An Amish Community Grieves for Its Little Ones

Amish community members gathered at the homes of the slain girls to pay their respects and have one final encounter with the girls.
Amish community members gathered at the homes of the slain girls to pay their respects and have one final encounter with the girls. (Photos By Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)
By Raymond McCaffrey and Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 5, 2006

BART TOWNSHIP, Pa., Oct. 4 -- All day they trudged across the dusty farm fields here -- white-bearded Amish patriarchs, women in black dresses and white bonnets, strapping young men with cropped hair and tanned arms.

They came, too, in their metal-wheeled black buggies, drawn by lathered horses that built clouds of gray dust on the gravel byways, somber but dutiful people on timeless missions of grief.

Across the meadows and back roads of the village of Nickel Mines, clusters of the black-clad mourners could be seen Wednesday gathering outside the homes where the bodies of the five Amish children slain Monday lay. They gathered to pay respect, offer hope and have the one last encounter with the departed that is Amish tradition.

"Go ahead and touch her," a family friend said a mother told the sister of one of the dead girls. "She's cold now, but she's in Heaven."

Three days after Charles C. Roberts IV, 32, a local truck driver, walked into a nearby one-room schoolhouse, shackled and shot 10 Amish schoolgirls before killing himself, the close-knit community began gathering for rituals honoring the dead. Roberts killed five of the girls.

Thursday, four of the girls -- Naomi Rose Ebersol, 7; Marian Fisher, 13; and two sisters, Mary Liz Miller, 8, and Lina Miller, 7 -- are to be borne in handmade wooden coffins from their homes to the cemetery. The fifth, Anna Mae Stoltzfus, 12, is to be buried Friday.

The five surviving girls -- a 6-year-old, three 8-year olds and a 13-year-old -- are recovering from grievous gunshot wounds in two Pennsylvania hospitals. Police have not released their names.

Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania State Police announced Wednesday that the two female relatives whose abuse Roberts said tormented him had no recollection of being attacked by him. Roberts said in a last phone call to his wife and in a series of suicide notes that he had molested the two relatives when he was about 12 and that he had been haunted by dreams that he was going to molest again.

That, he suggested, was part of the rationale for his schoolhouse assault, police said. Police said the relatives, whom they did not identify, would have been about 4 or 5 at the time. Police did not say whether they believed the attacks never happened, but they had sounded skeptical of the story since it was revealed Tuesday.

The funerals Thursday, in accordance with Amish tradition, will last about two hours and will be conducted at the victims' homes. Afterward, family members will join in a procession to the cemetery, where they will bury the youngsters and fill in the graves by hand.

The community assembled Wednesday for the viewings, several of which were held at the same time, in homes within sight of each other. The girls were placed in open coffins, according to Rita Rhoads, a Mennonite nurse/midwife who had delivered two of the victims. "It's important to touch the body," Rhoads said.

She recalled the joy that the Ebersol family felt when Naomi was born, her parents' first daughter after five sons. "They finally got their girl," Rhoads said.

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