The recent kidnapping of 2 Amish girls in Northern New York illustrates the difficulties cultural differences can create for law enforcement. But for other factors, those difficulties may have prevented the girls’ rescue or delayed it until it was too late to find them alive.
On August 14, 2014, a 12-year-old girl and her 7-year-old sister were kidnapped from their Amish family’s roadside vegetable stand. An amber alert was issued and several law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, were quickly involved in solving the mystery and saving the girls. Their kidnapping posed unusual obstacles for law enforcement because the girls are Amish.
As is often the case with other religions, you’ve got your Amish and your Amish: their groups vary from quite conservative to relatively liberal. The girls in this case were kidnapped from Heuvelton, NY, home of the highly conservative Swartzentruber Amish, established in 1974 due to upstate New York’s plentiful, inexpensive farmland and perceived threats from more progressive Amish groups in their native state of Ohio.
This group lives according to their own strict “Ordnung,” a set of guidelines for their daily living. Adhering to their Ordnung means these Amish: speak a German dialect called “Pennsylvania Dutch”; keep their hair and beards unusually long; wear very conservative clothing that can make them nearly indistinguishable from each other; allow no photographs of anything, including themselves; drive quaintly quaint 1-horse black buggies with no electric lights, windshields or mirrors; ban hydraulic and air power but allow battery-powered flashlights, generators, solar power and diesel power. Their economy relies on vegetable & dairy farming, carpentry, sawmills, maple syrup production, quilting and other cottage industries producing a variety of goods sold by the community but not used by them. They do participate in the local economy in several respects but otherwise, they keep to themselves.
Due to the Swartzentruber group’s adherence to their Ordnung, the tasks of rescuing the girls and capturing the kidnappers were unusually difficult. I can attest to the difficulties of even casual interface, occasionally seeing Amish people driving their quaintly quaint 1-horse black buggies, saying hello to elder Amish males and receiving stony looks that must be the Pennsylvania Dutch equivalents of “Enjoy Hell, condemned soul.” Though the parents quickly realized that the girls were missing, they had no hope of catching a kidnapper’s car with a horse-drawn buggy. Furthermore, with no English-speaking assistance or photographs, police had to rely on a single sketch of the older girl (and only her – the Amish would not agree to sketching the younger girl) by an artist who also spoke Pennsylvania Dutch. The result was an artist’s sketch looking so unlike a 12-year-old girl that I thought it was a sketch of an adult male kidnapper. As for quick identification of the girls by their long hair, identical dark blue dresses and black bonnets, police surmised the kidnappers could quickly remove the clothing and cut the girls’ hair.
Fortunately for the girls, secular factors/people overcame the difficulties and aided their rescue: a non-Amish person saw a white car pull away with someone also in the passenger’s seat; an Amber Alert was issued; hidden Homeland Security cameras also filmed activity on the country roads; the kidnappers did not alter the girls’ appearance at all, allegedly became rattled by the news reports and dropped the girls off in a secluded area; the wet, cold, tired, hungry girls ran to a nearby house occupied by non-Amish, who quickly identified the girls, fed them and drove them back to their home about 20 miles away. In the end, two alleged kidnappers – a local man and woman – were captured and await criminal proceedings. To their credit, the Amish community gratefully rebuilt the rescuers’ garage that burned down months before this incident.
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