Sep 12, 2012

Amish Trial Closes With Damning Testimony

Federal prosecutors wrapped up their case against the Amish hair-cutting ring this week with strong testimony from several witnesses, including Sam Mullet's daughter.

Barbara Yoder was reluctant to testify against her father but, all the same, gave a very damning account.

Mullet's daughter, Barbara Yoder, testified that she never heard her father order any of the four hair- and beard-cutting attacks, but confirmed her father had endorsed the humiliating hair-shearings as disciplinary measures, and laughed when the men reported back to him in the aftermath of the attacks.

. . .

"He said it would help stop people from being Amish hypocrites," Yoder testified.

This is not the first evidence jurors have heard that Sam Mullet found the brutal, humiliating attacks hilarious.

As they listened to calls between Samuel Mullet Sr. and his nephew Lester Miller, the jury read an English translation because the pair had spoken in Pennsylvania Dutch, the primary language of the Amish. The jury was told the calls had originated from the Holmes County jail in Ohio.

On the recording, Mullet was heard laughing about members of the community carrying out more attacks and told his nephew to stay strong and to keep his mouth closed after Miller was arrested last October. "They are trying to tear this whole thing apart," Mullet said, referring to his community.

Yoder also testified to her father's bizarre disciplinary and sexual practices.

Barbara Yoder also described other means of self-discipline and penance advocated by her father, including spending up to 12 days at a time living in a chicken coop, submitting themselves to voluntary hair- and beard-cutting, and engaging in sexual relations with the wives of his followers.

Mullet's sexual exploits may well overshadow everything else in this trial. The extremely un-Amish-like behavior underscores the cultish nature of the Bergholz clan, whether prosecutors can use that word themselves or not. One salacious detail after another has come out in court, all thoroughly in context with the prosecution's theory that Mullet had absolute control over his flock.

FBI Agent Michael Sirohnen testified that when he arrested Sam Mullet, the bishop was in his bedroom with Lovina Miller, a married woman and one of about 18 families who are members of Mullet's Old Order Amish settlement in Bergholz, located about 100 miles southeast of Cleveland.

Lovina Miller is the daughter-in-law of Barbara Miller, who testified against her brother earlier in the trial. This makes her Mullet's niece-in-law. We already know that he coerced his own daughter-in-law into a sexual relationship. Lovina, though, he may have impregnated.

Barbara Miller, Sam Mullet's sister, said that her son's wife Lovina was also ordered to live with Mullet and became pregnant.

'I had a reason to dispute that (the baby) was Eli's,' Mrs Miller said. 'Once I found out she was pregnant it arose: Who is the Daddy?'

For all his claims of moving to Bergholz to live a more traditional Amish life, nothing about Sam Mullet seems terribly orthodox. Conservative to him seems to mean authoritarian. As his sister told the court, he was less about the New Testament compassion and forgiveness, that the Amish are so well-known for, and all about Old Testament "'eye for an eye' syndrome."

Tuesday the jury heard from cultural anthropologist and Amish expert Dennis Kraybill who testified that Mullet's Bergholz community is a "lone ranger group," with all the hallmarks of a cult. He was shocked and dismayed by the chicken coop, spankings, and "sexual counseling," explaining that none of it was consistent with Amish culture and religion. Their religious practice also seems to gone by the wayside.

"There was ample evidence that since 2009 they no longer held church services, and showed a complete disregard for traditional Amish doctrine," testified Kraybill, a cultural anthropologist and professor from Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania.

Kraybill also put into some context the relevant background on the rupture between Sam Mullet and the Amish community writ large.

Kraybill cited a historic 2006 bishop's meeting in Ulysses, Pa., at which more than 300 bishops learned about Mullet's shunnings and how some members of his clan were fearful of Mullet and were abandoning the Bergholz settlement in the middle of the night.

The bishops voted to overturn a half-dozen of Mullet's excommunications of Bergholz Amish members who had challenged his rulings or offended him by moving away. The conclave decided Mullet's excommunications were not made for biblical or religious reasons, and that he failed to consult his congregation, as required by Amish law.

"This was like an earthquake in the Amish world," Kraybill said.

One of the hair-cutting victims was a key figure in that decision was the prosecution's final witness. Bishop Raymond Hershberger helped to put into context how that decision was made and what a departure the whole thing was from Amish norms.

Hershberger was one of five Amish bishops who investigated the excommunication of eight families from Mullet's Bergholtz group in 2006 and voted to overturn those excommunications, which allowed other communities to accept the families.

Without that exception, a member or family shunned by one community would be shunned by all.

Despite the revolutionary nature of Mullet's excommunication policies and three hundred bishops' unprecedented rebuke of them, Bishop Hershberger was stunned to learn that Mullet and his followers were angry enough to take such brutal revenge. "I never realized Sam felt this way about me until this came up," he said.

Prosecutors rested their case in the Amish hair-cutting trial on Tuesday. So did the various defense attorneys representing a total of sixteen defendants, without calling a single witness. They did move to have the charges thrown out for lack of evidence, but Judge Polster disagreed and denied the motion, saying that a reasonable jury could conclude that there was a religious motivation.

Mullet's attorney Edward Bryan argued that there is no proof that he had coordinated the attacks but Judge Polster pointed to Mullet's having said, "We know what we did and why we did it," as evidence that could be reasonably construed as indicating Mullet's involvement.

Despite the fact that Sam Mullet did not choose to testify in his own defense, the jury heard plenty from the bishop in his own words. In addition to the jailhouse recording referenced above, an interview he did with WKYC-TV was entered as evidence. In it he actually takes responsibility for the attacks.

Mullet Sr. did admit that he knew about the raids, in which Amish men have their beards cut off, and Amish women and men have had their hair cut, but had nothing to do with the incidents.

"They say I did but they don't believe anything I say," Mullet said then, perched atop a bulldozer near the entrance of the road which houses his family enclave.

"Because I'm the oldest here and I'm the bishop, I'm responsible."

He also states explicitly, in that interview, that the attacks were religiously motivated, which will doubtlessly be unhelpful the defense's family disputes argument.

Closing arguments are being heard today and this case could go to the jury as early as this afternoon.

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