As the Stoltzfus family tried to navigate their first years out of Amish life — with a failing business, a dozen children, and no permanent home — they looked to a friend, Lee Kaplan, to help them seek a "blessed life."
He taught the female members how to be wives, told them that women were made to be submissive, and said God, speaking to him through dreams, dictated that he marry six of the underage daughters, the girls' mother testified Wednesday on the first day of Kaplan's sexual-assault trial.
It was a relationship that ended with all three adults arrested, the oldest girl bearing two of Kaplan's children, and the 52-year-old Feasterville man on trial in Bucks County Court on charges of sexually assaulting the sisters.
The first day of the trial revealed fresh details about the Stoltzfus family's life with Kaplan and painted a picture of the overcrowded, ration-filled home where 11 girls — nine sisters and the oldest girl's two daughters — were found last June.
In hours of testimony from Savilla Stoltzfus and her oldest daughter, now 19, the women said that the six sisters and their mother had been Kaplan's wives, but that only the second-oldest daughter had originally been given to Kaplan by her parents. As time went by, Kaplan made it clear that he would take the others as wives as well, Savilla Stoltzfus testified.
Savilla Stoltzfus, whose husband also gave her as a wife to Kaplan, described a relationship with the defendant as one of unconditional trust on her part, believing that he was teaching them how to live in the non-Amish world and that if he was bedding her daughters, it was meant to be. With only an eighth-grade education, she believed she could not teach her children as well as Kaplan could.
"I always trusted him that whatever goes on is a good thing," she said.
Kaplan is charged with raping and sexually assaulting six of the girls who lived in his house. The trial began before Judge Jeffrey L. Finley with opening arguments that asked the jury to decide whether Kaplan was a predator or a victim.
His attorney, Ryan Hyde, contended that the Stoltzfuses were an opportunistic couple who took advantage of Kaplan, and said his "marriage" to the oldest daughter was legitimate and loving, if unconventional.
"He was advancing their lives," Hyde said. "He was bringing them out of the darkness that was their lives beforehand."
The prosecution, however, portrayed Kaplan as a manipulative, controlling figure who robbed the children of "the life they should have had."
Assistant District Attorney Kate Kohler told the jury that Kaplan had brainwashed the entire Stoltzfus family and isolated them from the outside world while abusing the girls.
"All they knew was life with the defendant as their leader, their preacher, their husband," she said.
Kaplan, wearing a gray suit, blue shirt, and red tie, tugged and twisted his beard and shifted in his seat during the proceedings.
All of the girls will be called to testify, along with their mother and Kaplan's estranged wife.
The first morning in court also painted a picture of the living conditions at Kaplan's overgrown property and unusually equipped house, as well as of the "sad and scared" girls whom caseworkers found when they arrived.
The 11 girls were wearing homemade clothes, and had unkempt hair and body odor, and a smell of urine was evident near the front door, said Stephanie Shantz-Stiver, the Bucks County caseworker who discovered them. Caseworkers and detectives did not find any soap, toiletries, or toothbrushes in the house, and there weren't enough beds for all of the children. Air mattresses were set up in upstairs areas, where windows could not be opened, and in the basement, beneath a large raised model-train set.
Kaplan's home was filled with fish tanks, canned food, a chicken coop and egg incubator, a greenhouse, a bee box, multiple vegetable gardens, a metal burn box, and a large amount of machinery and tools, according to photographs taken by detectives.
The sisters, ranging in age from 3 to 18 when found, plus the oldest girl's 3-year-old and 6-month-old, did not have birth certificates, had not been to doctors or public schools, and had been generally confined to the house and yard, prosecutors said.
The children have been in foster care since their parents and Kaplan were arrested last summer.
Before any of them moved in with Kaplan, Savilla Stoltzfus and her husband, Daniel, agreed to promise their second-oldest daughter's hand in marriage to him when she was older; she was 9 at the time, Stoltzfus testified. Kaplan had quickly become close with the family, helped Daniel Stoltzfus run his business, and counseled the couple on their marriage, which had been shaky ever since Daniel had killed an infant son in a forklift accident.
Kaplan often stayed overnight in their Kirkwood, Lancaster County, home, and he began inviting the oldest and second-oldest girls to sleep in his bedroom. That was when he began making sexual contact with the oldest; she was 10, she said in court Wednesday.
And she was 12 the first time he had intercourse with her, she told the jury, younger than she had testified at a previous hearing. From then on, Kaplan had sex with her every few days, until the night before his arrest six years later.
After the family was evicted from the Lancaster County home in 2009, they lived for weeks in a campground and then moved among houses, eventually landing on a rental that had to be renovated to be habitable. Around that time, the two oldest daughters began staying with Kaplan. Eventually, others followed.
When the oldest became pregnant with Kaplan's child at age 14, they kept it a secret. No one in her family knew she was pregnant until she went into labor, she testified. Savilla went to Kaplan's house and delivered the baby.
"We're familiar with him and his ways, and we understand that he's always motivated to follow the leading of God," she said. "We understood that … it was the right thing to do, or in God's leading."
Savilla Stoltzfus said she never thought about whether she had the power to stop Kaplan. After the birth, she moved in and soon became Kaplan's wife as well. She became jealous of her daughters, writing to her husband that Kaplan was forcing her to compete with them for his affection.
Last month, Savilla Stoltzfus pleaded guilty to child endangerment. Her husband pleaded no contest to the same charge.
Hyde argued that Stoltzfus was motivated to testify against Kaplan, reading a letter she wrote from prison in January saying she thought she would be given a deal if she provided evidence against Kaplan. Stoltzfus said she had not been promised anything for testifying.
Savilla Stoltzfus viewed sex and submission as wifely duties, and thus considered it natural that her daughters would be having intercourse with Kaplan if they were his wives.
The oldest daughter said she knew Kaplan would take her sisters into his bedroom, and that he told her they were his other wives.
"A woman is committed to a man and they're committed to each other for a lifetime," she said of marriage. She wasn't sure where she had learned that: "It's just, like, common sense."
The 19-year-old said that she loves and misses Kaplan, and that she preferred living in his home to her parents', which was filled with her siblings.
"I thought it was a good place for me," she said Wednesday afternoon. "I think it turned out really well."