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Dan eventually took over his father’s Orem chiropractic office, and often talked bull with clients about God and politics. But in the early ’80s, these run-of-the-mill conversations cascaded into extreme libertarian activism, with Dan railing against paying for licenses, taxes and even speeding tickets. He now describes this political activism as part of a kind of “tunnel vision” that he’d obtain when he felt he was right and nothing could convince him otherwise.
The activism caused Ron’s wife to send him to Dan to “straighten him out”—instead, Ron says, it was his brothers who straightened him out and convinced him to join their cause.
Watson Jr. says Dan could make him believe anything. He convinced him once that by praying, they wouldn’t need to fill their car with gasoline, and another time that drinking your own urine is good for the body.
The Lafferty patriarch was not so easily persuaded. Watson Sr. returned early from an LDS mission because Dan’s refusal to pay taxes had put the family business in jeopardy of being shut down by the government.
Dan recalls calmly explaining his political activism to his father, only to have Watson Sr. respond by trying to perform an exorcism.
- Ron and Dan Lafferty as pictured in the Deseret News and The Salt Lake Tribune during the coverage of their crime.
“I could see him understanding the logic just like Ron did, and as soon as that started to happen, he shook his head ... and he raised his hand and said, ‘In the name of Jesus Christ, I command the devil come out of you!’ ” Dan says.
Awkwardness settled around them, Dan says, as his father realized Dan wasn’t changed.
In 1983, the year their father died, Dan and his brothers became increasingly involved in the School of the Prophets, which sought to re-create an institution of the LDS Church’s early years, when meetings were held to discuss social and political issues affecting members.
The lesson plan at this time was a call to biblical living—plural marriage, male rule of the household and, eventually, the necessity of the death of Brenda Lafferty, the outspoken wife of younger Lafferty brother Allen, and her baby.
Written out on yellow notepad, this “removal revelation” that Ron said he’d received from God showed that God and Ron shared some common enemies—mainly Brenda.
Brenda “was not afraid to tell [Ron] her opinion: that he was a jerk to his wife and she didn’t want him anywhere around her husband, Allen,” Watson Jr. says. “She didn’t pull any punches.”
Ron says that Brenda should not have meddled in his private affairs and should have come to him as the head of his household instead of going behind his back and sowing discord with Ron’s wife.
Rebecca vividly recalls the relatively short period between the Laffertys’ role as upstanding community members and the 1984 killings. When she was 5, her life changed abruptly when Dan uprooted the family from a cozy suburban existence and into a dilapidated, mice-infested house on a lonely dirt farm in Orem. Dan allowed electricity to be used only for the refrigerator, and his wife was suddenly tasked with milking cows, baking bread, tending chickens and boiling buckets of water to bathe her children.
Rebecca recalls her mother revolting against this pioneer living with pure passive-aggressive scorn.
“She’d let the chickens run through the house and say, ‘OK, let’s live free!’ and then she’d let the chickens just shit all over,” Rebecca says with a laugh.
She says her mother took a similar tack with Dan’s interest in polygamy, openly encouraging him to find a sister wife, which would give her an opportunity to leave Dan and his extremism behind.
While Rebecca now laughs at the weird six months in the farmhouse, she also recalls it as a time her father would shift from dark depression to violent outbursts within the blink of an eye. It’s when she first saw him hit her mother and when he was the most violent with her.
“He was kind of like an alcoholic, but he never drank,” Rebecca says. “The pressure would build until he would just explode. He could be so nice and yet beat the shit out of me.”
Though Dan is at peace with the killings, he looks back at this experiment with regret.
“It makes me sad to think of what my good wife put up with during those experimental days, especially now, as I understand—what I think I do—about how absolutely wrong it is or was,” Dan says.
Troubles of the Flesh
Rebecca looks back on her early days with Dan as a time when her father was struggling toward some impossible standard, set down by the model of his exacting father.
For Watson Jr., this need for perfection was compounded by Dan’s “weakness of the flesh,” which he saw in many of the Lafferty boys—a handsome and popular lot known for chasing the girls they grew up with.
Watson says Dan repressed and compensated for his carnal desires with fervid study of law and religion, and compares Dan’s lust for “plural wives” to the problems of pornography addiction that the church now frequently speaks against.
“[Dan] couldn’t handle it and it drove him crazy,” Watson says. “He wanted to be a good person and he couldn’t handle it.”
Dan says he was plagued by his desires, but only because of the church’s false teachings.
“When I was young and going to church, I thought because I couldn’t stop masturbating, that I might be an evil person, and it tormented me so much that I contemplated castration as a possible way to stop offending God, as I was mind-fucked to believe that I was,” Dan says.
In his vision of God’s 1,000-year party, sex will be a key part of celebrating who we are as people. Unlike our current existence, he says, sex won’t be a tool of domination over women. If anything, women will enjoy a greater satisfaction from sex than men do.
- Clippings from 1984 issues of the Deseret News
Dan now looks at church teachings against sexual impurity as being one of the tools of oppression wielded by religion’s “merchants of guilt and fears.”
This religiously indoctrinated fear, however, is something Dan denies motivated the killings he undertook. For him, it was a different fear entirely—one of walking the “razor’s edge” of making sure he didn’t offend God by not having the will to kill.
Ron’s removal revelation made him the voice of God, and he called on Dan to be the arm of God to help carry out the divine mission.
And so it was that Dan felt guided by a spirit as he pushed his way into Brenda’s American Fork duplex, cut Erica—so deeply, police said, that only a tiny thread of flesh was left connecting her head to her body—and helped Ron bind Brenda and allowed him to beat her to a pulp before Dan tied her neck with a vacuum cord and cut her throat as well.
When the two men left the duplex, Dan says, he realized that, this time, the younger brother had come to the rescue of the older.
Ron had been torn up by the divorce, and now it was Dan who solved Ron’s problem when, Dan says, Ron was unable to wield the knife himself. And as the brothers drove away, it was Dan’s reassuring hand on Ron’s shoulder.
Is He in Us?
After researching this story since early 2013, it wasn’t until my deadline that I realized that beyond simply reporting a story, I had embarked on a naïve folly. Having encountered Dan at his monastery and being stunned by his zen-like serenity, I felt like I might be able to elicit from him some tiny measure of contrition.
Thus, with my plucky reporter skills, I tried to pull a “gotcha” question demonstrating how his own beliefs damn him. Since Dan believes his brother to be an “asshole” child of the Devil, then why did Dan, as a child of the God of Love, fulfill Ron’s “removal revelation”?
Dan’s response was simple.
“I have to conclude that Brenda and the baby were assholes,” Dan says. “I can’t imagine God would have any of his children take the life of [those] that were wheat as opposed to tares.”
- Clippings from 1984 issues of the Deseret News
I’m startled now to think that I believed I could somehow dredge a concession from the depths of Dan’s bizarre fundamentalist-turned-jailhouse-guru mind—that I could hold my breath and dive to the bottom of this abyss and fumble around for ... what?
It was more than hubris to think that I could find the Dan from before July 24, 1984, on this dark ocean floor. To live in such darkness for so long is to evolve into something totally different—a creature that breathes murky water instead of air and sees in the dark but squints at the light. One that finds a method in what most would call unconscionable madness.
For Dan, however, it’s an upside-down world; it’s everyone else who has yet to evolve to the point where they can see the truth of a world where free will is an illusion.
As Elijah, Dan says, he alone is blessed with the ability to see the eternal recurrence of a life where 6,000 years of hell on earth is offset by a party where the chosen will get lit with Jesus and experience guilt-free mind-blowing sex among other such unfathomable joys.
But back on Earth, the idea of following in Dan and Ron’s footsteps haunts those closest to the brothers.
As a child Rebecca recalls the anger that would flare up inside her, like when she pummeled a girl on the bus who called her the child of a babykiller.
She eventually left the church. It didn’t resonate with her internal “truth meter,” she says, but she has not given up the feeling that Christ’s unconditional love is all that one needs for a moral compass.
After decades of bad turns, doubt and self-loathing, she’s learned that holding on to hate is too much of a burden.
In December 2013, she says, she forgave Dan for not being there. “Now I can speak up and say, ‘You know what, Dad, I don’t want to hear any preaching. I love you, and for a long time, I thought I needed to change you, that I needed to make some things right that were wrong,’ ” Rebecca says. “Now I realize I don’t need to do that.”
Watson Jr. says the Lafferty family was plagued by wondering if, inside them, was the same spirit of Ron and Dan. Watson Jr. ran from his faith for years, nauseated every time he heard scriptures recited in church that he used to hear from the mouth of Dan. But now he says the experience has strengthened his testimony of the church, as well as those of the rest of his family.
He also finds comfort in the memory of the brothers he once had.
“I know in my heart that those are two good men that the devil took ahold of,” he says. “But the devil doesn’t care about them now; he’s hung them out to dry.”
While Watson Jr. laments what took over Ron and Dan, Ron has little regard for him. Ron sees Watson Jr. as someone who was heavily involved in the School of Prophets but, instead of supporting him during the trial, fled the state.
Watson Jr. says he was involved in the school, but only until Ron announced his revelation. He dismissed it as just angry talk, he says, but cut ties with the group.
“What an unappreciative prick,” Ron says. “And when we were young I did nothing but protect him from our domineering father—and that went for all my siblings.”
Though he’s now one of the faces of religious fundamentalism, Ron says it was his politics that caused a church court to excommunicate him, essentially putting him on his path.
“The reason I lost my family is for all my brothers,” Ron says.
Now, Ron lives like a political prisoner in defiance of the federal government, which he feels trampled on his sovereign authority to protect his family by any means necessary.
While Ron declines to discuss specifics of the killings, he has no problem using the deaths as an example of how a justice system that empowers the head of the household to protect his family should work.
“True fairness was served by the act, immaterial of who carried it out,” Ron says. “I don’t care if Santa Claus committed the act—justice was served.” CW
Next week’s issue will focus on the extreme politics that informed Ron and Dan Lafferty’s actions and the prevalence of similar ideologies in the current political landscape.