Following the Trail of a Cult Accused of Human Sacrifice
KIRTLAND, Ohio (AP) _ Police in three states knew about the nomadic life in tents, the code words, camouflage clothing and cultish worship services of Jeffrey Lundgren and his followers.
But they could find no reason to arrest anyone until it was too late - nine months after a family of five had been killed, possibly as a sacrifice in a misbegotten reading of Mormon teachings.
For more than a year, agents in Missouri, Ohio and West Virginia exchanged information about the cult, authorities said, but they were hard-pressed to build a case.
In fact, Lundgren and his clan seemd like good neighbors, making improvements on the farm they rented near this northeast Ohio town, 25 miles east of Cleveland, said Kirtland Police Chief Dennis Yarborough.
″The family had started adding things like siding,″ Yarborough said. ″They were acting and appearing like good citizens. It was kind of a paradox.″
On Jan. 3 and 4, acting on an anonymous tip, federal and local officials dug under a barn on the farm and found the bodies of Dennis Avery, 49; his wife, Cheryl, 42; and their three daughters, Trina, 15; Rebecca, 13; and Karen, 7.
The Lake County coroner’s office said all five had been bound hand and foot with duct tape, with tape covering their mouths and eyes, and shot one at a time.
Investigators said the Averys, who lived nearby, had been members of the cult but were not as fervent as some of the other followers.
Last week, the 39-year-old Lundgren, a former lay minister of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, was arrested with his wife, teen-age son and 10 other followers in scattered cities, mostly around San Diego.
Yarborough said Friday there was speculation that Lundgren felt people had to die ″as part of a cleansing ritual″ so the cult could relocate in the wilderness.
The Rev. Dale Luffman, pastor of Kirtland’s Reorganized Church, has theorized the killings stemmed from fights over money, sex or the possibility the Averys would leave the cult.
Lundgren came to Kirtland from the Independence, Mo., area in 1984 to work as a tour guide at a Mormon temple used by the Reorganized Church.
The Reorganized Church, based in Independence, split in the last century from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormon Church, which is based in Salt Lake City. Both churches remain rooted in the Book of Mormon and in the writings of founder Joseph Smith.
Luffman said Lundgren at first seemed devoted enough in his tours and his Sunday-school teachings but later became menacing.
″He apparently felt the leaders of the church were part of the unrighteous around the temple and needed to be eradicated - that was the term he used,″ Luffman said.
Lundgren began seeing himself as a prophet, using his lay ministry and tour job as forums to recruit followers, Luffman said.
The church defrocked him in January 1988, but he was able to find a dozen or more people who listened. Some came to Kirtland, at his urging, from the Independence church he had attended. The followers quit jobs and sold their belongings cheap to make the move, bewildered friends said.
The followers moved in with Lundgren on the farm, living commune style, turning over their paychecks from outside employment and letting him read their mail and listen in on their telephone calls, police said.
The group fit the classic description of a cult, Luffman said.
″They acknowledge and take their direction and allegiance to a leader with an authorized message. Second, there takes place a separation from all other groups ... friends and family,″ he said.
The Kansas City office of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms at one point warned Kirtland authorities that Lundgren had spoken of a Sword of Laban that would be used to decapitate people while ″taking over″ the temple in Kirtland. There is mention of a Sword of Laban in the Book of Mormon.
Eventually, male cult members started wearing camouflage clothing and paramilitary gear, practicing with guns and other weapons, and adopting code names such as ″Eagle Eye″ and ″Talon-1,″ authorities said.
Yarborough said that in April 1988 he heard reports of paramilitary activities and threats against other people. Authorities investigated the reports, but pressed no charges.
The group left the Kirtland area in April 1989 and showed up in Davis, W.Va., a rugged, coal-mining area, where they camped out in tents until mid- October. They planted a large garden and built a 15-foot wooden bridge across a stream.
″I thought, ’Gee, they’re not doing anything worse than a Boy Scout group would do,‴ Davis conservation officer Harold Spencer told The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer.
Lundgren and his followers next traveled to Chilhowee, Mo., where they lived in a barn, said Yarborough. Then they disbanded, probably sometime in December, investigators said.