Haircut assaults put glare on Ohio Amish community
BERGHOLZ, Ohio -- In an unusual public display of trouble among the traditionally guarded Amish, a breakaway group is accused of attacking mainstream members by cutting off their beards and hair, which carry spiritual significance in the faith.
At the center of the dispute is the group's 66-year-old leader, Sam Mullet, who said he brought his followers from a community dozens of miles away 15 years ago so they could live by a stricter doctrine without interference.
Instead, he has gained a reputation for being authoritarian and vindictive, been accused of running a cult, and become embroiled in a feud with the sheriff after a custody dispute years ago.
"I wanted something better for my children and my grandchildren and the younger ones," he said in a rare interview this week. "I just wanted to drop out of sight and just take life easy."
Hair-cutting attacks against several people, some of them women, have occurred in recent weeks in the area. Amish men typically grow beards as adults and stop trimming them when they marry, and the beards -- and women's long hair -- are held in high esteem.
Mullet denies ordering beard-cuttings but says he wouldn't stop them. They're in response to incessant criticism he has received from other Amish religious leaders about his leadership practices, including excommunicating people in his own group, he said.
The goal was to send a message to Amish in Holmes County that they should be ashamed of themselves for their treatment of the community, which has been called a cult, Mullet said.
"We'd like to get up in the morning, be left alone, live like normal people," Mullet said Monday, speaking at his farm outside Bergholz, a village of about 700 residents where he established his community in 1995. "They won't leave us be."
Authorities in Jefferson County on Saturday arrested two of Mullet's sons, 38-year-old Johnny Mullet and 26-year-old Lester Mullet, and another man from the community, 53-year-old Levi Miller, on burglary and kidnapping warrants out of nearby Holmes County, home to the world's largest Amish community.
The three men had a hearing Tuesday and were being moved to Holmes County from the jail in Steubenville, about two hours away.
In one attack, men are accused of entering a home Oct. 3 and telling 74-year-old Raymond Hershberger, a bishop in a Holmes County Amish community, they were there to talk about religious matters, Holmes County Sheriff Timothy Zimmerly said Tuesday.
After a few minutes of small talk about the weather, the men suddenly announced, "We're here for Sam Mullet to get revenge," Zimmerly said.
Hershberger and his son were held down while the men used scissors and a battery-powered clipper to cut their beards, the sheriff said.
The men, who had hired a driver, common among the Amish, were then taken to Carroll County, where a similar attack happened, Zimmerly said. The driver, who apparently was unaware of what was happening, has not been charged.
Authorities have said two more arrests are expected this week.
Ohio has an estimated Amish population of just under 61,000 -- second only to Pennsylvania -- with most living in rural counties south and east of Cleveland.
The Amish, known for their simple, modest lifestyle, are a deeply religious group. Their simple clothing and tradition of traveling by horse and buggy distance themselves from the outside world and symbolize a yielding to a collective order.
"This kind of Amish-on-Amish violence is extremely rare," said David McConnell, an anthropology professor at Wooster College in Amish country and author of "An Amish Paradox."
The Holmes County sheriff said the community is known as peace-loving, but in this case the Amish leaders felt the only way to stop the attacks was to pursue charges.
A group of Amish bishops has previously criticized Mullet for his shunning of members of his community a few years ago.
"It was clear that he was on the outs with the majority often, for a number of reasons, but the sense I got was that he was too strict in their view," said Bryan Felmet, a lawyer who represented Mullet in the past as he took his daughter's side in a custody dispute with her husband and their children.
Mullet has been described by other Amish as very authoritarian, said Stephen Scott, researcher with Elizabethtown College's Young Center.
Some members of the community have broken with Mullet, including some of his own children, Felmet said. Mullet has at least 17 children, he said.
Mullet has a contentious history with local law enforcement: He sued Jefferson County Sheriff Fred Abdalla in 2008 in federal court over the county's seizure of two of Mullet's granddaughters from their mother in the custody dispute the year before. The two settled out of court.
The sheriff's use of armed SWAT officers "induced fear and panic" among Amish schoolchildren present at the school where the children were taken, the lawsuit said.
Abdalla said he's convinced Mullet is behind the beard and hair cutting. But the three men charged refused to confirm that, Abdalla said.
Mullet said he should be allowed to punish people who break the laws of the church, just as police are allowed to punish people who break the laws of the state.
"You have your laws on the road and the town -- if somebody doesn't obey them, you punish them. But I'm not allowed to punish the church people?" Mullet said. "I just let them run over me? If every family would just do as they pleased, what kind of church would we have?"
In 2008, one of Mullet's sons, Crist Mullet, was convicted of three counts of unlawful sexual conduct with a minor and sentenced to six months in jail, according to court records. Sam Mullet says his had son confessed his sins, stopped the behavior and shouldn't have been charged.
Another son, Eli Mullet, pleaded guilty the same year to threatening Sheriff Abdalla and was sentenced to probation.
Amish interaction with the criminal justice system is rare but not unprecedented.
Earlier this year, an Amish man who last year pleaded guilty to sex crimes in Missouri pleaded no contest to similar charges in Wisconsin. And young Amish occasionally end up in courts for antics during rumspringa, a period of adolescence when they're given free rein before they must choose baptism or leave the community.