CLEVELAND (AP) — A breakaway Amish group spent months planning hair- and beard-cutting attacks against followers of their faith in eastern Ohio, federal prosecutors said Tuesday as they outlined their case against 16 men and women charged with hate crimes in the attacks.
The accused ringleader, Samuel Mullet Sr., wore a blue shirt and suspenders, with a beard hanging down to the middle of his chest, and sat rigidly in his seat as the trial got under way in Cleveland. He and the other defendants denied the charges, rejected plea bargain offers and could face lengthy prison terms if convicted in the hair-cuttings, which are considered deeply offensive in Amish culture.
"Every one of these attacks targeted those symbols of Amish righteousness," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Bridget M. Brennan, who described the attacks in nearly step-by-step detail.
Several attorneys for the 16 on trial didn't deny that the hair cuttings took place, saying on Tuesday that their clients were motivated by a family feud and lingering bitterness. Another attorney said one of the defendants, Lester Miller, took part in the hair cuttings of his parents because he felt they had strayed from their religion.
"He thought his parents had forgotten their roots," attorney Dean Carro said. "His intention was to take a symbolic step."
Prosecutors say the attacks were motivated solely by religious disagreements between Amish bishops and a breakaway group. Mullet has described what happened as internal church disciplinary matters and say the government shouldn't get involved.
Some of those who were targeted had lived in Mullet's settlement near the West Virginia panhandle and moved away over disagreements with his methods. Others were bishops who had intervened in Mullet's decision to excommunicate several members. The bishops agreed the excommunications weren't consistent with Amish teachings and decided not to recognize the penalties, which angered Mullet and inspired the attacks, prosecutors said.
Brennan said some suspects kept the hair they cut, and one defendant took along a disposable camera to take pictures. Prosecutors presented one photo to jurors, saying it showed a suspect holding an Amish bishop on the night some defendants broke into his house and cut his beard.
The camera was hidden under a tree, Brennan said.
"They wanted to see the trophies they collected," she said.
Defense attorneys said none of the hair cuttings was meant to hurt anybody even though prosecutors said some of the Amish targeted suffered cuts, bruises and other injuries.
"The aim is not to hurt the person," attorney Gary Levine said. "The aim is to bring them back to the community."
Brennan said that several defendants admitted their roles and that Mullet didn't participate in the attacks but helped plan them.
"Sam Mullet was at the beginning and the end of all of these attacks," she said.
Mullet has said he didn't order the hair-cutting but didn't stop anyone from carrying it out.
Brennan said that some of the victims would testify against the defendants and that the children, grandchildren and siblings of the suspects also would testify about what they saw and knew.