Renegade Amish

cover of Renegade Amish Donald B. Kraybill, distinguished college professor and senior fellow at the Young Center, has spent decades researching Amish life. In the spring of 2012, he was contracted by the United States Department of Justice, which was prosecuting sixteen members of a maverick Amish community for five attacks on Amish people in eastern Ohio. In addition to helping the prosecution understand Amish beliefs and practices, he served as an expert witness that September, testifying during the three-week federal trial in Cleveland. Renegade AmishKraybill's book about the Bergholz group and the trial, was published in September 2014 by the Johns Hopkins University Press.

Renegade Amish explores these questions:

  • How did a cultlike group emerge in pacifist Amish society?
  • What underlying motives propelled the attacks?
  • Were the Amish offenders really Amish?
  • Why did the jury convict the defendants of federal hate crimes?
  • Is the case significant for religious freedom in America?
  • How does this case impact hate prosecution for all Americans?

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Learn More:
Q&A with the author
Research Notes--The Book
Research Notes--Appellate Court Decision
Additional Resources



On the night of September 6, 2011, terror called at the Amish home of the Millers. Answering a late-night knock from what appeared to be an Amish neighbor, Mrs. Miller opened the door to her five estranged adult sons and one daughter, along with their spouses. It wasn’t a friendly visit. Within moments, the men, wearing miner’s headlamps, had pulled their frightened father out of bed, pinned him into a chair, and—ignoring his tearful protests—sheared his hair and beard, leaving him razor-burned and bloodied. The women then turned on Mrs. Miller, yanking her prayer cap from her head and shredding it before cutting off her waist-long hair. About twenty minutes later, the attackers fled into the darkness, taking the hair of their parents as a trophy for their community.

Four similar beard-cutting attacks followed, disfiguring nine victims and generating a tsunami of media coverage. While pundits and late night talk shows made light of the attacks and poked fun at the Amish way of life, FBI investigators gathered evidence about troubling activities in a maverick Amish community near Bergholz, Ohio—and the volatile behavior of its leader, Bishop Samuel Mullet.

Ten men and six women from the Bergholz community were arrested and found guilty a year later of 87 felony charges involving conspiracy, lying, and obstructing justice. In a precedent-setting decision, all the defendants including Bishop Mullet and his two ministers—were convicted of federal hate crimes. It was the first time since the 2009 passage of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act that assailants had been found guilty for religiously motivated hate crimes within the same faith community.

Renegade Amish tells the story of the Bergholz barbers: the attacks, the investigation, the trial, and the aftermath. Informed by trial transcripts and his interviews of ex-Bergholz Amish, relatives of Bishop Mullet, victims of the attacks, Amish leaders, and the jury foreman, Kraybill delves into the factors that transformed the Bergholz Amish from a typical Amish community into one embracing revenge and retaliation.

Q&A with the author

Q: How did you first learn about the Ohio beard-cutting story?
A: I heard about it on various media in September 2011. At first, I thought it was a joke or some kind of misunderstand.

Q: Have beard-cutting attacks happened before in Amish history?
A: This is a precedent. I’m not aware of any forcible beard cuttings in the 325 years of Amish history. It’s the most bizarre thing I’ve come across in my 35 years of researching and writing on the Amish.

Q: How did you get involved?
A: I was contracted in the spring of 2012 by the US Department of Justice to assist in the prosecution. I helped them to understand Amish beliefs and practices. In September 2012, I served as an expert witness for five hours during the three-week federal trial of 16 Amish defendants in Cleveland.

Q: Why did you write the book?
A: This was such a benchmark case in Amish history. I wanted to understand it better and also document it for historical purposes. I also aimed to gather together all the pieces of this puzzle—scattered by the media over two years—into one coherent narrative. I was also curious about the background of the Bergholz Amish. Who were they? How were they transformed from a peace-loving group into a violent one? Were they really Amish?

Q: How did you answer that question in the book?
A: I provide an abundance of evidence—in fact, more than two dozen ways—that illustrate how the Bergholz clan strayed from orthodox Amish faith. Throughout the trial, they maintained that they were Amish. They still use horse-and-buggy transportation and dress Amish-like. Of course there are no laws that prevent any group from claiming the Amish brand. In my judgment, they are not Amish, at least not according to any conventional standard of Amish belief and practice.

Q: How do other Amish people view the Bergholz clan?
A: The 65,000 other Amish people in Ohio were greatly disgraced and shamed by the beard-cutting attacks. The attackers even included members of the Bergholz clergy. Another reason I wrote the book was to vindicate the thousands of sincere and devout Amish people in Ohio and other states whose Amish identity was maligned by these attacks.

Q: Why did the US Department of Justice become involved in what might appear to be a petty Amish quarrel?
A: There were nine victims, 16 offenders, and five different attacks in various counties. It would have been difficult to undertake multiple prosecutions in different counties for a host of reasons that I explain in the book. Because the attacks could be considered hate crimes and because they involved interstate commerce, the federal government prosecuted the offenders under the 2009 Shepard-Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act. The jury convicted the 16 defendants on 87 different criminal counts.

Q: What surprised you most about the story?
A: The defendants appealed their convictions to the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati. In the spring of 2014 the national Anti-Defamation League pulled together a coalition 40 different groups vigilant about civil rights abuses. These groups filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the appellate court to uphold the convictions. The coalition groups view the Amish convictions on federal hate crimes as a benchmark case that is significant for other Americans who might be attacked because of their religion, sexual orientation, race, gender, nationality, or disability.

Q: What is the most important takeaway of the book?
A: The sad irony is that the hate crime convictions of some formerly pacifist Amish have helped to reinforce the long-standing American tradition that citizens are free to practice their religious faith without fear of being attacked by those who may deplore their religion.

Research Notes--The Book

The Bergholz Clan

  • In 1995 Amishman Samuel Mullet purchased 800 acres of mountainous land in eastern Ohio near the village of Bergholz to start a new Amish community. Many of the families who joined the community were directly related to Mullet.
  • Mullet was ordained bishop in 2001. He consolidated power, did not tolerate dissent, and broke off relationships with other Amish communities.
  • In 2006, Bishop Mullet excommunicated nine families who objected to his autocratic leadership.
  • In response, 300 Amish elders from five states unanimously nullified Mullet’s authority to excommunicate members, severely limiting his power and control.
  • The Bergholz Amish devolved into a clan as non-Mullet families left. By 2010, all but one of the 20-some families in the group was related to Bishop Mullet.
  • One of Mullet’s daughters lost a child custody case to her husband, who had left the community.
  • Mullet filed a $35 million suit against the local sheriff and Jefferson County because law enforcement officers removed the children from the community.


The Attacks

  • Sixteen members of the Bergholz Amish community executed five beard-cutting attacks by ambush on Amish people in other communities at night and in Bergholz over eight weeks in fall 2011.
  • The assaults were motivated by revenge against Amish people who were critical of Bishop Mullet’s practices. The attacks aimed to discipline Amish people whom the assailants thought had strayed from Amish ways.
  • The three ordained officials in the clan were involved in the assaults.
  • The attacks violated historic Amish convictions against the use of violence.


Are the Amish Defendants Really Amish?

  • The Bergholz clan engaged in some two dozen aberrations of Amish life: They rejected a Christian identity, terminated Sunday worship services, rejected Amish values of nonviolence and forgiveness, condoned physical punishment of adults, placed deviants in animal pens dubbed “Amish jails,” made death threats to law enforcement officers, and committed various sexual improprieties.
  • These and other unorthodox practices are unprecedented in the 325 years of Amish history. Such aberrations place the Bergholz clan far beyond the boundaries of orthodox Amish behavior.


The Criminal Investigation

  • The FBI investigated the assaults because the victims and attack sites involved several counties in Ohio, making it difficult to conduct multiple trials in different municipalities.
  • The US government indicted 16 Bergholz defendants (10 men and six women) with a 10-count indictment involving four charges: conspiracy, assault, concealing evidence, and lying to the FBI.
  • The government built its case on the 2009 Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act. This federal statute criminalizes physical attacks based on a victim’s gender, sexual orientation, disability, race, ethnicity, or religion.
  • Prosecution of hate crimes under the Shepard-Byrd Act requires evidence of some instrumentality of interstate commerce—in this case, traveling on interstate highways, accessing the U.S. Postal Service, and using a horse shears and battery-operated clippers manufactured out of state.
  • The Shepard-Byrd Act does not regulate religious speech or belief, but it does criminalize violent conduct that targets victims because of their religion. The First Amendment does not protect individuals who exact violence in the name of their own religious beliefs. In other words, Shepard-Byrd focuses on the victim’s religion not the assailant’s.


The Convictions

  • The three-week trial in September 2012 was a legal maze, with five attacks, nine victims, 16 defendants (including four married couples), 90 separate verdicts, and 20 attorneys.
  • To convict the defendants under the Shepard-Byrd Act, the jury had to find evidence that an attack caused bodily injury “no matter how temporary.” Disfigurement is one type of bodily injury.
  • The jurors agreed that forcible beard cutting was a temporary disfigurement.
  • The jury also found evidence that four of the attacks were motivated by the religion of the victims.
  • The jurors found the 16 defendants guilty of 87 of the 90 separate counts.
  • Bishop Mullet was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Four men, including two ministers, received seven-year sentences. Five-year sentences were imposed on three other men. The remaining eight defendants received one- to two-year sentences, and by the summer of 2014 most of those defendants had returned to Bergholz.


Research Notes--Appellate Court Decision

Appellate Court Overturns the Hate Crime Verdicts

  • The defendants appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati in February 2013. There were several possible appellate court outcomes.
  • The court might have (1) upheld the convictions, (2) remanded the case for a retrial because of prejudice or procedural errors, (3) determined that the hate crimes statute is unconstitutional because of the interstate commerce clause or, (4) considered the evidence of interstate commerce weak as applied in the beard-cutting case.
  • On August 27, 2014, the appellate court overturned the hate crime convictions in a 2-1 sharply divided decision. The court upended the hate crime convictions for what it considered an error in the district court’s instructions to the jury. The sixth circuit court buttressed its decision with a US Supreme Court opinion, Burrage v. United States (2014) that was decided after the Bergholz trial. 
  • The appellate court did not address the constitutionality of the Shepard-Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
  • The non-hate crime convictions (perjury and obstructing justice) were not overturned.


Why the Appellate Court Reversed the Hate Crime Convictions

  • No one disputes that the attacks took place. But what motivated them? What motives drove the assailants—family feuds, interpersonal spite, or religion?
  • The defendants argued that family malice and personal bitterness sparked their late-night assaults and ambushes. The prosecution contended that religious differences propelled the attacks.
  • The federal statute considers an attack a religious hate crime if an assailant “willfully causes bodily injury to any person . . . because of the actual or perceived . . . religion . . . of [that] person.”  The appellate court’s opinion hinged on two different interpretations of the words “because of.”
  • The federal district court instructed the jury that a religious motive was evident if the victim’s “actual or perceived religion was a significant motivating factor for a defendant’s action…even if he or she had other reasons” for attacking the victim.
  • The defendants contended that the words “because of” require a “but-for” cause to show that an assailant would not have cut beards but for the victim’s actual or perceived religious beliefs.
  • The appellate court agreed with the defendants, saying that “because of” means “by reason of” or “on account of.”
  • The appellate court opinion made a distinction between religion being the primary or predominant motive and religion being a significant motive among other motives. Did the assailants attack “because of” the religion of the victims or was religion only one significant reason among others such as familial strife?
  • The district court used a broader, more expansive definition of the motive(s) driving the Amish hate crimes. The appellate court’s opinion is a narrower, more restrictive interpretation of the words “because of,” suggesting that religion must be the overriding or predominant motive for a religious hate crime.
  • The dissenting judge strongly disagreed, saying, “The overwhelming and unrefuted evidence adduced at trial demonstrates that Mullet participated in the assaults because of the victims’ religious beliefs.”


Why This Case Matters

  • The Bergholz case was the first religious hate crimes conviction under the 2009 Shepard-Byrd Act. The interpretation of motives in this case is important not only for the Amish convictions and for other religious hate crimes, but for all types of hate crimes as well.
  • The legal decisions ensuing from this reversal will establish a judicial standard for how the Shepard-Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act is interpreted in the future for all hate crimes sparked by a victim’s gender, sexual orientation, disability, race, ethnicity, or religion.
  • If the appellate court’s restrictive interpretation remains unchallenged, future prosecution of hate crimes will require evidence of a predominant motive for attacks that cause bodily injury. 


What Happens Next?

  • On October 10, 2014, the US Department of Justice filed a petition asking the full US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit to review the court's 2-1 decision (an en banc review).
  • Sam Mullet and the other defendants remaining in prison are still under indictment. They remain convicted of concealing evidence and perjury. They will likely petition the district court to be released from prison while the legal process continues.


Additional Resources

Don Kraybill in The Huffington Post: Is Beard Cutting a Hate Crime?

Don Kraybill in Time Magazine: "Hate Crime Laws: What the Amish Beard Cutting Case Means for the Rest of Us"

Don Kraybill quoted in The Atlantic: "Violence Among the Amish"