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July 23, 2014 News » Cover Story

Blood Brothers 

Thirty years after the infamous Utah County murders, Dan and Ron Lafferty reveal the complex threads of faith and family that formed their fundamentalist beliefs

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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.

click to enlarge In this photo from The Salt Lake Tribune, Ron and Dan Lafferty receive instructions from a court official during their first court appearance, in 1984.
  • In this photo from The Salt Lake Tribune, Ron and Dan Lafferty receive instructions from a court official during their first court appearance, in 1984.

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.

click to enlarge A 1965 ad for the family chiropractic practice featuring Watson Lafferty Sr., which ran in an April 1965 Daily Herald.
  • A 1965 ad for the family chiropractic practice featuring Watson Lafferty Sr., which ran in an April 1965 Daily Herald.

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.”

Tunnel Vision

Dan eventually took over his father’s Orem chiropractic office, and often talked bull with clients about God and politics. But in the early ’80s, these run-of-the-mill conversations cascaded into extreme libertarian activism, with Dan railing against paying for licenses, taxes and even speeding tickets. He now describes this political activism as part of a kind of “tunnel vision” that he’d obtain when he felt he was right and nothing could convince him otherwise.

The activism caused Ron’s wife to send him to Dan to “straighten him out”—instead, Ron says, it was his brothers who straightened him out and convinced him to join their cause.

Watson Jr. says Dan could make him believe anything. He convinced him once that by praying, they wouldn’t need to fill their car with gasoline, and another time that drinking your own urine is good for the body.

The Lafferty patriarch was not so easily persuaded. Watson Sr. returned early from an LDS mission because Dan’s refusal to pay taxes had put the family business in jeopardy of being shut down by the government.

Dan recalls calmly explaining his political activism to his father, only to have Watson Sr. respond by trying to perform an exorcism.

click to enlarge Ron and Dan Lafferty as pictured in the Deseret News and The Salt Lake Tribune during the coverage of their crime.
  • Ron and Dan Lafferty as pictured in the Deseret News and The Salt Lake Tribune during the coverage of their crime.

“I could see him understanding the logic just like Ron did, and as soon as that started to happen, he shook his head ... and he raised his hand and said, ‘In the name of Jesus Christ, I command the devil come out of you!’ ” Dan says.

Awkwardness settled around them, Dan says, as his father realized Dan wasn’t changed.

In 1983, the year their father died, Dan and his brothers became increasingly involved in the School of the Prophets, which sought to re-create an institution of the LDS Church’s early years, when meetings were held to discuss social and political issues affecting members.

The lesson plan at this time was a call to biblical living—plural marriage, male rule of the household and, eventually, the necessity of the death of Brenda Lafferty, the outspoken wife of younger Lafferty brother Allen, and her baby.

Written out on yellow notepad, this “removal revelation” that Ron said he’d received from God showed that God and Ron shared some common enemies—mainly Brenda.

Brenda “was not afraid to tell [Ron] her opinion: that he was a jerk to his wife and she didn’t want him anywhere around her husband, Allen,” Watson Jr. says. “She didn’t pull any punches.”

Ron says that Brenda should not have meddled in his private affairs and should have come to him as the head of his household instead of going behind his back and sowing discord with Ron’s wife.

Rebecca vividly recalls the relatively short period between the Laffertys’ role as upstanding community members and the 1984 killings. When she was 5, her life changed abruptly when Dan uprooted the family from a cozy suburban existence and into a dilapidated, mice-infested house on a lonely dirt farm in Orem. Dan allowed electricity to be used only for the refrigerator, and his wife was suddenly tasked with milking cows, baking bread, tending chickens and boiling buckets of water to bathe her children.

Rebecca recalls her mother revolting against this pioneer living with pure passive-aggressive scorn.

“She’d let the chickens run through the house and say, ‘OK, let’s live free!’ and then she’d let the chickens just shit all over,” Rebecca says with a laugh.

She says her mother took a similar tack with Dan’s interest in polygamy, openly encouraging him to find a sister wife, which would give her an opportunity to leave Dan and his extremism behind.

While Rebecca now laughs at the weird six months in the farmhouse, she also recalls it as a time her father would shift from dark depression to violent outbursts within the blink of an eye. It’s when she first saw him hit her mother and when he was the most violent with her.

“He was kind of like an alcoholic, but he never drank,” Rebecca says. “The pressure would build until he would just explode. He could be so nice and yet beat the shit out of me.”

Though Dan is at peace with the killings, he looks back at this experiment with regret.

“It makes me sad to think of what my good wife put up with during those experimental days, especially now, as I understand—what I think I do—about how absolutely wrong it is or was,” Dan says.

Troubles of the Flesh

Rebecca looks back on her early days with Dan as a time when her father was struggling toward some impossible standard, set down by the model of his exacting father.

For Watson Jr., this need for perfection was compounded by Dan’s “weakness of the flesh,” which he saw in many of the Lafferty boys—a handsome and popular lot known for chasing the girls they grew up with.

Watson says Dan repressed and compensated for his carnal desires with fervid study of law and religion, and compares Dan’s lust for “plural wives” to the problems of pornography addiction that the church now frequently speaks against.

“[Dan] couldn’t handle it and it drove him crazy,” Watson says. “He wanted to be a good person and he couldn’t handle it.”

Dan says he was plagued by his desires, but only because of the church’s false teachings.

“When I was young and going to church, I thought because I couldn’t stop masturbating, that I might be an evil person, and it tormented me so much that I contemplated castration as a possible way to stop offending God, as I was mind-fucked to believe that I was,” Dan says.

In his vision of God’s 1,000-year party, sex will be a key part of celebrating who we are as people. Unlike our current existence, he says, sex won’t be a tool of domination over women. If anything, women will enjoy a greater satisfaction from sex than men do.

click to enlarge Clippings from 1984 issues of the Deseret News
  • Clippings from 1984 issues of the Deseret News

Dan now looks at church teachings against sexual impurity as being one of the tools of oppression wielded by religion’s “merchants of guilt and fears.”

This religiously indoctrinated fear, however, is something Dan denies motivated the killings he undertook. For him, it was a different fear entirely—one of walking the “razor’s edge” of making sure he didn’t offend God by not having the will to kill.

Ron’s removal revelation made him the voice of God, and he called on Dan to be the arm of God to help carry out the divine mission.

And so it was that Dan felt guided by a spirit as he pushed his way into Brenda’s American Fork duplex, cut Erica—so deeply, police said, that only a tiny thread of flesh was left connecting her head to her body—and helped Ron bind Brenda and allowed him to beat her to a pulp before Dan tied her neck with a vacuum cord and cut her throat as well.

When the two men left the duplex, Dan says, he realized that, this time, the younger brother had come to the rescue of the older.

Ron had been torn up by the divorce, and now it was Dan who solved Ron’s problem when, Dan says, Ron was unable to wield the knife himself. And as the brothers drove away, it was Dan’s reassuring hand on Ron’s shoulder.

Is He in Us?

After researching this story since early 2013, it wasn’t until my deadline that I realized that beyond simply reporting a story, I had embarked on a naïve folly. Having encountered Dan at his monastery and being stunned by his zen-like serenity, I felt like I might be able to elicit from him some tiny measure of contrition.

Thus, with my plucky reporter skills, I tried to pull a “gotcha” question demonstrating how his own beliefs damn him. Since Dan believes his brother to be an “asshole” child of the Devil, then why did Dan, as a child of the God of Love, fulfill Ron’s “removal revelation”?

Dan’s response was simple.

“I have to conclude that Brenda and the baby were assholes,” Dan says. “I can’t imagine God would have any of his children take the life of [those] that were wheat as opposed to tares.”

click to enlarge Clippings from 1984 issues of the Deseret News
  • Clippings from 1984 issues of the Deseret News

I’m startled now to think that I believed I could somehow dredge a concession from the depths of Dan’s bizarre fundamentalist-turned-jailhouse-guru mind—that I could hold my breath and dive to the bottom of this abyss and fumble around for ... what?

It was more than hubris to think that I could find the Dan from before July 24, 1984, on this dark ocean floor. To live in such darkness for so long is to evolve into something totally different—a creature that breathes murky water instead of air and sees in the dark but squints at the light. One that finds a method in what most would call unconscionable madness.

For Dan, however, it’s an upside-down world; it’s everyone else who has yet to evolve to the point where they can see the truth of a world where free will is an illusion.

As Elijah, Dan says, he alone is blessed with the ability to see the eternal recurrence of a life where 6,000 years of hell on earth is offset by a party where the chosen will get lit with Jesus and experience guilt-free mind-blowing sex among other such unfathomable joys.

But back on Earth, the idea of following in Dan and Ron’s footsteps haunts those closest to the brothers.

As a child Rebecca recalls the anger that would flare up inside her, like when she pummeled a girl on the bus who called her the child of a babykiller.

She eventually left the church. It didn’t resonate with her internal “truth meter,” she says, but she has not given up the feeling that Christ’s unconditional love is all that one needs for a moral compass.

After decades of bad turns, doubt and self-loathing, she’s learned that holding on to hate is too much of a burden.

In December 2013, she says, she forgave Dan for not being there. “Now I can speak up and say, ‘You know what, Dad, I don’t want to hear any preaching. I love you, and for a long time, I thought I needed to change you, that I needed to make some things right that were wrong,’ ” Rebecca says. “Now I realize I don’t need to do that.”

Watson Jr. says the Lafferty family was plagued by wondering if, inside them, was the same spirit of Ron and Dan. Watson Jr. ran from his faith for years, nauseated every time he heard scriptures recited in church that he used to hear from the mouth of Dan. But now he says the experience has strengthened his testimony of the church, as well as those of the rest of his family.

He also finds comfort in the memory of the brothers he once had.

“I know in my heart that those are two good men that the devil took ahold of,” he says. “But the devil doesn’t care about them now; he’s hung them out to dry.”

While Watson Jr. laments what took over Ron and Dan, Ron has little regard for him. Ron sees Watson Jr. as someone who was heavily involved in the School of Prophets but, instead of supporting him during the trial, fled the state.

Watson Jr. says he was involved in the school, but only until Ron announced his revelation. He dismissed it as just angry talk, he says, but cut ties with the group.

“What an unappreciative prick,” Ron says. “And when we were young I did nothing but protect him from our domineering father—and that went for all my siblings.”

Though he’s now one of the faces of religious fundamentalism, Ron says it was his politics that caused a church court to excommunicate him, essentially putting him on his path.

“The reason I lost my family is for all my brothers,” Ron says.

Now, Ron lives like a political prisoner in defiance of the federal government, which he feels trampled on his sovereign authority to protect his family by any means necessary.

While Ron declines to discuss specifics of the killings, he has no problem using the deaths as an example of how a justice system that empowers the head of the household to protect his family should work.

“True fairness was served by the act, immaterial of who carried it out,” Ron says. “I don’t care if Santa Claus committed the act—justice was served.” CW

Next week’s issue will focus on the extreme politics that informed Ron and Dan Lafferty’s actions and the prevalence of similar ideologies in the current political landscape.

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