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Published: Wednesday, 10/12/2011

Beard-cutting case puts Amish in media glare

Hearing held for 3 members of breakaway group

ASSOCIATED PRESS
Jefferson County Sheriff Fred Abdalla, left, looks on as Lester Mullet, 26, center, and his brother Johnny Mullet, 38, review papers during a hearing in Steubenville, Ohio. Jefferson County Sheriff Fred Abdalla, left, looks on as Lester Mullet, 26, center, and his brother Johnny Mullet, 38, review papers during a hearing in Steubenville, Ohio.
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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.

At the center of the dispute is the group's 66-year-old leader, Samuel 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, has been accused of running a cult, and became embroiled in a feud with the sheriff after a custody dispute years ago.

Hair-cutting attacks have occurred in recent weeks in the area. Amish men typically wear beards, which along with women's long hair are held in high esteem.

Mr. Mullet denies ordering beard-cuttings but says he didn't try to prevent them. They're in response to criticism he has received from other Amish about his leadership, including excommunicating members, 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 his community, Mr. Mullet said.

"We'd like to get up in the morning, be left alone, live like normal people," he said at his farm outside Bergholz, a village of about 700.

Authorities in Jefferson County on Saturday arrested two of Mr. Mullet's sons, Johnny Mullet, 38, and Lester Mullet, 26, and another man from the community, Levi Miller, 53, on burglary and kidnapping warrants out of nearby Holmes County, the world's largest Amish community.

The three men had a hearing yesterday 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 yesterday.

After a few minutes of small talk about the weather, the men announced, "We're here for Sam Mullet to get revenge," Sheriff Zimmerly said.

Mr. 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, Sheriff 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.

The Amish, known for their simple, modest lifestyle, are deeply religious. Their plain clothing and their traveling by horse and buggy distance them 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 the College of Wooster 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.

Mr. Mullet has a contentious history with the local law: He sued Jefferson County Sheriff Fred Abdalla in 2008 in federal court over the county's seizure of two of Mr. Mullet's granddaughters from their mother in the custody dispute the year before. The two settled out of court.

One of his sons was convicted of unlawful sexual conduct with a minor. Another pleaded guilty to threatening Sheriff Abdalla.

Sheriff Abdalla said he's convinced Mr. Mullet is behind the beard and hair cutting. But the three men charged refused to confirm that, the sheriff said.

Mr. Mullet said he should be allowed to punish members who break church laws, just as authorities punish people who break the state's 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?" Mr. 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?"



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