A Family’s Legacy of Death : Ervil LeBaron said God told him to kill anyone who strayed from his polygamist cult. A tenacious Salt Lake investigator tracked the LeBarons for 15 years. Now, an anonymous tip may have helped him close a case that claimed as many as 30 lives.
Ervil LeBaron listened carefully when God told him to take many wives. He married 13. When God told him to have children, he had at least 50.
And, 20 years ago, when God told him to break away from his family’s polygamist sect, he founded his own church, tearing apart the once close-knit family.
That’s apparently when God told Ervil to start killing people, too, including his own kin.
Authorities say it was the start of a chilling family tradition that continues to reverberate today among his descendants and followers more than a decade after his death.
The bizarre saga of Ervil’s secretive cult--which also attracted a handful of non-family followers--stretches back to the Nixon era and follows a blood-spattered trail that zigzags through Mexico and the Southwest like an addled snake.
By one expert’s estimate, the group has committed 25 to 30 murders in Utah, California, Texas, Colorado and Mexico. Investigators can only guess at the total number of slayings because the bodies of some of the presumed victims have never been found. West of here, in Tooele County, for instance, a man disappeared some 16 years ago after reportedly coming into contact with the cult. Authorities were never able to determine his fate.
When the LeBarons were at the peak of their infamy more than a decade ago, self-styled redeemer Ervil and his sullen brood were media staples. In the search for superlatives, one news magazine tagged Ervil “The Mormon Manson.” His influence was so powerful, authorities say, that a shrinking band of wives, children and hangers-on continued to commit crimes in his name even after 1981, when he died at age 56 in a Utah prison.
Yet, as the years rolled by, the LeBaron story pretty much faded, thanks largely to Ervil’s permanent absence. Until last month, that is, when the murders of four more people were officially pinned to a last fanatic core of “Ervilistas.” On Aug. 24, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Houston announced federal indictments against six members of the cult.
Now, many of the law enforcement authorities involved in the case believe this melodrama of the Modern West is almost over--more than two decades after an obscure religious feud between two brothers erupted into murder and sparked a killing frenzy.
“In the United States, there’s never been a case like this,” says Dick Forbes, a longtime investigator for the Salt Lake County Attorney’s office, who has devoted a good part of the last 15 years to the LeBaron case.
“You can deal with a criminal who kills for greed. You can deal with a criminal who kills for anger . . . But how do you deal with killers who kill for God?”
God has long played a role in the history of the LeBaron family. Ervil’s ancestors were deeply involved in the controversy surrounding the Mormon Church’s stand on polygamy. Although the church once espoused polygamy, it outlawed the custom in 1890, largely because of outside pressure. But the practice of taking multiple wives continued to be advocated by some Mormons, who splintered from the central church.
Among them was Alma Dayer LeBaron, Ervil’s father. The elder LeBaron moved his family to Mexico in 1924, where he raised a large family that included Ervil and 10 brothers and sisters. They were raised in a household that centered on religion and their father’s obsession with heavenly visions.
As the brothers grew into manhood, most of them also became deeply preoccupied with matters of faith; ultimately, most were ex-communicated.
In the 1950s, Ervil’s brother Joel established his own polygamist church. The church was a family enterprise, with relatives serving in leadership positions, including Ervil. But in the late ‘60s, Ervil challenged Joel’s leadership, and the membership was split into two factions.
Former cult members have testified that as the dispute worsened, Ervil, fired up by holy visions, decided Joel would have to die.
According to later testimony, on Aug. 20, 1972, two of Ervil’s followers confronted Joel, beat him and then shot him to death.
Ervil was charged and convicted of Joel’s murder in a Mexican court. However, an appeals court reversed the conviction and Ervil was released from prison.
Whether or not Ervil was guilty--as many assume he was--Joel’s death was the first of a long chain of murders associated with the cult.
If anyone has a comprehensive grasp of the chaotic LeBaron chronicle, it is Forbes.
A self-described devout Mormon and former member of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, Forbes has often been in the spotlight as the expert in the complex series of cases involving hundreds of witnesses and suspects and a welter of local, state and federal authorities. Forbes’ intimate knowledge of the family and his voluminous files have been a resource for law enforcement agencies, reporters, authors and TV crews from as far away as Europe.
Forbes, 53, has retained so much LeBaron detail, layered like a geological record in his mind, that he sometimes stops speaking and stares into space as he searches the strata for a particular fossil of LeBaron lore.
Forbes says he has been able to stay on the case so long because his boss successfully prosecuted Ervil for the 1977 murder of rival polygamist leader Dr. Rulon Allred and thus knows the complexities of the family. Forbes figures that in one year he put in 600 hours of overtime investigating the cult, skipping vacations and weekends.
“I think I counted nine preliminary hearings and six trials in the first three years of that case, between the Simons murder in Carbon County, Utah, and the San Diego murder of Dean Vest,” he says.
Rancher Robert Simons was allegedly shotgunned and buried in the desert by LeBaron followers because he refused to join Ervil’s church. Vest, a cult follower who had become disenchanted with Ervil’s leadership, was killed by one of Ervil’s wives after he was summoned to her home on the pretext of repairing a washing machine.
Prosecutors failed to get a conviction in the Simons case. Ervil’s wife Vonda was convicted of Vest’s murder, but only after a painstaking investigation.
Indeed, the pursuit of Ervil and his tribe was often frustrating for prosecutors and investigators. Not only did Ervil elude punishment for his brother’s murder, four sect members were acquitted in a Utah murder trial in 1979, leaving Forbes and others baffled and dismayed.
The first glimmer of a possible end of the case started with Forbes.
Last May, an informant in Mexico called the investigator at Forbes’ Salt Lake office about the 4-year-old Texas murders. The complex geography of the telephone call said a lot about Ervil LeBaron’s lingering, nomadic legacy.
The family seldom stayed in one place and often pulled up stakes only a jump ahead of the law. For much of its existence, the LeBaron cult has operated out of Mexico, long a haven for polygamists who split from the Mormon Church. LeBaron’s followers frequently crossed the border, though. At one time or another they lived in Salt Lake City, Denver, San Diego and Dallas. Some have been spotted as far east as Atlanta.
At the time of the Texas murders, Ervil already had been dead for seven years, struck down by a heart attack while serving a life term for the murder of Rulon Allred.
But Ervil made sure he had the power to strike from his grave.
The dead prophet left behind a series of writings called “The Book of the New Covenant” which contained a “hit list” of Ervil’s enemies, apparently including three of the Texas victims. (Forbes says he is one of the few outside the family to have seen this 500-page screed in its entirety. He has kept that copy under wraps but believes much of its contents will become public during the Texas trials, scheduled to begin Oct. 26. The LeBaron family spent $3,000 to computerize the document.)
“They’ve got the common denominator of Ervil’s teachings and his commands he gave them before he died,” says Forbes.
“Now, the older of his children are teaching the younger ones this same doctrine. They read from Ervil’s writings while he was in prison and they have meetings where they tell them, ‘This is the way it is. This is what God wanted and we’re here to carry on and establish the Kingdom of God.’ They refer to it as the KOG . . . They’ve been told, ‘Hey, you’ll reach the highest kingdom of heaven if you commit this murder, you’ll be an elect in the Kingdom of God,’ which they call an election made certain.”
In a carefully choreographed plot, those three former members of LeBaron’s Church of the Lamb of God were lured out and gunned down within minutes of each other at locations in Houston and Irving, Texas. Federal prosecutors also say the killers murdered the 8-year-old daughter of one of the victims who happened to be with her father. Ironically, the three adult victims had been implicated in other cult-linked murders before they became disaffected and left Ervil’s sect.
Before the call from Mexico last spring, Forbes says investigation of the four murders was almost at a standstill. The caller “wanted to tell me about some things,” recalls Forbes, declining to discuss specifics.
“They got a hold of me, I suppose, because they couldn’t get a hold of anybody else . . . I think they hate me, but they trust me,” he says. Over the years, Forbes not only pursued members of the sect but also helped former members escape the cult and lead “normal” lives.
Within a short time, the anonymous caller met with Forbes, a U.S. Attorney in Houston, and Houston police, the investigator says.
Then, last month, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Houston announced murder conspiracy indictments against six members of the LeBaron cult for the Texas killings.
Three of the alleged killers were already being held in Phoenix on unrelated car theft charges and were transferred to Houston last week. Another was in custody in Houston. All four are being held without bail. (During the years since Ervil’s death, Forbes said, the family turned to car theft for sustenance. Phoenix authorities told Forbes that the clan has stolen up to 200 automobiles, usually four-wheel drive vehicles, selling the autos in Mexico for as much as $10,000. The family may also have been involved in drug trafficking, Forbes says.)
Both defense attorneys and prosecutors said the suspects in custody have declined many requests for interviews. The LeBarons have rarely given any interviews. According to one book on the LeBaron family, Ervil was interviewed once by a newspaper reporter and another family member once called a radio talk show.
Two of the six suspects, both of them LeBarons, are still loose and thought to be somewhere in Mexico. They are Aaron Morel LeBaron, 24, and his sister, Jacqueline LeBaron, 26, both children of Ervil. Federal prosecutors claim that Aaron was the brains behind the Texas executions.
For several years, Aaron apparently has been the leader of the church his father founded. In LeBaron parlance, he has assumed “the mantle” and become the “one mighty and strong” who is fit to lead the group.
Both Aaron and Jacqueline are thought to be around Hermosillo, Mexico, where the family has a refuge called Rancho La Jolla. Texas authorities said they would seek extradition if the pair is found. But the LeBarons, who have spent decades in Mexico, have become experts at hiding out.
With federal and Texas authorities on the lookout, Aaron and Jacqueline will have a tougher time coming into this country, Forbes says.
Although Aaron and Jacqueline are not in custody, Forbes seems confident that the LeBaron family and its followers have been reduced to a shadow of their former selves. From perhaps a hundred at its peak in the early 1980s, he estimates that “around 10 to 15" are left, most of them Ervil’s youngest children, who are in their teens and early 20s. The remainder have either left the group, died or are unaccounted for.
Forbes seems amused by the black comedy of some of the family’s escapades. He cites as an example Aaron’s coming to power in the sect.
The way Forbes heard it, Aaron took over from older brother Heber after Heber was caught robbing a Texas bank several years ago.
“Aaron and Heber decided that Aaron would now have the authority within the group because Heber had failed at this bank robbery and the Lord obviously didn’t protect him, so he obviously wasn’t the chosen one,” Forbes says.
There will always be loose ends in the history of the LeBaron cult. Many murder victims probably will never be accounted for. They include Leo Evoniuk, a defector from the LeBaron church who disappeared near Santa Cruz in May, 1987; Ervil’s daughter, Rebecca LeBaron, whose body was never found; and Lorna Chynoweth LeBaron, one of Ervil’s wives, missing since 1982.
They are among the victims listed in “The Blood Covenant,” a 1990 book by Rena Chynoweth, Lorna’s sister and another of Ervil’s ex-wives, who now lives in hiding. (In the book, Chynoweth admits to killing one of Ervil’s victims, a crime for which she was tried and found not guilty.)
Even the youngest LeBarons have carefully honed abilities to evade authority.
In the fall of 1989, local authorities here announced that six of Ervil’s youngest children, mostly teen-agers, left their separate Salt Lake City foster homes in an apparently coordinated escape and probably rejoined the cult in Mexico.
“These kids had contact with each other, they knew how to keep in touch and one night they all disappeared,” says Forbes.
If these children returned to Mexico, it was to a “bad scene” according to Rena Chynoweth. “The ranch was a veritable hotbed of hatred, militarism and illegal activities,” she writes in her book. “It was reputed to be an arsenal for many types of automatic weapons and the group was reported to be dealing in stolen cars and motorcycles from the U.S.”
The family’s stomping grounds around Hermosillo are sacred to the LeBarons, and the clan probably feels the need to hunker down there for reasons other than hiding out.
Says Forbes: “Ervil told them, ‘You take them down to Mexico and you teach them the Kingdom of God is at hand and when Christ returns he’s going to show up at Rancho La Jolla and they better be ready.’ ”
The Wives and Children of Ervil Morel LeBaron
The LeBaron family’s saga spans two decades and involves 25 to 30 murders. Many of the victims were relatives of family patriarch Ervil LeBaron.
Ervil Morel LeBaron, 1925-1981 (died in prison) WIVES Delina Salido Marilu Vega Joy Marston Anna Mae Marston Lorna Chynoweth (missing since 1982) Christina Jensen Rosemary Barlow Linda Johnson Debra Bateman Vonda White Teresa Rios Yolanda Rios (murdered, 1983) Rena Chynoweth CHILDREN LeBaron and Delina Salido: Sylvia Esther; Sarah; Alice; Lilian (suicide, 1989); Arthur (murdered); Rebecca; Isaac (suicide, 1983); Paul and Delia. LeBaron and Marilu Vega: Elsa; Jorge (disappeared, 1984); Patricia (indicted in August, 1992, in connection with Houston murders; in custody in Phoenix); Benjamin; Virginia and Ruben. Anna Mae Marston from previous marriage: David; Edward; Ramona and Fay. LeBaron and Anna Mae Marston: Kathleen; Heber (also indicted August 1992; in custody in Arizona); Marilyn; Celia; Anna; Hyrum and Adean. LeBaron and Lorna Chynoweth: Andrew (missing, presumed dead); Jacqueline Tarsa (also indicted August 1992; presumed at large in Mexico); Aaron Morel (Mo) (also indicted August 1992; presumed at large in Mexico); Natasha (Tasha); Andrea Monique (Nicki); Bridget Veronica (Jessica); Jared and Joshua. LeBaron and Christina Jensen: Tabitha and Shoshanna. Rosemary Barlow from previous marriage: Douglas; annalee and Ellen. LeBaron and Rosemary Barlow: Nathaniel; David and Eva. LeBaron and Linda Johnson: Thomas Anthony; Cynthia and Richard (also indicted in 1992; in custody in Houston). LeBaron and Debra Bateman had two unidentified sons. Vonda White from a previous marriage: Craig; Audrey; Evelyn and Janet. LeBaron and Vonda White: Mimi and Nathan. LeBaron and Teresa Rios: Gladys; Norma (escaped foster care 1989 with five others); Jenny and Bertha. LeBaron and Yolanda Rios: Sandra and Danny (escaped foster care 1989 with five others). LeBaron and Rena Chynoweth: Erin and John Ryan. Source: “The Blood Covenant” by Rena Chynoweth with Dean M. Shapiro.