|New York Times bestselling author|
Critical Acclaim for AMONG THE WICKED
"Castillo builds suspense brilliantly, using both the snowbound setting and the difficulty of working as an undercover Amish woman to great advantage."--Booklist
“Readers will be enthralled as Kate uncovers secrets in a quaint Amish community.”—Publisher’s Weekly
Read an Excerpt of AMONG THE WICKED
“Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked.”—Holy Bible, Psalm 1:1
She waited until three A.M. She’d tried to sleep, but it was a fruitless endeavor. Instead, she spent five hours twisting in sheets damp with fear sweat, heart pounding, her mind running the gauntlet of the myriad things that could go wrong. Finally, too wired to lie still a moment longer, she tossed the covers aside, rose, and stripped off her nightgown.
Kneeling, she pulled the neatly folded clothes from beneath the bed where she’d hidden them: Long underwear. Blue jeans. Sweater. Two pairs of socks. Insulated gloves. Wool hat. It had taken her weeks to amass those few simple necessities; she’d been forced to delay her escape twice. She’d stolen for the first time in her life. Lied to people she loved. But she’d finally collected enough cold weather gear to get her through. The rest was up to God.
Shivering in the darkness, she pulled on her clothes and tucked the gloves into her pocket. She listened for signs that someone else was awake, but the only sounds were the hiss of cotton against her bare skin and the quick in and out of her breaths. She’d wanted insulated boots, preferably with some tread, but she hadn’t been able to afford them, and they were too unwieldy to steal. Her muck boots were going to have to do.
Fully dressed, she slid the cell phone from beneath the mattress. She never risked leaving it on; cell phones were strictly forbidden by the Ordnung. The punishment for such a transgression would be brutal and swift. Hopefully, she had enough battery left for the only call she needed to make.
Shoving the phone into the rear pocket of her jeans, she padded in stocking feet to the bedroom door. A smile came to her face when it glided open without so much as a squeak. Amazing what a little lard did to an old hinge. And she reminded herself it was the inattention to details that got you caught. That, she thought, and trusting the wrong people.
Not her. She didn’t trust anyone. Hadn’t for a long time. Sometimes she didn’t even trust herself.
She’d planned this excursion for weeks. She’d run through every detail a thousand times. Envisioned the hundreds of things that could go wrong, and adjusted her plan accordingly. She’d visualized success, too. And she’d never lost sight of what it would mean to her life. It was the one thing that kept her moving forward when everything else was lost.
Silently, she crept into the hall, where scant feet away, the doors to three other bedrooms held the threat of discovery. There were no windows in the hall, no light of any kind, but she’d anticipated the darkness. She’d memorized every step and knew her route as intimately as she knew her own face. Three strides and she reached the stairs. Hand on the banister, the wood hard and slick beneath her palm. She knew not to touch the wall, or risk knocking the picture off its hook. Senses heightened to a fever pitch, she crept down the steps, skirting the fourth one to avoid the squeak of the nail against wood.
At the base of the stairs she paused again to listen, but all she heard was the buzz of the kerosene refrigerator in the kitchen and the tick of the clock above the stove. The sounds were nearly eclipsed by the roar of fear in her head. She could feel her knees shaking; her hands were unsteady, her palms wet with sweat. She couldn’t afford to be afraid; fear was a distraction that led to mistakes, and dear God, she would not screw this up. She tried to calm herself—a deep breath slowly and silently released—but it was no use. Terror was a dark presence, its breath hot on the back of her neck.
The faint rectangle of the kitchen doorway beckoned. No flicker of the lantern. No one awake at this hour. To her right, the muddy light from the front window seeped into the living room. The three-quarter moon was another detail she’d meticulously planned for. What she hadn’t counted on was the cloud cover. It wasn’t going to stop her.
She moved across the plank floor as soundlessly as a ghost. Through the kitchen, linoleum cold against her feet even through two pairs of socks. Then she was in the mudroom. Colder there. No heat. A draft blasting in beneath the exterior door. Coat on the hook. Not heavy enough, but it would have to do. Her boots were next to the rug where she’d left them after mucking stalls earlier, still smelling of horse manure. She shoved her feet into the boots. Pulled on the coat. Buttoned it with shaking fingers. She tugged the gloves from her pockets, jammed her hands into them. Sweating now beneath the coat. Breaths coming short and fast. Fear mocking her as she reached for the knob, telling her she couldn’t do this. She didn’t smile this time when the door glided noiselessly open.
Outside, snow coming down hard. A quick shot of dismay. She should have anticipated it. For an instant she worried about leaving tracks. But as she made her way down the porch steps, she realized it was snowing hard enough to cover any trace that she’d been there. The low visibility would work to her advantage, too. If someone happened to wake up and look out the window, they wouldn’t see her. Another gift from God.
A hysterical titter squeezed from her throat as she sprinted across the yard. Awkward in the muck boots. Feet silent against the snow. Breaths puffing out in front of her. Snowflakes pecking at her face like sharp little beaks. She ran past the shed. Ducked beneath the clothesline. She could just make out the hulking shape of the barn twenty yards to her left. Remembering to avoid the horses lest they whinny in anticipation of hay, she veered right. Past the T-post demarcating the garden. The maple tree in the side yard.
She reached the rail fence, scaled it with the ease of a gymnast, landed on her feet on the other side. Through the veil of white, the mottled wall of trees beckoned. A profound sense of liberation engulfed her as she raced across the pasture. Boots crunching over tufts of frozen grass. The wind whipped at her face, yanked at her coat and hat. Snow stung her eyes. But she knew exactly where to find the mouth of the path cut into the woods. A deer trail she’d been widening and clearing for weeks now. The sons of bitches should have paid closer attention to how she spent her afternoons. . . .
The woods swallowed her, taking her in. The wind chased her for several yards and then tapered off, unable to penetrate the trees. Otherworldly silence all around. The tinkle of snow pellets. She ran for a hundred yards, careful to avoid the fallen log that had been too heavy for her to move. Stooping to avoid the low branch that had been too thick to break.
She stopped in the clearing, bent at the hip and set her hands on her knees. A minute to catch her breath. She had time. Only two miles to go. Past the lake ahead. A right turn at the deer blind. From there, another mile to the road. The most dangerous part of her plan was done.
Giddiness rose inside her. She choked out another laugh, a maniacal sound in the dark and the snow. “I did it,” she panted. “I did it. I did it.”
Straightening, she wiped a runny nose and glanced behind her. Another layer of relief rippled through her when she found the trail empty.
“I beat you,” she whispered. “Bastards.”
She started down the trail at a jog, finding her rhythm, settling into it. Snow stinging her cheeks, making her eyes tear, but she didn’t care. Trees swept by. Elation pushed her forward. So close now she could smell the sweet scent of freedom. A new life. A future.
She reached the lake, a low plane of white to her right. For fifty yards the path ran parallel with the bank. The snow sparkled like diamonds on the ice. On the other side, another line of trees. Muscles screaming, lungs burning, she picked up the pace. One foot in front of the other. Faster now. Comfortable with the pain. Bring it on.
The sight of the footprint stopped her dead. Panting, she stared, confusion and disbelief pummeling her like fists. Alarm knocking at her brain. Terror breathing hot down the back of her neck.
Not possible, she thought.
Her eyes tracked the prints left, into the woods. Not yet covered by snow. Fresh. But who would be out here in the middle of the night? Even as her brain posed the question, another part of her already knew, and the knowledge sent a lightning strike of adrenaline burning through her.
A dozen scenarios played in her mind’s eye. Continue down the trail at a faster pace, outrun them. Abandon the trail and flee into the woods, lose them in the trees. Or set out across the lake and escape into the forest on the other side. But she knew that wasn’t a good idea. While it was bitterly cold tonight, the highs last week had hovered near fifty degrees. She wasn’t sure the ice was thick enough to support her weight.
A figure materialized from the woods and stepped onto the trail ahead. A white phantom with dark holes for eyes. Hat and canvas coat caked with snow. Recognition flashed. She tried to be relieved, but her heart didn’t slow, her legs didn’t stop shaking.
“You scared the shit out of me!” she exclaimed.
A familiar grin. “Sorry.”
“What are you doing here?”
“I couldn’t sleep.” Eyes skittered away from hers. “I couldn’t let you leave without saying good-bye.” A step closer.
Instinct screamed for her to maintain a safe distance, but she ignored it. No danger here, she reminded herself. Just the paranoia playing tricks on her. “I told you I’d call.”
“We both know you won’t.”
She wanted to argue, but there was no time. She tried to ignore the uneasiness slinking over her, grappled for the last remnants of a trust that had been shattered time and time again. But there was something in those familiar eyes that hadn’t been there before.
“I have to go,” she whispered. “I’m sorry.”
“I love you.” Another step. Close enough to touch. Too close. “Please don’t go.”
A flash of resolve. A stab of regret. Spinning, she skidded down the bank, launched herself into a dead run across the lake.
She didn’t dare slow down. A few yards out, she slipped, fell hard on her belly. Snow against her face, in her mouth. Ice groaning from the impact. A split second and she was back on her feet. She ran for fifty yards. Arms pumping. Boots sliding. Eyes flicking toward the bank behind her. No one there. But where?
She continued across the lake. Slower now. Ice creaking beneath her feet. Nearly to the center. Not much farther.
A sickening crack! reverberated across the ice. Water sloshed over the tops of her boots. Slush beneath her feet. The realization of a mistake. Another step and the ice crumbled. A trapdoor swallowing her feet first and sucking her down. The shock of cold burned like fire against her skin. She spread her arms, hands slapping against the ice. But the momentum dragged her down, plunging her into freezing blackness. Water closed over her face. Cold ripped the breath from her lungs.
Darkness and panic and underwater silence. On instinct, she kicked her feet. Paddled with her hands. She was a strong swimmer, had swam the length of this lake a dozen times last summer. Her face broke the surface. She sucked in a single breath. Chest too tight. Bottomless cold beneath her.
Sputtering, she reached for the jagged edge of the ice, gripped it with gloved hands and tried to pull herself out of the water. Her shoulders cleared, but the ice broke off in her hands, plunging her back in. Her boots were filled with water. Using her right foot, she toed off the left boot. One foot bare. Body quaking with cold. She could still make it . . .
Kicking hard, she grabbed the edge of the ice, tried to heave her body from the water. Again, the ice crumbled, sending her back into the water. No, she thought. No! Another wild grab. The ice was solid this time. A scream tore from her throat as she heaved herself upward, but her coat was waterlogged. She wasn’t strong enough to pull herself out.
“No . . .” She’d intended to scream, but the word was little more than a kitten’s mewl.
For the first time it occurred to her that she might have to abandon her plan. The thought of failure outraged her. After all the preparation, the hope and planning, after seeing to every detail, she was going to drown in this stinking fucking lake like some dumb animal that had wandered onto thin ice.
“No!” She tried to slam her fist down on the ice, but her arm flailed weakly. Instead, she reached out and clung to the frozen edge. Shivering. Teeth chattering uncontrollably. Strength dwindling with astounding speed.
Through the driving snow, she caught sight of the figure. Twenty feet away, watching her. She tried to speak, but her mouth refused to move. She raised her hand, a frozen claw against the night sky. She couldn’t believe this was happening. That her life would end this way. After everything she’d been through. So close, and now no one would ever know . . .
Exhaustion tugged at her, promising her a place that was warm and soft and comforting. It would be so easy to let go of the ice and give in. End the nightmare once and for all.
Her fingers slipped. Her face dipped beneath the surface. Water in her mouth. In her nose. Body convulsing. Too weak to fight. She broke the surface, coughing and spitting, the taste of mud in her mouth. She looked at the figure, no longer a threat, but her only chance to live.
“Help,” she whispered.
The figure lay bellydown on the ice. A branch scraped across the snow-covered surface. “Grab on,” the voice told her. “Take it and hold tight.”
Hope flickered inside her. A candle fighting to stay lit in a gale. She reached for the branch with hands no longer her own. She couldn’t feel them, but watched as her gloved fingers closed around the base.
Ice scraped her coat as she was pulled out, breaking beneath her weight at first, then holding. Closing her eyes, she clung to the stick. Then she was laid out on the ice, still gripping the branch, unable to release it. Violent tremors racking her body. Cold tearing into her flesh like cannibal teeth. Her hair was already beginning to freeze, sticking to her face like strips of cloth.
She was aware of movement, booted feet in the snow. Then she was being dragged toward shore. When she opened her eyes, she saw the black skeletons of the tree branches against the night sky. Strong hands beneath her arms.She looked up at the sky. Snow slanting down. Her feet leaving furrows in the snow. And she wondered: How will I run without my boot?
Dusk arrives early and without fanfare in northeastern Ohio in late January. It’s not yet five P.M. and already the woods on the north side of Hogpath Road are alive with shadows. I’m behind the wheel of my city-issue Explorer, listening to the nearly nonexistent activity on my police radio, uncharacteristically anxious for my shift to end. In the field to my left, the falling snow has transformed the cut cornstalks to an army of miniature skeletal snowmen. It’s the first snow of what has been a mild season so far, but with a low-pressure system barreling down from Canada, the situation is about to change. By morning, my small police department and I will undoubtedly be dealing with a slew of accidents, hopefully none too serious.
My name is Kate Burkholder and I’m the chief of police of Painters Mill, Ohio, a township of just over 5,300 souls, half of whom are Amish, including my own family. I left the fold when I was eighteen, not an easy feat when all I’d ever known was the plain life. After a disastrous first year on my own in nearby Columbus, I earned my GED and landed an unlikely part-time job: answering phones at a police substation. I spent my evenings at the local community college, eventually earning an associate’s degree in criminal justice. A year later, I graduated from the police academy and became a patrol officer. Over the next six years, I worked my way up to homicide detective and became the youngest female to make the cut.
When my mamm passed away a couple years later, I returned to Painters Mill, my past, and my estranged Amish family. The police chief had recently retired and the town council and mayor—citing my law enforcement experience and my knowledge of the Amish culture—asked me to fill the position. They’d been looking for a candidate who could bridge a cultural gap that directly affected the local economy. My roots had been calling to me for quite some time, and after weeks of soul-searching, I accepted the position and never looked back.
Most of the Amish have forgiven me the transgressions of my youth. I may be an Englischer now, but when I smile or wave, most return the gesture. A few of the Old Order and Swartzentruber families still won’t speak to me. When I greet them—even in my first language of Pennsilfaanisch Deitsch—they turn away or pretend they didn’t notice. I don’t take it personally. I like to call that part of my repatriation a work in progress.
My own family wasn’t much different at first. Early on, my sister and brother would barely speak to me. In keeping with the Anabaptist tenet of excluding the wicked from the group, they’d effectively excommunicated me. We’re still not as close as we once were; chances are we’ll never again find the special bond we shared as children. But we’ve made headway. My siblings invite me into their homes and take meals with me. It’s a trend I hope will continue.
I’m anticipating the evening ahead—a quiet dinner at the farm where I live with my lover, John Tomasetti. He’s also in law enforcement—an agent with the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation. I love him, and I’m pretty sure the feeling is mutual. Like any couple, we’ve encountered a few bumps along the way, mostly because of our pasts—both of which are slightly checkered. But he’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me, and when I think of the future, it makes me happy to know he’s part of it.
I’m doing fifty, headlights on, wipers making a valiant attempt to keep the snow at bay. I’ve just crested the hill at the intersection of County Road 13 when the buggy materializes out of nowhere. I cut the wheel hard to the left and stomp the brake. The Explorer fishtails, but I steer into the skid. For an instant, I think I’m going to plow into the back of the buggy. Then the tires catch asphalt and my vehicle comes to an abrupt halt on the gravel shoulder on the opposite side of the road.
I sit there for a moment, gripping the wheel, waiting for the adrenaline to subside. Several thoughts strike my brain at once. I didn’t see the buggy until I was nearly upon it. The accident would have been my fault. Everyone on board probably would have been injured—or worse.
Through the passenger side window, I see the horse come to a stop. Flipping on my overhead emergency lights, I back up so that I’m behind the buggy to protect it from oncoming traffic. I grab my Maglite from the seat pocket and get out, noticing immediately that there’s no lantern or reflective signage anywhere on the buggy.
The driver exits as I approach. I keep my beam low to avoid blinding him as I take his measure. Male. Six feet tall. Mid-thirties. Black jacket. Black, flat-brimmed hat. Matching steel-wool beard that hangs to his belly. His clothes, along with the fact that the buggy is without a windshield, tell me he’s Swartzentruber. I’ve seen him around town, but I’ve never spoken to him. I don’t know his name.
“Guder Ohvet,” I begin. Good evening.
He blinks, surprised that I speak Pennsylvania Dutch, and responds in kind.
Leaning forward slightly, I shine my beam into the buggy. A thirtyish Amish woman, also clad in black, and six children ranging in age from infant to preteen are huddled in the rear, their legs covered with two knitted afghans. The woman is holding a baby. Dismay swirls in my gut when I’m reminded how this could have turned out.
“And Wie bischt du heit?” I ask the woman. How are you today?
She averts her gaze.
“Miah bin zimmlich gut,” comes the man’s voice from the front. We are good.
When dealing with the Amish in an official capacity, particularly the Old Order or Swartzentruber, I always make an effort to put them at ease before getting down to police business. Smiling at the woman, I lean back and address the man. “Sis kald heit.” It’s cold today.
“What’s your name, sir?”
“Do you have an ID card, Mr. Shetler?”
He shakes his head. “We are Swartzentruber,” he tells me, as if that explains everything.
To me, it does. The Amish don’t drive; if they need to travel a long distance, they hire a driver. Most do not have driver’s licenses, but apply for DMV-issued ID cards. Not so with the Swartzentruber, whose belief system prevents them from having their photographs taken.
“Mr. Shetler, I came over that hill and didn’t see your buggy.” I motion toward the vehicle in question. “I couldn’t help but notice you don’t have a lantern or reflective signage.”
“Ornamentation,” he mutters in Pennsylvania Dutch.
“I nearly struck your buggy.” I nod toward his wife and children. “Someone could have been seriously injured.”
“I trust in God, not some Englischer symbol.”
“Ich fashtay.” I understand. “But it’s the law, Mr. Shetler.”
“God will take care of us.”
“Or maybe He’d prefer you put a slow-moving vehicle sign on your buggy so you and your family live long, happy lives.”
For an instant he’s not sure how to respond. Then he barks out a laugh. “Sell is nix as baeffzes.” That is nothing but trifling talk.
“The Revised Ohio Code requires reflective signage on all slow-moving vehicles.” I lower my voice. “I was there the night Paul Borntrager and his children were killed, Mr. Shetler. It was a terrible thing to behold. I don’t want that to happen to you or your family.”
I can tell by the Amish man’s expression that my words are falling on deaf ears. His mind is made up, and he won’t change it for me or anyone else. I’m trying to decide whether to cite him when my phone vibrates against my hip. I glance down to see Tomasetti’s number on the display.
Opting to call him back, I return my attention to Shetler. “Next time I see you on the road without the proper signage,” I tell him, “I will cite you. You will pay a fine. Do you understand?”
“I believe we are finished here.” Turning away, he climbs back into the buggy.
I stand on the shoulder, listening to the jingle of the horse’s harness and the clip-clop of shod hooves as he guides the buggy back onto the asphalt and drives away.
Snow falls softly on my shoulders. The cut cornstalks whisper at me to let it go. “Jackass,” I mutter.
I’m sliding behind the wheel when my radio cracks. “Chief?” comes the voice of my second-shift dispatcher.
I pick up my mike. “What’s up, Jodie?”
“You’ve got visitors here at the station.”
“Visitors?” For an instant I envision my sister or brother sitting in the reception area, feeling out of place while they wait for me to show. “Who is it?”
“Agent Tomasetti, some suit from BCI, and an agent from New York.”
My memory pings. Tomasetti had mentioned a few days ago that the deputy superintendent wanted to talk to me about an investigation. But the meeting hadn’t yet been scheduled and he didn’t have any details. Odd that they would drop by after hours on a snowy afternoon without giving me a heads-up. Even more unusual that one of the men is from New York.
“Any idea what they want?” I ask.
“I don’t know, but they look kind of serious, Chief.” She lowers her voice to a whisper. “Like there might be something big going on.”
“Tell them I’ll be there in ten minutes.” Perplexed, trying not to be aggravated, I put the Explorer in gear and start toward the station, hoping Elam Shetler and his family make it home safely.
* * *
I arrive at the station to find Tomasetti’s Tahoe and an unmarked brown Crown Vic with New York plates parked next to my reserved spot. There’s already a dusting of snow on the vehicles. I park and hightail it inside. When I enter reception, I find my second-shift dispatcher, Jodie, sitting at her desk, eyes closed, drumming her palms against her desktop to Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.”
Usually, her workaday antics are a source of entertainment for all of us. Since we have official visitors this afternoon, I’m not quite as amused. I’m midway to her desk when she opens her eyes. She starts at the sight of me, then quickly turns off the radio. “Hey, Chief.”
I pluck messages from my slot. “Any idea where our visitors are?”
“Agent Tomasetti’s showing them the jail in the base—”
“Right here, Chief,” comes Tomasetti’s voice from the hall.
He’s still clad in the charcoal suit and lavender tie he put on at seven this morning. He’s wearing his professional face, no smile for me, and I know this isn’t a happenstance visit. The two men coming down the hall behind him aren’t here for a tour of my single-cell basement jail.
“Hi … Agent Tomasetti.” It’s a ridiculously formal greeting considering we’ve been living together for over a year.
“Hi.” Two strides and he extends his hand. “Sorry for the last-minute notice.”
“No problem. I was on my way here anyway.”
“Heavy weather in store for New York tomorrow,” he explains. “Investigator Betancourt wants to drive back tonight, before the roads get too bad.”
“Long drive.” I turn my attention to the two men coming up beside Tomasetti. I don’t recognize either of them, but I can tell by their demeanors that they’re law enforcement. Overly direct gazes. Suits off the rack. Taking my measure with a little too much intensity. Grim expressions that relay nothing in terms of emotion or mood. That cop attitude I know so well. I catch a glimpse of a leather shoulder holster peeking out from beneath the taller man’s jacket.
Tomasetti makes introductions. “This is Deputy Superintendent Lawrence Bates with BCI.” He motions to a tall, lanky man with an angular face and skin that’s deeply lined, probably from years on the golf course. Blue eyes behind square-rimmed glasses. Hairline just beginning to recede. The slight odor of cigarettes he tried to mask with chewing gum and cologne.
I extend my hand. “Nice to meet you, Deputy Superintendent Bates.”
He brushes off the formal title with a grin that belies an otherwise serious demeanor. “Larry, please.” He has a firm grip. Dry palm. Quick release. “I patently deny whatever Tomasetti has told you about me.”
I return the grin. “I hope so.”
Tomasetti motions to the other man. I guess him to be about the same age as Bates. Conservatively dressed in a gray suit, white shirt, red tie, he looks more like a fed than a statie. He’s not much taller than me, but he’s built like a bulldog and has a face to match. Dark, heavy-lidded eyes just starting to go bloodshot. Five o’clock shadow. He’s got long day written all over him.
“This is Frank Betancourt, senior investigator with the BCI division of the New York State Police.”
I detect calluses on his hand when we shake, telling me he spends a good bit of his time at the gym lifting weights. His eyes are direct, and when I look at him, he holds my gaze.
“You’re a long way from home,” I tell him.
“That’s not such a bad thing this time of year.” His smile is an afterthought, his jowls dropping quickly back into a frown.
A pause ensues. An awkward moment when no one says anything. And I realize that with the niceties out of the way, they’re anxious to get down to business.
Bates rubs his hands together. “Can we have a few minutes of your time, Chief Burkholder? We’ve got a developing situation in upstate New York we’d like to discuss with you.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I see Tomasetti scowl.
“We can talk in my office.” I motion toward the door and lead the way inside. “Anyone want coffee?”
All three men decline, telling me they’re seasoned enough to know that police stations and decent coffee is an oxymoron. Tomasetti and Bates settle into the visitor chairs adjacent to my desk. Betancourt chooses to stand and claims his place near the door.
I remove my coat, hang it on the rack next to the window, and slide into my chair. “It’s not often that we have visitors from BCI or the New York State Police,” I begin.
“Tomasetti tells me you used to be Amish,” Bates says.
“I was. I was born here in Painters Mill to Amish parents, but I left when I was eighteen.”
“You speak German?”
“Yes, I’m fluent in Pennsylvania Dutch.” For the first time, a tinge of annoyance nips at me. I feel as if I’m being held in suspense; they want something but they’re being coy about tipping me off because they suspect I may refuse. I wish they’d stop beating around the bush and get to the point. “What exactly can I do for you?”
Bates looks at me over the tops of his glasses. “A couple months ago, the sheriff up in St. Lawrence County—Jim Walker—contacted the state police for help with a developing situation inside an Amish community.” He motions to Betancourt. “Frank was assigned the case and had been working with Jim. Two weeks ago, Jim suffered a heart attack. He’s on leave and everything was sort of put on a back burner. Things heated back up three days ago when an Amish girl was found frozen to death in the woods a few miles from her home.
“This Amish settlement straddles two counties, St. Lawrence and Franklin, so we contacted the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department and brought in Sheriff Dan Suggs. It didn’t take them long to realize neither agency had the resources to see this thing through.”
The state police usually have a pretty decent budget and resources galore with which to assist small-town law enforcement. In this case, however, the police lab and databases are not the kinds of investigative tools the sheriff needs. And for the first time I know what they want from me.
“We’re familiar with some of the cases you’ve worked here in Painters Mill, Chief Burkholder,” Bates tells me. “You’ve done some impressive police work.” He slants a nod at Tomasetti. “I talked to John about your particular skill set, and I thought you might be able to assist with this case.”
Bates motions to Betancourt. “Since Tomasetti and I are pretty much window dressing, I’ll turn it over to Frank.”
Betancourt comes to life. “On January twenty-first, a couple of hunters found the body of fifteen-year-old Rachel Esh in the woods a few miles from where she lived.”
His style differs greatly from Bates’s, who seems more politician than cop, preferring to ease into a conversation with a joke and small talk. Not so with the senior investigator. While Bates is laid-back, Betancourt is intense and jumps into the discussion feetfirst. I get the impression he’s not shy about ruffling feathers, either.
“What was the cause of death?” I ask.
“The autopsy showed she died of hypothermia due to exposure. There was a snowstorm. For some reason she was out in it and froze to death. ME ran a tox, which showed she had traces of OxyContin in her bloodstream at the time of her death.”
“Odd for an Amish girl that age to have drugs in her system,” I say. “Does the sheriff suspect foul play?”
“She got the drugs somewhere.” Betancourt leans closer. “But even more perplexing is the fact that she’d recently been pregnant.”
“Recently pregnant?” I look from man to man. “What do you mean?”
“During the autopsy, the ME found evidence that she’d recently lost a baby. Some fetal material had been left behind.”
“Miscarriage?” I ask.
“ME thinks she had an abortion.”
“Is parental consent required in New York?” I say.
Betancourt shakes his head. “Nope.”
“Is there a boyfriend?” Tomasetti asks. “Anyone talk to him?”
“We talked to a lot of people, including her parents, and no one knows who she’d been seeing. We couldn’t come up with a single name,” Betancourt growls. “No one had ever seen her with a guy. She never talked about him. The family she was living with claimed she didn’t have a boyfriend.”
“So she wasn’t living with her family?” I ask.
Betancourt shakes his head. “Evidently, she had some problems with her parents. She moved in with another family, who are also Amish. Basically, no one seemed to know shit about what might’ve been going on in this girl’s life.”
“Or else they’re not talking.” I think about that for a moment. “Had she been reported missing?”
Betancourt shakes his head. “The family she was living with figured she’d run away, gone back to live with her parents. Apparently, she’d done it before. No one checked.”
“Sometimes the Amish prefer to take care of their own problems,” I tell him. “If they can avoid involving outsiders—including law enforcement—they will, for better or for worse.”
“This time it was for worse,” Bates mutters.
“Interestingly,” Betancourt says, “this girl wasn’t dressed in Amish clothes.”
“That may or may not be relevant.” He gives me a puzzled look so I expand. “At fifteen, she may have been starting Rumspringa, which is a teenage ritual, so to speak, in which Amish youths don’t have to follow the rules in the years leading up to their baptism. The adults pretty much look the other way.” I consider this before continuing. “What was she doing in the woods in that kind of weather?”
“No one knows if she was there of her own accord or if someone took her there and dumped her,” Betancourt replies.
“Sheriff Suggs tells us the Amish up there aren’t very forthcoming,” Bates says. “He’s not getting much in terms of cooperation.”
“How did the ME rule on manner of death?” Tomasetti asks.
“Undetermined,” Bates replies.
Betancourt nods. “That didn’t sit well with Jim. Frankly, doesn’t sit well with me, either. I mean, we have a dead fifteen-year-old kid who’d ingested OxyContin. Gotten herself pregnant. Had an abortion. Froze to death in the woods. And no one will tell us shit.”
“What’s the age of consent in New York?” I ask.
“Seventeen,” Betancourt says. “There’s a Romeo and Juliet law, but if the guy who got her pregnant is more than four years older than our girl, we got him on statutory rape.”
“Do the parents know about the abortion?” I ask.
“Didn’t even know she was pregnant.”
Tomasetti shrugs. “You check with local clinics? Area doctors?”
Betancourt and Bates exchange a look. “ME thinks maybe the abortion wasn’t done at a clinic.”
“Home abortion?” I ask.
“Probably,” Bates replies. “No sign of infection or anything like that, but—and I’m speaking in layman’s terms here—I guess there was some internal damage. Not life-threatening, but present nonetheless.” Sighing, he motions toward his counterpart. “So we got all of this and then the sheriff gets a visit from a neighbor.”
All eyes fall on Betancourt. Expression intense, he leans closer. “A few days after the girl was found, a neighbor, who’d heard about the girl’s death, called Jim Walker at home and informed him that a few weeks before her death, Rachel told her there were ‘bad goings-on’ out at that Amish settlement.”
“What kind of goings-on?” I ask.
“According to the neighbor, the girl clammed up, wouldn’t get into details. But she thought the girl might’ve been referring to some kind of abuse and afraid to talk about it. Apparently, there are a lot of rumors flying around.”
Tomasetti shifts in his chair. “What kind of rumors?”
“The kind that’ll put a chill in your fucking spine.” Betancourt tugs a smartphone from the inside pocket of his jacket. “Sheriff Suggs knows a lot more about the situation than I do. You mind if I put him on speaker?” He doesn’t wait for anyone to respond and scrolls through his phone. “Dan wanted to drive down here with me but couldn’t get away. I got him standing by.”
“Sure.” I slide a couple of files aside to make room for his phone. He sets it on my desktop.
The sheriff answers on the fourth ring with a stern “Yeah.”
“You’re on speaker, Dan. I’m here in Painters Mill, Ohio, and I got Chief Kate Burkholder with me.” A quick nod at me and he identifies Tomasetti and Bates. “I briefed them on the situation up there in Roaring Springs. We’re wondering if you can give us the particulars.”
“All I got is rumors mostly.” A scraping sound as the sheriff shifts the phone. “Let me give you guys some background first to help fill in some of the blanks and put all this into perspective. About twelve years ago, several Amish families moved from Geauga County, Ohio to a rural area outside Roaring Springs.”
“Geauga County isn’t far from Painters Mill,” I tell him.
“We’re located in upstate New York, by the way, about twenty miles from the Canadian border, not far from Malone.” He sighs. “Anyway, over the years, these Amish families established a solid settlement and integrated into the community. They were good citizens, good neighbors, and their presence here was, frankly, good for the town. Some of the local merchants started doing business with the Amish, selling everything from eggs to quilts to furniture. Folks started coming into Roaring Springs from miles around to buy things. Tourists started showing up. Everything changed three years ago when the bishop passed away and the congregation nominated an Amish preacher by the name of Eli Schrock.”
“Name’s not familiar,” I tell him.
“Rumor has it that Schrock—and a few of his followers—felt the previous bishop had been too lenient with the rules, so Schrock tightened the screws. I’ve heard he’s big into the separation thing. Most of the Amish stopped coming into town, stopped selling their trinkets, and basically stayed away.” He huffs a short laugh. “Mayor didn’t like it much; he was banking on Roaring Springs being the next Lancaster County. Of course, the Amish weren’t breaking any laws and they’re certainly entitled to stay separate if that’s what they want.
“Once Schrock took over, the Amish community just kind of faded away. We saw their buggies and hay wagons around on occasion, but they were quiet and law enforcement never had a problem with them. No neighbor disputes or anything like that. Honestly, no one paid much attention to them until this dead girl showed up.”
“Where was the girl living?” I ask.
Papers rattle on the other end. “With Abe and Mary Gingerich.”
“What’s your take on them?”
“Talked to them at length after the girl was found. They’re decent. Religious. Quiet. They were pretty broken up about the girl, but I got the impression they don’t care much for us non-Amishers.”
“Do you have a sense of what might be going on, Sheriff Suggs?” I ask.
“I’ve been sheriff of Franklin County for more than sixteen years. I know this county like the back of my hand. But honestly, Chief, I don’t know shit about what goes on up there in that Amish settlement.” He sighs heavily. “Look, I don’t judge people because of how they dress or what they believe. I sure don’t have anything against the Amish. But it’s sort of common knowledge around here that some of those people are odd.”
“Anything specific?” Tomasetti asks.
“Last summer, there was this Amish kid, ten or so years old, came into town with his mom. The cashier at the grocery noticed he had bruises all over his legs. She called us, claiming they looked like whip marks. One of my deputies drove out there. No one would talk to him—not a soul stepped forward. So we involved Child Protective Services. They investigated but were unable to locate the boy or the family.
“In addition to that, we’ve had a couple of phone calls in the last year. Anonymous. One female claimed people were being held against their will. We were able to trace both calls to the Amish pay phone a mile or so down the road from the settlement. I went out there myself, but as was the case with the boy, no one would talk to me and I was never able to locate the woman who’d made the call or anyone who would substantiate her allegations.”
Betancourt makes a sound of disapproval. “Tell them about Schrock.”
“Eli Schrock is the bishop out there. He’s a charismatic guy. Smart. Well spoken. Devout. Respected by the community. Followers are loyal. I mean these people are devoted to him.” He pauses. “All that said, there are rumors flying around that some of his followers are scared of him and afraid to speak out. That he’s been known to punish people who don’t follow the rules.”
“What kind of punishments?” Tomasetti inquires.
“Allegedly, he locked one guy in a chicken coop. Held him there for two or three days without food. I heard secondhand that a young man took a few lashes from a buggy whip. One of my deputies says he was told of at least one family that fled in the middle of the night, leaving everything they couldn’t carry behind, lest they be stopped by Schrock or one of his followers.”
“Any charges filed?” Tomasetti asks.
“Again, no one will talk to us. No one will come forward,” Suggs tells him. “Not a damn soul. I spent some time out there after the Esh girl was found. Had a couple of deputies with me, and we couldn’t get anyone to answer a single question.”
“What’s the settlement like?” I ask.
“Eight hundred acres of farmland and forest. River cuts through, so there are some ravines, too. It’s pretty isolated. Rugged in places. Pretty as hell in summer. Schrock bought it at a rock-bottom price when he first arrived twelve years ago. Moved into the old farmhouse. Lived quietly up until the previous bishop passed away.”
“How many people live there?” Bates asks.
“I’d say there are a dozen or so families. The Amish built some nice homes. No electricity, of course. They built barns, too. Got some cattle and horses. A few hogs. They farm the land. Corn and wheat. Hay. Had a couple trailer homes brought in, too. Most of the families have their own land. Only way I know all this is property tax records. Solid information is tough to come by because the community’s interaction with the rest of the town is pretty much nonexistent.”
Betancourt looks from Tomasetti to Bates, his eyes finally landing on me. “Sheriff’s department is worried about the kids out there.”
“Especially after this girl showed up dead,” Suggs says.
“How many kids?” I ask.
“There are at least forty children under the age of eighteen living inside the settlement. After the Esh girl was found, we sent two social workers from Child Protective Services out there. There’s no indication of abuse, neglect, or maltreatment. But frankly, I don’t think CPS got the whole story.”
Tomasetti eyes Betancourt; his expression isn’t friendly. “What do you want with Chief Burkholder?”
Betancourt stares back, unmoved. Tension clamps bony fingers around the back of my neck.
“I think those kids are at risk,” the investigator says. “I think Schrock is abusing his followers. I think people are afraid to come forward, and if we don’t get someone in there to figure out what the hell’s going on, someone else is going to show up dead, or just disappear and no one will be the wiser. Someone in law enforcement needs to get in there and get to the bottom of things.”
“Undercover?” Tomasetti asks.
“That would be ideal,” Suggs tells him. “Problem is, we have no one who meets that particular criteria.”
“You need someone who understands the culture, has some insights into the religion; someone who knows the language,” Bates adds.
“So whoever goes in,” I say slowly, “would need to pose as an Amish person and become part of the community.”
“Exactly,” Suggs replies.
A beat of silence ensues.
“You mean me,” I say.
“I know it sounds kind of extreme…” Betancourt begins.
Tomasetti cuts him off. “Not to mention dangerous. Especially if Schrock is unstable or fanatical or both.”
Betancourt takes the comment in stride. “We would create an identity for you. Set up some form of communication. And of course, we’d pay for travel, housing … whatever supplies and clothing you’d need.”
“The county will pay your salary while you’re there,” Suggs adds. “You’ll be officially deputized and work on a contract basis with Franklin County.”
“You’ve got the background and the experience, Chief Burkholder.” Bates offers a full-fledged smile. “Besides, you’re the only cop we could find in the country who’s fluent in Pennsylvania Dutch.”
Copyright © 2016 by Linda Castillo