A crew from the Discovery network interviewed me last week about my book, Prophet of Death: The Mormom Blood Atonement Killings, which was published in 1991 and is one of my least known books. It’s about a cult murder in Kirtland, Ohio, that involved a self-proclaimed prophet who broke away from the Reorganized Church of Latter Day Saints and murdered a family of five in an attempt to bring about the end of days and return of Jesus Christ.
Because of what happened to my son, when I think of mental disorders, I focus on bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. But if mental illness was involved in the case of Jeffrey Don Lundgren, it came in the form of anti-social personality disorder, narcissism and grandiosity. Because I am not a psychiatrist, I still don’t know if Lundgren had a mental disorder or was simply a con man. What I do know is that he destroyed and greatly harmed many lives, including his own children’s.
My literary agent was convinced my book would become a huge bestseller. It had it all: sex, religion, murder and a secret way to read religious scriptures. But it didn’t sell well despite a nice plug in The New York Times. [The reviewer wrote: "Mr. Earley's artful narrative casts the seductive spell of a scary story told by the firelight at granny's knee."] I will explain later why I don’t think my book sold well.
Lundgren was reared in The Reorganized Church of Latter Day Saints, which changed its name in 2001 to the Community of Christ. One of the RLDS’s teachings was the belief in continuing revelation, or more simply, the belief in latter day prophets. With Lundgren’s wife, Alice, as his chief cheerleader, Lundgren was able to persuade a band of twelve followers that he had been chosen by God to open the “Seven Seals” mentioned in The Book of Revelation.
To get the end of the world started, Lundgren murdered Dennis and Cheryl Avery, along with their three young daughters, Trina (age 15), Rebecca (age 13), and Karen (age 6). The Avery family had followed Jeffrey and Alice to Ohio but Lundgren considered them sinful and wicked.
One of the keys to Lundgren’s success was his claim that he had found a secret way to read chiasmus scriptures.
Isaiah, Chapter 6, Verse 10 is an example of a chiasmus writing:
[A] Make the heart of this people fat,
[B] and make their ears heavy,
[C] and shut their eyes;
[C] lest they see with their eyes,
[B] and hear with their ears,
[A] and understand with their hearts…
Notice the lines mirror each other. This style sometimes is called parallel writing. The writer repeats the same thought.
Lundgren searched the Bible for chiasmus scriptures, especially ones that contained one verse that didn’t repeat itself. For example: Isaiah, Chapter 55, Verses 8 and 9.
[A] For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
[B] neither are your ways my ways…
[C] For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
[B] so are my ways higher than your ways,
[A] and my thoughts than your thoughts.
The words ‘thoughts’ and ‘ways’ are clearly repeated in typical A-B-B-A fashion. But the center line [C] stands completely by itself.
Lundgren claimed this center line was part of a secret “pattern” that God used to speak to his prophets. Of course, only Lundgren could interpret what these separate lines meant and he used his twisted interpretation to justify murdering the Averys and having all of the women in his cult dance naked in front of him while he masturbated.
I think my book didn’t sell well because Lundgren engaged in some disgusting sexual fetishes, according to Alice, including coprophilia. Most people haven’t heard of coprophilia and book sales probably would have been higher if I’d used some editorial judgment and deleted all references to it.
But this was my second book and it was important for me to include every detail about Lundgren that I’d learned so that readers could figure out what made him tick.
I attended Lundgren’s murder trial and interviewed him later in the jail after he was found guilty and sentenced to death. He tired to convert me during our talks and spent hours taking me line-by-line through his scriptural interpretations. But after I interviewed Alice and I asked Lundgren about her claims that he had brutalized and demeaned her sexually, Lundgren cut-off all contact with me. Later, I was told that Lundgren had sent a ‘death list’ to one of his devotees, asking him to murder everyone on it — including me — because of our wickedness. Ohio law enforcement officers warned me that my name was on the list. Lundgren’s followers were supposed to murder my family too. When I asked the officers what I should do, I was told that I was number five on the list. If the four persons before me were killed, then I would be contacted about what precautions to take. Thankfully, I never got that call!
In a letter to me, Lundgren noted that one day I would stand in judgment before him and God, and neither of them would be happy about how I had ignored the “great truth” that Lundgren had shared with me. Instead, I had chosen to glorify scandal and attack God’s prophet by repeating Alice’s lies.
Lundgren was executed October 24, 2006, after a federal judge threw out his last minute appeal. In that appeal, Lundgren argued that he had grown so obese in prison that executing him by lethal injection would have been cruel and unusual punishment. I chose not to attend his execution. After his death, I received a note from one of his former followers. She had believed that Lundgren was going to stand up after he was given a lethal dose. “I really believed he was a prophet of God,” she told me.
I realized after the television interview, which will air at some still undetermined date, that the Lundgren case bothers me more today than when I wrote about it. The reason is simple. When I believed Lundgren was a greedy, power-hungry con man, it was easier for me to condemn and dismiss him. The fact that Lundgren’s actions, in retrospect, suggest that he had a major personality disorder does nothing to mitigate what he did. But it does make me less harsh in my condemnation and makes me wonder if and how he could have been helped before he let his delusions cause so much heartache and pain.