Black Friday Sale: Get 75% off a digital subscription

A grim procession in Amish country

Sun Reporters

In the chill before daylight yesterday, two men with long beards stood before freshly dug graves in a small cemetery, where four little girls were soon to be buried.

The girls, two young sisters and two neighbors, were victims of a massacre in their one-room Amish schoolhouse on Monday that left five girls dead, another who has been taken off life support and four more who are in serious or critical condition.

Down twisting country roads later in the morning came dozens of horse-drawn black buggies, clip-clopping to the Bart Amish Cemetery in three successive funeral processions. A few children gazed curiously from their buggy windows at the reporters and photographers who thronged the streets. Their parents, wearing broad-brimmed black hats or bonnets, for the most part stared straight ahead with solemn faces.

But a few motioned toward the small, tan house with the green Jeep parked out front, the home of Charles Carl Roberts IV, the man who shot the girls and then took his own life in the West Nickel Mines schoolroom.

Since Roberts, a milk truck driver with three young children of his own, shattered their peaceful world, the Amish community has struggled to mourn while dealing with the intrusion of national media into their reclusive lives. The attention has been troubling, they say.

"We're glad it's over, that's for sure," said Sarah Beiler, 26, as she cut black cloth with long shears at an Amish store near the cemetery.

A relative of shooting victim Anna Mae Stoltzfus was in the shop, buying the fabric to make mourning clothes for the 13-year-old whose funeral will be held today.

The bodies of Naomi Rose Ebersole, 7, Marian Fisher, 13, and the Miller sisters, Mary Liz, 8, and Lena, 7, were buried yesterday after three separate funeral ceremonies, one following the other, in their parents' homes. According to Amish tradition, the girls were clothed in white dresses and capes, and lay in handcrafted wooden coffins.

From a cornfield on a hill, a line of more than 30 buggies could be seen rolling past a white fence into the cemetery for the first of the burials, that of Naomi Rose, about 11:45 a.m.

They were escorted by several police cruisers guarded by uniformed and undercover police officers. State police aircraft - a helicopter and a plane - circled overhead.

The voices of children playing in the yard of another nearby Amish school could be heard during the burial. Cattle grazed across the paved road from the cemetery, and flocks of migrating geese flew in formation above.

Yesterday had threatened to be much more tumultuous than it turned out.

A church group that pickets military funerals had announced plans to demonstrate here, prompting a local group of bikers to arrive on the scene with the intention of shielding the families from any protest.

Members of the Westboro Baptish Church of Topeka, Kan., accepted a deal from the host of a syndicated radio show for one hour of air time in exchange for promising not to demonstrate at the funerals. The group blames military deaths in Iraq, disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and tragedies such as the one that befell the Amish children on divine retribution for America's permissive morals.

Still, the bikers milled about the Bart Volunteer Fire Department in case they were needed.

Burly men wearing leather vests and bandanas chatted with dark-suited Amish elders, just one of the week's surreal images.

"These people are suffering," said Larry Copeland, a member of the local chapter of the Vietnam Veterans Motorcycle Club. "We show up for support."

Among the crowd of bikers, police officers, reporters and neighbors who stood along the procession route were several friends and relatives of Roberts' wife, Marie. They gathered at the end of the driveway of their home and waved as the Amish saluted them from their buggies.

"It's hard to accept what has happened," said Jacquie Hess, an aunt of Marie Roberts. "This was not the Charlie any of us knew."

The Charlie they knew, they said, was the one who walked the dog, carrying his 18-month-old son, Carson. He was the father who let 7-year-old Abigail work on his truck with her toy tools. He was also the one who carried the casket of his daughter Elise, who died shortly after her birth nine years ago. Though the family was devastated by her death, they said they did not understand how much the event had affected Charles Roberts.

In suicide notes, he wrote that he was tortured by Elise's death.

"It changed my life forever," Roberts wrote in the rambling message. "I am filled with so much hate hate towards myself hate towards God and unimaginable emptyness."

On Monday, Roberts began carrying out a plan that police say he had been plotting for at least a week.

Backing a borrowed pickup truck to the schoolhouse's double doors, he unloaded an assortment of weapons and tools.

He ordered the boys to leave, then lined the girls against the blackboard and shackled their ankles with plastic ties.

Roberts had been haunted by dreams of molesting children. He told his wife in a phone conversation shortly before he opened fire that 20 years ago he had assaulted two young relatives and that he dreamed of abusing children again. When state troopers arrived at the school, Roberts ordered them to leave. Then he opened fire.

"Charlie snapped, it's the truth," said family friend Randy Fischer, 51, who picked up milk from Amish farms with Roberts for four years. "He never had any animosity toward family, friends and neighbors."

Hess spoke of how she and another relative had accepted an invitation to attend a visitation for one of the slain girls, Marian Fisher, whose sister Barbara remains hospitalized after the attack. A third sister, Emma, managed to escape the schoolroom before the carnage.

Hess said her family was friendly with the girls' parents, who operate a dairy farm. She said the parents embraced her as she sat in their kitchen.

"They are a more forgiving community than what we are," Hess said. "We need to be a little bit more like they are."

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun