A judge sentenced the leader of a breakaway Amish sect to 15 years prison Friday in connection with beard and hair-cutting attacks on fellow Amish.
Sam Mullet Sr. and 15 members of his extended family were convicted of conspiracy in some manner in the 2011 attacks on fellow Amish in eastern and northeastern Ohio with whom they had religious differences.
“You deserve the longest and harshest sentence,” U.S. District Judge Dan Aaron Polster said to Mullet before his sentencing. “Sadly, I consider you are a danger to the community.”
The focus of the trial centered on Mullet, leader of a breakaway Amish sect in Bergholz, Ohio, where about 20 Amish families live on his 880-acre farm. The community is about 100 miles southeast of Cleveland near the West Virginia border.
“I am being blamed for being a cult leader,” Mullet said Friday. “If somebody needs to be punished, I’ll take the punishment for everybody.”
In addition to the conspiracy charge, Mullet was convicted last year on six additional counts, including lying to the FBI, for planning the attacks, which were likened to animals being shorn.
The sentencing came after more than four hours during which the U.S. attorney and the defendants had the chance to address the court. Mullet could have received a life sentence.
Mullet’s sons asked that they be allowed to serve the time for their father. The judge gave them sentences from five to seven years. Others convicted were sentenced to as little as a year and a day up to seven years in federal prison.
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.
During the trial, prosecutors and witnesses in U.S. District Court here described how Mullet’s sons pulled a father out of bed and chopped off his beard in the moonlight and how women followers of Mullet surrounded their mother-in-law and cut off 2 feet of her hair, taking it down to the scalp in some places.
“It’s a cult,” said Arlene Miller, 48, of Carrollton, Ohio, whose husband is an Amish bishop and was a victim of the beard cuttings. “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.”
The five cutting attacks on a total of nine victims took place between September and November 2011.
Hair and beards have enormous religious symbolism for the Amish, and the government portrayed the attacks as hate crimes. The defense admitted the cuttings took place but characterized the incidents as a family feud.
“These attacks were never just about hair,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Bridget M. Brennan said Friday. “They were about religion.”
In an interview last week in Bergholz at the Mullet farm, Mullet’s unmarried 19-year-old grandson, Edward Mast, discussed the family’s attitude. He said they are steadfast in the belief that the attacks didn’t rise to the level of a hate crime.
“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?”
U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach called the verdicts a “triumph for one of the most basic and sacred freedoms in this country: freedom of religion.”