THIS village is as sweet as its name. Main Street climbs gently from a tidy railroad crossing, past a few gift shops to the simple brick First Mennonite Church.
Beyond the hamlet lie the farms and buggy-traveled lanes of the eastern Ohio Amish country, one of the largest clusters of Amish and Mennonite settlements in the nation. Craft markets, furniture shops and restaurants dot the county roads. Those businesses carry the names — Yoder, Miller, Troyer, Beachy — that fill entire chapters of the slim local telephone book.
This postcard from a gentler and simpler America is about as unlikely a place imaginable for the news that broke in September: one of Sugarcreek’s own, a prominent member of what some people here call the Plain Community, was under arrest, accused by federal prosecutors of running a Ponzi scheme that betrayed his neighbors’ trust and wiped out more than $16 million of their savings.
The news media made the obvious comparisons.
The elderly defendant, Monroe L. Beachy, had been a respected financial figure in his community for decades — just like Bernard L. Madoff, the master swindler.
As in the Madoff case, Mr. Beachy’s seemingly successful investment firm employed several members of his family. He, too, first attracted clients who shared his religious faith. And he, too, was accused of defrauding charities, congregations, even his own relatives. Predictably, headlines have branded Mr. Beachy “the Amish Bernie Madoff,” although he is presumed innocent as he heads to trial next month.
But the most intriguing aspect of Monroe Beachy’s story is how different it seems from Bernie Madoff’s — and from almost every other story with a “Ponzi scheme” headline over the years.
While victims of Mr. Madoff’s fraud, like most Ponzi victims, condemned their accused betrayer in court as a monster, many of Mr. Beachy’s investors have said in court that it is more important to forgive him than to recover their money.
While the Madoff case and others like it have inevitably created conflict between longtime investors fighting to keep their fictional profits and more recent investors trying to recover lost principal, some Beachy investors urged that their own share of his estate should be given to those in greater need.
And while Mr. Madoff’s wife and sons instantly became social pariahs in Manhattan, Mr. Beachy’s wife and children remain at his farmstead here, living peacefully with their neighbors.
But like the Madoff case, the Beachy case has left an indelible mark on the nation’s bankruptcy record.
It became the forum for a rare bankruptcy court battle over religious freedom, with Mr. Beachy’s Amish and Mennonite creditors insisting that the court’s way of dealing with his downfall could not be squared with their faith or with his.
“Monroe Beachy in his time of distress breached the trust of his fellow Amish and Mennonites” by entering an “environment of coercion and self-protection in the bankruptcy court,” a group of church elders told the judge, urging him to put the case into the hands of the church where it belonged.
That would accomplish three worthy goals, they said. It would allow a less expensive, more advantageous financial workout “based on Christian principles of love and care for the poor and needy.” It would create a setting in which “Biblical forgiveness and restoration can be found between Monroe Beachy” and those he is accused of betraying. And it would repair “the tarnished testimony and integrity of the Plain Community.”
The Beachy name is not only common in Sugarcreek but also notable in the history of the Plain Community, which encompasses a number of Amish and Mennonite sects. One is known as the Beachy Amish, a splinter sect formed in the late 1920s and named for a founding bishop, Moses M. Beachy.
Monroe Beachy, in his late 70s, is married and has five adult children, three sons and two daughters, all living in the Sugarcreek area. He and his wife, Alma, and their daughters live in a tidy home on a 60-acre farm near the muddy verge of Township Road 162, barely wide enough for two cars to pass. The two-story house next door, which he built for his family in 1988, is now a son’s home. Monroe Beachy does not drive a car; his only vehicle is a horse-drawn buggy, valued at $3,300, including the horse.
Under oath at a creditor meeting in August 2010, he described his background. He has an eighth-grade education, he said, and attended a few high school classes. As an adult, he took some tax-preparation courses with H R Block. With an associate, he formed an informal partnership, A M Investments, in the mid-1980s to operate an H R Block franchise, but the partnership was dissolved in 2000 and the franchise was sold. Thereafter, Mr. Beachy retained sole control of A M Investments but also set up his own business, Payrolls More, which processed paychecks for small businesses.