Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, page 20
After their contretemps with the School of the Prophets in April 1984 but before leaving Utah on their road trip, Ron and Dan had paid a visit to the directors of the Dream Mine in order to discuss the City of Refuge they intended to build near the mine entrance. This was their second visit to the directors: a couple of months earlier, Dan had offered to donate the labor of all six Lafferty brothers to help extract the gold everybody knew was close at hand, in order to finance the City of Refuge, but the managers of the mine had politely declined the offer. This time, Ron and Dan dispensed with all niceties and flat-out demanded that the directors turn over management of the mine to them; if they refused, Ron warned, the directors “would feel the hand of the Lord.” Ignoring the threat of divine retribution, the mine managers declined this offer as well, albeit less politely this time around.
Despite being rebuffed in their efforts to take control of the Dream Mine and being expelled from the School of the Prophets, Ron and Dan remained excited about building the City of Refuge on Onias's property below the mine. Toward this end, during their road trip they sought out a number of preeminent polygamists across the West and attempted to enlist their support for the project—among them John W. Bryant, the self-proclaimed prophet Ron had visited the previous December. After leaving Wichita at the beginning of July, Ron, Dan, and Ricky Knapp steered the Impala west, aiming for Bryant's commune amid the tall fir trees and lush berry farms of Oregon's Willamette Valley.
Upon their arrival there, Ron electrified Bryant's followers with an impromptu sermon about the City of Refuge and the role it would play during the Last Days. According to one of these postulants, Laurene Grant, Ron “just had so much to love. Everyone picked up on it. Everyone just started to bubble.” Grant, a mother of four children, was also impressed with Dan, who used his chiropractic skills to treat members of the commune. She compared Dan to Christ, saying, “He was just so gentle and so loving.”
By the time the Laffertys bid farewell to Bryant's group and the damp charms of the Pacific Northwest, Dan had taken Grant as his third wife. The newlyweds and her two youngest children drove away together in Grant's car, while Ron, her two older sons, and Knapp departed in the Impala. They agreed to meet in two weeks, at the Confederated States of the Exiled Nation of Israel—the Utah compound of Alex Joseph, one of America's best-known polygamists. Joseph, six or seven of his wives, and their many children lived in Big Water, a faded desert settlement near the southwestern end of Lake Powell, the second-largest reservoir in the nation.* Big Water happened to be not terribly far from Colorado City, the stronghold of Uncle Roy's Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints—the most populous polygamist sect in the nation.
Ron, Ricky Knapp, and Grant's older boys drove south on Interstate 5 into California. While they were making a bathroom stop at a rest area outside of Sacramento, the youngsters struck up a conversation with a twenty-three-year-old drifter and petty thief from New Mexico named Chip Carnes. The brakes had failed on his run-down car, and after the boys introduced him to Ron, Ron offered to help Carnes get the vehicle to a repair shop in Sacramento.
Strapping a spare tire to the rear bumper of the Impala, Ron instructed Carnes to drive with the nose of his car pushed tight against the tire, so that Ron could use the Impala's brakes to slow Carnes's vehicle when they needed to come to a stop. By this sketchy but ultimately effective method they got the brakeless machine to a mechanic's shop in Sacramento. As it turned out, though, Carnes didn't have enough money to get the old beater repaired. So he sold the car to the mechanic on the spot, contributed the modest proceeds to the Impala's gasoline fund, and climbed into the green station wagon with Ron, Knapp, and Grant's kids, all bound for southern Utah to hook up with Dan and his latest wife.
Dan and Laurene Grant got to Big Water first. By this point, after approximately a week of marriage, the newlyweds were no longer getting along so well, prompting Grant to ask Dan for a “writ of divorcement.” Dan complied, and then, even before Ron showed up, he stuck out his thumb and hitchhiked back to Utah County, leaving Grant at Alex Joseph's place to await the arrival of Ron and her two oldest children.
Ron and his four passengers rolled up in the Impala just after Dan left. They stayed in Big Water only overnight, but while they were there Ron shared his removal revelation with Alex Joseph. According to Chip Carnes, who was eavesdropping, “They were discussing Ron coming back to Utah and collecting up his guns and going on a shooting spree.” Joseph, Carnes recalled, tried to talk Ron out of it.
Dan, meanwhile, had gone to see his second wife, Ann Randak, in Spanish Fork Canyon. After spending a day and a night with her, on July 23 Dan kissed her good-bye and went to Orem to visit his original wife, Matilda, and their children; it was the first birthday of his youngest child, a son. Dan had scarcely seen the boy in the months since he was born—and although he didn't realize it at the time, he would never see him again after this encounter.
Dan's visit with Matilda and his kids was brief: that afternoon he bid them farewell and went to his mother's home in Provo to meet Ron, who had driven there after leaving Big Water. Ron, Dan, Knapp, and Carnes spent the rest of the day at Claudine Lafferty's house doing laundry and tuning up the Impala's engine. They also discussed their plans for the following day.
The next day, July 24, was Pioneer Day.* Earlier, Dan, Knapp, and Carnes had talked about driving up the freeway to Salt Lake City to watch the parade and participate in the celebrations. But at some point on Monday, July 23, according to Dan, “God spoke to Ron and told him we needed to go somewhere else instead. He told Ron that the next day was ‘The Day.' ”
On Monday evening, the four men sat at Claudine Lafferty's dining room table while Ron and Dan conferred about the removal revelation. As the brothers talked, Claudine sat on a nearby sofa, knitting. Although she listened intently to their conversation, she said nothing. According to Carnes's testimony in court,
Ron was discussing things from the Bible. He was talking about a revelation that he had received. In that revelation he . . . claimed that he was told that he had to eliminate some people. I heard the name Brenda mentioned once, and I heard something about a baby mentioned once.
As they hashed out the finer points of the revelation, Dan wondered whether it was really necessary to cut the throats of the four individuals slated for removal, as Ron had been instructed in one of his revelations. “He asked Ron how come he couldn't just go in and shoot them,” Carnes said. “Ron replied that it was the Lord's command that they—that their throats be slashed.”
Betty Wright McEntire heard all of this for the first time when, twelve years later, she listened to Carnes testify from the witness stand of the Fourth District Court in Provo. And when she learned that Claudine Lafferty had been sitting right there, quietly listening as her two oldest sons discussed the imminent murder of her daughter-in-law and baby granddaughter, Betty was stunned. “How could someone hear what they were planning and not do anything to warn Brenda?” she asks. “I just can't understand it.”
July 19 had been Brenda Lafferty's twenty-fourth birthday. Betty had volunteered to drive down to American Fork and take care of baby Erica so that Brenda and Allen could go out for a night on the town. Betty was really looking forward to seeing both Brenda and Erica. The baby, now almost fifteen months old, had just started to say her first intelligible words.
Allen and Brenda “went up to Salt Lake for dinner,” Betty says. “I was so excited for her to come home, because I was about to get married and I wanted to show her pictures of the wedding dress I had picked out, and to talk about wedding stuff. But when they got home from dinner it was obvious she and Allen had had a fight. I could tell she had been crying. I was really disappointed, but I knew that I should leave. I had given her a music box for her birthday. I remember she wound it up and put it on the TV stand, and we listened to it for a minute, then I kissed the baby good-bye and left. That was the last time I ever saw my sister.”
Ron replied that Erica was a “child of perdition” and therefore needed to be removed. In any case, Ron added, not only had God specifically named the baby in His commandment, but after Brenda was killed, the baby wouldn't have a mother, so it would in fact be a blessing if Erica were removed along with her mom.
When the station wagon was loaded, the four men climbed in, with Dan at the wheel, and drove over to Mark Lafferty's farm to pick up another weapon, a 20-gauge shotgun, which Dan had loaned to Mark a few years earlier. Mark handed the gun to Ron, and as he did so he asked, skeptically, “What are you going to do with that?”
“I'm going hunting,” Ron said.
Knowing that no game was in season, Mark countered, “What are you going to hunt?”
“Any fucking thing,” Ron answered, “that gets in my way.”
Ron, Dan, Knapp, and Carnes then drove off in the Impala to shoot the guns at a nearby gravel quarry; Ron wanted to “sight them in,” which involved shooting at cans and then adjusting each weapon's sights to ensure its accuracy at a given distance. When they got to the quarry and started firing, however, they discovered that they'd brought the wrong ammunition for the deer rifle: it had a .270-caliber bore, but the only shells they had were .243 caliber, too small to be fired in that particular weapon. They decided to go back to Mark's house and see if he knew where Ron's .243-caliber rifle was.
When they got to Mark's, Carnes recalls, “Ron hollered out the window and asked if he had the .243. Mark replied and said, ‘No, I think it's at Allen's house.' ”
Around 1:30 in the afternoon, Dan eased the Impala into Allen's driveway in front of the brick duplex he and Brenda rented on a quiet street in American Fork, twenty minutes up the freeway from Provo. Ron stepped out of the car and went to the door alone. The foot-long section of gun barrel that Dan had sawed off the shotgun earlier in the day, which Ron now intended to use as a club, was hidden up his right sleeve. A ten-inch boning knife, as sharp as a scalpel, was tucked into his left boot.
Ron opened the screen door and “knocked loudly, for a long time,” says Dan. “I knew he was anticipating taking the lives of Erica and Brenda right then and there. So I was out there in the car, praying: ‘I hope this is what you intended, God, because if it ain't, you better do something right now!' And then nothing happened. No one answered the door. After a few minutes Ron turned around and came back to the car, quite puzzled, and kind of shrugged his shoulders. I had a real happy feeling then, because I thought the whole thing had just been a test of faith—like when God tested Abraham—and Ron had just passed the test. I thought, ‘Oh thank you, God!' And then I started the car and drove away.
“Ron was sitting in the passenger's seat looking kind of befuddled. He was the one who kind of always told the rest of us where we were going, what to do next. I had driven about a block and a half away from the house when I was suddenly overcome by a weird feeling. It was like this thing I once saw on the TV news: a guy was about to get on an airplane, but when he got to the door he turned around and walked away. And then the plane crashed. They interviewed the guy and asked him why he hadn't gotten on the plane. ‘I can't explain it,' he told them. ‘I just felt like I shouldn't.' Well, that's what it was like for me as I drove away from Allen's. I had this strong feeling that I should turn the car around, so I did, and I knew I was going back to the apartment—although I didn't know why, because nobody was home. The other guys in the car all asked me, ‘What are you doing?' I said, ‘I'm going back to Allen's, but I don't understand why.'
“A number of things went through my mind. By this point in time I'd had enough spiritual experiences, things that I considered miraculous, that I believed I was going back for a purpose. I thought, Well, maybe Ron wasn't supposed to do it. Maybe I'm going back because I'll be the one who is supposed to take care of this business for the Lord. I wasn't sure, but I just had a real comfortable feeling about what I was doing. At this point it was like someone had taken me by the hand, and was just leading me comfortably along.
“Ron asked me if I was sure about what I was doing. He said he didn't want me to do anything that he was unwilling to do himself. But I explained that I felt good about it. It felt right.”
Dan pulled into Allen's driveway again, walked up to the door, and knocked. This time, after only two or three knocks, Brenda opened it. Dan asked if Allen was home. She replied that he was at work. Dan asked if she knew whether the .243 deer rifle was in the apartment somewhere. Brenda said she was sure it wasn't there. Then Dan asked if he could use the phone. Losing her patience, she said, “No. You cannot come in and use the phone.” Dan protested that he only wanted to make a very brief call, but Brenda was apparently becoming increasingly suspicious and continued to refuse him entry.
At this point, Dan recalls, “I was kind of silently talking to God, and I asked, ‘What do I do now?' It felt comfortable to push past her and enter the house, so that's what I did.”
According to Chip Carnes, as soon as Dan forced his way into the apartment, the door slammed behind him, and “I heard what sounded like somebody hitting the floor. . . . And then I heard a vase break.”
When Dan pushed his way inside, he says, “I think it kind of unnerved Brenda. She made a very interesting comment, rather prophetic. She said, ‘I knew you were going to do something that nobody could stop.' Then she started apologizing for a whole bunch of stuff—for influencing Ron's wife, stuff like that. Then I thought to myself, ‘You are a bitch.' And I felt impressed to wrestle her to the ground. I crossed her arms, threw her onto her stomach, and sat on top of her, holding her wrists from behind.”
Outside the apartment, Carnes, Knapp, and Ron were still waiting in the Impala. Carnes turned to Knapp and said, “It's getting kind of noisy in there.”
“You're right,” Knapp replied, then said to Ron, “Maybe you ought to go help.” At which point Ron got out of the car and went to the door.
When he tried to enter, though, Dan had Brenda pinned on the floor against the door, so Ron “had to push his way in,” according to Carnes. “But as soon as Ron got inside the house, I heard Brenda saying, ‘I knew it was going to come to this.' And then I heard Ron calling her a bitch and a liar, and I heard what sounded like a pretty good fight, things breaking. And I heard Brenda screaming, ‘Don't hurt my baby! Please don't hurt my baby!' And Ron was still going on calling her a bitch and a liar. And she was saying she wouldn't lie anymore. And he just kept on beating her. You could hear a beating going on.
“And then I heard a baby crying, ‘Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!' And then after that everything just kind of got quiet.”
When Ron forced his way inside, says Dan, “He shut the door behind him and he asked, ‘What are you doing?' I said, ‘Well, I feel like I'm fulfilling the revelation now.' I was trying to whisper, because I didn't want Brenda to hear things that would make her uncomfortable. Then Ron said, ‘How are you going to do it?' So I asked him to give me a minute to pray about it. And I kind of said to myself, ‘What am I supposed to do, Lord?' Then I felt impressed that I was supposed to use a knife. That I was supposed to cut their throats. Ron asked, ‘What knife are you going to use?' I had a knife on my belt, and Ron had a butcher knife in his boot. I told him, ‘That butcher knife you purchased.' At which time he took the knife out of his boot and set it on the floor where I could reach it. Then he tried to knock Brenda unconscious with his fist.
“He hit her in the face, over and over again, until blood started
“That shut her up for a minute. So then she said, ‘I'll do anything you want.' And Ron said, ‘Okay, sit in the corner.' She leaned against the wall and started to slide down into the corner when Ron turned to me and said, ‘Let's get out of here.' I could tell he was very frightened. I told him, ‘You leave if you need to. I'll take care of what I feel I'm being led to do, then I'll be ready to go.' At that point Brenda must have realized what I was talking about, because she bolted past Ron and tried to leave. He didn't do anything to try and stop her. I had to jump around him and grab her from behind. She'd made it as far as the kitchen by that point, and was trying to reach the sliding glass doors out back. She'd gotten hold of the drapes, at which point I grabbed her by the hair and pulled her back, popping a number of the clips off the top of the drape. When I finally got my hands on her she fainted, and I just laid her down on the linoleum floor.
Other author's books:
- Into the WildInto Thin AirUnder the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith
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