Warning: The following contains disturbing descriptions of violence. Reader discretion is advised.
On July 24, 1984, Allen Lafferty returned home from work to find his 24-year-old wife Brenda and their toddler daughter Erica with their throats slashed. The family’s apartment in American Fork, Utah, was in disarray: Brenda’s body was in the kitchen with a vacuum cord wrapped around her neck, while her 15-month-old daughter was found lifeless in her blood-soaked crib.
“I went over to Brenda, and I prayed,” Allen tearfully testified in court.
Two of Allen’s five brothers, Ron and Dan Lafferty, fled the state after the slayings, but they were arrested weeks later in Reno, Nevada. They did not deny killing Brenda and Erica. Instead, Ron claimed he had received a revelation from God to “remove” his sister-in-law and niece, who had “become obstacles” in his path.
Both brothers were tried and convicted of the double murders in separate trials in 1985. Dan was spared the death sentence. Ron’s conviction was overturned on appeal, but after his 1996 retrial, he was re-convicted and sentenced to death.
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“The fact that [Ron] blamed it on God was kind of a cowardly thing to do,” Brenda’s sister, Sharon Wright Weeks, tells A&E True Crime.
Unhappy With a Strong-Willed Sister-in-Law
Brought up as devout members of the Church of Latter Day Saints (or Latter-day Saints), and trained by their father to distrust the government and modern medicine, the Lafferty brothers were becoming increasingly zealous in the year preceding the murders, according to Under the Banner of Heaven, an investigative book about the case by author Jon Krackauer. Dan stopped paying taxes, and almost lost their father’s home to the government. As their patriarch’s diabetes turned deadly, they refused to accept conventional medical treatment for him. And they increasingly touted the merits of polygamy: Dan took a second wife, and Ron alarmed his wife Diana when he announced his intention to marry off their teenage daughters as plural wives. It was one of the catalysts to her divorcing Ron and taking their six children to Florida.
After both Dan and Ron were excommunicated from the Latter-day Saints church in 1983 they became immersed in a fundamentalist fringe group called the School of Prophets, which taught that the primary Latter-day Saints church had violated the religion’s founding tenets by banning plural marriage and by allowing Black converts. Dan, in particular, worked to bring his five brothers into the breakaway sect, and encouraged Ron to quit his job and devote himself to the group. Ron became increasingly convinced he had a higher calling to be a prophet. In the spring of 1984, he claimed to have received approximately 20 “revelations” directly from God, according to Krakauer.
Brenda, who had been married to Allen for two years, enraged Ron and Dan for multiple reasons. College educated, progressive and assertive, she defied their view that women should be subservient and submissive to their husbands. Ron, deeply bitter after his wife and children left, blamed Brenda for encouraging the split.
“Diana really loved Brenda,” says Weeks. “Because all of the other [Lafferty] brothers had wives that they treated like second-class citizens, Brenda ended up giving Diana the courage she needed to leave.”
And neither brother was happy that she was barring Allen, the youngest of the six Lafferty brothers, from joining their new sect.
Messages From God to Kill
One of the primary goals of the School of Prophets, according to Krakauer, was to teach followers how to receive and interpret messages directly from God. At his trial, prosecutors presented Ron’s journal entries which detailed his “revelation” to kill Brenda and Erica, along with two other “removal” targets: people who had been involved in Ron’s divorce and ex-communication. Those other two targets weren’t killed as the brothers decided to flee after killing Brenda and her child.
Before the murders, Ron shared his “removal revelation” with several fellow members of the School of Prophets. Some renounced it but took no further action. He also told several family members, including Dan, their mother—and Allen, who reacted with skepticism. “I told him that God had made no such revelation to me, and I would protect them with my life,” Allen testified in court. Even so, he neglected to tell Brenda about Ron’s vision.
Ron shared with Dan other revelations that, Krakauer suggests, helped get Dan on board. In one, Ron was the “mouth of God,” and Dan was the “arm of God”—which, Krakauer wrote, “the brothers interpreted to mean that Dan was to do the actual killing.” In another, Ron said that God had likened Dan to the Book of Mormon figure of Nephi, who according to the scripture, “slayeth the wicked to bring forth [God’s] righteous purposes.”
Ultimately, Weeks says, “Dan went along with [killing Brenda and Erica]. He wondered why he wasn’t getting revelations.” At Ron’s retrial, Dan testified that he solely killed Brenda and Erica as “a matter of business.”
There was another side to his participation, Weeks say: “Dan also felt so guilty for his part in Ron losing his wife and his job.”
With Brenda’s help, Ron’s wife left him in early 1984 and took their six children to Florida. Weeks attributed this incident to Ron’s unraveling.
“[Ron’s wife] Diana really loved Brenda. Because all of the other [Lafferty] brothers had wives that they treated like second-class citizens, Brenda ended up giving Diana the courage she needed to leave,” Weeks says. “Afterward, he became really fanatical and almost a religious zealot.”
Religious Zealotry—or Mental Incompetence?
Five months after the murders, while awaiting trial, Ron tried to hang himself with a T-shirt he tied to a towel rack. He regained consciousness, but a psychiatrist testified in 2013 that his brain being deprived of oxygen led to hallucinations and delusions that would’ve made him incompetent to stand trial decades earlier.
In 1991, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a new trial for Ron, finding the judge failed to appropriately determine his mental competence at his initial trial in 1985. He was convicted a second time in 1996 and sentenced to death. The Utah Supreme Court declined to hear Ron’s subsequent appeals.
Weeks says, “When I went through the whole retrial in 1996, and got to go through the whole court process, it was really amazing to see how it had nothing to do with religion. It has nothing to do with fundamentalism. It was a good old-fashioned crime of passion.”
Where Are Dan and Ron Lafferty Now?
Dan is currently serving two concurrent life sentences at Utah State Prison. He is not eligible for parole. Ron spent 34 years on death row, where he requested to be executed via firing squad, before dying of natural causes at Utah State Prison on November 11, 2019.
Ron’s case went through various appeals, several of which pertained to his mental competence at the time of the slayings—and at the time of the trial. Weeks says witnessing Ron’s declining health hardened her stance against the death penalty.
“I was terrified that they would really execute somebody,” she says. “Would they really shoot someone in a wheelchair?”
Weeks says she feels some compassion for the brothers, who allegedly grew up with an abusive father. During an argument with his wife, Dan and Ron’s father fatally beat their dog with a baseball bat, the Deseret News reported.
Weeks believes Dan and Ron are remorseful for what they did to her sister and niece. Though Ron never apologized for his actions, Weeks said she thinks the suicide attempt stemmed from guilt.
“Dan wrote a letter to my parents years later and he did express remorse. I don’t think [Ron’s] narcissism would ever have allowed him to publicly say he was remorseful,” says Weeks.
Weeks still wants capital punishment abolished, despite Ron’s death. In 2016, she began a dialogue with her state representative, V. Lowry Snow, who ultimately sponsored HB 147, a bill that sought to outlaw the death penalty in Utah and add a possible sentence of 45 years to life for aggravated murder.
In February 2022, the measure failed in the State House Committee by a single vote.