The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

World, nation, state

February 9, 2013

Amish beard-cutting ringleader gets 15 years

CLEVELAND — Denying he ran an Amish cult, the 67-year-old ringleader of hair- and beard-cutting attacks on fellow members of his faith in Ohio was sentenced Friday to 15 years in prison, while family members convicted of carrying out his orders got one to seven years.

The judge said the defendants had violated the constitutional rights protecting religious practice that had also benefited them as Amish. Authorities had prosecuted the attacks as a hate crime.

Before his sentencing, Samuel Mullet Sr. told the judge he had been accused of running a cult. Mullet, his ankles in chains and a white beard down to mid-chest, said that if his community is seen as a cult, “Then I’m going to take the punishment for everybody.”

The 10 men and six women were convicted last year in five attacks in Ohio Amish communities in 2011. The government said the attacks were retaliation against Amish who had defied or denounced Mullet’s authoritarian hold over the splinter group he started in 1995.

The case has opened a rare window to the lives of the insular Amish, who shun many facets of modern life and are deeply religious. Amish believe the Bible instructs women to let their hair grow long and men to grow beards once they marry. Cutting it would be shameful and offensive.

“The victims were terrorized and traumatized,” U.S. District Judge Dan Aaron Polster said, noting that the same constitution that exempts them from jury service and permission to leave school at 14 was turned against the victims. “Each of you has received the benefits of that First Amendment.”

With relatives of victims and his family sitting on opposite sides of the public gallery, Mullet said he has lived his life trying to help others.

“That’s been my goal all my life,” Mullet said to a hushed courtroom, with his fellow defendants and their attorneys sitting at four defense tables and filling the jury box.

“I’m not going to be here much longer,” said Mullet, who didn’t elaborate on any health issues.

The government had asked for a life sentence for Mullet, while the defense asked for two years or less.

Some defendants tearfully offered to take the brunt of the blame and punishment on behalf of Mullet or their spouses. Addressing the judge one by one, they said there would be no more beard-cutting attacks.

Freeman Burkholder, the 32-year-old husband of a Mullet niece and father of eight children, apologized to the judge.

“I won’t do it again,” he said.

Anna Miller, 33, married to a Mullet nephew and mother of six, also apologized, turning to relatives of victims as she said, “I’m sorry, it won’t happen again.” Like most of the women, she was sentenced to one year.

Federal prosecutor Bridget Brennan urged the judge to punish Mullet adequately.

“He is a danger to this community,” she said. “He is capable of controlling 15 defendants.”

Brennan repeated key testimony against Mullet and said he has remained the leader of his eastern Ohio community despite being locked up since his arrest in late 2011.

U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach, whose office directed the prosecution, said he was confident the law would withstand a constitutional challenge.

As for Mullet, “I think the sentence he got was harsh; I think it was appropriately harsh,” Dettelbach said. “Mr. Mullet’s conduct in court today reiterated yet again his utter failure to respect the rule of law and his utter lack of remorse.”

The jury had sided with prosecutors’ arguments that the defendants should be found guilty of a hate crime because religious differences brought about the attacks.

The judge said the defendants have two weeks to file appeals of their sentences or convictions. Defense attorneys have indicated such appeals are likely.

Rhonda Kotnik, attorney for Kathryn Miller, a 24-year-old mother of three who received a one-year sentence, said appeals would focus on whether the hate-crimes law is unconstitutionally broad and whether restraining the victims to cut their beards amounted to kidnapping.

“There are lots of issues,” she said.

Nine of 10 men who were convicted have been locked up awaiting sentencing. The six women, who all have children, have been free on bond.

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