June 27, 2008


Category: News — Ira @ 6:48 pm


“No oppression is so heavy or lasting
as that which is inflicted by the perversion
and exorbitance of legal authority.”

—Joseph Addison

I have watched the local newspapers these last six weeks. Letters to the editor and such. For a reaction, any reaction, from Lancaster County citizens about the Levi Stoltzfoos conviction.

I can’t claim to have seen every opinion essay or letter to the editor, and so may have missed such a reaction, or reactions, if indeed there were any. There was a sneering, utterly tasteless cartoon in the morning paper, the Intelligencer Journal, on May 12th. (The Intel should retract that cartoon and apologize.) Such a cartoon would not have been published about any other ethnic or religious group. But the Amish are fair game, because they are the silent in the land.

They are not silent to me. My Amish friends in the county have politely urged me again and again to write a blog or guest editorial about Levi Stoltzfoos. I have always brush-ed off their inquires, telling them someone else surely will, so I won’t have to. But someone else has not. So here it is.

Levi Stoltzfoos, as I mentioned before in a previous blog, is the ex-Amishman who was convicted in early May of money laundering. Because he deposited numerous separate deposits of around $10,000.00 in cash in various banks, he was flagged. And charged. Brought to trial. And convicted. He faces up to one thousand years in prison.

The local Amish community is quietly and deeply upset about the matter. And well they should be. Ex-Amishman or not, Levi Stoltzfoos is still of their blood.

I’m upset too. The stark plain injustice of his conviction simply takes my breath away. And that’s one reason I’ve resisted writing about it in more detail, because of the deep seething latent rage that always bubbles up inside when I stop and really think about what went down.

From my Amish friends I learned some insider details. According to them (and this may be hearsay), Levi Stoltzfoos, like many others, was concerned about Y2K. When computers would supposedly quit working and all the world would collapse. In prepar-ation of the looming disaster, he removed all his money from various banks. In cash. The total amount: Five Hundred Thousand-plus dollars.

That’s a chunk of change, any way you look at it.

Y2K came and went, and the world did not collapse. A few years passed. It seemed safe. So Levi decided to re-deposit his money in various banks. Because he didn’t want the government to know what he was doing, and because he was afraid the money would be taken from him, he submitted deposits in amounts under $10,000.00.

Which was fine. But he made one fateful mistake. One, and only one, deposit totaled exactly $10,000.00. This triggered the bank’s report requirements. Bank officials dutifully reported Levi, as the law required. Investigators found his paper trail and all the previous deposits he had made.

And so his nightmare began.

The law is the law, whether justified or not. At this point, it seems to me, a simple investigation would have revealed the facts. Levi could have been told that what he’d done broke the law. Not to do it again. And that’s as far as it would have needed to go.

But no. Couldn’t have anything that simple, or follow such basic common sense. The Feds swooped in. Confiscated Levi’s money. All of it. But after investigating, the Feds decided they could not prosecute him because they couldn’t prove he got the money through illegal drug dealing. Because he hadn’t. So they turned it over to the State, which has no such requirements.

Unfortunately, State officials were all too eager to take up the cudgel. They publicized accusations that Levi had gained the money illicitly, dealing drugs. When they knew it wasn’t true. All the local papers ran the story on bold front page headlines. Levi was a bad guy, who didn’t deserve any sympathy.

At trial, it became starkly clear that the money was legitimately Levi’s. That fact is not even in dispute. So the issue became: the law is the law. It was broken, he is guilty, and the money is forfeited. Oh, and because he broke the law, he may well serve jail time.

The jury of my fellow Lancaster County citizens took their job seriously. They followed the letter of the law. And found Levi guilty. Some members of the jury wept as the verdict was read. They knew a terrible injustice was unfolding before them. And they knew they were a part of it.

They could simply have found Levi “Not Guilty.” With no explanation. And that would have been that. But they didn’t. They have to live with that. And now it is what it is.

For the record, I appreciate and value all that law enforcement does in Lancaster County. The local District Attorney’s office overall does a good job prosecuting and jailing common criminals. Decent guys, most of them, working hard at their jobs. For low pay and scant appreciation. And to be fair to them, this case was prosecuted from the State Attorney General Tom Corbett’s office.

But still, I hold the local DA responsible as well, for not speaking out. Any person with common sense can know that the money laundering laws that ensnared Levi Stoltzfoos were not intended for people like him. I am amazed that no one in the state AG or local DA’s office can recognize that fact. And react accordingly.

I am disappointed that not one attorney in those offices could dredge up enough cour-age and integrity to stand up and proclaim: “This is wrong. This man is innocent. We can choose not to prosecute. And we shouldn’t.”

No one did that publicly. Not one man. Not one woman. Not one. And that’s a shame.

Because they are people, men and women, like you and me. They live among us in the community. They have homes, families, children. Hopes, dreams, aspirations.

Theoretically, I’m sure, they would claim to champion justice. That’s why they’re prosecutors. But in this case, at least, they are not dispensing it. Quite the contrary.

I wonder, is this what they envisioned when they were eager students in law school, setting out on a course to “change the world?” Could they have imagined they would ever be involved in such ruthless injustice? Such senseless legal overreach?

I doubt it.

What public policy can possibly justify confiscating Levi’s money? I can think of only one: tyranny.

Somehow, they have lost sight of their mission. The law, every jot and tittle, must be upheld. No room for common sense, or mercy. They are caught up in the idea that because they can, they should. And if a guy like Levi Stoltzfoos gets entangled and ground to bits in the cogs of their machine of justice, too bad. That’s life.

But they are wrong. And they are less human because of it. And because of their actions in this case, we are less secure. In our property and our rights. As a result, we will view those in authority with deepening suspicion and increasing distrust.

Their job is to prosecute criminals, not harass the innocent.

They have become official State oppressors of ordinary civilians who wish only to be left alone. They are Leviathan. A governmental monster, with a thousand clutching tentacles, grasping greedily what is not theirs to take. Concerned not with justice, but only that the letter of the law was broken. Not the spirit, the letter. Willing to confiscate all a man owns and render him destitute, deprived of his rightful gains. The penalty for making an honest mistake, for inadvertantly breaking a stupid, silly law.

As Leviathan, they make a mockery of the “justice” they are sworn to uphold.

I don’t know Levi Stoltzfoos. Never met the guy. I don’t know his age or the choices he’s made in his life. Don’t particularly care to. It’s none of my business.

He’s been portrayed as paranoid. Anyone who does what he did probably is a little bit paranoid. In retrospect though, his fears were justified. So who, I wonder, is actually paranoid? Maybe we’d all be well advised to view those in power over us with a lot more suspicion. Demand real justice, not a legalistic charade. And hold them strictly accountable.

Levi’s frame of mind is beside the point anyway. Even an unsympathetic defendant deserves justice. Especially so.

The Lord, I believe, hears the cry of the wronged and the oppressed. And brings His judgment in His time.

It’s not too late to cancel that judgment. The State Attorney General, Tom Corbett, can still do the right thing. Be a man. Admit he made a bad call. Drop the charges. Apolo-gize. Return Levi’s money. Even then, the nightmare of what Levi has experienced will be with him always. He can never quite be made whole.

Should Mr. Corbett persist in his present course of action, and insist on actually jailing Levi and permanently confiscating his money, the stain of shame against his office and against this state will never be wiped away.

And the Amish community will stand in silent witness to that truth.

Post Note: I have learned that Levi Stoltzfoos was prosecuted by the State Attorney General Tom Corbett, not the local county DA’s office and Craig Stedman as originally written. I have corrected the errors and apologize that they were made.

June 20, 2008

The Peddler’s Son (Sketch #9)

Category: News — Ira @ 6:56 pm


Pedlar’s coming down the street,
Housewives beat a swift retreat.
Don’t you answer to the bell;
Heedless what she has to sell.
Just discreetly go inside.
We must hang a board, I fear:

—Robert Service, “Pedlar”

I see them now, increasingly abundant, stacked in neat little rows on tables on the small roadside stands dotting the back roads of Lancaster County. Strawberries. By the pint and by the quart. Large, luscious, deep rich red. Delicious and juicy.

Someone had to pick them, much earlier, as the sun was rising. Probably the children, now out of school for the summer. Each day, newly ripe red berries plucked from row after row of plants on the straw-covered earth.

On our farm in Aylmer, we raised what seemed like acres and acres of strawberries each year. In reality, though, it was probably usually an acre or less. Squat green plants with large leaves. Everbearing. Which meant they bore strawberries through the eternity of summer until the frost killed the plants.

The first ones arrived in early June. A handful, then increasing each day. We picked them eagerly and carried them in to Mom, who mashed them in a bowl, added and mixed in some white sugar, and whoola, a most delicious concoction. Mom always baked little flat round lumps of shortcake, which, smothered with the strawberries and fresh thick cream, was a fit feast for a king.

After about a week or so, the whole patch exploded with the bright red berries. And the newness wore off quickly. On picking day, we were in the patch soon after sunrise, when all the world was wet with dew. On our hands and knees, we crawled along the rows, filling quart after quart. The little green quart containers were then packed into white cardboard crates and stacked at the end of the patch.

Usually by late morning, or noon at the latest, we were done. And then it would be decided who would get to load the crates into our old topbuggy and head to town to sell the strawberries. By peddling them, house to house.

It was usually one of my older sisters and one of my older brothers. We were all eager to go. I remember when it was decided for the first time that I would be the one.

It was a hot, sunny day. We had been picking strawberries all morning. Red ripe berries; we were sick to death of them. We plugged along, and by mid-morning, we were still hard at it. Dad came around to check on our progress. That was when I heard the first whisper. Ira would go to town with Rachel to peddle the strawberries.

I was probably ten or eleven years old. Going to town for any reason was a huge deal. And now I was chosen to go sell. Peddle, house to house. This was a clear, definite step toward manhood. I couldn’t believe my good fortune.

And it wasn’t like I hadn’t sold things before. My father sold cherries and peaches in season from a vendor’s stand at the local sales barn. He also sold shrubs and nursery stock, and we boys at a young age served the customers who came to buy. We could converse well in English and were mostly polite, saying “please” and “thank you” at appropriate moments. So it’s not like I was an untrained, uncouth little savage.

I knew I could peddle.

My father was the consummate salesman and peddler. In his lifetime, he sold every-thing from purebred Landrace hogs to nursery stock to grape seedlings to fruits of all kinds. He launched and marketed Family Life, selling thousands of subscriptions. He walked the streets selling produce door to door long before I was ever born. If one business failed, it didn’t faze him. He was soon off on another idea, throwing all his energy into his latest schemes.

One long ago summer day he was in Aylmer, peddling cherries door to door. He stop-ped at Dick Smith’s little produce store and sold several cases to Dick. As he was about to leave, a customer pulled up and waved him down. Dad sold her a box of cherries. This rash act enraged Dick Smith, who saw only that Dad was stealing his customer. He rushed out of his store and in an explosion of swearing, roughly ordered Dad off the premises.

Years later, Dad told me this story. In all the years following, he claimed, Dick Smith could not look him in the eye. Because deep down he felt guilty, Dad opined piously, and for all those years. I had a different take. I figured Dick was probably still mad after all those years. I would have been, too, had an Amishman or anyone else pulled off a stunt like that in front of my store.

We finished the patch; it was close to noon. My brothers loaded the buggy while Rachel and I went to the house to change into cleaner “going away” clothes. I covered my bare feet with a pair of socks and shoes.

By now, the trusty old driving horse was hitched to the buggy. The back was laden to the brim with crates of strawberries. And off we creaked, down the gravel road, seven miles to the town of Aylmer.

Dad had cobbled together a rickety white wooden sign with the word STRAWBERRIES emblazoned on it in bold black letters. The sign was mounted across the top of the buggy. To alert the public what we were selling.

We trundled through the community, heading west. It took close to an hour to reach town. We entered the outskirts and headed to the residential section, the horse’s hooves clip-clopping on the pavement. A small backwater town, but to my wondering eyes, the elaborate cosmopolitan vistas of a great shining city.

Rachel was in her teens. We were actually two children, proudly taking on the grave responsibility of selling produce for the support of the family and the farm.

It was so long ago. And yet I remember vividly the clear blue skies, the sun beating down and the unfamiliar paved streets lined with white clapboard houses. Stepping out of the buggy onto the hot asphalt. Tying up the horse to a nearby telephone pole.

It was time to begin. Rachel and I each took a full white cardboard crate from the back of the buggy. She went to one side of the street, I to the other. I approached the first house. Knocked on the door.

The woman who answered that first tentative knock may or may not have purchased a quart of strawberries. I can’t remember. Or the next house. I do remember that after an hour or two, I had sold many quarts of strawberries. One at this house, two at that, and half a dozen there. The houses and the blocks faded into each other, stretched out in a long endless horizon of frowning facades.

It must have been a sight to see, and I would surely chuckle at it now. A young Amish girl and an excited little straw-hatted boy walking door to door carrying crates of strawberries. The townspeople were mostly nice and mostly patient, and many were delighted to buy fresh farm-raised produce at their doorsteps for fifty cents a quart. Some, however, were rude and abrupt, curtly stating they were not interested.

We walked and we knocked and we sold and we walked and restocked our crates and knocked some more and sold and sold. Once in awhile one of us walked back and moved the horse and buggy forward a few blocks and retied the horse to yet one more telephone pole.

And the great stacks of full crates gradually diminished as we trudged doggedly from street to street and house to house and door to door, selling our wares. By late after-noon we could see the end. And then we were done. Exhausted and drooping, we untied the horse and headed downtown to the stores. Now for the reward.

We walked into Clarke’s Restaurant on Main Street and sat at a booth. Clarke’s is one of the earliest restaurants in my memory. Long and narrow. Booths lined the walls, and each booth had a little glass case with song selections for the juke box. For a quarter, you could pick a few songs to play. The song that was all the rage back then, the song my brothers sang at home after their own trips to town, was Sammy Davis Jr.’s “The Candy Man Can.”

Rachel allowed me to order a hamburger, French fries and a milk shake. A huge treat, boughten “English” food at a restaurant. After my plate arrived, I sprinkled what I thought was salt onto my fries. I grasped and gulped a great handful, and spit them out. Tasted strange. Rachel realized what I’d done and burst out laughing. I had dumped sugar, not salt, on my fries. I scraped it off the best I could and ate them anyway. Too big a treat to waste, even if sugared.

After some shopping, we returned home triumphant. Successful in our mission. And that was the first of many such experiences for me. To Aylmer and to Tillsonburg, a small town east of us (and where I was born). I became quite proficient in chatting up my prospective customers. At calculating and returning correct change on the spot. Overall, quite a successful little peddler.

I think back now sometimes to those experiences through the bridge of years, and reflect that they were good. And I wonder if it still happens, if Amish children still walk the streets of small towns door to door, peddling produce. In Aylmer or anywhere else. I suppose it does and they do.

Today, while I have not inherited my father’s entrepreneurial spirit, I do possess his gift of selling. I enjoy it at my job. I am decently good at what I do.

I did inherit one other important thing from him. And while I blossomed late, I have always known that one day I too would follow the true calling of my heart. As he has followed that same calling from his youth.

He approaches the end of a long productive career. I have just entered the door. I’m finding my bearings. Learning the discipline of self-imposed deadlines. And exploring the parameters of my narrative.

There is so much to say and write.

I hope I will do him proud.