May 10, 2023

A Hate Driven Death, The Sad Story of Gordon Church

A Hate Driven Death, The Sad Story of Gordon Church

Please bare with me as I work through my audio issues as they still persist, but I too shall persist in getting to the bottom of it. Thank you!

Twenty eight year old Gordon Church was a kind and gentle young man. He was born in the small town of...

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Please bare with me as I work through my audio issues as they still persist, but I too shall persist in getting to the bottom of it. Thank you!

Twenty eight year old Gordon Church was a kind and gentle young man. He was born in the small town of Fillmore, Utah with a population of 2,592 as of the 2020 census. He was a college student at Southern Utah State College, or SUSC for short, in Cedar City, Utah, the site of The Utah Shakespeare Festival and is now Southern Utah State University. A chance meeting at a convenience store in 1988 turned into a terrifying and deadly night for Gordon and a case full of twists and turns that is ongoing to this day.

The details of this crime are graphic, discretion is advised.

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A Hate Driven Death, The Sad Story of Gordon Church

Twenty-eight-year-old Gordon Church was a kind and gentle young man. He was born in the small town of Fillmore, Utah with a population of 2,592 as of the 2020 census. He was a college student at Southern Utah State College, or SUSC for short, in Cedar City, Utah, the site of The Utah Shakespeare Festival and is now Southern Utah State University. A chance meeting at a convenience store in 1988 turned into a terrifying and deadly night for Gordon and a case full of twists and turns that is ongoing to this day.  


The details of this crime are graphic, discretion is advised. 


Today we will return to my home state of Utah. I remember hearing about this case years ago, but I had no idea just how twisted and brutal it was until I read about it again recently. In 1988 Gordon Church was attending Southern Utah State University in Cedar City, Utah, studying theater tech. He was living with his grandma in Cedar City to save money on rent, and in return he would help her around the house. He was 28 years old and had the quintessential 80’s hair. He was a kind and gentle man that loved his family very much. His friends and even those who have been involved in this case in any way, often get emotional just talking about him, almost 35 years later. Gordon came from a family that was very active in the Mormon church. 


On November 23rd,1988, Gordon needed to make a stop at the 7-11 in Cedar City to buy cigarettes before meeting some friends for dinner. On his way into the store, a conversation started between Gordon and Michael Anthony Archuleta and Lance Conway Wood who had gone to the store to buy soft drinks for their whiskey. Wood and Archuleta asked Gordon to take them cruising in his 1978 Thunderbird/ Gordon drove them up and down main street, and stopped and spoke to some women, before driving to a secluded area up Cedar Canyon. What exactly happened next, only Archuleta and Wood know. They each told varying versions about the events of that night and continue to do so. The following is the version that has been pieced through research and the evidence gathered that night.


Sometime during the car ride, Gordon let it be known to the two that he was gay, it was at this time that Archuleta and Wood decided to rob him. The three men got out of the car, and Archuleta leaned Gordon over the hood of his car and began to engage in sex with him but stopped. Wood would later say that Archuleta sexually assaulted Gordon by knifepoint. Another version is that Archuleta proceeded with the sex act with the use of a condom. When he was done, Archuleta asked Wood, who was standing by the trunk of the car, if he “wanted any.” Wood declined. Gordon was beaten and thrown to the ground and put in the trunk of the car, where he was bound with tire chains and a bungee cord. The men then drove to Millard County to a place called Dog Valley, approximately 80 miles away. One of Gordon’s friends told the media that he hated tight spaces and rooms with no windows, so this must have been absolute torture for him. During the drive, Archuleta yelled at Gordon not to mess with the lights. Although he would claim that he only hollered to him to ask if he was alright. 


Once they arrived, Gordon was removed from the trunk. Not knowing what to do next, it was decided that they would attach battery cables to his testicles, the other end being attached to the battery to electrocute him. At some time, Archuleta cut Gordon’s throat again, the two cuts now formed an x. He was then beaten and sexually assaulted with a tire iron and a tire jack. Archuleta and Wood then dragged his body under a tree and covered it with branches, sweeping the path back to the car of any footprints.


The two men fled the area in Gordons car and drove north to Salt Lake City, about a 167-mile drive. The car was left abandoned in the lot of an apartment complex where Archuleta’s brother lived. They went to a friend's apartment, and she noticed that their clothes were caked in blood. They told her they had just been rabbit hunting. The two headed to a thrift store, bought new clothes, dumped their bloody clothes in a drainage ditch, discarded the contents of Gordon’s wallet and hitchhiked back to Cedar City, stopping along the way to eat breakfast. 


26-year-old Archuleta and 19-year-old Wood were recent parolees who knew each other from prison; they lived together in an apartment in Cedar City along with their girlfriends, which was a parole violation. Both men were adopted, and each had been in trouble with the law. Archuleta was 5 when he was adopted, his biological mother was 16 years old when she had him. His adoptive parents and family members have described to the media the deplorable conditions he came from and the various behavioral issues he had growing up. The Archuleta family was loving and has always been very supportive of Archuleta. Wood was adopted at 6 months, he had learning and speech difficulties growing up, and has a stable, loving and supportive family as well.


Early the following morning, after Wood had spoken to a friend about the murder, he made a call to his parole officer letting him know what he had witnessed. Iron County Sheriff’s officers met Wood at the station where he would proceed to tell a horrific tale. 


His version of the events are as follows. While Gordon was driving the car, Archuleta cut his throat and all Gordon said was, ow, why did you do that? He pulled over into a secluded area and only Archuleta and Gordon got out, Wood stayed in car and witnessed Archuleta have sex with Gordon. When the officers asked why this was done to Gordon, Wood’s answer was because he’s a faggot. Wood spoke in a casual way throughout the interview, and even laughed at times. Sometime during the meeting, an officer looked down and saw a speck of blood on Wood’s shoe. The officer knew that Wood’s involvement in the torture and murder of Gordon Church was greater than he was telling them.


Wood, along with some officers drove to Cedar Canyon and before long, Wood pointed to the spot and a blood trail led straight to Gordon’s body. Officers began processing the area, where hair, blood and skin was found. They were able to identify Gordon right away as one of the officers knew him and his driver’s license was lying nearby. With video cameras running, Wood agreed to do a crime scene reenactment. When the two men took Gordon out of the trunk, he said, you’re gonna kill me aren’t ya? Archuleta answered no, I’m not gonna kill ya. He then went on to describe how Archuleta removed the chains and attached the jumper cables to Gordon’s body, only he used a cruder term. He extricated himself from the crime as if he was just a helpless bystander, blaming all the acts on Archuleta. The officers didn’t buy it. Again, Wood was laughing and smiling at times, and casual in his description and seemed excited about telling everybody what happened to Gordon Church that night. He was asked again why Gordon was killed; Wood’s answer was because he was queer.


This was a brutal murder, and the officers went to Archuleta’s apartment where he was sleeping with his girlfriend and arrested him. Without any prompts from anyone, Archuleta immediately started blaming Lance Wood.


On Thanksgiving night, officers interviewed Michael Archuleta. He made Wood out to be the main perpetrator, stating that Wood tried to break Gordon’s neck. He blamed the killing on Wood. 


Just like in most cases, the entire truth of who did what will never be fully known by anyone except Wood and Archuleta and they both changed their stories numerous times back then and still do to this day. Neither of these men showed any remorse or cared about justice for Gordon or his family, they only cared about what would happen to them. The important fact that remained however, was that Wood and Archuleta were both involved in this brutal torture and murder of Gordon Church. 


The trial for Michael Anthony Archuleta began in December of 1989, he was charged with murder in the first degree, aggravated sexual assault, object rape, forcible sexual abuse, aggravated kidnapping, aggravated assault, and possession of a stolen vehicle. Opening statements described investigators finding Gordon’s partially nude and mutilated body buried in a shallow grave, covered in branches and dirt in Dog Valley. He had been gagged and the tire chains were still wrapped around his body. His blood was found splattered all over his car and his head was misshapen from his injuries. The medical examiner testified that Gordon was killed by injuries to the head and skull due to a blunt force and internal injuries caused by the tire iron inserted into his rectum. The tire iron was kicked so far that it pierced his liver. After 6 days of testimony, Archuleta took the stand. He recounted the events of that night, breaking into sobs at one point. He described how he and Wood wrapped Gordon tightly in chains and locked him in the trunk of his own car. Archuleta even admitted torturing Gordon by attaching jumper cables to him and carrying his body to an area of trees once he was deceased. He told the court that he was not responsible for hitting Gordon with the tire jack, that was Wood he said. Archuleta said that during the torture of Gordon, he was concerned about him, He also told the court that he had no intention to hurt Gordon that night, he just got caught up in the momentum after Wood cut Gordon’s throat stating that he wanted to get away from the situation, but he was up to his neck in it already. Archuleta said that Wood was acting radical, he was drunk and crazed, describing how Wood had his foot on Gordon’s throat while swinging the tire jack like a golf club. He said he could feel the blood hit his face as Wood was hitting Gordon. Archuleta admitted to sodomizing Gordon in the police interrogation, but he said he only did that because he thought that’s what the officers wanted to hear. He blamed anything that had to do with the actual killing of Gordon, on Wood. Archuleta was found guilty on December 15th, 1989 and on December 20th, was sentenced to death. 


Lance Wood faced the same charges and on March 10th, 1990, he was found guilty of all charges. Lance gave no reaction to the verdict; he whispered I love you to his fiancé. Both of his parents testified in the sentencing phase of the trial. His mother cried as she held up the blue jumper Wood wore when the family went to Sacramento to adopt him. She also read from a journal that recalled the words a nurse spoke to her when she put Wood in her arms, Mrs. Wood, this is your own little boy. She continued reading, I have never known such joy and happiness. He is so precious to all of us and truly one of our family. Wood wept during the testimony as did a few of the jurors. Wood’s father testified that his son could be rehabilitated, that he came very close to receiving his Eagle Scout. He described making quilts for children in need for one of his merit badges. The prosecuting attorney tried to hold back his emotions when he stated that this trial was about Gordon Church, not Lance Wood. That he too came into a family that loved him. He added, we don’t have the clothes that Gordon wore as an infant, we only have the bloody clothes he wore when he was killed. The defendant forfeited his right to live, he abandoned the love of his mother, the love of his father and sisters as well as his ecclesiastical leaders and friends. The jury deliberated for 3 hours, they spared him of the death penalty and gave him life instead. Wood and his attorney hugged each other when the verdict was read.  Millard County Attorney Warren Peterson said, "The system protected Lance Wood's rights a lot better than he protected Gordon Church's (rights),"Wood's crimes deserve the death penalty. Both the defense and the prosecuting attorney agreed that the reason for the different sentences was Wood’s age at the time of the crime, 19. Another reason given for the difference in the sentences was that Archuleta was seen as the dominant perpetrator. Archuleta’s family however believes it is due to his race and the fact that during trial, Wood’s religious upbringing and accomplishments were brought up. Many people involved in the case believed that Wood should have received the death penalty as well.


Gordon’s mom testified at both trials, staring down both defendants as she spoke. Through tears, she was asked to identify Gordon’s bloody clothing to the court. Gordon’s father also testified as to what a good student Gordon was and that while living with this grandmother, he was also taking care of her.  Archuleta showed some remorse in response, Wood however showed none. Gordon’s family attended each court proceeding. 


Both men were sent to prison in Draper, Utah. Wood became known as a snitch while there and he was transferred to the prison in Orofino, Idaho. While there, he became sexually involved with several female staff at the prison. He was then transferred to Nampa Idaho. An Idaho senator’s wife named Renee McKenzie, was tasked with working on prison reform and came to interview Wood on the subject. They were immediately attracted to one another and soon began a romantic relationship. This resulted in divorce for Renee and her husband, Senator Curt McKenzie whom she had been married to for 20 years. Wood and McKenzie got married in 2015, that same year, the two filed a 50-million-dollar lawsuit against the Idaho Department of Corrections claiming correction staffers retaliated against them. That lawsuit is ongoing. Renee never faced any charges for an inappropriate relationship with Wood or practicing law without a license. Wood also had a romantic relationship with a female prison guard that ended when he heard rumors that she was married. Wood got angry at this claiming that it was against his religion to commit adultery. This relationship caused Wood to be transferred to another prison facility. He filed a federal lawsuit against prison officials claiming that this prison guard perpetrated sexual acts on him without his consent.” He’s had at least two other romantic relationships with other prison guards, and it has been reported that he continues to wreak havoc in prison. 


Archuleta has exhausted all his state appeals and is now pursuing federal appeals. The latest is claiming intellectual disability as a reason to remove his death sentence. While in prison, Archuleta lost an eye when a weight made from a water filled jug fell on his face. He told his mother that Gordon visits him in prison, he feels his presence, he can even smell him. 


In the 1980’s the AIDS epidemic hit. Gay men and those afflicted with AIDS were being ostracized and in conservative places like Cedar City, Utah, it was even worse. Nobody knew exactly how this disease was spread and the gay community was blamed for the epidemic. 13-year-old Ryan White was a hemophiliac who was afflicted with AIDS in 1984 after a blood transfusion. He faced ostracism in his community after he was diagnosed and had to fight the community to be able to go to school. He became the face of public education about the disease. When he was diagnosed with AIDS, he was given only 6 months to live, he lived five years and died in 1990.  Gordon had a small tight knit group of friends, and he was even dating someone, but he kept the fact that he was gay hidden from everyone outside of that circle.


Gordon’s murder happened ten years before the brutal killing of Matthew Shepard, but it received little media attention. Gordon’s case happened too early to be labeled as a hate crime as Utah didn’t have any hate crime legislation in 1988. As a result of Gordon’s murder, the changes to the hate crime laws in Utah began to change in 1992, and with various revisions over the years, the final one was passed in 2019.


Just this year, Archuleta and three other death row inmates from Utah filed a lawsuit asking to strike down the death penalty in the state of Utah. The other inmates involved are Ralph Menzies, who was convicted and sentenced to death in 1986 for the kidnapping and murder of 26-year-old Maurine Hunsaker. Douglas Stewart Carter was on death row for 33 years for murdering a Provo Utah police chief’s aunt named Eva Oleson. His death sentence was overturned in 2019, citing misconduct by witnesses and the police. Troy Kell was already serving a life sentence at the Utah state prison when in 1994, he stabbed another inmate, Larry Blackmon 67 times while another inmate held him down. He was tried and sentenced to death for that crime. The death row inmate’s attorney, Cory Talbot said in a statement to FOX 13 News "This lawsuit seeks to protect the rights of prisoners to be free from unnecessary pain at the hands of the government." Lethal injection is the primary method for execution in Utah, however if the drugs aren’t available, the method then turns to the firing squad. Ronnie Lee Gardner was the last inmate to die by firing squad in Utah on June 18th, 2010. Gardner spent 25 years on death row, for killing 36-year-old attorney Michael Burdell during an attempted escape from a courthouse in 1985. The lawsuit cited his case saying that Gardner didn’t die immediately, stating "Utah's execution protocol creates substantial risk of a botched firing squad execution because, among other reasons, it creates a realistic possibility that one or more projectiles will miss the heart,"


In 2020, a documentary called Dog Valley was released about Gordon Church’s case and can be rented or purchased on Amazon. In June of 1989, SUSC posthumously awarded Gordon a bachelor's degree in theater arts which was accepted by his father, David Church. Gordon was also awarded with the outstanding Masque club member in 1989. The Masque club is the club connected with the theater department. The award is given to students that show kindness and caring to others, cooperation and willingness to work and give of themselves. Gordon’s parents were in attendance at the banquet and they were given a plaque that said, the Gordon R. Church memorial award, outstanding Masque club member of the year. 


Archuleta and Wood are leeches on society. They have done nothing to contribute to the good of others, their lives have been filled with taking whatever they feel like, including an innocent life and they both continue with this self-centered, leaching behavior behind bars. Gordon Church surely begged for his life, but he didn’t have anybody there advocating on his behalf. Gordon did nothing wrong, he was well on his way to a happy, productive life. Wood and Archuleta played judge and jury and Gordon’s death sentence was swift. I am aware that we as civilized people cannot act in the same depraved way as these criminals, therefore we need to make death for them as civil as possible. Bottom line, I wish Archuleta would take the punishment that was lawfully handed to him and pay the price he should pay. In the end, neither Wood or Archuleta will taste freedom again and for that I am grateful.


I would have loved to have shared more about Gordon’s life, sadly, there is more information out there about the perpetrators lives than there is about Gordon’s. In the documentary, Dog Valley, several of Gordon’s friends and those involved with the case talk about what Gordon was like, it is well worth watching. Gordon’s parents died without truly getting closure due to the long string of appeals on Archuleta’s behalf. Gordon’s death destroyed his close-knit family for a while, and certainly changed them forever. His family, friends and the world lost a kind and gentle soul that surely would have made a positive impact on society, all for the fact of who and what he was, gay. Gordon’s headstone reads, when someone you love becomes a memory, the memory becomes a treasure. 


Thank you for watching and listening. Until next time, take care.