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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.

September 20, 1992|GARRY ABRAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SALT LAKE CITY — 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.

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