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.
His community had contact with other Amish groups, often because of family ties throughout the region or when gathering at livestock auctions or to buy farming equipment.
Some Amish spoke out against his authoritarian style, and the government said that led to the attacks as Mullet tried to discipline dissenters who left his community and Amish bishops who condemned him.
Arlene Miller, 48, of Carrollton, whose husband, an Amish bishop, was among the victims, said she thinks Mullet deserves a tough sentence and the others should get less time if they get cult deprogramming counseling.
"It's a cult," she said. "Their minds were programmed in the wrong way by Sam Mullet, so we feel like these people are very deceived and they are actually victims of Sam Mullet."
She said there were no winners in the ordeal. "There's no happy ending to this," she said.
Some Amish remain fearful of Mullet, whose family denies his community is a cult.
"I don't want Sam Mullet to be around my nieces and nephews for the threats he made and things he done. So please keep Sam in jail," one person said in a letter to the court. The name and hometown were blocked in the court filing because of fear of retaliation.
"Please understand that we have many fears of him being released," another writer said. Prosecutors submitted 14 letters, some warning that Mullet and his family would disturb the peace of the Amish community. One called Mullet an evil, dangerous person.
The government asked for a life sentence for Mullet, saying he orchestrated the attacks and controlled members of his Amish settlement and frazzled nerves in quiet Amish communities in Ohio and neighboring states. His attorney asked for a sentence of 1½ to two years.
The government said the cuttings were an attempt to shame members Mullet believed were straying from their beliefs. His followers were found guilty of carrying out the attacks.
Mast said that women whose husbands are facing prison are anxious for them to return home, and that the children ask about their fathers.
"They're always talking about the day when Dad comes home again; what they are going to do and what they want to do," Mast said.
Nine of 10 men who were convicted have been locked up awaiting sentencing. The six women, who all have children, one with 11, have been free on bond. The defendants were charged with a hate crime because prosecutors believe religious differences brought about the attacks.
Mast said the Mullet community has been steadfast in its belief that the beard- and hair-cutting attacks didn't rise to the level of a hate crime, but amounted to discipline amid a church feud that shouldn't involve civil authorities.
"The beard, what it stands for me, what I know about it, once you're married you just grow a beard, that's just the way the Amish is," Mast said.
As for the victims, he added, "They got their beard back again, so what's the big deal about it?"