BERGHOLZ, Ohio — The Amish schoolhouse quiets as students in first through eighth grades settle into tight rows of scuffed metal desks to begin singing, their voices rising and dipping like the surrounding hills.
A warm breeze carries the religious lyrics, in German, through the room's open windows and over the fields where their families will mingle after this ceremony last Tuesday marking the school year's end. Typically all this happens in late April, but the festivities were moved up to allow some youngsters a few more days of family time before their parents head to federal prison.
Yesterday, four women and one man from this tight-knit group in rural eastern Ohio entered the prison system in various states, joining nine already behind bars on hate crimes convictions for hair- and beard-cutting attacks against fellow Amish.
With that timing, the end-of-school celebration Tuesday served as the last big community gathering before the five departed, and they gave The Associated Press a rare window into their largely insular world. Men played baseball in buttoned shirts, work boots and blue pants with suspenders. Their wives, some barefoot, sat on simple wooden benches and chatted, their long-sleeved, blue and green dresses and white head scarves fluttering in the wind. Their children relaxed nearby, dressed like smaller versions of their parents.
“It's a happy day on the outside, but not on the inside. On the inside, a lot of times we're crying, but we have to keep our spirits up for the children's sake,” said Martha Mullet, whose husband, Sam Mullet Sr., was accused of orchestrating the hair-cutting attacks and was sentenced to 15 years, the longest term of the 16 defendants in the case. She said that she believes the government is trying to split up the community but that the members are determined to remain on their current property.
Glimpses from the news media are limited in Amish communities, but the members of Mullet's group in Bergholz said they were open to sharing their story because they feel they've been treated unfairly by the justice system. Amish, who shun many facets of modern life, are deeply religious and believe the Bible instructs women to let their hair grow long and men to grow beards and stop shaving once they marry, which means cutting the hair would be shameful and offensive.
The defendants don't deny the hair-cuttings — some say they regret what happened, others don't — but contend they stemmed from family disputes that should have been handled internally. They say that they are bound by different rules guided by their religion and that the government had no business getting involved in what they did.
“We're not exactly saying it was wrong, and we don't say it's right, either. ... It's something that will never happen again, I can tell you that,” said Wilma Mullet, a daughter of Sam Mullet Sr. who was not charged.
All 16 defendants have appealed, arguing that the group's conviction, sentencing and imprisonment in separate facilities as far away as Louisiana, Minnesota and Connecticut violates their constitutional rights and amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, an argument prosecutors reject.
The defendants say the distance to the facilities is too great to travel by horse-drawn buggy or even by using a hired driver, so most of their families likely won't be able to visit.
The five reporting to prison Friday said they're somewhat scared and not sure what to expect, but they're hopeful about being released early for good behavior. They're sewing clothes, plowing ground and finishing other chores to make life easier for their loved ones who will remain in the community. Two women were bracing for their first plane ride, to prisons in Minnesota.
Their departure leaves nearly three dozen children without at least one parent, and some without both because their fathers already are incarcerated, so the adults have made alternative arrangements. In some cases, older siblings will look after younger ones. The spouses and 15 children of two defendants, Anna Miller and Freeman Burkholder, are merging under one roof while they serve their one-year sentences. Lovina Miller is beginning a similar sentence and giving Martha Mullet custody of her eight children until she returns because her husband is in Massachusetts on a seven-year sentence.
Before the trial, the Amish rejected plea agreements that offered leniency and could have helped some of the young mothers avoid prison.
Several said Tuesday that they rejected those deals, either because they didn't want to admit guilt to a hate crime charge or they didn't want to testify against Mullet Sr. and say things they don't believe.
The community members say they're working together to ensure the group perseveres by handling home repairs and various chores that would have been the responsibility of the incarcerated members, with the remaining men especially bearing the burden of extra work. Among them is the 19-year-old grandson who took over running Sam Mullet Sr.'s 700-acre farm.