CLEVELAND — Sixteen Amish men and women were convicted Thursday of hate crimes for a series of hair- and beard- cutting attacks on fellow sect members in a religious dispute that offered a rare and sometimes lurid glimpse into the closed and usually self-regulating community of believers.
A federal jury found 66-year-old Samuel Mullet, the leader of the breakaway group, guilty of orchestrating the cuttings last fall in an attempt to shame mainstream members of his community who he believed were straying from their beliefs. His followers were found guilty of carrying out the attacks, which terrorized the normally peaceful religious settlement that aims to live simply and piously.
Prosecutors and witnesses described how sons pulled their father out of bed and chopped off his beard in the moonlight and how women surrounded their mother-in-law and cut off two feet of her hair, taking it down to the scalp in some places.
The defendants face prison terms of 10 years or more. Prosecutors say they targeted hair because it carries spiritual significance in their faith.
All the defendants are members of Mullet’s settlement that he founded in eastern Ohio near the West Virginia panhandle. The Amish eschew many conveniences of modern life, including electrical appliances and automobiles, and embrace their centuries-old roots.
Federal officials said the verdicts would send a message about religious intolerance.
“The victims in this case are members of a peaceful and traditional religion who simply wanted to be left to practice their religion in peace,” U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach said. “Unfortunately, the defendants denied them this basic right and they did so in the most violent way.”
Members of the Amish community who sat through the trial hurried into a hired van without commenting, some covering their faces.
Defense attorneys said the defendants were bewildered by the verdicts and said likely appeals would be based on a challenge to the hate crimes law.
“They really don’t understand the court system the way the rest of us have, being educated and reading newspapers,” said Joseph Dubyak, whose client, Linda Schrock, has 10 children with her husband, who was also convicted.
Rhonda Kotnik, representing Kathryn Miller, said the verdicts would destroy Mullet’s community of about 25 families. The defendants, including six couples, have a total of about 50 children, she said.
“The community is going to be ripped apart. I don’t know what’s going to happen to all their children,” she said.
The suspects had argued that the Amish are bound by different rules guided by their religion and that the government had no place getting involved in what amounted to a family or church dispute.
Mullet wasn’t accused of cutting anyone’s hair. But prosecutors said he planned and encouraged his sons and the others, mocked the victims in jailhouse phone calls and was given a paper bag stuffed with the hair of one victim.
One bishop told jurors his chest-length beard was chopped to within 1½ inches of his chin when four or five men dragged him out of his farmhouse in a late-night home invasion.
Prosecutors told jurors that Mullet thought he was above the law and free to discipline those who went against him based on his religious beliefs. Before his arrest last November, he defended what he believes is his right to punish people who break church laws.
“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 told The Associated Press last October.
The hair cuttings, he said, were a response to continuous criticism he’d received from other Amish religious leaders about him being too strict, including shunning people in his own group.
Defense attorneys acknowledged that the hair cuttings took place and that crimes were committed but contend that prosecutors were overreaching by calling them hate crimes.
Witnesses testified that Mullet had complete control over the settlement that he founded two decades ago and described how his religious teachings and methods of punishments deviated from Amish traditions.
One woman testified that Mullet coerced women at his settlement into having sex with him, and others said he encouraged men to sleep in chicken coops as punishment.
Mullet’s attorney, Ed Bryan, maintained that the government had not shown that Mullet was at the center of the attacks. The defendants who cut the hair and beards acted on their own and were inspired by one another, not their bishop, Bryan said.
In one of the attacks, an Amish woman testified that her own sons and a daughter who lived in Mullet’s community cut her hair and her husband’s beard in a surprise assault.