In the fall of 1977, more than 10,000 Mormons gathered in Salt Lake City to attend the Church of Latter-day Saints 147th semiannual conference. They expected to enjoy the rapturous sounds of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and to cast their eyes on the sparkling architecture of their Western metropolis. Instead, they spoke of a polygamous Mormon cult leader who had launched a killing spree against their people — a man the press had taken to calling the “Mormon Manson.”
Like Charles Manson, Ervil LaBaron was a murderer with a Biblical-sized ego, an Old Testament sense of justice and desire to make women and other members of his cult central to his crimes. LaBaron had 13 wives, including several who were underage, and he used them to help carry out his slayings. As a syndicated story in the San Bernardino County Sun in 1997 describes him, LaBaron was “a bulldozer of a man, with a temperament as volatile as nitroglycerin.” More than anything, he believed he was “God’s executioner” — and he did well to convince others that the murders he ordered were in God’s name.
From the very beginning, LeBaron justified his murderous campaigns by warping Mormon early religious doctrines like “blood Atonement” and the church’s history of violence and polygamy to fit his criminal desires. In 1831, when Joseph Smith first led his flock to the West to escape persecution, the Mormons weren’t welcomed by their new neighbors, and instead faced evictions, bloody massacres by anti-Mormon militias and even state-sanctioned violence. After Mormons were forced to leave Missouri in 1838, Joseph Smith led his people to Illinois. It was there that Smith had his 1843 revelation which informed him that Mormon men should enter into “plural marriage.” After Smith was killed, Brigham Young, a new leader who would go on to have 51 wives, led the faithful to their new home in Utah. Soon, the Utah War of 1857 to 1858, waged over their right to polygamy, pitted the early Mormons against the U.S. government.
It wasn’t until 1904, after decades of bloodshed, that monogamous marriage became the official LDS church doctrine with the issuance of the Second Manifesto. But the decision to end polygamy in the church led to a splintering of fundamentalist sects. The LeBaron family were some of the earliest fundamentalists, and were quickly excommunicated for their continued devotion to polygamy. After many of their own travels west, then further west, the LeBarons finally settled in the northern Mexican desert.
All four of Ervil LeBaron’s brothers, at some point in their life, claimed they were a prophet of God. His brother Joel, along with two of the elder brothers, founded their own sect of fundamentalist Mormonism in 1955, called the Church of the First Born of the Fullness of Time. Ervil stayed in the flock — until he had a falling out with his brother Joel, who excommunicated his brother from their church. So Ervil left the Mexican desert behind and relocated to San Diego, where in 1971 he founded his own faith — the Church of the Lamb of God.
That’s also when Ervil announced that he, too, was a prophet, informing his brother Joel that his followers should join Ervil’s church. Joel, however, resisted. In 1972, Ervil lost his patience and published a “Message to a Covenant People,” which warned Joel and his congregation that “to disregard and walk over my authority is an act of treason that carries the penalty of death in this world.”
Ervil’s warning was based on the aforementioned “blood Atonement,” which was never an official church doctrine, but was understood to be a part of early church practice. As Mormon scholars explain it, “Several early Church leaders, most notably Brigham Young, taught that in a complete theocracy, the Lord could require the voluntary shedding of a murderer’s blood — presumably by capital punishment — as part of the process of Atonement for such grievous sin.”
This call for spiritual blood-shedding was often misinterpreted. “Early anti-Mormon writers charged that under Brigham Young the Church practiced ‘blood Atonement,’ by which they meant Church-instigated violence directed at dissenters, enemies and strangers.” That also happened to be Ervil’s interpretation of the term. He believed he offered salvation, and that he watered his spiritual garden with the blood of his enemies. And the first person Ervil marked for death was his brother Joel.
According to the Boston Globe’s coverage in 1979, “On August 20, 1972, two men identified by witnesses as followers of Ervil burst into a house in Ensenada, Baja California. They found Joel LeBaron alone, beat him with a chair and shot him to death.”
That was just the start of his Ervil’s campaign of murder and mayhem in the Mexican deserts and American Southwest. For the next decade, from San Diego to Salt Lake City, Mormons and fundamentalists alike lived in fear of Ervil LeBaron. For instance, there was Robert Simons, a rival polygamous cult leader. He wrote a letter to LeBaron, asking him for information about his church. LeBaron took umbrage at this and demanded that Simons bow down to his spiritual authority. But when Simons “refused to acknowledge Ervil as God’s prophet,” two of LeBaron’s followers took Simons on a one-way drive out to the desert. When the followers returned, they informed LeBaron that Simons “had been shot, doused with lime and buried.”
Interestingly, in December 1972, LeBaron turned himself in to Mexican authorities. Per the Boston Globe, “LeBaron spent 14 months in jail before he was convicted of being the ‘intellectual author’ of his brother’s murder. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison. Within weeks, he was free. Accounts from Mexico differ as to how LeBaron managed this. According to some, his conviction was overturned on appeal, but others say he was sprung after paying a $4,000 bribe.”
By October 1974, LeBaron published a 151-page booklet that challenged Joel’s followers to a contest like the one staged by Elijah in the Old Testament, who, after winning the contest, slaughtered 454 priests of Bael. But LeBaron’s brother Verlan, now the leader of Joel’s church, refused to participate in this ancient priest fight, so LeBaron chose more modern methods — he sent a death squad to kill his brother’s followers.
According to the Times’ contemporaneous coverage, “about a dozen Lambs of God swept into Las Molinas, Mexico, the center of Joel LeBaron’s church. Twenty-five of the sect’s 30 homes in the town were shot up and firebombed; two persons were killed and 17 injured.” The Boston Globe called it a “commando-style raid” and described how “shotgun fire was sprayed at random and Molotov cocktails were hurled into houses from speeding cars.”
The next year, LeBaron ordered the murder of a wife of one of his followers who planned to defect from his cult. He also instructed his wife Vonda White to kill his former confidante Dean Vest after learning that Vest planned to leave his church as well. White, who carried out the murder with a gun supplied by LeBaron, was seven months pregnant at the time. LeBaron was similarly linked to the death of his own 17-year-old daughter, who was pregnant as well and wanted to leave the group. Her body was never recovered.
Most of these murders were missed at the time. Details were only revealed years later, when LeBaron became the focus of a multi-state investigation by the Utah police after he killed Rulon Allred, yet another rival leader of a polygamous sect. In April 1975, LeBaron sent Allred a letter that read: “Repent ye thereforth or suffer destruction at the hand of God! There shall be left neither root nor branch. Repent immediately!”
This time around, he used his 19-year-old wife, Rena Chynoweth, as the assassin (she was wife number 13, and of course, also pregnant). Years later, Chynoweth told Salt Lake City news outlet KSL-TV that she and the three others who assisted in Allred’s murder were told by LeBaron that God had informed him “that this certain person was a false prophet and the Lord would be very pleased if this false prophet were eliminated.” “I thought when I participated in the murders — the murder, I should say — that God was commanding me to do so,” she explained.
After Allred’s murder, LeBaron zig-zagged between San Diego, Salt Lake City and the Sonoran desert of Mexico to evade capture from authorities. But when cult leader Jim Jones convinced his followers to drink poison in a mass suicide event in 1978, the Mexican government made finding LeBaron a top priority. Within a year, they had apprehended him and handed him over to U.S. authorities. Deputy District Attorney David Yocom was selected to put LeBaron behind bars, in part because he was from Salt Lake City’s D.A.’s office and in part because he had just successfully prosecuted Ted Bundy.
In 1980, LeBaron was tried, convicted and sentenced to life in prison. But once again, his time in prison didn’t last long. The following year, LeBaron died of a heart attack in his prison cell, but not before leaving behind a hit list of people to murder after he was gone. Over the next few years, 30 people on it were killed or died in suspicious circumstances — including his brother Verlan, who died in a mysterious car accident near Mexico City.
Because members of his cult are rumored to still be devoted to his cause, people continue to live in fear of LeBaron to this day. In 2007, Susan Ray Schmidt, whose hand was promised to LeBaron as a future wife at just 15 years old but instead ended up married to Verlan LeBaron, told the media that “there’s a paranoia out there.”
Indeed, the murderous polygamist leader left a lingering legacy of fear, loss and turmoil. The self-proclaimed prophet who warped antiquated religious doctrines to justify his desire for bloodshed successfully convinced his followers that they needed to carry out executions in God’s name. But if history makes anything clear, it’s that the only name that ever mattered to Ervil LeBaron was his own.