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Amish country bristles at ‘Mafia’ TV show

By Amy Worden

The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

Published: Monday, Aug. 25 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

FILE - An Amish family rides along Route 812 in Heuvelton, N.Y., near the command center at the Heuvelton Volunteer Fire Department, Friday, Aug. 15, 2014. “Amish Mafia” premiered in 2012 and quickly became a cable hit. Now preparing for a fourth season, the show centers on a foursome who take on alleged wrongdoers with strong-arm tactics and sometimes violence — such as torching the car of a non-Amish man illegally renting vehicles to Amish teens. The Discovery Channel maintains on its website that the characters and situations — albeit re-enactments — are based on real events. But experts familiar with the Lancaster Amish and Mennonite communities say there is no such thing as an Amish Mafia.

Jason Hunter, Associated Press

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LANCASTER, Pa. — For a year, Lark and Michael McCarley simmered silently over the arrival of “Amish Mafia” in their community.

The couple own Lovelace Manor, a bed-and-breakfast on the outskirts of town, and found the show that depicts black-clothed young men terrorizing neighbors distasteful, offensive and an affront to their many Amish friends.

The final straw was the phone call last winter from a TV producer who wanted to blow up a vehicle in the small parking lot behind their restored Second Empire mansion, next to the aviary housing several prized doves. The McCarleys later discovered the exploding car would be featured on the season finale of the popular Discovery Channel show, which purportedly depicts real-life events of armed Amish vigilantes.

“We had basically ignored the show until that point,” said Lark McCarley. “But that was when we realized how much the network was infiltrating this area to do such outrageous staged scenes for the show. We definitely wanted no part of it.”

Now they are part of a movement that took off this summer, counting elected officials, hundreds of churches and businesses among its supporters, to persuade the Discovery Channel to cancel the show.

“It hit a nerve,” said Mary Haverstick, a Lancaster-based filmmaker who created the website Respect Amish and is leading the effort. “We tapped into something that was unsaid.”

“Amish Mafia” premiered in 2012 and quickly became a cable hit. Now preparing for a fourth season, the show centers on a foursome who take on alleged wrongdoers with strong-arm tactics and sometimes violence — such as torching the car of a non-Amish man illegally renting vehicles to Amish teens.

The Discovery Channel maintains on its website that the characters and situations — albeit re-enactments — are based on real events. But experts familiar with the Lancaster Amish and Mennonite communities say there is no such thing as an Amish Mafia.

Haverstick and others also say the show doesn’t reflect the real Lancaster — sprawling countryside dotted with farmsteads and vast fields of corn, soybeans and wheat — or its 30,000 Amish residents.

Even worse, she said, was targeting a tight-knit conservative community that’s traditionally averse to publicity, has no centralized religious structure or an advocacy group to fight back.

“A show called ‘Jewish Mafia’ would be seen as problematic,” Haverstick said. “The Amish deserve a voice of protection.”

Still, killing the program, due to resume airing this winter, is likely to be an uphill climb.

The success of “Amish Mafia” and “Breaking Amish” has led to more Amish-themed shows, including “Amish Haunting” — a horror show — which premiers this fall on Discovery.

In an email, a Discovery Channel spokeswoman declined to comment.

But in Lancaster and throughout the state, political leaders and others have been condemning the show for what they say is “bigotry” and “a potentially damaging portrayal” of the Amish.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, members of Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation and other officials signed a letter to Discovery Channel asking officials to pull the show and sponsors to drop their support.

Corbett said some reporters have questioned why he would speak out on the issue.

“I say ‘Wouldn’t you write a letter if it was any other ethnic group?’” said the governor in an interview. “It’s insulting.”

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