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Under the Banner of Heaven: the tragic true story of two delusional Mormon fundamentalists and a double murder

Salt Lake City’s The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a Mormon denomination, boasts 17 million members worldwide; seven million in the US. The nontrinitarian church focuses on missionary work and family life, adhering to Jesus’s original teachings; members typically abstain from consuming alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea, and refrain from nonmarital sex.

In 1984, its insular world was blown wide open when 24-year-old member Brenda Lafferty and her 15-month old daughter were both found dead in their semi-rural Utah home – their throats slashed opened by a 10-inch boning knife.

An intense investigation found that the killers were none other than Brenda’s brothers-in-law, Dan and Ron. The Lafferty brothers, members of a well-respected and influential family, had splintered off mainstream Mormonism some time before, finding a home in a fundamentalist version of the faith that allowed for polygamy (plural marriages had been outlawed in the LDS Church in 1904, 74 years after its founding). The appalling case took an even darker turn when Ron declared the murder was a direct order from God, who had asked for Brenda to be “removed”.

The subsequent high-profile trial included a suicide attempt, arguments over sanity, several life sentences, and a death warrant. Brenda’s husband Allen Lafferty had initially been a suspect, but was eliminated from the investigation because he had been working on a construction site 80 miles away; he explained at the trial that there were signs of a terrible struggle at his home, with blood splattered everywhere. After calling for help he had prayed by his wife’s body.

Decades later hardened police detectives remembered the case as being particularly harrowing: "This one was different, it was religiously motivated You can use the word brutal, horrific,” said the ex-police chief of Brenda’s Utah town, American Fork, to one news outlet. “These were evil to the core men. People can say what they want about them, but they were evil.” But when questioned, Dan said, “I believe I'm a good person.” The investigation involved reading as many as 8,000 pages of upsetting material that the Laffertys had written – some of which the brothers described as “revelation”.

Daisy Edgar-Jones as Brenda Lafferty (Michelle Faye/FX. Copyright 2022, FX Networks. All rights reserved.)
Daisy Edgar-Jones as Brenda Lafferty (Michelle Faye/FX. Copyright 2022, FX Networks. All rights reserved.)

The awful story was picked up by acclaimed American author Jon Krakauer, and it became the subject of his fourth non-fiction book, 2003’s Under the Banner of Heaven. Just as he did in his best-sellers Into The Wild (1996) and Into The Air (1997), Krakauer used the tragic human story as a vehicle to explore wider themes – the book drilled down on religious extremism, violence, psychology, Mormon theology and morality. It was a hit, with Krakauer being described as a “master journalist and a storyteller unfettered by and unafraid of the true crime mantle”.

In the book’s opening chapter Krakauer introduces its most provocative theme: “The LDS leadership adamantly insists that Lafferty should under no circumstances be considered a Mormon. The faith that moved Lafferty to slay his niece and sister-in-law is a brand of religion known as Mormon Fundamentalism; LDS Church authorities bristle visibly when Mormons and Mormon Fundamentalists are even mentioned in the same breath.

As Gordon B. Hinckley, the then-eighty-eight-year-old LDS president and prophet, emphasized during a 1998 television interview on Larry King Live, "They have no connection with us whatever. They don't belong to the church. There are actually no Mormon Fundamentalists." The Mormon church decried Under the Banner of Heaven, labelling it “a decidedly one-sided and negative view of Mormon history.”

Years ago, when ex-Mormon Dustin Lance Black – Tom Daley’s husband, and the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Milk (2008) – came across Krakauer’s book, he found it “formative”.

“It felt so true to me and then had all of these layers that I hadn’t yet examined about my childhood faith – my family’s faith still – and how I had grown up in it,” he explained to a newspaper. He decided to adapt it into a TV series. The show, which shares the book’s title, premiered on Hulu in April last year and will be landing on ITVX next week. In it, Andrew Garfield stars as Mormon detective Jeb Pyre who is grappling with his own faith while investigating the double homicide; Daisy Edgar-Jones plays the unlucky Brenda.

Despite receiving mixed reviews, Black’s seven-episode series was consistently commended for its ambition. The series questions the silence of religious institutions and marital violence, offers historical context about the origins of the Mormon church, and also presents a gripping drama; the show has been described as “discomforting”, “relentlessly ominous” and “grisly”. In Black’s version of the story, two detectives – one Mormon and one outsider – work together on the case – two eyes, and two minds, finding their preconceptions laid bare.

Under the Banner of Heaven will premiere on ITVX on February 26