To the visitor, the maximum-security wing of the Utah State Prison is a place of quiet. A cement path runs between two squat, fortress-like housing units, and mud swallows darting across the yard provide the only signs of life in an area of the prison so well-contained it feels abandoned when one first walks through it.
Dan Lafferty is serving a life sentence here, in what he calls his “monastery”—a place of reverence, where he contemplates the past and, more importantly, the future, when he will act as the Biblical prophet Elijah and help usher in the Second Coming.
When speaking with Lafferty, it’s easy to forget that he is serving time for the murder of a woman and a baby—his sister-in-law Brenda and her infant daughter, Erica.
In person, Lafferty, a child of the ’60s, seems more like an extra from a Cheech & Chong movie than a maniacal killer. Cheerful, with an easy laugh, he’s quick to acknowledge when something he’s saying makes him sound like a nut job. Independently of the digital world, he’s started using his own emojis in his letters, ending various sentences with a sketch of a toothy smile.
Lafferty is telling me about the double murders he committed 30 years ago on July 24, 1984, when, after letting slip with a profanity, he interrupts his story to explain how his vocabulary became “liberated” when he realized there is no sin in cursing.
“God doesn’t give a fuck about words; what God cares about is anything that makes you happy and that doesn’t hurt anybody else,” Lafferty says. “So anyways, I was praying pretty steady from that point on as I pushed my way into the house and I took those two lives ...”
Behind the plexiglass of the prison visiting cell, Lafferty rises from his chair. As he tells the story, he cradles his manacled hands as though he’s holding the baby. In one hand is an invisible knife, which he places at the child’s throat. It was too terrible a deed to watch himself do, so Lafferty turns his head, eyes clamped shut, and draws the knife across the space of air where, decades ago, he held a living child before he slit her throat with a cut so deep it nearly decapitated the 15-month-old.
Dan Lafferty and his brother Ron have become the stuff of nightmares in Utah culture—not only for the killings but also because of the fact that for most of their lives, they were model Latter-day Saints from a sturdy, upright Mormon family. Where some families struggled in Sunday service to keep their teenagers awake and their toddlers from wandering up and down the aisles, the Laffertys filled a bench without a word, all keeping their eyes fixed on the speaker like the reverent families you see illustrated in soft tones in the pages of the LDS Church-owned Ensign magazine.
I know this because it’s what my mother told me. I can’t claim the most objective distance from the Laffertys’ story, since my mother was a childhood friend of Dan, and my uncle was close friends with Ron.
I was introduced to the brothers through these connections and have been in contact with them through visits and correspondence since early 2013, hearing from the bogeymen themselves the details of the killings, and the cold, iron-hard convictions that led them to rationalize the “removal revelation” that was meant to help bring in the kingdom and led to the killing of Brenda Lafferty and her baby.
Over time, my interactions with Dan in particular grew closer, and I began to feel as though I was corresponding with a distant uncle. His first letter recalled that when he was in fifth grade, my mother was his dance partner in a school program meant to teach students “social graces.” During visits, he would compliment me on the growth of my beard (at one time he had a beard that grew to the center of his chest) and encouraged me to follow my heart in my endeavors. Once he even made fudge candies for me using cream cheese, chocolate and instant-coffee crystals. After 12 hours had passed after eating them, I was certain I hadn’t been poisoned and had to admit they were delicious.
This closeness, while sometimes disturbing, helped introduce me to the family, including Watson Jr., one of Ron and Dan’s other brothers, and Rebecca, Dan’s oldest daughter.
They both have struggled to find meaning in the aftermath of the killings. Rebecca says she grew up a schoolyard pariah with a father who chose “this fucked-up way of being over me.”
Watson Jr. left Utah for more than 25 years, running from the horrors committed by his brothers. It took decades to for him to regain his faith.
“Enough time goes by, and you actually realize that the experience makes you a better person because you know what a big thing is and what a little thing is,” Watson says. “A washer breaks ... that’s nothing, but if someone in your family loses their soul—that’s the deepest, darkest hole you can go in.”
I also was introduced to the specter of Watson Lafferty Sr., the stern patriarch of the clan, who left an indelible mark on the lives of the brothers—especially the firstborn, Ron.
Ron’s eyes carry an intensity that makes it seem as if he hasn’t blinked in 30 years. Now 72, he speaks in a growl as if he were chewing gravel, and when topics drift to the betrayal he felt from the church or his ex-wife, his words are coated in venom. He says his younger brother’s wife drove a wedge between him and his wife that led to their divorce, which in turn led to Ron’s revelation that this troublemaker and her infant child had to go.
And his animus is especially fierce when Ron speaks of his father.
“I wanted to kill my father,” Ron says. “Every time I saw him hit my mother.”
Ron recalls that he was also the frequent target of his father’s rage. Once, he says, his father randomly struck him, then, towering over him, pointed at Ron’s mother and, between clenched teeth, hissed, “She is mine!” Ron was only 10.
Dan felt the presence of his father in his own way, as he grew up seeking to match the drive and piety of his father. He says fate led him down a path of fervid study of the scripture, which gave birth to his political and religious fundamentalism and the beliefs he’s formed in prison.
According to Dan’s present ideology, the earth is a garden where the flowers of Christ are being choked out by the Devil’s weeds, in keeping with the prophecy of the wheat and the tares from the Old Testament.
These satanic weeds, Dan says, have had their run of the garden for 6,000 years—but the harvesting time is nigh.
Dan sees himself as the one who will make the transition orderly so that the wheat (children of Christ) can organize into communities of harmony, while the children of the Devil (the tares) are pulled, root and stem, from this world. After the nasty tare-plucking business is done, Dan says, the God of Love’s 1,000-year party can finally begin. Then the whole cycle repeats.
Dan says both “wheats” and “tares” simply follow a program they cannot deviate from. For some, that may mean a mundane 9-to-5 existence; for others, killing women and children.
Free agency, Dan says, is an illusion pimped by religion to dupe its believers. “They use faith and other lies and secrets and deceptions to brain-fuck followers into thinking that they have the power to save or condemn people to hell,” Dan writes in an early letter.
These days, Dan’s beard is short and tinged with copper and gray. He sports a few jailhouse tattoos, including a spiderweb on his elbow—a correctional tradition marking an inmate’s completion of 10 years inside. When I asked him how he could be “wheat” despite the killings done by his hand, he said his philosophy is something not everybody will understand.
“I understand very well that my philosophy makes me sound crazy, but I try to make it as logical as I can,” Dan says. “But I don’t mind if people think I’m crazy, and I don’t know that I’m not ... but I don’t think that I am. I think there is some good shit coming. God’s a good motherfucker, and when he comes back, he’s gonna be smoking a doobie, saying, ‘Tired of this world? Well, it’s time to party.’ I really believe it.”
One person who won’t be at this party, according to Dan, is his brother Ron.
Though the bond between Dan and Ron seemed to have been strengthened by the 1984 murders, their relationship quickly soured, and Ron attempted to kill Dan in prison later that year.
Ron says he’s effectively blacked out the incident, but it left an impression on Dan, who subsequently decided that he and Ron share different spiritual fathers—Christ and the Devil.
In the telestial world, however, they shared one father: Watson Lafferty Sr. And Dan still fondly recalls the splendor of childhood and the kinship he felt with his brothers, made all the stronger by living under the strict rule of their father.
The Head of the Household
Spring Lake is a farm community in Utah County, centered around an idyllic small-town fishing hole. Dan and his five brothers fished the lake in the summer, skated it in the winter and explored the nearby hills and woods like they were the brothers’ personal kingdom.
Dan always felt Ron hovering over him, his hand on his shoulder to keep a grip on his spirited younger brother. One time, Dan recalls, some bullies gave him some guff, only to catch one hell of a beating from Ron.
Their younger brother Watson Jr. says there’s a strong bond among children of a tough disciplinarian.
“When you grow up in a family where Dad gives you a licking, the other siblings console the one who got the licking, and then you compare bruises and kind of look after each other that way,” Watson Jr. says.
He describes their father as “old school,” a product of the Great Depression who had his own struggles, having lost his mother when he was 5 to the influenza pandemic of 1918 that wiped out millions.
“I don’t think he got a lot of nurturing,” Watson Jr. says.
The Lafferty patriarch was a handsome man, supremely confident, and inflexible when it came to his beliefs—like his refusal to trust in modern medicine.
The children aren’t certain where it came from—perhaps it was a holdover from the teachings of early church founders like Brigham Young, who once said of doctors that “a worse set of ignoramuses do not walk the earth,” or maybe he’d lost faith in doctors after they were unable to save his mother from the influenza. Such theories are only speculation, as Watson Sr. didn’t like to explain himself—he lived by example.
Their father once had a hernia so bad that, Dan recalls, he could actually hear his father’s guts sloshing around inside his abdomen. For years, Watson Sr. simply gritted his teeth and would try to push his innards back into place with his bare hands.
Dan also recalls being told a “providential” story about when he was a baby in his high chair, which was standing in the kitchen where his mother was cooking. Dan was rocking and kicking, trying to free himself, and just as he rocked particularly far forward, his mother turned, a knife in her hand, and Dan cut his throat on the knife.
His father held him over the sink, washed the bleeding cut and simply taped it up.
Coupled with Watson Sr.’s inflexible beliefs was a volcanic rage that could erupt at a moment’s notice.
Dan’s oldest daughter, Rebecca, says one of her first memories of her grandfather, from when she was no more than 4, is of him getting her attention by hurling a toy at her. It smacked her in the head, and when she cried out in pain, she says, her grandfather calmly lied about what happened, and everyone believed him.
“I just knew as a child to stay away from him,” Rebecca says.
Ron recalls him as a tyrant who victimized their mother.
“I saw him get mad and bloody her face, bloody her nose,” Ron says. “I used to go in my room and curse God for giving me that piece of a shit for a father. I shook my fist at God, but I was just too little.”
Ron’s struggles with his father reached a pivot point when, at 17, they came to blows.
Ron had gone out early to help a man in the neighborhood bring in his hay. He returned home later that morning and was taking a nap on the couch when one of his brothers called him to come pluck some chickens. Ron, already exhausted, gruffly refused.
Watson Sr. then charged in looking for a fight. This time, Ron struck back, and his father took off “running like a little bitch, crying ‘mother, mother!’ ” Ron says.
Ron says he never had any problems with his father after that moment and, almost in spite of his father, gained a new strength and confidence. He was prolific in converting new members during his LDS mission in Florida, and when he returned home, assumed various leadership positions, including in three LDS bishoprics and later on the Highland City Council while raising a large family of his own.
Their father’s unbending outlook left a mark on Dan, too. Rebecca looks at her father’s current beliefs about a world looping continuously through eons of unavoidable punishment as the bitter fruit from the tree of her grandfather’s intense outlook.
“He’s come to believe that life is hard and that God wants to teach you through pain and punishment,” Rebecca says of Dan. “That’s his father’s mentality; that’s how his father raised him.”