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ATTACKS ON AMISH SHOCK COMMUNITY

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The Amish were easy prey - their pacifist beliefs preventing them from fighting back, a people who don't see the legal system as a way to resolve disputes.

When Amish men on bicycles were beaten and robbed on their way home from work, sometimes with metal pipes and tire irons, fear gripped this Christian community 45 miles southeast of South Bend.For weeks, the Amish did nothing - until one among them stepped forward out of fear someone would eventually be killed. Earl Slabaugh told police he was chased by a car filled with people - one of whom was waving a tire iron.

"When I talked to him he said, `One of us is going to get killed, I've got to do something.' He was scared to death because of the attack," said Detective Sgt. Tom Brindle of the Kosciusko County Police Department.

The 10 to 15 attacks since early January have horrified people in Nappanee, where hitching posts stand outside banks and grocery stores and traffic signs warn motorists to watch for horse-drawn buggies.

"My feeling was disgust," said Brooke Box, a Nappanee resident. "Disgust and embarrassment, because we live in this community."

Nappanee's quiet, black-clad Amish, who number about 2,500, are vital to the economy. Tourists from across the country travel to Amish Acres, a historical farm and education center, and buy Amish-made crafts and furniture.

The first attack involved an Amish bicyclist who was struck by a car. Police said it may have been intentional. Two days later, an Amish man riding his bike was attacked and robbed of $280.

The attacks usually occurred on Thursdays or Fridays - payday at the recreational-vehicle plants where many Amish work, county prosecutor David Kolbe said. Between $100 and $300 was stolen from each person.

"It was very unexpected," said an Amish woman who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We always thought things like that happen in the big city. We were scared because we didn't know what to expect if we went on the road."

The Amish are a Christian sect that generally shuns modern conveniences such as electricity, cars and telephones. Many farm, use horse-drawn buggies and follow a simple way of life. They don't like drawing attention to themselves and avoid bright clothing. The Amish also are reluctant to be interviewed or photographed and will rarely give their names to a reporter.

"They're very vulnerable because of their religious beliefs. They don't fight back," Kolbe said. Attacking the Amish is "analogous to doing it to children."

After Slabaugh reported his attack, five arrests quickly followed.

Police believe those arrested were responsible for two attacks. Three others were being sought. There have been no attacks since the arrests, and Brindle said he thinks police have most of those responsible.

"I don't consider it a hate crime," Brindle said. "They weren't doing it because they were neo-Nazis or anything like that. They were just doing it because they were easy prey. Amish men don't carry credit cards, they don't carry checkbooks. They always carry cash."

Box and other local residents fear the attacks will make the Amish feel unwelcome.

"If these people could know the damage they've done," said Jolene Miller, who was raised Amish and whose family is still Amish. The Amish "have always been a little leery, but this will make them more so."