After returning two kidnapped Amish girls safely home earlier this month, a New York couple got a surprise thank you gift on Friday when the Amish community organized a “barn raising” to rebuild their burned-out garage.
On Aug. 13, two Amish sisters were working at their family’s roadside vegetable stand in Oswegatchie, N.Y., small town of 4,000 residents near the Canadian border, when they disappeared. The sisters, ages 12 and 7, have 11 other siblings and live with their parents, Mose and Barb Miller, said Dot Simmons, a neighbor who attended a prayer vigil for the girls at Cornerstone Wesleyan Church in nearby Heuvelton. The girls regularly manned the family’s roadside market, selling vegetables, fruit, and homemade jams, Simmons said.
The St. Lawrence County Sheriff's office issued an AMBER alert, describing the girls as wearing dark blue sundresses and black bonnets. But they didn’t have pictures of them because of the family’s religious guidelines.
The next night, a couple living in a remote area near Richville, a village of 300 about 30 miles northwest of the girls’ home, heard a desperate banging at the front door. Pamela Stinson peeked out the window and saw the terrified sisters, according to the Watertown Daily Times. She recognized the girls from media reports and ushered the cold, wet, and shaking sisters into the house. Jeffrey Stinson fed them some watermelon, which they devoured, while begging the couple to drive them home. Agreeing an immediate police and media circus would not be good for the traumatized girls, the Stinsons decided to take them home before alerting authorities.
“What kind of comfort were Jeff and I going to be to the girls while they’re being interrogated?” Pamela Stinson told the Watertown Daily Times.
On the way to the Miller’s home, a car closely pursued them, its headlights blinding Jeffrey Stinson as he drove. Pamela Stinson and her daughter covered the panicked girls so their bonnets wouldn’t show, while Jeffrey constantly moved left and right in his seat, afraid a bullet might come through the window. When they reached the driveway of the girls’ home, the car sped away, Jeffrey Stinson told the Watertown Daily Times. Police were already there.
The girls jumped out of the truck and ran into the house, surprising the many Amish community members gathered there. The Stinsons recounted the evening’s events to police and the group’s elders. According to Jeffrey Stinson, the girls’ mother said she was surprised at the larger community’s concern for their daughters.
Interviews with the girls led police the next morning to the home of Stephen M. Howells II, 39, and Nicole F. Vaisey, 25, in Hermon, about 25 miles north of the Miller’s farm. After a police interrogation, Howells and Vaisey were arrested and charged with two counts of first-degree kidnapping with the intent to inflict physical injury or sexually violate. Both are currently held without bond.
According to a statement Vaisey made to police, Howells scouted the girls for several days and even bought some vegetables from them. Howells told Vaisey he wanted to “make them their slaves.” He lured the girls to a Honda Civic by encouraging them to pet the couple’s puppy, which was tied up in the backseat. He then pushed the girls into the car, and Vaisey sped off. Howells handcuffed the girls together by their ankles and when they reached the couple’s home, cuffed them to a bedpost. Due to the intense media coverage, Howells and Vaisey became scared, so they released the sisters in a remote area, Vaisey told police.
In a display of gratitude for the Stintons’ efforts in returning the girls, the Miller family offered to rebuild their garage. A fire in early July destroyed the outbuilding and all the tools inside while the couple was on vacation. The Amish are famous for their barn-raising techniques, based on the Christian principle of mutual aid to promote community, as well as meet a practical need. More than 30 Amish teenage boys and men began arriving at sunrise on Friday.
“We brought them out black coffee, and they instantly started working,” Pamela Stinson told the Watertown Daily Times. “I’m overwhelmed. I don’t know how else to describe it.”
The Millers brought five of their children to help, including the rescued girls. As the mother and two daughters worked together sewing a dress nearby, a few non-Amish helpers joined the men to complete the project. Members of Richville United Church provided lunch for the group, served with fresh baked fruit pie from the Miller’s farm.
Patrick Bellinger, one of the Stinson's non-Amish friends helping build the 1,200-square-foot structure, told reporters the events painted a picture of redemption.
“God took two bad things, a fire and an abduction, and he turned it upside down and made a good thing,” he said.