KIRKWOOD, Pa. (AP) — Daniel Stoltzfus’ Amish mother always viewed him as her prodigal son, the only one of her 13 children to have left the religious order known for its modest dress, plain ways and insular culture.
In the biblical parable, of course, the wayward child comes home. But “Dan” never did, abandoning his Amish faith more than a dozen years ago and falling in with a man named Lee Kaplan. Eventually, police say, Stoltzfus and his wife “gifted” their 14-year-old daughter to Kaplan after he helped them out financially — and apparently sent their nine younger daughters to live with the 51-year-old at his small home near Philadelphia.
Kaplan is now charged with statutory sexual assault, and the teen’s parents with child endangerment, in a case that has sent shock waves through the Amish community some 75 miles away.
People here, in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, have been speaking of little else as they ponder how two of their own could have fallen so far. On Friday, a judge rejected Savilla Stoltzfus’ request for a bail reduction, and all three defendants remain locked up on $1 million bail.
Amish who knew Daniel Stoltzfus, 43, said he never forgave himself after running over his young son with a piece of farm equipment in 2001, killing him. Within two years, Daniel and Savilla had left the church.
“When you face trials, it either makes you bitter or sweet. … When a person can’t handle things, they do radical things,” said a family friend who, like other Amish interviewed by The Associated Press, did not want to be seen as violating a cultural taboo against seeking attention and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The couple almost entirely withdrew from the Amish community, cutting ties with their parents even though they lived next door to his mother and father and just a few miles from her family’s Lancaster County farm.
They also struck up an unusual friendship with Kaplan, whom Daniel had met on a business trip, and it was Kaplan who bailed them out after the couple got into a nasty dispute over a $300,000 loan from an Amish nonprofit.
“They are apparently in financial straits, and that is just prime predator territory. They have very few other resources to turn to, and apparently along comes Mr. Kaplan,” Bucks County District Attorney David Heckler said Friday.
Daniel Stoltzfus told police he and his wife “gave” their daughter to Kaplan in 2012, when she was 14, to thank Kaplan “for helping his family out of financial ruin,” according to a police affidavit. Stoltzfus said he had “researched the legality of it on the Internet,” the affidavit said.
Kaplan told police he began having sex with her, and they had a child, now 3 years old, and a second child who is 6 months, court documents said.
Last week, police and child welfare workers descended on the home after neighbors in Bucks County became concerned about the welfare of several girls they saw living there. Authorities found a total of a dozen girls, ranging in age from 6 months to 18 years. Savilla Stoltzfus was also at the home.
Police believe the other nine girls belong to Daniel and Savilla Stoltzfus.
“Not only is (Kaplan) given a 14-year-old, but, from a pedophile predator’s point of view, the idea of multiple other children of younger ages who, at some point, will be the age that makes them targets is a dream,” Heckler said.
Police are still investigating and could file additional charges if they find evidence the younger girls were harmed or placed in jeopardy. They have been sent to a “safe house” in Lancaster County, authorities said.
Court records do not list an attorney for Daniel Stoltzfus or for Kaplan, who sold model train decals online and operated a metal fabricating business with Stoltzfus.
In a statement this week, lawyers for Savilla Stoltzfus urged the public to withhold judgment.
“Anybody can be arrested — your friends, your neighbors, your family, or even you — but it doesn’t mean you’re guilty,” said the statement from lawyers Cary Hall and Alexander Tuttle.
Back in Lancaster County, friends and neighbors have been calling on Daniel and Savilla Stoltzfus’ grieving parents to offer comfort and show their support.
Quiet conversations abound, and there’s a universal sense of bewilderment.
“It’s just what you hear wherever you go,” said a neighbor. But with so many unanswered questions, the neighbor added, “you don’t hardly get anywhere.”