Real Stories is an ongoing column about the true stories behind movies and TV shows. It’s that simple. This installment focuses on the true story behind the miniseries Under the Banner of Heaven. The series stars Andrew Garfield who investigates a horrific double murder by two Mormon fundamentalists.
A police detective investigates a murder committed by fundamentalists of the same religion and begins to question his own faith. Such is the plot of Under the Banner of Heaven, a new miniseries from FX and Hulu starring Andrew Garfield (The Amazing Spider-Man, tick, tick … BOOM!) as the fictional Detective Jeb Pyre.
The series, directed by David Mackenzie (Hell or High Water, Outlaw King) takes its inspiration from a 2003 nonfiction book of the same name by Jon Krakauer. In 1984, a horrific double murder committed by Mormon fundamentalists shook a small town to its core. Here is a look at the true story behind the series.
On July 24, 1984, Brenda Lafferty (played in the series by Daisy Edgar-Jones) and her 15-month-old daughter, Erica, were found murdered in their American Fork, Utah home. Brenda was on the kitchen floor. Erica was in her crib. Both had their throats slit. And it was later revealed that Brenda had been beaten and strangled with the chord of a vacuum cleaner.
The senseless murders rocked the town. It didn’t seem to make any sense. “I’m sure the old-time residents remember,” American Fork Police Chief Terry Fox, who investigated the scene, told Desert News years later. “It’s one of those threshold events that people just don’t forget.”
Who could have done such a thing?
Before we return to the murders, first, a few facts. Krakauer’s book intertwines the story of the murders with the history of the Mormon church. Key context includes the distinction between various kinds of Mormonism. One important difference is the acceptance of polygamy, as detailed in this useful history by scholar Joanna Brooks.
In the early years of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), the religion’s founder, Joseph Smith, practiced polygamy. It became an official part of church doctrine in 1852. However, in the wake of the Civil War, polygamy became controversial, and eventually illegal in the United States. According to Brooks, mobs in the American South often attacked Mormon missionaries as a result.
Then, in 1890, the church said it would no longer sanction plural marriages in the United States. In the decades that followed, however, various leaders and groups broke away from the church and formed sects of their own to continue the practice.
Writing for Desert News, Jesse Hyde offers a detailed account of the men behind the murder. Ron and Dan Lafferty (played in the series by Sam Worthington and Wyatt Russell) were raised in Payson, Utah. Their father, Watson, was a strict fundamentalist, who, Hyde writes:
planted the seeds of paranoia, rebellion and fanaticism. He taught his boys to distrust conventional medicine and the federal government. He also took his religious beliefs to the extreme: When one son accidentally shot himself in the stomach with an arrow, he told him he would have to suffer until morning for breaking the Sabbath.
In 1982, the LDS Church excommunicated Dan after he tried to take his 14-year-old stepdaughter as his second wife. According to Hyde, the brothers believed they were profits and the “true leaders of God’s church.” They grew long hair and beards, for example, mimicking Biblical profits. Dan and Ron began preaching to their four other brothers, all of whom spent much time together, “railing against the LDS Church and the U.S. government.”
Ron’s radicalization deepened when his first wife, Diana (played in the series by Denise Gough) left him. She refused to practice polygamy. He began spending long days at the brothers’ home, which they called “the farm.” Hyde reports Ron began “writing what he believed would one day be read as scripture.”
According to legal documents, Diana moved to Florida with their six children. And Ron began looking to take action against those who he believed were responsible for the demise of his family. These people included one of Diana’s friends, who he believed supported Diana’s decision to get a divorce; an LDS leader who he believed was behind his ex-communication from the church; and his sister-in-law Brenda and her daughter Erica. He believed Brenda also encouraged Diana to get a divorce. And he thought Erica, according to the documents, “would grow up to be just as despicable as her mother.”
Hyde writes that Brenda, who was married to Ron’s brother Allen (played by Billy Howle), was “strong-willed” and different than the other women of the family. A college graduate, Brenda, Hyde reports:
she had a confidence that allowed her to speak up when others were quiet. She didn’t believe Ron or Dan were prophets, and she let them know it. When Brenda stopped Allen from joining a group called School of the Prophets with his brothers, Ron’s fury grew. First she had driven away his wife, now she was splitting up the brothers.
And according to the New York Times, Brenda had been openly “bad-mouthing polygamy.” To the brothers, she stood in the way of their mission.
In March of 1984, Ron wrote a document later named “the removal revelation.” He shared this with members of his School of Prophets, which, Hyde reports, alarmed its members. He wrote:
It is my will and commandment that ye remove the following individuals in order that my work might go forward. For they have truly become obstacles in my path and I will not allow my work to be stopped. First thy brother’s wife Brenda and her baby, then Chloe Low and then Richard Stowe. And it is my will that they be removed in rapid succession.
Months later, on July 24, 1984, the brothers turned Ron’s words into horrific action.
The Other Would-be Victims
The date of July 24 holds special significance to the Mormon religion. Known as Pioneer Day, the holiday celebrates early Mormon settlers, and specifically, the pioneers who, led by Brigham Young, first entered the Salt Lake Valley in Utah on that day in 1847.
After the brothers killed Brenda and Erica, they set out to kill the others cited in the revelation. According to Hyde, they walked out of the duplex “covered in blood, ready to fulfill the second part of the revelation.”
But Chloe Low wasn’t home. Richard Stowe, the LDS leader, was home. He got lucky. The brothers, while headed to his home, missed the turnoff and kept driving. They went on to Wendover and Reno. There, according to the Desert News, “they were arrested in a casino buffet line.”
Stowe and Low went into hiding for “several weeks” after they learned about the revelation. Hyde reports:
Stowe, now the Highland LDS Stake patriarch, will not talk about the murders. When he hears the name Lafferty his jaw sets, the blood rises to his cheeks and his eyes turn fierce.
Ron and Dan both stood trial for their crimes. Dan was tried first. He was convicted of capital murder (among other charges) and received two life sentences. He remains in prison.
Ron’s trial, however, was significantly delayed. While in prison, he exhibited violent behavior and attempted to take his own life. He was eventually convicted of murder and sentenced to death.
But the appeals process and legal tribulations for such cases often last decades. According to a summary of the case via Justia:
On appeal, Lafferty raises a number of issues, including claims that the trial court erred by forcing him to stand trial while incompetent, denying him his right of self-representation, disallowing evidence of his insanity, allowing biased jurors to decide the case, allowing prejudicial remarks by the prosecutor, admitting gruesome photographs, and admitting evidence of his violent behavior in jail while awaiting trial.
Ron ended up spending 34 years on death row. In 2019, he died of “natural causes” while still in prison. Had he lived, he faced a firing squad execution (his chosen method) as punishment for his crimes.
While Garfield’s character is not a real person, Garfield himself is a fan of Krakauer’s book. According to The Salt Lake Tribune, Garfield said he “hungrily” read the book after its release. The newspaper notes:
Reading the book as a young man, Garfield said he “thought, ‘Well, who’s going to make this into a film or a television show,’ because it has to be made. And then, cut to 10 years later and I get a call” from showrunner Dustin Lance Black and producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer.
Black created the character Detective Pye, Garfield said, “to kind of help frame this very tragic, true crime story.”
For those who were there at the time, the story remains in their minds years later.
“It was a complete shock for all of us. It was just a quiet and lazy neighborhood,” Ken Beck, Brenda, and Allen’s LDS bishop told Desert News. “I think about it every year at this time.”
Under the Banner of Heaven will be released on Hulu from April 28, 2022.