Ten years later, Kirtland cult members break their silence

Cleveland Plain Dealer/April 11, 1999
By Amanda Garrett and Maggi Martin

Standing in the dim light of the barn that April evening, Ron Luff could see the glint of his preacher's pistol amid the shadows of the muddy pit.

Even before Jeffrey Lundgren cocked the gun's hammer, Luff knew what was going to happen: Lundgren was going to shoot and kill five members of his congregation - a mother and father and their three school-age daughters - sacrificing them in the name of the Lord.

The massacre was unavoidable, Luff thought, and though he could have tried, he did nothing to intervene in what would come to be known as the Kirtland cult slayings.

"I've been through that scenario a hundred times or more," Luff said during a recent prison interview. "I could have put them in a car and taken off. But was that a consideration? A viable option? No."

Until recently, none of the Kirtland cult members - cult leader Jeffrey Lundgren is on Ohio's death row, and nine of his followers, including his former wife and their son, are in prisons scattered across the state - would talk about what happened on the warm spring night that the Avery family died.

But as the 10th anniversary on April 17 draws near, several broke their silence, offering - for the first time - a glimpse into the worlds they shattered, both then and now.

Their reflections, along with those of police, prosecutors and others wrapped up in Lundgren's convoluted quest for Zion, reveal an often tragic tale that continues long after the murders. While intense and prolonged publicity surrounding the case made several political, clerical and church careers, the Kirtland cult broke many more lives.

Out of the ruin, some have found ways to forgive both themselves and cult members for what happened. Others have tried to move on, realizing there may be no answers to the questions that linger.

"I still don't know what happened," says Susan Luff, Ron Luff's estranged wife. "Something went terribly wrong."

Passers-by might not notice much more than the churches and parks that make up much of Kirtland, a tiny crossroads of a town where Cleveland's eastern suburbs meet the wooded fringes of hilly, semirural Ohio. But to members of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the hillside community is a Mecca of sorts, a historic destination they travel hundreds of miles to visit so they might reconnect with the birthplace of their faith.

Most of the 6,000 or so residents of Kirtland hardly notice the pilgrimage. Or at least they didn't until a decade ago when this sleepy hamlet awoke to find itself center stage in a drama built around murder, power and religious fervor.

The lead villain in the plot was a burly man named Jeffrey Lundgren, a petty thief who relocated his family from Missouri to Kirtland in 1984 to work as a tour guide at the church's original temple.

Within months, Lundgren declared that God had spoken to him, asking him to lead a revolution in Kirtland. Soon, Lundgren broke from the church and began gathering followers of his own.

Among them were Ron and Susan Luff, a young Missouri couple who uprooted their two children so that the family might follow Lundgren, hoping to find peace in a new, conservative splinter group of their church, the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, an offshoot of Mormonism.

Like the rest of Lundgren's flock, the Luffs considered themselves devout Christians, but they and many others like them had grown disenchanted with the church when elders decided to allow women to become top leaders in the faith, an extraordinary move considering that the church had always taught women to be subservient to men.

As the church fractured, the Luffs joined Lundgren, whose seemingly boundless memory for Scripture and his promises to do good deeds enthralled them.

"We were supposed to help the hungry. We were supposed to help the poor," recalls Susan Luff, sitting on a sun porch at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville, a sprawling stone and brick campus ringed with coils of barbed wire just northwest of Columbus. "Of course, none of that happened." Instead, cult members served only Jeffrey Lundgren, who wanted all their money and time and sometimes put a gun to their heads if they complained.

By day, most of Lundgren's followers worked routine jobs: One was a nurse at a Cleveland hospital, another worked for the Mentor city engineer's office, and a third worked for Cleveland Electric Illuminating Co.

When work ended, they all gathered at Lundgren's rented farmhouse for Scripture studies. Lundgren, who often wore military fatigues and kept a rifle within reach, sometimes preached into the wee hours of the morning.

Lundgren fed his group a hybrid mix of biblical and Mormon Scriptures, all dissected and interpreted to meet his whims. According to cult members, nearly anything could be a sin: from adding too much garlic to a meal to, as Dennis Avery did, keeping money for yourself.

From the beginning, Lundgren promised his followers he would take them to see God. To make the journey, he said, the cult first had to seize the Kirtland temple and kill anyone who tried to stop them.

Later, however, Lundgren revised that plan and said the sacrifice of the Avery family would be enough to reach their goal.

Since going to prison, none of the cult members had shared their stories about those days.

But Susan and Ron Luff agreed late last month to talk about what led to the killings and about the aftermath. They live in prisons more than 100 miles apart, haven't communicated since a 1992 letter and are seeking a divorce.

Both now denounce Lundgren as manipulative and deluded, but each has found very different ways of coping with the past and the future. Where Ron Luff has taken solace in leaving the church and sinking himself into mainstream Christianity, his estranged wife has found comfort in the realm of self-help books and therapy.

Self-help books

"I'm doing everything I can to give back to society"

With her clean-scrubbed face and khaki trousers, Susan Luff looks and sounds more like a suburban housewife than a prison inmate.

When she's not thinking about her two children - Matthew, now 17, and Amy, 14 - praying, or helping fellow inmates boost their self-esteem, she's making crafts for the needy, including hundreds of stuffed rabbits out of washcloths.

"I'm doing everything I can to give back to society," Luff said. As strange as it may seem now, she said helping others had always been her intent. Never, Luff said, did she mean to hurt anyone. Yet, 10 years ago she and the other women in the cult entertained the Averys' children in a farmhouse near the barn while their parents were being killed. Later, the women let the men in the cult lead Rebecca, Trina and Karen Avery out to their deaths, too.

Their bodies were unearthed in early January 1990 after authorities learned of the slayings from a tipster who called the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

In the days after the murders, Luff fled with the rest of the cult members and was later arrested following a nationwide manhunt.

Luff now portrays herself as a victim, insisting that both her husband and Lundgren deceived her.

When she and her family first moved to Kirtland, she believed they were going to form an arts community and sell crafts for charity in the barn where the Averys were later killed.

Soon, however, Lundgren ordered her to burn her college diploma, to stop praying - that he would speak to God for her - and to do the cult's laundry, 10 loads a day.

Eventually, the megalomaniac cult leader would force Luff to dance nude for him in the woods as he sat naked behind a sheet.

It was the way of God, Lundgren told her. And she believed.

"I didn't understand any of it," Susan Luff says. Even now, a decade later, Luff says she still doesn't know particulars about the slayings or the inner workings of the cult.

In the aftermath of the arrests, while investigators, prosecutors and other cult members were asking what happened and why, Luff said she asked only one question: "Who am I?"

Through counseling, Luff said, she realized she was an emotionally battered woman, caught in a desperate situation where she felt she had no control, no direction, no hope.

In some ways, Luff said, she is thankful for being imprisoned because it allowed her to heal.

"You see, there are no guns here, no death threats, and no one can even be verbally abusive here," she recently told fellow inmates during a presentation about her experience.

The cafeteria food, she joked, is better than the cult mainstay of bear meat mixed with hamburger grease.

And prison, even with its steel bars and strict rules, offers more freedom than she had on the outside with her husband and Lundgren, she told the women. Now, Luff said, she can call or write her family when she wants, delve into her love of crafts and pray any time.

"I do not want to just be a survivor, but I strive to be a phenomenal woman ready for any task, job or opportunity that comes my way," Luff said in the speech. "I know I can give a great contribution to society as I'm doing everything I can here to give back to society."

Right-hand man

"I don't have a relationship with my kids anymore"

Ron Luff bristles when he hears the name of his estranged wife, whom he still refers to as "my Susie."

Though they haven't spoken in nearly seven years, he is convinced that she has not come to terms with what happened or her role in the cult. Moreover, he is bitter that his in-laws are raising their children with little or no input from him. "I get Christmas cards, birthday cards, that sort of thing," Ron Luff said. But, "I really don't have a relationship with my kids anymore."

Like Susan Luff, Ron Luff has made a new life for himself behind bars, earning an associate's degree in Christian ministry and working for 57 cents an hour in the Lucasville prison's print shop, where, as in the cult, he is second in command.

A chiseled man with a knack for expressing his thoughts in a clear, uncompromising manner, Ron Luff says he was so thoroughly brainwashed by Lundgren that he never even considered helping the Averys.

Unlike his estranged wife, who, by most accounts, remained on the fringes of the cult and was a worker not trusted with its goals and missions, Ron Luff was in the thick of it. He was Jeffrey Lundgren's right-hand man.

On the night of the murders, he not only helped lure the Avery family into the barn, he also carried the youngest girl, Karen, on his shoulders to meet her death.

It was only after his arrest, and several meetings with cult deprogrammers, that the horror of that night became clear.

Slowly, after talking with cult experts before his trial, he began to realize that everything he thought he knew about God, the Scriptures and, to some extent, himself was wrong.

"God had become so ugly I couldn't go any further," Luff said. "I just kind of had to take everything that I ever thought I knew about Scripture and put it completely out of my mind and start over."

Looking back on that time, Luff now blames the Reorganized church's faith, and its parent, Mormonism, saying its teaching left him and others susceptible to someone like Lundgren who claimed to have divine visions, including one in which he became Christ hanging from the cross on Calvary.

The Reorganized church faith "is contingent upon revelation," Luff explained. "People are constantly having visions and hearing voices of some form, some type of revelatory experience, seeing angels. If they don't have this, according to the Book of Mormon, it's as though there had been no redemption made."

Luff, a fifth-generation church member, has since left the church, as have his parents.

And though Luff says he has never had any supernatural experience, he stops short of questioning Jeffrey Lundgren's tales about visits from ghostly prophets, angels and golden tablets.

"I can't make that judgment: whether he's nuts or just believes his own lies or whether there's a difference," Luff said.

The only thing certain about Jeffrey Lundgren, Luff said, was his clear desire "to live off other people . . . [and] he wanted to have the people around him who would idolize him as God and support him as God." The Avery family did both.

Even before the Averys moved from their Missouri home to join Lundgren, other members of the cult knew they were targeted for death. Why Lundgren chose to sacrifice the Averys remains unclear.

During his trial, Lundgren said he had a vision indicating that God wanted the family sacrificed.

But former cult members and those who have studied the group say it's more likely the Averys were killed because they posed some threat to Lundgren.

Unlike most cult members, the Averys maintained some autonomy. When they sold their home in Missouri, Dennis gave most of the money to Jeffrey Lundgren but kept some for his family, something Lundgren would later call sinful.

Lundgren also felt Cheryl Avery was headstrong and that the children were unruly, both considered sinful traits.

And though Luff said he recognizes that the Averys were the ultimate victims in Lundgren's scheme, he said the family could have just as easily ended up in his place, helping to kill others.

After all, Luff said, the Averys believed everything that Lundgren preached, too. They turned most of their life savings over, bought guns for the group and hung on Lundgren's every word. But, in the end, Luff said, the Averys had to be killed because they had nothing left to give.

"Jeff had exhausted them as a resource," Luff said.

During the last decade, Luff has justified his own role in the killings by defining murder in spiritual, rather than legal, terms.

"Hatred is the truest definition of murder," Luff says. "I know that I did not hate the Avery family. . . . In that sense I feel that I'm pretty much at peace with them as well."

Mind control

"A monster that took on a life of his own"

Through the years, Cheryl Avery's mother, Donna Bailey, has tried to make peace with the Luffs and other cult members.

Within weeks of the arrests, Bailey began a quiet correspondence with cult members in jail, asking questions and, at times, even offering sympathy for their anguish.

"God has helped me through this very, very much," said Bailey, who remains a devout member of the Reorganized church. "He will be the final judge of Jeff Lundgren."

Bailey, who is 79 and lives in a nursing home, said she didn't suspect her daughter was in danger at the time. But as she pours over the letters her daughter mailed her after moving to Kirtland, Bailey notices subtle changes that only a mother might recognize, hints that her daughter might be in trouble.

"She always signed her letters with love and prayers. One day she stopped signing them with prayers, and I knew something was wrong," Bailey recalled.

"I have no doubt he used mind control," said Bailey, who believes the change in her daughter's sign-off was more significant than it may appear.

Whether he was a con man who believed his own con, or a delusional fanatic, cult members agreed that Lundgren had a hold over them.

"I have more freedom here [in prison] than I did while in the group," former cult member Sharon Bluntschly said in a letter from prison. "I think that Jeff was merely a monster that, like Frankenstein, took on a life of his own."

Bluntschly and three other female cult members - Luff, Alice Lundgren, and Deborah Olivarez - all live at the same facility where, officials say, they have been model prisoners. Each has earned the designation "merit status," which earns them a mint green shirt and more freedom to take classes and spend time on the grounds.

And though they sometimes bump into each other, Bluntschly said the women no longer stay in touch. Yet, within days of a recent Plain Dealer visit to the prison, it was clear they do talk.

Alice Lundgren knew that the newspaper had asked Susan Luff about her religious affiliation and was worried the story would include false rumors that Alice Lundgren was now a Catholic.

Though Alice Lundgren declined to be interviewed "out of respect for the Averys," she made her concerns known to a friend, who passed them on to The Plain Dealer.

That friend, Marlene Jennings, a Kirtland school board member, is now an important part of Alice Lundgren's life, even though she was once best friends with Cheryl Avery, the woman the cult killed.

"One of the reasons I visit is because Alice was Cheryl's friend, too," said Jennings, who met Alice Lundgren during the cult trials. Despite her conviction, Jennings refuses to believe Alice Lundgren had a hand in the slayings.

Jennings, who visits Alice Lundgren twice a month, has even driven to Missouri and picked up the Lundgren's children so they could visit their mother. On the way, she sometimes visits Cheryl Avery's mother, too, since she lives in the same state.

Though the arrangement may look odd to outsiders, Jennings said most people understand her dual allegiance.

People in Kirtland, most of whom know about her visits, don't even mention it. They want to put the killings behind them, she said.

Since the Averys were buried in Missouri, and the convicted cult members are all in prisons outside of the area, there are a few enduring reminders in town, except the old red barn on Kirtland Chardon Rd. where the Averys were killed.

Kirtland Patrolman Ron Andolsek, who helped excavate the Averys' common grave, says he passes the barn nearly every day.

Though the sight of it bothered him for a while - he sought workers' compensation in 1990, claiming the investigation left him with post-traumatic stress disorder - he hardly gives it notice anymore.

When he thinks back to that time now, he just remembers how the case overwhelmed the town's small Police Department: five officers and a chief.

"We had to borrow body bags from several local nursing homes," Andolsek said.

Like Jennings, Andolsek also found himself torn in this convoluted case where both sin and sinner were trying to claim God on their side.

After many hours interviewing cult member Deborah Olivarez, Andolsek began dating her.

"We had a close relationship. I think she may have fallen in love with me," said Andolsek, who ended their affair after about two months. "I told her I could accept her as a friend, but I could never accept what she did."

The unlikely romance was just one of the many unusual stories that spun from the investigation.

During the cult members' trials, an assistant Lake County prosecutor who had also interviewed several of the cult members cashed in on a book deal.

From his Ohio office overlooking Painesville's downtown, U.S. Rep. Steve LaTourette chuckles and grimaces at the same time when he recalls his days trying the cult cases as Lake County prosecutor.

"When this case became real, it was a nightmare from start to finish," he said. "You had strange twists in the case that were unplanned. But we dealt with them."

His success, LaTourette said, not only put Jeffrey Lundgren on death row but helped propel him to Congress.

Hundreds of miles away, in Independence, Mo., sits another man whose career was launched by the case.

Dale Luffman, former president of the Kirtland stake of the Reorganized Church, has since risen to the position of apostle, a role he equates to that of a cardinal in the Catholic Church.

"I think events like this make or break you. I was lucky," Luffman said during a recent phone conversation.

In the months and years following the slayings, the RLDS church was left reeling.

Even though Lundgren was no longer affiliated with the church, his short-lived role as a tour guide at the Kirtland temple made for bad publicity.

"I came to realize the church was as much a victim as the Averys," Luffman said. "The RLDS is not the demon here. . . . Some people in the name of God do a lot of crazy things. Jeff used religion for all the wrong reasons."

Yet through all the chaos, Luffman was able to maintain his own convictions.

"Maybe that is the secret to surviving tragedies," Luffman speculated. "In the midst of all that evil, there was some hope that survived. Like little drops of water a little at a time. . . . People keep going on." Perhaps no one in Kirtland was more affected than Gail Yarborough, the wife of Police Chief Dennis Yarborough.

She lost her husband to a heart attack last year, but a decade ago, she lost much of him to the cult investigation, something he obsessed over, both because he was the town's top cop but also because he and his family belonged to the Reorganized church.

That time holds bittersweet memories, she says.

She was so proud of the way her husband handled himself and the department but so disappointed that such horror could happen in her hometown.

"I am just sorry that Dennis went before Jeff Lundgren," Gail Yarborough said.

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