With Drug Arrests, Urban Grit Smudges Amish Life

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Abram Stoltzfus drank his share of beer as a young man, a taste of temptation that is a rite of passage even in a place as mythically moral as Amish country. But selling cocaine? Mingling with a motorcycle gang called the Pagans? With bikers known as "Twisted" and "Fathead"?

"I guess it goes to show you we're human beings, just like everyone else," Stoltzfus, 34, said as he stood on the stoop of his immaculate white farmhouse. "These things are going to happen. It's sad."

Stoltzfus and other Amish residents of this eastern Pennsylvania town picked up their newspapers Wednesday morning and read about two of their own, young Amish men from Gap with the most common last name in town--Stoltzfus. Young men reared in a strict but increasingly threatened culture in which people abstain from material pleasures and adhere to a spartan life of decency and faith.

These two young men, however, were indicted in federal court in Philadelphia on Tuesday on charges that they bought cocaine and methamphetamine from members of another local subculture--the Pagans--and then sold them to youths at Amish hoedowns in Gap and other Lancaster County communities. According to the indictment, they were cogs in a drug ring that united two seemingly incompatible cultures for five years. Abner Stoltzfus, 24, and Abner King Stoltzfus, 23,--who are not related to each other or to Abram Stoltzfus--were at home with their families not commenting while awaiting arraignment next week on charges that could send them to prison for life. Eight Pagans were also indicted.

At the time of the alleged drug dealing, both men were in a period of their lives that the Amish call a "timeout," when young men are encouraged to sow their wild oats before deciding whether to rejoin the faith for the rest of their lives.

"I'm not suggesting that the Amish hierarchy condones drug use or anything like that, but they're going through a period of time when they are allowed to be rebellious," said John Pyfer, the lawyer for Abner Stoltzfus, who added that his client will plead not guilty.

The parents of the two are members of the Old Order Amish, the most orthodox branch of the faith. "They're bearing up," Pyfer said. "They're having difficulty understanding it. These are people who are intensely private," he said. "They do not want to be photographed. They do not want their problems aired in public."

The indictment of two Amish men on charges of pushing drugs on Amish kids is particularly jolting because many Americans consider the Amish something of a national treasure, a plain-living, hard-working and God-fearing people who eschew such luxuries as cars, electricity and colorful clothing in favor of family and faith. Yet people who study the Amish culture, and even the normally reticent Amish themselves, say it's getting harder for members of this Anabaptist religious sect to maintain their lifestyle, particularly in a place like Lancaster County, where suburban sprawl and outlet malls are leaving too little land for the Amish to farm and too little room on the road for their horse-drawn buggies.

"It's a big myth of Amish society being perfect, a bunch of puritans living an idyllic life out in the country," said Daniel Lee, a Penn State University professor of the sociology of religion who has researched the Amish. "To put it plainly, they are very normal people."

They are normal people whose lifestyle is nevertheless under siege. "As we make it harder and harder for the Amish to isolate themselves, they become more like this," said Lee.

The Amish sect was founded in the 17th century by Jacob Amman, a Swiss Mennonite bishop who believed that the faith was too liberal. They settled in this country shortly thereafter, mainly in Pennsylvania. But the sprawl from the cities and the dwindling farmland have driven many to the West, as well as Canada and Mexico. There are an estimated 150,000 Amish in North America.

Many who have remained in the Northeast have prospered by increasingly moving into trades, such as cabinetmaking, or welding and construction. Amish-built deck furniture, for example, is almost a staple of backyards across the Northeast. Amish grocery stores have a cachet among upscale young professionals who have moved out to the country.

But the subsequent increase in contact has also made them more susceptible to outside influences. "I personally believe that the lifestyle is in danger," said Abram Stoltzfus, who said he's worried about the future facing his four preteen children. "There's just a lot more [non-Amish] people about than there were years ago."

And where there are people, there are drugs, said Gap District Magistrate Isaac Stoltzfus, whose parents left the Amish faith when he was a baby 46 years ago. "I think it's also an indication of the size of the drug problem," he said.

He isn't seeing more Amish in the criminal justice system, he said, except for underage drinkers. But he said the Amish seem more willing to press charges against people who have wronged them than they have in the past.

"Here's a culture that I came from, and I'd like to protect it as much as I would my children," Isaac Stoltzfus said. "It's the sort of culture that we all sort of yearn for."

Abram Stoltzfus said he drank during his timeout when he was a young man, but he came back to the faith and hasn't touched a drop since. Lee said he met Amish people who smoked pot in the 1960s during their timeouts, then returned to the faith. Drugs don't have the stigma inside Amish society because they're so rarely encountered.

"These kids aren't used to sleeping with the devil," Isaac Stoltzfus said. "They're used to Sunday afternoons playing baseball, the hoedowns and maybe some beer drinking."

One of the myths of the Amish is that they eschew all technology, yet a gas grill alongside an Amish farmhouse is not an uncommon site. Some have telephones, but keep them out of the house in backyard sheds.

But technology can also be seductive. A boyhood acquaintance of his father's, "a little Amish boy" named Gideon Miller, was apparently so fascinated by the planes that flew overhead that he grew up to be an airline pilot and was killed aboard TWA Flight 800, which blew up off Long Island.

With so many young men forced to move closer to non-Amish society, it's not surprising that some of them succumb to the modern world. "Kids get out a little more, they're off working for bosses with extended-cab pickup trucks and cell phones," Isaac Stoltzfus said. "There's got to be temptation."

Amish crime isn't unheard of. Three years ago, a teenage farmhand in Maryland killed a woman, beat her children and then shot himself. Two years earlier, an Amish man murdered his wife in Pennsylvania. And Canadian authorities report that members of the related Mennonite faith were among the main suppliers of marijuana to that country, easily passing through customs because they looked so harmless.

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