Shattered Calm

3 minute read

A murder in Amish country

Crime and other “worldly” problems rarely touch the plain-living Amish and Mennonite residents of New Holland, Pa. Indeed, no one could recall any precedent for the violence against Naomi Huyard, a frail, friendly woman of 50. On the evening of Nov. 27, the Amish woman left her farmhouse and walked across the road to the home of John and Lillian Herr to store several boxes of cauliflower in a freezer in their garage. When she did not return, her sister became alarmed and notified neighbors, who called the police. After a three-hour search of the neighborhood, a state trooper found Huyard’s partly nude body under a blanket in the bed room of the Herrs’ adopted son Jimmy. Bound and gagged, the 90-lb. woman had been suffocated and stabbed 16 times.

Jimmy, 18, was arrested and charged with the murder. At a preliminary hearing last week, Lillian Herr testified that a bloody knife found under a pillow in the bedroom was her son’s. Jimmy, a lapsed Mennonite who had been paroled on a burglary charge three weeks before Huyard’s death, denies killing her. Family members on both sides say that the victim and accused had no reason to dislike each other. “If somebody would have told Naomi that boy was there, she would have gone anyway,” says Isaac Huyard, one of four brothers who live on nearby farms. Herr’s mother says Jimmy was asleep when she left for work on the day of the crime. John Herr, 60, an industrial custodian, returned from work at about 6 p.m., an hour or so after Naomi Huyard left her farm. Herr fixed himself some thing to eat, and Jimmy came up from the basement a few minutes later. Herr asked his son to complete some chores. When word of the search party reached them, young Herr joined it. “He acted normal all evening,” his father says.

The Herrs adopted Jimmy and his brother Raymond, 19, as toddlers, adding to three daughters of their own. Obedient as a child, the adolescent Jimmy came to scorn the Herrs’ religious habits. After police picked him up several times on burglary charges, he was sent to a Mennonite-run youth village for three years. Back home at 16, he dropped out of high school, rented an apartment and took a job as a dishwasher. He later joined the Army but deserted after a few months. One friend said Jimmy was bored and frustrated by the confining atmosphere of the Amish-Mennonite community. “He talked a lot lately about wanting to find his real parents,” the friend added. “Jim experienced a big void, and a lot of his problems stemmed from that void.”

The Huyard clan, who, like most of their Amish neighbors, drive horse-and-buggy rigs and wear homemade black garb, has cleaved to its faith and offered the accused killer forgiveness. As he painted a shed on his hilltop property, Isaac Huyard cited the Bible: “Resist not evil, but overcome evil with good.” David E. Huyard, 75, Naomi’s uncle and the family patriarch, suggested that the murder is symptomatic of a growing rebelliousness among Amish and Mennonite youth, who are taught to live peacefully and according to the Bible. “We’re being tested and tried in many different ways,” he says. “I believe we can survive. But I don’t know how long.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at