Under the banner of heav.., p.19

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, page 19


Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith

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  Ron had brought to that meeting a woman named Becky, whom he'd recently taken as a spiritual wife without benefit of a license or civil ceremony. The couple then went to Wichita, Kansas, for a honeymoon, so Ron wasn't present when the school met the next time, on March 29; nor was Dan. Watson showed up with a pearl-handled straight razor, however, which he asked the somewhat puzzled members to “dedicate as a religious instrument for destroying the wicked, like the sword of Laban.”

  “Of course we refused,” says Onias, who did not yet know about the removal revelation. Watson was angered by this rebuff, Onias remembers, and “left the meeting with a bad spirit.”

  Tensions between Onias and some of the Lafferty brothers—primarily Watson, Ron, and Dan—had been building for several weeks. Soon after he had been appointed bishop of the school, Ron had begun to openly challenge Onias's authority. Onias noticed a distinct change in Ron's personality, “from an extremely kind gentleman to a man full of hate and anger. In his position as bishop, he started to dictate to everyone, and would get angry if they didn't do what he said.” When Onias urged all members of the school to seek gainful employment in order to fund the construction of a “City of Refuge” below the Dream Mine, which was one of the school's priorities, Ron angrily criticized him, arguing that there was no need for anybody to get a job, because surely God would provide the school with sufficient wealth, through miraculous means, to complete their work.

  In one of Ron's revelations, God had, in fact, instructed him to send his brother Mark to Nevada to wager on a horse race to raise funds for the City of Refuge. With the Lord letting Mark know which mount to bet on, it seemed that they couldn't lose. But they did. Afterward, Onias couldn't resist telling the brothers, “I told you so,” causing relations between Ron and the prophet to deteriorate even further.

  Around Thanksgiving of 1983, when Ron had gone to Oregon to visit John Bryant's polygamist commune, he had been introduced to some new sensual experiences, including intoxicants. As part of their religious rituals, Bryant's group administered wine as a sacrament, and Ron partook with the others. Having been raised in a household that was strictly abstemious, this was his first experience with alcohol, and he found it quite agreeable. It gave him a nice, mellow feeling that “heightened his sense of the spirit.” Thereafter Ron described wine as “the gift of God.”

  Thus introduced to the pleasures of “strong drink” (as alcoholic beverages are negatively characterized in Section 89 of The Doctrine and Covenants), when Ron returned to Utah he insisted that the School of Prophets substitute wine for the juice or water they ordinarily served as a sacrament at the beginning of each meeting. This was another direct challenge to Onias's authority, and it provoked a dramatic confrontation during the meeting of March 9. On that occasion Ron continued to gulp down glasses of wine after the sacrament was offered, and was soon stinking drunk. He began to mock Onias, who had refused the wine and taken water instead. According to Onias, Ron “kept ridiculing me, saying that I was too old and slow and it was about time I was released. He did this very sarcastically and said that the Lafferty brothers should take over. He was supported by Dan and Watson.”

  It was in this atmosphere of growing rancor that Ron's removal revelation was put before the school for evaluation. During the meeting of April 5, he showed a copy of it to all the members and asked them to confirm its validity. The nine men who were present that evening earnestly discussed the revelation, then held a vote to determine its legitimacy as a divine commandment. “Ron, Dan, and Watson were in favor of accepting it as a valid revelation,” says Bernard Brady. “Everybody else said, ‘No way! Don't even consider it! Forget the whole thing!' At which point Ron, Dan, and Watson became really angry, got up, and walked out of the meeting, ending their association with the school.”

  The disagreement among the school's members that evening underscores the conundrum that inevitably confronts any prophet who encourages his acolytes to engage in dialogue with God: sooner or later, God is apt to command an acolyte to disobey the prophet. And to true believers—to zealots like Ron and Dan Lafferty—the word of God will trump the word of a mere prophet like Onias every time.

  Worried that Ron might actually attempt to carry out the removal revelation and murder the four named individuals, Brady formally registered his concern in an affidavit, which he signed and had notarized on April 9:


  KNOW ALL MEN BY THESE PRESENTS, that I, Bernard Brady, a Free and Natural Citizen of the United States of America, do hereby depose and say that I have reason to believe and fear that lives of the following ten people are in jeopardy: Robert Crossfield; Bernard Brady; David Olsen; David Coronado; Tim Lafferty; Mark Lafferty; Brenda Lafferty; Brenda Lafferty's baby daughter; Chloe Low; and Richard Stowe.

  I, Bernard Brady, do further depose and say that it is my belief that this jeopardy results from the thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, understanding, and potential actions of the following four individuals: Ron Lafferty; Dan Lafferty; Watson Lafferty; and Todd (last name unknown).

  Brady's concern was genuine and acute, but he didn't alert the police; nor did any other members of the School of the Prophets. Brady merely filed the affidavit in a desk drawer in his home, so that if Ron did kill anyone, Brady could prove that he was blameless.

  Neither did any of the school members—despite their alarm upon learning of the removal revelation—see fit to alert any of the people designated for removal. Later that month, however, Dan took it upon himself to inform his youngest brother, Allen, with whom he had always been especially close, that God had commanded the ritual murder of Brenda and their baby girl, Erica, and that Ron and Dan intended to see that the commandment was carried out.

  Allen expressed shock, then asked, “Why? Particularly why Erica, being an innocent child? Why would she be involved?”

  At which point Ron angrily cut in, “Because she would grow up to be a bitch, just like her mother!”

  Dan earnestly asked Allen what he thought of Ron's revelation. Allen replied that because he, personally, hadn't received any such revelation from God, he couldn't accept it; he said he would defend his wife and child with his life. But Allen never bothered to tell Brenda of his brothers' declared intent to murder her and their baby.

  Betty McEntire, Brenda's older sister, hasn't been able to reconcile the fact that Allen withheld this information. “If he had told Brenda about Ron's revelation,” Betty insists, “she would have been out of there in a minute, and she'd still be alive today. But Brenda didn't know anything about it. I can't understand why none of the people who did know about it never warned her. Especially Allen. It was like he was starting to succumb to his brothers.

  “Brenda loved Allen, and he showed over and over again that he wasn't worthy of her love. Your duty, as a husband, is to protect your wife and child, and he let them down. I think Allen learned about the revelation way back in April, yet he said nothing. I can't comprehend that. I can't forgive him for that. All these years later, I'm still terribly angry. That he betrayed her love. That he had the very best, and he just threw it away.”

  In May 1984, Ron and Dan left Utah in Ron's dilapidated Impala wagon and began an extended sojourn across most of the American West and into Canada, stopping along the way to call on various fundamentalist communities. Nobody in the School of the Prophets heard from Dan or Ron through all of June and most of July. “I felt a little better with them out of the area,” says Bernard Brady, “because they weren't going to be around to commit any murders. It seemed like the direction things were going, nobody had anything to worry about.”

  But early on the morning of July 25, the phone rang as Brady was getting ready to go to work. “It was Tim Lafferty,” says Brady, his voice breaking as he remembers the moment. “He said . . . um . . . he said, ‘Bernard, I've got some bad news. They carried out the revelation. Ron and Dan. They killed some people yesterday.' ” Brady covers his face with his hands, then continues. “My legs buckled. I c
ollapsed. I couldn't believe what I was hearing.”



  Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

  The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

  The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

  The best lack all conviction, while the worst

  Are full of passionate intensity.

  Surely some revelation is at hand;

  Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

  The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out

  When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

  Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert

  A shape with lion body and the head of a man,

  A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,

  Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it

  Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.*



  Even though Brenda was unaware of the removal revelation, she had plenty of other reasons to fear all the Laffertys, including Allen. And fear them she did, but that didn't deter her from standing up to the brothers on behalf of Dianna and the other wives.

  When Brenda disobeyed Allen, or her assertiveness embarrassed him in front of his brothers, he was apt to berate her with uncontrollable fury. Other times he vented his anger by beating her. One night toward the end of winter in 1984, Betty Wright McEntire was awakened after midnight by a frantic phone call from Brenda. “She told me to meet her at a McDonald's halfway between Salt Lake and American Fork, where she and Allen lived,” Betty remembers. “I asked what was wrong, and she goes, ‘I just need to talk to you.' So I got out of bed and drove down there.

  “When I got to the McDonald's she told me, ‘I'm leaving him.' I said, ‘What?! I had no idea things were that bad.' She said, ‘Well, I've been secretly saving some money, and I'm going to go live with Grandpa and Grandma in Montana. I'll get a job there and take care of the baby on my own.' ”

  But immediately after this meeting with her sister, Brenda changed her mind and stayed with Allen, which raises the question, Why? Especially after she had been so resolute in urging Dianna Lafferty to leave Ron. “How come Brenda didn't split? Because she loved Allen,” Betty explains, “and she wasn't one to quit. He was the father of her baby girl. She wanted it to work. She really thought she could save him from his brothers. She was a very determined woman.”

  Betty makes a painful confession, however. When Brenda confided to her at McDonald's under the cruel fluorescent glare that she was leaving Allen, Betty reflexively admonished, “But you can't! You're married now. If things are bad, you just need to work them out!” At the time, Betty says, she didn't have “a clue that he was beating her, and I didn't know any of the stuff about the School of the Prophets; we only learned about it after her death, when we read her journals. My mom and dad were always there for her, but she didn't tell us what was really going on. Because if there was any way my dad would have known, he would have driven down and taken her and the baby back to Idaho, where they would have been safe, no question.”

  One Sunday morning about two months after Brenda met Betty in the middle of the night at McDonald's, LaRae Wright, the women's mother, says she received a very disturbing phone call from Brenda: “She was in a panic. She said, ‘Things aren't going well with Allen. Can I come home?' We said, ‘Of course!' Well, then we didn't hear back from her, so I called her that evening and she said, ‘We've worked things out.' So she didn't come to Idaho, after all. I don't know what was going on, but she never came home.”

  By then, Ron and Dan were long gone from Provo and Utah County, driving around the West in Ron's Impala wagon on their impromptu pilgrimage to polygamist communities. “We traveled up into Canada, down through the western U.S., and across the Midwest,” Dan recalls. “As I look back at it now, it was an important trip for me because I got to know my brother for the first time, really. Until then, I never knew Ron all that well. He's six years older than me. We were never that close as kids. We all looked up to him, and I wanted to be close to him, but we just didn't have the opportunity.”

  Day after day, taking turns at the wheel, Ron and Dan rolled across the continent in the old Chevrolet. At times they would drive for hours without speaking, simply gazing up at the massive thunderheads that boiled forty thousand feet into the afternoon sky, transforming the plains into a vast, shifting checkerboard of shadow and dazzling sunlight. More often the brothers talked, and when they did it was with passionate intensity. Usually the topic of conversation was the removal revelation.

  In the revelation's second sentence, God had told Ron, “It is My will and commandment that ye remove the following individuals in order that My work might go forward.” Brenda and Erica Lafferty, Chloe Low, and Richard Stowe needed to be killed, God said, because “they have truly become obstacles in My path and I will not allow My work to be stopped.” Understanding “My work” to mean building the City of Refuge, Ron began to tell Dan of “a great slaughter that was to take place” before the construction could commence.

  Sitting in a small cinder-block room deep in the bowels of the maximum-security unit at Point of the Mountain, Dan tilts his head back and gazes blankly at the ceiling, letting details from that eventful summer bubble back up into his consciousness. The road trip stretched into weeks, then months, and as the length of the trip increased, Dan remembers, “I noticed my brother getting more and more agitated—it seemed like he was becoming more bloodthirsty, really. He started saying things like, ‘It's gonna happen soon.' And eventually he began to focus on a particular date that the removals should be carried out. After a while he said, ‘I think the twenty-fourth of July is when it's going to happen.'

  “As I observed Ron going through these changes—and the things he was saying were really freaking me out—all I could do was pray. I asked God, ‘Look, you know I will do whatever you want me to do. Should I stay with my brother and carry this thing out? Or should I separate from him and have nothing more to do with this?' But the answer I got was to stay with Ron.”

  A few times during their trip, Ron and Dan decided to separate for a week or two. At one point Ron hopped a freight train east, while Dan took the Impala and kept to a different itinerary. Dan arrived at their rendezvous site in Wichita, Kansas, in mid-June, several days before Ron. While he waited for his brother to show up, he got a job as a day laborer through the local employment office, tearing down an old bank. During his brief tenure on this project, Dan met a twenty-four-year-old named Ricky Knapp who was wielding a shovel on the same demolition crew.

  According to Dan, he and Knapp “became good friends. He had just gotten out of jail, and we had some good conversations. And I really liked him.” After his release, Knapp had found himself without a roof over his head, so Dan invited Knapp to stay with him in the back of the Impala, and Knapp accepted. When Ron arrived in Wichita soon thereafter, Knapp decided to join the brothers for the remainder of their road trip.

  Knapp had an associate who was a small-time marijuana farmer. One afternoon before they left Wichita, Knapp took Dan to a field outside of town where this farmer had thrown away the “shake” from his most recent harvest—the leaves and stems discarded after the resinous buds had been trimmed and packaged for sale. Knapp and Dan filled a grocery bag with this poor-grade weed and stashed it in the Impala. It was foul stuff, Dan recalls, “but you could get a low-level buzz after smoking four or five big joints.”

  This wasn't the first time Dan had smoked marijuana; he had actually been introduced to it fifteen years earlier. Ironically, it was the “Word of Wisdom”—Section 89 of The Doctrine and Covenants, famously prohibiting Mormons from using tobacco and “strong drink”—that had first aroused Dan's curiosity about pot. Specifically, his interest was piqued by verse 10 of the revelation, which reads, “Verily I say unto you, all wholesome herbs God hath ordained for the constitution, nature, and use of man.”

  Dan had o
ccasion to satisfy his curiosity in 1969 when he returned from his mission and took a construction job in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Among the folks he worked with, he says, were “a lot of people who smoked pot . . . and although I wouldn't try it myself, I was observant and analytical of them and their practices, and I asked a lot of questions, which soon gave me the impression that there was some big lie being perpetuated about this stuff.” Eventually a girl he had a crush on in Colorado convinced him to sample some high-potency dope, he remembers: “I was launched into my first orbit into the expanded universe inside my head.”

  Dan smoked pot a few more times during that period of his young adulthood, but he worried that he was committing a sin, and when he moved from Colorado back to Utah County he “repented and became a hundred and ten percent Mormon again.”* Dan didn't smoke any more marijuana until he met Ricky Knapp in the summer of 1984, at which point, he says, “I felt I was having my heart and mind opened to something much more mysterious and serious than I had ever imagined.” As he reflected on the various references to herbs in Joseph's published revelations, Dan became convinced that the prophet “must have come across some of the mind-expanding herbs.”

  Unlike Dan, Ron had never tried marijuana before Ricky Knapp entered their lives, but after hooking up with Dan and Knapp in Wichita, Ron was easily persuaded to smoke some of Knapp's low-grade cannabis. According to Dan, Ron thereby “got to feel what a mild high was like, and to experience the munchies. It was probably rather fortuitous [that the marijuana was so weak] because he was a little fearful at first, and later on, when we got good stuff to smoke, he tended to get pretty paranoid.” Paranoid or not, Ron quickly adopted Dan's view that marijuana enhanced one's “spiritual enlightenment.”

  When Dan became reacquainted with marijuana through his association with Knapp, he says that because he was no longer under the thumb of the LDS Church, “for the first time I was able to get high with a clear conscience, and perhaps that is why, rather than just experiencing ‘the gladdening of the heart,' I began to experience the ‘enlivening of the soul.' I began to have what I would call wonderful spiritual insights.” Getting baked, Dan observed, was “much like becoming a child and being introduced into a whole new world. . . . I've concluded that the scripture which says, ‘Unless you become like a little child, you can't see the Kingdom of Heaven' is another secret reference to getting high; as is also the mysterious account of Moses seeing God through the burning bush.”*


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