CLEVELAND – The ringleader in hair- and beard-cutting attacks on fellow Amish in Ohio was sentenced Friday to 15 years in prison, and 15 family members received sentences of one year to seven years.
“The victims were terrorized and traumatized,” U.S. District Court Judge Dan Aaron Polster said in sentencing leader Sam Mullet Sr., 67, who sat without emotion during the sentencing.
The judge said the defendants had violated the constitutional rights protecting religious practice that had benefited them as Amish – such as an exemption from jury service and allowing Amish children to leave school at age 14.
“Each of you has received the benefits of that First Amendment,” Polster said.
The judge said the defendants have two weeks to file an appeal of their sentence or conviction. Defense attorneys have indicated such appeals are likely.
Before his sentencing, Mullet told the judge that he had been blamed for running a cult and was ready to take the punishment.
Mullet, his ankles in chains and a white beard down to mid-chest, said if his community is seen as a cult, “then I’m going to take the punishment for everybody.”
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.
Mullet and his family deny his community is a cult. The government asked for a life sentence for Mullet. The defense asked for two years or less.
The 10 men and six women were convicted last year in five attacks in Amish communities in 2011. The government said the attacks were retaliation against Amish who had defied or denounced Mullet’s authoritarian style
Amish believe the Bible instructs women to let their hair grow long and men to grow beards once they marry. Cutting it would be offensive to Amish.
Other defendants, some in tears, also offered to take the brunt of the blame and punishment on behalf of Mullet or spouses. Addressing the judge one by one, the defendants said there would be no more beard-cutting attacks.
Freeman Burkholder, 32, 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.
A 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.
The defendants were charged with a hate crime because prosecutors believe religious differences brought about the attacks.
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.
In a rare interview last week in Bergholz at the sprawling Mullet farm amid rolling hills in eastern Ohio, 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?”
Arlene Miller, whose husband, an Amish bishop, was among the victims, thinks Mullet deserves a tough sentence and the others should get less time if they get cult deprogramming counseling.
“It’s a cult,” said Miller, 48, of Carrollton. “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.”
She said there were no winners in the ordeal.
“There’s no happy ending to this,” she said.