Families' grieving begins

October 05, 2006|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,sun reporter

NICKEL MINES, Pa. -- In a single-file line, an Amish family of seven solemnly made its way across a wide, green field. When they finally touched the asphalt road on the other side, the young boy leading the way reached back for his father's hand and they entered the Ebersole home to pay their respects.

Seven-year-old Naomi Rose Ebersole was one of five girls fatally shot Monday in their one-room schoolhouse, a numbing act of violence that thrust the national spotlight on this quiet town.

For many, the grieving process began yesterday, as neighbors from far and wide traveled by horse-drawn buggy or walked to the homes of the young victims' families for open-casket viewings.

Today, the families will remove wall partitions and set up backless benches in their homes. The men and woman will sit on opposite sides at each funeral service - three planned for today. They will last two hours and be followed by a procession to the Bart Amish Cemetery.

A sixth girl, listed in critical condition Tuesday and identified by relatives as 6-year-old Rosanna S. King, was reportedly taken off life support at the request of her parents and moved from Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center to her family's home. Police said she was alive there as of 6 p.m.

Authorities also said yesterday that they had located and interviewed the relatives of Charles Carl Roberts IV, the 32-year-old killer whose haunting dreams of sexual assaults were among the explanations left in a suicide note to his wife. In a phone conversation before he killed himself, Roberts told her he had molested two relatives 20 years ago.

But police said that the supposed victims, who would have been between the ages of 3 and 5 at the time, had no recollection of such abuse.

"He alleged that, and we're comfortable with our interviews that that was [only] alleged," said Pennsylvania State Trooper Linette Quinn.

Four other girls remained hospitalized yesterday, but no information on their conditions was released. A sign set up outside one local church read, "Keep Praying."

The media throng brought here by the multiple slayings and their unlikely setting had largely evaporated yesterday from the intersection uphill from the West Nickel Mines Amish School, where a dusty auction house had become the nerve center for an international assortment of television, wire service and newspaper teams.

Samuel Fisher, the Amish owner of the auction house, took a moment to catch up on work in a dimly lit back office. "I just wish we'd all met under different circumstances," he told a reporter.

Instead of the drone of TV news vans and buzzing helicopters, there was only the rustle of corn stalks in a gentle breeze. Groups of mourners walked down a long gravel path, past a dozen cows that had taken refuge in the shade of a weeping willow tree and behind the greenhouse of another family named Fisher, who grow and sell chrysanthemums.

Many of the Amish mourners looked dazed as they left the viewing of Marian Fisher, who was 13 and the oldest of the dead.

One woman dabbed at her reddened face with a handkerchief as she sat in a buggy being pulled down the road by a horse.

Marian was one of three of the family's children attending school Monday morning when Roberts began his brief siege, according to a Mennonite midwife who spoke to their mother. One of Marian's sisters escaped; another was shot and remains hospitalized, said the midwife, Rita Rhoads.

Though they gave friendly nods as they passed, most mourners were reluctant to speak to outsiders.

Later in the evening, the Lancaster County Amish community issued a statement through the police asking for respect and restraint during the burial processions. "The media frenzy with the amount of outside people and reporters has not been appreciated," the statement read.

It continued: "We don't know or understand why this happened, but we do believe God allowed this to happen. The rest of us, our lives will go on. We will try to work together to support and help the families directly involved, knowing that the innocent children will likely need help in dealing with this tragedy of their friends, neighbors and schoolmates."

Religious leaders of the Amish community met for five hours at the nearby fire hall, where they established a nine-member panel to handle a flood of monetary donations that one organizer said could total in the millions of dollars.

"This is how we can receive funds and give proper accounting," said Kevin King, executive director of Mennonite Disaster Services, based in Akron, Pa. "We are compelled to respond here to our brothers and sisters."

Unresolved was the fate of the schoolhouse, which reporters were allowed to view from outside its white fence gates.

It will likely be torn down or burned, though religious and school leaders had not decided on that yet.

The windows of the cream-colored stucco building - first blocked from the inside with two-by-fours by Roberts, then smashed in by troopers as he fired a shotgun and 9 mm pistol - are boarded by plywood.

Once a snapshot of early America, the school and its white fence are now plastered with store-bought no-trespassing signs. White horses grazed in the brushy field where the boys whom Roberts allowed to leave had fled.


Sun reporters Julie Scharper, Nick Shields and Bradley Olson contributed to this article.

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