A Fanatical Cult Leader Faces Trial in Ohio for the Brutal Murder of a Family of Five
updated 07/23/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 07/23/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT
Neighbors in rural Kirtland, Ohio, welcomed Jeffrey Lundgren when he, his wife, Alice, and their four children rented a rundown 100-year-old farmhouse on Chardon Road in October 1987 and promptly began fixing it up. After a group of young men and women from the town's Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints (RLDS) moved in, residents assumed they were starting a farm like the Mormons' in nearby Hiram.
But this religious commune would soon be up to something more sinister. Under Lundgren's fanatical leadership, it would nurture an apocalyptic vision that would ultimately lead to murder. This week Lundgren, 40, is scheduled to go on trial in Ohio's Lake County Common Pleas Court for the slayings of Dennis and Cheryl Avery and their three young daughters. Alice, 39, will be tried for her part in the crimes later this month. Son Damon, 19, and three other cult members also await trial, while four who have pleaded guilty face sentencing.
The grisly killings stunned quiet Kirtland (pop. 6,500), where Joseph Smith Jr. built the first Mormon colony in 1836. But for Police Chief Dennis Yarborough and the Reverend Dale Luffman, pastor of Rutland's RLDS church, the killings confirmed long-held forebodings. Yarborough had been troubled by Lundgren's growing arsenal, while Luffman had watched the burly lay minister become a self-proclaimed prophet who exercised a hypnotic hold over his faithful. "Lundgren came into this community with an agenda," says Luffman. "He took advantage of a whole lot of folks who, in their vulnerability, became used, manipulated and victimized."
Lundgren and his family arrived in Kirtland in 1984. A native of Independence, Mo., he married Alice in 1970, while the two were attending Central Missouri State University. In 1983, after four years in the Navy and stints at menial jobs back in his home state, Lundgren became a lay minister in the RLDS, founded after an 1860 reorganization of the Mormon Church. In Kirtland, Jeffrey and Alice volunteered as guides at the Kirtland Temple.
But Lundgren's brand of piety soon began to disturb church officials. According to former followers, Lundgren claimed only he could interpret the truth of holy books. In late 1987, Lundgren's increasingly heretical views—and suspicions that he had stolen money from the temple—prompted RLDS officials to fire him as a tour guide. The couple and their four children—sons Damon, Jason, now 15, and Caleb, 9, and daughter Kristin, 11—moved out of the house the church had provided and rented the 15-acre farm on Chardon Road. In January 1988, Lundgren's ministerial credentials were withdrawn, and he and some two dozen followers left the congregation.
Lundgren ruled his commune with dictatorial powers. He monitored phone calls and took group members' paychecks. He put the men through weapons training, ambush drills and target practice. And he told his followers that women could gain salvation through sexual rituals. According to court documents, he forced women to dance naked while he masturbated. Children who misbehaved were allegedly beaten on the buttocks and legs with poles, according to a 13-year-old who briefly lived with her mother in the cult. Most nights at 9, Lundgren harangued his followers, promising to lead them to God. He warned them that a "blood sacrifice" must occur before they could go to the promised land.
"It's only now I realize I was in a cult," says ex-follower Sharon Bluntschly, 31. "A web was wrapped around you slowly, and you didn't see it coming. Jeff was very methodical and started with very logical things. We were supposed to go on faith in him and one another. People were not allowed to ask questions."
Among the followers were Dennis and Cheryl Avery, a quiet couple whose lives revolved around their faith. Dennis, 49 when he died, worked as a computer operator for a bank in Kansas City, while Cheryl, 42, taught preschool, sewed her family's clothes and diligently supervised the education of their three daughters, Trina, 15, Rebecca, 13, and Karen, 7. In 1984, upset by the RLDS decision to ordain women, the Averys left one Independence congregation and were attracted to Lundgren, who upheld a fundamentalist view. In the spring of 1987, after Lundgren had moved to Ohio, the Averys quit their jobs, sold their home and followed him to Kirtland.
For the Averys, life in Lundgren's flock was less than Utopian. Dennis moved in and out of minimum-wage jobs, while the family lived in sparsely furnished rented houses. The girls could not afford to have class pictures taken or to participate in after-school activities. According to Cheryl Avery's friend Marlene Jennings, Rebecca lost her appetite and appeared gaunt and malnourished, while the oldest girl, Trina, told other children her life wasn't worth living. In March 1989, Jennings, not a cult member, noticed that Cheryl was becoming increasingly withdrawn. On the morning of April 16, Dennis told Jennings, who had phoned, "Cheryl will call you if she wants to talk to you." Then he hung up.
That same day, perhaps believing his family would be leaving with the group, Dennis accompanied Lundgren to a gun store in Chagrin Falls, where Lundgren picked out .380 and .45 Colt semiautomatic handguns and an M-1 carbine. Avery put the $1,300 purchase on his credit card, but Lundgren signed his own name to the registration forms, telling the salesclerk that Avery was repaying a debt with the purchase. The following day, the Averys' daughters were withdrawn from school with no request that their transcripts be forwarded. That night neighbors were awakened by the keening of a chain saw from the Lundgren barn. Former cult member Keith Johnson told the Kansas City Star he was at the apartment of two fellow cultists when an ashen-faced Alice Lundgren appeared at the door and said grimly, "The fog is bloodred at the house."
Two days later, Lundgren, his family and followers had vanished from the farm, and it was not until Jan. 4, that police, acting on a tip from Johnson, unearthed five bodies from a grave beneath the barn. Cheryl, Dennis and the girls had been bound and gagged with duct tape, dumped in the pit, then shot with a .45 caliber handgun. Cult member Gregory Winship, 29, has admitted running a chain saw to muffle the sound of the shots that killed the Averys, whom authorities speculate had fallen from favor and might have been planning to defect.
The Lundgrens and the others fled first to a campground in West Virginia, then to a farm south of Chilhowee, Mo. In the months that followed, the band slowly disintegrated, rent by dissension over Lundgren's misappropriation of group money and his affair with Johnson's wife, Kathryn. In December the group scattered, and Lundgren took Alice and their children to California. Within a week after the bodies were found, a nationwide manhunt for the Lundgrens and 10 followers ended. Lundgren was captured in a phone booth outside a motel near San Diego, where he and his family were living. In their motel room and in a rental locker nearby, police found an arms cache including a 50 caliber rifle with sniper scope, automatic pistols, revolvers, gas masks and enough ammunition "to ward off an army," said a federal official. Jeffrey Lundgren's exodus was over.
—Montgomery Brower, Civia Tamarkin in Kirtland