girls.

Shrouded in white and encased in wood, Fisher, Naomi Rose Ebersole, 7, Mary Liz Miller, 8, and her sister Lina, 7, were buried by hundreds of family and friends in Georgetown Amish Cemetery. As mourners helped shovel dirt on the caskets, a bubble of police protection shielded them from the unwanted attention of a transfixed nation but not the relentless autumn wind.

Anna Mae Stoltzfus, 12, the fifth girl to die after being shot by Roberts, will be buried today.

In addition to Marian Fisher, Rhoads helped give birth to Naomi Rose. She attended their viewings Wednesday, but thought the families should be alone for the burials.

Instead, Rhoads, a Mennonite, served as unofficial liaison between the intensely private Amish community and reporters, talking about how the families are coping and explaining how the Amish conduct funerals.

The partitions in the family home's main floor were removed and two rows of benches set up, with men and women sitting on opposite sides, Rhoads said. The funeral services typically last for about two hours and focus on mortality and the afterlife, rather than celebrating the life lost.

"They will not be talking about how wonderful these girls were," Rhoads said. "They will be talking about how the girls are in heaven."

After the sermons, vans with black-tinted windows and 30 to 50 Amish buggies followed horse-drawn hearses in each procession to the cemetery, traveling over winding country roads rutted by farmers' tires and scarred by horses' hooves. There, after another short sermon for each child, family and friends helped bury the plain, wooden caskets.

To preserve privacy, police and volunteer fire companies set up checkpoints on roads around Amish homes and the cemetery, said Duane Hagelgans, spokesman for the South Central Pennsylvania Task Force, a state emergency management agency. A state police airplane and helicopter patrolled the airspace above, keeping news helicopters away.

Journalists were kept in or around Georgetown United Methodist Church, a small, white building bordered by Amish farms and a hamlet of about 20 homes. In the church cemetery, a pink heart-shaped memorial marks the grave of Elise Roberts, the first child of Charles and Marie Roberts. Elise died 20 minutes after birth in 1997. Roberts, in a suicide letter to his wife, said he'd never recovered from her death.

As the caskets passed the church, journalists were asked to take pictures only of the sides or backs of those in the procession.

"This is the last thing they want," Hagelgans said of the attention paid to the girls' burials. "They're a very close-knit, private community. ... If it was a perfect world, we wouldn't be here today."

Roberts entered the West Nickel Mine Amish School armed with three guns, knives, about 600 rounds of ammunition, lubricating jelly and other supplies suggesting he planned to molest the girls during a long siege. He let the school's 15 boys leave, along with one girl, then bound the remaining 10 girls' feet with wire and plastic straps.

After state police surrounded the school, Roberts opened fire on the girls, shooting many in the backs of their heads at close range. Four remain hospitalized. At the families' request, their conditions were not being released.

Lancaster County Coroner G. Gary Kirchner said a doctor in Penn State Children's Hospital in Hershey told him doctors expected to take one girl off life support so she could be brought home. Dr. D. Holmes Morton, who runs a clinic that serves Amish children, said reports that a 6-year-old was taken off life-support and brought home to die were accurate "as far as I know."

Soon, the strangers will leave, driving away through towns named Paradise and Eden. But they will not be able to take with them the terrible knowledge of what happened.

Here, where forgiveness is mentioned far more often than hatred, and where Charles Carl Roberts IV still is simply "Charley," people are preparing for their next quiet day.

The Rev. Douglas Hileman opened Middle Octorara Presbyterian Church for people who weren't invited to the funerals but wanted to pay respects. He said he's looking forward to his neighbor's next picnic.

The Rev. Mitch Miller, a Presbyterian minister who grew up in Lancaster County and lives in Fallston, Md., came to pray at Octorara. Miller remembers, when he was a child, the community pulled together to support an Amish family whose son died.

"I don't think they did any work on that farm for six months," Miller said.

With fall harvest nearing, he expects the same will happen. The families who lost children know that's coming, and he believes it will help them heal. Here, where livelihoods depend on seasons, people might be better equipped than most to deal with death.

"This is a place that understands dependence," Miller said. "We don't irrigate here. We plant the fields and then wait for God to send the rain."

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