A Fiery Test of Faith
"It was hellish, horrible," says John Yoder, a volunteer firefighter who helped fight the barn fire and several others set that same night by an arsonist in the secluded Amish community of 4,000. "The valley was lit up end lo end like a Roman candle," says Harvey Yoder, 48, owner of the Whitehall General Store and one of hundreds of Yoders in the community.
In all, seven barns and a schoolhouse were torched, 172 farm animals were killed, and a million dollars in damage was done in the valley, where most Amish residents still ride in horse-drawn buggies and shun electricity and indoor plumbing. The Amish, devout pacifists, were profoundly shaken by the violence. But there were further shocks to come. Last month the police finally arrested a suspect, and he is well known in the community. After a 20-month investigation, state prosecutors have charged Darvin Ray Peaehey, 23, a carpenter and lifelong resident of the area whose grandfather was a respected Amish bishop. His father, however, Abraham Peaehey, is a notorious Amish rebel, who was himself convicted of burning down a barn 28 years ago.
"The Amish up here are a very quiet, withdrawn people, and this whole thing has caused them a lot of pain," says Harvey Yoder, one of the few outspoken members of the community. "It hurls them that the man they arrested is the grandson of a bishop, and now the outside world is coming around, asking questions about the burnings."
The questioning isn't limited to outsiders. Some of the Wish themselves are having their faith tested. "Why did he pick on us?" asks Harvey Yoder. "Because we're sheep. If that boy made a misstep on a non-Amish place, you'd be writing his obituary."
Young Peachey. who has no criminal record, grew up outside the Amish faith. The estrangement of his father from the church began when Abraham, then 18, was convicted of burning down his uncle Stephen N. Peachey's barn, apparently out of hostility toward the pieties of the Amish community and his own father, the minister. Abe told a court-appointed psychiatrist he was tired of riding around in a horse and buggy and wanted lo "smoke cigarettes...and run around in a car." Abe, now 46 and working for a farm-equipment manufacturer in Belleville, served three months in jail for the crime, then became even more of an outcast when he married a non-Amish woman from Canada.
Darvin Peachey, like his father, was a rebel in his teens. In 1988, his senior year at Kishacoquillas High School outside Reedsville, Pa., he was characterized in the yearbook as someone who drove his Dodge Charger recklessly and liked Friday-night food fights at McDonald's. "He was a happy-go-lucky guy," says Wade Eichhorn, 23, a non-Amish farm-equipment salesman who was one of Peachey's buddies in school. "If he did something and he knew it wasn't right, it didn't seem to bother him." One of Peachey's pranks, according to Eichhorn, was setting fire to corn shocks piled up in farm fields. "They caught him at it and made him slop," says Eichhorn.
Peachey, it turns out, was the prime suspect in the barn burnings from the outset. On the night of the fires, a male driver and a young woman passenger were spotted leaving Samuel Moses Yoder's farm in a Chevrolet Cavalier by Bradley Yoder, the fire chief from nearby Allensville, Pa. "I clearly made the identity of the driver, and it was Darvin Peachey," says Bradley. The next day, police searched Peachey's Cavalier and found several napkins from a Uni-Mart convenience store that matched some burned napkins found at the torched schoolhouse.
Early in the investigation, however, Peachey's fiancee, Judith Renee Walker, and her mother, Betty Mae Walker, insisted under oath that he had been visiting a friend more than 50 miles away when the fires were set. Authorities did not believe the story and spent more than a year gathering additional evidence to disprove it.
Then in August the Walkers were charged with perjury and eventually agreed to testify against Peachey in a plea-bargain arrangement that could result in one-year prison terms for both mother and daughter. Judith now says that she accompanied Peachey on the night of the barn burnings and watched him set at least one of the fires with a propane torch. Currently in jail with his trial set for March, Peachey denies he is an arsonist. "Since day one, Darvin Peachey has maintained his innocence," says his attorney, Charles Rector.
The Amish, who managed to rebuild all seven barns within four-weeks, thanks to donations from around the world and the donated labor of their neighbors, are divided on what punishment is appropriate for the arsonist. "Anybody who even thinks about torching barns ought to be put away," says firefighter John Yoder. But Samuel Yoder says he is ready to forgive and forget. "I can't hardly hold a grudge," he says. Neither can Harvey Yoder, despite his momentary impatience with his Amish brethren for allowing themselves to be victimized. "I'll be honest. As a community our biggest weakness is that we don't come together and pray for the souls of people who cause us trouble," he says. "If we could do that, and the light would come to the arsonist, I'd be the first one to go to the district attorney and say, 'Hey, just give me his hand, and I'll lake him on home.' "
TOM NUGENT and TOM KNARR in Belleville
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