This is a remaster of the case I covered in July of 2020. Hulu did a mini series called Under the Banner of Heaven based on the story of the murder of Brenda and Erica Lafferty.
At the time this happened, I lived only 5 miles away. This case was huge in Utah and I remember clearly the fear of not knowing where these two men were hiding out. I often looked out my window into the foothills behind my home, and wondered if they were there.
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“The sign of intelligence is that you are constantly wondering. Idiots are always dead sure about every damn thing they are doing in their life.”
― Jaggi Vasudev
Thank you for listening!
American Fork Utah, has been described as a sleepy town. It is located in northern Utah county approximately 30 miles south of the capital of Utah, Salt Lake City and is part of the Provo/Orem metropolitan area. American Fork is the city where Allen, Brenda and their 15 month old baby, Erica lived in a small, red brick duplex. Allen left for work early on the morning of July 24th,1984, this day happens to be a Utah holiday called Pioneer Day. It commemorates the arrival of Brigham Young and his followers into the Salt Lake Valley on July 24th, 1847. It was to be a long day for Allen, as his work as a tile setter was taking him to the city of Ogden, approximately 70 miles away. He phoned Brenda on his lunch break and they spoke briefly before Brenda put baby Erica on the phone where she made the cute sounds that babies make at 15 months of age. He did not know that this would be the last time he ever spoke to Brenda and Erica.
Watson Leroy Lafferty and Claudine Jones were married on June 6, 1940 in the Salt Lake LDS temple. An LDS temple is considered holy amongst the members as it is a place where sacred ordinances are performed and couples are joined in marriage for what the Mormons call time and all eternity. Together they raised 8 children, 2 girls and 6 boys, with Ron being the oldest, Allen the youngest and Dan,6 years younger than Ron. By all outside appearances, the Lafferty family was tight knit, obedient, disciplined and happy. They lived in Provo, the home of Brigham Young University, which is also located in Utah county and they were well known, as Watson Lafferty was a chiropractor with a thriving practice that he ran out of his home. It is said that Watson was strict and a disciplinarian who instilled in his children self sufficiency and the value of hard work. It is also said that Watson planted the seeds of paranoia, rebellion and fanaticism in his children. He taught them to distrust modern 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. ` Together, the Lafferty’s would cultivate the family garden growing fruits and vegetables for the family to eat and preserve. In the LDS faith, boys are encouraged but not required to go on missions at the age of 19 and most do, it is voluntary and self funded. The Lafferty boys were no exception. In 1960, Ron was called to serve a mission to Florida. After serving faithfully for two years, he came home and married Diana and soon had their first child, Carolee. Dan was called to serve a mission 6 years later to Scotland, he was the first person in his family to travel outside of the country. While there, he met his future wife, Matilda who had two daughters from a previous relationship. After spending two years on his church mission, Dan and Matilda married and in 1977 had a daughter they named Rebecca. Ron was said to be a doting father and a good provider for his family. Dan was also attentive to the 3 girls and they adored him. Dan went to school to become a chiropractor like his dad, and it was around that time, his behavior and beliefs started to change. This was partly spurred on by a set of events that occurred while he was attending college. He and Matilda ran a sandwich shop out of their home. They, along with the girls prepared the sandwiches and Dan would sell them to students on campus. It was quite profitable and they made enough for the family to live on while Dan was attending school. It wasn’t long before the health department and the IRS caught wind of this endeavor and shut the business down and demanded that taxes be paid on the proceeds from the sales of the sandwiches. This infuriated Dan. It was shortly after this that he became anti government, revoked his drivers license and quit paying taxes. He even tried to refuse to pay sales tax, which he wasn’t usually successful at. Dan had always strived to be Christ-like, but this desire started to evolve into something else altogether. He was veering away from his religious roots as he felt that the Mormon church had strayed from the original teachings of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith and the practice of polygamy. He began holding meetings in his home, preaching his disdain for the control he perceived the government had over people while also speaking out against the Mormon church for it’s modern day teachings. This weekly meeting included only men, mostly the Lafferty brothers and was a church of sorts, they called it the school of prophets One person that regularly attended the meetings was the youngest brother, Allen. He seemed to agree with Dan’s new philosophies and ideas. So much so that he began trying to implement these beliefs within his own family. Ron started attending these school of prophet meetings as well and he became a believer too. One of the ideologies discussed was that women are to stay home with the children and be open to the practice of polygamy. Brenda, Allen’s wife was a strong willed and educated young woman and she wasn’t open to this proposed lifestyle change. She and Allen met while Brenda attended Brigham Young University and Allen attended Utah Technical College, she was a journalism student and a broadcasting anchor for the local university run channel, KBYU-TV.
Brenda was born on July 19th, 1960 to parents Larae and James Wright, she grew up in Kimberly Idaho with 5 sisters and 1 brother. They were a close and happy LDS family. Brenda has been described as fun, energetic, bubbly, smart and driven. She was formerly a beauty scholarship contender where she was crowned second runner up to Miss Idaho. She was tall, slender and pretty and in some of her pictures, you can see that she had freckles. She had just recently aspired to write children’s books. Allen and Brenda married in the LDS temple in 1982 and on April 28,1983 they welcomed Erica Lane Lafferty into their family. Allen and Brenda decided it would be best for Brenda to stay at home and be a full time housewife and mother. Grandparents, James and Larae said of Erica, quote, oh we loved her, she was a joy, a petite little girl, very active. She was learning to speak quickly and would have been walking soon unquote.
Ron was considered to be one of the leaders of this school of prophets group and claimed to receive revelations from God. One revelation claimed that his wife Diana had been the wife of the devil in a previous life. Another revelation was revealed to the school of prophets and it caused a stir amongst the members, Ron called it the revelation of removal, it reads as follows
Thus saith the lord unto my servants the prophets. 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, and that an example be made of them in order that others might see the fate of those who fight against the true saints of god. And it is my will that this matter be taken care of as soon as possible and I will prepare a way for my instrument to be delivered and instruction be given unto my servant. And it is my will that they show great care in his duties for I have raised him up and prepared him for this important work and is he not like unto my servant Porter Rockwell? And great blessings await him, for I am the lord thy god and have control over all things. Be still and know that I am with thee. Even so, Amen
Chloe Low and Richard Stowe were neighbors and friends of Ron’s and Dianna and he saw them as traitors for providing support to his wife at the time she was questioning Ron’s changing beliefs. Richard Stowe also presided over Ron’s excommunication from the church. Porter Rockwell, who was mentioned in the revelation, was a bodyguard to Mormon church founder and prophet Joseph Smith and a good friend of his from childhood. This revelation was rejected by all of the members of this school of prophets except two of the Lafferty Brothers, Watson and Dan. Allen, Brenda’s husband, had some involvement in the school of prophets at certain times. It is not clear if he was present at the time this revelation was revealed, however Allen did concede to knowing about it at a later time. Dan believed his brother Ron did indeed have a revelation and felt it was God’s will and would let nothing get in the way of fulfilling it. Ron and Dan broke off with this school of prophets due to their lack of support for the revelation of removal. Ron made a veiled death threat to the others before leaving the group causing concern and fear amongst the members.
Ron’s wife Diana and Dans wife Matilda, were not in favor of the changes they were seeing in their husbands. The final straw for Matilda was when Dan announced that he wanted to take his stepdaughter, who was 14 at the time, as his second wife. Matilda’s daughter also reported that Dan had sexually abused her on several occasions. For these reasons, Dan was excommunicated from the Mormon church. Dan eventually discarded the idea of marrying his stepdaughter and instead married a Romanian immigrant woman named Ann Randak who took care of Robert Redford’s horses on a ranch he owned in Spanish Fork Utah. He was technically practicing polygamy even though Dan and Matilda’s marriage was about to end. What eventually became of this marriage to Ann Randak is not clear. Matilda and Diana frequently called upon Brenda for advice as to how to handle the changes they were seeing in their husbands as she seemed to be one that wasn’t afraid to stand up to her husband. She advised the women that they did not have to accept this new belief system and this is part of what caused Ron the angst he had for Brenda. Ron also blamed Brenda for keeping Allen from being fully engaged in the ideologies that Ron and Dan had adopted. Diana ended up divorcing Ron and moving with their six kids to Florida. Dan moved out of the home he shared with Matilda and the 3 girls and they divorced as well. Dan and Ron went on an extended road trip together in Ron’s green impala wagon, at times practically living in it.
On July 24th of 1984, Dan, Ron, Ricky Knapp and Chip Carnes, two men that the brothers picked up hitchhiking in their travels, loaded up knives, a sawed off shotgun and ammunition and headed to Allen and Erica’s duplex. They arrived at around 1:30 and pulled into the driveway. It was noted that Brenda’s car was there. Ron got out and went up to the door alone, he was carrying the sawed off shotgun up his right hand sleeve and the knife in his boot. Ron opened the screen door and knocked several times, there was no answer. Dan was relieved, thinking this was a test of faith from God and that they really didn’t have to go through with it, they had passed the test much like Abraham of the old testament. Ron shrugged, and got back into the car, Dan drove about a block and a half away when he claimed he was overcome by a weird feeling that he should go back to Allen and Brenda’s. He then surmised that perhaps he was the one that was supposed to fulfill this revelation from God that Ron had received. Dan turned the car towards Allen and Brenda’s and pulled into the driveway once again, Dan stepped out of the car and knocked. This time, Brenda answered. He began by asking her where Allen was and she stated that he was at work. Dan recalled that he was silently talking to God and wondering what to do next. After a few seconds, he pushed past Brenda and entered the duplex. Brenda must have known that whatever was going to happen was going to end badly, as her words to Dan were I knew you were going to do something that nobody could stop. Ron eventually made his way into the duplex and saw what was going on. Dan had Brenda pinned to the floor, she tried to reason with both of them saying she would do anything they wanted and begged them not to hurt her baby. Ron began punching Brenda in the face trying to knock her out to subdue her, all the while calling her a bitch and a liar. She managed to get up and run into the kitchen where the sheer terror and blows to the face caused her to faint. Dan asked Ron to cut the cord from the vacuum, he then took that cord and wrapped it around Brenda’s neck twice and tied it in a knot, and with the knife that Ron had handed to him, he slit Brenda’s throat.. While this struggle and mayhem was going on, Knapp and Carnes were waiting in the car. They were able to hear some of the commotion, then it suddenly quieted down. They became nervous about being involved in this crime and contemplated leaving with the car, but after some reasoning, decided against it. Dan walked down the hall, he had never been to Brenda and Allen’s home before and claimed the spirit led him into baby Erica’s room. Dan guessed that Erica must have thought he was her daddy as they both had beards and their voices sounded similar. How dreadful is that if she did think this was her daddy. Dan talked to Erica saying, I’m not sure what this is all about but apparently it is God’s will that you leave this world, perhaps we can talk about it later. Dan held onto Erica’s little head and placed the knife on her neck and sliced it with enough force that it nearly decapitated her.
Ron and Dan left the duplex and with their clothes covered in blood, got into the car and drove away. They intended to finish God’s will by removing the other two people in Ron’s revelation, Chloe Lowe and Richard Stowe. The brothers arrived at Chloe Lowe’s house intending to murder her, and knocked on the door, finding nobody home, Ron and Dan broke in, stealing some items malingering for a while, then leaving. Feeling like they had done enough for the Lord that day, they decided against going to Richard Stowe’s home.
Allen arrived home from work at around 8pm that night He walked up to the door and noted that it was locked, which was unusual because Allen and Brenda never locked their doors when they were at home. He entered the duplex and called her name, he saw the blood and then he spotted Brenda lying lifeless, face down on the kitchen floor, surrounded in blood. She had sustained a severe beating and had obviously been strangled as the vacuum cord was still wrapped around her neck. According to the medical examiner, her throat was cut; a six-inch-long incision sliced through her trachea, both jugular veins, and both carotid arteries and left a cut on her spinal column. Blood was smeared everywhere, the drapes, the walls, light switches, it was obvious that there had been a major struggle. He went down the hallway towards baby Erica’s room and found the little one propped against the back of her crib, head slumped over, her neck had been gashed from ear to ear. The medical examiner determined that both Brenda and Erica were alive at the time Dan viciously and without mercy, slit their throats.
Allen ran to the neighbors house and called the police. Once they arrived Allen was taken to the police department and sat down for an interview with Sargent Fox of the American Fork police department, Allen appeared to be visibly shaken. As expected, he being the husband of Brenda, had to be questioned as to his possible involvement. During this interview, Allen had some information that needed to be shared, Allen suspected his brothers Ron and Dan were the perpetrators. He also indicated that he had heard them speak about this revelation for removal, but he never thought they would go through with it. The police were also able to ascertain that a neighbor saw a green station wagon parked in Allen and Brenda’s duplex driveway on the morning of July 24th.
The FBI put out an all points bulletin for Ron’s station wagon and was able to locate it in Cheyenne Wyoming. The police entered the home where it was parked with guns drawn and found that there were two men at the residence, but it wasn’t the Lafferty’s, it was Knapp and Carnes, the hitchhikers that were waiting in the car while the murders were taking place. They had stolen the car and parted ways with the brothers. They claimed to not know where Ron and Dan were but they did lead the police to a bloody knife. Lab results showed that the blood on the knife was Brenda’s.
The FBI received a tip that Ron and Dan had been spotted in Reno Nevada at the Circus Circus casino, when they arrived, the brothers were standing in the buffet line. The brothers were arrested without incident.
Ron and Dan Lafferty were transported to the American Fork court and were arraigned together for aggravated burglary, two counts of first degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder, Dan chose to represent himself with the help of standby counsel. The jury returned with a guilty verdict on all counts. Dan was given two life sentences without the possibility of parole. Ron was given the death penalty as he was seen as the instigator, criminals back then were given the choice of how they wanted to be executed and he chose the firing squad. The two hitchhikers, Chip Carnes and Ricky Knapp originally faced the same murder charges in the case, but agreed to testify for the state and plead guilty to reduced charges.
Prior to his trial, Ron attempted to commit suicide in the Utah county jail. It is claimed that this caused mental damage and as a result, he spent several months in the Utah State hospital for evaluation. Attorneys have tried throughout the years to appeal his conviction based on his mental status, ineffective counsel and the fact that it was a high profile case, preventing him from getting a fair trial. Each appeal except one, was denied. He did receive a retrial in 1996 and was again convicted on all counts and sentenced to death.
In 2008, a woman named Kristi Strack began writing to Dan Lafferty in prison. She was only 8 when he committed his crimes but after she read about the case, she became enamored with him and his teachings. In 2008 she contacted his daughter Rebecca to arrange for a meeting with him. Soon she and her husband, Benjamin began visiting Dan in prison. They would talk about the end of the world, life, families and religious philosophies. Dan claims that he and Kristi fell in love with Benjamin’s knowledge and Benjamin was ok with it. The last time Dan saw them in 2014, he had cut off his long hair and beard and had given it to Kristi he had even indicated that he wanted his ashes to go to Kristi when he died.. Kristi had often expressed her thoughts about taking her life and that of her kids in order to leave the evil world behind and due to her fear of the pending apocalypse, Dan encouraged her to do it. On September 27th, 2014, Kristi and Ben gave three of their four children a lethal mixture of methadone, prescription medication and cough syrup, before ingesting it themselves. Their bodies were later found by Kristi’s oldest son by a previous marriage who wasn’t in the home at the time the deaths occurred. Dan proudly takes credit for this family’s demise.
Allen Lafferty remarried, Watson Lafferty passed away in 1983 the year before the crimes occurred, he died from complications due to his diabetes. Claudine Lafferty, Ron and Dan’s mother died in 2016 at the age of 96, the burden of what her sons did always weighed heavily on her. Larae Wright, Brenda’s mom, also died in 2016, at the age of 82. It was thought that 2020 would be the year that Ron would be executed but Ronald Watson Lafferty died in prison on November 11, 2019 of natural causes, he was 78. He spent 34 years on death row. One of the longest stays on death row ever at the state prison. Dan Lafferty is 72 and is serving out his life sentence at the Utah State prison in Draper, Utah. He doesn’t get many visitors from his family, if any. He stated in an interview that the killing of Brenda and Erica has never haunted or bothered him. As for Knapp and Carnes, I was not able to find any updated information on them. Brenda’s dad is still alive and he is thankful that Ron died of natural causes so that the family wouldn’t have to deal with his execution. In a recent interview he spoke of giving little Erica her first ice cream and stirring it up to make soft like dairy queen, Brenda’s love of scrapbooking and her job as an anchor for KBYU TV. He described the sorrow as being never ending for the family. Of the execution, he said “From the very beginning, we as a family turned that over to the Lord and the law. Jim visits the gravesite weekly and has done so since their deaths. Brenda and Erica’s headstone reads, the life spent in doing good and accomplishing goals will be remembered beyond that span of life itself. Erica rests upon her mother’s chest in the peaceful resting place they share.
Thank you for listening to this episode, I finished writing it on the 36th anniversary of Brenda and Erica’s death.