Jurors deliberated Wednesday whether attacks in Ohio by a breakaway Amish group on fellow Amish that included cutting believers’ beards and hair off constituted hate crimes, a rare case of government intervention in the affairs of the traditionalist Christian that shuns secular society.
“He is evil and had total mind control over those people,” Jefferson County Sheriff Fred Abdalla said in a phone interview, describing Samuel Mullet, a top leader of the breakaway Amish group and the main defendant widely portrayed by U.S. media as the ringleader of the attacks.
“To me, he is like a leader of a cult and if someone were to call me and tell me they were dead and drank Kool-Aid it wouldn’t have surprised me,” Abdalla said.
The trial began on August 27 in a U.S. District Court in Cleveland, and is centered on five assaults that were allegedly carried out by 16 members of Mullet’s community on another Amish group in Ohio, where Amish men and women consider their hair to be a symbol of their faith.
Mike Tobin, public affairs specialist with the U.S. Attorney’s office for the northern district of Ohio, told RIA Wednesday that he would not comment until the jury returned a verdict. Calls to defense attorneys were not returned.
According to the indictment, the victims said the attacks were carried out between September and November 2011 when some defendant’s pinned victims down while others used scissors and battery-powered clippers to cut their beards and hair off.
In an interview last year, Mullet told the Associated Press that the assaults were carried out to make neighboring Amish believers feel guilty for referring to his group as a cult.
Defense attorneys have said the case was an internal church matter, not a criminal affair. Prosecutors however argued that the assaults were a crime.
“For nearly 500 years, people have come to this land so that they could pray however and to whomever they wished,” said U.S. attorney, Steven M. Dettelbach in a statement. “Violent attempts to attack this most basic freedom have no place in our country.”
The Amish are a subgroup of the Protestant Mennonite church. They are known for simple living, plain dress and an aversion to modern conveniences.
During the trial, some witnesses said that they believed Mullet was brainwashing members of his community and that he coerced women into having sex with him. Prosecutors also argued that Mullet punished men by having them sleep in chicken coops.
“It is nauseating,” said Abdalla, about the details of the case.
Nathan Fritz, chief deputy of the sheriff’s office in Holmes County, where most of the plaintiffs reside, said questions about Mullet and the group he leads grew in part from the fact that he moved his group 60 miles (96 kilometers) from family members and friends a few years ago.
“There were rules and regulations that had been established that didn’t allow them to interact with families, and there are all kinds of rumors going around,” Fritz told RIA.
“That group down there definitely had some significant differences on how to conduct themselves than most of the traditional Amish groups, to the point that their religious interpretations were serious enough to completely isolate themselves from the rest of the group around here,” he said.
If convicted, the defendants could receive long jail terms as they also face charges of conspiracy and obstruction of justice. The maximum penalty for conviction of hate crimes is life in prison and the obstruction charge carries a sentence of up to 20 years.