'Killing in Amish Country': Sex and murder, pathetic and obvious

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"A Killing in Amish Country" by Gregg Olsen and Rebecca Morris: Detail from the book cover.

A Killing in Amish Country

Sex, Betrayal, and a Cold-Blooded Murder

By Gregg Olsen

and Rebecca Morris

St. Martin. 304 pp. $26.99


Reviewed by Peter Lewis


One night, all rain and lightning and "the wind rolling across the farmhouse," 9-year-old Harley Weaver was startled awake by a thunderclap. He drifted back to sleep.

On the other side of the wall, Barbara Weaver, 30, wife of Eli, mother of five children, member of the Andy Weaver Amish, lay dead. "There had been only two reported murders among the Amish in America in more than 250 years," write Gregg Olsen and Rebecca Morris. The people of Wayne County, Ohio, home of Smucker's jam and Rubbermaid, were flabbergasted.

If Amish society is largely closed, its members hold sacred other attitudes the non-Amish yearn for: simplicity, forgiveness, a life free from technology's tyranny. The Amish take care of transgressions in-house, both those against the Amish Ordnung (rules of guidance) and, to an extent, society's laws.

But murder? Well, then the sheriff comes calling, encroaching on the Amish's personal space, much to their shame and anxiety. Suspicion fell on the husband, with good reason. Olsen and Morris make no bones about Eli, no nod to impartiality or stab at objectivity: Eli is spineless, narcissistic scum, a cruel father and an abusive husband.

Eli asked nearly everybody in town how to kill his wife. Of one friend, he inquired about a hit man. The friend says, "I said something like, 'Are you serious?' and we joked about it." He asked the same friend to research putting rat poison in Barbara's morning Tang. Eli already had abandoned his wife and children twice, in pursuit of cars, cellphones, a life beyond the strictures of faith. Something made him come back. He was readmitted to the Amish fold, yet he kept sexting and conducted affairs, most significantly with a troubled Mennonite woman, Barb Raber (married, four kids, secret hoarder).

The authors indulge in much corny and melodramatic writing: "the cellmate's credibility teetered like a busted pair of heels on a gravel road"; Eli "playing the victim card like a Vegas dealer." Cue the organ music.

Olsen and Morris work hard to invest the crime with jump and venality, but it is all so grim, pathetic, and obvious, no matter the cloudy outcome. Even the prosecutor feels the case "was tedious." But questions remain. Why didn't Eli just leave, again, for good? The most confounding issue is never plumbed: If Eli was boneheaded enough to inquire publicly about killing Barbara, why didn't someone say something? No shortage of guilt in Apple Creek.

Peter Lewis is an editor at the American Geographical Society in New York City.