An Amish Community Grieves for Its Little Ones

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.

She said the families are aware of the revelations by police that the killer brought materials to the schoolhouse that suggested to police that he had intended to sexually assault the girls after tying them up. Rhoads said Naomi's father, who owns a woodworking shop, told her that, on the day of the shootings, "there was a fight between good and evil in the school, and good won." His view -- reflected elsewhere in the community -- was that it was better the girls died than for them to have met what some consider a worse fate.

"They feel it was better to be dead than to be sexually molested and tortured," Rhoads said. "They feel that God won. [Roberts] didn't get to do what he wanted to do, and the girls are in Heaven."

Rhoads remembered Naomi as "so cute and innocent and starting to blossom."

The Fisher family was touched by the tragedy in more than one way. In addition to mourning the loss of Marian, they are praying for the recovery of her 12-year-old sister, who was among the girls shot at the school and is listed in serious condition at Children's Hospital in Philadelphia. At the same time, they are rejoicing over the survival of their 10-year-old daughter, the only girl to escape from the school.

Rhoads said that the child managed to escape with some adult women who were let go by Roberts as he carefully selected his targets. The women told the girl to "tiptoe" out of the schoolhouse while Roberts was busy tying up the other girls, Rhoads said. The child ran to a nearby farm with the other escapees.

"Of course, the family is just thanking the Lord she got out," Rhoads said. But they are also concerned about the long-term effect of the ordeal on their daughter.

Still, the little girl managed to follow tradition, going up to her sister's coffin and touching her a last time, Rhoads said the child's mother told her. She said her mother told the child that her sister was in Heaven even though she felt cold.

John Fisher, a relative of Marian Fisher's, said Wednesday that he was grateful for all the support of the community but that preserving the privacy of the families was important. He said the relatives of the victims have spent a lot of time together since the shooting.

"We have the viewing [Wednesday] and the funeral [Thursday], and we're just trying to focus on that right now," said Fisher, standing on his front porch surrounded by his children. "This is a hard thing."

Fisher said Marian was in eighth grade and had attended the one-room school since first grade.

Investigators for the first time Wednesday allowed reporters close access to the schoolhouse. Aside from boards over the windows that the police SWAT teams smashed on their way in, all seemed in order.

A double seesaw and a swing set sat outside, near two outhouses. A small baseball diamond had wear spots in the grass for the bases and home plate, and a simple chain-link backstop. There was a school bell in the cupola and a whitewashed board fence around the perimeter. Huge gray draft horses grazed in a field out back.

About noon, a group of Amish women from Michigan, visiting the area for a wedding, walked down the road and paused by the fence to pay their respects.

They looked anguished and spoke quietly to each other. Some buried their faces in their hands.

"This really hurts," said one of the women, Katie Weaver, 54. "But, see, at a very young age our parents teach us to forgive like Christ did, not man-made forgiveness. . . . Jesus still takes care of us, even if bad things happen. These children are in Heaven. We still weep and cry just like everybody else, but then we go to Christ.

"My mom and dad taught me, and now we teach our children the same, to forgive people if they hurt us or wrong us," she said. "Things are going to happen in life. We're going to get hurt. But . . . we have to forgive. . . . If we give it to God, he'll take it and make something good out of it."

Also Wednesday, Janice Ballenger, a deputy coroner in Lancaster County, clarified comments she had made Tuesday about the number of wounds suffered by the children. She had said that she counted two dozen wounds in the body of one victim, whereas state police had said Roberts fired 17 or 18 shots from a pistol and a shotgun.

Ballenger said there was no discrepancy between the police and coroner's reports. Police said Wednesday for the first time that some of the victims were hit by several of the shotgun pellets, which left multiple wounds.

Staff writer Joshua Partlow in Bart Township and staff researcher Rena Kirsch in Washington contributed to this report.

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