Killing for God

Ervil LeBaron Story

Court TV, Smoking Gun/August 15, 2006
By Julia Scheeres


Ervil LeBaron grimaced as he looked down at the body of his pregnant daughter in the trunk of his car. Rebecca's neck was chafed raw from the rope her killers had used to strangle her, and a stream of blood had dripped from her nose onto the mat under her head. He slammed the trunk shut.

The green-and-white Ford LTD was new, and it was the spiffiest car Ervil had ever owned. Not only had his daughter's blood soiled his precious car, it was also an indication of sloppy work by the murderers -- whom he'd contracted.

"That's inexcusable!" he roared at his goons. "It's just stupidity. We can't have any more of it."

Ervil LeBaron had his daughter killed because God told him to do it. God had told the fundamentalist Mormon to do a lot of peculiar things over the years, and Ervil always obeyed without question.

When the Almighty commanded him to "be fruitful and multiply," Ervil took 13 wives and sired over 50 children.

When God told Ervil to kill, he did that too. His followers slashed a bloody trail across Mexico and the American Southwest that left 25 to 30 people dead. Among the victims were Ervil's wives, his brother, former members of his church, leaders of rival polygamous clans, and his 17-year-old pregnant daughter Becky.

Even after Ervil LeBaron died in a jail cell in 1981, the violence didn't stop. He left behind a long hit list, and his children picked up his bloody mantle, hunting down their father's enemies far and wide and eliminating them.

To this day, former members of the LeBaron cult whose names are on that list are still in hiding.

Killing for God

To understand how a polygamous psychopath killed in God's name, you've got to dig down to the roots of the Mormon faith itself.

In 1823, a young farmer named Joseph Smith claimed that an angel named Moroni showed him gold plates engraved with ancient scriptures. These would later be known as the Book of Mormon.

Among other things, the tablets held that Jews emigrated to the Americas from Israel in 7 B.C. and were the ancestors of the Native Americans, and that a resurrected Jesus Christ appeared in the New World before ascending to heaven.

Smith formed a religion around these tablets.

Smith's beliefs evolved over time to include the practice of polygamy, in which a man takes more than one wife. Smith figured that God allowed the Old Testament patriarchs to wed multiple women, and it was the holy duty of Mormon males to continue that tradition. (The Church of Latter Day Saints forbids women, however, from engaging in polyandry - the practice of taking more than one husband.)

But mainstream Christians condemned Smith's polygamous teachings as immoral and Smith publicly denied he practiced it, all the while amassing a harem of 33 wives and secretly urging his disciples to follow his example. Thanks to the many births produced by these unions, the ranks of the Mormons quickly swelled to one of the largest religions in America.

But polygamy didn't sit well with the U.S. government either, which officially outlawed the practice in 1862. Caving in to pressure from Washington, the Mormon church renounced it in 1890.

This ruling failed to deter fundamentalist Mormons, who split with the Church over the issue of starting churches that allowed an ongoing collection of wives. Faced with constant harassment from their neighbors and law enforcement, many Mormon fundamentalists fled to northern Mexico, where they formed polygamous colonies in remote regions of the desert and were largely ignored by the local government.

LeBaron lunacy

One of the men who made that journey was Alma Dayer LeBaron. In 1924, Alma loaded his two wives and eight children into covered wagons and rumbled over the sandy border into Mexico. A year later, in a destitute encampment set among sagebrush and barrel cacti, one of his wives gave birth to a boy who would one day be called the "Mormon Manson" by the international press.

Like Joseph Smith, the LeBaron family had a history of revelations from God, which they alternately referred to as voices, callings or commands. Alma Dayer LeBaron had a revelation to take a second wife - prompting the clan's move to Mexico - and another telling him not to register for the WWII draft.

Many members of the LeBaron clan claimed to hear voices, and many suffered from insanity, Scott Anderson writes in The 4 O'Clock Murders.

Alma Dayer LeBaron's daughter Lucinda grew so violent during her bouts of psychosis that her parents chained her by the ankle to a hut. Son Ben drifted in and out of mental hospitals for years after hearing voices tell him he was God; he committed suicide in 1978 by jumping off a bridge. Son Wesley frequently called Salt Lake City radio talk shows to expound his belief that Jesus Christ would one day return to earth in a spaceship. The voices told nephew Owen to have sex with the family dog, and he was also committed to a mental hospital.

These are just a few examples of LeBaron lunacy; erratic behavior and beliefs seemed to plague the entire clan, but no one more than Ervil LeBaron, who believed he had the God-given power to kill.

The wives

In Mexico, the family started its own settlement, called Colonia LeBaron. There they eked out an existence as subsistence farmers. As a child, Ervil worked in the fields alongside the brothers he'd later want to kill. As a young adult, he traveled with his brothers throughout Mexico, seeking to win converts to the family's polygamous brand of Mormonism.

Before Alma died in 1951, he passed his ministry on to his son Joel, who incorporated the "Church of the First-Born of the Fulnes (sic) of Time" in Salt Lake City. Ervil was his big brother's right-hand man.

The proselytizing efforts worked, and the colony grew. They opened a nursery and primary school as well as a community kitchen and laundry. Ervil drew up the work schedules, deciding who did what on the communal farm.

According to Ben Bradlee Jr. and Dale Van Atta in Prophet of Blood, Firstborners viewed the soft-spoken, considerate Joel as "saintly," although Ervil was anything but. Unlike his brother, Ervil rarely lifted a hand to participate in physical labor, saying it was his job as a spiritual leader to study scripture and pray instead.

This didn't wash with some Firstborners, who started gossiping about Ervil's penchant for expensive clothes, flashy cars, and women.

As a young man, Ervil LeBaron was handsome in a hyper-masculine way. He stood 6'4 and had a square jaw and a strong nose. His hair was thick and sandy brown, his eyes were a penetrating blue. In addition to his physical charms, Ervil projected an air of confidence. He leaned into people as he spoke to them, his eyes boring into theirs as he quoted at length from both the book of Mormon and the Bible.

His masculinity and high position in the colony hierarchy made women desire him, and Ervil desired them back. He was a sexual carnivore, doggedly pursuing married women, sisters, pre-pubescent girls and middle-aged matrons alike. He would tell each one that God had told him to marry her.

One of Ervil's twisted beliefs was that the Virgin Mary had become the mother of Christ at age fourteen, and it was therefore acceptable for him to take adolescent girls as wives, according to Bradlee and Van Atta. The colony joyfully supported their leader's pedophilia by giving him their young daughters as brides.

"If you're going to raise up a generation in a plural marriage, it is very important not to let young girls get romanticized in the worldly sense," a woman who married her 13-year-old daughter to Ervil told the authors.

Although his adolescent brides were more interested in playground flirtations with boys their age, their parents convinced them that great rewards awaited them in Heaven if they consented to the marriage.

He was an ardent suitor, but Ervil was a coolly indifferent husband and father. In Colonia LeBaron, women were babymakers and caretakers, banished to the periphery while men made the important decisions. More often than not, he acted as if his wives were a necessary nuisance. Their wombs served to produce more church members the children who would later become his footsoldiers.

Some of Ervil's 13 wives eventually grew weary of living in the Mormon harem and left him, taking their children back to the United States. Others stayed by his side to the bitter end. Two killed for him. And two died because of him.


The physical location of the brothers' power play was a beachfront settlement in Baja California called Los Molinos, which Joel founded in 1964. The property consisted of 8,500 acres, including nine miles fronting the beach. Several dozen Mexican and American Firstborners lived on the property, where they constructed adobe huts, planted wheat fields, and raised goats.

Joel and Ervil had clashing visions on how to use the land, according to Bradlee and Van Atta. While Joel envisioned it as an agricultural paradise where poor Mormons could work on a communal farm, Ervil saw its potential as a tourist paradise.

Despite Joel's opposition, Ervil wooed investors with his millionaire's dream, meeting with moneymen in the States and flying them down to tour the oceanfront, pointing out where the resorts and yacht club would go.

The church had been broke for years because Ervil had brought in truckloads of Mexican converts at a faster rate than the colony could feed and clothe them. He tried a number of get-rich-quick schemes to support the LeBaron ministry over the years, including a gambling trip to Las Vegas, a fish-selling business, and harvesting pine nuts from national forests in California.

Once, when a potential deal was going sour in Utah, Ervil told a man he'd throw in a couple of nubile women from his flock if he'd "join his ball team," according to Bradlee and Van Atta. The offer deeply offended the man, a mainstream Mormon and family man, who walked away from the negotiations.

But while the money schemes failed one by one and cult members were forced to wear rags and eat meals of porridge, Ervil, who was skimming funds from church coffers, was zipping around the colony's dirt roads in a gold Impala and wearing flashy suits. Cult members who held outside jobs were required to tithe 10% of their wages to the ministry, and Ervil was the one who collected these payments.

When Firstborners questioned him about the car - which they'd dubbed the "Golden Calf"- he said God told him to buy it because it would impress potential converts.

After a while, Ervil's quest for power took a dark turn. When he wasn't chasing skirts or spending the flock's money on new shoes, he was nose-deep in the Old Testament, and he'd come to believe that he had the right - like the prophets of old - to strike down people who disobeyed him.

In Moses' time, breaking the 10 Commandments was punishable by death, and Ervil reasoned that the same rules should apply in the LeBarons' dusty Baja California fiefdom as well. He came up with a series of decrees based on the 10 Commandments, which he called Civil Law, and appointed himself the law's chief enforcer. He decreed that people would die for breaking Civil Law.

His congregation noticed the cold gleam in Ervil's eye as he detailed the ancient death rituals he would apply to transgressors - disembowelment, stoning, and beheading - and shrank bank in their pews. They were getting their first glimpses of Ervil's derangement. It would only get worse.

Blood Atonement

A time-honored method of making people obey is by threatening them with physical violence. The concept is simple: If you disobey, you will feel pain. Fear of spanking keeps children in line. Fear of torture makes prisoners talk. Fear of hell keeps Christians on the straight and narrow.

Fear of death kept many Mormons compliant under the leadership of Brigham Young, the Church's second prophet. Young believed that if someone strayed from his flock, the only way that person could gain entry to Heaven was if he or she was killed by a righteous assassin.

He called this concept "blood atonement," and he explained it to his followers in a sermon he gave on September 21, 1856:

"There are sins that men commit for which they cannot receive forgiveness in this world, or in that which is to come, and if they had their eyes open to see their true condition, they would be perfectly willing to have their blood spilt upon the ground, that the smoke thereof might ascend to heaven as an offering for their sins; and the smoking incense would atone for their sins...

"I know, when you hear my brethren telling about cutting people off from the earth, that you consider it is strong doctrine; but it is to save them, not to destroy them..."

In a nutshell, the Church killed you for major disobedience, e.g. raping a child, murder, especially murdering a child, etc., but it was for your own good. If you were murdered by your brethren, you were assured entrance into Heaven.

In the 1850s, historians say, Young frequently resorted to blood atonement to eliminate both his spiritual and business rivals. The Church renounced the bloody doctrine in the late 1800s, but a hundred years later, Ervil decided to reinstate it.

The first person Ervil wanted to kill was Rulon Allred, a rival polygamist from Utah, who refused to tithe to Ervil and had derided the Firstborners in public. In one of his typically long and tedious screeds, Ervil decreed that Allred was guilty of character assassination, an offense "punishable by the death sentence under the Civil Law given by God in the days of Moses," according to Bradlee and Van Atta.

Curiously, Rulon and Ervil had once been pals; in the 1950s, Rulon evaded an arrest warrant in Utah for cohabitation by hiding out at the Colonia LeBaron in Mexico. But that didn't stop Ervil from killing him some 20 years later.

Joel watched his brother scare Firstborners with his gruesome threats and continue to hawk his Mormon utopia to investors. Eventually, he got fed up. When Ervil told him in the summer of 1972 that God said he and Joel should run the church as equals, Joel put his foot down. Not only would he not share the Firstborn leadership with Ervil, he was removing Ervil from a position of leadership altogether. From that point on, Ervil would be sitting in the pews, not standing behind the pulpit.

Ervil was stunned by the news and wept openly before the congregation when the announcement was made. He walked away alone from the temple that night and began plotting against Joel.

Like Cain, he would strike his brother down.

Mormon Mafia

The LeBaron brothers' split also divided the colony. Families chose sides, arguing whether Joel or Ervil was the "true prophet."

Ervil started another church in San Diego, the Church of the Lamb of God. He began to issue angry proclamations against his brother, according to Bradlee and Van Atta. Joel's disregard for his authority was an "act of treason against heaven that carries the penalty of death in this world," Ervil declared.

Joel was slain on a parched August day in Ensenada, a slow-moving beach town in Baja California. Joel and his 14-year-old son Ivan had gone to the house of a Church of the Lamb disciple to pick up a car, and while Ivan waited outside the residence, Ervil's thugs jumped his father inside. Ivan heard someone yell "Kill him!" and gunshots, Anderson writes. The hit men sped off in a station wagon and the boy ran inside to find his father lying face-up on the floor, blood pooling around his shoulders and two bullet holes in his head.

After murdering his brother, Ervil thought that the Firstborners would flock to him like so many sheep. Instead, they filed murder charges against him and chose a new leader - the youngest LeBaron brother, Verlan.

After Joel's funeral - attended by his seven widows and 44 children - Verlan reluctantly took up the reins of the church. Like Joel, Verlan had a quiet demeanor. He preferred to tool around his farm or spend time with his nine wives and 50-plus children than deliver pulpit-pounding sermons.

Certain that he was next on Ervil's hit list, Verlan kept a low profile, traveling constantly, frequently changing cars and residences, and otherwise keeping his whereabouts in question.

In December, Ervil walked into the police headquarters in Ensenada flanked by two lawyers and demanded that the murder charges against him be dropped. He was tired of dodging cops and needed to travel freely to win more converts to his church. But the police were flabbergasted at the sudden appearance of the murder suspect they'd trailed for months and immediately threw him in prison.

When Ervil finally went to trial nine months later, he was found guilty of homicide but only sentenced to 12 years in prison because the prosecution couldn't place Ervil at the crime scene, Anderson writes.

He only served one day of his sentence. Like Lazarus stumbling from his tomb, Ervil walked out of the dank Mexican cellblock on February 14, 1974. A Mexican supreme court had overturned the verdict because Ervil's co-defendants - the church thugs who actually killed Joel - were not present for the trial.

After getting away with murder, Ervil met with a core group of his followers in Yuma, Arizona, according to Anderson. They began to call their leader by a number of honorary titles, including Lord Anointed, One Might and Strong, and Prophet of God. Ervil grew paranoid that the Firstborners would strike back against him, and started carrying a gun and requiring his wives and children to take marksmanship classes from a loyalist who'd served in Vietnam.

As Ervil paced back and forth in front of them, telling them they could all be slaughtered at any moment, the group started to act more like a Mormon mafia than a church. They took aliases and had driver's licenses and birth certificates drawn up in their new names. They only made calls from pay phones that couldn't be traced to their location.

Meanwhile, Verlan, also fearing fratricide, was hiding out in Nicaragua. The paranoid cat-and-mouse game between the two brothers who'd chummed around the Mexican countryside together as boys would drag out for years.

Day of vengeance

Ervil had too much time to think and plot while he was locked up, and shortly after he was released, he published a new fire-and-brimstone essay called "Hour of Crisis - Day of Vengeance."

Written in pompous-sounding King James English, the tract was barely coherent. Only after the Firstborners read and reread it were they able to eke out its meaning. It was essentially a list of demands on the Firstborn church. Among other things, he demanded that the congregation fork over their tithes directly to him, according to Bradlee and Van Atta.

"It is a criminal offense, punishable by death, for an enlightened people to pay tithes and offerings to thieves and robbers (and other fundamentalist leaders)," Ervil wrote. "The sword of vengeance (will) hang over the heads of all those who should fail to hear the word of the Lord. Willful failure to comply with (the book's) minimum requirements constitutes the crime of rebellion against God."

In other words, anyone who didn't pay dues to Ervil should die.

While Ervil was in prison, his mother wrote him that he "should not be in jail, but in a mental hospital," and from his latest diatribe, it certainly appeared that Ervil was suffering from delusions of grandeur.

His ultimatum was met by a wall of silence, and Ervil decided the apostates must be punished. He told his followers that he'd had yet another revelation: they must destroy Los Molinos.

The day after Christmas, he sent his footsoldiers across the border into Baja under cover of night, bearing firebombs and assault weapons. As some 30 Firstborn families gathered around their wood-burning stoves or tucked their children into bed, a pickup truck and a Fiat turned onto the dirt road leading to the quiet farming commune, cut their headlights, and slowed to a crawl. The temperatures hovered near freezing that night, and smoke rose from the chimneys of the cozy homes into the dark blue sky.

The peaceful tableau was shattered by a Molotov cocktail crashing through the window of the town's largest house, according to Anderson. Within seconds, the wood-framed house was engulfed in fire. The occupants ran outside, and in the confusion that followed, Ervil's thugs sprayed bullets over the people racing to form a water brigade, their figures silhouetted against the dancing orange flames.

The assailants barreled through the settlement throwing more firebombs into homes as they made their way toward their primary target: Verlan's abode. The Firstborn leader wasn't home, but his wife Charlotte and six of their children were. When they saw the truck with five armed men in the back making an erratic beeline for their house, they ran to hide in a dark orchard while the men shot up their house and set it on fire.

The 20-minute onslaught left two men dead, 13 people wounded, and Ervil spitting mad because his brother was still alive.

Total world domination

Ervil's plans kept getting bigger. After taking over Los Molinos, he wanted to take over the governments of Mexico and the United States, and eventually rule the world.

He decided to finance his bid for total world domination by killing his religious rivals and stealing their business.

At this point, the Lamb of God church consisted largely of his Ervil's wives and progeny. But there were also enough outsiders to keep the baby propagation going, and like an ancient king, Ervil controlled the "romantic" liaisons in his realm. He had first dibs on the females, arranged marriages between subjects, and gave away his daughters to men he wanted to cement relationships with or reward for good behavior.

The ever-expanding clan moved to Utah, where Ervil dropped in on the patriarchs of other polygamous tribes and demanded they give him 10% of their earnings... or die. The patriarchs told him to get lost.

Meanwhile, back in Los Molinos, the Firstborn families were sleeping with guns by their sides and had organized patrols to watch their property. Verlan was living in a safe house in San Diego.

Ervil had moles firmly planted amid the Firstborners who reported back to him on these activities. But some of these people started getting nervous after the raid. One of them was Noemi Zarate, a plural wife of one of Ervil's close associates. Noemi got a bad case of loose lips and complained about the violence, threatening to tell the police the location of Ervil's whereabouts. With the full blessing of Noemi's husband, Ervil decided to shut her up once and for all, and dispatched one of his wives, Vonda White, to assassinate her, Anderson writes.

The two women had known each other for years, so it wasn't hard for Vonda to convince Noemi to go for a spin in her car on a chilly January evening in 1975. They drove to a canyon in the foothills of the rugged San Pedro Mountains. In that dark canyon, Vonda pumped the mother of five full of bullets before she could beg for mercy. Another of Ervil's wives, Yolanda Rios - who would herself be murdered a decade later - helped Vonda dig a shallow grave among the creosote bushes, into which they dumped Noemi's body. It has never been found. "You don't know how pleased the Lord is that that traitor is dead!" Ervil rejoiced when he heard the news.

He was still leaning on other fundamentalist leaders in Utah to cough up money and still getting no results. "Repent ye therefore or suffer destruction at the hand of God!" he thundered in one letter to his polygamous rivals. Again, they ignored him, but some beefed up their security measures.

One of the men Ervil tried to extort money from was Bob Simons, who lived on a 65-acre ranch near Grantsville, Utah, with his two wives. Simons, who had spent time in mental hospitals when he was younger, believed he was a prophet destined to convert Native Americans to the Mormon faith. He refused to cave into demands to join the Lamb of God church. Ervil was itching to get his hands on Bob's bucolic spread.

Using a false name, Ervil paid Simons several visits as a supposed disciple of the church. The two men argued for hours over their theological differences. At one point, according to Bradlee and Van Atta, the argument turned into a fierce wrestling match, and the two men groped and grappled about in the dirt as Simons' wives wailed and wrung their hands.

By the time Ervil started hitting on one of his wives, Simons was beyond annoyed, and he told Ervil to keep off his property.

Ervil realized the game was up. He gathered his henchmen around him and revealed that God wanted blood atonement for the false prophet.

"We are going to blow him up like a balloon," he railed, according to Anderson.

The men bided their time for a couple of months before paying Simons a last and fatal visit. On the drive out to Simon's ranch, Ervil's goons stopped by a gardening store to buy pickaxes, shovels and a bag of chemicals that hasten the deterioration of human flesh. They stopped again to dig a coffin-sized hole in the desert hills.

Simons knew they were coming - one of Ervil's emissaries, Lloyd Sullivan, had called on him a few days a before, claiming he now believed Simons was the true prophet after a conversation he'd had with some Indian chiefs. The chiefs had been searching for the white prophet who would lead them to salvation for a long time, the emissary said. Simons was ecstatic.

"How soon can I meet them?" he asked Lloyd.

Simons paid the gas money for the ride to his grave on the night of April 23, 1975. The moon-washed landscape was barren and forlorn, but the Indian chiefs had picked the time and the place and Simons wasn't about to protest. He leaned forward in his seat, peering through the windshield. For so many years, he'd sought to make contact with the elusive Native Americans, and now it was happening. He could hardly believe his good fortune and smiled as Lloyd pulled the car up beside a pile of rocks. Lloyd cut the engine, but left the headlights on.

Simons stood in front of the car, a hand raised to his brow as he peered into the distance, looking for his Indian flock. He was too focused, his heart pounding too hard, to notice two young men creeping up behind him. One of them raised a shotgun to the back of his head and squeezed the trigger, and the self-proclaimed Indian prophet slammed to the ground, dust swirling over him in the headlights' glare.

The pregnant assassin

Standing 6'8 and weighing in at 260 muscle-popping pounds, Dean Vest was a physically intimidating man. He was a Vietnam vet living in San Diego when he followed his father's footsteps to the Church of the Firstborn of the Fulness of Times and had stayed on after his father grew disillusioned with the church and left it in the late 60s.

Ervil made him the church's military general, and he taught Ervil's foot soldiers the explosives and weapons tactics he'd used in the jungles of Vietnam. Dean laid out the blueprint for the Los Molinos raid.

But Dean's wife Cheryl was never gung-ho about the chauvinist teachings of a church where a woman's primary value was her breeding potential. After years of asking Dean to leave the church, she left him and moved to Washington State with their two children.

The 36-year-old was devastated and started reconsidering his allegiances. He started to spend more and more time fixing up a rusted-out barge he'd bought and less time in church. Then he made the mistake of telling people his dream of sailing up the coast in his barge for a joyful reunion with his wife and kids.

He should have known better. There was no way that Ervil would let his military commander simply walk away. It would make him look bad. He didn't want Dean to prompt a mass defection. According to Civil Law, Ervil said, Dean must be blood-atoned.

Ervil chose one of the least suspicious people in his clan to kill the weapons expert, his 10th wife, Vonda White. Vonda was living near San Diego with a "sister wife" - as the wives called each other - and a houseful of children, and Dean often stopped by frequently for a home-cooked meal or company. He'd never suspect that Vonda - who was barely 5'3 and six months pregnant - would kill him. But Vonda had already proven herself a lethal asset to the Lamb of God church when she'd murdered her sister wife Noemi Zarate the past January.

On June 16, 1976, Dean learned his wife and daughter had been injured in a car accident and immediately booked a flight to Seattle, according to Anderson. Before heading to the airport, he stopped by Vonda's house to pick up some things he'd stored there and give her the news. When Dean knocked on the front door, Vonda was playing the role of the loving mother, preparing lunch for six children. But she switched to killer mode as soon as Dean said he was leaving for Washington. She was worried that he'd reconcile with his wife and never come back from the trip. Ervil told her to kill him, and it was now or never.

But first she had to feed the kids. She chatted with him while the young ones ate. When the kids were done eating, she shooed them upstairs, telling them to stay out of Dean's way as he packed. Then she pulled out a loaded .38 Colt revolver from a dresser drawer, tucked it into a pocket of her maternity dress and went back downstairs.

Dean was getting ready to lug his baggage to his car when White asked him to look at her washing machine, according to Bradlee and Van Atta. She told him it wasn't working right and he needed a man to check it over. Dean couldn't find the "problem," but he did get his hands grimy fiddling with the motor. As he washed up at the kitchen sink, White stepped behind him and raised the gun. She was wearing rubber gloves. She tiptoed toward Dean's massive back and squeezed the trigger. The first shot ripped through his liver, and Dean straightened over the sink and started to turn right. The second shot pierced his lung, and as he continued turning toward his attacker, blood spewed from his mouth in a five-foot arc. Vonda quickly ducked to avoid the torrent.

After Dean collapsed on the linoleum floor, she delivered the coup de grace behind his left ear, then washed up and called the police, Anderson writes.

"Shots have been fired," Vonda White - wife, mother, murderer - calmly told the dispatcher.

The man and his car

After the police grew suspicious of Vonda's story and told her to stick around town, she fled to Denver, where Ervil had moved his clan to keep one step ahead of his real and imaginary enemies.

The Church of the Lamb members were running an appliance repair business and barely making ends meet, despite running a sweatshop where children, women and men alike worked 16 hour days without pay. They crammed into tiny rental homes, dressed in rags, and went hungry. At night, they resorted to digging through supermarket dumpsters for bruised produce and day-old bread.

In 1977, however, their hardships paid off and the business finally started to become profitable. The clan started appliance stores in cities in several other states, including Dallas, where a group of cult members moved that winter.

Despite achieving financial success, Ervil had other nagging problems - such as his daughter. When Rebecca was 15, Ervil had given her in marriage to Victor Chynoweth, a wealthy disciple. But Becky wasn't happy in her marriage; Vic was a distant husband and his first wife made Becky's life hell. When the cult split between Utah and Denver, she was sent to the Mile High City and was forced to leave her baby behind. She was bitter about it. She sniped at her customers and coworkers and threatened to go to the cops, thinking that as the cult head's daughter, she was safe from harm. How wrong she was. Fed up with her antics, Ervil had a revelation from God.

One day in April, Ervil told Becky she could retrieve her baby, Victor Jr., from Denver, according to Anderson. She was elated. On the appointed day, she sat in the back seat and chatted with the two boys driving her to the Dallas airport, happier than she'd been in months. She was three months pregnant, and she planned to take her baby boy to Mexico and stay with her mother. She'd give birth to her second child there and raise it with the help of her doting mother. But the boys in the front seat weren't listening. Duane Chynoweth and Eddie Marston were doing a mental rehearsal of a new trick they'd been practicing for the past several weeks: how to strangle someone with rope.

On an isolated road outside the Dallas suburbs, Duane pulled the car off the road and Eddie reached down to grab the coiled rope at his feet. It took a long time for Becky to die, longer than they'd planned on. She was young and strong and had a tremendous desire to see her baby boy again. She kicked and thrashed about on the back seat as the two boys tugged at the ends of the rope. Ultimately, the pregnant 17-year-old was no match for two boys afire with the evil gospel of Ervil.

Their boss was livid when her blood stained the trunk of his LTD and he chewed out the boys for being so careless. A short while later, he traded the car in for another, more pristine, LTD.

As for Becky, her young killers dumped her body in an Oklahoma state park. It was never found.

Rena: Child bride

In the midst of his murderous rampage, Ervil received a revelation to take another wife, and married Rena Chynoweth - his 13th and last wife - in February 1975.

She was 16, he was 50. In her memoir The Blood Covenant, Rena says Ervil molested her for four years before she finally gave in to making it "legal."

Nevertheless, the aging stud couldn't get it up on their wedding night, Rena writes, or for many nights thereafter. When he finally did manage to consummate their relationship, she was utterly repulsed.

"...had to close my eyes and pretend I was somewhere else or he was someone else," she writes. "I would often turn my head away or hold my breath so I wouldn't have to smell his breath. It always reeked of something awful, usually coffee. He kissed like a fish, very stiff-lipped, in a way that really disgusted me."

Rena didn't want to kiss Ervil, but she did want to kill for him.

Frustrated by his inability to eliminate his little brother and take over the Firstborners, Ervil came up with yet another plan to assassinate him, one of many he'd concocted over the years.

Verlan was in constant motion between safe houses in Mexico, California, and Nicaragua, so Ervil came up with a must-attend event that would lure Verlan into the open: Rulon Allred's funeral.

Rulon had refused to tithe to Ervil and had to die anyway, Ervil figured. His brother would no doubt attend the funeral of the man who had been a legendary Utah polygamist, and the Lamb of God assassins would cut him down during the service. It was the perfect plan, Ervil thought. Two birds, one stone.

On May 10, 1977, Rena and another young woman, Ramona Marston, walked into Rulon's homeopathic clinic on the outskirts of Salt Lake City wearing cheap wigs and fake glasses. Rena spotted Rulon as he stepped from a back room and walked toward him. He nodded at her.

"He was exactly as he had been described to me," Rena would later write in her memoir. "Tall, slender, gray-haired - a nice, pleasant-looking man... He was no more than three to five feet from me. I knew the moment had come to do what I was sent there to do."

Without a word, Rena pulled a .25 caliber pistol from her jacket and fired, emptying all seven bullets into the old man's chest. He tried to deflect them with his hands before falling.

Rulon Allred's funeral at Bingham High School was a huge event. Over 2,600 people from around the country traveled to the school for a final goodbye, as did the police and news media, according to Anderson. Ervil's goons drove into the parking lot, took one look at the scene, and aborted their plan to hunt down Verlan among the mourners.

Once again, Ervil had failed to kill his younger brother. He was in a foul mood for days.

The end of Ervil

Ervil used many classic cult techniques to keep his followers in line, Rena writes. He isolated them by limiting their contact with people outside the church. He exhausted them with his hours-long sermons that broke down their mental resistance. He scared them by telling them that they were being hunted by religious and government assassins and that they would only survive by banding together.

The cult's children were normally pulled from school after fifth or sixth grade, because Ervil feared contact with secular playmates might prompt them to question their cloistered lifestyle. Knowledge of the outside world was a dangerous thing.

From age 10 onward, the children were put to work doing chores around the home or in the family business. Ultimately, they had nowhere else to turn once they came of age - no education, no skills, no network of support.

But when Ervil started killing, some of the cult members finally shook themselves from their stupor and realized their honcho was a certifiable nutcase. A few managed to tiptoe away from the cult houses and take their incriminating tales to the police. Eventually the law caught up with the cult killers.

Ervil was held at the Salt Lake County jail until May 12, 1980, when he went on trial for masterminding Rulon Allred's murder. After a steady stream of ex-cult members testified against him, he was convicted of the crime and sentenced to life in prison at the Point of the Mountains State Prison in Draper, Utah.

But his imprisonment didn't end Ervil's appetite for vengeance. Caged as he was between steel bars and cement, he managed to write his magnum opus, the Book of the New Covenants, at a small desk in his cell. It was his last work, and it would be his most famous. He wrote furiously, scribbling until his fingers cramped and his eyes got blurry.

The 500-page screed contained a hit list of more than 50 people whom Ervil decided needed to be blood-atoned, among them cult defectors, police investigators, and prison officials. He distributed copies of the manuscript among his followers.

Ervil died in prison on August 16, 1981, of an apparent heart attack; prison guards found him keeled over in his cell, a hand clutching his throat. In an uncanny twist of fate, his brother Verlan was killed in a car crash in Mexico a few hours later.

If Ervil's death made everyone sleep a little easier at night, it shouldn't have. The Book of New Covenants contained a line of succession of men who were to carry on his "ministry" after he died.

One by one, the people on his hit list began to fall, as Ervil continued to orchestrate murderous mayhem from beyond the grave.

The hit list

On June 21, 1983, his son Isaac, 20, who testified against Ervil, died in a suspicious "suicide" while staying with cult-member relatives in Houston.

In the fall of 1983, the plans of Ervil's wife Lorna to defect from the cult were cut short when the mother of eight was strangled and buried in a shallow grave in Mexico. Her body has never been found.

On December 28, 1983, Ervil's oldest son, Arturo, 33, was gunned down in Mexico by Leo Evoniuk, a rival who disputed his claim to the prophet's mantle.

After Arturo died, the cult leadership fell to Heber LeBaron, Ervil's 20-year-old son. Heber had inherited his towering physical beauty from his father, but he'd also inherited his insanity. His first move was to purge Los Molinos of traitors who'd aligned themselves with Evoniuk.

In the early months of 1984, he shot Gamaliel Rios in the face with a .45 automatic. His body was buried in the desert and never recovered.

Neither was that of Yolanda Rios, Ervil's twelfth wife, who was strangled to death in May 1984 and buried outside of Dallas.

On May 21, 1987, Leo Evoniuk was murdered near Santa Cruz, California. Only his dentures, lying in a puddle of blood, were found.

On October 16, 1987, Dan Jordan was shot in the head while on a hunting trip in the Manti-La Sal National Forest in Utah with his family and some LeBaron kids. His murder was never solved.

But June 27, 1988 was the single bloodiest day in the cult's history. Ervil had raged for 15 long paragraphs in New Covenants against Mark Chynoweth, Duane Chynoweth and Ed Marston, demanding they be slain as traitors. At 4 o'clock that afternoon in simultaneous murders hundreds of miles apart, his wishes were carried out.

All three men were former cult thugs who were trying to pursue normal lives in the appliance-repair business. But that wasn't their destiny.

At 4 o'clock in Houston, Duane Chynoweth was gunned down when he drove to pick up a used washer at a private home. It was a setup. His 8-year-old daughter Jennifer was with him that day, and she screamed when her daddy was shot.

The assassin turned when he heard the child, and walked back to the truck to shoot her in the mouth and forehead, not wanting to leave a potential witness. Across the state in Irving, Eddie Marston was also mowed down by bullets at 4 o'clock after replying to a similar appliance pickup request. And police found Mark Chynoweth in the back office of Reliance Appliances in Houston, his lifeless body sprawled on the paperwork on his desk and riddled with .45 bullet holes. He'd also been executed at 4 o'clock.

One by one, the authors of the quadruple murder were caught, caged, and hauled into court.

  • In May 1993, Heber LeBaron, Patricia LeBaron, and Douglas Lee Barlow were sentenced to life in prison without parole for their part in the slayings.
  • Richard LeBaron, who was only 17 when he shot Duane and Jennifer Chynoweth to death, was sentenced to five years in prison.
  • Cynthia LeBaron was granted immunity and testified against her half-siblings at that trial.
  • In June, 1997, Aaron LeBaron was sentenced to 45 years in prison for racketeering, racketeering conspiracy and conspiracy to violate the civil rights of the victims.
  • Jacqueline LeBaron, whom police say helped to orchestrate the murders, remains at large. She is presumed to be living in Mexico or Belgium.

Still hiding

Despite the fact that the killers were jailed, many former cult members still live in fear. It's unclear who the new leader of the LeBaron cult is or whether that person intends to continue checking names off Ervil's hit list, but Rena Chynoweth isn't taking her chances.

She split up with Ervil when he was in jail for the Rulon murder, and that won her a place on his list. Twenty years later, she's still in hiding.

During our five-year marriage and for many years afterward, I had to live with some ghastly memories," writes Chynoweth. "I killed a man in cold blood, acting on my husband's orders which he claimed were 'commands from God.' I spent a year and a half running from the law, five months in jail awaiting trial for murder, and many years afterward trying to block out my past."

Rena ends her book with a plea to her readers:

"These last remnants of Ervil LeBaron's flock are still a risk to the rest of society. They are the last ones who may still feel bound by his blood covenant that has claimed so many innocent lives. They have grown up around violence and violent teachings, and there is grave danger that they will pass these values on to their own children. I want the killing to stop. Only by finding those still out there and getting them the help they need can we stop the bloodshed. "

In her final paragraph, she asks readers who come into contact with the LeBaron children to please turn them in to the police.


Anderson, Scott. The 4 O'Clock Murders. New York: Doubleday, 1993.

Associated Press. "3 Members of Sect Acquitted of Conspiracy, Murder for Hire." January 22, 1993.

Associated Press. "Ex-member of Cult Gets 5 Years for Slaying Man and Daughter." November 27, 1993.

Bradlee, Ben Jr. and Dale Van Atta. Prophet of Blood. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1981.

Chynoweth, Rena and Dean M. Shapiro. The Blood Covenant. Austin, Texas: Diamond Books, 1990.

Funk, Marianne. "Trial Topples Murderous Sect as LeBarons Come Out of Hiding," The Deseret News. January 22, 1993.

Makeig, John. "Woman says brother ordered deaths of four sect defectors, "The Houston Chronicle. February 26, 1997.

Tedford, Deborah. "LeBaron gets 45-year sentence," The Houston Chronicle. June 13, 1997.

Young, Brigham. Sermon, Journal of Discourses, Vol. 4, pages 53-54; also published in The Deseret News, 1856, page 235.

About the author

Julia Scheeres grew up in Lafayette, Indiana. She has an M.A. in Journalism and has written for the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and Wired, among other outlets.

Her memoir, Jesus Land, was published by Counterpoint Books in September, 2005.

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