On July 24, 1984, fundamentalist Mormons Ron and Dan Lafferty broke into their brother Allen’s home, and murdered Allen’s wife Brenda and their 15-month-old daughter Erica. The brutal crime sent shock waves through Utah’s large and scandal-averse Mormon community — and was, in part, the subject of Jon Krakauer’s bestselling book Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, first published in 2003. The book has now been adapted into a Hulu miniseries of the same title, starring Sam Worthington and Wyatt Russell as Ron and Dan Lafferty, and Andrew Garfield as Jeb Pyre, a fictionalized Mormon detective who questions his faith as he investigates the murders.
As Krakauer masterfully describes in Under the Banner of Heaven, and as other journalists have investigated over the years, Ron and Dan Lafferty did not emerge out of nowhere. They were the product of a large, complicated, and severely dysfunctional family, led by domineering patriarch Watson Lafferty Sr. Dan, though not the oldest sibling, was the brothers’ intellectual and spiritual leader, and he persuaded his siblings to adopt libertarianism and fundamentalist Mormon principles like polygamy. Ron, the emotional core of the group, threw himself into fundamentalism after his marriage collapsed. And Allen, the youngest, was torn between loyalty to his brothers and to his wife.
Below, read more about each member of the Lafferty clan.
Watson Lafferty, Sr.
The Lafferty family patriarch, Watson Lafferty Sr., grew up without a mother: She died in the 1918 influenza pandemic, when he was only 5 years old. “I don’t think he got a lot of nurturing,” his son Watson Jr. told The Salt Lake City Weekly in 2014. He went on to serve in the military in World War II, according to Krakauer — not on the front lines, but as a barber. After the war, the G.I. Bill allowed him to train as a chiropractor, and he started his own practice, which also offered barber and salon services. But Watson Sr.’s real passion was living a devout life. His interpretation of Mormon theology was traditional and informed by his far-right political views. He didn’t believe in traditional medicine and he expected both his wife, Claudine, and his children to obey his commands. If they didn’t, he beat them.
Watson Sr.’s abuse of his wife affected his sons differently. Ron Lafferty recalled the episodes to the Weekly with fury decades later: “I saw him get mad and bloody her face, bloody her nose. I used to go in my room and curse God for giving me that piece of a shit for a father. I shook my fist at God, but I was just too little.” Dan, conversely, insisted to Krakauer that he “was blessed to be raised in a very special and happy family … My parents truly loved and cared for each other.” Another brother, Watson Jr., offered the Weekly a more thoughtful perspective on the Watson Sr.’s violence, and how it shaped the Lafferty sons: “When you grow up in a family where Dad gives you a licking, the other siblings console the one who got the licking, and then you compare bruises and kind of look after each other that way.”
Watson Lafferty Sr. didn’t only take his violent temper out on his immediate family. The children once witnessed him beating their dog with a baseball bat so brutally that the dog died. And Dan’s daughter Rebecca told the Weekly that she remembered Watson Sr. throwing a toy at her head when she was a toddler and lying about it when it made her cry. “I just knew as a child to stay away from him,” she said.
Ultimately, Watson Sr. was undone by his own rigid beliefs. He was fanatical in his distrust of modern medicine, to the degree that he once tried to treat his daughter Colleen’s appendicitis with homeopathic remedies (she was eventually taken to the hospital). He himself suffered from diabetes, but refused to take insulin. In 1983, his health declined, but his sons rejected medical treatment on his behalf. Unsurprisingly, their home treatments did not cure him, and he died.
Claudine, the Lafferty brothers’ mother, was a less forceful presence in their childhoods: After all, her primary role, according to Watson Sr.’s theology, was to obey his every command. Dan described her to Krakauer as “a good woman and an excellent mother,” and remembered her looking “angelic and radiant” at church ceremonies.
After Watson Sr.’s death, Claudine enabled her sons in their increasingly troubling pursuits. Following in Dan’s footsteps, several of the Lafferty children joined an extremist Mormon group called the School of the Prophets. Meetings were sometimes held in Claudine’s house, above the chiropractic clinic where Dan and another Lafferty brother, Mark, worked. Later, Ron, Dan, and their associates Ricky Knapp and Chip Carnes met there to discuss Ron’s “revelation,” which would lead to the murder of Brenda and Erica. In his court testimony, Carnes said that Ron “claimed that he was told that he had to eliminate some people. I heard the name Brenda mentioned once, and I heard something about a baby mentioned once.” Claudine Lafferty was sitting in the room at the time, silently knitting.
“How could someone hear what they were planning and not do anything to warn Brenda?” Brenda’s sister Betty Wright McEntire asked Krakauer. “I just can’t understand it.”
Ron may be the oldest of the Lafferty brothers, but Dan Lafferty wielded the most influence over the clan once their father died. He described his childhood to Krakauer in rosy terms. He painted his parents as an ideal couple — despite his father’s penchant for domestic violence — and said the family also attended “the perfect picture-postcard church.” He noted that he was a particularly enthusiastic young Mormon: “I was a hundred-and-ten-percenter [sic]. I sang in the choir. I always paid my tithing; in fact, I always paid a little extra, just to make sure I made it into the highest kingdom of glory.”
Dan traveled to Scotland for his mission trip, where he met a young, divorced woman with two daughters named Matilda. Six years later, he ran into her at a missionary reunion in the United States, and they were quickly married. After the marriage, they moved to Los Angeles so that he could follow in his father’s footsteps and attend chiropractic school. The family moved back to Utah after he completed his training and he began to work at the family business. Throughout this period, he and Matilda had four children together.
After returning to Utah, Dan began to research Mormon history, which led him to discover The Peace Maker, an obscure, historical Mormon text printed in 1842 by Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism himself. The tract justified polygamy and outlined an even more imbalanced, patriarchal vision of marriage and child-rearing than the already conservative version that the Laffertys practiced. According to Krakauer, “Under the new rules, Matilda was no longer allowed to drive, handle money, or talk to anyone outside the family when Dan wasn’t present, and she had to wear a dress at all times.” Soon, Dan totally rejected medicine and public schooling. He threw out all non-Mormon texts in the house, broke all their clocks and watches, and “spanked” Matilda if she disobeyed him.
But Matilda’s daughter Rebecca remembers her mother putting up a fight against Dan’s increasingly extreme beliefs. “She’d let the chickens run through the house and say, ‘OK, let’s live free!’ and then she’d let the chickens just sh*t all over,” Rebecca told the Weekly. Matilda also “openly encourag[ed]” her husband to find a second wife, so that she could leave the marriage. But although Matilda tried to rebel against her domineering husband, Dan began to beat her — and he also insisted that his ideal candidate for a second marriage was his 14-year-old stepdaughter. Although he eventually gave up on this idea, and married a different woman instead, Rebecca remembers seeing him groping her older sister’s bare breasts. Eventually, Matilda gave in to his demands: “I had come to a place there was no choices,” she would testify in Dan’s court case. “I could either go and leave my kids, or stay and accept it.”
As he was sinking deeper into fundamentalist Mormon beliefs, Dan also became obsessed with libertarian ideas. Watson Sr. and Claudine left him and Mark in charge of the family and the family business when they went abroad on a mission trip in 1981, a decision that would prove near-catastrophic. Dan refused to pay property taxes on his father’s property, because, he later explained to Krakauer, it was “owned free and clear. By paying property taxes, you are basically telling the government that they’re the ones who really own the property, because you give them the right to take it from you if you don’t pay your taxes. And I was willing to force a standoff to determine who actually owned that property.” The state was not interested in Dan’s ideas, and began the process of repossessing the property. When Watson Sr. found out what was happening at home, he was outraged, and had to intervene at the last minute to save his business.
Eventually, most of the Lafferty brothers followed Dan’s lead and became involved in Mormon fundamentalism and libertarianism, traveling farther and farther away first from mainstream Mormonism and then from rational thought entirely. The conduit for their fundamentalism was a man named Bob Crossfield (aka Prophet Onias), the founder the School of the Prophets, a polygamist sect that embraced divine revelations. (In addition to his other objectionable beliefs, Onias was also ferociously opposed to Black men becoming Mormon priests, calling them the product of Satan in a racist diatribe referenced in Under the Banner of Heaven.) Though Watson Lafferty Jr. was the first brother to encounter Onias, Dan, Ron, and most of their other brothers quickly became obsessed with Onias and his ideology — an ideology that would lead directly to the murders of Brenda and Erica.
Dan would later explain his involvement in the murders of Brenda and Erica Lafferty as a part of a divine plan — and fail to express even a hint of remorse. At his first trial, where he acted as his own attorney and mounted a defense that only lasted 13 minutes, he said, “I don’t know why those names [Brenda, Erica, and the others] were on the list … The Lord has strange work to do. And all I know is, it’s been pretty strange, if you ask me.” At his second trial, in 1996, he testified, “I’m not ashamed about what happened … It was just a matter of business.”
Dan Lafferty remains incarcerated at Utah State Prison’s maximum security wing, where he is serving a life sentence.
As described above, Ron Lafferty spent much of his childhood under the thumb of his domineering and abusive father. “I wanted to kill my father,” he told the Weekly. “Every time I saw him hit my mother.” That conflict, according to Ron, was settled when he finally hit back at his father at age 17. He recalled his father running off “like a little bitch, crying ‘mother, mother!’”
After graduating from high school, Ron went on a successful mission trip to Florida before returning to Utah, where he secured a good job in construction and became a respected member of the church, a city councilman, and a devoted husband and father. He and his wife Dianna, whom he’d met on his mission trip, had six children. According to Dianna’s friend Penelope Weiss, they were unusually happy together. “I remember a marriage that was so happy for sixteen and a half years,” she told Krakauer. Ron wasn’t only a good husband, he was also a good brother, a “mother-hen type,” as one of the other Laffertys put it to Krakauer. He offered advice and emotional support to his younger siblings and could act as the voice of reason when disagreements broke out. He could be fiercely defensive of his family, too: Dan recalled Ron beating up kids who bullied him in school.
Dianna suggested that Ron offer some of his characteristic advice to his brothers in 1982, by which time nearly all of them had been sucked into Dan’s extremist crusade, and were tormenting their wives as a result. Ron attended one of his brothers’ meetings at the family home and asked a number of skeptical questions about Dan’s extremism. “Ron was embarrassed by me,” Dan told Krakauer. “He was a devout Saint, and he said I was an embarrassment to the Mormon Church. He told me, ‘There’s no place in this church for extremes!’” But Ron was quickly converted to Dan’s cause. In the blink of an eye, he transformed from the family’s most reasonable and emotionally steady member to one of its most passionate fundamentalists. He soon lost his job as a result, and a year later, he lost his family, too: His wife filed for divorce, took their children, and fled to Florida.
After being converted by Dan, Ron quickly became involved with the School of the Prophets; Onias had a revelation that led him to appoint Ron as the local chapter’s bishop. Without a job or a family to distract him, Ron became obsessively committed to the School of the Prophets, and focused on Onias’ teachings about divine revelations. In February 1984 he began having revelations, which culminated in his “revelation” that called for the murder of Brenda and Erica. Ron’s revelation also called for the murder of Chloe Low, Ron’s family friend and the wife of his local parish’s bishop, and Richard Stowe, a prominent Mormon official in the community. “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,” Ron wrote, supposedly in the voice of God. At his trial, though, Watson Lafferty Jr. testified that Ron had disliked Brenda and called her a “b*tch.”
Dan and Ron murdered Brenda and Erica on July 24, 1984. They broke into Chloe Low’s house but found no one, and failed to reach Richard Stowe’s home. Instead, they traveled first to Salt Lake City and then to Reno, Nevada, where they — along with their associates Ricky Knapp and Chip Carnes — were found and arrested by police officers.
In the wake of the murders, Ron attempted suicide by hanging in jail, an act that his attorney Therese Michelle Day said in 2019 had caused brain damage. He was tried three times. At the first trial, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison; his lawyers appealed, and he was found incompetent to stand trial and treated for mental illness. He was tried again three years later after being declared competent once more, and was found guilty and sentenced to the death penalty. But he wasn’t ever executed: Instead, the case dragged through the Utah courts for decades, until he finally died of natural causes in 2019. The appeals process went on for so long, in fact, that Brenda’s sister Sharon Wright Weeks has become an advocate against the death penalty. “I don’t want another human to suffer what I know will be their suffering,” she told US News and World Report last year. “If a death sentence is given, it will start the process of their own personal hell.”
Allen was the youngest member of the Lafferty brood. After going on his post-high school mission trip, he began attending a Latter Day Saints (LDS) congregation for students in Provo, Utah, even though he wasn’t a student himself. He met his future wife, Brenda Wright, at the ward. Brenda was a student at BYU and aspired to be a newscaster. “She’d dated a lot of boys before, but she never got stuck on any one person. Allen was different,” her sister, Betty, told Krakauer. “He was a returned missionary, and the Laffertys were the picture-perfect LDS family. Everybody in Provo seemed to know them. Plus, Allen is a charmer — all the Lafferty boys have this ability to charm the socks off you. They have this look in their eyes. And Brenda fell for it.”
Allen and Brenda were married on April 22, 1982. The couple settled in American Fork, a small suburban town in Utah, where Allen ran a tiling business. As soon as they were married, however, their relationship became strained. Allen pressured Brenda to quit her job at the local news station, and take a job at the nearby mall — and then to quit that job, too, so that she could stay at home and start a family. She became pregnant around two months after their wedding, and subsequently gave birth to their daughter Erica.
Allen, meanwhile, began following in his older brothers’ footsteps by adopting their libertarian beliefs about taxation. According to Betty, he didn’t even want to get his car registered for fear of government oversight. He was also increasingly strict about his religious beliefs — he refused to eat anywhere that served food on Sundays, for instance. As the older Laffertys traveled further down the path to religious fundamentalism, Brenda worked hard to prevent Allen from doing the same. She asked her sisters Betty and Sharon to keep watch over Allen when they visited, in order to keep track of how much time he was spending with his brothers. She also persuaded him not to officially join the School of the Prophets. “Brenda stood up to those Lafferty boys,” her mother LaRae Wright told Krakauer. “She told [Allen] in no uncertain terms that she didn’t want him doing things with his brothers. And the brothers blamed her for that, for keeping their family apart. The Lafferty boys didn’t like Brenda, because she got in their way.”
But Brenda couldn’t persuade her husband to entirely divest himself of his family, and Allen continued to spend time with his increasingly erratic and extremist brothers. At his testimony in one of Ron Lafferty’s murder trials, he testified that Ron resented Brenda for “meddling in [the brothers’] affairs,” and added that Ron often called her a “b*tch.” He also testified that he knew about Ron’s revelation to kill Brenda and Erica. He told the court that when he asked why Erica needed to be “removed,” “Ron blurted out that she would grow up to be a b*tch just like her mother.”
Allen also testified, “I told [Ron] that God had made no such revelation to me, and I would protect [Brenda and Erica] with my life.” But he didn’t take sufficient steps to do so, and on July 24th, 1984, he found his wife and daughter dead in their home. He knelt next to Brenda and prayed. He was taken into custody as the prime suspect — after all, he was the husband and father of the deceased, and he was covered in blood — but he successfully explained the story to the investigating detectives, who then began searching for Ron.
As of 2004, reports suggested that Allen was living in Southern California.
Mark Lafferty was, in many ways, his older brother Dan’s partner in crime: “As children,” Dan told Krakauer, “we were inseparable.” They milked the family cow together, played together during summer breaks, and later worked together at what had once been their father’s chiropractic office. While working together as adults, they bonded over long discussions about politics and religion. According to Dan, his younger brothers would “rather mysteriously … show up, unannounced. And we would have some very, very valuable time discussing issues.” At first, everyone except Ron participated.
Later, when the brothers were more fully entrenched in Mormon fundamentalism and the School of the Prophets, Mark wholly bought into Ron’s “revelations”: He even drove to Nevada to place a bet that Ron claimed he’d seen in a vision. (The bet didn’t pan out.) And later, according to Krakauer, Ron and Dan picked up weapons from Mark’s home before they murdered Brenda and Erica, with Ron announcing to Mark that he planned to hunt “Any f*cking thing that gets in my way.” Despite the obvious and concerning signs of potential violence, Mark did nothing to stop his brothers.
Watson Lafferty Jr. and Tim Lafferty
Watson Jr. and Tim Lafferty, two of the youngest brothers in the family, were the least involved in the crime — although they, too, bought into Dan and Ron’s fundamentalism and participated in the School of the Prophets. As mentioned above, Watson Jr. actually introduced Dan to Onias, and expressed enthusiasm for “destroying the wicked” — via a straight razor he brought to the group. More recently, though, he spoke reflectively to the Weekly about the effects of growing up in an abusive household (see above, regarding Watson Sr.) and said he feared that he might have the same violent impulses as Ron and Dan. He left Utah and the Mormon Church for over 25 years while reckoning with this question. In 2014, he told the Weekly that he’d reconciled his faith, and that “I know in my heart that those are two good men that the devil took ahold of. But the devil doesn’t care about them now; he’s hung them out to dry.”
Even less is known about Tim Lafferty, beyond his participation in the School of the Prophets.