15 years later, cult member reflects on Kirtland murders

Woman's next parole hearing is in August

News-Herald.com/January 3, 2005
By Scott Heasley

Deborah Olivarez desperately wants to be a normal grandmother.

She already has the gentle voice, kind smile and warm laugh, but she lacks the freedom to take her grandchildren to the park or bake them cookies.

That's the price she must pay for the crimes she took part in, which were discovered 15 years ago this week.

"I would love to go home. I have eight grandchildren, and they really want their grandma home," Olivarez said during a recent interview in prison. "But I have no expectations from the parole board. I can hope for the best and expect the worst."

The parole board has two different Deborahs to consider at her next hearing in August.

The first is a 52-year-old woman who works maintenance and helps train dogs at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville. She chuckles after she tells you she has the most beautiful grandkids in the world. She says she's learned a lot about what led her to follow a murderer.

The second Deborah is 15 years younger. She was recently divorced, low on money and feeling hopeless.

She latched on to a cult in Kirtland and followed its leader even after he murdered three little girls and their parents.

That Deborah wanted someone to make all of her decisions for her.

"Jeff had all the answers," Olivarez said of cult leader Jeffrey Lundgren, who is also her cousin. "I couldn't tell you today what those answers were and what the questions were. I just felt like he had the answers, and he promised to take care of me. And all my life all I wanted was somebody to take care of me."

Olivarez hooked up with Lundgren and his followers when her grandparents offered to pay her way if she drove them from Missouri to visit Lundgren.

"I felt freedom up here," Olivarez said of being in Kirtland. "My bill collectors didn't know where I was, and my ex-husband couldn't get to me."

That freedom came with a price - Olivarez had to turn all of her money and free will over to Lundgren.

In exchange, he was offering more than just a little guidance.

For the most part, Lundgren's small group of followers were educated, longtime churchgoers. He won them over by claiming he was a prophet following God's orders and promising that they would see the face of God if they followed his teachings.

Lundgren was bankrolled by cult members who lived with him on a 15-acre farm he rented on Euclid-Chardon Road. Followers like Olivarez gave Lundgren all of their money.

"He told us he could read our minds, and if we ran, we would only die tired," she said.

Lundgren brought a knife or a .357 Magnum handgun to the classes he taught to drive that point home.

"It was considered a sin to question Jeff," Olivarez said. "And you didn't talk to others because that's how cults are set up. Everybody reports to Jeff, and no one talks to one another."

Olivarez did not interact much with Lundgren followers Dennis Avery, his wife, Cheryl, or their three daughters: 15-year-old Trina, 13-year-old Rebecca and 7-year-old Karen.

"But before I ever met them, I had already been taught to dislike them, which is really difficult because they were people that were searching also," Olivarez said. "They had a daughter that was the age of my daughter."

According to Olivarez, Jeff said 10 people were going to die if they did not repent.

"I heard him tell the Averys, 'You are going to die if you don't repent,' " she said. "But Jeff said a lot of things were going to happen."

A few days before the Averys, of Madison Township, were murdered, Jeff told the five others they had repented and would be spared. Olivarez thought the same thing would happen with the Averys.

"In the big scheme of cult life, I really expected them to repent, and then we were all going to go to the wilderness and see God," she said. "In the reality of it, I think Jeff had to make something happen or he was going to start losing people, and this was the only thing he could make happen."

Olivarez was in the cult's house when the Averys were bound, shot and buried in a communal grave inside a barn.

Olivarez said she and the other followers were not thinking clearly.

"When you're in a situation like that, you don't think on your own. You only think what you're told to think," she said. "The only two thoughts that went through my mind were, 'If this is what is happening, then this is God's will.' And the other thought was, 'I'm a sinner, so I'm next.' I expected them at any moment to come in and get me.

"Somewhere in the deep recesses of my mind, I knew I was no different than them, that I had questioning thoughts, that I was not perfect, and I didn't live up to the expectations Jeff had for us."

A few days after the murders, Lundgren and his followers fled to a wooded area outside Davis, W.Va.

Olivarez and the others spent seven very cold months living in tents. Then the group ran out of food and money, so Lundgren started sending followers back to Missouri, where he and many of them came from.

"It was always, once again, we had sinned," Olivarez said. "It was we were horrible, we had to repent, and we would be able to see God because that's what all of this was about. We would literally see the face of God."

Olivarez said she contemplated killing Lundgren because he was taking care of his family and neglecting the children of other cult members.

"I still believed him, but it got to the point where I just didn't care," she said. "When you're frozen for seven months, you just kind of get to the point where you just don't care if you live or die, and that's really where I was at. I didn't really care."

Olivarez never revolted against Lundgren, and eventually went back to Missouri with a group of other followers.

One day, she walked away from the farm where the group was staying.

"I was gone a week, and I was terrified the whole week that at any moment somebody was going to walk up and blow my brains out," Olivarez said.

When Olivarez went back to the group, she knew she could not stay.

Eventually, Olivarez and some other members of the cult decided they would go to authorities after the holidays were over. Larry K. Johnson, the estranged husband of Lundgren's current wife, Kathryn Johnson, beat them to it.

In December 1989, Larry Johnson went to officials with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in Kansas City, Mo., and things quickly fell into place.

Lundgren was captured south of San Diego, living near the U.S.-Mexico border. Olivarez and other followers were rounded up in Missouri.

Olivarez agreed to testify against Lundgren, his wife, Alice, their son Damon and Ronald Luff.

"The only way I could start to begin to make amends was to tell the truth," Olivarez said.

Olivarez was sentenced to seven to 25 years in prison after pleading guilty to a conspiracy charge. She said prosecutors told her she would be out in about five years.

Now, almost 15 years have gone by, and Olivarez has mixed feelings about her sentence.

"It makes me angry," she said. "I needed to do time for myself. Not necessarily the last five, but the first 10 years were really, really beneficial for me. There were things I learned about myself that I don't think I'd have known had I not been here."

Olivarez said she learned she does not have to believe something just because someone else does, that she does not have to be a follower.

She analyzes and dissects things when someone offers her an opinion.

"I try to do a lot of creative thinking because that's the only way I can avoid getting in that rut again," she said.

Olivarez hopes parole board members believe she is reformed.

"All I can tell them is the truth and hope they see I'm not the same person that I was coming in," she said. "I just feel like words are useless. I just hope from my institutional record they can see I'm not the same person, and I'm not going to go out there and reoffend."

When she gets out, Olivarez wants to return to Missouri, spend time with her grandchildren and buy an apartment complex.

She also wants to teach people about cults so the Averys' deaths are not in vain.

"Nothing is going to bring the Avery family back to life, but I want people to understand how dangerous (cults) are," she said. "People don't want to believe it can happen to them, and it can happen to anybody."

Olivarez thinks education is a key to stopping the "frenzy" that is widespread in the world today.

"The sad thing is I really understood the men in the 9/11 incident," she said. "I knew where their brain was at. It was easy for me to understand why they were willing to die for their cause."

Olivarez thinks an incident like the one in Kirtland can happen again.

"We weren't the last that's going to be out there, and I'd like to do my part to make sure it doesn't happen again," she said.

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