CLEVELAND — The leader of an Amish breakaway group was convicted Thursday of hate crimes in beard- and hair-cutting attacks against members of his own faith following a dispute over religious differences.
A federal jury found Samuel Mullet Sr. guilty of orchestrating the cuttings of Amish men's beards and women's hair last fall in attacks that terrorized the normally peaceful religious settlements in eastern Ohio.
Mullet and four of his children were among 16 people who prosecutors say planned and carried out the five separate attacks that amounted to hate crimes because they were motivated by religious disputes. Prosecutors say the defendants targeted hair because it carries spiritual significance in their faith.
All the defendants, who were charged with hate crimes, are members of Mullet's settlement that he founded near the West Virginia panhandle.
Mullet wasn't accused of cutting anyone's hair. But prosecutors said he planned and encouraged his sons and the others, mocked the victims in jailhouse phone calls and was given a paper bag stuffed with the hair of one victim.
One bishop told jurors his chest-length beard was chopped to within 1½ inches of his chin when four or five men dragged him out of his farmhouse in a late-night home invasion.
Prosecutors told jurors that Mullet thought he was above the law and free to discipline those who went against him based on his religious beliefs. Before his arrest last November, he defended what he believes is his right to punish people who break church laws.
"You have your laws on the road and the town — if somebody doesn't obey them, you punish them. But I'm not allowed to punish the church people?" Mullet told The Associated Press last October.
The hair-cuttings, he said, were a response to continuous criticism he'd received from other Amish religious leaders about him being too strict, including shunning people in his own group.
Mullet faces a prison term of 10 years or more. The charges against Mullet and the others included conspiracy, evidence tampering and obstruction of justice.
Defense attorneys acknowledged that the hair-cuttings took place and that crimes were committed but contend that prosecutors were overreaching by calling them hate crimes.
All the victims, prosecutors said, were people who had a dispute with Mullet over his religious practices and his authoritarian rule.
Witnesses testified that Mullet had complete control over the settlement that he founded two decades ago and described how his religious teachings and methods of punishments deviated from Amish traditions.
One woman described how he took part in the sexual "counseling" of married women and others said he encouraged men to sleep in chicken coops as punishment.
Mullet's attorney, Ed Bryan, maintained that the government had not shown that Mullet was at the center of the attacks. The defendants who cut the hair and beards acted on their own and were inspired by one another, not their bishop, Bryan said.
Some of the defense attorneys claimed that the hair-cuttings were motivated by family feuds or that the defendants were trying to help others who were straying from their Amish beliefs.
In one of the attacks, an Amish woman testified that her own sons and a daughter who lived in Mullet's community cut her hair and her husband's beard in a surprise assault.