Church members face trial for hiding girl from family

Police say they planned to go to Ky.

Intelligencer Journal Lancaster New Era/April 15, 2010

At the time, the teenage girl from the Denver area said, her neighbors from the splinter Mennonite church were her only friends.

So, when Megan Ramsey's parents forbade her from seeing them any more, she followed a church member's instructions and slipped away in the middle of the night in Plain Sect clothing.

The pastor and two adult female members of Reidenbach Mennonite Church on Thursday were ordered to stand trial in Lancaster County Court on felony charges of concealing Ramsey from the police and her distraught parents on Dec. 10, 2009.

The three had plans to take the girl and about 40 church members with them when they moved to Kentucky, according to Megan and police.

At a preliminary hearing in New Holland, the 15-year-old Brecknock Township girl calmly testified for more than an hour.

After hearing testimony from Ramsey and a state trooper, District Justice Rodney Hartman refused to dismiss the charges lodged against the three. All are free on bail.

Rachel Zimmerman Starr, 54, of 448 Pleasant Valley Road, Denver, is charged with interference with the custody of children and criminal conspiracy/concealment of the whereabouts of a child. Starr convinced the girl to run away and helped hide her, according to police.

Alda Hoover Martin, 23, of 165 W. Maple Grove Road, Denver, is charged with criminal conspiracy/concealment of the whereabouts of a child. Martin, police and the teen said at the hearing, hid Ramsey — first in a pile of hay in a barn and then in a chicken coop.

Aaron Zimmerman Hoover, 47, of 449 W. Maple Grove Road, Denver, pastor of the church and Martin's brother, is charged with criminal conspiracy/concealment of whereabouts of a child. Police said he knew of the plot and did not help police officers when they were trying to find the child.

The girl, who had her long hair pulled back and was wearing sneakers, tan pants and an off-white sweater over a pink blouse, did not seem to want to look at Starr when asked to point her out in the hearing room.

The homeschooled teen told of how she became friends with her Plain Sect neighbors shortly after her family moved into a rental home on Pleasant Valley Road.

She made friends with adults and children her own age, she said, and about a year later started worshipping with the group.

Her parents at first encouraged the relationship, she said, helping her buy plain clothes so she fit in at services.

Then, due to falling grades, Megan said, her parents told her she could not go to services anymore. Eventually, she was forbidden from seeing the church members.

But she and Starr would hold clandestine meetings in a meadow, she said, and Starr wrote her letters, about 10 in all.

Eventually, Megan said, Starr advised her to run away and gave her a letter with specific instructions for what she was to do the night of the flight. Wear dark clothes and burn this letter, it said.

One part of the letter told her to leave a note in her bedroom for her parents, telling them she was running away because she couldn't practice her faith. The letter also told Megan to tell her parents not to look for her.

Under questioning from Starr's defense attorney, Cory Miller, Ramsey answered, "Yes," when asked if it was her decision to run away and if it was her choice to hide from her parents.

"I really didn't want it to go this way but, at the time, I thought it was the only way to be able to spend time with my friends. I didn't have any other friends then," she said.

Earlier in her testimony, however, she said Starr initiated the decision to run away.

"I don't think I would ever have thought of the idea," she said.

Around 2:30 a.m. on Dec. 10, she said, she changed into a plain dress and sneaked out of her home. She said she walked the mile or so to Starr's house, as instructed, and woke her up.

The two sat together until dawn, knowing her mother would be rising early and notice she was missing. Ramsey said Starr walked her to Martin's nearby farm.

Martin hid her in the barn when state police arrived the first time and then in a chicken coop when they returned in the afternoon, the girl said.

She said she believed the group was going to leave for Kentucky as soon as police stopped looking for her.

Trooper Chad Roberts of the Ephrata barracks said he was initially stonewalled by Hoover and other church members. Only after he threatened to arrest Martin and search every inch of the farm did she run from the house and retrieve Ramsey, he said.

None of the three defendants testified. Dressed in plain sect clothing, they sat stoically behind their three defense attorneys.

Much of the church's congregation showed up to show their support. But there was room for only about eight in the hearing room, so most crowded together in the hallway.

After the hearing, Hoover left in a horse and buggy while Starr and Martin departed on foot.

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