BERGHOLZ, Ohio (AP) — Bare feet and work boots shuffle on the wooden floor of the Amish schoolhouse as the children settle into tight rows of scuffed metal desks across the room from their parents — the men on one set of benches, women on another, some cradling younger children.
They have gathered to celebrate the end of school, but no one claps or cheers. The only voices raised are those of the students as they begin singing, the melodies rising and dipping like the surrounding hills. A warm breeze carries the religious lyrics, mostly in German, through open windows and over the fields where families will mingle afterward.
The ceremony is typically in late April, but this school year was cut short to allow some youngsters a few more days of family time before their parents leave for federal prison.
"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.
Her husband, Sam Mullet Sr., is the group's leader and is among nine men already behind bars on hate crime convictions for hair- and beard-cutting attacks against fellow Amish. He was sentenced to 15 years, the longest term of the 16 defendants.
Seven aren't yet in prison. Come Friday, five of them — four women and one more man — from this tight-knit group in rural eastern Ohio will enter the prison system in various states.
That timing made Tuesday's event the last big gathering before the five depart, and the participants gave The Associated Press a rare glimpse into their largely insular community.
Men played baseball in buttoned shirts, work boots and blue pants with suspenders. Their wives, some barefoot, sat outdoors on benches from the schoolhouse, chatting as their long-sleeved, blue and green dresses and white head scarves fluttered in the wind. Their children snacked and relaxed nearby, dressed like smaller versions of their parents.
Martha Mullet said she believes the government is trying to split up the community, but members are determined to ensure the survival of the breakaway group her husband founded.
Those who were attacked allege he led in authoritarian style, and at least one person described it as a cult where members' "minds were programmed in the wrong way by Sam Mullet."
Mullet's family denounces that description. Such communities typically limit interaction with news media, but members of Mullet's group in Bergholz said they were willing to talk because they feel they've been treated unfairly by the justice system.
The 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.
Prosecutors brought hate crime charges because they said they believed the attacks were spurred by religious differences.
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 they're bound by different rules guided by their religion, that the government had no business getting involved in what they did and that calling it a hate crime was overreaching.
"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," Wilma Mullet, a daughter of Sam Mullet. She was not among those charged.
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