Poor Mormons. They get such a bad rap. There are the original Mormons of the Osmond variety; no polygamy or masquerading a cult as a religion. This isn’t one of those stories, alas (of course if it was, it wouldn’t be blogged here). In fact this story has a loose connection to the Gary Gilmore story, as Gilmore’s abusive mother was a devout Mormon who was happy to discuss the morbid aspects of the Mormon religion, including the Kirtland Massacre. This tragedy came to be known as the Kirtland Massacre, bespeaking not only an unorthodox branch of Mormonism but also that of fraud and ultimately murder.
Lundgren is among the most vile cult leaders in history. He was born in 1950 in Independence, Missouri. His family were members of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Lundgren was one of those unfortunate types who was severely abused by his father during his childhood. His parents were very strict, religious people. His mother didn’t protect him. Not surprisingly, Lundgren was a loner with limited social skills when he was in middle and high school. In spite of this, Lundgren was very arrogant and thought of himself as better than everyone else. He was exceptional at memorizing long Bible passages. This helped other children to look up to him.
While at Central Missouri State University, Lundgren met his future wife, Alice Keeler, who also had an abusive childhood. She also believed in prophets and believed wholeheartedly that Lundgren was that prophet. They began a sexual relationship which was contrary to their religious beliefs. At times he became physically abusive. Lundgren assured her she had unleashed this force in him and, ironically, it was she who must control it. They were married in 1970 after Lundgren got Keeler pregnant and on December 2, 1970, the couple’s first child, a boy, was born. By 1974, Keeler was pregnant for the second time. In 1979, Keeler gave birth to a third child, a daughter.
By then, Lundgren was distraught by the family’s money problems and was already tired of his wife. He frequently took money from Keeler’s parents. The abuse of his wife continued and according to hospital records, Keeler was hospitalized for a ruptured spleen which was caused when Lundgren pushed her into a closet door handle. In 1980, the couple had their fourth child, another boy. At the Kirtland Temple Lundgren was heard to boast that a church was “the easiest place to take over.” In 1987 Lundgren felt threatened by the Reverend Dale Luffman, the new Stake President of the Kirtland Temple. Lundgren told the Temple’s members to ignore Luffman’s words after a sermon and to prepare for an angry, vengeful God. Later Lundgren apologized to Luffman, who remained unconvinced. In August 1987, church elders discovered Lundgren had embezzled $20,000.00 of church money from the Temple Visitor Centre. Church elders advised Lundgren to quietly resign in order to avoid a scandal and they in turn wouldn’t report him to police. Lundgren agreed. In 1988, Luffman excommunicated Lundgren from the RLDS church.
Lundgren and his family soon abandoned the religious group, and Lundgren began to feel a call to teach the Bible in the way he understood it. He formed his own sect although he couldn’t have been too inspirational; membership never exceeded more than 20 and eventually dropped to 12. These people were some of the most conservative members of the RLDS Church who believed that God communicated through revelations although some members admitted to revelations even when they did not really experience. The conservatives were also opposed to liberal rights for women, a tenet Lundgren emphasized to maintain women’s supposed inferiority. Alice once stated that Lundgren was able to influence vulnerable people by sensing what they needed and claiming to be able to fulfill that need.
The Kirtland Temple
Lundgren and his family once lived in a church-owned home, located next to the Kirtland Temple. He began to teach the concept of “dividing the word,” known as “chiastic interpretation“. Lundgren falsely claimed to have created chiastic interpretation. The idea was that in everything created by God, the right side is a mirror image, so scripture had to be interpreted using that same method. Okay then. He claimed the Kirtland Temple was an example because the right side was a mirror image of the left side. Sounds like it’s all smoke and mirrors to me.
In 1987, after his dismissal from the Kirtland Temple, Lundgren and his family moved to a rented farm-house, located at 8671 Chardon Roeast of Ohio State Route #306. At that time, some followers moved into his home. While Lundgren was living at the farm-house, he began to practice methods of “mind control.” His most evil plan was to convince his followers that Jesus Christ could only return to earth if they “cleansed the Vineyards”, or to commit murder. He had his cult stockpile knives and pistols. During weapons practice, the men dressed in military garb. Although cult members believed the idea was a good one, years later some cult members realized the horror of Lundgren’s plan. Even Alice had doubts about the plan but she was afraid to speak out.
Lundgren claimed he was told by God that he and his supporters would witness the second coming of Christ if they moved to Kirtland. Lundgren wanted proximity to Kirtland because it was the home of the Kirtland Temple, built by Joseph Smith. Lundgren told his followers that on May 3, Lundgren’s birthday, the second coming would happen at the Kirtland Temple and that he and his followers would have to seize the Kirtland Temple by force. The conspiracy involved burglarizing adjacent church-homes and committing murder. Well, you gotta do what you gotta do.
Fortunately, on April 23, 1988, a neighbor told Kirtland police officer Ron Andolsek that she suspected that a cult was living at the farm-house and that Lundgren’s son warned the neighbor’s children that the earth would soon open up and demons would emerge. On April 28, 1988, Kevin Currie, a former cult member who fled the cult in 1988, called Kirtland Police and reported the cult’s conspiracy to take over the Kirtland Temple and to commit murder. Chief Dennis T. Yarborough confronted Lundgren at the Kirtland Police Station. He couldn’t get a search warrant since there was no concrete evidence about the murder plot. When Lundgren left, Yarborough said he “neutralized the situation” by warning Lundgren that there were complaints about gun fire on his property. Lundgren told his followers that the planned Kirtland Temple takeover was off because he had spoken to a higher power. Well, he got that right.
The Avery Family
Lundgren began to offer Bible study services at his home. Naturally he dominated the services himself and he intimidated anyone who did not agree with him. He encouraged others to intimidate those who disagreed with him. He convinced his congregation that he was God’s last prophet. Naturally Lundgren demanded money from his supporters, and some gave up their life’s savings, calculated to be thousands of dollars. One unfortunate member, Dennis Avery, set apart a small amount of money for his family’s use. Lundgren considered this a sin, because Lundgren wanted all of his followers money. The Averys soon found themselves at the bottom of the cult’s pecking order. They were “very passive” people. Lundgren especially disapproved of the Averys because he felt Cheryl “wore the pants in the family.”
By this time, seven of Lundgren’s 12 followers had moved into the family home. Lundgren instilled himself as the head of the family and treated his followers as if they were children. He told them “you know nothing.” Kevin Currie was a typical Lundgren cult follower. “I had not had a very solid childhood so this was the first time that I felt a part of a family experience.” He moved in with the Lundgrens in 1985. In 1988, Currie escaped from the cult.
The remaining 5 people who hadn’t moved into Lundgren’s house were the Avery family. Lundgren felt that the Averys were committing a sin by not living in his house. The Avery family accordingly sold their Missouri house, turning over the money from the sale to Lundgren, and moved to Ohio. Avery believed in Lundgren completely and trusted him. Lundgren didn’t return the support. He considered Dennis Avery to be weak and, when Avery was no longer useful to him, Lundgren talked about Avery behind his back. Lundgren used Avery as a scapegoat for their troubles even though Avery was one of the leading contributors.
In time, Lundgren convinced his followers that they had to seize the temple and to kill anyone who stood in their way. He told his followers that they had to kill a family of 5 if they wanted to see God. As punishment for their “disloyalty,” he chose the Averys. One former member admitted she had “already been so led in the direction that they weren’t good that at the time it was really hard for me to see them as good anything….it never crossed my mind to tell them to run. It never crossed my mind to leave. I remember the only thoughts that went through my mind that night were if it is happening, it must be God’s will. And the other thought was I’m a sinner and I’ll be next. Lundgren whipped his cult into a frenzy about following God’s pan.
On April 10, 1989, Lundgren ordered two of his followers to dig a pit in the barn to bury the Averys’ bodies. The expectation was that there could be five bodies buried in the pit. Lundgren told the rest of his followers, including the Averys, that they would go on a wilderness trip. On April 17, he rented a motel room and had dinner with all of his followers. He called his group’s men into his room. He questioned each as to their purpose in the action. All of the men assured Lundgren that they were with him in the sacrifice. Of course, Avery was not invited to the meeting in Lundgren’s bedroom.
Lundgren later went inside the barn, with a church member named Ronald Luff luring Avery into a place where the other men waited. Luff was captivated by Lundgren and utterly devoted. Luff became Lundgren’s second in command. He led each family member from the house to the barn. Luff attempted to render Avery unconscious with a stun gun, but did not knock him out. Poor Avery was gagged and dragged to the place where Lundgren awaited. He was shot twice in the back, dying instantly. To mask the sound of the gun, a chainsaw was left running. Luff then told Avery’s wife, Cheryl, that her husband needed help.
She was gagged, like her husband, but also had duct tape put over her eyes, and dragged to Lundgren. She was shot three times, twice in the breasts and once in the abdomen. Her body lay next to her husband’s. The Averys’ 15-year-old daughter, Trina, was shot twice in the head. The first shot missed, but the second killed her instantly. Thirteen-year-old Becky was shot twice and left to die, while six-year-old Karen was shot in the chest and head.
Months later when Luff recounted his role in the massacre to the police, he was emotionless. “All I saw was the top of a little girl’s head, when he shot…Trina said ouch…..my Dad, we really didn’t understand each other well.” Luff rebelled against his family and the church. However he craved a structure and stability and eventually he returned to the church. He married a Mormon woman. She also joined the cult with Luff. Over time Lundgren became cruel toward his followers, insisting that they fast while he ate a lobster dinner in front of them. He would eavesdrop on cult members to cause them to believe that he could read their minds. Cult members were forbidden to talk amongst themselves; doing so was a sin, called “murmuring.”
Luff accepted Lundgren’s doctrine without question. For others however “there’s a lot of reprisals for anytime someone would do something, a form of non-physical punishment….we had a couple of pets well they would end up dead. It’s pretty obvious I think now that Lundgren was killing these creatures.” About human sacrifice, Luff explained “you become desperate because this is the only access to life there is.”
Officers coincidentally came to Lundgren’s farm to talk to Lundgren about the Kirtland takeover plan, the day after the murders. They questioned Alice about the takeover and Alice became angry. She thought “oh my gosh he killed 5 people last night and you’re asking me about a temple takeover.” No one told authorities what had happened at the farm. After this Lundgren left town in a panic, taking his cult south to West Virginia, an area he designated as The Wilderness. He told the cult the Second Coming would finally happen in their new setting. But as months went by and nothing happened, Lundgren became disillusioned and his behaviour more erratic. Finally he abandoned his followers and took his family back
to California. The cult began to realize they had been misled and now had to live with the deaths of 5 innocent people on their conscience.Nine months after the killings, in 1990, police, following a tip from an informant, returned to the long-abandoned farm and uncovered the five bodies of the Avery family. The public was outraged and sought retribution.
The Lundgrens became fugitives. Media attention increased and police tracked down the cult members. The FBI joined in the hunt. Eventually, all of Lundgren’s followers were found, and they helped catch him and his family. Thirteen of Lundgren’s sect were arrested, including Lundgren and his wife. Four followers were charged. One member, Deborah Olivarez alleged that, “Jeff used Alice to fuel the fire.”
Alice claimed she had no idea her husband would put his plan into action. The jury didn’t buy it. She was found guilty and received five life sentences, or 150 years, for conspiracy, complicity and kidnapping. Lundgren was disengaged during the trial, reading and behaving as if he was above earthly justice. Lundgren was given the death penalty for five counts each of kidnapping and murder. Lundgren gave a 5-hour statement to the court. “I am not a false prophet and therefore am not worthy of the penalty sought by those who seek my death….I cannot say that I am sorry what God commanded me to do in the physical act.” The prosecutor admitted “if I had a gun at that time, I would have used it.”
Lundgren attempted to join a lawsuit with five other Ohio death row inmates challenging the state’s death penalty law, claiming that because of his obesity the lethal injection would be particularly painful and amount to cruel and unusual punishment. You know, like the type the Averys suffered. It was a no-go and on October 24, 2006, Lundgren the mighty prophet was executed at the Southern Ohio State Correctional Facility. If his fat made him suffer he made no indication of that fact. For a prophet he should have known better. Gluttony is one of the 7 deadly sins for a reason.