The Holland Sentinel, Mar. 8, 2003
By NATE REENS
A Holland man who led a dissident Amish sect on the city’s south side will serve up to 15 years in prison for sexually assaulting a teen-age follower.
Police say Wilbur Eash, 50, served as a spiritual advisor and life counselor for dozens of people who broke away from a mainstream Amish community in northern Indiana and settled in Holland in 1994.
Last August, Eash was accused of violating a 14-year-old boy, the son of a woman who followed Eash to the area. He was originally charged with first-degree criminal sexual conduct for molesting the boy, but he later pleaded guilty to a less serious count punishable by a maximum of 15 years in prison.
On Friday, Eash was ordered to a 20-month to 15-year imprisonment.
Allegan prosecutors asked for the maximum sentence because Eash took advantage of his role of authority to coerce the teen into sex, a move police say wasn’t new to Eash.
Authorities say their investigation found at least two other instances of Eash abusing young boys.
“This is a behavior which is established as part of a pattern in which the defendant has singled out young boys using his religious authority he claims he has,” said Doug Ketchum, an assistant Allegan County prosecutor. “It is a gross and reprehensible crime.”
Eash declined to speak on his own behalf at Friday’s hearing and the victim was not present. The teen, who was living with Eash at the time of the offense, is now in a foster home, Holland Sgt. Jeff Velthouse said.
“At least while you’re down there (in prison), you won’t harm any other little boys,” Beach told Eash while ordering the prison term.
According to a 1990 Los Angeles Times story, Eash’s followers credited him with having supernatural powers. He was disillusioned with the Amish religion’s strict beliefs and led the splinter group away from Shipshewana, Ind., promising the use of phones and electricity.
Eash settled at an East 34th Street apartment complex and, one by one, followers came to join him. Police do not call the sect a cult, but say the group is isolated and keeps to itself.
Eash gained national exposure in 1990 when the family of Elma Miller hired a “deprogrammer” to convert her from Eash’s group and return her to the Amish lifestyle.
The Millers hired a San Diego, Calif., man and helped shuttle her from homes in Michigan, Ohio and Illinois while involved in counseling to sway her from the splinter group. The counseling did not work and Miller remained a part of Eash’s splinter group.
When reached at her Holland home Friday afternoon, Miller said she and other friends of Eash are upset about the sentence. Miller said he shouldn’t be in jail at all.
“They should release him right away,” she said. “He’s a nice person who has always been nothing but kind.
“It’s been very hard on us (for Eash to be jailed). We all just wish he could come home and continue to be a very good neighbor. We’ll still visit him even if he’s 100 miles away. We’ll keep in touch with him and remain his neighbor.”
Miller didn’t deny Eash sexually assaulted the teen-ager, but she said “a lot of things are made up and aren’t true.”