Amiss Among The Amish

  • Share
  • Read Later
Abner Stoltzfus began taking on work as a roofer in his late teens, often traveling outside his home in Lancaster County, Penn., to rustle up some spare cash. Before long he ran into a member of the Pagans motorcycle gang who offered him some cocaine on the job. Soon Stoltzfus was hooked, money was running low, and he began pushing drugs to feed his habit. "I don't think there was much analysis behind his actions," his lawyer, John Pyfer Jr., told TIME. "I think it just happened, the way it could happen to your child or mine." It's a familiar story, barely noteworthy, except for one detail: Abner Stoltzfus is Amish.

In Lancaster County, home to 20,000 Amish who belong to the conservative old order, Stoltzfus, now 24, and Abner King Stoltzfus, 23, who bears no relation to him, were charged with distributing "multiple kilograms" of cocaine and methamphetamine at town dances from 1993 to 1997. And just in case that wasn't enough of a jolt for a public that knows the Amish mostly through the movie Witness, the two Stoltzfuses' names were read in tandem with eight members of the Pagans, including "Twisted" and "Fat Head." Another Amish youth, underage and identified only by the initials C.S., was cited but unindicted.

Nestled in the rolling hills of Lancaster County, the town of Gap is a sprawling collection of clapboard houses, strip malls and a truck stop named Touch O' Home. Horse and buggies mingle with automobiles and, increasingly, Amish kids whizzing by on Rollerblades. It was here, or more specifically at weekend gatherings held on the outlying farms, that the two Amish men were accused of dealing drugs.

The trouble began over rumschpringes, commonly known as Time Out. For young men and women anywhere from age 16 to their mid-20s, rumschpringes is a kind of prolonged joyride, one last opportunity for them to romp in the pleasures of the "real world" before time runs out and the church, and adult baptism, beckons. During this period of indulgence, it's understood that teenagers tread, oh, so lightly, into the realm of dating; that the boys are likely to answer the siren call of a well-tuned engine (forbidden to baptized churchgoers); and that a few might even dabble in smoking and drinking. The teenagers join "gangs" and cavort with one another at hoedowns or barn dances. Police say the Stoltzfuses and C.S. distributed drugs among three of these gangs, the Antiques, the Crickets and the Pilgrims.

The source of the coke was allegedly the Pagans, who refer to themselves as the One Percenters because they claim to represent an elite--the truly bad. Like the Amish, they wear black and stick to a preferred mode of transportation: Harley-Davidsons. Unlike the Amish, they rely on beatings to keep members in line, and "going to church," a euphemism for their weekly meetings, has nothing to do with godly behavior. In the 1970s and '80s the Pagans racked up charges of murder, extortion and drug dealing, learning discretion the hard way after federal indictments decimated their ranks. Still, with about 600 members, the Pagans are the largest biker gang in the East, and they haven't given up their cause: general mayhem. The Pagans indicted last week were charged with, among other things, distributing 10 kilos of coke in the area.

No one was more on guard than the Amish themselves. The twin pressures of their own population growth and suburban sprawl have encroached on their way of life; 40% of the Amish work in jobs unconnected to farming, according to Donald Kraybill, who has written about half a dozen books on Amish social structures. Alert to the influences of the outside or "English" world, the Lancaster County bishops warned their congregations about drugs last fall, writing in an open letter, "Parents, beware the evil changes which your children could or might be going through."

Most Amish teenagers negotiate rumschpringes safely and grow into adulthood newly eager to commit to the strictures of the church. "They see emptiness" in the English world, says Steven Scott, a research assistant who studies Amish adolescents at Elizabethtown College. "The thrills are not really satisfying. The stability in the Amish community looks more worthwhile." But drugs may change all that. How long can stability last if Time Out lets sin in?