A Brief History
On October 2, 2006, a mentally disturbed 32 year old man went to an Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania (often described as the “Capital” of Amish Country) and proceeded to shoot 11 people, of which six died, including himself. His apparent reason for the massacre? The man was upset about having sexually molested a couple of young children (3 and 5 years old) 20 years prior to the shooting and was having thoughts that he might again start molesting children. How exactly murdering innocent people that had nothing to do with the man’s past is unclear.
Charles Roberts was a married father of 3 children that drove a milk tanker truck for a living. On the fatal day when he left for work he left suicide notes for each of his 4 immediate family members and drove his pickup truck to the local one-room Amish schoolhouse, the West Nickel Mines School. Armed with a 9mm handgun, Roberts had planned his suicide to be a hostage taking event coupled with murder and packed a variety of tools and implements to use during his deadly send-off. Among his repertoire of materials of mayhem included a shotgun, boards, a hammer and nails, a stun gun, chains, wires, various tools and accessories, toilet paper, candles, plastic zip ties, and a change of clothing, Roberts obviously intended to take hostages as well as murder people and to fortify his position while keeping those hostages under control. He also obviously thought his atrocity was going to last a while, possibly into the night. Why he chose to target an Amish school is not clear.
Roberts first entered the school under the pretense of looking for a lost clevis pin, asking the occupants if anyone had seen it. He then left and reentered with his gun, ordering boys to carry his supplies into the school from his truck. Adult hostages included the teacher and a student’s mother that was visiting the school. Three other parents with babies and a pregnant woman were allowed to leave the school. The male students were also allowed to leave. A few kids escaped, and 10 girls remained in the school as hostages. (Given the release of the boys and most of the adults, it would seem Roberts had some sort of hatred for young girls, presumably blaming them for his sexual fantasies as if it were their fault somehow. Of course, this is just the author’s conjecture.) Some of the escapees fled to a nearby farmhouse and had the resident call 911 (10:36 am). After having the boys carry his supplies into the school and the escape of the other children, Roberts had the remaining hostages line up by the chalkboard and he proceeded to nail boards across the door, barricading that entrance.
Police started arriving within 6 or 7 minutes of the 911 call, the first officer flagged down by an Amish adult man that had responded to the schoolhouse to keep watch until police arrived. Responding police used cruiser mounted loudspeakers to talk to the suspect until additional officers arrived, exhorting the suspect to disarm and come out to surrender. Roberts refused the orders and in turn ordered the police to vacate the area. In only a few minutes a large crowd of police, medical personnel, and civilians had gathered around the scene. When shots were heard fired inside the schoolhouse at 11:07 am, police responded to the windows and entered the schoolhouse. Roberts had already fired about 17 shots from his pistol, killing 5 girls and himself and wounding another 5 people. At least 1 shot was fired from Roberts’s shotgun, the pellets striking a student. Police reported the interior of the schoolhouse was a mess of bullet holes, blood, and broken glass.
A pair of the student hostages asked Roberts to shoot them first in order to spare the other girls, and Roberts complied, shooting both, killing one and wounding one. At these first shots the officers nearest the building requested permission to immediately enter the schoolhouse but were denied permission. Entry into the schoolhouse took officers about 2 and half minutes, with officers finding Roberts dead and the killed and wounded hostages mostly shot in the head. Medical evacuation was accomplished as quickly as possible, including by helicopter. Police found 2 girls dead on the scene, and the other 3 fatalities died later.
Oddly enough, the kids Roberts reported having molested 20 years prior to the shooting were interviewed by police and claimed they had never been molested. In addition to discussing the child molestation in his suicide notes, Roberts had also blamed God for making Roberts commit the heinous acts. Further investigation found that Roberts had been described as somewhat morose and agitated in the weeks before the incident, but in the week immediately prior to the massacre had seemed in much better spirits. Roberts had phoned his wife from the schoolhouse and told her about his alleged crimes 20 years previously, and further that he had been having “daydreams” about repeating such behavior. In his suicide note, Roberts referred to the anguish he felt over the death of one of his children who had lived only 20 minutes after being born. The motives for the shooting are still largely a mystery.
Pennsylvania State Troopers (10 of them) responding to the scene were awarded with a medal as were local police and medical personnel. Reaction by the local Amish community was striking, with an outpouring of sympathy for the victims and their families but also with widespread forgiveness for the perpetrator. All across the United States people were touched by the spirit of forgiveness from a community so hurtfully wronged. Some other Americans were highly critical of the attitude of forgiveness, claiming that forgiveness is appropriate only in the face of remorse and that such unequivocal forgiveness denies the very fact of the evil that was done. In an incredible display of consistency with their religious beliefs, the Amish community comforted the Roberts family, attended Roberts’ funeral, and even donated money to his widow and children! The schoolhouse was demolished only a week later, and the grounds left to nature as a pasture, to remain a place of peace. A new school was erected at a different location with pains taken to build the school in a different style from the original
Question for students (and subscribers): Could you forgive someone that murdered your school age relative? Were the Amish right to act in a forgiving manner? How could this tragedy have been averted? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Beiler, Jonas and Shawn Smucker. Think No Evil: Inside the Story of the Amish Schoolhouse Shooting.and Beyond. Oasis Audio, 2009.
Nolt, Steven. A History of the Amish: Third Edition. Good Book, 2016.
The featured image in this article, a photograph of an Amish family riding in a traditional Amish buggy in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, USA by it:Utente:TheCadExpert, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.