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Today, five members of a reclusive Amish group were charged with kidnapping and aggravated burglary. In a series of bizarre attacks, the men allegedly cut the beards of several other Amish men. The accused say it's a religious dispute, but virtually everyone else insists it's revenge by a cult-like leader. NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty has our story.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, BYLINE: On the night of October 4th, Myron and Arlene Miller were asleep in their home in Mechanicstown, Ohio, when they heard a knock on the door. According to their friend Bob Comer, when Myron came downstairs, he found five men standing on his doorstep.
BOB COMER: They pulled him out in the front yard, and they have scissors and like a battery-powered shaver and everything, and they were trying to hold him down and cut his beard off and cut his hair off.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Miller yelled at his wife to call 911.
COMER: Then they let him go and ran back to the trailer and had the driver take off.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Miller, who declined an interview, was left with a ragged beard, a shameful state for an Amish man.
DONALD KRAYBILL: The beard for Amish men is a symbol of their adult manhood.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Donald Kraybill is a sociologist at Elizabethtown College and an expert on the Amish. He says the beards are also sacred for Amish men, who follow the instructions of the Old Testament to let their beards grow out.
KRAYBILL: So to cut their beard is an assault on not only on their personal identity, but also on their religious identity and their religious faith.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Authorities believe this was the fourth such attack by the followers of Sam Mullet, who heads a community of about 120 people in a rural area near Bergholz, Ohio. The victims have all been Amish leaders who have spoken out against Mullet or those who have fled Mullet's group. Mullet was raised Amish and claims to be a bishop or leader. But Bob Comer says he exhibits none of the typical Amish traits such as humility and gentleness.
COMER: He's really set himself up almost as a god.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Comer knows Mullet because he's often driven him to appointments. Amish frequently hire non-Amish as taxi drivers. Comer remembers thinking something was amiss early on when he drove Mullet and about 15 other men and women to Mullet's chiropractor. Comer, who speaks German, overheard a conversation between one young woman and the 66-year-old leader.
COMER: And she said in Pennsylvania Dutch, which is a German dialect, Sam, who's going to see you tonight? And then the other women laughed and giggled. And I thought, whoa, wait a minute...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
COMER: ...is he having, you know, sex with all these women?
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Comer says there are reports of child abuse. He says Mullet's followers are terrified and are beaten for the smallest infractions. One man who escaped the community, identified as Aden, told WKYC-TV in Cleveland that Mullet rules with impunity.
ADEN: He will take the wife away from the man. The wife will have to go and live with him. The husband of that wife had to go into like a chicken coop.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Until recently, the sheriff could do little because the Amish victims chose to turn the other cheek rather than bring in law enforcement. But with a spate of attacks since September, people began to cooperate. For his part, Mullet told TV reporters that his behavior is protected religious activity.
SAM MULLET: It's all religion. That's why we can't figure out why the sheriff has his nose in it.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Donald Kraybill says Mullet acts like a typical cult leader.
KRAYBILL: He's not accountable to anyone. He's not in fellowship with other Amish groups. He thinks he's invincible, and so under the guise of religion, is trying to protect himself so he can do whatever he wants to do.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Mullet has not been charged with a crime and until he is, the Amish who live nearby are afraid he will retaliate. He doesn't fear anybody, one victim said. That's how he got where he is. Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.