Local/State

There's no debate about it: 'Amish Mafia' is a hit

Monday, December 31, 2012

Discovery Channel claims its new series, "Amish Mafia," has broken viewership records for its portrayal of previously unseen law-enforcers among the Amish community here.

A national ratings system and local feedback indicate people are tuning in in droves to watch Lebanon Levi, Jolin the Mennonite and their gang of "protectors."

A Discovery executive insisted in a recent interview that the characters are genuine Amish and Mennonite folks living in Lancaster County, not paid actors.

"They are actual people," Laurie Goldberg, Discovery's vice president of public relations, said last week. "These are real people in the Amish and Mennonite communities."

The network also claims that while many events on the show are re-enacted, they are based on actual happenings.

In its first three episodes (and a few spinoffs), the series depicts Levi's crew wielding guns in fancy cars while confronting violators of the Amish community.

Local viewers claim they know better.

"That fighting mentality isn't even there," said Jeffrey Conrad, local defense attorney and former prosecutor who has litigated "scores" of cases involving the Amish. "We can't even get them to file lawsuits when we suggest it."

Conrad said he recently did an interview for an ABC news show regarding Amish behavior here -Conrad believed it was in response to Discovery's series.

Conrad said the interview was halted when he didn't tell stories of guns, avid partying and other mayhem depicted in the series.

During his seven years as a local prosecutor, he heard of no such "mafia" group.

"We would have gone after them," he said.

Other critics have created spoof social-media pages, including one by someone posing as Lebanon Levi, another by someone purporting to be Amish Alvin, and a catchall page, simply titled "Amish Mafia is Fake."

On those pages, hordes of followers post wisecracks and take shots at Discovery's vision of the allegedly untold side of the Amish.

The debate rings on as the network stands by the events, as does a prominent player on the show, local attorney Steven Breit.

Fact or fiction, almost everyone seems to be talking about the series.

"The show displayed another side of the Amish people," Breit said. "Folks in Lancaster County are having a hard time coming to grips with that. You've got people (here) looking at it with a jaundiced eye."

Breit said he doesn't confirm or deny the events on the series, but says he has heard of such activity while defending many Amish folks over the years.

"The events are re-creations," he said. "I can't speak for the embellishments."

Local skeptics debunked several story lines and content in the series, including:

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Lebanon Levi

On the show: Levi is the leader with a criminal past who meets clients and other appointments inside a hay-lined barn office. His alleged rap sheet was displayed in the debut episode as proof.

Reaction: Breit claims to have knowledge of Levi (though he never represented him) and says his criminal record is "verified." Conrad said he asked his Amish connections directly about such a person.

"Who?" they responded, according to Conrad. "Across the board, no one heard of him."

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A little fuzz-y

On the show: Listed atop Levi's "rap sheet" and mentioned by a show narrator as the arresting agency is "Lancaster County Police."

Reaction: Hard to dispute, there is no such thing. There is a Lancaster City Bureau of Police, but no countywide force.

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Bad business

On the show: Members of the "mafia" are shown walking out of local stores tucking away envelopes of money, allegedly earned by protecting local merchants.

Reaction: At least one local business depicted in the show says it just isn't true. The business claims it never paid out protection fees.

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Down by the river

On the show: Claiming to be based in the heart of Amish country - south-central Lancaster County - one scene shows characters John and Esther chatting on a river bank.

Reaction: Locals are shaking their heads at this one, too. Many recognized the backdrop as a riverside park in Columbia, where the Amish population is next to nil. Not to mention, the location is on the county's western edge, which would represent quite the hike in a horse-drawn buggy.

One Columbia resident said: "I actually saw them setting up for the scene at the Columbia River Park while I was working. Totally staged."

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Working professionals?

On the show: The characters in Levi's crew are the real deal - not paid actors, Goldberg says.

Reaction: Locals have pointed to some characters' lack of Pennsylvania Dutch - or Pennsylvania German, as experts call it - dialect and accent. Yet Breit says he wasn't paid for his segments on the show, and he isn't aware of any casting call for the main characters.

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But are they Amish?

On the show: Look no further than the series title for proof that Discovery is presenting the characters as genuinely Amish (even though Goldberg said some characters are Mennonite).

Reaction: There is a big difference between the two faiths. Also, a local professor pointed out, Levi is touted as being an Amishman who was never baptized. Baptism is essential in the Amish faith: Either you're in or you're out, said Elizabethtown College professor Donald Kraybill, a prominent researcher of Anabaptist culture.

Also, Kraybill and others observed, genuine Amish folks wouldn't appear on camera, as the faith forbids it.

The series rolls on with a new episode slated for Wednesday. Breit said he was told only five episodes have been produced, but the network is working on more.

Discovery reported that 3.64 million viewers watched the series premiere on Dec. 12 and 3.41 million tuned in for a sneak-preview show the night before.

(Copyright ©2014 WPVI-TV/DT. All Rights Reserved.)

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