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Originally published Saturday, December 29, 2012 at 3:40 PM

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Amish clan ponders future as it awaits sentences

The women of this breakaway Amish settlement in Ohio await sentencing of their nine menfolk on felony hate-crime charges.

The New York Times

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I think these people should definitely be punished- but not destroyed. The task befo... MORE

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BERGHOLZ, Ohio — At their afternoon meeting in a bare farmhouse room, in a circle with infants on their laps and toddlers tugging at their skirts, the women of this breakaway Amish settlement have some most un-Amish matters to discuss.

Who will make the weekly van ride to visit their nine menfolk in prison, awaiting sentencing for a series of beard- and hair-cutting attacks against other Amish last year? And who will mind all the children left motherless for the day?

Should the six mothers who were also convicted, but are home on bail, sign over legal guardianship of their combined 47 children to friends or relatives, in case both parents wind up in prison?

By kerosene light, the women pass around handwritten letters from their imprisoned bishop, Samuel Mullet Sr., offering reminders about farm chores and descriptions of prison food and chess games with his jailed sons.

The farmhouse yard bustles with giddy children's play, but the air is burdened with a shared dread of what will happen Feb. 8. On that day, a federal judge is scheduled to announce punishments for the assaults by Bergholz residents in the fall of 2011 that spread terror through the Amish of eastern Ohio and led federal prosecutors to file felony hate-crime charges, arguing the victims were harmed for religious reasons.

Sixteen residents of this insular community of 137 — 10 men, one of them out on bail, and six women — were convicted this fall.

"It's getting scary," said Elizabeth Miller, 38, as she cradled one of her 11 children. She and her husband, Lester Miller, took part in the assault on his parents in September 2011, shearing the father's beard and the mother's hair, both treasured symbols of Amish identity; he is among the men being held without bail.

The parents had condemned Mullet as a cult leader, but Elizabeth Miller, her husband and several of his siblings and their spouses remained loyal to Mullet's vision of a more "pure" Amish community. In courtroom testimony, one of the 12 attackers said they had considered the parents to be straying hypocrites who needed a lesson.

With nine male breadwinners — half the married men — in federal prison, residents say they have pulled together as never before.

The hardships were eased by a $3 million payment for gas-exploration rights on Mullet's 700 acres, an offer that arrived, providentially, just as the leader and his followers faced financial ruin. Mullet used part of it to pay off his mortgage and those of his sons on adjacent land.

Martha Mullet, his wife of 46 years, was not charged with any crime and is managing the rest of the money. She has paid for the $250 van rides to the prison and distributed cash to families struggling without fathers — generosity that has bound together this community but also deepened the dependence of some.

"We are praying that God will send another miracle," Martha Mullet, 64, said of the hope the judge will give the men short sentences and the women probation.

The remaining men and their crews of teenage boys still earn money in construction and farming, and they hunt deer in the fall for meat.

While admitting the attacks were a mistake, many church members and Samuel Mullet himself, who spoke in a two-hour interview at the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center in Youngstown, called the hate-crime charges overly harsh.

Prosecutors have described the clan's unorthodox practices as signs of Mullet's dictatorial domination. Those practices included earlier beard-cutting of men by their own wives for ogling "English" women at Wal-Mart, the forcing of men to do penance for impure thoughts by making them sleep in chicken coops and Mullet's decision to abolish formal church services as meaningless displays.

His followers say they accepted these acts to get closer to God. Shorn of their beards, the men were supposed to confront their sinful ways and redouble their faith.

Even now, Bergholz residents do not seem to fully understand how terrifying these practices were to outside Amish communities, who heard of brethren assaulted in their homes at night and humiliated with scissors, clippers and shears designed to trim horse manes.

Mullet, who was also accused in trial testimony of engaging in intimate sexual "counseling" of female followers, claimed he never had sex with them. He has been maligned by lurid rumors, he said, spread by Amish rivals who resented him for exposing their sins.

Because the convictions described the forcible restraint of the victims as kidnapping, Judge Dan Aaron Polster, of U.S. District Court in Cleveland, will have unusually wide discretion in sentencing and could hand down anything from probation to life sentences, said Edward G. Bryan, Mullet's lawyer. The prosecution has indicated it will seek lengthy prison terms for several of the men.

Martha Mullet sat stoically through the September trial of her husband, three sons and 12 other church members.

But in Bergholz last week, she burst into tears as she bemoaned the upheaval and what she sees as the unfair severity of the prosecutions.

"We're not denying that we did wrong," she said, "but it should never have been classified as a hate crime." Her sons felt they had a reason for the attacks, she added, "because of the way our community was being treated."

"They can go on with their lives," Martha Mullet said of the shearing victims. "Their hair and beards will grow back."

"But they don't want our families to have any lives at all," she said.

In the prison interview, Samuel Mullet, 67, in a yellow jumpsuit, complained of the conditions in the section of the Youngstown prison reserved for those awaiting sentencing.

He said inmates are locked up several times a day in 6-by-12-foot cells that were built for two people but now have a third bunk on the wall and an open toilet with no privacy.

By all accounts, Mullet did not participate in the attacks, but he was convicted as a co-conspirator. He sought to play down the strength of his authority.

After learning of the first attack, he recalled, "I said, 'If you're going to do something like that, leave me out of it.' "

But this month, Polster, as he turned down Mullet's request for a new trial, said the jury had good reason to place Mullet at the heart of the conspiracy.

"Suffice it to say, the evidence at trial conclusively established that defendant, as bishop of Bergholz, ran his community with an iron fist," the judge wrote in a ruling on Dec. 6. "Nothing of significance happened without his knowledge and approval."

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