Sheriff testifying at trial of 16 Ohio Amish describes beard-cutting scene: tears and screams

Members of the Amish leave the U.S. Federal Courthouse in Cleveland last week.
Members of the Amish leave the U.S. Federal Courthouse in Cleveland last week.

CLEVELAND — The sheriff in a county with one of the nation's biggest Amish settlements testified Wednesday that residents were upset and screaming after a community leader had his beard and hair cut by fellow Amish in a nighttime home invasion.

"There was a lot of screaming and yelling go on," Holmes County Sheriff Timothy Zimmerly testified in the U.S. District Court trial of 16 defendants in the attacks last year in northeast Ohio.

Zimmerly said he went in October to the home of an Amish bishop whose beard was cut short. He said the bishop's hair was unevenly chopped to the scalp, leaving it bloody, with hair scattered on the floor.

"There was a lot of hair laying on the floor," he testified as Amish watched from the public gallery, the women wearing white bonnets, the men wearing jeans and suspenders. "They were excited, very upset."

Prosecutors, defense attorneys and the defendants sat at seven tables covered in black cloth, giving the courtroom the look of a crowded banquet hall.

Zimmerly's cross-examination by defense attorneys focused on religious issues, including the faith-based reluctance of some Amish to involve law-enforcement agencies in crimes involving Amish. The defense has tried to portray the attacks as internal church disciplinary matters, not a religion-based hate crime as prosecutors contend.

Defense attorneys also questioned Zimmerly about the role of the alleged ring leader, Sam Mullet Sr., in escorting his son and nephew when they surrendered, apparently to show he cooperated with authorities.

The trial began last week and could last several weeks.

Those accused of planning and taking part in the attacks targeted the hair and beards of Amish bishops because of its spiritual significance in the faith, prosecutors said. Most Amish men do not shave their beards after marriage, believing it signifies their devotion to God.

Prosecutors say there were five different attacks last fall, orchestrated by Mullet, who two decades ago established an Amish settlement outside the tiny town of Bergholz near Steubenville. All of the defendants, who live in the settlement, could face lengthy prison terms if convicted on charges that include conspiracy and obstructing justice.

Mullet has denied ordering the hair-cutting but said he didn't stop anyone from carrying it out.

Attorneys for the defendants have not denied that the hair cuttings took place and said in the opening statements that members of the breakaway group took action out of compassion and concern that some Amish were straying from their beliefs. Defense attorneys also contended that the Amish are bound by different rules guided by their religion and that the government shouldn't get involved in what amounted to a family or church dispute.