I grew up where Dan and Ron Lafferty brutally murdered Brenda Lafferty and her 15-month old daughter Erica. Until last month, though, I hadn’t read John Krakauer’s account of the case, Under the Banner of Heaven. I didn’t even know the murders had taken place in my hometown. I was only 3 when the murders occurred and didn’t move into the town until 1990, so that might explain why I wasn’t aware. Then again, Ron’s second trial was held in 1996 right under my nose and my family knew one of the intended victims! I guess we were so distracted by the Monica Lewinsky scandal we didn’t have time to pay attention to events closer to home.
I guess what being raised Mormon in the area where the murders took place couldn’t do, Andrew Garfield could–and I finally listened to the book in anticipation of his role in the upcoming Hulu miniseries. So, a mere 19 years after its release, here I am to review it.
The book is not just a blow-by-blow account of the crime. It alternates between an account of the Lafferty brothers’ upbringing, beliefs, murder, and trial; background, interviews, and stories from FLDS communities; and LDS Church history events such as Joseph Smith and Brigham Young’s practice of polygamy, conflicts with the federal government, the Mountain Meadows Massacre, and the manifesto and its aftermath. So it is as much a Church history volume–albeit with a very distinct focus–as it is about the crime itself, and it also gives a lot of history and background on FLDS polygamous communities in Arizona, Utah, and Canada. I’m curious about how the miniseries will work because there really isn’t much “investigation” of the murders in the book; Brenda’s husband Allen Lafferty knew exactly who had committed the crime. The real mystery, I suppose, is how Dan and Ron–two men raised in a conservative but not a fundamentalist Mormon family, one of whom had been on the city council–came to commit such a crime and claim that it was God who told them so.
I’m not going into a detailed account of what’s in the book, or even the story. Since I listened instead of reading, I don’t have notes or quotes, but I wanted to highlight some of the interesting issues the book raised for me and thoughts about the upcoming miniseries. But I’ll give an overview and then some thoughts / discussion points after that. I don’t have a lot of conclusions–just jumping off points for other folks to share if they’ve read or are familiar with the story.
The very short version is that the Lafferty brothers were raised LDS in Utah County. They were from a conservative family and from an early age had significant distrust for the government, which distrust grew over time–eventually, they claimed they were not subject to government authority at all and stopped paying taxes (including sales tax in stores …) and obeying laws.
They also started to embrace Mormon fundamentalism and polygamy after reading about it in a historical pamphlet in the BYU library. Dan was excommunicated in 1982 when he tried to marry his 14-year old stepdaughter as a second wife, and Ron’s wife left him when he tried to get her to practice polygamy. Ron blamed three people for his wife’s departure: his wife’s friend, the stake president who had excommunicated him, and his brother Allen’s wife Brenda. In 1984, as part of the “School of the Prophets” they had joined, Ron claimed to receive a revelation he called the “removal revelation” that required him to murder those three individuals:
“Thus saith the Lord unto my servants the prophets. It is my will and commandment that ye remove the following individuals in order that my work might go forward. For they have truly become obstacles in my path and I will not allow my work to be stopped. First thy brother’s wife Brenda and her baby, then Chloe Low and then Richard Stowe. And it is my will that they be removed in rapid succession.”Ron Lafferty’s “Removal Revelation”
On July 24, 1984, Ron and Dan carried out this revelation and brutally murdered Brenda and her toddler daughter. They did not find Chloe Low at home, and felt “guided” not to murder Richard Stowe and instead to flee to Reno. After a few weeks in hiding, they were found and arrested.
Dan Lafferty represented himself during his trial. He was found guilty and sentenced to two life sentences without the possibility of parole. Some observers believe he was spared the death penalty because he manipulated one of the jurors. At least at the time the book was written, Dan was cellmates with Mark Hofmann. He has expressed no remorse whatsoever for his crime and continues to assert that God told him to do it.
Ron Lafferty was also found guilty but was sentenced to the death penalty. After numerous appeals, his conviction was reversed. He was re-tried in 1996 after lengthy proceedings to determine his competency to stand trial. He was again sentenced to death, but he died of natural causes in 2019 and was not executed.
Violence and fundamentalism in LDS culture: For me, the biggest question posed by the book is to what extent the Lafferty brothers and their beliefs stem from issues coded into the LDS Church’s DNA and to what extent can it be blamed on other factors. Is the Lafferty brand of fundamentalism different in kind or merely by degree from historical and even contemporary mainstream LDS Church teachings? While listening, I thought a lot about how distrust of the government, violence, paranoia, and polygamy are in embedded our Church DNA. The Lafferty brothers took that to an extreme … but where do we still see those strains today?
I also think this story reinforces the danger of believing that God would ever command a person to kill. We’ve had discussions about Nephi killing Laban and Abraham and Isaac, and one thing I keep coming back to is that if it’s not OK for everyone, it’s not OK for anyone. Holding space for the possibility that God would command a murder is holding space for something like what the Laffertys did, and I’m not convinced it’s different. Saying “their revelation wasn’t true, Nephi’s was” doesn’t work for me–how do we know? Several people were convinced by Ron’s “removal revelation.” Which leads to my next point …
The reliability of following the spirit. Probably the most disturbing part of the book for me was listening to Dan describe the day of the murders. He repeatedly referred to ways that he felt calm, clear-headed, and was inspired to do one thing or another. He is absolutely convinced that the spirit commanded him to commit the murders, and the way he described the “promptings” is basically exactly the same way you might describe the spirit prompting you to take some bread to a neighbor or make any other kind of choice. Or the way, perhaps, that Dallin Oaks “knows” that God hates gay marriage.
So again, without a baseline of acceptable behavior and morals and values, I think the idea of “personal revelation” can be pretty sticky. Now, I know one can say that this doesn’t count because their revelation would contradict what the prophets say. But I don’t really think that addresses the fundamental problem of teaching people to rely on feelings AND justifying times when people relied on feelings to hurt other people.
Another interesting point here is the discussion of Ron’s insanity defense. Ron’s lawyers consistently argued that because he truly believed God had told him to kill someone, and he had a different perception of reality than others based on his religious beliefs, he was not competent to stand trial. The prosecution countered that religious folks believe TONS of stuff that isn’t provable scientifically, so to say that can constitute a mental illness is definitely a slippery slope. Ultimately, the argument that prevailed was that Ron may have had religious beliefs that he’s chosen to accept but he was capable of understanding and interacting with reality (unlike a schizophrenic who is completely disconnected from reality, non-affective, and can’t really carry on a conversation).
White washing Church history: This theme comes out in a number of ways for me. First, even though I am pretty well-versed in Church history, I was still shocked at some of the quotes and events (especially the description of Mountain Meadows). If I had read this book 3 years ago, I would have been BEYOND shocked. I do think the author is hyperbolic in places and draws inferences that not all people would draw. I didn’t love how he constantly referred to outsiders as “gentiles” (as though that’s how Mormons talk, when I don’t know any mainstream LDS folks who talk that way). I also felt he was unfair and sensational in his treatment of the Elizabeth Smart story (not that he got facts wrong, but the way he used and spun some of them, and focused so much on how rich her family is). So that gives me some healthy skepticism for his narrative. Overall, though, the book is reasonably accurate and many of the stories and quotes are honestly shocking even to someone who’s seen a lot.
Second, I’ve been thinking about how I barely even knew this story. The Church seems to have done a very good job of distancing itself from the Laffertys and the murders (and, in fairness, it had in fact excommunicated the two prior to the murders), and I think there is shockingly little information about them and their connection to the LDS Church online apart from the book.
Temple ceremony: This thought isn’t about the book, but the upcoming miniseries. Word has it that the 1980’s version of the temple endowment is going to be shown pretty much word for word in the series. Obviously, for a lot of LDS folks, that’s a dealbreaker – they won’t be watching. I had originally assumed that the ceremony would have some relevance to the murders and so would be important context to understand where the Lafferty brothers were coming from and getting their ideas / inspiration. In the book, however, the temple is basically never mentioned. No talk of the endowment ceremony and no connection between it and the Lafferty beliefs, radicalization, or the murders. So, now I’m wondering about the relevance, though I do plan to watch and I guess will have to report back.
Polygamy: Obviously, this is something that came up a lot – and in particular times when the government has tried (but failed) to intervene in fundamentalists communities, and times when the government has ignored pleas for help. At one point, the author compares the response to the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping to a similar situation where a young girl was forced to marry against her will. In the second case, though, because the girl grew up in the polygamous community, the government accepted the community’s argument that she was with her “family” and didn’t do anything. I think for many years I was in the “live and let live” camp where I didn’t know that it made sense for the government to intervene much. But hearing more about the sexual abuse, incest, and coercion, I don’t feel that way anymore.
Lindsey Hansen Park talks a lot about how our embarrassment about polygamy and desire to distance ourselves from FLDS groups has caused mainstream Mormons to mostly want to ignore places where it is happening. Given our shared heritage and similarities in teachings, though, she argues we should not ignore it (and I agree).
- Have you read the book? Are you planning to watch the miniseries?
- Did you know much about the Lafferty case? Do you think this is something Mormons should be more aware of?
- Do you think Lafferty fundamentalism is different in kind or just by degree from mainstream LDS teachings? How would you distinguish them (or argue that they aren’t that distinguishable)?
- Any responses to some of the themes / issues pointed out above? What about themes or issue I’ve not covered here?