CLEVELAND (AP) — A hair-cutting attack on an Amish bishop left him so ashamed that he stopped preaching and refused to attend a family wedding because he didn't want anyone to see him without his beard, his son testified Wednesday at the trial of 16 Amish men and women accused of carrying out a series of hate crimes on church leaders in Ohio.
In the minutes after the surprise encounter last fall, Andy Hershberger said he looked toward his 77-year-old father. Gray clumps of hair from the beard his father had grown since marriage covered the floor where he sat.
"He was shaking all over," Hershberger said. "He was crying and crying."
Federal prosecutors say that a dispute between the leader of a breakaway Amish group and other bishops who sought to overrule his authoritarian methods led to the hair- and -beard cutting attacks that struck fear into Ohio's normally peaceful Amish community.
Those accused of planning and taking part in the attacks targeted the hair and beards of Amish bishops because of its spiritual significance in the faith, prosecutors said. Most Amish men do not shave their beards after marriage, believing it signifies their devotion to God.
Prosecutors say there were five different attacks last fall, orchestrated by Sam Mullet Sr., who two decades ago, established an Amish settlement outside the tiny town of Bergholz near the West Virginia panhandle. All of the defendants, who live in the settlement, could face lengthy prison terms if convicted on charges that include conspiracy and obstructing justice. Mullet has denied ordering the hair-cutting but said he didn't stop anyone from carrying it out.
Attorneys for the defendants have not denied that the hair cuttings took place and said in the opening statements that members of the breakaway group took action out of compassion and concern that some Amish were straying from their beliefs. Defense attorneys also contended that the Amish are bound by different rules guided by their religion and that the government shouldn't get involved in what amounted to a family or church dispute.
Mullet's sister, Barbara Miller, testified Wednesday that six of her children and their spouses showed up at her home in northeast Ohio last September. Their relationship had been strained since she and husband, Marty, left the Mullet settlement four years earlier. But she was thrilled to see her son, Lester, at the door, she said.
"I wanted to hug him," she said.
But her boys pushed past and soon surrounded their father, holding shears and clippers, she testified. "Lester reached out, grabbed Marty by his beard so hard it distorted his face," Miller said
The group took off their father's hair and the women chopped off Barbara Miller's waist-length hair, she said. Before leaving, they stuffed the hair in a paper bag, she said.
"I started praying 'forgive them God,'" she said, adding that one son screamed: "God is not with you."
Her children's defense attorneys said in opening statements a day earlier that the Miller's children acted out because they had been mistreated by their father while growing up. The attorneys likened what happened to a family feud. Barbara Miller denied that her father mistreated any of his children.
The attack on Raymond Hershberger took place at his farm in Holmes County, said his son who lives on the same land. The county is home to one of the nation's largest Amish settlements.
Andy Hershberger testified that five men arrived at his house on an October evening and said, "We want to talk with you and your dad." Once inside, one of the defendants, whom he identified as Johnny Mullet — son of accused ringleader Sam Mullet Sr. — stood up and said: "We're from Bergholz. We're here to do what you did to our people."
Hersherger described a chaotic scene, with the men holding down him, his father and his brother. He said his father covered his head, pleading "Don't shear me, don't shear me."
"I saw the hair fly," Andy Hershberger said.
Prosecutors showed jurors a photo of a man, identified by Hershberger as Johnny Mullet, standing over his father and holding him near his throat during the attack. Another suspect had taken the pictures with a disposable camera, investigators said.
A group of Amish women watching the trial, including relatives of the Hershbergers, hid their faces with shaking hands and turned away from the photos.
Hershberger said clumps of hair were missing from his father's head and his scalp was bleeding a bit. Only an inch of his beard, which had hung to the middle of his chest, was left. He didn't preach again until his hair grew back.
"He was so ashamed with the way he looked," his son said. "He was heartbroken."
Hershberger said the attackers grabbed him by the beard too and tried to shave it.
But the clippers stopped working, he said, and the men left.