A jury of nine men and three women today refused to convict "shunned" Mennonite farmer Robert L. Bear, 51, of abduction despite the fact that Bear had admitted that charges against him were true.
The jurors, most of them in their 50s and all of them from this farm community, took less than an hour to decide unanimously that Bear was not guilty of charges stemming from the abduction of his estranged wife at a local farm market last summer.
Bear had admitted forcing his wife, Gale 41, into his truck and holding her for nearly an hour before being arrested.
The day-and-a-half-long trial featured dramatic and often tearful pleas by Bear, who acted as his own attorney, that he had seized his wife for the sole purpose of getting arrested in order to bring his dispute with the 500-member religious sect to public attention.
Bear, a muscular man who bears an uncanny resemblance to the late actor Gary Cooper, in manner and voice, was excommunicated by the Reformed Mennonites in 1972 after openly criticizing Church elders. Shortly there-after, he says, he was "shunned" by church members and by his wife and children, who left his 400-acre farm.
In 1975, he lost a battle to have his family returned to him by the courts. The judge in that case ruled, in effect, that the courts had no business interfering with an essentially religious dispute.
From the beginning of the most recent trial, Assistant District Attorney J. Michael Eakin, 31, fought a losing battle to keep Bear's dispute with the church out of the case. "Although you may properly have sympathy for Mr. Bear's position," Eakin told the jury, "his church is not on trial here." He then produced witnesses to Bear's seizure of his wife at a Lemoyne, Pa., farmer's market last Aug. 31.
Bear, in turn, called his wife to the stand, and elicited from her a statement that she had had sexual relations with him after he was shunned, an act contrary to church law. The ploy, however, seemed to backfire when his wife, dressed in traditional plain clothing of the Mennonites, accused him of having raped her.
Bear quickly dismissed his wife as a witness.
But today, Bear took the stand in his own defense, and leaned heavily on what he termed the "theft" of his wife and six children by the church following his excommunication. He described as "three horsemen of death" the three chruch bishops, including his brother-in-law, Glenn Gross, 47, who came to his farm to tell him he was excommunicated.
Bear quoted the written works of Mennos Simon, the 16th-century founder of the Mennonite Church, that excommunication "would either break a man or 'cause him to become as a raving, biting dog or an unclean swine.'"
At that point, Bear lost his composure. His soft voice broke and he wept as he repeatedly apologized for breaking down.
"I can't take it," he said. "Why can't you die, why can't they kill you is what you think about when they excommunicate you. You are looking at someone who is condemned to hell. I am the living dead."
After his excommunication, he said, his wife insisted that they sleep in the same bedroom, but allowed him no sexual relations. "She let me see her naked," he said in an interrogation that could be more accurately called a speech. "That is what people in the more normal world cannot understand.
"I did this so that the whole world would know that the reformed Mennonite Church has terrorized me, has pulverized me with the lash of the ban . But I don't think that will help my poor wife.
Many of those in the courtroom, including a woman juror, began weeping softly, and many sat with heads bowed as Bear tearfully told of his frustrations and seven years of loneliness.
After 40 minutes, prosecutor Eakin objected, and county Judge Harold E. Sheely ordered Bear to stop. "I think we have given you ample opportunity to tell your story," he said.
Under cross examination by Eakin, Bear admitted that he had planned his wife's abduction, "for days."
In closing argument, the prosecutor once again tried to bring the jury back to the two charges against Bear: simple assault and false imprisonment, each punishable two years in jail and a $2,500 fine.
Praising Bear for "an excellent job in representing himself," Eakin nevertheless urged the jury to "show Cumberland County that its persons are safe from this sort of anti-social behavior."
After the jury had announced its verdict, Sheely noted: "Mr. Bear, I consider you very fortunate. If I had been hearing your case without a jury I would have found you guilty of false imprisonment."
And, in the hallway outside, barely noticed by the dozens of reporters covering the trial, wandered Bear's eldest child, David, 18.
"I'm not shunning my father," the modishly dressed youngster told a reporter. "I just don't want anything to do with him. I don't hate him and I didn't want to see him go to jail. But I did want someone in authority to tell him that he just can't do this to my mother anymore."
After the trial, David walked out of the courtroom without speaking to his father.
Prosecutor Eakin said, "The thing that worries me is the Mr. Bear will now think he has a license to do what he wants in the future."
But Bear, surrounded by reporters appeared as humble in victory as he had before the jury.
"It's a victory of sorts," he said. "But I'm not free, my wife is not free, nor are my children free."
When a reporter asked if he might not once again try to force his wife to return to him, Bear said, "I'll have to think about that."