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BERGHOLZ, Ohio — Dan Shrock isn’t your average 23-year-old. Until a few months ago, he had never driven a car or traveled more than a few miles from home. He rarely spoke to anyone outside his family. Then last year, he was involved in a serious buggy accident, which landed him in a Pittsburgh hospital. His four-month stay opened his eyes to a life he never imagined.
Shrock belonged to a group of isolated Amish living on 800 acres in northeastern Ohio's coal country. His grandfather Sam Mullet, an Amish bishop, was the family patriarch. More than 100 people were under his leadership.
“Sam Mullet’s community is a cult. They don’t have freedom,” said Shrock. “He has power over people's minds, gets them to do things he wants them to do and believe in him. I’ve been there, my cousins have been there, and we know it, and it is true.”
In his first interview with the outside world, Shrock recounted a tangled web of violence, sexual misconduct and brainwashing that all point to an Amish leader gone rogue. Mullet was already in federal prison by the time Shrock left the clan, but he says that his grandfather continues to control the closed-off community from inside his prison cell and that the abuse goes on.
The Bergholz Barbers
Mullet has many enemies, who accuse of him of many crimes. But what ultimately put him behind bars was a first: He was convicted of hate crimes against his own people.
In 2011, Mullet and 15 of his followers from Bergholz carried out five attacks against other Amish in eastern Ohio, thrusting them into the national spotlight. In the bizarre incidents, the attackers forced their way into homes, cut off men’s beards and sometimes sheared the hair of both men and women. For the Amish, hair is a religious symbol, and this was a shocking crime in a community known for peace. They were dubbed the Bergholz Barbers.
“Cutting off beards was a very clever tactic because the Bergholz barbers knew that the easiest way to disgrace and to shame an Amish man was to cut off his beard," said Don Kraybill, a professor at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania and a leading expert on Amish in America. He says they were acts of retaliation that were clearly religiously motivated.
“Absolutely unheard of in 320 years of Amish history,” Kraybill said. “He thinks he’s a prophet. God speaks to him. He’s the only one who can appropriately interpret the Bible for the other people there. All of this is utterly non-Amish.”
Mullet and his followers were charged with hate crimes. But in order to fall under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, the prosecutors had to argue that cutting off beards constituted disfigurement. The case presented another unique question: Was it possible to commit a hate crime against your own community?
In February 2013, Mullet and the 15 followers were convicted on multiple counts of hate crimes, conspiracy and obstruction of justice, which carry much stiffer punishment than simple assault. Mullet, then 67, received the harshest sentence: 15 years behind bars.
The Bergholz Barbers stunned an entire population. The 300,000 Amish in America are known to be a peace-loving group, at odds with Mullet’s harsh and authoritarian rule. Among them, Mullet is despised and feared and is an embarrassment.
“It’s so contrary to everything we believe in,” said Pennsylvania Amish shopkeeper Ben Riehl. “He definitely belongs in jail. There's no doubt about that. Simply because he is a threat to other people.”
He added, “I just find it incredible that about the only way to catch him was a hate crime … with the predatory things that he has done.”
‘He’s not God’
Bergholz looks like any other Amish community. Women in plain-cut dresses care for small children. Men and teenage boys on tractors work the farmland. Dozens of boys and girls play ball during recess outside a one-room schoolhouse.
When “America Tonight” visited the village, residents, leery of outsiders, stood mostly silent until one woman emerged from a small trailer and stepped onto her porch. “We had a very nice community until things started happening,” said Martha Mullet.
For 19 years, Martha Mullet, Sam Mullet's wife and the clan matriarch, has lived on the same plot of land, watching her family grow. She was eager to speak, saying allegations of a cult are nothing more than gossip. The beard cuttings weren't acts of religious intolerance, she insisted, which was the charge at the heart of the hate crime convictions; they were born of a domestic dispute.
In 2009, she said, the police took two of her granddaughters into custody and then gave them permanently to their father, who, she says, had a history of physically and sexually abusing her daughter Wilma Mullet.
“It started from the abduction of my two grandchildren,” Martha Mullet said. “They just want to talk about what we did. Nobody talks about what happened to us. Nobody talks about the root of the problem.”
She believes law enforcement and fellow Amish unfairly targeted her family because they are different and conservative. While she apologized for her community’s actions in the beard-cutting attacks, she defended her husband.
“He’s a very gentle, loving man,” she said. “And yes, he can get stern, just like anybody else, but people say he has power. No, I don’t feel he does have power. People say he has power over us to keep us here.”
Asked whether she believes her husband is a prophet, she replied, “I’m not sure how to word it that anybody would even understand. I have heard and seen things myself that I know that he is a man of God.”
Martha Mullet has 110 grandchildren, and Shrock, whose parents are in prison for the beard attacks, is one of only a handful to flee. He says that his grandmother is lying about the conditions in Bergholz and that the power his grandfather exerted was absolute and abusive.
“They made you write down your sins to Sam Mullet, and then you were forgiven and you could start over a new life, supposedly," he said. "Why does everybody have to write their sins to him and he could supposedly solve it and fix it? He’s just one guy. He’s not God.”
In order to repent, Shrock said, he and his siblings and cousins were paddled and forced to spend long cold nights in animal pens. He said he was once made to live in one for seven days.
Martha Mullet admits that her group engages in practices that are unusual for mainstream Amish, including the use of animal pens to punish improper behavior. She once placed herself in an animal pen for 18 consecutive days. But she was quick to mention that this was always voluntary — an extreme kind of soul-searching — and never something children would take part in. She spent the time praying, writing letters and talking to God, she said.
“I wasn’t always the best woman. I wasn’t always the best wife,” she said “I made mistakes, and I thought it would help me.”
Mullet acknowledged that her husband was intimate with other women but said the relationships weren’t abusive. Those kinds of allegations have been floating around ever since his arrest. When the FBI arrived early one morning in November 2011, he emerged from his bedroom with a nephew’s wife. Later, during his trial, a daughter-in-law testified that she was persuaded to partake in “sexual intimacies” with Sam Mullet until she and her husband were able to leave the community. Shrock said his grandfather has a child with another member of the clan.
Sam Mullet’s lawyer, Edward Bryan, denied all of the allegations of sexual misconduct.
Martha Mullet struggled to find the right words to describe her husband’s sexual behavior before settling on “intimate marriage counseling.” She declined to provide specifics but said those encounters were part of her husband’s spiritual outreach.
“I don’t really call that counseling,” said Shrock. “It’s bullcrap.”
Shrock says Sam Mullet continues to hold power in Bergholz, regularly talking to community members and directing things from his cell. Shrock believes there are dozens of victims of physical and sexual abuse who remain silent because of what he says is Mullet’s “control over people’s minds.”
After serving three years of his 15-year sentence, Mullet could soon be a free man.
He appealed his conviction, arguing the attacks weren’t religious hate crimes, since they were against members of the same religion and rooted in longstanding family disputes. In August the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the hate crime charge may have been misapplied and the judge didn’t properly instruct the jury.
“He had to cry when he heard that the case was overturned,” said Martha Mullet. “He was overwhelmed.”
The case against Mullet and his followers isn’t over. For now, the prosecutors hope the appeals judges will reconsider the overturned convictions. If not, the case has been sent back to a lower court, where a prosecutor may decide to retry or drop it. The outcome for the Bergholz Barbers will be closely watched, since a reversal will establish a standard for how the Hate Crimes Prevention Act should be interpreted. The cases could eventually get sent to the U.S. Supreme Court.
It's looking to be an expensive fight, and the Mullets are ready to tackle it.
“We always had a problem with enough money, but then a miracle happened,” said Martha Mullet. “That miracle came straight from God because of the gas and oil lease.”
The family sold the oil and gas fracking rights to their land in a multimillion-dollar deal that saved their farm and funded the Mullet legal defense. The money is keeping the Mullet family mostly intact, despite a few runaways like Shrock. His seven siblings are still living in Bergholz, where he hopes to return to rescue them soon.
“It would definitely be better if they could leave — if not leave, at least have communication with other Amish people settlements,” he said. “They’re going to be brainwashed if they don’t.”
For now, though, Shrock is focused on getting his life back on track. He has a steady job in construction and is working toward his GED. He’s experiencing things he never knew existed — his first meal out at a restaurant, his first girlfriend.
But his mind often returns to Bergholz, especially its youngest residents.
“I still worry a lot about my family,” he said, “but we can only do what we can.”