The Disturbing True Story Behind Under the Banner of Heaven

Natalie Finn

Andrew Garfield Hilariously Shuts Down Question for Co-Star

Allen Lafferty came home to a nightmare on July 24, 1984. 

Walking into the kitchen of the apartment he shared with his young family in American Fork, Utah, at 8 p.m., he found his 24-year-old wife, Brenda Lafferty, lying in a pool of blood. The phone cord had been ripped out of the wall, so he headed to the bedroom to call 911 from there. Passing their 15-month-old daughter Erica's room, he saw that the toddler and the blankets in her crib were also covered in red.

The bedroom phone not working, either, Allen had to go to a neighbor's place to call the police, then he returned to Brenda's side and prayed.

"And then as I stood," he testified in court years later, "I surveyed the situation a little more, and realized that there had been a grim struggle."

Jon Krakauer detailed what Brenda struggled against—the killers she fought on the day she and her child died, and the destructive forces coming from within the Lafferty family—in his 2003 book Under the Banner of Heaven, the basis for the FX on Hulu limited series premiering April 28, starring Daisy Edgar-Jones as Brenda and Andrew Garfield as the lead detective whose own faith is shaken to the core as he uncovers the truth.

American Fork police brought Allen to the station for questioning, figuring he was the one who'd flipped out and murdered his wife and child. But the husband, who'd been gone all day setting tile at a construction site 80 miles away, last speaking to Brenda and hearing Erica chatter her baby talk over the phone during his lunch break, told them in no uncertain terms who they should be looking for.

With that, the manhunt for then 42-year-old Ronald Lafferty, Allen's eldest brother, began—and the investigation took the first of a series of disturbing turns.

Family Handout

With the Under the Banner of Heaven series injecting more of a true-crime-style investigation into the action than is featured in the book, Garfield's Detective Jeb Pyre is inspired by the real-life authorities who worked the haunting case. The character incorporates a bit of Krakauer too, the writer having uncovered a seriously disturbing story beyond the crime itself.

"I've seen a lot of death in my career," former American Fork Police Department Chief Terry Fox, who in 1984 was a detective on his city's then-10-man force, reflected to Salt Lake City's KSLTV in 2019. "This one was different in the case, that it was religiously motivated. You can use the word brutal, horrific. And I just don't throw those out lightly because this was a really, really brutal murder. It was different from a lot of crime scenes in a lot of ways."

Fox also had an 18-month-old daughter at the time, a connection that wasn't lost on him.

The day after the killings, before police had even found him, Ron—a onetime city councilman who'd grown increasingly extreme in his beliefs and was ex-communicated from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints—was charged with first-degree murder, as was his brother Dan Lafferty on July 27.

"We have no direction or focus right now as to where [Ron] might be," Agent Terry Knowles from the FBI's Salt Lake City office told reporters. "I've got a hunch this is not going to be the kind of case where someone simply pulls him over and picks him up."

Investigators shared that, from what they'd gathered so far from interviews with friends and family, Ron claimed to have received word from God that he needed to kill the enemies responsible for his ex-communication, and the list of names he dutifully wrote down included Brenda and Erica.

Motive for Murder

Born Brenda Wright, Allen's wife was bright and beautiful. The first runner-up in the Miss Twin Falls Pageant in 1980, she anchored a local newsmagazine show while attending Brigham Young University. She was 21 when she married Allen on April 22, 1982, and according to her mother, LaRae Wright, she regretted it two months later. Allen didn't want Brenda to work, and he told her to turn down an offer of a teaching position at BYU.

But, her sister Betty Wright McEntire told Krakauer of her brother-in-law, "We all liked him. He was like a wonderful big brother to us. At the time, we had no idea that there was all this other stuff going on in his family. Then we started to notice how fanatical they all were."

The daughter of an LDS bishop, Brenda, like Allen, was a practicing Mormon, though her spirited, relatively independent ways made her practically a heathen as far as Ron Lafferty was concerned. Moreover, he blamed Brenda for his 1983 divorce, convinced his sister-in-law had encouraged his wife, Dianna Lafferty, to leave him. Neighbors told the Salt Lake Tribune that Dianna had packed up and left the state with their six kids after Christmas.

Under the Banner of Heaven delves all the way back into the founding of Mormonism by Joseph Smith in 1830, the schism between his widow Emma Smith and Brigham Young, Smith's successor as head of the LDS Church, and more of the very real intrigue that shaped the belief system that was at the center of the Lafferty family's world.

AP Photo

Influenced by reading the 1842 pamphlet "The Peace Maker," it was Dan who first started to espouse the righteousness of polygamy, which the church outlawed in 1890, and practicing the most extreme, patriarchal version of their 150-year-old religion. He regaled four of his five brothers—Tim, Mark, Watson Jr. and Allen—with what he was picking up from his readings of old Mormon texts, while Ron, a youth leader and first counselor to the bishop of their local congregation, was the one who stayed away.

But when Dianna realized in mid-1982 that four of her fellow Lafferty wives were becoming increasingly unhappy, she encouraged Ron to have a talk with his brothers. "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!'"

Yet sometime over the course of the night that Ron went out to set his brothers straight, he fell under Dan's spell instead. Dianna told a friend a different person came home that evening, one who seemed to want a servant instead of a wife. Though he also wanted more wives, and he announced his intention to marry off their teenage daughters.

According to her friends, Dianna tried to get the old Ron back, but the husband she loved was gone. And all of her sisters-in-law were going along with their spouses' new demands—except Brenda, who would argue theology with the brothers, much to Dan and Ron's outrage.

A friend of the brothers told UPI in the days following the killings that, barely two years beforehand, Ron and Dan had been "moral and sensitive men who were active in their Mormon faith," but had since splintered off into a fundamentalist sect that espoused plural marriage. (Unlike Dan, who had two wives, Ron later said he never actually practiced polygamy, and he denied belonging to any extremist group.)

"They are so different now," Allen told the news agency. "It's like they are possessed or something. I knew they were here [in town] and that their disposition had changed radically, but I couldn't anticipate anything like this happening." He hadn't seen either brother in three months.

Ron had already been very conservative, utilizing his time on the city council to help pass a ban on beer sales at Highland, Utah's only grocery store. But he had since come to believe that "righteous laws" should rule the land, a neighbor told the Salt Lake City Tribune. "He talked about standing up for what was right—no matter the consequences."

On July 30, police arrested Richard "Ricky" Knapp and Charles "Chip" Carnes, drifters Dan and Ron had met earlier in the summer, at Chip's father's house. Ron's Chevy Impala was parked outside, but the brothers were nowhere to be found. 

With Ricky and Chip's help, authorities tracked Dan and Ron down in Reno, Nev., where they were arrested in the buffet line at the Circus Circus hotel and casino on Aug. 7.

What soon became clear was that the Lafferty brothers didn't think they were guilty of any crime—and they certainly didn't seem sorry.

Ron and Dan Lafferty Go Off the Rails

After Dianna left, Ron immersed himself entirely in fundamentalist doctrine, and in February 1984, he received what he insisted was his first message from God. And then in late March, another revelation he claimed to receive told him, per his handwritten notes, that several people, including Brenda and Erica, had "become obstacles in My path" and they must be "removed in rapid succession that an example be made of them."

Dan asked Allen what he thought of the so-called revelation, and the younger brother said he'd defend his wife and child at all costs. But, according to Krakauer, Allen never told Brenda that Ron was seriously considering killing her and their baby.

"If he had told Brenda about Ron's revelation, she would have been out of there in a minute and she'd still be alive today," Betty said. "But Brenda didn't know anything about it."

No longer tethered to the church they'd belonged to all their lives—"For the first time I was able to get high with a clear conscience," Dan remembered to Krakauer—Ron and Dan took off on a road trip around the western U.S. and Canada that May, mostly together, but splitting up at times.

Dan met Ricky Knapp doing construction in Wichita, Ks., then Ron joined them and they drove to Oregon's Willamette Valley, where Dan met his soon-to-be third wife, Laurene Grant. While Dan was tooling around with his new bride and two of her four children, Ron, Ricky and Laurene's two other kids met Chip Carnes near Sacramento, Calif.

Laurene wanted a divorce after a week, so Dan took the opportunity to visit his second wife, Ann Randak, and then his first wife, Matilda, and their children.

The four men reunited at the Provo, Utah, home of Dan and Ron's mother Claudine Lafferty, where on July 23, 1984, they were talking about driving to Salt Lake City on the 24th to watch the Pioneer Day parade. Instead, at some point Ron got it into his head that the 24th would be "'The Day,'" as Dan remembered it to Krakauer.

Chip later testified about that night at Claudine's, "Ron was discussing things from the Bible. He was talking about a revelation that he had received. In that revelation he...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."

There were four people Ron spoke of "eliminating" that night, the others being Richard Stowe, a church leader who presided over Ron's ex-communication, and another leader, Chloe Low, who counseled Diana Lafferty during her divorce.

According to Chip's testimony, Dan questioned Ron's insistence that he needed to slit the throats of all four, wondering if he couldn't just shoot them. "Rom replied that it was the Lord's command that...their throats be slashed," Chip said.

Of finding out during the trial that Claudine had been sitting right there, listening to her sons plot her sister's murder, Betty told Krakauer, "How could someone hear what they were planning and not do anything to warn Brenda? I just can't understand it."  

Betty saw Brenda for the last time on July 19, when she babysat for Erica while her sister and Allen had a date night to celebrate Brenda's 24th birthday. Excited about her own upcoming nuptials, Betty "wanted to talk about wedding stuff" when they returned. "But when they got home from dinner it was obvious she and Allen had had a fight. I could tell she had been crying."

The Killing of Brenda and Erica Lafferty

Per Krakauer, on the morning of July 24, Ron, Dan, Ricky and Chip loaded up the Impala with several guns, including a sawed-off shotgun and a deer rifle, at their mother's place, then went to brother Mark Lafferty's house to pick up a 20-gauge shotgun Dan had loaned him. Ron claimed that they were going hunting and, when Mark asked for what, he replied, "Any f--king thing that gets in my way."

They did some target practice at a nearby gravel quarry but Ron was missing his .243-caliber rifle, so they went back to Mark's house to look for it. Mark told them he thought Allen had the firearm in question.

Chip testified that earlier in the day he had told Ron he didn't think there was a need to kill a baby, and Erica's uncle told him that she was "a child of perdition"—and, Ron also said, once the child didn't have a mother anymore it would be a blessing to take her life, too. 

They first got to Allen and Brenda's house at 1:30 p.m., but no one answered the door. Ron had the sawed-off piece of Dan's shotgun hidden up his right sleeve and a 10-inch boning knife tucked into his left boot. Dan told Krakauer he had been praying for God to send a sign if killing the mother and child was not, in fact, what Ron was supposed to do. When no one came to the door, "I had a real happy feeling then, because I thought the whole thing had just been a test of faith—like when God tested Abraham [by asking him to sacrifice his son Isaac]—and Ron had just passed the test."

Dan was the one, though, who when they were more than a block away turned the car around and drove back to Allen's house. He explained to Krakauer that at the time he thought, "Maybe I'm going back because I'll be the one who is supposed to take care of this business for the Lord. I wasn't sure, but I had a real comfortable feeling about what I was doing."

He went to the door alone and, this time, Brenda answered. He asked if the gun was there and she said it wasn't. Dan asked if he could use the phone and she said no, refusing to let him in. So he pushed his way in.

"'I knew you were going to do something that nobody could stop,'" Dan remembered Brenda saying, calling her comment "rather prophetic." Brenda started apologizing for interfering in family business. "Then I thought to myself, 'You are a bitch,'" Dan recalled. "And I felt impressed to wrestle her to the ground."

AP Photo/Stuart W. Johnson

After the door slammed shut behind them, "I heard what sounded like somebody hitting the floor," Chip testified. "And then I heard a vase break."

Chip said he noted all the noise coming from the house, after which Ricky told Ron, "Maybe you ought to go help."

Ron pushed his way in, too, Chip said, after which he heard Brenda say, "'I knew it was going to come to this.'" Ron called her a bitch and a liar, and Chip said he heard Brenda screaming, "Don't hurt my baby! Please don't hurt my baby!"

Ron continued to berate her, and "he just kept on beating her," Chip continued. "You could hear a beating going on. And then I heard a baby crying, 'Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!' And then after that everything just kind of got quiet."

According to Dan, blood splattered all over the wall from Ron hitting Brenda's face over and over again and she eventually lost consciousness. "Unlike my older brother, I didn't really have bad feelings toward Brenda or Erica," Dan told Krakauer. "I was just doing God's will." He was the one who walked down the hall and killed Erica in her crib. "I closed my eyes so I didn't see what I was doing," he recalled. "I didn't hear anything...I'm pretty sure she didn't suffer." Dan said that, not until he saw the crime scene photos, was he sure of what he'd done.

Dan said he walked back into the kitchen, straddled Brenda and cut her throat, again closing his eyes, "so I didn't actually see anything." He could hear it, though, blade on bone.

At first Ron seemed shaken, Dan said, but then he regained his composure and said their next stop would be Highland, home of Chloe Low, who was next on his list.

Chloe and her family were out of town, so after waiting around for awhile, Dan, Ron and Ricky (while Chip served as a lookout) broke in and stole $100 in cash, a watch, car keys and some jewelry.

They set out for Richard Stowe's place next, but missed a turn and, deeming it a sign, instead headed for Nevada.

On the way, Ricky asked what had happened with Brenda, and Dan told Krakauer he described how he murdered her and Erica. Chip later testified, however, that Ron was the one who told them in great detail how he killed Brenda and then thanked Dan for "'doing the baby, because I don't think I had it in me.'"

Dan, pointing out that he had no reason to lie, told Krakauer that the part about Ron thanking him was true but that the rest of Chip's version of that story was wrong.

That night, the four checked into a motel but Chip and Ricky took off in the Impala once the brothers were asleep. They headed to Chip's dad's house, where the car was spotted four days later, leading to their arrest. Threatened with capital murder charges, they agreed to share everything they knew.

"So Little Remorse or Feeling"

Each charged with two counts of first-degree murder, Ron and Dan were supposed to be tried together, but on Dec. 29, 1985, days before the proceedings were set to begin, Ron tried to hang himself in his cell at the Utah County Jail. Paramedics resuscitated him but he spent two days in a coma, and the judge ruled he should undergo further psychiatric testing before going on trial, so just Dan's went ahead.

Though he had two court-appointed lawyers, Dan insisted on defending himself. The trial lasted five days and after nine hours of deliberations, the jury found him guilty on both charges. But because only 10 out of 12 jurors voted to give him the death penalty and unanimity is required, he was sentenced to two life terms in the state penitentiary.

"In my 12 years as a judge, I have never presided over a trial of such a cruel, heinous pointless and senseless a crime as the murders of Brenda and Erica Lafferty," Judge J. Robert Bullock said at the sentencing. "Nor have I seen an accused who had so little remorse or feeling."

Ron's trial began in April 1985 after he was deemed fit enough. He wouldn't allow his lawyers to argue that he was suffering from any mental illness at the time of the killings (in hopes of winning a lesser conviction of manslaughter) and he was convicted and sentenced to death. Given his choice of lethal injection or four shots to the heart, he picked the firing squad.

Ron Lafferty Fights the System

Willingness to be shot in the chest aside, Ron filed multiple appeals, and in 1991 the Tenth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out his conviction on the grounds that he had not actually been competent when he went on trial in 1985.

At his retrial in 1996, Dan testified that he committed both murders, saying he was acting as "the arm of God" while Ron "was the voice of God."

"I'm not ashamed of what happened," he added.

Ron was once again found guilty and given the death penalty. 

"I think we can finally put this behind us and get on with our lives," Brenda's mother, LaRae, told Deseret News after the second verdict.

Advised against attending the trials in the 1980s to spare themselves the pain, the Wrights had skipped them, but they attended this one. Brenda's father, Jim Wright, took issue with the defense claiming Ron was remorseful. "If he wanted forgiveness, the first person he should have gone to was Allen," Jim said. "But he's had plenty of time to show remorse, and there's been absolutely none."

Jim knew it might take awhile for Ron to exhaust his appeals, an inevitably lengthy appeals process being the right of every death row inmate in the U.S., but the father didn't expect it to be "painful or a hardship on us at all."

Ron did indeed continue to partake of the process, and he died of natural causes in prison on Nov. 11, 2019. He was 78. (Still firmly entrenched in the belief that he was protecting his family in 1984, Ron told Salt Lake City Weekly in 2014, "True fairness was served by the act, immaterial of who carried it out. I don't care if Santa Claus committed the act—justice was served.")

A Family Picks Up the Pieces

Sharon Wright Weeks, one of Brenda's four siblings, has since advocated for Utah to abolish the death penalty in favor of life sentences, citing the relative quiet coming from Dan's corner in prison when compared to his brother's decades of death row appeals, which never failed to make headlines. 

"I don't want another human to suffer what I know will be their suffering," she told the Associated Press in October. "If a death sentence is given, it will start the process of their own personal hell."

Sharon, who was 15 when her big sister and niece were killed, said it felt like her family "needed another funeral" after Ron died "because we could finally let Brenda and Erica rest. Their names had been in the media, ongoing, the entire time. And I was relieved that we were done."

Jim Wright told Salt Lake City's KUTV in 2019 that it was for the best that Ron had just died, without the spectacle of an execution.

"From the very beginning, we as a family turned that over to the Lord and the law," he said, bringing out his late daughter's albums for the interview. "She was quite a scrapbooker," he noted.

Talking to Krakauer in 2002, Betty said that she and her mother had gone down to American Fork to pick up all of Brenda's things not long after the murders, and when Jim started looking through the journals and scrapbooks, "that's when he fell apart. He just cried and cried."

"Reading what she wrote in her journals," Betty recalled, "my dad started thinking, 'Why didn't I do something to save her? Why didn't I get her out of there?' As her father, he thought he should have been able to protect her somehow, but he couldn't."

Under the Banner of Heaven premieres Thursday, April 28, on FX on Hulu.