Authorities recall horror of family’s cult killings

The bodies of Dennis and Cheryl Avery and their three daughters, of Madison Township, were discovered 15 years ago this week.

The five victims were bound and gagged with duct tape and shot one by one in Kirtland by cult leader Jeffrey Lundgren on April 17, 1989.

Then the victims were buried in a communal grave in the barn on Route 6 in Kirtland.

The barn is on the farm where Lundgren and his cult were living.

Authorities discovered the bodies after receiving a tip from the estranged husband of cult member Kathryn Johnson.

Here is what happened to some of the key figures involved in the court cases and their thoughts on the murders:

* Steven C. LaTourette, who was Lake County prosecutor at the time, was at home when he heard about the tip that there were bodies buried in the barn.

“(Kirtland Police Chief Dennis T. Yarborough) said they had gotten a tip and that they were going to go out and do some digging,” LaTourette remembered.

LaTourette said the tipster initially faxed an incorrect diagram of the barn.

“It had the grave site in the wrong place. They dug there and hit a concrete pad,” he said. “Everyone thought it was just a mistake and breathed a sigh of relief.”

But the police kept digging and eventually found the grave.

LaTourette personally handled the prosecution of Lundgren, who received the death penalty, and cult member Ronald Luff, who was sentenced to 170 years in prison.

Fifteen years later, LaTourette sees no reason to delay Lundgren’s execution.

“It was as close to a slam dunk as you can get,” he said. “This is the guy. He’s getting three square meals a day, paid for by the taxpayers, and I think the sentence should be carried out.”

LaTourette, who is now a congressman, still thinks about the murders.

“It was a case that was personally disturbing because it involved the death of children,” he said. “This case bothered me for a long time.”

* Lake County Public Defender R. Paul LaPlante has not been in contact with Lundgren since he was sentenced.

LaPlante said he worked on Lundgren’s case full-time for a year.

“And I don’t regret that, but at that point, I had had enough of it,” he said.

LaPlante said he and Lundgren were operating in parallel universes during the case.

“He was totally calm, totally at ease with his situation,” LaPlante said. “He knew full well the gravity of it – that in fact man’s law would hold him accountable up to and including the death sentence. He did not fear that.”

LaPlante said Lundgren was in “total touch with reality.”

“And he was probably one of the better clients I have ever had that finds themselves in such a situation,” the public defender said.

“He was not demanding. He accepted what he did and did not debate that. He never quarreled with any approach we wanted to take. But it didn’t seem to matter to him.

“He was at peace with what he had done because he knew in his own way that he was following God’s law, and he was not concerned with the consequences.”

* Former assistant Lake County prosecutors Karen Lawson and Sandra Dray gained a conviction in the case of Alice Lundgren.

Lawson said she asked to be assigned to the case.

“I perceived that she would be part of the inner circle of the cult and therefore, it would be one of the most interesting cases,” Lawson said. “And as it turned out, it was one of the most difficult cases because Alice was not at the farm when the murders happened. She had gone shopping.”

Lawson still has a photograph of the prosecution team on the wall in her office.

“It’s there as a reminder, but I don’t dwell on the case,” said Lawson, who now works in private practice.

Dray, who also is in private practice, occasionally thinks about the case.

“Whenever one of my kids has a birthday, I think about the (Avery) girls and their ages – that they would be young women now,” Dray said.

Dray was a good friend of Yarborough’s and said the chief, who passed away in 1998, did not get enough credit for his work on the case.

“He helped us understand it,” Dray said. “He was able to explain the concepts and perceptions, so you weren’t just dealing with supposed ‘crazies.’ He explained some of the methods to their madness.”

* Ronald Andolsek, a Kirtland police officer who helped investigate the murders, said he does not think of the case very often.

“The first couple of years, I thought about it daily,” he said. “I had one nightmare before Jeff got arrested.”

Andolsek said the day after the Averys’ bodies were unearthed, Andolsek dreamed he was in the restroom of a commercial building.

“It was a setting like the old prosecutor’s office (in the courthouse),” he said. “I dreamt it was my turn to be executed by Jeff.”

After the discovery of the bodies, Andolsek had to undergo counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder.

He filed a workers’ compensation claim in 1993 to recover the cost of the counseling, but it was denied.

Andolsek, who is now a sergeant with the Kirtland Police Department, asked the Ohio Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case, but both courts refused.

Andolsek said he did not file the claim to get money, but wanted to try to get lawmakers to change rules regarding reimbursement for psychological counseling.

“It wasn’t the bodies,” he said. “It was the overall publicity of it, being in the national spotlight.”

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog)
The News-Herald, USA
Jan. 3, 2005
Scott Heasley, Staff Writer

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This post was last updated: Dec. 31, 2014