A Killing in Amish Country: Sex, Betrayal, and a Cold-Blooded Murder by Gregg Olsen and Rebecca Morris (2016)
St. Martin’s Press
Months and months ago, I made a passing comment to my boyfriend about wanting to learn more about the Amish, and this Christmas he helped make my wish come true by gifting me A Killing in Amish Country, Growing Up Amish, and, for immersion purposes, my very own Amish bonnet. I haven’t gotten to Growing Up Amish yet, though it’s highly prioritized in my stack of things to read, but I tore through A Killing Amish Country. This true crime read was a delightfully salacious as well as succinctly informative introduction to the Amish. As an added bonus, the murder which serves as the focus of Olsen and Morris’s text happened in Wayne and Holmes counties which border the county in Ohio where I live (though I was in college out of state when the murder and investigation was taking place), and this added a bit to my enjoyment of the book.
In early summer of 2009, the body of Barbara Weaver, young Amish wife and mother, was found by her niece and children while her husband, the philandering black sheep of their community, was away on a fishing trip with friends. She had been shot dead in her bed sometime in the night, and her husband Eli quickly became a prime suspect. What distinguishes this case from so many other dead wife, suspicious husband type cases (aside from the Amish factor) is that Eli had many adoring girlfriends, each of whom became entangled in the investigation as detectives tried to ascertain motive (why would Eli kill his wife rather than leaving her and his Amish community as he had done previously?), ability (had Eli already left on his fishing trip before his wife was shot?), and character (what kind of man would respond as callously as Eli was responding to the death of his wife, the mother of his children?). Olsen and Morris describe how one girlfriend emerged as an anomaly: Barb Raber.
Barb Raber is what makes this book so interesting—she quickly became, along with Eli, a prime suspect in the investigation because of her briskly subpoenaed text messages and internet search history. Together, these pieces of evidence indicated a staggering devotion to the Amish man she had met through her side job taxiing the Amish around wherever they needed to go and they almost certainly placed her at the scene of the crime. I was often disturbed, though never quite shocked, at the lengths Barb and Eli had gone to over the course of their relationship to get what they wanted, but Barb’s actions seem especially heartbreaking to me. Perhaps this is because, unlike Eli who is portrayed as a life-long deadbeat, Barb’s character and her involvement in Eli’s life seem more confusing, a tad more complex. A former Amish turned conservative Mennonite, the extent to which her religious beliefs rule her seems to vacillate wildly, as does the extent to which she seems devoted to her own husband and children. Her obsession with Eli reminds me of my 13 year old self’s obsessions with the boys I crushed on in middle school, and, indeed, the authors of this book make fleeting queries after her intellectual capacity. It’s easy to simultaneously feel both pity and revulsion toward Barb Raber.
The book ends with a trial successful insofar as verdicts are passed, sentences handed down, but the authors seem not wholly satisfied with the outcome, and they leave it to the reader to decide the extent to which justice was served several years ago in Wayne county. Evidence on all sides is laid out clearly and succinctly though, as happens in so many true crime books, the reiteration of the basic facts of the case becomes a bit repetitive, particularly during the book’s coverage of the trial. The authors seemed to fall easily into that old crime writer habit of equating beauty with innocence, lack of beauty with guilt; this is a trope I find lazy, old fashioned in the worst way. Otherwise, there’s not much in the way of psychological digging in this book, and I think a bit more of an attempt to understand, from a psychological standpoint, how the events detailed in the book came to pass would have added a great deal of depth to an otherwise rather workmanlike coverage.
All of that said, I did enjoy this book. It did a fine job explaining the divisions within the Amish community as a whole, and I very much appreciated that. As I said, I live somewhat near a large Amish community in Ohio and I went to college near another one in Western New York, so I’ve come into contact with the Amish in various ways throughout my life and so have many of my friends. Something that comes up frequently in conversation is how different all of our experiences have been—mine have been largely positive (my mother befriended an Amish woman through a support group for parents with children with Downs Syndrome, and respect for the Amish way of life was a big part of my childhood) but I’ve also heard stories of negative interactions (a friend’s boyfriend likes to tell a story of an Amish man smashing a camera his father was trying to use to take pictures of woodworking they’d been doing together). Amish communities are different in the same way our English communities are different, and the same goes for individuals within those communities. A Killing in Amish Country does a nice job of both explaining this as an academic fact and illustrating it through the case study of the Weaver murder.
I’d recommend A Killing in Amish Country as a solid, nonchallenging introduction to Amish culture and as a solid—not great—true crime read. I liked it enough to pick up Olsen’s other Amish true crime, Abandoned Prayers, which I’m looking forward to reading, so perhaps take my reservations with a grain of salt: they’re certainly not holding me back from seeking out more. 3.5/5.