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Something Wicked

At the Amish trial, interminable boredom broken by moments of terror



The hair-cutting, hate-crime Amish trial currently underway in federal court got off to a sleepy start last week — literally. U.S. District Court Judge Dan Polster opened the proceedings on Wednesday morning by having a word with Juror No. 4, who apparently didn't find the previous day's opening statements "scintillating" enough.

Translation: The juror fell asleep.

It wasn't quite the fireworks everyone expected after the arrest last fall of Sam Mullet Sr., the leader of an Amish sect in Bergholz, Ohio, and 15 of his followers. Mullet is accused of orchestrating retaliatory attacks to cut off the beards of Amish men and the hair of Amish women who broke away from his sect or later censured him.

But however salacious the details, the trial will be a slog.

Start with the logistics: Sixteen defendants, each in similar Amish clothing, and each with their own lawyer. "You can't tell the difference [between them]!" complained WKYC's Kim Wendell in a moment of questionable candor.

That's 16 possible cross-examinations of each witness, many with barely noticeable differences in syntax as the same questions are asked over and over again. Even Judge Polster quickly became impatient.

"Are there new questions to ask?" he said, leaning on his elbows, shoulders shrugged low, after one interminable exchange. "Then let's get to those."

Plus, there's the problem of helping the jury understand not just Amish culture — no small feat considering the general public's limited knowledge of the reclusive, quiet group — but the divisive differences between the Bergholz clan and other Amish groups that led to the attacks.

Thus, questions like, "How often to you go to the horse auction?" and, "What time do you go to bed?" and, "How do you remember what your kids looked like when they were young, since you are not allowed to take pictures?"

And add in a slight language barrier. English is a second language for the Amish; Pennsylvania Dutch is their first. Answers from witnesses, then, are often delivered in stilted, simple sentences, with many requests to repeat questions, and responses like, "I'm not sure what you mean."

This comes as no surprise to Alvin Stoll, a 65-year-old man who was raised Amish but left the religion at the age of 19. "The lawyers are having trouble understanding the finer points of Amish culture," noted Stoll, who came from Austin, Texas to see the trial.

How to explain, for example, how the attacks transpired: The Mullets simply knocked on the door of their victims and were let in, then announced themselves as the infamous Bergholz group and declared they were there to cut their beards.

Andy Hershberger, one of the victims, testified last week that the threat elicited a frantic plea of, "Don't shear me! Don't shear me!" from his father.

So, a slog. But not all of it.

Underneath all the layers of rote minutiae lies the heart of why the case captured the nation's attention in the first place, why it's being covered by a New York Times reporter, and why it's being being tried as a hate crime by the Feds instead of a simple assault by the local prosecutors.

Just as that started to emerge last Thursday, the video feed that most reporters covering the trial are watching in an adjacent courtroom went out (again), leaving a black screen and silence.

"Let's just get to the sex!" exclaimed one female media member, saying what everyone in the room was thinking.

On the stand was Nancy Mullet, the wife of Sam Mullet Sr.'s son Eli. When the screen came back to life, what had started as a national joke quickly turned into something far more sinister. Suddenly the case was not about an inconvenient shave but a ruthless, vindictive, powerful zealot with absolute control of his community.

Nancy Mullet, who eventually absconded with her husband Eli and six children to a town in Pennsylvania to escape Sam Mullet Sr.'s reign of terror, laid bare the first explicit and salacious details.

When her husband fell ill and went to the hospital for an extended recuperation, Mullet Sr. stepped in as a "marriage counselor." He'd previously scared the couple into scuttling plans to leave the community, warning Nancy that Eli would kill her or leave the faith, threatening that the devil would follow them, and eventually excommunicating them briefly despite their decision to stay. Once Eli was gone, his actions escalated.

He started by telling Nancy to hug him ... to help make Eli better. Then to sit on his lap ... to help make Eli better. Then to kiss him ... to make Eli better. Then to stay in his house ... to make Eli better. Then to have sex with him ... to make Eli better.

Nancy sobbed as she related the sad story on the stand. She felt ashamed. She was afraid. She agreed to some of the initial requests, but when she was ordered to his bedroom, she finally said no.

But "no" is not a word that Sam Mullet Sr. heard very often.

"I can't understand why you can't obey me," she said he told her after she refused to join him in his bed. "All the other girls can."

The "other girls" were fellow members of the community, including other daughters-in-law. They told Nancy that Mullet Sr.'s "marriage counseling" had helped them, and she should obey. When again she refused, Mullet Sr. informed her that "we all decided you're a whore."

Before the defense began cross-examinations, Judge Polster felt obligated to remind the jury that Sam Mullet Sr. is not charged with any sex crimes. You're going to hear lots of salacious details, he said. Let that inform your verdict only insofar as it proves that there was a divide between these two religious communities and establishes motives for the hate crimes Mullet is charged with.

Let's get to the sex, indeed. And there will be more. Nancy was not alone.

It started with beards and jokes, a curiosity in the eyes of a nation unfamiliar with a culture they rarely hear about. But it's quickly turning into a portrait of a monster.

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