FX on Hulu's 'Under the Banner of Heaven' Tells True Story of the 1984 Murders of Brenda and Erica Lafferty
The FX drama, airing on Hulu and starring Oscar-nominated Andrew Garfield and Daisy Edgar-Jones, is based on Jon Krakauer’s non-fiction book of the same name that examined the 1984 murder of Brenda Lafferty and her 15-month-old daughter Erica.
FX’s true crime drama, “Under the Banner of Heaven,” examines the 1984 murders of Brenda Lafferty and her 15-month-old daughter Erica, members of the Mormon church slain by Brenda’s fundamentalist brothers-in-law Ron and Dan Lafferty in what they claimed was an act of God’s will.
The killings sent shockwaves through the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, from which Ron and Dan were excommunicated for their extreme religious views, the Utah community in which Brenda and her daughter lived with her husband, Ron and Dan’s youngest brother, Allen, and the nation.
The FX drama airing on Hulu stars Oscar-nominated Andrew Garfield as a police detective whose devout faith is tested as he investigates the killings and is inspired by the real-life investigators on the case, as well as “Normal People” and “Fresh” star Daisy Edgar-Jones as Brenda Lafferty. The limited series is based on Jon Krakauer’s non-fiction book “Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith.”
The book, which was published in 2003, traces the origins of the Mormon church, the story of the Lafferty family and the gruesome double-murder of an innocent mother and child.
The True Story Behind ‘Under the Banner of Heaven’
Everything in Allen Lafferty’s life changed the evening of July 24, 1984.
After working a long day setting tiles on a construction site, Allen drove the 80 miles to his home in American Fork, Utah, and walked into what would be soon designated a grisly crime scene.
The body of his 24-year-old wife, Brenda Lafferty, lay in a pool of her own blood, her throat cut and her body badly battered. The kitchen, where she had taken her last breaths, was also covered in blood, and the phone cord had been ripped out of the wall.
Erica, their young daughter, had been slain in her crib.
Finding that no phone in their house worked, Allen fled to a neighbor’s home to call the police before returning to his wife’s side to pray and take in what had occurred before he got home.
“And then as I stood, I surveyed the situation a little more, and realized that there had been a grim struggle,” he would go on to testify in court.
Allen was quickly identified as the prime suspect in the killings of his wife and daughter, but he told investigators it was his own brother, Ronald Lafferty, who they should be bringing to justice.
The following day, authorities announced that he and Allen’s other brother, Dan Lafferty, had been charged with first-degree murder. But investigators still needed to locate Ron, who they learned had grown extreme in his beliefs and had told others he had been instructed by God to kill those responsible for his ex-communication from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, including Brenda and Erica.
Why Brenda Lafferty Was Targeted by Her Brothers-in-Law
Brenda Wright Lafferty was born on July 19, 1960. She and her five sisters and brother were raised in Twin Falls, Idaho, in a devout Mormon home. Remembered by her loved ones as beautiful and bright, Brenda competed in the Miss Twin Falls Pageant in 1980, in which she placed first runner-up. But she was most passionate about becoming a broadcast journalist, a dream which her parents encouraged her to pursue.
She transferred to Brigham Young University in Utah, where she anchored a local newsmagazine show. There, she also met and fell in love with Allen Lafferty.
The couple married when Brenda was 21 on April 22, 1982.
It wasn’t long, though, before Brenda realized her own dreams would not be realized, her mother LaRae Wright, told Krakauer. Allen, whose family was more conservative than Brenda’s and not as responsive to Brenda’s independent nature, didn’t want Brenda to work.
Still, Brenda’s family welcomed her husband into the fold.
“We all liked him. He was like a wonderful big brother to us,” Brenda’s sister, Betty Wright McEntire, told Krakauer. At the time, we had no idea that there was all this other stuff going on in his family. Then we started to notice how fanatical they all were.”
Ron Lafferty’s Descent Into Extremism
Allen’s eldest brother, Ron Lafferty viewed Brenda’s more independent inclinations as an affront to what he viewed as tenets of their faith.
The one-time councilman and first counselor to the bishop in their congregation, had always been more conservative than his sister-in-law, but in the early ‘80s, Ron’s beliefs shifted after speaking with his brother, Dan.
Dan had read “The Peace Maker,” an 1842 pamphlet outlawed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1890, that encouraged polygamy and other extremes once associated with the religion. Though Ron was initially the only Lafferty sibling to steer clear of Dan’s discussions around the beliefs espoused in the pamphlet, at the encouragement of his wife to speak with his brothers because their wives were unhappy, Ron approached Dan in 1982.
"Ron was embarrassed by me," Dan told Krakauer. "He was a devout Saint and he said I was an embarrassment to the Mormon Church. He told me, 'There's no place in this church for extremes!'"
Instead, Ron himself was swayed by the beliefs, and returned home to his wife, Dianna, expecting their dynamic to shift. He wanted to marry more women and practice polygamy as well as marry off their teenage daughters, she told a friend. (Ron later denied belonging to any extremist group and said he never practiced polygamy.)
Though they were reportedly unhappy, all of Dianna’s sisters-in-law went along with their husbands’ wishes, except for Brenda, Krakauer wrote.
In 1983, Dianna divorced Ron and moved with their six children out of state.
Ron blamed Brenda for his marriage’s unraveling.
Claiming to Act on God’s Will, Ron and Dan Lafferty Set Out to Kill Their Sister-in-Law and Niece
In February 1984, Ron claimed to have received his first message from God. The following month, he said God spoke to him again, this time instructing him that Brenda and Erica were among those who had “become obstacles” in God’s path who must be “removed in rapid succession that an example be made of them.”
Dan spoke to Allen about the supposed instructions, and Allen said he would defend his wife and child, but never told his wife that Ron was thinking about killing her and their daughter, according to Krakauer.
In May, Ron and Dan then set out on a road trip, traveling together and separately around the U.S. and Canada. With two men they met in their travels, Dan and Ron set out to their youngest brother’s home on July 24.
They first arrived at Allen and Brenda’s house at 1:30 p.m., but no one answered.
"I had a real happy feeling then, because I thought the whole thing had just been a test of faith—like when God tested Abraham [by asking him to sacrifice his son Isaac]—and Ron had just passed the test," Dan told Krakauer of their not being any response at the home.
But Dan also decided to drive back to his brother and sister-in-law’s home minutes after driving away.
“Maybe I'm going back because I'll be the one who is supposed to take care of this business for the Lord. I wasn't sure, but I had a real comfortable feeling about what I was doing,” he said of his thought process at the time.
This time, Brenda answered. He pushed his way inside and wrestled Brenda to the ground as she apologized for becoming involved in family business, he said. Ron also went inside the home and attacked his sister-in-law. From outside, one of the other men with the brothers said he could hear Brenda pleading with them to not hurt Erica.
As Ron beat Brenda, Dan killed his 15-month-old niece. “I closed my eyes, so I didn't see what I was doing,” he told Krakauer. “I didn't hear anything...I'm pretty sure she didn't suffer.”
He then walked back into the kitchen and killed Brenda. “I didn’t actually see anything,” he explained, noting he had closed his eyes in that instance as well.
They were arrested several days later and charged with two counts of first-degree murder in the killings of Brenda and Erica.
The Aftermath of the Murders of Brenda and Erica Lafferty
Ron and Dan were supposed to be tried together, but days before their trial, Ron attempted to take his own life. He was resuscitated and spent two days in a coma.
Dan’s trial went ahead, and he defended himself. After five days, the jury went into deliberations. Nine hours later, Dan was found guilty on both charges. Ten out of the 12 jurors voted to give him the death penalty and so he was sentenced to two life terms in the state penitentiary.
"In my 12 years as a judge, I have never presided over a trial of such a cruel, heinous pointless and senseless a crime as the murders of Brenda and Erica Lafferty," Judge J. Robert Bullock said at the sentencing. "Nor have I seen an accused who had so little remorse or feeling."
Ron was also convicted of the charges he faced, and he was sentenced to death. He chose that when the time came, he would be executed by firing squad.
He filed multiple appeals and in 1991, his conviction was thrown out, with the Tenth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals determining he had not been competent when he went on trial. He was retried in 1996, was once again found guilty and sentenced to death.
Ron continued to participate in the appeals process until his death in prison on Nov. 11, 2019. Authorities said he died of natural causes. He was 78.
Brenda and Erica’s family was relieved that Ron died of natural causes and that they were spared the spectacle that would come with an execution.
“From the very beginning, we as a family turned that over to the Lord and the law,” Jim Wright, Brenda’s father and Erica’s grandfather, told KUTV at the time.
Brenda and Erica are buried together. Jim in 2019 said he visited their gravesite every week.
“They laid Erica on Brenda’s chest like she’s holding her. I do find comfort here,” he said.
Nearby, his wife LaRae, Brenda’s mother and Erica’s grandmother, is also buried.
“It’s just a matter of going on in daily life and looking forward to seeing them again,” he said of his loved ones.
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