'Amish Mafia,' Bending Rules in Centuries-Old Amish Lifestyle

PHOTO: Cast of Amish Mafia
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Lancaster County, Pa., is home to the nation's oldest Amish settlement, dating back more than 300 years. Some 50,000 Amish live there, simply and humbly.

But behind the horse-drawn buggies and rolling hills there is said to be an American sub-culture, often brimming with intrigue and controversy, centered around the infamous, so-called "Amish mafia."

Watch the full story on "Nightline" TONIGHT at 12:35 a.m. ET.

"Amish Mafia" is a reality TV series on Discovery Channel that tries to pull back the curtain on what is portrayed as the darker side of this traditional Christian culture and the roughly 250,000 people living in Amish communities across the United States.

The series, now in its second season, follows a man called "Lebanon Levi" and his assistants, who purportedly look after the Amish community in Lancaster County and claim to do the dirty work the church can't.

Where the church deals with moral issues, Levi and his band are said to work as an internal police system that takes care of other matters. They provide financial aid, essentially insurance for buggy accidents, personal injury or property damage. They also keep an eye on the teenagers who take time off to experience the outside world before committing their lives to the sect.

Levi calls himself "The Enforcer."

"I make sure the peace is being kept and everybody is obeying the rules," he said.

The Amish, as a whole, deny the existence of the Amish mafia. Much of the show's content has been strongly criticized by Amish scholars. Questions have even been raised about whether some of the cast members are actors.

So "Nightline" traveled to Lancaster County to get a better understanding of the Discovery Channel show and its characters in the context of the Amish environment.

The series producers say the main cast members, including Levi, aren't actors -- though they haven't been baptized into the Amish church so, technically, the same rules don't apply to them.

"As the time goes on, you choose to have more," Levi said. "I would rather have a computer and watch TV, maybe, drive a car -- and not drive a horse. I would rather have a little bit of air condition instead of sweating all the time."

The Amish have the reputation of being a peaceful, soft-spoken community with reluctance to adopt many conveniences of modern technology, including cars and electricity. Kids in the community are schooled until the eighth grade, and then join their parents working in the fields or inside the home.

But a subculture within the Amish community is extensively shown on the show -- which includes "barn fights" and "pimp my buggy" competitions.

When asked if he would ever get baptized in the Amish church, Levi said, "It can always happen."

One reason it would is if he decided to marry an Amish woman. Baptism is a requirement for marriage.

Throughout the show, Levi has had a crush on Esther, who often leads him on to help her brother John gain more power in the so-called Amish mafia.

In describing what it was like to grow up Amish, Esther said, "We never had electricity growing up. I never grew up watching movies, television, computers, anything like that. I grew up without electricity, without running water. Those are a lot of things that we did without."

"As I got older, you know, you're exposed more," she added. "Once I started Rumschpringa, and that's when I learned of everything that's out there. And then I wanted more."

In the Amish community, Rumschpringa is a time of freedom from the Amish lifestyle "to experience another side of life," Esther said.

When an Amish person turns 16, he or she is granted an opportunity to give up Amish traditions and do things they have never done before, such as travel, wear modern-day clothes and even go to parties with friends.

Esther's "other side" is well-documented on "Amish Mafia" -- a show she and her family don't watch because they don't own a TV -- though, she says, with every generation, the rules are beginning to bend.

"The outside world looks at an Amish community as a whole and that we're all the same, and that we are these humble people who don't have anything," she said. "We would never dress in jeans. We would never have cell phones. We would never have Internet access ... when, in reality, 90 percent of Amish kids have all those things."

That was the case in one Amish home "Nightline" visited, where a teenager named Allen, who goes by his nickname, "Flip," had electricity, a Playstation, a laptop and air conditioning in his bedroom -- items his parents allow him to have during their son's Rumschpringa. The rest of the house kept strict Amish tradition -- a bed, dresser and a Bible were all that adorned his parents' bedroom.

Much of "Amish Mafia's" content, depictions and characters are strongly criticized by Amish scholars who say it simply isn't true. But not everyone sees it that way.

"It's not contrived. It's not made up," said Steve Breit, a criminal defense attorney in Lancaster County. "The individuals on the show that I've represented have committed some serious criminal activity."

Another character on "Amish Mafia" is Merlin, portrayed as being from a more traditional and old order community of Amish in Ohio, where he, too, has the same role as Levi. On the show, Merlin spends his days trying to oust Levi from power.

Some in the community accused Merlin of setting Levi's office on fire -- something he denied. But he did say he had been indicted on felony drug trafficking charges, although he was reluctant to give further details.

"I'm not trafficking," he said. "I'm living a clean life, a happy life and helping the community."

Breit said the bulk of his practice is representing Amish youth who are in trouble.

"Every year, I'll see an increase of several Amish clients a year, and whether it's for mainstream criminal activity, such as the alcohol use ... the marijuana abuse, and it's other crimes such as theft and things of that nature, as well," he said. "By numbers, they're doing the same amount of this type of activity that mainstream American kids are doing today."

So perhaps, if this show is really reality TV, the centuries-old "plain" lifestyle is a far cry from what it used to be.

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