Karen Kowall will never forget Jan. 3, 1990.
The young prosecutor was one of several law enforcement officials asked to investigate a tip that five bodies would be found in a Kirtland barn.
“I was in the barn that night. We thought it was some crazy caller at first,” she recalled, her voice a mixture of sorrow and anger. “But when we pulled up to the scene and saw all the TV cameras, we knew there must be something to it.”
Unfortunately, it was no sick joke.
The bodies of Dennis Avery, 49; his wife, Cheryl, 46; and their daughters, Trina, 15, Rebecca, 13, and Karen, 7, were found in makeshift graves, covered with quicklime, stones and dirt.
There was evidence to support the theory that the killings were connected to some type of religious cult activity, and an investigation revealed that Kirtland cult leader Jeffrey Lundgren and his followers were responsible.
Kowall was in Columbus Tuesday to ask the eight-member Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction Parole Board to deny Lundgren clemency.
“At no time did Mr. Lundgren express any remorse for killing this family of five,” she said. “Jeffrey Lundgren is not a changed man. Forty-two of 43 judges who reviewed this case said the death penalty is an appropriate punishment.”
Lundgren, 56, is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection Oct. 24 for the April 17, 1989, murders, which were carried out execution-style. The victims were bound by duct tape and shot with a .45-caliber handgun Lundgren purchased by stealing Dennis Avery’s credit card.
Lundgren’s life could be spared if Gov. Bob Taft decides to commute his sentence to life in prison. The Parole Board will first review his case and is scheduled to notify Taft in writing of its recommendation Oct. 2.
At his trial, the cult leader said God told him to kill the Averys because they were sinners for not living in his home and following all his orders.
However, Lundgren has since realized he misinterpreted the Scripture and deserves another chance at life, said Henry Hilow, one of his attorneys.
“His extreme and deranged views prompted him to believe God told him to kill a family of five,” Hilow said. “This was albeit a brutal and senseless crime. But I submit to you it was a religious delusion based on false beliefs.”
The defense attorney said Lundgren deserves mercy because of his prior lack of a criminal background, the fact that he did not act alone, and his growth as a person over the last 16 years in prison.
“He came from a philosophy that believed in judgment,” Hilow told the board. “It was a philosophy that showed no love. It was a philosophy that believed in retribution. His readings and following of Scripture is now redeeming love. His reprehensible, vile and incomprehensible behavior was part of a religious philosophy he no longer follows. He is now a model prisoner.”
Hilow added that the jury should have been allowed to hear evidence that Lundgren was insane at the time of the murders.
However, Principal Assistant Attorney General Chuck Wille balked at that notion.
“Two experts employed by defense attorneys declared him not insane,” Wille said. “Clemency would be a miscarriage of justice.”
Lundgren was not at Tuesday’s hearing. Instead, he met privately last week with Parole Board member Kathleen Kovach.
“I should have saved the people and not sacrificed them,” Lundgren reportedly told Kovach. “I am a failure to those people. I am a wretched man.”
His attorney said those comments prove he is rehabilitated. But Kovach was not impressed.
“When I asked (Lundgren) how he felt knowing he slaughtered five people – including three children – he said, ‘Burdened.’ But I did not see any emotional remorse,” she said.
Lundgren’s victims moved from Missouri in 1987 to follow his teachings. After being invited to his farm on Route 6, they were led to the barn, where they were forced into a pit, shot and buried.
Lundgren started his no-name cult after he was dismissed as a senior guide at the Kirtland Temple managed by the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
He was one of 13 cult members arrested in the case. Lundgren’s former wife, Alice, is serving five life sentences for her role in the killings. Lundgren is now married to Kathryn Johnson, another former cult member who was not charged in the case.
Madison Township resident Renee Webster, Cheryl Avery’s niece, attended the hearing to plead with the board to carry out the execution. Webster read three letters from the victims’ family members who could not be at the hearing.
“Should he be executed? That is like saying, should the sun come up in the morning?” wrote Lance Bailey, Cheryl Avery’s brother. “Having Cheryl killed is as if I have had both legs taken off. It has taken me a long time to learn to walk. Learn to walk I have, but I will never walk the same again. For nine months we had no idea what had happened to the family. It was like they had vanished from the face of the earth.”
Another family member, Donald Bailey, wrote that killing Lundgren is the only thing that will give them closure.
“I personally have one great fear: that if his sentence were commuted to life in prison someday, someone will forget what he has done, and (he) may be turned loose on society,” Webster read from the letter. “It must be made certain that this can never happen.
“The memories of his victims, the welfare of society and the demands of justice all dictate this final act of cleansing. My only regret is he has but one life to give. Give the families and all others affected the closure they so desperately need.
“Make Jeff Lundgren die!”