New York Times bestselling authors Gregg Olsen and Rebecca Morris investigate the 2009 death of a young Amish wife and mother. Faith, sex, and betrayal feature prominently as Olsen and Morris uncover the truth about who murdered the devout Barbara Weaver in her own bed.
I recently spent Memorial Day weekend visiting family in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania—one of the largest enclaves of the Amish population in America. It’s a charming and bucolic place, filled with rolling farmland, cattle, picturesque farmhouses and barns, and laundry lines filled with the traditional black attire of the Amish swaying in the breeze. It’s not out of place to see black horse-drawn buggies share space in traffic with soccer-mom SUVs and farm trucks.
The largest population of Amish immigrated to Ohio from Pennsylvania, and I imagine the scene is not much different. Handmade quilts and furniture for sale in markets that aren’t wired for electricity and large families where everyone helps out, even the littlest ones.
In 2009, a murder rocked the quiet town of Apple Creek, Ohio. In the absolute silence of the night, a young boy named Harley was awoken by what he thought was a thunderclap during a storm. In the early morning, the body of his mother was discovered by his very young cousin Susie. Harley’s father was nowhere to be found, so the children ran to a neighbor for help. The initial account of the event provides a chilling set-up for the rest of the book:
With the gaslights off and the wind rolling across the farmhouse, Harley listened as the shower ran in the bathroom down the hallway. Soon after, slumber overtook him. Only once during the night did he stir. A thunderclap, he thought, woke up. But he turned over and fell back asleep.
Later the boy would play that noise over and over in his head, trying to pinpoint just what it was he’d heard.
As one of America’s most closed off communities, the Amish people fascinate and charm us with their old-fashioned ways. Their first language is Pennsylvania Dutch, a dialect very different from the European counterpart, and they refer to Americans as “English.” Most people know they shun the use of electricity and gas powered machinery. And, a 2009 episode of Bones, called “The Plain in the Prodigy,” introduced us to the concept of Rumspringa—a period of time in which a young Amish person is allowed to leave the community to live an English life and decide if they want to continue to be a member of the Amish church.
But, even with some media coverage of this closed community, there’s still much to learn about them. In many ways, we think of them as innocent and naive. But, Greg Olsen and Rebecca Morris show that their world is as nuanced as ours and just as full of darkness.
Their book, A Killing in Amish Country, both investigates a murder and sheds some light on the world of the Amish. As the third reported murder among the Amish in over 250 years, the importance of how the Amish practice their faith is highlighted as a key motivation in the murder of this young woman. But, it’s also remarkable to note that, in many ways, the Amish are no different than the rest of society, despite their peaceful and conservative way of life.
Eli Weaver, the husband of the murdered woman, was never comfortable in his faith. He had tasted what he felt was the good life during his Rumspringa, but for reasons that are unknown, he returned to be baptized into the Amish church. Despite this, he secretly owned a cell phone and had access to laptop computers. He had sexual desires that were outside of the church’s teachings and went online as “Amish Stud” in an attempt to satisfy those desires. He had many lovers and even secretly fathered a child with one of his girlfriends.
The authors speculate about why Eli never left the church completely. He always came back, even after being shunned twice. He was always forgiven and allowed to return. Excerpts from Barbara Weaver’s diary speculate on this as well. One excerpt from the diary reads:
“Sometimes I already know the truth, other times I find out the truth later. I ask him why he feels so bitter towards me. ‘I don’t know.’ I said I wished he would be honest with me. I’d like to know where he would like me to improve. It makes me feel better to try and tell him how I feel, but it’s so one-sided.”
If he was so unhappy, why didn’t he just leave? Instead, he chose to stay and marry and have five children. Perhaps Eli wanted it all. Perhaps he wanted to remain in his community yet be able to flout the rules at will.
The Amish society is so connected to their faith that you can’t have one without the other. To leave the church is to also leave society. Are the temptations of the English worth exile from family?
In a less religious society, it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine this marriage ending in divorce, but divorce is so shameful and sinful that it appears that Eli thought murder would be the better alternative. As Andy Hyde, Eli’s attorney, said, “If he had left, he would have been shunned. If his wife is dead, they pat him on the back.”
Murder never makes sense, especially to those whose lives are so deeply affected. Eli Weaver ultimately found himself in a years-long affair with Barb Raber, a Mennonite woman who had previously also been a member of the Amish church. Now, Barb Raber and Eli Weaver stand accused of conspiring to murder Barbara Weaver, and allegedly, Barb Raber pulled the trigger.
Though the Amish church is very closed and very conservative, leaving has always been an option. Many Amish leave to join the Conservative Mennonite church, a faith that believes in many of the same things as the Amish but have chosen to live with more of the modern conveniences. Barb Raber is proof of that. So why did Eli stay? Why would he choose murder rather than leave a lifestyle he felt was intolerable?
These are some of the questions that Olsen and Morris tackle as they lay down the facts of the case. Ultimately no one really knows what happened that night. No one except Eli Weaver and Barb Raber. Did Barb pull the trigger that night, or did Eli? Is she just an unwitting dupe, seduced by Eli’s charm, as countless women before her were? Or was she willing to kill in cold blood in order to have Eli all to herself?
Gregg Olsen and Rebecca Morris’s journalistic style and well-researched, easy-to-access prose will appeal to fans of NPR’s Serial podcast. They lay out the facts and discuss the nuances of Amish and Mennonite faith, as well as the social circles the two accused murderers traveled in leading up to the crime, and their in-depth backgrounds on all of the key players shed some light on possible motives behind the facts in evidence.
There’s sex, love, betrayal, faith, and enough courtroom drama to satisfy any true crime aficionado, and I highly recommend it.
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Ardi Alspach was born in Florida, raised in South Carolina, and now resides in New York City with her cat and an apartment full of books. By day, she's a publicist, and by night, she's a freelance writer. You can follow her on Twitter at @ardyceelaine or check out her website at ardyceelaine.wordpress.com.