Amish beard-cutting ringleader gets 15 years

CLEVELAND — The ringleader in hair- and beard-cutting attacks on fellow Amish in Ohio was sentenced Friday to 15 years in prison and 15 family members received sentences of one year to seven years.

“The victims were terrorized and traumatized,” U.S. District Court Judge Dan Aaron Polster said in sentencing leader Sam Mullet Sr., 67, who sat without emotion.

The judge said the defendants had violated the constitutional rights protecting religious practice that had benefited them as Amish — such as an exemption from jury service and allowing Amish children to leave school at age 14.

“Each of you has received the benefits of that First Amendment,” Polster said.

The judge said the defendants have two weeks to file appeals of their sentences or convictions. Defense attorneys have indicated such appeals are likely.

Before his sentencing, Mullet told the judge that he had been accused of running a cult, which he has denied. Mullet, his ankles in chains and a white beard down to mid-chest, said if his community is seen as a cult, “Then I’m going to take the punishment for everybody.”

With relatives of victims and his family sitting on opposite sides of the public gallery, Mullet said he has lived his life trying to help others.

“That’s been my goal all my life,” Mullet said to a hushed courtroom, with his fellow defendants and their attorneys sitting at four defense tables and filling the jury box.

“I’m not going to be here much longer,” said Mullet, who didn’t elaborate on any health issues.

The government asked for a life sentence for Mullet. The defense asked for two years or less.

The 10 men and six women were convicted last year in five attacks in Amish communities in 2011. The government said the attacks were retaliation against Amish who had defied or denounced Mullet’s authoritarian style.

Amish believe the Bible instructs women to let their hair grow long and men to grow beards once they marry. Cutting it would be offensive to Amish.

Other defendants, some in tears, also offered to take the brunt of the blame and punishment on behalf of Mullet or their spouses. Addressing the judge one-by-one, the defendants said there would be no more beard-cutting attacks.

Freeman Burkholder, the 32-year-old husband of a Mullet niece and father of eight children, apologized to the judge.

“I won’t do it again,” he said.

Anna Miller, 33, married to a Mullet nephew and mother of six, also apologized, turning to relatives of victims as she said, “I’m sorry, it won’t happen again.” Like most of the women, she was sentenced to one year.

Federal prosecutor Bridget Brennan urged the judge to punish Mullet adequately.

“He is a danger to this community,” she said. “He is capable of controlling 15 defendants.”

Brennan repeated key testimony against Mullet and said he has remained the leader of his eastern Ohio community despite being locked up since his arrest in late 2011.

Rhonda Kotnik, attorney for Kathryn Miller, a 24-year-old mother of three who received a one-year sentence, said appeals would focus on whether the hate-crimes law is unconstitutionally broad and whether restraining the victims to cut their beards amounted to kidnapping.

“There are lots of issues,” she said.

U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach, whose office directed the prosecution, said he was confident the law would withstand a constitutional challenge.

As for Mullet, “I think the sentence he got was harsh, I think it was appropriately harsh,” Dettelbach said. “Mr. Mullet’s conduct in court today reiterated yet again his utter failure to respect the rule of law and his utter lack of remorse.”

The defendants were charged with a hate crime because prosecutors believe religious differences brought about the attacks.

Nine of 10 men who were convicted have been locked up awaiting sentencing. The six women, who all have children, have been free on bond.

In a rare interview last week in Bergholz at the sprawling Mullet farm amid rolling hills in eastern Ohio, Mullet’s unmarried 19-year-old grandson, Edward Mast, discussed the family’s attitude. He said they are steadfast in the belief that the attacks didn’t rise to the level of a hate crime.

“The beard, what it stands for me, what I know about it, once you’re married, you just grow a beard. That’s just the way the Amish is,” Mast said.

As for the victims, he added, “They got their beard back again, so what’s the big deal about it?”

Arlene Miller, whose husband, an Amish bishop, was among the victims, said Mullet deserved a tough sentence and that the others should get cult-deprogramming counseling.

She said there were no winners in the ordeal.

“There’s no happy ending to this,” she said.

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