Last Thursday, officers from the Lower Southampton Police Department in Bucks County, Penn., were called to do a welfare check on a home on Old Street Road in the working-class township of Feasterville, less than 20 miles north of Philadelphia. Child services had received a tip from a neighbor who said she was concerned about the health and safety of the children she’d seen on the property.
The owner of that property, 51-year-old Lee Kaplan, had told neighbors he was childless – but lately they’d had reason to question that. Most of the time, the property was quiet, the yard unkempt and the weeds growing high and wild. The house’s windows were boarded up, shutting out the sun and any prying eyes. But every so often they’d see the girls. They all wore blue dresses and had fearful expressions, and there were at least seven or eight of them. People in town could tell something was wrong. The employees of the local hot dog shop, where he would sometimes take a few for a snack, got to calling them his “wives.” Early last week, a neighbor decided to act on her instincts after she realized an infant had joined the mysterious group of girls living next door.
Sure enough, police discovered twelve girls living inside the home, all between the ages of six months and 18 years. As they conducted their search, they “kept finding the children,” as one officer put it, hiding in various places throughout the house, including in a chicken coop and a basement filled with school materials, musical instruments, and an expansive train collection.
According to the criminal complaint, Kaplan informed the officers that he had sired the two youngest girls – ages six months and three years – with the eldest girl, 18, who he considered his wife. They quickly found the parents, Daniel and Savilla Stoltzfus, who admitted to giving her to Kaplan four years ago as a thank you for helping them out of some financial trouble.
But beyond essentially selling a 14-year-old girl to a man more than 30 years her senior, investigators have been trying to figure out why they gave him the other 9 children – whom they say are also theirs. Mounting evidence shows that Kaplan had some sort of cult-like grip on the entire Stoltzfus family. Bucks County District Attorney David Heckler has said said the Stoltzfuses have been “brainwashed,” noting that the 12 girls have had nothing but nice things to say about Kaplan. Even a 19-year-old Stoltzfus son told PennLive that he “stood behind” his parents and believed Kaplan to be a good man.
And according to the latest reports, it looks like Kaplan did his best to take care of the children. He seems to have home-schooled them, and kept up the house. “For as many people that were in that house, it wasn’t terrible,” one investigator told Philly.com, adding that the 18 year old also considers Kaplan to be her husband. “She loved him and still does,” he said.
The hold Kaplan has had over the family goes back over a decade, when the Stoltzfus family were still living in an Amish community in Lancaster County, Penn. – and according to relatives, Kaplan was at least partially to blame for Daniel, Savilla and their brood’s disconnection from the faith. Savilla’s sister Sarah told reporters that the instigating event for the family’s crisis of faith occurred in 2001, when the couple’s 14-month-old son died after Daniel accidentally backed over him with a forklift. The freak accident changed him, his sister-in-law Sarah told PennLive, and he began questioning his beliefs and defying the church.
Sarah and her husband had been especially close to her sister and brother-in-law back in those days. For many years, they lived across the street from each other; unable to have children herself, Sarah said she helped raise eight of the couple’s kids, who Savilla birthed at a rate of one every 13 months. “They shared the children with us,” Sarah said.
Then, in February 2003, Daniel went to an equipment sale in Erie, Penn., where he crossed paths with Lee Kaplan for the first time. Kaplan reportedly strode up to Stoltzfus and declared, “You’re the guy I’m looking for.” Daniel, it seems, was immediately dazzled, and Sarah told PennLive that she distinctly remembers him describing Kaplan as someone who was going “to live until the end of the world.” She found it strange, but wanted to be supportive of his new friendship and business relationship, as the two would often travel together. A few months later, however, Daniel announced that the family was leaving the faith, later explaining that the rules of the Amish church “were a God outside of our God.”
One anonymous family member told Lancaster Online that Daniel became a born-again Christian. After turning his back on his Amish faith, Daniel Stoltzfus began to distance his clan from the rest of the family and the Amish community. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through,” Sarah told PennLive of not being allowed to see the kids. She feared that her sister and brother-in-law, under Kaplan’s influence, was turning the children against her.
In 2009, Amish leaders filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania State Police alleging that Daniel Stoltzfus was holding his wife captive against her will; they also filed a report of child neglect with child services. The charges were determined to be unfounded, and the Stoltzfuses soon filed a lawsuit alleging that the church was slandering them and trying to break up their marriage and bankrupt their family because they wanted to leave the faith. Officially ousted from the Amish community, the Stoltzfus family moved around and eventually settled in Quarryville, Penn., becoming increasingly reclusive. According to neighbors, Savilla and the couple’s many children rarely went outside.
In 2012, Sarah saw the couple for the first time in years, and said she felt like they were trying to convert her – but to what she isn’t sure. “Daniel said he could read my mind, that he knew my thoughts through some spirit,” she told PennLive of his inexplicable new “faith.” “He seemed so sure that people were going to follow him. He seemed sure that the Amish church was going to fail to nothing. He was so negative about the church.”
It was around then that the Stolzfuses decided to give their then-14-year-old daughter to Kaplan as a way of paying him back for saving them from “financial ruin” when they were on the brink of losing their home and business. According to the criminal complaint, Daniel Stoltzfus told police that he did his due diligence beforehand. He Googled it to make to sure the “transaction” was legal.
Who knows what link Stoltzfus clicked on, or how the family’s indeterminate faith views sex between adults and minors, or what they imagined would happen when their daughter moved into Kaplan’s home. But the law in Pennsylvania is clear: Statutory sexual assault, a second degree felony, includes sexual intercourse with a child 15 or younger, when the defendant is at least four years older than the victim – and regardless of what the victim’s parents have to say about it. All three adults are being held on felony charges with bail set at $1 million.
Besides the 10 children living with Kaplan they claim to be theirs, the Stoltzfuses reportedly have a 19-year-old son named John living with two other young siblings at their home in Quarryville. John told PennLive that he stood by his parents and called Kaplan a “good friend.” The Stoltzfuses allegedly also have two older sons who were either kicked out of the home or left of their own free will. That would add up to 15 children, and it’s not clear if there may be more. For now, the 12 girls who were recovered from Kaplan’s home are in the care of social services, though Sarah says her door is open.
“I don’t know if the kids would remember us,” she told PennLive. “Their parents may have taught them to be strictly against us. I have a lot of fear that they wouldn’t accept us. But I would gladly take them all in.”