Twenty years ago today, two bearded men claiming to be prophets muscled their way into an American Fork duplex thirsting for blood.
When they left, their brother’s wife and infant daughter lay dead, one on the kitchen floor, the other in her crib.
On the quiet street where the murders occurred, the crime is all but forgotten. Families have come and gone. Trees have grown tall. The Lafferty name is met with blank stares.
But some still remember Brenda and Erica Lafferty and the events of Pioneer Day 1984. The people have tried to bury memories of that day, but they keep coming back, like a wound that won’t heal.
“I don’t think I’ll ever forget,” says one neighbor. “My blood ran cold that day.”
They were senseless murders — fueled by religious fanaticism, delusions of grandeur, and an upbringing warped by violence. There have been only a handful of capital murder cases in Utah County since.
“I’m sure the old-time residents remember,” says American Fork Police Chief Terry Fox, who investigated the scene. “It’s one of those threshold events that people just don’t forget.”
In the end, the killings of Brenda and Erica Lafferty were brutal crimes that scattered an unusually close-knit family, drove others into hiding, and deeply scarred those left in their wake.
“It damaged so many people’s lives,” says Kathy Pace, a former neighbor of Brenda Lafferty. “It’s amazing how many people it hurt.”
Seeds of madness
Ron and Dan Lafferty grew up in Payson, in a family of six boys and two girls. Their father, a stern disciplinarian, seethed with a quiet rage he sometimes directed toward his wife and pets. After one spat with his wife, he beat the family dog to death with a baseball bat.
In his sons, Watson Lafferty planted the seeds of paranoia, rebellion and fanaticism. He taught his boys to distrust conventional medicine and the federal government. He also took his religious beliefs to the extreme: When one son accidentally shot himself in the stomach with an arrow, he told him he would have to suffer until morning for breaking the Sabbath.
Ron and Dan became best friends, boys known for their short tempers and willingness to back each other in a fight. As they grew into men they took after their father in other ways, too. Instead of buying baby food, Dan chewed food into a mush and then spit it into the mouths of his children. He later refused to pay taxes or obey traffic laws, believing he was above the laws of man.
In 1982, the LDS Church excommunicated Dan for trying to take his 14-year-old stepdaughter as a second wife. Dan told his brothers they were the true leaders of God’s church, and they believed him — letting their beards and hair grow long like Biblical prophets. The six boys were now spending more time with their brothers — railing against the LDS Church and the U.S. government — than they were with their own wives and children.
When Ron’s wife refused to practice polygamy and left him, he began a steady descent into madness. He spent his days and nights in an old Orem home the brothers called “the farm,” writing what he believed would one day be read as scripture.
His anguish at his wife’s departure morphed into rage, and he channelled it at three people: Chloe Low, a former LDS Relief Society president who had supported his wife during the divorce; Richard Stowe, the Highland LDS Stake president who had presided over his excommunication; and Brenda Wright Lafferty, the strong-willed wife of his youngest brother Allen.
Brenda was different than the rest of the women his brothers had married. A former beauty queen and a college graduate, she had a confidence that allowed her to speak up when others were quiet. She didn’t believe Ron or Dan were prophets, and she let them know it. When Brenda stopped Allen from joining a group called School of the Prophets with his brothers, Ron’s fury grew. First she had driven away his wife, now she was splitting up the brothers.
In March 1984, Ron recorded on a yellow legal pad what would come to be known as “the removal revelation.” He later shared it with the School of the Prophets, to the alarm of its members.
“Thus saith the Lord unto my servants the prophets,” Ron wrote. “It is my will and commandment that ye remove the following individuals in order that my work might go forward. For they have truly become obstacles in my path and I will not allow my work to be stopped. First thy brother’s wife Brenda and her baby, then Chloe Low and then Richard Stowe. And it is my will that they be removed in rapid succession.”
On the afternoon of July 24, 1984, Ron, 42, and Dan, 36, set out to fulfill the revelation. In a battered green station wagon, they drove to Allen and Brenda’s American Fork duplex, carrying with them a sawed-off shotgun, a .30-30 Winchester, a .270 deer rifle and two pearl-handled knives. They would use only the knives.
A madman’s monastery
Today, Dan Lafferty spends his days in the maximum security wing of the Utah State Prison. His skin is pale, almost translucent, which is to be expected of a man who has spent the past 19 years in prison. Small pink bags sag beneath his sunken eyes.
He wears his hair pulled up into a ponytail on top of his head, like a Buddhist monk, appropriate for a man who calls prison his monastery. He hasn’t shaved since he was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison, and his beard, wrapped in bunches every few inches with rubber bands, nearly reaches his waist.
During visits, his hands are cuffed, one leg is shackled, and a chain runs across his waist. His shackles are attached to a thick red bar bolted to the floor, limiting his movement to a few inches.
He wears an orange jumpsuit, rubber flip-flops, and the look of a man pleased with himself. He is a large man and a frightening sight, until he speaks, and then he comes across as polite, articulate, even gentle.
He recalls the murders of his sister-in-law and niece as if he were a surgeon recounting a routine medical procedure. He claims responsibility for both murders, although Ron, who is on death row, was convicted of killing Brenda and sentenced to die for devising the murder plot.
“It’s never haunted me, it’s never bothered me,” Dan says, legs crossed, hands clasped in his lap. “I don’t blame anyone for not understanding it. But if you had done it, it wouldn’t haunt you either. It was a strange phenomenon.”
Dan said he and his brother were led by God to beat Brenda unconscious, wrap a vacuum cord around her neck until she went limp, and then slit her throat. She was 24.
“I held Brenda’s hair and did it pretty much the way they did it in the scriptures,” he says proudly. “Then I walked in Erica’s room. I talked to her for a minute, I said, ‘I’m not sure why I’m supposed to do this, but I guess God wants you home.’ ”
He then looked away as he slit the 15-month-old baby’s throat.
“I like to think she didn’t suffer,” he says. “It probably should draw more sympathy than it does. But I don’t let it.”
Dan doesn’t think he will die in prison; he believes the walls will crumble and he will emerge as the biblical prophet Elijah, announcing the second coming of Christ.
“I don’t feel comfortable saying I know I’m Elijah,” he says. “But I’d be pretty surprised if I’m not.”
Dan believes all organized religion is of the devil, although religion is his favorite topic of conversation. Even though he tore up his scriptures years ago and threw them in the garbage, he quotes from them liberally.
Everyone on Earth is a child of God, he says, or a child of the devil. Ron, who tried to kill Dan in the Utah County Jail when they were first arrested, is a child of the devil, Dan says. Heaven, he believes, is a 1,000-year party.
Dan’s mother used to visit him, but he hasn’t had a visit from the family he was born into in 15 years. Three years ago, his oldest son, now 26, visited him on Christmas with his wife. Mostly, his son just looked at him, Dan says, trying to figure him out.
Dan has never talked to Allen about murdering his wife and daughter.
“Allen once asked my mom why I wouldn’t repent,” he says. “There’s some things you can’t repent for. I’m sure Allen thought I was talking about an unpardonable sin.
“What I meant is, you don’t repent for things that aren’t wrong.”
Some crimes maim, even cripple people who had little, or nothing, to do with them. The murders of Brenda and Erica Lafferty were such crimes. They caused an entire family shame, cursed their names. For others, they turned a holiday into a day of mourning. It is a day scores of people have tried to forget.
As horrible as Pioneer Day 1984 was, it could have been worse. Dan and Ron emerged from the American Fork duplex covered in blood, ready to fulfill the second part of the revelation. But Chloe Low wasn’t home.
They then made their way toward the home of Richard Stowe, the Highland LDS Stake president who had presided over Ron’s excommunication. Stowe was home, using a tractor to remove a set of concrete steps with his son, but the men missed the turnoff to the Stowe house and kept driving, on to Wendover and Reno, where they were arrested in a casino buffet line.
“I would’ve killed them the same way,” Dan says. “But once the next step didn’t happen, I knew it wasn’t meant to be. There wasn’t much enthusiasm for it.”
When Stowe and Low learned they were named in the so-called “removal revelation,” they went into hiding for several weeks. Stowe, now the Highland LDS Stake patriarch, will not talk about the murders. When he hears the name Lafferty his jaw sets, the blood rises to his cheeks and his eyes turn fierce.
“So much crap has been written about that,” he says. “I don’t want to have anything to do with it.”
Not far from Stowe’s Highland home, Kathy Pace lives in a two-story brick house. Pace knew Brenda and Allen Lafferty well; Allen helped her prepare for her first visit to the LDS Temple.
Two decades have passed, but she cannot talk about the couple without crying. Her 14-year-old daughter baby-sat Erica three days a week, she says, and on the day of the murders Brenda had called to ask for a baby sitter. Pace says she had an uncomfortable feeling and didn’t let her daughter go.
“She could have been there. The thought has crossed my mind a lot,” she says. “As a mother I feel so bad for what Brenda went through, but as a mother I also feel so grateful that my daughter wasn’t there.”
Pace’s daughter has never been able to talk about the murders.
Some who live on the street where the murders occurred still fear the Laffertys. One 80-year-old widow, who saw the Laffertys’ station wagon pull up to the duplex from her kitchen window, asks not to be named as she recalls the day’s events.
Allen and Brenda’s former next-door neighbor, who also asked for anonymity, says Allen called the police from her home and then called his mother, who screamed out in horror.
“I heard this wail come from the phone,” the woman says. “I can’t even explain it.”
What most neighbors wonder is how two good Mormon boys, including one who would serve as a bishop’s counselor, could commit murder in the name of God.
Ken Beck, who was Allen and Brenda’s LDS bishop, remembers seeing the yellow police tape and thinking it looked so out of place in a sleepy town like American Fork.
“It was a complete shock for all of us. It was just a quiet and lazy neighborhood,” he says. “I think about it every year at this time.”
Terry Fox, now the American Fork Police chief, spent 12 hours at the crime scene. Other officers had nightmares of warm blood dripping down their arms.
“The hard part of this was the baby, going to the baby and sitting through the autopsy,” he says. “Because I had a couple young daughters, one the same age. You just ask yourself, ‘Why?’ ”
Neighbors expected the duplex would sit empty for years, but once the blood-soaked carpets had been replaced and the walls whitewashed, a young couple moved in. It has been occupied ever since.
Some have speculated Allen and his mother knew in advance about the murders, but Dan says that is not so.
Kathy Pace wonders what has happened to Allen and the rest of the Lafferty family.
Only one of the six brothers remains in Utah. The others left for places where the Lafferty name isn’t associated with murder.
“Even after all this time you mention Laffertys and that’s all people think of,” Pace says. “How much pain can one family bear?”
Those who know the Laffertys say moving on has proved difficult for the family. Ron and Dan’s mother is said to work in the Provo LDS Temple. The burden of what her sons did weighs heavily on her. Allen is rumored to be living in Southern California, working for a Hollywood production company. Several Lafferty family members did not respond to interview requests for this story.
“I love Allen. I care about him and I hope things are OK,” Pace says. “Everyone looked at him, like, ‘What was your part?’ But Allen was a good-hearted man. I just hope he’s found some peace in his life.”
Others are less sympathetic. Brenda’s former next-door neighbor wonders why Allen didn’t warn his wife about the revelation when his brothers told him about it.
“He’s the one who let her down,” says Brenda’s oldest sister, Betty McEntire. “He should have taken care of her that day. I have a hard time not thinking he knew something.”
Of the six boys and two girls in the Lafferty family, only one brother and a sister have reached out to Brenda’s family. Some of Ron’s sons have also apologized for what their father did.
Ron does not talk to the press. He is angry, Dan says, waiting for another chance to kill his brother. When Ron appears in court, he spews expletives at the judge. At his 1996 retrial he wore a sign that read “Exit Only” on the seat of his pants to ward off evil spirits he believed wanted to enter his body through his anus.
The ongoing appeals and court proceedings that have delayed Ron’s execution have been agonizing for Brenda’s family, McEntire says, forcing them to relive her brutal death. In 1991, a federal appeals court ruled Ron’s original trial judge failed to adequately address his mental competency. Ron was again found guilty of murder and sentenced to die in 1996. It is a sentence his attorneys are fighting, but most everyone agrees he will be executed.
“Why can’t this be done with? There’s a lot of anger that his sentence hasn’t been carried out,” McEntire says. “We’re constantly reminded that they’re still there, at a great cost to the taxpayers. Not only do you lose somebody, but you continue to lose them every time it comes up in court.
“I just hope people remember who Brenda was. She was such a fun person with a lot of energy and personality,” McEntire says. “She hasn’t been forgotten.”
One day, she hopes, it will be Ron and Dan Lafferty who are forgotten. For now, they sit in the Utah State Prison, one awaiting execution by firing squad, the other waiting for the prison walls to come crumbling down.
“You could say I’m patiently waiting to see if I’m Elijah,” Dan says, the shackles tight around his wrists. “I could be wrong, maybe it’s all just a comfortable illusion.”
By Jesse Hyde