Salt Lake City - To the members of his polygamist cult, Ervil LeBaron is a prophet of God, leader of a persecuted and misunderstood band of gentle people. But to law-enforcement officials, he is a prophet of blood, an obsessed dictator whose disciples have killed at his bidding.
Which of these views is more accurate may emerge later this summer, when the 54-year-old former Mormon missionary is tried for murder.
Until he was hustled across the border last month by Mexican authorities, LeBaron had been a fugitive for nearly two years, sought in connection with three murders - including the slaying of the leader of a rival polygamist church.
LeBaron has a long history of trouble with the law. He was once convicted in Mexico in connection with the murder of his brother - also leader of a polygamist cult - but the verdict was reversed. He is also accused in the attempted murder of another brother, leader of yet another polygamist cult.
LeBaron once wrote that "religious impostors" had been marked for execution, and false prophets are "subject to civil judgment by the law of God, which, in some cases, requires the penalty of death."
LeBaron did not fight extradition to Utah from Texas, and is in the Salt Lake City-County Jail awaiting an August 16 preliminary hearing.
While LeBaron was at large, one of his 13 or more wives was convicted of one of the murders in California, while another wife was acquitted of charges in connection with a second slaying in Utah.
LeBaron will be tried on charges he masterminded the slaying of rival polygamist leader Rulon Allred, who was shot to death by two persons in his suburban Salt Lake City doctor's office May 10, 1977.
Four of LeBaron's followers, including wife Rena Chynoweth, were acquitted last March of murder and conspiracy charges in connection with Allred's death. The prosecution contended LeBaron had ordered the slaying.
Another LeBaron wife, Vonda Evelyn White, was convicted in San Diego of murdering Dean Grover Vest, a man who wanted to leave LeBaron's cult. She was sentenced June 13 to life in prison.
During the California trial, Deputy district Attorney Gary Rempel charged that Vest's murder was carried out on orders from LeBaron, and he wants to try LeBaron in the case. LeBaron is also charged with first-degree murder in the 1975 slaying of Utah polygamist Robert Simons, and with attempted murder and conspiracy in what authorities say was an attempt at Allred's funeral to gun down his own brother, Verlan.
Polygamy was sanctioned by the Mormon Church until 1890. It is illegal in Utah, but is practiced by some 20,000 persons here and 15, 000 others throughout the West. Thousands more have fled to colonies in Mexico, as LeBaron's parents did in the 1920s.
LeBaron's cult, the church of the Lamb of God, is one of the smaller polygamist groups with about 100 followers. LeBaron, an imposing figure at 6-4 and 220 pounds, is an enigma because few understand his polygamist lifestyle, says John O'Connell, the attorney who defended Chynoweth.
"The image you get from the state is that if Ervil says, "Take out the garbage," and you don't, you get shot. And that's absurd," he said. "A lot of violence is going on, obviously. I mean people are getting killed ....There are wolves out there among those sheep."
But the attorney said the violence is tied to polygamy's illegality. "Here is the state attacking a family relationship, and all that does is put everything outside the law, and it deprives all these people of the protection of the law," he said.
LeBaron, who was born in Mexico, has been linked to violent acts in that country. He was once a member of the Church of the Firstborn of the Fullness of Times, headed by his brother, Joel, who was found beaten and shot to death in 1972 in Mexico after having thrown Ervil out of the church.
LeBaron was sentenced in Ensenada to a 12-year prison term as "intellectual head" of Joel's murder, but a Mexican tribunal later overturned the verdict. He was arrested again in Mexico in March 1976, and charged with being the "intellectual author" of the firebombing of a Church of the Firstborn community that left two dead and 19 wounded. The charge was dismissed for insufficient evidence.
O'Connell said LeBaron is not as formidable a leader as authorities claim. "The state's theory that this church is a well-oiled machine run by this dictator...."
"Everybody I talked to had a different version of who was in charge. As an organization man, he's inept. Whether he's a good guy or a bad guy, he's not running that thing like a machine. He's got his head in the clouds."