COLUMBUS, Ohio – A cult leader convicted of shooting to death a family of five in 1989 while they stood in a pit dug inside his barn will be executed Oct. 10, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
Jeffrey Lundgren, 56, formed a cult after he was dismissed in 1987 as a lay minister of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, now known as the Community of Christ. Several people had moved with him to a rented farm house 23 miles east of Cleveland, where they called him “Dad” and contributed money for group expenses.
Lundgren said passages in the Bible told him to kill the family, and witnesses said the family was not as enthusiastic about the cult as Lundgren would have liked.
The victims were Dennis Avery, 49; his wife, Cheryl, 46; and daughters Trina, 15, Rebecca, 13, and Karen, 7. The family had moved from Missouri in 1987 to follow Lundgren’s teachings.
In an unsworn statement at his 1990 trial, Lundgren told the jury that he and his cult were preparing for the second coming of Christ, which they believed would occur at Reorganized Church’s temple in Kirtland, where the church was based from 1831-1838. He said the spiritually unclean had to be dealt with and referred to the killings as “pruning the vineyard.”
On April 17, 1989, the Avery family was invited to dinner, then led to a barn. There they were bound and placed into the pit, where Lundgren shot them. The pit was filled with dirt.
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Kirtland police found the first of the bodies Jan. 3, 1990, leading to Lundgren’s arrest days later in California. A jury convicted him of five counts of aggravated murder and five counts of kidnapping.
U.S. Rep. Steve LaTourette of Madison, who as Lake County prosecutor presented the case himself, said he was relieved Lundgren will be executed after 16 years – longer than any of the Avery’s children were alive. He said he has vivid memories of being with “very hardened law enforcement officers” when Karen Avery’s body was removed.
“There wasn’t a sound in that barn. It was total silence,” LaTourette said.
Lundgren, his wife and son were among 13 cult members arrested in the case. Most lived at the Kirtland farm, and some pleaded guilty to reduced charges. Alice Lundgren was sentenced to five terms of life in prison for conspiracy, complicity and kidnapping. Damon Lundgren was sentenced to life in prison for murder and kidnapping in four of the slayings.
Jeffery Lundgren has exhausted his appeals, said Bob Beasley, spokesman for Attorney General Jim Petro. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Lundgren’s conviction and sentence March 13, and his lawyers filed no appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, Beasley said. Messages seeking comment were left Thursday for lawyers James Jenkins and Henry Hilow in Cleveland.
At his trial, Lundgren said he had devised a way to “divide the words” in the Bible to determine if a passage could be “of God.”
“I abhorred the sin that was in Mr. Avery. I would say to you that Dennis Avery sought to lead people to false gods. It has been proven to you that the Averys were found in a pit with stones on top. The hands of my people cast those stones,” Lundgren said.
“In dividing the words, judgment was to come on my house, the way it was found in the word and it was executed … I struggled with that. I did not want to do it. It was not a joyful task and I put it off and put it off and put it off.”