Renegade Amish bishop Samuel Mullet and 15 of his followers were convicted Thursday of federal conspiracy and hate crimes for a series of beard- and hair cutting attacks on fellow Amish who rejected Mullet’s edicts.
Their convictions could result in lengthy prison terms.
Four of Mullet’s children were among those convicted of carrying out the attacks ordered by their father. All face prison terms of 10 years or more on charges that also included conspiracy, evidence tampering and obstruction of justice. Sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 24, prosecutors said.
The group, known as the Bergholz Clan, consists of about 20 families who lived on an 880-acre farm in Bergholz, in Ohio’s Jefferson County, about 100 miles southeast of Cleveland.
Some former members have accused the clan of being a cult, but a judge forbid federal prosecutors from describing Mullet’s group with words such cult, sect, clan, band, schism, faction, off-shoot, breakaway, renegade, rogue or splinter group.
However, witnesses were allowed to describe the group using any terms they chose, and prosecutors were free to question them about Mullet’s sexual activities.
According to the FBI, former members claim Mullet has been “counseling” married women in his clan, taking them into his home “so that he may cleanse them of the devil with acts of sexual intimacy.”
Prosecutors say this practice demonstrates the level of control Mullet had over his followers.
The FBI said that the beard- and hair cutting attacks came about because Mullet was angry that other Amish bishops refused to accept his excommunication of members who had chosen to leave his group. [Read: Why Amish leaders rejected Mullet's excommunications]
The Amish believe the Bible instructs them to let their hair grow after marriage as a sign of their devotion to God.
There were five separate attacks involving assaults on nine people whom Mullet had described as enemies.
Prosecutors argued that the attacks were intended to humiliate those who questioned Mr. Mullet’s cultlike methods, which included forcing errant followers to sleep in chicken coops and pressing married women — including his own daughter-in-law — to accept his intimate sexual “counseling.”
Some of the victims had angered Mr. Mullet by refusing to honor his shunning decrees against his foes, calling them an improper use of his power as a bishop and accepting those he sought to banish into their own churches. Other victims had moved out of his settlement and attacked him as a cult leader.
Last Monday Barbara Yoder, daughter of Samuel Mullet and a reluctant prosecution witness, said that the victims of beard and hair-cutting attacks were hypocrites who only pretended to live an Amish life.
The verdicts were a vindication for federal prosecutors, who made a risky decision to apply a 2009 federal hate-crimes law to the sect’s violent efforts to humiliate Amish rivals.
Defense lawyers in the case and an independent legal expert had argued that the government was overreaching by turning a personal vendetta within the Amish community, and related attacks, into a federal hate-crimes case. But the jury accepted the prosecutors’ description of the attacks as an effort to suppress the victims’ practice of religion, finding Mr. Mullet and the other defendants guilty on nearly all the multiple charges they faced of conspiracy, hate crimes and obstruction of justice.
The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, was passed by Congress in October, 2009 in response to the bias-related murders of Matthew Shepard — who was tortured to death in Wyoming because he was gay — and James Byrd Jr., a black man who was dragged to his death in Texas by white supremacists.
Among other things, the act “prohibits any person from willfully causing bodily injury to any person, or attempting to do so by use of a dangerous weapon, because of the actual or perceived religion of that person.”
Federal prosecutor Steven M. Dettelbach said Thursday that the Mullet case “falls squarely in the core” of Congress’s intent in passing the 2009 law.
“The victims wanted to pray with, and let into their churches, people that the defendants didn’t like,” he said. “This was violence against people in the practice of their religion.”
“(The attackers) sheared them almost like animals, leaving them bloodied, bruised and beaten,” U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach told reporters Thursday. “These were no mere haircuts. These were violent attacks … (leaving victims) so shaken and scared that they felt compelled to call on local law enforcement.”
Usually, the Amish resolve disputes without involving law enforcement, but some Amish members reported the beard-cutting incidents to police last fall.