Amish are led into temptation as two face drugs-trafficking charges

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The Independent Online
WHEN FEDERAL anti-drugs agents summoned the press in Philadelphia to announce their latest bust, they knew they had a story that would attract unusual attention. Among 10 men accused of trafficking in cocaine were two with the name Stoltzfus. They came, moreover, from Pennsylvania's Lancaster County.

No other clues were needed. Lancaster County, a serene landscape of quaint farms and rolling meadows, is home to the "Plain People", better known as the Amish. And if there is an equivalent to Jones, Smith or Brown among the Amish it is Stoltzfus, a name that echoes their 17th-century German roots.

The agents confirmed the almost unthinkable: two of the men due to face formal charges in federal court next week are members of the Old Order Amish, the most reclusive and conservative of all the Amish sects in America. Not related to each other, Abner King Stoltzfus is 24 and Abner Stoltzfus is 23.

More extraordinary still are the details of their alleged crimes, laid out in indictments issued by a grand jury in Philadelphia on Tuesday.

The two men are accused of consorting with members of a notoriously violent motorcycle gang, called the Pagans, to buy and distribute drugs to Amish youth groups in the farming communities of Lancaster County. Most of the others facing prosecution are from the Pagans.

The collisions faced by the Amish between their uniquely traditionalist lifestyle - all modern conveniences, from motor cars to zippers, are banned - and the whirl of late-20th-century society that surrounds them was most famously depicted in the film Witness, starring Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis. This, though, is not celluloid fiction. It is horse-and- buggy meets Harley Davidson.

"Bikes and buggies. It's a rather strange combination," agreed State Police Major Robert Werts. "Our drug investigations are taking us to places where years ago we didn't think we had a problem."

According to the indictment, all 10 trafficked in multi-kilogram quantities of cocaine and the illegal street stimulant methamphetamine, worth $1m, from 1992 until July of last year. Most of the sales were made to the Amish youth groups which go by the names the Crickets, Antiques and Pilgrims. Through them, the drugs allegedly found their way to Amish youth dances.

A third Amish juvenile also said to have been involved is identified only as CS. He will not face charges. If the 10 on the indictment sheet are found guilty, they could each face life in prison. The 10 will appear before a court to be formally charged on 3 July.

The case highlights the dilemma that the Amish have faced for decades. Because of their unusual lifestyle, they have become unwilling tourist celebrities in their own habitat.

An estimated four million tourists visit Lancaster County annually to marvel at the Amish in their black garb, at the horse-drawn ploughs turning the fields and their one-room schools. With the tourism comes pollution from the outside.

One Amish father in the tiny town of Gap, where both the Stoltzfus men live, pleaded for understanding. He told the Philadelphia Inquirer: "I know there are a lot of people out there who think the Amish are perfect, but we've got our struggles and in this day and age drugs is one of the big ones."

That the Amish have a drugs problem was not something anyone outside was aware of until this week, however. "As far as I know, we have never charged any Amish with drug crimes," confirmed Joseph Dominguez, an assistant states attorney for Pennsylvania.

Robert Conforti, a veteran federal agent, concurred: "It's something in my 26 years in the FBI I've never encountered before."

But John Pyfer, the lawyer representing Abner Stoltzfus, revealed that his client was, in fact, a recovering cocaine addict himself. "It just shows you that the temptations that are out there for your kids and my kids have found their way into Amish life. We're just glad they were able to nip this in the bud."

Both Stoltzfus men had taken the traditional "time-out" period that is granted Amish men from the ages of 16 to 24. During this period - in effect a rite of passage - they are allowed to go out amongst the "English", as non-Amish America society is known in the sect, and experience their ways.

At the end of this time, however, the men are expected to decide whether to remain on the outside or to return into the bosom of the church and its antiquarian ways. Most men choose to join the church and apparently that was the decision also of Abner and Abner King.

Pennsylvania's Old Order Amish trace themselves back to a German Anabaptist sect that immigrated to colonial America in the late 1600s. They made their journey after splintering from the larger, and less rigorously traditionalist, Mennonite Church. They subsist still today entirely on farming. Most of the farmland in Lancaster County is owned by the Amish.

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