A bishop behind bars

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Sam Mullet, the renegade Amish bishop convicted on federal hate crime charges for his role in a series of beard-cutting attacks last year, has earned an unlikely nickname in prison.

Among his fellow inmates at Northern Ohio Correctional Center, the towering 67-year-old with wire-rimmed glasses, pudding-bowl haircut and retro facial hair is known simply as “O.G.”

While the term — street shorthand for “original gangster” — was unfamiliar to Mullet, he could sense that it was a compliment bestowed from across cultural lines.

“They’re calling me O.G.,” he said, smiling. “I don’t know what it means, but I guess it means something good.”

Unexpected honorific aside, he didn’t pretend to be comfortable in his new home. “I’m a stranger here. Plus Amish to boot,” he told The Daily last month in the first in-depth interview he has ever given. “How would you feel coming to Amish country and being locked up? You see guys in here with all kinds of dress and all kinds of hairstyles, but I’m the one that’s weird and sticking out.”

He shook his head. “If you’ve never been locked up, there’s no way to explain it,” he said.

A man accustomed to handmade, understated garb, he wore a school-bus-yellow jumpsuit and orange denim jacket on the day of the interview — standard prison uniform. On his feet were black, Velcro-strapped sneakers.

But it was also no mystery how he had earned the nickname. Mullet, a man who knows a thing or two about being a leader of men, seemed naturally given to the kind of long, hard stare that makes bullies — of even the jailhouse variety — suddenly feel tentative.

Already he had stood up to a posse of tough guys in the cafeteria, befriended a feared murderer, protected a gay inmate and charmed the thugs and gang members in his cellblock by singing traditional Amish hymns after lights-out.

During his time behind bars, Mullet had also become a rich man: He had cashed his first check from a $3.5 million deal for oil and gas drilling rights on the farm where he lived with many of his followers in Bergholz, Ohio — enough to pay for his legal defense, keep him well-stocked at the commissary and help out less-fortunate prison friends.

What the leader of the outcast sect that captured the world’s attention when his followers began giving forcible shaves and haircuts to rival Amish community members has not done since his arrest at dawn on Nov. 22, 2011, is say a word on the public record.

In court, where he was found guilty on charges of conspiracy and hate crimes in September, he never took the stand nor testified on his own behalf. Despite intense media interest in his case, he has not spoken with a reporter since making a few brief statements prior to his arrest.

But, eager to tell his side of the story, Mullet sat down for a no-holds-barred jailhouse conversation with The Daily in October.

Not that he did so without trepidation. After being escorted into the visitors center by two guards and taking a seat at the metal table, he complained of a pain in his head and suggested — with a hint of jest — it may have been caused by the prospect of speaking with a reporter.

“I don’t know why, but I have such a headache,” he said. “I don’t know if I made someone mad, or if it was because I knew you were coming.”

Over the course of several hours, he described the challenges of adjusting to prison, his perspective on the beard-cutting attacks and life inside the breakaway Amish sect where he was accused of sexually preying on women and tormenting men with harsh punishments.

On the matter of the beard cuttings, Mullet told The Daily that he was wrongly convicted — that a group of his followers, including several of his children, hatched the scheme on their own.

“I never ordered anybody,” he said. “These haircuts, they told me these things but didn’t want me to get involved.”

Though Mullet has a good grasp of the English language, his native tongue is Pennsylvania Dutch (an 18th-century German-Swiss dialect), and like many Amish, he often uses “we” and “us,” even when answering personal questions. Mullet’s “we” sometimes means “I” and sometimes refers to the small Amish community he led and was a part of.

This fuzziness was evident, for instance, when he was asked if he was remorseful in any way.

“We’re not denying we cut hair. And I’m not saying it was right or wrong,” he said. “But being here in jail — well, it looks wrong. Let’s suppose that God has done this for a reason. Nobody realized when the guys went that it would be looked at this seriously. Nobody would have done anything if we knew it would become a serious case.”

Still, he saw incarceration as a sacrifice for his followers and a personal martyrdom of sorts — a fulfillment of what he described as “God’s vision” for him.

“Christ did it for me so why shouldn’t I do it for them?” he said.

But he also accepted that perhaps his — and his followers’ — sense of moral authority had grown out of proportion.

“Maybe one of the things was thinking we were better than others, and that’s a sin,” he said.

While his mind has remained focused on his community and religion during his time in prison, finding a way to remain essentially Amish on a day-to-day basis has remained a tremendous challenge.

At several points during the interview, Mullet’s eyes welled up with tears when speaking of his old life on the farm in Bergholz, where he lived among about 120 of his acolytes. Perhaps even more than the typical non-Amish prisoner, incarceration seemed a torturous removal of every context he had ever known.

“Oh man, like yesterday the sun had heat to it. I told the boys, ‘I could be cutting hay,’” he said, beginning to weep. “I could smell it. I could actually smell it. Just thinking about it.”

He told of having trouble falling asleep in his early days behind bars, kept awake by obscenity-laced banter that went on well into the night — and how his response stunned and charmed his fellow prisoners.

“At night when we had lockdown, they turned out the lights and some of the guys would holler back and forth, sometimes just cussing and screaming and carrying on for hours,” he said. “I couldn’t sleep.”

He began to feel an irrepressible longing to drown out the noise with the songs he had been singing since his boyhood.

“I decided I’m going to sing,” he said. “I didn’t know how they’d take it, and I was ashamed at first. And the first time I sang very low.”

In the dark prison, he began singing traditional Christian songs. One of his favorites was “Rank Stranger,” a tune about a man trying to get home but who finds himself lost in an unfamiliar land where he doesn’t recognize a soul.

To his surprise, the response of his cellblock mates was not abuse or mockery.

“They heard me singing softly, and then they wanted me to sing louder,” he said. “Now some of the guys come to my cell and they want me to sing every night. They’d come into my cell and listen to me just before we had lockdown. They said it made them sleep good.”

Then Mullet, a grandfather who had just been found guilty on federal charges carrying up to a life sentence without a single witness called in his defense, paused and thought.

“I wanted to sing that song in the courtroom so bad,” he said. “I think it would have made a difference.”