Lee Kaplan guilty on all sex-abuse counts in 'gifted' case

Lee Kaplan, front in yellow, is led to a preliminary hearing Aug. 2, 2016, in Bucks County. (MEGAN TRIMBLE / Associated Press)

Lee Kaplan, the Bucks County man who befriended a large family, made six young sisters his wives, and sexually abused them over the course of a decade, was convicted Tuesday on all 17 child sexual-assault charges against him.

The verdict by a Bucks County Court jury, which deliberated more than nine hours, came almost exactly a year after Kaplan was discovered housing nine sisters, their mother, and two children he fathered with the oldest girl in his Feasterville home, who police were told had been “gifted” to him by her parents.

He made the six oldest sisters his wives over a period of years, the sisters each testified. Their parents, Daniel and Savilla Stoltzfus, promised one of their daughters to him in marriage when she was about 7, and over time, he made it clear he would take more as his wives.

As the first guilty verdict was returned, Kaplan twisted his head, then sat back in his seat and ran a hand around his collar. As subsequent counts were read as guilty, he twisted his beard, rocked back and forth in his chair, and shook his head once.

“He was brought to justice today, and I’m very happy,”  Deputy District Attorney Kate Kohler said after the trial.

Judge Jeffrey L. Finley revoked Kaplan’s bail and deferred his sentencing until a sexual offender assessment is completed. As Finley spoke, Kaplan pulled his fingers through his beard over and over.

“He’s said from the very beginning he didn’t do these things,” said his attorney, Ryan Hyde, who said he had spoken to Kaplan only for a few seconds before the man was taken out of the courtroom. “He had hoped for a better outcome.”

Bucks County Deputy District Attorney Kate Kohler reacts after Lee Kaplan is convicted.

Many of the 17 counts carry a maximum sentence of 20 to 40 years, and Kohler said she hoped Kaplan would spend the rest of his life in prison.

Over three days of testimony last week, nearly 20 witnesses revealed the tale of the Stoltzfus-Kaplan relationship, which began when a financially hurting and spiritually vulnerable Daniel Stoltzfus met Kaplan at an auction in 2002. The family wanted to leave the Amish faith and needed money, and Kaplan, who cast himself as a prophet of God and offered financial help, became close to them. He began spending nights at their Lancaster County house, where he first invited the two oldest girls — then 7 and 8 — to sleep in his bed, where he fondled and kissed them.

By 2016, not only the two oldest but their seven younger sisters had moved in with Kaplan, along with their mother, who herself was given to Kaplan as a wife by her own husband. And the oldest Stoltzfus girl had had two children by Kaplan. Abuse began for each of them between ages 7 and 8, they said.

The sisters, now ages 9 to 19, testified about years of abuse, but also said they still love the man who created a world within the walls of his house — one that included musical instruments and education, but no toothbrushes, soap, or beds. They tended to the garden or the chicken coop. They grew most of their own food, and Kaplan kept stores of canned goods in the house, whose windows were all covered. Kaplan also told them that the outside world would ruin their lives and that they should never tell what they did with him in his bedroom.

Hyde had argued that the girls were making up their stories in an effort to get their mother out of jail in exchange for accusations against Kaplan. He told the jury Monday that the girls had been coached and said prosecutors had not handled the case correctly.

Kohler countered that the mother had never been promised leniency in exchange for testimony and said that Kaplan had kept control over the daughters by instilling fear in them and teaching them to protect him.

Kohler said after the trial she had remained confident the jurors would convict Kaplan. “They heard the truth,” she said. “They heard compelling testimony from all of these little girls.”

Five Amish relatives of the Stoltzfuses heard the verdict in court, including Savilla Stoltzfus’ sister and one of her older sons, who both testified in the case. They declined to comment, but the sister offered a broad smile.

Ryan Hyde, Kaplan’s attorney, said they were disappointed in the verdict.

Hyde said he planned to examine appeals options, arguing as he had to the jury that prosecutors did not conduct the investigation properly.

“I don’t believe that this is the last you’ll be seeing of this case,” Hyde said.

When she testified, the second-oldest Stoltzfus girl said that living in Kaplan’s house had been his idea, but “worked out for everybody.” She said that she believed his having sex with her was a “way of showing affection” and that she considers herself his wife. Kaplan told them that society would not accept their way of life and they couldn’t tell anyone.

“We knew if it did get out that it would be ended,” she said, later adding, “I was very happy where we were.”

The girls remained in their Lancaster County foster home Tuesday. They are still in the care of child services, and a Bucks County judge will decide on a permanent home for them later.

“They’re already starting to spread their wings more,” Kohler said, saying they were now engaging in activities such as attending summer camp. As for their testimony that they still love Kaplan as their husband, she said, “I pray for them.”