My grandfather runs an Amish cult from prison

The son of two 'Bergholz Barbers' speaks out for the first time about the insular Ohio community he says he escaped

Aljazeera America/October 28, 2014

By Ranjani Chakraborty

Bergholz, Ohio -- Dan Shrock isn’t your average 23-year-old. Until a few months ago, he’d never driven a car or traveled more than a few miles from home. He rarely spoke to anyone outside of his family. Then, last year, he was involved in a serious buggy accident that landed him in a Pittsburgh hospital. His four-month stay opened his eyes to a life he never imagined.

Shrock belonged to a group of isolated Amish living on 800 acres in Northeast Ohio's coal country. His grandfather, Amish bishop Sam Mullet, was the family patriarch. More than 100 people were under his leadership.

“Sam Mullet's community is a cult. They don't have freedom,” said Shrock. “He has power over people's minds, gets them to do things he wants them to do and believe in him. I've been there, my cousins have been there and we know it, and it is true.”

In his first interview with the outside world, Shrock recounted a tangled web of violence, sexual misconduct and brainwashing that all point to one Amish leader gone rogue. Mullet was already in federal prison by the time Shrock left the clan, but he says his grandfather continues to control the closed-off community from inside his prison cell, and the abuse goes on.

The 'Bergholz Barbers'

Mullet has many enemies, who accuse of him of many crimes. But what ultimately put him behind bars set precedent: He was convicted of hate crimes against his own people.

Thrust into the national spotlight in 2011, Mullet and 15 of his followers from Bergholz carried out a series of five attacks against other Amish in eastern Ohio. In the bizarre incidents, the attackers forced their way into homes, cut off the beards of men and sometimes sheared the hair of both men and women. For the Amish, hair is a sacred religious symbol, and this was a shocking crime in a community known for peace. They were dubbed the “Bergholz Barbers.”

“Cutting off beards was a very clever tactic because the Bergholz barbers knew that the easiest way to disgrace and to shame an Amish man was to cut off his beard," said Don Kraybill, a professor at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania and a leading expert on Amish in America. He says they were acts of retaliation that were clearly religiously motivated.

As recounted in his book “Renegade Amish: Beard Cutting, Hate Crimes and the Trial of the Bergholz Barbers,” Kraybill says Mullet maintained control of his dissident sect through excommunications. After a slew of these in 2006, bishops in surrounding communities publicly denounced Mullet's authority. Those who warned against him became victims.

“Absolutely unheard of in 320 years of Amish history,” Kraybill said. “He thinks he's a prophet. God speaks to him. He's the only one can appropriately interpret the Bible for the other people there. All of this is utterly non-Amish.”

Mullet and his followers were charged with hate crimes. But in order to fall under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, the prosecutors had to argue that cutting off beards constituted “disfigurement.” The case presented another unique question: Was it possible to commit a hate crime against your own community?

In February 2013, Mullet and the 15 followers were convicted on multiple counts of hate crimes, conspiracy and obstruction of justice, which carry much stiffer punishment than simple assault. Mullet, then 67, received the harshest sentence: 15 years behind bars.

The Bergholz Barbers stunned an entire population. The 300,000 Amish in America are known to be a peace-loving group, at odds with Mullet's harsh and authoritarian rule. Among them, Mullet is despised, feared and embarrassing.

“It’s so contrary to everything we believe in,” said Pennsylvania Amish shopkeeper Ben Riehl. “He definitely belongs in jail. There's no doubt about that. Simply because he is a threat to other people.”

He added: “I just find it incredible that about the only way to catch him was a hate crime … with the predatory things that he has done.”

'He’s not God'

At a glance, Bergholz looks like any other Amish community. Women in plain-cut dresses care for small children. Men and teenage boys on tractors work the farmland. Dozens of boys and girls play ball during recess outside a one-room schoolhouse. Leery of outsiders, residents stood mostly silent until one woman emerged from a small trailer near the back of the compound and stepped onto her porch.

“We had a very nice community until things started happening,” said Martha Mullet.

For 19 years, Sam Mullet's wife and clan matriarch has lived on the same plot of land, watching her family grow. Now, she was eager to speak, saying allegations of a cult are nothing more than gossip. The beard cuttings weren't acts of religious intolerance, she insisted, which was the heart of the hate crime conviction. They were born of a domestic dispute.

Back in 2009, she said, the police took two of her granddaughters into custody and then gave them permanently to their father – who she says had a history of physically and sexually abusing her daughter Wilma Mullet.

“It started from the abduction of my two grandchildren,” Martha Mullet said. “…They just want to talk about what we did. Nobody talks about what happened to us. Nobody talks about the root of the problem."

She believes law enforcement and fellow Amish unfairly targeted her family because they are different and conservative. And while she apologized for her community’s actions in the beard-cutting attacks, she defended her husband.

“He's a very gentle, loving man," she said. "And yes, he can get stern, just like anybody else, but people say he has power. No, I don't feel he does have power. People say he has power over us to keep us here."

Asked whether she believes her husband is a prophet, she replied: "I'm not sure how to word it that anybody would even understand. I have heard and seen things myself that I know that he is a man of God."

Martha Mullet has 110 grandchildren and Shrock – whose parents are in prison for the beard attacks – is one of only a handful to flee. He says his grandmother is lying about the conditions in Bergholz and that the power his granddad exerted was absolute and abusive.

“They made you write down your sins to Sam Mullet and then you were forgiven and you could start over a new life supposedly," he said. "Why does everybody have to write their sins to him and he could supposedly solve it and fix it? He's just one guy, he's not God.”

In order to repent, Shrock said he and his siblings and cousins were paddled and forced to spend long cold nights as teenagers in animal pens. He said he was once made to live in one for seven days.

The matriarch admits that her group engages in practices that are unusual for mainstream Amish, including the use of animal pens to punish improper behavior. She once placed herself in an animal pen for 18 consecutive days. But Mullet was quick to mention that this was always voluntary – an extreme kind of soul-searching –and never something children would take part in. She spent the time praying, writing letters and talking to God, she said.

“I wasn't always the best woman. I wasn't always the best wife," she said "…I made mistakes and I thought it would help me."

Mullet also acknowledged that her husband was intimate with other women, but said the relationships weren't abusive. Those kinds of allegations have been floating around ever since his arrest. When the FBI arrived early one morning in November 2011, he emerged from his bedroom with his nephew’s wife. Later during his trial, his own daughter-in-law testified that she was convinced to partake in “sexual intimacies” with him until she and her husband were able to leave the community. Shrock said his granddad has a child with another member of the clan.

Sam Mullet’s lawyer, Edward Bryan, denied all of the allegations of sexual misconduct.

Martha Mullet struggled to find the right words to describe her husband's sexual behavior, before settling on “intimate marriage counseling.” She declined to provide specifics, but said these encounters were part of her husband’s spiritual outreach.

“I don’t really call that counseling,” said  Shrock. “It’s bullcrap.”


Shrock says Sam Mullet continues to hold power in Bergholz, regularly talking to community members and directing things from his cell. He believes there are dozens of victims of physical and sexual abuse who remain silent, because of Mullet's "control over people's minds."

And after serving three years of his 15-year sentence, Mullet could soon be a free man.

Mullet appealed his conviction, arguing the attacks weren't religious hate crimes, since they were against members of the same religion and rooted in long-standing family disputes. In August, the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the hate crimes charge may have been misapplied and a judge didn’t properly instruct the jury.

“He had to cry when he heard that the case was overturned," said Martha Mullet. "He was overwhelmed."

The case against Mullet and his followers isn’t over. For now, the prosecutors hope the appeals judges will reconsider the overturned convictions. If not, the case has been sent back to a lower court, where a prosecutor may decide to retry or drop it. The outcome for the Bergholz Barbers will be closely watched, as the legal decisions from the reversal will establish a standard for how the Hate Crimes Prevention Act should be interpreted in the future. It could eventually get sent up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

It's looking to be an expensive fight and the Mullets are ready to tackle it.

“We always had a problem with enough money, but then a miracle happened," said Martha Mullet. "That miracle came straight from God because of the gas and oil lease."

The family sold the oil and gas fracking rights to their land in a multimillion-dollar deal that saved their farm and funded the Mullet legal defense. The money is keeping the Mullet family mostly intact, despite a few runaways like Shrock. His seven siblings are still living in Bergholz, where he hopes to return to rescue them soon.

“It would definitely be better if they could leave, if not leave, at least have communication with other Amish people settlements,” he said. “They're going to be brainwashed if they don't.”

For now though, Shrock is focused on getting his life back on track. He has a steady job in construction and is working towards his GED. He's also experiencing things he never knew existed: his first meal out at a restaurant, his first girlfriend. 

But his mind often returns to Bergholz, especially its youngest residents.

"I still worry a lot about my family," he said, "but we can only do what we can."

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