STEUBENVILLE, Ohio (AP) — A group of religious castoffs has been attacking fellow Amish, cutting off their hair and beards in an apparent feud over spiritual differences, a sheriff said Thursday, and one victim blamed relatives involved in a cult.
No charges have been filed, but several victims suffered minor injuries, Jefferson County Sheriff Fred Abdalla said. The investigation has been hampered by the traditional reluctance of Amish to turn to law enforcement.
Men and sometimes women from a group of Jefferson County families disavowed by mainstream Amish have terrorized a half-dozen or more fellow Amish, cutting the beards off men and the hair off men and women, the sheriff said. The attacks occurred over the past three weeks in Carroll, Holmes, Jefferson and Trumbull counties, which form the heart of Ohio's Amish population, one of the nation's largest.
Abdalla said the motive may be related to unspecified religious differences involving 18 Amish families, 17 of them related, that have drawn previous attention from law enforcement, including a threat against the sheriff and a relative convicted of sexual contact with a minor.
The families under investigation live in Bergholz, a small community located in hilly farm country 10 miles west of the Ohio River, and run a leather shop and do carpentry work, the sheriff said.
Cutting the hair and beards apparently was meant to be degrading and insulting, he said.
In the case in Trumbull County, 75 miles northwest of Steubenville, a 57-year-old woman blamed her sons and a son-in-law for an attack on her husband and said they were involved in a cult. The sons and son-in-law "did that to him," the woman told deputies, pointing at her husband's ragged, short beard.
Then she took off a bandana and showed bare scalp patches and said, "They did this to me," according to a report on the Sept. 6 incident in Mesopotamia.
Deputies went to the home when alerted by Abdalla's office. The couple said they didn't want to file a complaint and repeatedly asked that their sons be informed of that decision.
It's common practice for married Amish men to have beards, said Donald Kraybill, a professor at Elizabethtown College and an expert on Amish life.
"Likewise, women do not cut their hair based on biblical teaching," he told The Associated Press in an email.
Kraybill said Amish-on-Amish violence "is extremely rare."
Some Amish have called Abdalla asking for help stopping the attacks, and some have talked to their children about home safety.
But Abdalla said it was frustrating that the Amish avoid filing complaints.
"You see this crime being committed, and I'm sitting here with my hands tied," he said. "I can't do a thing."
The leader of the families resisted a conciliation attempt by Amish leaders several years ago, Abdalla said.
"He's just like a lone wolf out there," he said.
Messages were left for the other three sheriffs.
No contact number could be found in court records for the sex offender or in phone listings for his family members. The Amish often shun modern conveniences as a matter of spiritual principle.