Under the banner of heav.., p.31

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, page 31


Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith

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  After they found each other, Ron and Dan were standing outside the entrance to the casino, Dan says, “when this big guy named Bud staggered out and kind of puked a little by the curb, and when he did his wallet fell to the ground. . . . It was about the fattest wallet I've ever seen.” Instead of keeping it, Dan handed the wallet back to Bud, who in gratitude let the brothers sleep on his floor that night, then invited them to go water-skiing with him the next morning. They spent the day relaxing above the crystalline depths of Lake Tahoe, drinking beer and eating Bud's sandwiches. He bought them a big dinner in Truckee that evening, then drove them back to downtown Reno.

  For the next two weeks Ron and Dan hung around Sparks and Reno, riding back and forth on the free double-decker shuttle bus, subsisting on the promotional largesse of the gambling industry. They became acquainted with the driver of the shuttle, and he allowed the brothers to sleep in his bus each night, “which was a real blessing,” Dan says. After his final run in the evening, the driver would have Dan and Ron hide under the seats while he drove into a secure, fenced-in lot in downtown Reno, where he parked the bus overnight. According to Dan, “The long padded seats in the back of the bus were real nice for sleeping, considering the alternative.”

  Most days, Dan and Ron bided their time in the cavernous, air-conditioned chambers of the Peppermill Casino. Dan recalls that “the Peppermill had a big screen on which they showed the [Los Angeles] Olympics while we were there, and they also had coupons you could get each day if you had an I.D., which gave you a few chips to gamble with and a coupon for a plate of free nachos. I didn't have an I.D., but Ron did, and it was our plan to gamble with the free chips to make enough to buy food, which sometimes happened but usually didn't.”

  After they'd been in Reno a couple of days, the Laffertys were approached by “a strange man,” according to Dan, who “had a beard and rose-colored glasses so you couldn't see his eyes.” The fellow gave the brothers a reefer rolled from “some excellent weed,” asked them “a few strange questions,” then loaned Dan his I.D. card, enabling Dan to obtain free gambling chips and nachos. From that point on, Dan says, “we had at least two plates of nacho chips each day,” although that was often all they ate.

  “We were pretty hungry most of the time,” Dan concedes, “but just when we needed food, someone would offer us something to eat. One couple invited us to their place for a Saturday barbecue, and this kid who was fishing in the little creek that ran through Reno took us for soup and salad at one of the casino specials when we really needed it.” And every few days, the strange man in the psychedelic glasses “came by to see us and get us high and ask how we were doing.” Dan believes, even now, that this person was an angel sent by God to look after them.

  During their visit to Reno earlier that summer, Ron and Dan had made the acquaintance of a woman named Debbie who worked as a blackjack dealer at Circus Circus. She had befriended the brothers and let them crash on her floor; they'd returned the favor by baby-sitting her young child when she went to work. According to Dan, the brothers “had a rather curious miraculous experience while we were visiting with her”: Debbie had bought a puppy for her little boy, and the dog was quite sick with canine parvovirus—a disease much like distemper in cats, usually fatal. Dan placed his hands on the dog's head and gave it a blessing, he says, “and it appeared to be instantly healed. I remember how impressed Debbie was—I was, too, but tried to act like it was no big deal.”*

  When they returned to Reno after the murders, on the run, Ron suggested they stop by Circus Circus and look up Debbie again. Dan warned that he had written about Debbie in his journal—a journal he surmised was by then almost certainly in the possession of the police—so she was probably under surveillance. “If we go,” he assured Ron, “you know we will be arrested.”

  “As best I can recall,” Dan says, “Ron didn't really answer me, but just kept walking” toward the casino, where they assumed Debbie would be working her shift—and Dan figured the police would be waiting for them. “So,” Dan recalls, “I said, ‘If it's that time, that's cool.' ”

  The Lafferty brothers visited Circus Circus early on the afternoon of August 7, but they didn't see Debbie dealing cards at any of the blackjack tables. According to Dan, he inquired of Ron, “‘Should I go and ask for her?' which I knew would spring the trap.” Ron told him to go ahead and do it. When Dan approached a pit boss and asked to speak with Debbie, Dan says, “his eyes got big and he quickly disappeared.”

  At that point Ron and Dan strolled over to one of the casino's eateries and got in line for the lunch buffet. As they stood in the queue, Dan says, he could see men who appeared to be FBI agents “peeking around corners and stuff.” A moment later a swarm of police officers “rushed up from behind and put guns to our heads and said, ‘Don't move or we'll blow your brains out.' I just smiled. It was kind of fun.” Both Lafferty brothers surrendered without a fight and were placed in the Reno jail under extraordinary security.



  Critical examination of the lives and beliefs of gurus demonstrates that our psychiatric labels and our conceptions of what is or is not mental illness are woefully inadequate. How, for example, does one distinguish an unorthodox or bizarre faith from delusion? . . .

  Gurus are isolated people, dependent upon their disciples, with no possibility of being disciplined by a Church or criticized by contemporaries. They are above the law. The guru usurps the place of God. Whether gurus have suffered from manic-depressive illness, schizophrenia, or any other form of recognized, diagnosable mental illness is interesting but ultimately unimportant. What distinguishes gurus from more orthodox teachers is not their manic-depressive mood swings, not their thought disorders, not their delusional beliefs, not their hallucinatory visions, not their mystical states of ecstasy: it is their narcissism.*



  It's August 5, 2002, a Monday morning, and outside Utah's Fourth Judicial District Courthouse merchants and businessmen are striding purposefully to work in downtown Provo. Although it's still early in the day, the heat is already rising from the pavement in visible waves. Inside the courthouse, the clock on the wall shows 9:21 when the bailiff abruptly shouts, “All rise! The Honorable Steven Hansen presiding!” The murmur from the gallery subsides, and a moment later a side door swings open, through which sixty-one-year-old Ron Lafferty, attired in orange coveralls with UDC INMATE stenciled across the back, is hustled into the courtroom by four armed sheriff's deputies.

  Ron's reddish-brown hair, now streaked with gray and thinning across the crown, is neatly trimmed. Except for a bushy, Yosemite Sam mustache, he is clean-shaven. For the past few months, according to the prison grapevine, he has been obsessively lifting weights and working out; his bulging forearms and thick shoulders appear to confirm the rumor. Ron sits at the defense attorneys' table with his hands manacled awkwardly behind his back, staring defiantly at the judge.

  Looking edgy and hyperalert, the deputies guarding Ron are taking their responsibilities very seriously. The inmate in their custody has been sentenced to die for viciously murdering a young woman and her baby. They know that, at this point, he doesn't have a whole lot left to lose.

  “Good morning, Mr. Lafferty,” Judge Hansen says in a formal but amiable voice.

  “What's up, Stupid Stevie?” Ron fires back with an insolent sneer. The judge has started explaining to the inmate why he was summoned from death row to appear before the court this morning when Ron cuts him off: “I know what it's about, you fucking retard!”

  Unruffled, the judge informs Ron that a warrant for his imminent execution has been filed by the state and that he has thirty days to tell the court whether or not he intends to make a last-ditch challenge to his conviction and sentence; if not, an execution date will be set. Judge Hansen also tells Ron that the state will appoint new counsel to shepherd him through the remainder of the appeals process. Ron indicates that h
is first choice for a new attorney would be Ron Yengich, the lawyer who engineered the controversial plea bargain that spared the life of forger and murderer Mark Hofmann, Dan Lafferty's good friend and cell mate. Ron Lafferty then emphatically declares that he intends “to pursue any appeals that are available to me.” He makes it clear that he is going to fight the state's efforts to kill him all the way to the bitter end.

  More than seventeen years have passed since Ron was first sentenced in this same courthouse to be shot to death for murdering Brenda and Erica Lafferty, yet here he is, still belligerently among the living. His ongoing legal maneuvers ensure that the agony of Brenda's family is refreshed on a regular basis. “The trials dragging on and on have been hard,” admits LaRae Wright, Brenda's mother. “Some of our children have had quite a struggle. And my husband, especially. But that's just the way it goes. We're doing okay now. And we're glad that Brenda's in a better place, out of this cruel world.”

  “Brenda would be forty-two now,” says Betty Wright McEntire, Brenda's older sister. “We all still miss her a lot. When they had that first trial, the prosecutors asked us not to attend. They were worried about my dad. They didn't think he could handle it.”

  Immediately following the murders, detectives removed most of Brenda's possessions from the apartment she'd shared with Allen Lafferty, as evidence. “After the police had gone through it all, they put the things they didn't need for the investigation into a storage unit,” Betty says. “But Allen never paid the rental fee, so the storage company called, and my mother and I drove down to American Fork to take possession of Brenda's stuff. Eventually my dad started looking through it—her journals and scrapbooks and personal items. And that's when he fell apart. He just cried and cried.

  “Reading what she wrote in her journals, my dad started thinking, ‘Why didn't I do something to save her? Why didn't I get her out of there?' As her father, he thought he should have been able to protect her somehow, but he couldn't. And now his little girl was gone, and his first grandchild, too. I think he struggled with that for a long time.” Capital murder cases must inevitably proceed carefully and deliberately to avoid any chance of a wrongful execution. But the long, slow machinations of American jurisprudence have done little to ease the ongoing suffering of Brenda's father, mother, or siblings.

  During the original trial back in 1985, Ron's court-appointed attorney had attempted to mount an insanity defense, hoping for a manslaughter conviction rather than first-degree murder, but Ron had objected to such a stratagem, even though it stood a reasonable chance of saving him from the firing squad. He'd refused to allow any psychiatric testimony to be presented on his behalf. The judge on that occasion, J. Robert Bullock, was concerned that Ron might not fully comprehend the probable outcome of his refusal to consider an insanity defense, so he demanded, “You do understand, Mr. Lafferty, that you are probably leaving the jury with only two choices: to find you guilty of first-degree murder or not guilty?”

  “I do, your honor,” Ron answered.

  “And you understand that if there is a guilty verdict there will be a penalty hearing,” Judge Bullock asked further, “and at that hearing the jury could impose the death sentence?”

  “I understand that,” Ron replied, “but I can't in good conscience, Your Honor, plea-bargain. It seems to me that is an admission of guilty.” Ron remained resolute in insisting that he wasn't crazy, and he wasn't going to let his lawyer claim otherwise in order to negotiate the murder-one charges down to manslaughter.

  Hamstrung by Ron's obstinacy, his lawyer had to cancel plans to present several witnesses whose testimony would have made a strong case that the defendant was a religious kook. The only witness left for the defense to call was Ron's mother, Claudine Lafferty, who broke down and cried on the stand, then blatantly perjured herself by professing to be unaware that Ron and Dan had talked openly in her presence of killing her daughter-in-law and grandchild. It probably surprised nobody but Ron when the jury returned after deliberating for just two hours and forty-five minutes and announced that they had found him guilty of all charges, including two counts of first-degree murder.

  Following his conviction, Ron was given a new team of attorneys, who appealed to both the U.S. District Court and the Utah Supreme Court. Ron was rebuffed on each occasion, but his lawyers persisted. By 1991 his case had landed in the Tenth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, Colorado. And this court, in a ruling that shocked most of Utah, tossed out Ron's 1985 convictions. In vacating the findings of the state trial court, the Tenth Circuit declared that the lower court had bungled things right out of the gate by applying a faulty legal standard when it determined that Ron had been mentally competent to stand trial.

  Although the judges of the Tenth Circuit agreed that Ron understood the charges against him and their possible consequences, they concluded that “he was unable as a result of his paranoid delusional system to interpret them in a realistic way.” The bench was troubled by Ron's belief that because he answered to the laws of God, he need not answer to the laws of man. They thought this was a pretty clear indication that the guy was not in his right mind. If the state of Utah wanted to keep him locked up, the judges announced, it was going to have to try him again, from scratch, after first redetermining whether he was crazy or sane according to accepted legal criteria.

  The Tenth Circuit's ruling had a profound effect on Ron Lafferty and the families of his victims, obviously, but it potentially had even greater ramifications for the manner in which American courts would deal thereafter with violent crimes inspired by religious belief. As Utah Solicitor General Jan Graham explained, “We are concerned about what this decision means not only for the Lafferty case but for other cases.” She warned that it might set a precedent that would “immunize” religious fanatics from criminal prosecution.

  Theologians mulled other potential consequences of the Tenth Circuit's ruling, as well. As Peggy Fletcher Stack, a highly regarded religion writer for the Salt Lake Tribune, pointed out, “Saying that anyone who talks to God is crazy has enormous implications for the whole world of religion. It imposes a secular view of sanity and means that all religions are insane.” This issue was especially germane for Latter-day Saints, given the unusual importance Mormons have always placed on communicating directly with the Almighty. Their entire faith is based on talking to God.

  The state of Utah was not happy about having to toss out Ron Lafferty's conviction and give him a new trial, but it complied with the Tenth Circuit Court's edict—the first phase of which entailed rigorously reassessing Ron's mental competency. The upshot was a hearing in late 1992 wherein a trio of doctors, after examining Ron, convinced the Fourth District Court in Provo that he was not fit to stand trial.

  Having been found incompetent, Ron was transferred from death row at Point of the Mountain to the Utah State Hospital, but the state had no intention of abandoning its efforts to convict and execute him for murder. Following sixteen months of psychotherapy, which included putting Ron on a course of antidepressant and antipsychotic medications, another competency hearing was held in February 1994. This time around, the team of shrinks assembled by the prosecution proved more persuasive than the shrinks marshaled by the defense, and Judge Steven Hansen ruled that Ron was now sufficiently competent to be tried all over again for slaying Brenda and Erica Lafferty.

  After Ron and Dan had initially been arrested, each of them had made a point of being exceedingly uncooperative with the prosecution. When questioned about the murders, the brothers never failed to be coy and evasive. From the time of their arrest through their 1985 convictions, neither man would confess to anything. By the mid-1990s, however, Dan's attitude and outlook had changed. He accepted that he was going to spend the rest of his life behind bars—indeed, he believed that his conviction and imprisonment were crucial components of God's plan for mankind. As a consequence, Dan became quite willing—eager, even—to talk honestly and openly about exactly what had happened on July 24, 1984.
  According to Dan's version of events—a narrative considered quite credible, for the most part, by almost everyone who has heard it—he was the one who cut not only Erica Lafferty's throat but Brenda's throat as well. Dan insists that Ron didn't actually kill anybody. But even if Ron hadn't wielded the murder weapon, Dan's account clearly placed Ron inside the apartment when the killings happened. Furthermore, Dan now told—in sickening detail—how Ron had savagely beaten Brenda, ignoring her pleas for mercy, until her face had been transformed into a pulp of bloody, disfigured flesh. Dan's vivid testimony left no doubt that both brothers were equally culpable for the American Fork murders. Once the jury had an opportunity to hear Dan's testimony during the retrial, Ron would no longer be able to claim—as he had during his 1985 trial—that he'd known nothing about the murders.

  The retrial was scheduled to commence in March 1996. Ron's attorneys were left with just a single legal option in their attempt to save him from the firing squad: an insanity defense—the same defense they had wanted to use during the 1985 trial but Ron had forbidden them to employ. As the trial date approached, Ron continued to tell anyone who would listen that he wasn't the least bit crazy, but this time he stopped short of actively preventing his lawyers from arguing to the court that he was insane.

  Whether Ron lived or died would hinge entirely on whether a jury could be convinced that his religious beliefs—including his certainty that God had commanded the removal of Brenda and Erica Lafferty—were not only sincerely held but also so extreme as to be a delusional artifact of a diseased mind.

  Such a defense would unavoidably raise the same difficult epistemological questions that had come to the fore after the Tenth Circuit Court's ruling in 1991: if Ron Lafferty were deemed mentally ill because he obeyed the voice of his God, isn't everyone who believes in God and seeks guidance through prayer mentally ill as well? In a democratic republic that aspires to protect religious freedom, who should have the right to declare that one person's irrational beliefs are legitimate and commendable, while another person's are crazy? How can a society actively promote religious faith on one hand and condemn a man for zealously adhering to his faith on the other?


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