Originally published on page A1 of the national edition of The New York Times.
By ERIK ECKHOLM and DANIEL LOVERING
BERGHOLZ, Ohio — Myron Miller and his wife, Arlene, had been asleep for an hour when their 15-year-old daughter woke them and said that people were knocking at the door.
Mr. Miller, 45, a stocky construction worker and an Amish bishop in the peaceful farmlands of eastern Ohio, found five or six men waiting. Some grabbed him and wrestled him outside as others hacked at his long black beard with scissors, clipping off six inches. As Mr. Miller kept struggling, his wife screamed at the children to call 911, and the attackers fled.
For an Amish man, it was an unthinkable personal violation, and all the more bewildering because those accused in the attack are other Amish.
“We don’t necessarily fight, but it’s just instinct to defend yourself,” Mr. Miller recalled.
The attackers, the authorities said, had traveled from an isolated splinter settlement near Bergholz, south of the Miller residence. Sheriffs and Amish leaders in the region, home to one of the country’s largest concentrations of Amish, had come to expect trouble from the Bergholz group. It is said to be led with an iron hand by Sam Mullet, a prickly 66-year-old man who had become bitterly estranged from mainstream Amish communities and had had several confrontations with the Jefferson County sheriff.
But the violent humiliation that men from his group are charged with inflicting on their perceived enemies throughout this fall, using scissors and battery-operated clippers, came as a bizarre shock.
The assaults — four are known to the authorities — have stirred fear among the Amish and resulted in the arrests, so far, of five men, including three of Mr. Mullet’s sons, on kidnapping and other charges. Officials say that more arrests are possible.
In the first incident, on Sept. 6 in the town of Mesopotamia, a married couple who had left the Bergholz community four years ago, Martin and Barbara Miller, were attacked at night by five of their own sons and a son-in law, along with their wives, all of whom had elected to remain with Mr. Mullet, according to the victims. The gang left the father with a “ragged beard,” as a sheriff’s report described it, then turned on their mother — who is Mr. Mullet’s sister — and chopped off large patches of her hair.
“The beard is a key symbol of masculine Amish identity,” said Donald B. Kraybill, a sociologist and expert on the Amish at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. The women view their long hair, kept in a bun, as their “glory,” Dr. Kraybill said, and shearing it was “an attack on her personal identity and religious teaching.”
The men accused in the attack were released on bail. The elder Mr. Mullet has not been charged, although he remains under investigation. “I know that nothing moves out there unless he says it moves,” said Fred J. Abdalla, the sheriff of Jefferson County.
Federal prosecutors are considering whether to pursue federal hate-crime charges, according to the Cleveland office of the F.B.I.
The prosecutions are unusual because the Amish do not believe in revenge and prefer to settle disputes internally. The couple in Mesopotamia, Barbara and Martin Miller, have refused to testify, telling officers that they will “turn the other cheek.”
But others are cooperating with law enforcement.
“We want to see these people behind bars so this cult can be torn apart before it ends up like most of them do,” said Myron Miller, who lives in Mechanicstown. Many Amish regard Mr. Mullet as a danger to the wider community and above all to the 120 people in the settlement, including dozens of children growing up under his sway.
Mr. Miller now has a trimmed two-inch beard. He and his wife believe that the attack was retribution because, years ago, they helped one of Mr. Mullet’s sons leave Bergholz.
Mr. Mullet, through the front door of his large white house at the center of his Bergholz settlement, refused to speak a reporter last week and ordered him off the property.
In an earlier interview with The Associated Press, Mr. Mullet said that the recent attacks resulted from “religious differences,” and that he had not ordered the attacks, though he had known that they were taking place.
The remarks enraged other Amish. “It’s not a church issue, it’s plain revenge,” Arlene Miller said.
Many Amish say they no longer consider Mr. Mullet to be Amish or even a true Christian. While the Amish have a long history of schisms, clusters of congregations tend to have cooperative ties, and the fact that Mr. Mullet’s group is not linked to any other is a sign of their renegade status, said David McConnell, an anthropologist at the College of Wooster who studies the Amish.
On a recent morning, the Bergholz settlement of 18 or so families, a scattering of wooden buildings and mobile homes reached by dirt track in a mountain valley, appeared nearly deserted. Horses and cows munched on green pastures. Women in traditional bonnets and long dark dresses glanced at a stranger through windows.
Edward Mast, 18, one of Mr. Mullet’s grandsons, was working in the barn, where sturdy horses were stabled and buggies were parked.
Nearly all the men leave each morning in vans to work construction jobs, he said, paying “English” — the Amish term for non-Amish — drivers for transport. Some of the women teach the children at their own small school; all children leave school after eighth grade, usually to start working, he said.
Mr. Mast, who loves Mountain Dew and deer hunting, said he assumed that he would keep living in the community.
In 1995, when Mr. Mullet bought land in Bergholz, he was already known as a loner with a provocative attitude. But his conflicts with outsiders have increased in the last decade, according to Sheriff Abdalla and local Amish leaders. One follower was convicted of threatening to kill the sheriff after losing a custody battle; one of Mr. Mullet’s sons went to prison for molesting a 12-year-old girl.
Mr. Mullet’s central religious grievance apparently stems from his effort about five years ago to excommunicate families who had moved out. A group of Amish leaders told him that he did not have proper grounds to do so, and he has stewed with resentment ever since, according to the sheriff.
The Sept. 6 attack on Mr. Mullet’s sister and her husband sent ripples of anxiety through the Amish community.
The next day the sister, Barbara Miller, 57, at first refused to talk to officers from Trumbull County but then pointed at her husband’s ragged beard.
“They did that to him,” she said, according to the sheriff’s report. “And they did this to me,” she said, removing a bandana, revealing what the officers described as “several patches of hair missing.”
Mrs. Miller told the officers that she and her husband had quit Bergholz but that their children had remained and had become involved with what she called a cult.
Further episodes on Oct. 4 finally led to the arrests. A group of men were accused of attacks at two different homes after attending a horse auction, roaming over several counties in a hired trailer with a puzzled driver.
The first victims that night were a 74-year-old Amish bishop and his son in Mount Hope. Later that night, members of the same group allegedly assaulted Myron Miller.
Mr. Miller grabbed at the face of one assailant, and later found clumps of beard, not his own, on the ground, which the sheriff collected for evidence.
“It just terrified me that these guys were actually pulling me out of my house,” Mr. Miller recalled. “My whole family was terrified.”