This is a horror story worthy of anything Stephen King could write. Tragically it is not fiction. Jeffrey D. Lundgren and his followers in Kirtland, Ohio, former members of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (renamed in 2001 the Community of Christ) killed in cold blood the five member Avery family on April 17, 1989, and buried their bodies in the floor of a barn. They then went into West Virginia “to see God.” Not until a rainy morning the next January did the police, acting on a tip from one of the group’s disenchanted members, learn about the murders. A search for Lundgren’s group took place and within a short time they had all either been captured or turned themselves in to law enforcement authorities. Lundgren was tried for murder and sentenced to death in Ohio in September 1990; many of his followers were also given lengthy prison sentences.
The story of Jeffrey Lundgren really begins in 1969 with his attendance at Central Missouri State University where he met his wife and accomplice in these crimes. For the next fifteen years they endured a rocky marriage and Lundgren embraced religious conservatism in the Reorganized Church. In that context he rejected what he viewed as increasing liberalism in the church, condemning women’s ordination, open communion, and a host of other changes. He demonstrated repeatedly an inability to earn a livelihood, and he engaged in sexual misconduct of a most perverse nature.
In the 1980s the Lundgrens moved from Missouri to Kirtland, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, where they worked as volunteer guides at the Kirtland Temple, built in 1836, an historic site owned by the Reorganized Church. While there he built a following of unhappy Reorganized Church members, and this eventually became a cult that worshipped Lundgren as its prophet. This group rebelled against rising liberalization in the Reorganized Church, particularly the newly espoused position of ordaining women to priesthood offices, and sought to “restore the church in its ancient purity.” One of Lundgren’s prophecies was that on May 3 of some unspecified year, this was also his birthday, the “second coming” of Jesus Christ would take place at the Kirtland Temple. Just before that could happen, however, it would be the responsibility of Lundgren and his followers’ to seize the Kirtland Temple and hold it for Christ. Through this process, as well as ritual murders, the temple would be “redeemed” or “cleansed.”
Lundgren never had many followers, but his charisma attracted a few who bought his brand of religious zealotry. Within a few years a couple of dozen followers came to worship him and his message. One of them was Dennis Avery, whose wife and three children also joined him in the latter 1980s. Despite these few followers most probably will agree with one person who knew Lundgren when he said, “what he was preaching was simply nuts.”
A central question in the story of Jeffrey Lundgren was how his strange version of religion attracted followers who would do his bidding up to and including murder. Lundgren twisted theological conceptions into bizarre expressions and his group served as a place for the rallying of dissidents over the Reorganized Church’s liberalization. Lundgren represented a radical expression of a discontent that nearly destroyed the Reorganized Church in the 1980s and 1990s; he was a radical symptom of larger problems and their significance for the membership.
When Lundgren murdered the Avery family in a ritual killing in a barn in Kirtland in 1989 he referred to it as blood atonement, an early Mormon concept about “spilt blood” as the metaphor for redemption of the unrighteous. The blood atonement doctrine had never been any part of the Reorganization, and it was a grotesque contortion of church history and theology, nonetheless it is the reason that to this day the state of Utah allows execution by firing squad (split blood) since it can presumably redeem the unrighteous. Through this ritual the Avery family was purged from the group, and the assumption on Lundgren’s part was that his followers had been “cleansed” through this spilling of blood and would now be able to enter into God’s presence.
The murder of the Avery family took place on April 17, 1989, at a farm near Kirtland. In anticipation Lundgren had ask his followers to dig a large pit in the barn; this became the burial site of the Averys. Lundgren had Dennis Avery brought to him inside the barn on the pretext of needing his help on something. Followers then bound and gagged him and Lundgren shot him twice in the chest. They then lured his wife, Cheryl, into the barn and murdered her with gunshots to each breast and the abdomen. Trina, the 15-year-old daughter; 13-year-old Becky; and 6-year-old Karen Avery were also shot and killed. The Avery family was then buried in the pit inside the barn before the group left Kirtland for good.
The cult spent the next several months traveling from park to park, camping and staying out of the sight line of police or other authorities. Over time the cult disintegrated. Lundgren and his family left for California. Other cult members drifted to other locations. It was several months before anyone began asking questions about the group or the Averys, but a former cult member came forward in early 1990 to tell of the brutal murders. Police then recovered the bodies, and warrants were issued for the arrest of members of the Lundgren cult.
With this Jeff Lundgren and others in the cult became fugitives. Thirteen members were captured, including Lundgren, his wife, and his son. Jeff Lundgren was tried and convicted, and received the death penalty. His wife, Alice, received five life prison sentences. Others in the cult served several years for conspiracy and kidnapping.
Lundgren appealed his execution sentence, but eventually the Ohio Supreme Court denied his last appeal and late October 2006 for his execution. Although there was a last-minute stay of execution to consider an appeal that lethal injection would represent cruel punishment because of Lundgren’s obesity, this was soon denied and the state of Ohio carried out his execution on October 24, 2006.
This was a gruesome set of murders carried out by a religious madman who had brainwashed followers to follow him without question. They performed all manner of acts on his behalf, some illegal—such as the Avery family’s murder—an some merely ridiculous. The fact that this took place among those associated with the Reorganized Church is deeply troubling. This was the church where I grew up; it had some strange beliefs but such horrors are uncommon among its adherents. It was the most radical and violent of any of the disturbances that arose within the church over its liberalization in the last thirty years, but there have been many other instances of conflict. That a cult leader could emerge from this larger disjunction is not surprising; that it could lead to this tragedy, however, is deeply disturbing.