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July 30, 2014 News » Cover Story

Radical Mormon Jihad 

Before Ron and Dan Lafferty killed in the name of religious extremism, they were political rebels whose views are echoed in the mainstream today

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The 1984 murder of his sister-in-law Brenda and her baby, Erica, was a crime that brought Dan Lafferty a life sentence at the Utah State Prison and plenty of infamy—but, he says, it’s the story of his inevitable escape from prison that will be etched into the gospel of a new epoch.

Lafferty, fulfilling the role of the biblical prophet Elijah, is waiting on a signal from God to know when the coast is clear for his jailbreak. One day at noon, he says, a full moon will overtake the sky and shine until 9 p.m. Lafferty and a select few cohorts from the prison will be transported to the small farm community of Salem in Utah County, where he’ll begin gathering a following of the righteous.

Prison officials will undoubtedly panic over his disappearance, and when word spreads that he’s living out in the open, they’ll send in the cavalry: SWAT teams, choppers, snipers, the FBI and anyone else with guns and badges who can be spared.

Lafferty sees it as playing out similarly to the 1993 Waco standoff in Texas between federal officers and members of the Branch Davidians religious sect, which ended in a bloody siege of the compound.

But in this case, Lafferty says, Johnny Law will be no match for his heavenly firepower.

“After a day or two, all those gathered near Salem with bad intentions will be consumed by fire that I will call down from heaven like Elijah in the Old Testament did,” Lafferty writes in a 2013 letter. “After that, no one will fuck with us.”

While this belief has all the hallmark characteristics of fringe theology, it also dovetails with Lafferty’s political beliefs. After the fire is called down, Lafferty says, he will work to prepare for the Second Coming—not as king, but as sheriff, giving him the opportunity to enact the rule of law that he campaigned on when he ran for Utah County Sheriff in 1982.

Lafferty and his brother Ron, have made it into the history books as religious zealots. But their intensity and rigid worldview didn’t first manifest in their exploration of fundamentalist teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, like polygamy. Before that, the brothers took a path of political extremism that set them on a collision course with their own faith.

click to enlarge Ron Lafferty in a 1977 Daily Herald photo, and today in the Utah State Prison
  • Ron Lafferty in a 1977 Daily Herald photo, and today in the Utah State Prison

Ron says it was his support of his brothers in their political fundamentalism, not polygamy, that led to his 1983 excommunication from the LDS Church. Ron was accused of rejecting the “laws of the land,” as LDS doctrine requires, and felt betrayed by his faith in much the same way he would later feel betrayed by the justice system.

Ron recalls an argument with a defense attorney of his who told him he couldn’t take the law into his own hands. “Well, whose law is it anyway?” Ron fired back in reply.

It’s a point Ron has staked his life on, continuing to maintain his innocence and refusing plea bargains—offered, he says, by corrupt prosecutors—that would spare him the death sentence. If anything, he says, his incompetent attorneys are in violation of the Constitution and guilty of capital treason for working against him.

While time has frozen for Ron inside the Utah State Prison’s maximum-security wing, the political landscape has caught up to his defiant anti-government stance—boycotting taxes, business licenses, even speeding tickets—in the decades since the 1984 killings.

The take-no prisoners, make-no-compromises marching orders of Tea Partiers in Congress has divided not just Congress but the Republican Party itself. In just the past few months, militia members used guns to keep federal officers off the Nevada ranch of folk hero Cliven Bundy in defense of his right to break the law and not pay grazing fees, and in Las Vegas, a couple went on a shooting spree in order to kick-start a revolution, with cops—puppets of the federal government—as their target.

Ron’s crimes may have landed him on the violent end of this extremist spectrum, but his viewpoints are right in line with many hard-right politicos and conservative pundits, and he trots out his own talking points as if he’s a veteran politician.

“What happens when the servant becomes the master, and the master becomes the servant, is that we’re right back where we were before the [American] revolution,” Ron says of patriots like himself. “They used to call them sons of liberty, then they called them sons-of-bitches … now it’s worse. They call them terrorists.”

The 1984 killings, Ron says, served a truer justice than the U.S Government is capable of. By Ron’s account, he’s a political prisoner who’s spent 30 years behind bars for standing up for his rights as the head of a household and for defending the strident political activism of his brothers, especially Dan.

Secret Combinations
Much ink has been spilled on the Laffertys’ crimes, but not so much on the times they lived in, or the political and cultural currents of the day that collided with Ron and Dan’s intense personal lives to create a perfect storm of violent fundamentalism.

One pivotal moment that informed Dan’s politics came when he was busted by school officials for making and selling sandwiches without a license at the California chiropractic college he attended. But before that, when he was a boy, Dan says, he attended a John Birch Society meeting with his father. When he was older, he attended a course taught by Cleon Skousen, an anti-communist who is often credited with helping to found New World Order conspiracies as a genre of modern paranoid politics.

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The John Birch Society and Skousen all fed into a profound anti-communist culture of the Cold War era that centered on another influential figure—Ezra Taft Benson.

Benson, a firebrand apostle of the LDS Church throughout the 1960s, was known to preach from the pulpit against the evils of “creeping socialism” and “godless communism” and urge the support of patriot groups like the John Birch Society.

In a 1993 article called “Ezra Taft Benson and Mormon Political Conflicts,” renowned Mormon historian D. Michael Quinn documented how Benson lashed out at liberal policies he saw as communism in disguise. He blasted the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations for sending federal troops to help desegregate schools in the South, and took a position that even J. Edgar Hoover wouldn’t, saying that the Civil Rights movement was purely a communist front.

In a 1963 talk at the Logan tabernacle, Benson warned that the communist infestation of America meant that citizens must “resist Communist tyranny only by themselves becoming conspirators against established government.”

Benson saw much potential evil in “secret combinations” mixing evil with good to surreptitiously destroy things pure and righteous. It’s a concept repeated often in LDS scriptures, like 2 Nephi 9:9, which says, “The father of lies stirreth up the children of men unto secret combinations.”

A few years before the Lafferty’s slide toward extremism, Benson warned in a 1979 LDS General Conference talk that if Americans didn’t “return to the fundamental principles of Christianity and Constitutional government,” they would lose their freedom.

“No nation which has kept the commandments of God has ever perished,” Benson said, adding, “But I say to you, once freedom is lost, only blood—human blood—will bring it back.”

Both Ron and Dan cite Benson as a figure influential to their politics; Dan actually requested that Benson intervene in his excommunication proceedings, and later subpoenaed Benson to testify in his defense at his murder trial (the motion was quashed).

Quinn says Benson supporters clashed with liberal and moderate church authorities, who publicly rebuked Benson’s fear mongering. And Benson himself backed down from many of his political views in the mid-’80s, when he became church president. In a 1992 document, stake presidents of the church compiled a list of 20 warning signs of apostasy. Coming in at No. 3 was membership in the John Birch Society.

While Ron and Dan weren’t official Birchers, their politics were closely aligned with the far-right society.

Ron openly accepts the label of being a literalist and can split hairs down to the molecular level on an issue or the etymology of a word. Democracy, Ron says, is a combination of “Demon” and “Crazy.”

“I pledge nothing to the ‘Democracy,’ so stick it back up Stalin’s ass or FDR’s—that Fucking Dumb Retard,” Ron says. “That’s the era when they made the term popular.”

Ron sees much evil in FDR’s big-government regime, faulting the president for “encouraging the lower classes to overbreed” and his policies authorizing parasitic moochers to claim benefits they haven’t earned.

“I’ve been giving my taxes to porch monkeys, for you to lie on your ass and have kids, and because you have more kids you have more welfare,” Ron says. “I’d be glad to help you get on your feet, but if you’re going to use the energy from a bag of groceries to just impregnate your wife, when you already have 10 kids, well ... that’s just the most suicidal, vicious cycle.”

If one were to scrub a bit of the prison-house salt from Ron’s quotes, they wouldn’t be too far off from statements uttered by standing politicos, like South Carolina Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, who argued against government assistance because it’s like feeding a stray animal.

“You’re facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don’t think too much further than that,” Bauer said.

And in 2010, Texas Tea Partier for Congress Stephen Broden got all misty-eyed for armed insurrection, saying, “Our nation was founded on violence. The option is on the table. I don’t think that we should ever remove anything from the table as it relates to our liberties and our freedoms.”

The House That Ron Built
The first time I met Ron Lafferty, I found the then-71-year-old inmate in his pumpkin-orange jumpsuit perched on the table directly in front of the visiting-window glass, the way a young boy might climb onto a windowsill to have a better look outside. He wore a wry smile over his silver mustache and asked who I was. I told him I was the reporter who had written him, the nephew of one of his dearest adolescent friends. I wanted to hear his story.

The stories I heard from Ron were some of those that he’s told psychiatrists who have argued in court for decades whether Ron is a psychopath or simply a severe narcissist. The shortest visit I’ve had with Ron lasted two hours; the longest ran six, though, as in previous visits, I’d asked him perhaps a half-dozen simple questions.

On one visit, I entered determined to get a clear-cut answer on the causes of Ron’s excommunication, which he’d previously seemed evasive about. For more than 30 minutes, Ron explained in his circuitous way that his beautiful home, his beautiful wife and his beautiful children caused jealousy to fester among his neighbors, who then used his politics as an excuse to excommunicate him.

“The charge was apostasy, but that’s a catch-all,” Ron says.

Ron sees conspiracy at every turn, even believing that, in a past life, he was a fetus aborted at the behest of his domineering father. Another of his lives, he says, was spent in Victorian London with a female attorney who represented him in this life. Once while his attorneys conferred with him, he says, LDS Church President Thomas Monson was lurking around the corner, eavesdropping on the conversation.

His defense attorneys have argued that a suicide attempt Ron made in prison in 1984 cut off oxygen and damaged his brain. The prosecution argues that Ron has always been a narcissist.

Ron was found guilty of capital murder in 1985, but an appellate court later determined that the wrong competency standard had been applied, and Ron was tried again in 1996 and found guilty once more.

His competency has been a major point for his attorneys who, in January 2014, failed to convince Judge Dee Benson that Ron wasn’t competent enough to assist in his death-penalty appeals.

When Ron says crazy things, he doesn’t foam at the mouth or have his eyes rolled back in his head. He speaks in the same way people speak of a belief in angels or everyday miracles. But whatever his condition, a conversation with Ron can be an exhausting process. He’ll answer a question by way of deep-tangent detours covering minutia of the legal code, LDS scriptures, the etymology of words, and snapshots from Ron’s childhood—and always references to his home in Highland.

In the 1970s, Ron made his home on the Highland bench, a farm community that, at the time, had no connection to Interstate 15—just the way townsfolk liked it. Ron was asked by community members to be on the city council, a responsibility he would have to juggle with being a counselor in the bishopric, running a youth basketball program, and working full time as a crane operator while devoting as much time as he could to building his home and raising his children.

Ron nevertheless agreed to run for the council. “I was never one to turn down a responsibility,” he says.

His campaign speech made it clear he was a candidate for anything but change.

“Listen, I’m here because I like it the way it is,” Ron says now, repeating his old pitch. “I like the low density, I like the elbowroom. I like to own my own cow, and I like to churn my own butter, so if you want to turn this town into a mini-Los Angeles, then you don’t want me on the council.” He finished that sentiment, he says, by warning voters that while their opinions might change, “I’m not going to bend.”

Ron was elected and was proud to serve on the council, but the heart of his existence was still with his family, and the respect and love he had for them was manifest in his home.

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The family had two prime acres. Ron had dug up 18 inches of the topsoil himself and smoothed out the rocks. He’d planted an orchard on the west side of his property, where more than 30 trees—peach, apple, pear, cherry and apricot—provided fruit and shade. He built his house with his own hands, hung his own drywall and wired it with copper wiring when other homes were using cheap aluminum. Ron says he embarrassed city building inspectors with the amount of care he’d put into his home.

Ron didn’t need city services. He hauled his own garbage to the dump and burned his own paper waste and tilled the ash into his garden. He even planned to build his own windmill so that he could generate his own power and have enough left over to sell extra power to his neighbors.

Ron’s politics of self-reliance lent themselves easily to the idea of not wanting or asking anything from government, and Dan was easily able to convert Ron to his brand of anti-government activism. Soon, the men were refusing to pay a nickel to the government in any form. In 1982, Dan’s tax revolt landed him in a Utah County Justice Court, where his preaching about the Constitution instigated a riot in the courtroom; one of his brothers even jumped the barrier and attempted to make a citizen’s arrest of the judge.

Ron backed his brothers, as he had done all his life, and this landed him in the hot seat in front of a church discipline council filled with men he knew and respected as fellow ward members and friends.

The council read from LDS scripture about how members should “uphold the respective governments in which they reside, while protected in their inherent and inalienable rights by the laws of such governments.” But, Ron says, the men didn’t finish the sentence and stopped reading before “while protected.”

“What if my government isn’t protecting me? Then am I bound? I would be a fool!” Ron says now.

Ron was summarily excommunicated, which, he says, gave him a feeling of deep relief—as if a 40-pound yoke had been lifted from his shoulders.

He soon developed a saying for the transformation that occurred as a result of being excommunicated for his anti-government rebellion: “I was drawn from the breast and weaned from the mesmerizing milk of ‘Moronism,’” Ron says. “Once I spit the tit, I was free from the stinking B.O.—Blind Obedience—to the church.”

Ron felt he had a new insight into his faith—and all he wanted to do, he says, was share this outlook with his family and friends.

But Ron’s excommunication and his new outlook frightened some of those closest to him, especially his wife, who shortly thereafter divorced him.

Ron, like his brother Dan, met and visited with polygamists after they were excommunicated and devoted themselves to a fundamentalist lifestyle. Ron says he believes plural marriage once did serve a purpose, but polygamists have since corrupted it.

Dan took on plural wives, but Ron says he never did so himself. He scoffs at the claim leveled against him by family members that he used to go to a bar in Southern Utah that had polygamist dances.

“What’s a polygamist dance?” Ron snarls. “The bunnyhop?”

While the Laffertys grappled with their new politics, the nation was discussing the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, a failed attempt to define women as equals to men in the Constitution.

Ron says there’s much wrong with what he sees as the female side of society seeking to overthrow the male—the “heart” controlling the “head,” a comparison Ron made in a poem he wrote about his ex-wife that he can still recite from memory.

“Yes, you’ve come a long way baby, but you still need to do your part/ Man should be the head but you need to be the heart … Yes, with your empty little head I offered you the best of both worlds but you chose Moronism instead.”

Ron says his sister-in-law Brenda Lafferty caused the divorce by meddling in his family, and it wouldn’t be long before the brother’s new worldview demanded more than just fighting taxes. Following their break with the church, Dan would enact Ron’s “removal revelation” and execute Brenda and her baby for meddling in Ron’s personal affairs.

Magical Thinking
Catherine Wessinger, a professor of religious studies at New Orleans’ Loyola University, describes the Lafferty worldview as radical dualism—an us-versus-them schism that a group believes has to be overcome in order to bring about a new society. What makes this outlook violent is often fragility in the group that makes members feel the need to lash out against those who oppose them—Brenda, in the case of the Lafferty brothers.

Wessinger also sees in their politics a “magical” type of thinking. “Through their interpretation of legal documents, including the Constitution, they think they’ve unlocked the secrets of how to make the legal system work for them,” Wessinger says.

In the brothers’ minds, the simple implementation of something like a common-law jury would solve all of society’s ills.

click to enlarge Dan Lafferty in the Utah State Prison and in a 1982 photo from The Daily Herald
  • Dan Lafferty in the Utah State Prison and in a 1982 photo from The Daily Herald

That concept—along with opening the prisons and selling all police cars—was part of Dan’s 1982 campaign for Utah County Sheriff, a race from which he was disqualified when officials wouldn’t accept his payment of gold for the filing fee.

In Dan’s proposed common-law-jury system—which he’ll instate during the forthcoming apocalypse while he prepares the earth for the Second Coming—any victim could appeal to a jury that Dan, as sheriff, would assemble. Verdicts and sentences would have to be unanimous and, most importantly, could not be appealed—creating total local control. “In the meantime, you can drink your beer on your front porch, you can smoke your weed, you can shoot your guns—just make sure you don’t hurt anybody,” he says.

Dan has since undergone a change in his political views. He looks favorably on leaders like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and decries the excess of corporate control of society.

But that kind of free-for-all philosophy is still appealing to Ron, who sees his lawyers as using their legal “jabberwocky” to conspire against him, in coordination with the LDS Church. Ron says he’s had bad luck with counsel—his first attorney allegedly had a drug problem and was suspended by the Utah Bar for misconduct in 1990. One of the drifters who accompanied Ron and his brother during the 1984 killings folded his hands in prayer at the witness stand, which, Ron says, his attorneys never questioned, though he says it cast doubt on his testimony.

Ron’s brother Watson Jr. says Ron’s focus on his attorneys is a distraction from the killings themselves, which Ron can’t or won’t speak to.

Once, Ron showed me exhibits from his case, including a photo from the crime scene of a bloody pattern of a knife on a drape. Ron says it doesn’t make sense that a bloody knife would leave a perfect outline, and that it’s proof of fabricated evidence. Shuffling through his papers, he then showed me a sepia photograph of Brenda lying facedown in a pool of blood. Ron casually scoffed that some of his attorneys had given him the photo to try to “elicit some emotion out of me.”

Ron kept talking after showing me the photograph, but it was difficult to comprehend the words coming out of his mouth while also trying to keep from vomiting. For the next 20 minutes, I could hear my own breath but not the words Ron was speaking.

Watson Jr. says that while, in his opinion, Dan can’t be saved, Ron could still do the right thing by ceasing his appeals and accepting the death penalty as a consequence of his actions.

But Ron’s legal appeals are likely years away from being exhausted, and in the meantime, Ron sees no other choice other than continuing to stand up for his rights.

A Terrible Beauty
While the world outside Ron’s cell has loudly decried religious fundamentalists, whether they’re polygamists or members of al-Qaida, political extremism has been embraced with open arms.

Mormon historian Quinn points out that while the John Birch Society was once labeled as the “fanatic fringe” by conservative stalwarts like Ronald Reagan, its leaders and members have now been absorbed into the conservative party and its corporate sponsors. The infamous billionaire Koch brothers, for example, are the sons of Fred Koch, one of the founders of the John Birch Society, and many conservative leaders today spent their formative years networking at John Birch Society youth camps.

And Benson’s speeches about socialism and secret combinations have been given new life by Utah Tea Partiers.

Benson’s activism—and, by extension, the Laffertys’ extreme interpretation of it—has become part of a national chorus of hard-right conservative politics.

“It’s a totally different political landscape then it was back when Ezra Taft Benson was decrying the situation in America,” Quinn says. Benson “saw himself as a voice crying in the wilderness, whereas now the Republican Party and the conservative worldview has become the wilderness.”

Wessinger points out that radical dualism lies on a spectrum that runs from folks like the Laffertys to talking heads on Fox News and Tea Party politicians.

“We hear things like ‘political gridlock in Congress,’ ‘lack of discussion and compromise’—and all that is due to dualistic thinking in political terms,” Wessinger says. “Extreme dualism, whether it’s violent or not, neglects to understand the complexity of situations.”

Incendiary rhetoric, whether from spiritual figures like Benson or from pundits calling for the government to be shutdown, can fire up voters and ignite a political base—or they can fall like napalm on people like the Lafferty brothers or the Nevada shooters, who shouted “revolution” as they gunned down two Las Vegas policemen in June.

And separated from all of this tumult by iron bars and razor-wire fences, Ron defiantly awaits judgment while resisting outside pressures that, he says, mean to crack his resolve and force him to kill himself or simply give up his legal fight. There’s a phrase Ron picked up from a paperback he read in prison that’s stuck with him: “Too long in the refiner’s fire makes a stone of the heart.”

I googled the term and found it might have been a play off a line in the William Butler Yeats poem “Easter 1916” that reads: “Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart.” Some interpretations of Yeats poem see the stone as the unyielding soul of the Irish revolutionaries, like those executed in a 1916 revolt for independence. Following the executions, these martyrs are “Now and in time to be ... are changed, changed utterly/ A terrible beauty is born.”

On July 24, 1984, a terror in Utah was not so much born as forged in a fire of anger and hurt and tempered in blood. The saints of Utah, like any settlement of faithful, have always been in a revolution against dark forces, the satanic adversary. It’s a revolution of those who fight evil, those who succumb to it and those who do terrible wrong by so desperately trying to choose the right.

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