KIRTLAND, Ohio – Residents of this rural community where a religious cult leader killed a family of five are relieved that the ordeal that began 17 years ago is nearing an end now that an execution date has been set.
They hope Kirtland, a mix of farmland and $1 million homes about 25 miles northeast of Cleveland, will stop being known for the killings, which happened in a barn that is still standing.
“Everybody said it’s so long and it’s about time,” said Judy Culotta, 57, co-owner of a coffee shop where the Oct. 24 execution date for Jeffrey Lundgren, 56, a self-proclaimed prophet, was the talk of Friday’s breakfast crowd.
“People are saying it’s about time. They are looking for closure,” Culotta said. She gets knowing looks when she meets people out-of-town and they recognize Kirtland as the place where Lundgren orchestrated the deaths of a couple and their three young daughters.
Rick Martincic, 59, a retired fire chief who helped search for the bodies under a barn after police got a tip, said Kirtland would welcome the end of its ordeal.
“I think with this happening with him getting executed, I think it’s going to help the whole community,” Martincic said. “Whether it be closure, I think it’s going to put an end to it after 17 years. This will help.”
Kirtland is known for the Kirtland Temple important in 19th century Mormon history and, several miles away, a dilapidated barn where unsuspecting Avery family members, believed by Lundgren to be lacking commitment, were led one by one from a farmhouse to their deaths.
Sgt. Ronald Andolsek, who as a patrolman headed the investigation by the six-member Kirtland police force, remembers every corner of the farmyard and barn, ticking off dates and names like many people remember family birthdays.
The bodies were buried here under a chest-high pile of trash, this door was installed to muffle the gunshots, these boards were used by searchers for better footing in the muck, Andolsek said Friday while carefully stepping through the dark ground floor area.
“The worst thing, it was filled up with water while trying to get the bodies out,” said Andolsek, who admitted the case had stressed him but otherwise deflected questions about the emotional trauma of the murder.
Digging the bodies out was largely impersonal, he said. The tragedy took on a more difficult meaning days later when Andolsek said he saw a family photo of the victims, Dennis Avery, 49, his wife, Cheryl Avery, 46, and children Trina, 15, Becky, 13, and 6-year-old Karen.
A mention of the children draws the most emotional response in Kirtland, a town of about 6,000 residents and winding, hilly streets with attractive homes.
Martincic recounted the deadly litany familiar in a community where the cult trials and appeals dominated the headlines for years: Dennis Avery led first to the barn, bound, gagged and shot, then his wife and then the two older girls.
All bound and gagged, “Except for the little girl,” Martincic said, pausing and staring at the ground to compose himself. “Her eyes were open. She was the last one going in the grave. He (Lundgren) looked her square in the eyes and shot her. Terrible thing.”
“He killed so many people,” frowned Jen Thorne, 53, co-owner of the coffee shop with her sister-in-law Culotta. “It makes me feel awful.”
Lundgren’s wife, Alice, son Damon and seven others are serving prison terms of up to 170 years for their roles in the murders after a shared dinner in the Lundgren farmhouse.
The farmhouse, surrounded by wooded areas on three sides and facing a rural highway, remained vacant for years. Geoff Howell, 52, moved into the property six years ago and said he wasn’t afraid of any lingering spirits.
“They weren’t killed in my house,” he said. “And besides that, I went down here and laid in that grave to tell them I’m not afraid of them. Call me strange if you want to, but when I came here, I was like, `I don’t care. I didn’t do it.’ They are not after me, but then again, I’ve never heard of anyone being killed by a ghost.”
Lundgren, 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, told jurors during the penalty phase of his 1990 trial that God had commanded him to kill the Avery family.
“I am a prophet of God, even more than a prophet,” he said.
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