Under the Banner of Heaven

 

 

 

 

On July 24, 1984, a woman and her infant daughter were murdered by two brothers who believed they were ordered to kill by God. The roots of their crime lie deep in the history of an American religion practiced by millions.

 

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Extreme and bizarre religious ideas are so commonplace in American history that it is difficult to speak of them as fringe at all. To speak of a fringe implies a mainstream, but in terms of numbers, perhaps the largest component of the religious spectrum in contemporary America remains what it has been since colonial times: a fundamentalist evangelicalism with powerful millenarian strands. The doomsday theme has never been far from the center of American religious thought. The nation has always had believers who responded to this threat by a determination to flee from the wrath to come, to separate themselves from the City of Destruction, even if that meant putting themselves at odds with the law and with their communities or families. . . .  We can throughout American history find select and separatist groups who looked to a prophetic individual claiming divine revelation, in a setting that repudiated conventional assumptions about property, family life, and sexuality. They were marginal groups, peculiar people, people set apart from the world: the Shakers and the Ephrata community, the communes of Oneida and Amana, the followers of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.

 

Philip Jenkins,
Mystics and Messiahs

 

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As a religious city-state under tight control, Nauvoo was a haven where the followers of Joseph Smith had their most important choices – what they should do to serve God – made for them . . . . and their identity as God’s chosen people was assured through him. . . .
    As is common in such situations, the threat of evil was projected onto others. . . . Hence, at Nauvoo the innocent children of God realized their identity through their struggle against the evil followers of Satan, who dominated American society everywhere except in the city of the Saints.
    The problem, of course, with this kind of dichotomous myth is that, for the people who hold it, guilt and innocence become matters of belief, not evidence.

 

John E. Hallwas and Roger D. Launius,
Cultures in Conflict

 

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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.

 

Anthony Storr,

Feet of Clay

 

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TWENTY–FOUR 

   (pp. 309-318) 

 

 

     THE GREAT AND DREADFUL DAY

 

 

 

CREIGHTON HORTON, UTAH ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL:

 

And, essentially, you say that Ron got a revelation indicating that

there were people that the Lord wanted to be killed, and you helped

him kill those people?

 

 

DAN LAFFERTY:

 

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that statement, saying

yes.

 

 

CREIGHTON HORTON:

 

You also indicated to our investigators that you weren’t ashamed to

be characterized as a religious fanatic?

 

 

DAN LAFFERTY:

 

No, I have no problem with that. *

 

 

 

* This exchange took place in the Provo Courthouse on April 2, 1996, with Dan Lafferty on the witness stand, during the retrial of Ron Lafferty.

 

 

In August 1995, during the endless rounds of motions and hearings that preceded Ron Lafferty’s retrial, there happened to be an occasion when both Dan and Ron were hauled into Judge Steven Hansen’s Provo courtroom at the same time. Their eyes met, and Ron offered a friendly greeting: “Hey, Bro, what’s happening?”

“Good to see you,” Dan replied with a smile. It was the first time the brothers had spoken to each other in eleven years, since they were confined together in the Utah County Jail. Despite the cordial exchange in Judge Hansen’s court, by 1995 Dan had come to believe that Ron was a “child of the devil”—an agent of Satan who was bound and determined to kill Dan in order to prevent him from fulfilling the rest of the vital mission God has given Dan to carry out.

Dan actually had good reason to believe that Ron wanted to end his life, because the last time they were together he had tried to do just that, and very nearly succeeded. It had happened in December 1984, five months after their murders, while they were sharing a cell in the Utah County Jail as they awaited trial. Dan was lying in his bunk trying to sleep, he remembers, when “I had a funny feeling and opened my eyes to catch Ron creeping up on me.” Discovered in the act, Ron stopped and went back to his own bunk. “But then,” Dan says, “curiously, he asked me if I thought he would be able to kill someone as big as me, and I answered, ‘Yes, I suppose so.'”  From that moment, Dan resolved to watch his back.

The rest of that night passed without incident. The next day, however, while Dan was standing in their cell, he says, Ron “blindsided me in the left temple with a roundhouse haymaker that stunned me but didn’t knock me out.” As Dan turned to face his attacker, Ron unleashed a flurry of blows, smashing Dan’s nose, loosening several of his teeth, and breaking a rib. Dan, who kept his hands by his sides and offered no resistance, says Ron didn’t stop beating him “until his hands hurt too bad to hit me anymore. There was blood all over the floor and walls.” At the time, Dan attributed the assault to problems Ron was having with “bad spirits.” 

After the beating, their jailers separated the brothers, placing them in adjoining cells. Not long thereafter, Ron handed Dan a piece of paper through the bars. Written on it was a revelation Ron said he’d just received, in which God commanded Dan to let Ron kill him. After praying for guidance, Dan says, “I felt that I should submit to what it said, and we discussed how it might be done. We thought the best way might be for me to back up to the bars and let him put a towel around my neck and choke me out.”

 

As soon as Dan agreed to let Ron kill him, he remembers, “I felt the urge to vacate my bowels,” which he interpreted as a further sign that the revelation was valid and should be followed. He understood that going to the commode was part of God’s meticulous plan, Dan says, so that “I wouldn’t make a mess when I died and my muscles relaxed—actually the bowel goes into spasm but the bladder muscles relax when you are throttled.” After finishing up his business on the toilet, Dan “said goodbye to Ron and anticipated seeing God as I backed up to the bars and Ron put a towel around my neck.”

Over on his side of the partition, Ron stood on one foot, braced the other foot against the bars, and then yanked the towel against Dan’s throat as hard as he could and held it there, cutting off the oxygen to Dan’s brain and bursting thousands of tiny blood vessels in his eyes. Just before Dan lost consciousness, he recalls, he experienced “a moment of desperation that was extremely intense. . . .  The next thing I remember was coming to on the floor of the cell and slowly recognizing my surroundings” as Ron tried “to explain why he hadn’t carried out the deed.”

It turns out that after Dan blacked out and went limp against the bars, Ron felt God telling him that if Dan took another breath it was a sign that he was supposed to live. When Ron saw Dan’s chest rise and his lungs fill a moment later, he let Dan drop to the floor. Dan’s eyes had turned bright red from all the ruptured blood vessels, and the skin had been scraped off the back of his neck by a horizontal bar, but he kept breathing and regained consciousness.

The next day, Dan says, “Ron started showing signs of torment even worse than he had before. He was pacing back and forth in his end of the cell, mumbling to himself that he would get one more chance and he would have to do it right this time. A couple of days later or so, he handed me another revelation that said I was supposed to let him kill me again, but when I prayed about it I didn’t feel like I was supposed to submit myself to let him do it again.” When Dan indicated that he wasn’t going to comply with the revelation this time, he says, Ron “seemed to get increasingly worse with his personal demons and his torment.”

Immediately thereafter, on December 29, Ron hung himself from a towel rack when Dan was taken away from his cell for questioning; Ron would certainly have died if Dan had returned to find him even a few minutes later. By the time paramedics got to Ron he wasn’t breathing and had no pulse. “His recovery in the hospital was rather miraculous, apparently, which caused a lot of talk,” Dan says. “I also wondered about it. . . . Now, these many years later, I believe I understand at least part of why things have happened the way they have.”

 

 

During Ron’s 1996 retrial, the state convinced a twelve-person jury that Ron wasn’t psychotic – that he was fully aware of what he was doing when he participated in the murders of Brenda and Erica Lafferty and was thus mentally competent to stand trial. “Is Ron crazy?” asks Utah Assistant Attorney General Michael Wims, six years after that conviction. “Yeah, sure, he’s crazy. Crazy like a fox.”
    Many Utahans share Wims’s view that Ron’s outbursts in court and his weird religious pronouncements were less than sincere. People think he was merely acting crazy to avoid a death sentence.  And they likewise speculate that Ron’s claims to have received revelations from God were a cynical attempt to manipulate and deceive. But almost nobody doubts the sincerity of his brother’s religious faith. Most folks in Utah regard Dan Lafferty’s theology as both preposterous and horrifying, but they concede that he seems to be a true believer.
    As it happens, what Dan believes today is not exactly what he believed when he killed Brenda and Erica. “After I arrived in the monastery – after I arrived here in prison – my beliefs went through this major evolution,” he says. No longer does he subscribe to the tenets of Mormon Fundamentalism. “I changed Gods,” he says. “I’d forsaken the LDS Church to go into fundamentalism, and now I’ve forsaken fundamentalism.” These days his theology is a disturbing potpourri assembled from the Old Testament, the New Testament, The Book of Mormon, fundamentalist scripture, and the hyperkinetic machinations of Dan’s own mind.

 

    “When you put your whole heart into a search for the truth,” Dan says, “in due course you start to see the contradictions in what you’ve been taught. You start to realize that something doesn’t feel right and doesn’t look right. Something starts to stink. . . . I used to refer to myself as a religious fanatic, but I realize I was kicked out of the LDS Church because I was really a truth fanatic. I have the need to resolve contradictions, which is what got me excommunicated.”
    All modern religions are fraudulent, Dan contends, not just the LDS Church. “Organized religion is hate masquerading as love. Which inevitably leads you back to the religion as it originally existed, before it was corrupted. It leads you to become a fundamentalist. You can see where the Church lost the answers by giving up its fundamental principles. So you find your beliefs evolving toward fundamentalism.
    “But then I found out that there weren’t answers in fundamentalism, either. You see some of the same contradictions. Fortunately for me, I saw this about the time I came here to the monastery. That’s when everything started to slowly distill and come together.”
    At the core of Dan’s transmogrified faith is his new-found conviction that he is Elijah, the biblical prophet known for his solitary ways and unyielding devotion to God.  And as Elijah, Dan is certain, it will be his job to announce the Second Coming of Christ in the Final Days. According to Dan, “In my role as Elijah, I’m like John the Baptist. Elijah means ‘forerunner,’ the one who prepares the way. John the Baptist prepared the way for the First Advent of Christ. I’m here to prepare the way for the return of the Son of Man.”

    Dan believes, as he did when he was a fundamentalist Mormon, that the most salient fact of existence is the immutable division of humankind into those who are inherently righteous and those who are inherently evil. “Some people were chosen to be children of God,” Dan explains, “and others became children of the devil. Either you’re a brother – a child of God – or an asshole – a child of the devil. And you can’t do anything to change it.

 

    “There are two fathers, God and the devil. And all the children of God possess something none of the children of the devil possess, which is the gift of love. The devil could not program love into his children because love is something he doesn’t possess or understand. It’s beyond his knowledge. All the children of the devil possess is greed, hatred, envy, and jealousy.”
    According to Dan, at a certain point Christ gathered all His children around Him and announced, “‘I want to have a party that’s gonna last for a thousand years. You interested? You want to party with Me on this earth for a thousand years?’ And we said, ‘Hell, yeah!’ So He said, ‘Okay, that’s the good part. Here’s the bad part: you can’t have something for nothing. . . . For six thousand years I’m gonna let the earth become hell before I turn it into heaven. And hell, by definition, is where the devil and his children are running shit. So what I’m gonna do is, I’m gonna let the devil populate the earth with all of his assholes, and then I’m gonna sprinkle you, My children, on the earth a few at a time. And every hour you spend in this hell-on-earth with the assholes, you’re going to be building up credits for the Big Party. It’s gonna take about six thousand years, but by then we’ll have all the credits we’ll need for our party. And then I’ll come, and we’ll harvest the earth – basically, we’ll remove all the assholes – and clear the dance floor for our thousand-year party.”
    “Christ told His children, ‘I know life is fucking crazy, but I’m here to tell you there’s a purpose behind it. We’re working for the Kingdom of God. And the way we do that is we just put in our time here. And every hour you put in here is building up credit for the Big Party. That’s the promise. That’s the covenant. It’s going to be crazy down there for a while, but in the end, through Elijah, I will come.’”
    The way Dan sees it, “Since we’re all here in hell-on-earth, where the devil and his children run everything that is organized, it makes sense that the children of the devil would trick us into worshiping their asshole god. But before the God of love makes the scene, it will be important somehow to help His children – the children of love – have their eyes opened to who this cool fucker is who will be coming to befriend them on the day known in the Bible as the ‘Great and Dreadful Day of the Lord’ (great for His children; dreadful for the assholes) – which is also known in the parable of the wheat and tares as ‘the harvest.’ *

 

    “It is prophesied that the ‘Great and Dreadful Day’ will be when Christ sends His angels like reapers to gather out of His kingdom all those who are not His and kill them; and that’s in part what I was foreshadowing,” Dan explains, “when I took the lives of Brenda and Erica. I know that might sound a little gory or something, but it feels like the right interpretation to me. I don’t think the angels in this prophesy are beings with wings that fly down from heaven, but more like what Joseph and Brigham called ‘avenging angels’: men already living here on earth who will just be taking care of their Father’s business like I was, once they learn who their Father is and have been properly instructed.”
    Dan believes that God has designated him, as Elijah, to tell the righteous “who their Father is” at the proper moment, and thereby kick off the thousand-year reign of the Kingdom of God. “I’m sure I will be the one who will identify Christ when he returns,” he says. According to Dan, a year or two after he was incarcerated, he “had this experience. . . . I didn’t know what it meant at the time. I was just pacing in my cell. It was the middle of the day. And I heard a voice. It was completely different from the revelations that were given through the School of the Prophets. I was pacing and I heard this voice tell me, ‘Write this down: The moon will shine from noon until nine.’ . . . That was all I heard. And over the years I thought, ‘What the hell does this mean?’ And finally it came together and made sense. I recently figured it out, just in the last year or so: the sign of Christ will be that the moon will shine in the sky from noon until nine at night. How that will happen, I don’t know. But when it happens I’m sure it won’t be mistaken for anything else.”

 

* This biblical allegory, more commonly known as the parable of the weeds (“tar” is a synonym for a noxious weed that infests fields of grain), appears in Matthew 13:24. It tells how one night when everyone was sleeping, Satan sowed weeds through the wheat fields of the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus instructed his followers to let the weeds grow with the wheat “until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: ‘First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’” Dan Lafferty, it bears mentioning, is by no means the only zealot enamored of this parable. Brian David Mitchell, the Mormon Fundamentalist who abducted fourteen-year-old Elizabeth Smart in 2002, cited it in his tract, The Book of Immanuel David Isaiah: “. . . there has been corruption and perversion in the priesthood. For Satan doth creep in unawares and doth sow tars among the wheat. . . .”

 

By applying his singular logic to the matter, Dan has also figured out why Ron tried to strangle him with a towel back in 1984: it was because the devil had revealed to Ron that Dan was Elijah and had been assigned to let the world know when Jesus had returned. Dan surmises that the devil actually told Ron about Dan’s crucial assignment long before God got around to telling Dan about it.
    “At some point,” Dan explains, “I believe Ron was instructed that it was important to kill me. The basic reason for it was his father” – the devil – “was trying to prevent the unpreventable.” The devil had been given the world for six thousand years, but those six thousand years are just about over, Dan says, so “it should come as no surprise that the devil wouldn’t want to give up control when his time is up.” And the way the devil hopes to extend his reign is to have Ron kill Dan/Elijah, and thus prevent him from announcing Christ’s return. “I feel confident,” Dan declares, “that this is what was behind Ron’s attempts to take my life. Because the Bible says that if Elijah doesn’t fulfill his calling, Christ can’t return.”
    Dan says that he should have recognized that Ron was one of Satan’s minions back in the spring and summer of 1984, when he and Ron were driving across the West in Ron’s Impala, because – contrary to the determination of the experts who testified for the state in Ron’s 1996 retrial – his brother was “showing signs of schizophrenia.  . . . As we were traveling together and getting to know each other, it was a fairly common phenomenon for Ron to kind of space out and be gone somewhere mentally. I suspect that at such times he was probably listening to voices.” And those voices, Dan speculates, were instructions from the devil.

 

Dan is sure, moreover, that Ron remains determined to murder him and is patiently waiting for an opportunity to do so: “I’m confident that he is still hearing the voices telling him to kill me.” Dan is aware of everything churned out by the prison rumor mill. And the buzz from death row, he says, is that “Ron is in very good shape and has been working out like a boxer getting ready for a title fight.” Dan takes it for granted that Ron hopes to have one more chance to find himself in Dan’s company, and when that opportunity presents itself, “he wants to be ready to take care of business.”

For his part, Dan doesn’t think God will let Ron kill him. In fact, he is encouraged by Ron’s new training regimen, seeing it as an indication that the End Times are imminent: Dan believes the Prince of Darkness must sense that ‘it’s almost time to start the harvest,” spurring him to whip Ron into good enough shape to make one final desperate attempt on Dan’s life, and thereby prevent the arrival of the Great and Dreadful Day. Because Satan knows that if Dan is allowed to live, there will be no stopping Christ’s return, and “the devil and all his brothers and sisters will be killed with much ‘wailing and gnashing of teeth.'”

 

 

Until that rapturous moment, however, when “the moon will shine from noon until nine” and Dan can shout from the rooftops that Christ has returned, he bides his time within the grim chambers of the prison’s maximum-security unit, where he has thus far spent half of his adult life. But what if the moon doesn’t shine from noon until nine? What if killing Brenda and Erica Lafferty wasn’t actually part of God’s plan but was merely a crime of such staggering cruelty that it is beyond forgiveness? What if, in short, Dan got it all wrong? Has it occurred to him that he may in fact have a great deal in common with another fundamentalist of fanatical conviction, Osama bin Laden?

“I’ve asked myself that,” Dan concedes. “Could I be there? Is that what I’m like? And the answer is no. Because Osama bin Laden is an asshole, a child of the devil. I believe his real motivation isn’t a quest for honesty and justice, which maybe were his motivations in his earlier life. Now he’s motivated by greed and profit and power.”

What about Osama’s underlings, the holy warriors who sacrificed their lives for Allah by flying jumbo jets into the World Trade Center? Surely their faith and conviction were every bit as powerful as Dan’s. Does he think the sincerity of their belief justified the act? And if not, how can Dan know that what he did isn’t every bit as misquided as what bin Laden’s followers did on September 11, despite the obvious sincerity of his own faith?

 

As he pauses to consider this possibility, there comes a moment when a shadow of doubt seems to flicker across his mien. But only for an instant, and then it’s gone. “I have to admit, the terrorists were following their prophet,” Dan says. “They were willing to do essentially what I did. I see the parallel. But the difference between those guys and me is, they were following a false prophet, and I’m not.

“I believe I’m a good person,” Dan insists. “I’ve never done anything intentionally wrong. I never have. At times when I’ve started to wonder if maybe what I did was a terrible mistake, I’ve looked back and asked myself, ‘What would I have done differently? Did I feel God’s hand guiding me on the twenty-fourth of July 1984?’ And then I remember very clearly, ‘Yes, I was guided by the hand of God.’ So I know I did the right thing. Christ says, ‘If you want to know if something is true, believe. And I’ll help you know the truth.’ And that’s what he did with me.

“I’m sure God knows I love Him. It’s my belief that everything will work out, and there will be a happy ending to this whole strange experience. I’ve just had too many little glimpses through the thin fabric of this reality to believe otherwise. Even when I have tried not to believe, I can’t.”

Serene in the knowledge that he has led a righteous life, Dan Lafferty is confident that he won’t be festering here in maximum security much longer. He is sure that “any day now” he will hear the blare of the trumpet heralding the Last Days, whereupon he will be released from this hell of strip searches and prison food and razor wire to assume his rightful place in the Kingdom of God.