The day murder visited an Amish school house
Just before 3 a.m., after finishing his milk route through rolling Pennsylvania farmland, Charles C. Roberts IV parked his big rig in its usual place outside the Nickle Mines Auction House, across the road from the Amish school.He did this every work day – the auction house’s gravel parking lot was big enough to accommodate Roberts’ container truck. His routine was to leave home, less than two miles away, park his own vehicle in the lot, and head off in the truck on his nightly run to collect milk from surrounding Amish farms.On Monday, at the end of his shift, he drove home to the middle-class, vinyl-sided house on Georgetown Road where he lived with his wife, Marie, and their three children, on whom he doted: two boys and a girl, ages 2 to 7.He had told no one about his plan.He said nothing about suicide or the arsenal he’d been stockpiling for nearly a week – pieces of lumber, 600 rounds of ammunition, an illegal stun gun, a 12-gauge shotgun, a 9 mm handgun, flex-ties, toilet paper, a five-gallon bucket.Instead, he left a legacy of words on paper, including a spiral binder with a checklist for murder. But all his words cannot explain why a man described as a devoted father would walk into the Amish schoolhouse he knew well and shoot 10 girls at point-blank range, killing five.People have struggled for days to find some understanding. He left only notes of anger and guilt and grief over events that can’t be verified (he spoke of molesting two relatives 20 years ago, but the women have no recollection of it) and some events that indeed happened (an infant who lived only 20 minutes, nine years ago).Police are still piecing together the small details that filled the last day of a man who walked among students he knew and fired more than a dozen rounds into Amish girls in long, plain dresses who never did him any harm.They struggle to explain a horror that is inexplicable.***Roberts slept a few hours when he got home.At 7:30 a.m., he was up and helping Marie get the kids ready for school. At 8:45 a.m., he walked them to the school bus stop, as was his habit.But this day, a neighbor would later tell reporters, after his girl and boy had gotten on the bus, he asked the driver to open the door again. He called his children out. He hugged each one, spoke to them, and sent them back in.Marie Roberts left the house before her husband, who was scheduled to take a random drug test that morning – standard for state-licensed truck drivers in Pennsylvania. Marie was headed to her prayer group, a chapter of the national organization called Moms in Touch. At 9:15 a.m., in the Middle Octorara Presbyterian Church, as Marie met with other mothers and offered up their regular prayers for the protection of children everywhere, her husband was at a local hardware store, buying more flex-ties.Some 30 minutes later, Aaron Esh, an Amish carpenter, was headed down White Oak Road, going to buy supplies. He passed the West Nickle Mines Amish school, and waved to the children at play during recess in the wide yard ringed by a white plank fence, boys in dark pants and suspenders, girls in long dresses and bonnets.
Moments later, Esh saw Charles Roberts, standing next to his pickup truck by the auction house, looking at the children from across the road.The carpenter thought nothing of it. Roberts always parked there.When the children went inside, Roberts got in the pickup and drove down.Just before 10 a.m., he backed the truck up to the front double-doors of the one-room schoolhouse. He walked inside, wearing jeans, a T-shirt and over that, a buttoned-down shirt. He wouldn’t look at the teacher, just walked up and stood beside her mumbling something about a metal tool he held in his hand. Had anyone seen something like this in the road?Emma Mae Zook would later recall that she said no, but we’ll look for it.Roberts walked out the open school doors.Then he started walking back. In the classroom, Aaron Esh Jr., whose great-uncle had waved just minutes before, heard the sound of a gun being loaded.Roberts crossed the threshold, pointing his handgun.There were several women in the school – the teacher, her visiting mother, two sisters-in-law. When the schoolteacher and her mother saw the gun, they ran out the door and made their way to a neighboring, non-Amish farm, where there would be a telephone. The 911 call came in at 10:36 a.m.Inside the classroom, Roberts was calm. He knew some, if not all, of these children. Their family dairy farms were on his route. He told the 15 boys and 11 girls to lie down in the back of the classroom. He told the remaining women, some of whom had children with them, that they could leave with their kids.The women stood outside, unsure of what to do. Roberts separated the boys from the girls. It was the girls he wanted.He ordered the boys out. Nine-year-old Emma Fisher slipped out with her brother. Two of her sisters stayed behind. Marian, 13, would be the first to die. Police have not named the other sister, age 11, who remains in critical condition.From the truck, Roberts unloaded boxes containing his arsenal – including the shotgun and buckshot. At the bottom of the box were two tubes of sexual lubricant.Then he started hammering. He barricaded the side door with a two-by-six attached by flex-ties, and pushed a foosball table against it. At the front, he secured one of its double doors with a slide bolt. He barred the other with a two-by-four and slid desks against it.He lined the 10 girls before the blackboard. He lashed their feet with wire and flex-ties. Some girls were bound together.Nine minutes after the 911 call, two state troopers arrived. Within moments, there were eight more at the bottom of the lane leading to the school.Marie had just gotten home from her prayer meeting. She wondered where her husband was. She called her own cell phone, which Roberts had taken that morning. He didn’t answer.
Five minutes later, he called the house. He was upset, rambling. He wouldn’t be coming home. The police are here, he said. Marie had no idea what he was talking about. Then he admitted to sexually molesting two female family members, who were between the ages of 3 and 5 at the time. This was 20 years ago, he said. He would have been 11 or 12. It tortured him. It angered him.As did the death of their first daughter, Elise, who lived only 20 minutes after being born prematurely in 1997.He told his wife where he to find the notes he had left for her and their children.Then he hung up, and dialed 911. If you don’t get these cops out of here in 10 seconds, he told the dispatcher, I’m going to start shooting.Police traced the call. A hostage negotiator dialed Marie’s cell phone. Again, Roberts didn’t answer.He started shooting.He fired at least four rounds from the shotgun, and 13 rounds from the 9 mm. Some were delivered to the backs of the girls’ heads.With riot shields held in front of them, the troopers started running.They never fired a shot. Some wrestled with the front door, unable to get in. Others went through the front windows. Roberts was reloading as they came over the sills. He held the 9 mm to the middle of his forehead, and pulled the trigger.Inside the simple classroom, with its wooden desks and big chalkboard, was chaos and blood and broken glass. The troopers lost valuable time unlashing the girls’ feet. Marian Fisher was already dead. An officer scooped up 7-year-old Naomi Rose Ebersol, who weighed about 50 pounds, and dashed out. By the time he reached the end of the lane, she was dead.Helicopters descended to remove the wounded. Amish families walked from all directions, and stopped at yellow crime tape incongruously blowing in fields of green. They bowed their heads. Normally stoic, these plain people who shun electricity and automobiles and telephones, covered their faces and wept.The tumult reached beyond the schoolroom.Helicopters were offered to take the victims’ families to hospitals. They refused to ride in the contraptions. The desperately wounded girls had already been loaded and taken away, but officers didn’t know their names, or which hospitals they had been taken to. Some families went to the wrong hospitals. Another arrived at a hospital only to learn their daughter was really in the morgue.”We had all these victims at the scene, that we’re triaging and trying to get help,” said State Police Commissioner Jeffrey Miller. “We didn’t know who they were. We just knew we had a young, female victim that was taken to hospital X.” In the end, hospital staff had to take digital photographs of the victims they had, send them to the state police, so officers could show them to teachers for identification.”When I got to the scene, many of these troopers were covered in blood,” said Miller.Three girls would later die from their wounds:Anna Mae Stoltzfus, age 12.
Mary Liz Miller, age 8.Lena Miller, age 7.Lena and Mary Liz were sisters.Three girls remained in critical condition, ranging in age from 8 to 11. On Thursday, the coroner said he was informed that the family of a gravely wounded 6-year-old girl had asked for her to be removed from life support so she could die at home with her loved ones.A 13-year-girl shot in the back and the shoulder was expected to make a full recovery.***The funerals began Thursday.All roads to Nickle Mines were blocked by state police so the procession of horse-drawn, black-and-gray wagons could roll undisturbed across the rambling ribbon of blacktop leading to the Georgetown Amish cemetery. The funeral march was somber, and repeated three times, once for the sisters and once for each of the other girls.Reporters, photographers and TV camera crews stood by, held back by police and barricades; a reluctant spokesman for the reclusive Amish had pleaded with the media to “not be involved in close-up gawking or picture taking.”In keeping with their tenet of forgiveness, Marie Roberts was invited to attend. It is unclear whether she did. The funeral marches went right by her house. An Amish man waved at Roberts relatives members standing in front.The Roberts family also grieves – for the children now dead and for the man they knew as “Charlie,” a decent, God-fearing man who no longer exists.A man who drove his family to church on Sundays. A man who bounced on the trampoline out back with his kids – just an ordinary guy, the neighbors thought.”What is there to say?” asked his grandmother, Teresa Neustadter. “He was a good grandson.”On Friday, the Amish buried the body of 12-year-old Anna Mae Stoltzfus in a cold, steely rain. Most of the media had gone home. Dressed in a handmade white dress and cap, placed in a handmade wooden coffin, her remains were lowered into a grave shoveled by Amish men.In the late morning, the Amish mourners bowed their heads and raised their prayers, asking God to receive this girl into heaven, where one day they would see her again, in a world were violence has no place.***Staff writers Mark Scolforo and Michael Rubinkam contributed from Pennsylvania to this report.
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