KIRTLAND, Ohio — Faith drew Jeffrey Lundgren to this northeast Ohio community important in Mormon history, but his role as a self-styled prophet led to his banishment from the church and eventually to death row for the cult killings of a family of five.
“I cannot say that God was wrong. I cannot say that I am sorry I did what God commanded me to do in the physical act,” the husky former janitor, now 56, told a jury in 1990 in a bid to spare his life.
“I am a prophet of God. I am even more than a prophet. I am not a false prophet; therefore, I am not worthy of the (death) penalty.”
Lundgren’s way with words and his commitment didn’t sway jurors: they recommended the death penalty for the cult leader in the killing of Dennis Avery, 49, his wife, Cheryl, 46, and their daughters, Trina, 15, Rebecca, 13, and 7-year-old Karen.
Lundgren’s execution was scheduled to proceed today, pending a last minute appeal his lawyer planned to make to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued an order late last night allowing the execution to go forward, overturning a lower court ruling that would have delayed the execution to allow Lundgren to join a lawsuit challenging Ohio’s use of lethal injection.
Lundgren’s execution would be the fifth this year in Ohio and the 24th since the state resumed executions in 1999.
The evidence against him was compelling: Lundgren, upset by what he thought was the Avery family’s lack of faith, arranged a dinner hosted by cult members. Afterward, he and his followers led the Avery family members one by one — Dennis first, Karen last — to their deaths in a barn.
Each was bound and shot. A chain saw was used to muffle the gunfire while remaining Avery family members cleaned up after dinner.
“Facts are stubborn things and the facts of this case overwhelmingly place responsibility for the kidnapping and aggravated murders of the five Avery family members” on Lundgren, U.S. District Judge Donald C. Nugent wrote in a 272-page decision rejecting a Lundgren appeal.
Over the years 40 judges have reviewed Lundgren’s appeals. The most recent was filed one week before the scheduled Tuesday execution claiming lethal injection would be cruel and unusual punishment, particularly since Lundgren is overweight and diabetic.
U.S. Rep. Steve LaTourette, who handled the case when he was Lake County prosecutor, suggested any problem inserting an intravenous line could be resolved by executing Lundgren by the same method he used against his victims: a bullet in the head.
Firefighters who dug up the bodies buried under the barn scoffed at Lundgren’s claim based on obesity and said they routinely inserted intravenous lines into overweight people needing emergency medical care.
“It’s sad what happened to this community,” said fire Lt. Dale Grinstead, 48, who remembers the emotional stress of digging up the bodies. “We’re pretty tight-knit. It was hard on a lot of people. It was hard on the church. It was hard on all of us.”
Lundgren’s journey to Ohio’s death row began in 1984 when he moved his family from Independence, Mo., to Kirtland to work as a volunteer guide at the Kirtland Temple established by Joseph Smith Jr. in 1836.
Lundgren’s work as a Sunday school teacher and familiarity with scripture, particularly the Book of Mormon, got good reviews. But he eventually had a falling out over visitor contributions with the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, now called the Community of Christ, which owns the temple. He was fired in 1987.
The cult of about 20 members emerged as Lundgren attracted followers with his teachings. Upon his eviction from a church-owned home in 1987, some cult members moved into a rented farmhouse with Lundgren, sharing their paychecks and attending his classes.
The upshot of his teaching: Jesus would return to earth only when the Kirtland Temple was recaptured.
Authorities got a tip about a possible assault against the temple and began surveillance of the cult. Nothing came of the threat, but the Averys were killed April 17, 1989, and cult members headed to a wilderness outpost in Davis, W.Va., and later a commune in Chilhowee, Mo.
Lundgren was careful to make sure no one would be looking for the Averys. Before the murders, he directed Cheryl Avery to write to her family and inform them that they were moving to Wyoming and would provide contact information when they got settled.
The case was cracked eight months later when a dissident cult member, upset that his wife had been selected to become Lundgren’s second wife, tipped authorities. On Jan. 4, 1990, the bodies were found in muddy graves under a chest-high pile of trash on the barn floor.
Thirteen cult members were charged in the case, including Lundgren’s wife, Alice, now 55, and their son, Damon, now 35, both serving life prison terms.
Ursuline Sister Colette M. Livingston, during a Cleveland sidewalk vigil against Lundgren’s execution, nodded in agreement when asked if the calculated style of the killings might challenge the views of some death penalty opponents.
“I’m glad I had all these years to think about it. He made a lot of people angry,” said Livingston. “What he did was terrible, terrible. We want to keep him in prison for the rest of his life.”
But there was little evidence of support for that alternative in Kirtland, an area of wooded hills, farms and increasingly upscale homes northeast of Cleveland.
“There’s a lot of hostility against him here,” said police Sgt. Ronald Andolsek, who as a patrolman led the investigation into the cult killings.
By Andolsek’s calculation, Lundgren spent more time on death row awaiting execution than the Avery girls lived.
Andolsek said the crime was personalized for him three days after the bodies were dug up when, for the first time, he saw a group photo of the Avery family. “It hit me right then,” he said.
Andolsek compared Lundgren’s mind-control tactics to David Koresh with the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, Jim Jones of Jonestown, Guyana, and Charles Manson, leader of “The Family” whose victims included the pregnant Hollywood actress Sharon Tate.
“They used the same methods on their followers,” Andolsek said. “Jeff wasn’t the first. He won’t be the last.”
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