On a July afternoon in 1984, in the quiet town of American Fork, Utah, two brothers, Ron and Dan Lafferty, pulled up to their youngest brother’s duplex in a beat-up green station wagon. Inside the car, they carried a sawed-off shotgun, a Winchester rifle, a dear rifle, and two knives. Three months earlier, Ron had written down a message on yellow legal pad, rationalizing what was about to happen at the duplex. “Thus saith the Lord unto my servants the prophets,” he began. “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. ”
Inside the duplex, the two brothers found their divine obstacles, Brenda Lafferty, 24, and her infant daughter, Erica, 15 months. They used only the knives.
Conducting interviews for what would become the book Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent FaithJon Krakauer spoke to one of the imprisoned brothers years later. The one who held the knife that cut the throats of Brenda and the infant elaborated on Ron’s holy revelation. “You do not want to offend Him by refusing to do His work.” He spoke without remorse.
Published in 2003, Under the Banner of Heaven was an explosive book, garnering expected criticism and rebuke from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) –which labeled it “Not history” and called Krakauer “a storyteller who cuts corners to make the story sound good.”
While the Lafferty’s religious convictions were not affiliated with the Mormon Church (both were excommunicated by the LDS Church; Ron then formed a breakaway sect called the School of the Prophets), both their actions are, nevertheless, enmeshed in LDS Church history.
For Dustin Lance Black, who had already come out as gay and left the LDS Church upon publication of the book, reading the book was formative experience, a window into a faith under which he was raised, but about which remained unexamined. Years later, Black is now the creator of FX’s adaptation of the book, also titled Under the Banner of Heaven, and starring Andrew Garfield.
In a recent interview with The New York TimesBlack explained what he hoped to accomplish with the adaptation:
“The PR department of the Mormon Church has their response. But there are many Mormons who, I would be willing to bet, read Jon’s book and had that lightning strike to their heart of,” I’m going to listen to my doubt for a minute. ” That hurt is uncomfortable, but it’s a growing pain … To me, the television series attempts to do the same. ”
As for what the PR department had to say about the focus of the original story …
“The story of Ron and Dan Lafferty is a story that should be told, but told in a way that repeatedly emphasizes the vital distinctions between mainline Latter-day Saint believers and those who have gone beyond the mark, been severed from the faith, and violated the standards of both church and state. ”
How did things really unfold before and after publication?
Under the Banner of Heaven Tells the True Story of the Lafferty Brothers
The brothers grew up in a family of six boys and two girls in Payson, Arizona. Their father was strict and tempestuous and once beat the family dog to death with a baseball bat. The brothers grew up in the Mormon Church, but seemed to take extreme stances early on. Dan refused to pay taxes or follow traffic laws.
All six brothers soon began to rail against the LDS Church and the federal government, and Ron and Dan both believed themselves to be prophets.
Dan was excommunicated in 1982 after he tried to take his 14-year-old stepdaughter as a second wife. Ron, too, began having issues in his family. His wife left him after refusing to practice polygamy. He was also excommunicated from the Church.
One of the people Ron blamed for his wife’s departure was Brenda Lafferty, his brother Allen’s wife. She later prevented Allen from joining Ron and Dan’s new religious group, “School of the Prophets.”
Blaming Brenda both for his own divorce and growing rift between his brothers, Ron resolved to remove Brenda — writing a “removal revelation” in early 1984, the legal pad rant that claimed God had decreed Brenda’s killing.
In July, the brothers carried out the plan, also targeting Chloe Low, an LDS member and ally for Ron’s wife after the divorce, and Richard Stowe, and LDS member who presided over Ron’s excommunication.
Although Dan participated in the killings, Ron would later be given the harsher sentence for orchestrating the murders.
The brothers began with Brenda, entering her home, strangling her with a vacuum chord and then cutting her throat. Dan then went into the room of Brenda and Allen’s daughter, Erica, and cut her throat as well. She was 15-months old.
The brothers left the murder scene and then hitchhiked to the home of their next target, Low; she was not home. They got lost on route to Stowe and decided instead to head to Nevada.
The brothers were later arrested in Reno, Nevada, by the FBI.
After their arrest, Ron Lafferty attempted to hang himself in jail. He also attempted to kill Dan. After the attempts, the brothers were tried separately and were both convicted in 1985. Ron was given the death penalty. Dan was sentenced to life.
The Book Met Swift Condemnation From the Mormon Church
The Lafferty murders constitutes only half of Krakauer’s book; the other half tells the story of the LDS Church and Mormon religion. The juxtaposition of the brothers’ murder with the history of the faith proved especially odious for Church leaders, who immediately criticized Krakauer’s work.
In a lengthy rebuttal to some of the historical claims made in the book, the LDS church concluded, “although the book may appeal to gullible persons who rise to such bait as trout to a fly hook, serious readers who want to understand Latter-day Saints and their history need not waste their time on it. ”
Where are Ron and Dan Lafferty Now?
After an overturned conviction, Ron was sentenced again in 1996 and again given the death penalty. He spent 34 years on death row before dying of natural causes in November 2019. He was 78. His sanity was questioned repeatedly over the course of trials and appeals.
Dan Lafferty continues to serve out his life sentence in the Utah State Prison.
And What About Jeb Pyre? Is He Real?
While Black’s series depicts the real-life Lafferty murders, the device by which we experience the events, detective Jeb Pyre, is entirely Black’s creation.
“The character I play, Jeb Pyre, is an invention,” Garfield has said. Pyre exists to “help frame this very tragic true crime story.”
Garfield explained Pyre’s thematic purpose as well. “I think it is about ultimately the pursuit of the truth in the face of potential loss of one’s family, one’s social structure, one’s life.”
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