Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent FaithJon Krakauer
The Mormon Presence in North America
About the Author
Also by Jon Krakauer
We believe in honesty, morality, and purity; but when they enact tyrannical laws, forbidding us the free exercise of our religion, we cannot submit. God is greater than the United States, and when the Government conflicts with heaven, we will be ranged under the banner of heaven and against the Government…. Polygamy is a divine institution. It has been handed down direct from God. The United States cannot abolish it. No nation on earth can prevent it, nor all the nations of the earth combined, . . . I defy the United States; I will obey God.
JOHN TAYLOR (ON JANUARY 4, 1880),
PRESIDENT, PROPHET, SEER, AND REVELATOR,
CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST OF LATTER-DAY SAINTS
No Western nation is as religion-soaked as ours, where nine out of ten of us love God and are loved by him in return. That mutual passion centers our society and demands some understanding, if our doom-eager society is to be understood at all.
THE AMERICAN RELIGION
Almost everyone in Utah County has heard of the Lafferty boys. That's mostly a function of the lurid murders, of course, but the Lafferty surname had a certain prominence in the county even before Brenda and Erica Lafferty were killed. Watson Lafferty, the patriarch of the clan, was a chiropractor who ran a thriving practice out of his home in downtown Provo's historic quarter. He and his wife, Claudine, had six boys and two girls, in whom they instilled an unusually strong work ethic and intense devotion to the Mormon Church. The entire family was admired for its industriousness and probity.
Allen—the youngest of the Lafferty children, now in his mid-forties—works as a tile setter, a trade he has plied since he was a teenager. In the summer of 1984 he was living with his twenty-four-year-old wife and baby daughter in American Fork, a sleepy, white-bread suburb alongside the freeway that runs from Provo to Salt Lake City. Brenda, his spouse, was a onetime beauty queen recognized around town from her tenure as the anchor of a newsmagazine program on channel 11, the local PBS affiliate. Although she had abandoned her nascent broadcasting career to marry Allen and start a family, Brenda had lost none of the exuberance that had endeared her to television viewers. Warm and outgoing, she'd made a lasting impression.
On the morning of July 24, 1984, Allen left their small duplex apartment before the sun was up and drove eighty miles up the interstate to work at a construction site east of Ogden. During his lunch break he phoned Brenda, who chatted with him for a minute before putting their fifteen-month-old daughter, Erica, on the line. Erica gurgled a few words of baby talk; then Brenda told her husband everything was fine and said good-bye.
Allen arrived home around eight that evening, tired from the long workday. He walked up to the front door and was surprised to find it locked; they almost never locked their doors. He used his key to enter, and then was surprised again by the baseball game blaring from the television in the living room. Neither he nor Brenda liked baseball—they never watched it. After he'd turned off the TV, the apartment seemed preternaturally quiet to him, as though nobody was home. Allen figured Brenda had taken the baby and gone out. “I turned to go and see if maybe she was at the neighbors',” he explained later, “and I noticed some blood near the door on a light switch.” And then he saw Brenda in the kitchen, sprawled on the floor in a lake of blood.
Upon calling Brenda's name and getting no reply, he knelt beside her and put his hand on her shoulder. “I touched her,” he said, “and her body felt cool. . . . There was blood on her face and pretty much everywhere.” Allen reached for the kitchen phone, which was resting on the floor next to his wife, and dialed 911 before he realized there was no dial tone. The cord had been yanked from the wall. As he walked to their bedroom to try the extension in there, he glanced into the baby's room and saw Erica slumped over in her crib in an odd position, motionless. She was wearing nothing but a diaper, which was soaked with blood, as were the blankets surrounding her.
Allen hurried to the master bedroom only to find the phone in there out of order, as well, so he went next door to a neighbor's apartment, where he was finally able to call for help. He described the carnage to the 911 dispatcher, then called his mother.
While he waited for the police to show up, Allen returned to his apartment. “I went to Brenda and I prayed,” he said. “And then as I stood, I surveyed the situation a little more, and realized that there had been a grim struggle.” For the first time he noticed that the blood wasn't confined to the kitchen: it smeared the living room walls, the floor, the doors, the curtains. It was obvious to him who was responsible. He'd known the moment he'd first seen Brenda on the kitchen floor.
The cops took Allen down to the American Fork police station and grilled him throughout the night. They assumed he was the murderer; the husband usually is. By and by, however, Allen convinced them that the prime suspect was actually the oldest of his five brothers, Ron Lafferty. Ron had just returned to Utah County after spending most of the previous three months traveling around the West with another Lafferty brother, Dan. An APB went out for Ron's car, a pale green 1974 Impala station wagon with Utah plates.
The slayings appeared to be ritualistic, which drew uncommon attention from the news media and put the public on edge. By the next evening the Lafferty killings led news broadcasts across the state. On Thursday, July 26, a headline on the front page of the Salt Lake Tribune announced,
WIDESPREAD SEARCH UNDER WAY
FOR AMERICAN FORK MURDER SUSPECT
By Mike Gorrell, Tribune Staff Writer
And Ann Shields, Tribune Correspondent
AMERICAN FORK—Lawmen in Utah and surrounding states searched Wednesday for a former Highland, Utah County, city councilman and religious fundamentalist charged with the Tuesday murders of his sister-in-law and her 15-month-old baby.
Ronald Watson Lafferty, 42, no address available, was charged with two counts of capital homicide in the deaths of Brenda Wright Lafferty, 24, and her daughter, Erica Lane. . . .
American Fork police have not established a motive for the killings and have refused to comment on rumors that the suspect, an excommunicated member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was involved with either polygamist or fundamentalist religious sects and that those ties may have contributed to the killings. . . .
Neighbors expressed disbelief that “this sort of thing” could happen in their area.
“The whole town's in shock that such
a thing could happen in a nice quiet community like American Fork. People who said they had never locked their doors said they were going to now,” said one neighbor who asked not to be identified.
Ken Beck, a bishop in the American Fork LDS ward which Allen and Brenda Lafferty attended, said they were “a nice ordinary couple,” active in church affairs.
Immediately below this story, also on the front page, was an accompanying piece:
NEIGHBORS RECALL CHANGES IN MURDER SUSPECT, 42
Special to The Tribune
AMERICAN FORK—A determined man who evolved from an active Mormon and conservative Republican to a strict constitutionalist and excommunicated fundamentalist is how neighbors remember Ronald Watson Lafferty. . . .
Mr. Lafferty served on Highland's first City Council when the small northern Utah County town was incorporated in 1977. At the time, Mr. Lafferty successfully led a drive to outlaw beer sales in the town's only grocery store—where travelers to American Fork Canyon still can't buy beer.
“Two years ago, he looked clean, all-American, even in the mornings after milking the family cow,” said a neighbor who resides in an acre-lot subdivision filled with children, horses, goats, chickens and large garden plots where Mr. Lafferty once lived.
Last year he and his wife of several years divorced. Mr. Lafferty has not been seen in the neighborhood for a year.
Shortly after Christmas, Mrs. Diana Lafferty, described as “a pillar of the Mormon ward,” took the couple's six children out of state.
Neighbors said the divorce stemmed from differences of opinion on religion and politics.
“He talked about standing up for what was right—no matter the consequences,” said a neighbor.
Friends said Mr. Lafferty's political beliefs changed as well—or perhaps evolved—from conservative Republican to strict fundamentalism. During the 12 years he lived in Highland, he came to believe in a return to the gold standard, strict constitutionalism and obedience only to “righteous laws,” said a neighbor.
“He had a fervent desire to save the Constitution—and the country,” said a long-time friend. “It became a religious obsession.”
Detectives interviewed as many of Allen's siblings as they could locate, as well as his mother and various friends. As the front page of Saturday's Tribune revealed, the cops were beginning to piece together a motive for the brutal acts:
TWO MURDERS A RELIGIOUS REVELATION?
3 CHARGED IN SLASHING OF MOTHER AND INFANT
By Ann Shields
AMERICAN FORK—Two more men Friday were charged with first-degree murder in connection with the July 24 slaying of an American Fork woman and her 15-month-old daughter as police disclosed that the killings may have been part of a religious “revelation.”
Charged Friday with capital homicide were Dan Lafferty, age unavailable, Salem, a former candidate for Utah County sheriff and the victim's brother-in-law, and Richard M. Knapp, 24, formerly of Wichita, Kan.
Dan Lafferty's brother, Ronald Lafferty, 42, Highland, Utah County, was charged Wednesday with two counts of first-degree murder. . . .
Police Chief Randy Johnson . . . revealed Friday that the investigation into the murders has caused police to believe “. . . that Ron had a handwritten revelation which told him to commit this crime. If this document does exist it is a vital piece of evidence and we would like to see it.” He asked anyone with information regarding the document to contact the American Fork Police Department or the FBI. . . .
Chief Johnson said the men are believed to be armed and should be considered dangerous, particularly to law enforcement officials. . . .
Neighbors and friends of the suspects and victims noted that Ron Lafferty apparently was affiliated or had founded a polygamist or fundamentalist religious sect, causing speculation that the crimes may have resulted from a religious argument in the family.
On July 30, Ron's run-down Impala was spotted parked in front of a house in Cheyenne, Wyoming. When they raided the home, police didn't find the Lafferty brothers, but they did arrest Richard “Ricky” Knapp and Chip Carnes, two drifters who had been traveling around the West with the Laffertys since early summer. Information provided by Knapp and Carnes led authorities to Reno, Nevada, where, on August 7, the police arrested Ron and Dan as they stood in line for the buffet at the Circus Circus casino.
From jail, before their trial, the brothers launched an unpersuasive media campaign protesting their innocence. Ron insisted that the charges against them were false and that the Mormon Church, which “controlled everything in Utah,” would prevent his brother and him from receiving a fair trial. Although he confessed to believing in the righteousness of “plural marriage,” Ron said he had never practiced polygamy or belonged to an extremist sect. He then professed to love the Mormon Church, while at the same time warning that the current LDS leadership had strayed from the sacred doctrines of the religion's founding prophet, Joseph Smith.
Four days later Dan Lafferty issued a written statement to the media in which he declared that he and Ron were “not guilty of any of the crimes for which we have been accused,” adding that “the time is at hand when the true criminals will be made known.”
On December 29, five days before their trial was scheduled to begin in Provo, Lieutenant Jerry Scott, the commander of the Utah County Jail, took Dan from his cell to ask him some questions. When Dan returned, he found his older brother suspended by his neck from a towel rack in an adjacent cell, unconscious and no longer breathing; Ron had used a T-shirt to hang himself. “I pushed the intercom button and told them they better get down there,” Dan says. Lieutenant Scott arrived immediately but could detect no pulse in Ron. Although Scott and two other deputies administered mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and CPR, they were unable to revive him. By the time paramedics showed up, said Scott, the inmate “appeared dead.”
Despite the fact that Ron had stopped breathing for an estimated fifteen minutes, the paramedics eventually managed to get his heart beating again, and he was placed on a respirator in the intensive care unit of the Utah Valley Regional Medical Center. After remaining comatose for two days, he regained consciousness—an astonishing recovery that Dan attributes to divine intervention. Although the brothers were slated to be tried together three days after Ron emerged from his coma, Judge J. Robert Bullock ordered that Dan should be tried alone, as scheduled, allowing Ron time to recover and undergo extensive psychiatric evaluation to determine if he'd suffered brain damage.
The court appointed two attorneys to represent Dan, but he insisted on defending himself, relegating them to advisory roles. Five days after the trial began, the jury went into deliberation, and nine hours later found Dan guilty of two counts of first-degree murder. During the subsequent session to determine whether Dan should be put to death for his crimes, Dan assured the jurors, “If I was in your situation, I would impose the death penalty,” and promised not to appeal if they arrived at such a sentence.
“The judge freaked out when I said that,” Dan later explained. “He thought I was expressing a death wish, and warned the jury that they couldn't vote to execute me just because I had a death wish. But I just wanted them to feel free to follow their conscience. I didn't want them to worry or feel guilty about giving me a death sentence, if that's what they thought I deserved. I was willing to take a life for God, so it seemed to me that I should also be willing to give my own life for God. If God wanted me to be executed, I was fine with that.”
Ten jurors voted for death, but two others refused to go along with the majority. Because unanimity was required to impose a capital sentence, Dan's life was spared. According to the jury foreman, one of the jurors who balked at executing Dan was a woman whom he had manipulated through “eye-contact, smiles, and other charismatic, non verbal attachments and psycho-sexual seduction,” causing her to ignore both the evidence and the instructions provided by the judge. The foreman, aghast that Dan had thereby avoided a death sen
tence, was furious.
Dan says that he, too, “was a little disappointed that I wasn't executed, in a strange sense.”
Addressing the convicted prisoner with undisguised scorn, Judge Bullock reminded Dan that it was “man's law, which you disdain, that saved your life.” Then, his disgust getting the better of him, he added, “In my twelve years as a judge, I have never presided over a trial of such a cruel, heinous, pointless and senseless a crime as the murders of Brenda and Erica Lafferty. Nor have I seen an accused who had so little remorse or feeling.” This admonishment came from the same hardened judge who, in 1976, had presided over the notorious, history-making trial of Gary Mark Gilmore for the unprovoked murders of two young Mormons.* After telling the 1985 court that the jury had been unable to agree on a sentence of death, Judge Bullock turned to Dan and said, “I mean to see that every minute of [your] life is spent behind the bars of the Utah State Prison and I so order.” He sentenced Dan to two life terms.
Ron's trial began almost four months later, in April 1985, after a battery of psychiatrists and psychologists had determined that he was mentally competent. His court-appointed attorneys hoped to get the murder charges reduced to manslaughter by arguing that Ron was suffering from mental illness when he and Dan murdered Brenda Lafferty and her baby, but Ron refused to allow them to mount such a defense. “It seems it would be an admission of guilt,” he told Judge Bullock. “I'm not prepared to do that.”
Ron was convicted of first-degree murder, and on this occasion the jury did not balk at imposing capital punishment. They sentenced him to die, either by lethal injection or four bullets through the heart at close range. Ron chose the latter.
On January 15, 1985, immediately after Judge Bullock decreed that the remainder of Dan Lafferty's life would unfold in captivity, he was taken to the state prison at Point of the Mountain, near Draper, Utah, where a corrections officer cut his hair and sheared off his whiskers. That was nearly seventeen years ago, and Dan hasn't shaved or cut his hair since. His beard, wrapped with rubber bands into a stiff gray cable, now descends to his belly. His hair has gone white and fans across the back of his orange prison jumpsuit. Although he is fifty-four years old and crow's-feet furrow the corners of his eyes, there is something unmistakably boyish about his countenance. His skin is so pale it seems translucent.