BERGHOLZ, Ohio (AP) — More than 50 Amish children could lose one parent to prison — and most of the youngest could lose both — on Friday when 16 men and women are sentenced in beard-cutting attacks on fellow members of their faith in Ohio.
Most defendants could face as long as 10 years in prison and are asking the judge for leniency so they can return to their homes and farms, teaching their sons a trade and their daughters how to sew, cook and keep house.
But their bid faces an uphill battle. Victims of the 2011 attacks, which the government called a hate crime and an attempt by a splinter group to shame members who left or denounced it, say justice is needed, especially for the ringleader.
In a rare interview last week in Bergholz at the community's sprawling farm amid rolling hills in eastern Ohio, unmarried 19-year-old Edward Mast, grandson of ring leader Sam Mullet Sr., said he is anticipating a life of mentoring Amish children and sharing in child-rearing if the parents go to prison.
While he spoke, a 15-year-old used a chain saw to cut fence planks and a 12-year-old crisply drove nails into the planks as a 10-year-old held up the board. The youngest trudged in boots through ankle-deep mud and a creek surging with melting snow.
Prison terms will make the whole operation harder to maintain, Mast told The Associated Press. "It will be a mess," he said, shaking his head under a wide-brim hat.
Mullet broke away from the mainstream Amish in 1995, seeking stricter cultural rules and Scriptural interpretation than is the norm in the eastern Ohio community, authorities said. He was the undisputed leader of his group, counseling relatives on religious matters, negotiating drilling rights on his land and denouncing Amish who questioned his authority.
Mullet's community, like many Amish groups, grew through marriage and the purchase of farmland to sustain extended families that work and pray together, mostly shut off from outside influences like electricity, autos and electronics.
Amish communities have a highly insular, modest lifestyle, are deeply religious and believe in following the Bible, which they believe instructs women to let their hair grow long and men to grow beards and stop shaving once they marry. Contact with the modern world is limited, and glimpses from the news media inside Amish communities even rarer.
The five beard- and hair-cutting attacks followed years of animosity, traced in part to a nasty custody battle involving Mullet's daughter and his strict demands on religious observance. The custody dispute led to a contentious history with local law enforcement over the county's seizure of two Mullet granddaughters from their mother.
One of Mullet's daughters-in-law and a former brother-in-law told investigators that he allowed others to beat members who disobeyed him, according to an affidavit. He punished some by making them sleep in a chicken coop for days and was sexually intimate with married women to "cleanse them of the devil," the two relatives said in the affidavit.
Mullet's defense argued there was no proof of such sexual conduct.