What made a self-proclaimed prophet turn on his innocent followers?
The end was near for convict Jeffrey Lundgren. After 16 years spent incarcerated on death row, the 56-year-old’s time was up.
On 24 October 2006, he was led to the execution chamber, much like his innocent victims were led to their deaths…
‘I want to profess my love for God, my family, my children…’ he said just before his execution, then, quoting a South African proverb, ‘I am because you are.’
Minutes later, after a lethal injection was administered, he was pronounced dead.
Lundgren’s death was a lot gentler than those of his victims. Seventeen years earlier, the self-proclaimed prophet had murdered five of his cult followers.
Dennis Avery, 49, his wife Cheryl, 46, and their three children Trina, 15, Rebecca, 13, and Karen, 7, were shot dead in Lundgren’s Kirtland, Ohio, barn, then buried in a dirty pit.
The Averys, who were followers of Lundgren, moved to Kirtland in 1987. Lundgren had broken away from the church and, by 1988, had formed his own splinter group. It’s thought 20 other members were indoctrinated along with the Averys.
It was on 17 April 1989 that the ill-fated Avery family was led, one by one, to be murdered in Lundgren’s barn.
But why had their leader murdered them in cold blood?
Born on 3 May 1950, in Independence, Missouri, Jeffrey Lundgren was the son of a wealthy construction worker and a housewife.
Growing up in a strict home, Lundgren’s family belonged to the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Lundgren grew to be a religious fanatic.
At college, he met Alice Keeler and, in 1970, the young couple married and had four children.
They later moved to Kirtland, where Lundgren worked at a local Temple. Taking classes, he attracted a substantial following because of his knowledge of religious texts.
Then, in 1988, Lundgren formed his own religious group of devoted followers, including the Averys. They worshipped Lundgren, who claimed he was a prophet of God.
He and his loyal followers lived in a rented farmhouse, and, in a short space of time, they seemed to fall under his spell. So, instead of serving the Lord, they only served Lundgren.
Most of the group had regular jobs during the day, then they’d return to the farmhouse, where Lundgren would preach late into the night. They hung on his every word, and even shared their pay cheques with him.
Many believe that the power and control he had went to his head. A selfish individual, Lundgren was able to manipulate his ardent followers into doing – and believing – everything he said.
From the beginning, he promised he’d take them to see God. Then he announced they’d have to seize control of Kirtland Temple, killing anyone who stood in their way.
Months on, in May 1988, Lundgren told his followers that, after talking to ‘higher powers’, the plan had been revised.
In reality, the police had got wind of his plans and had spoken to Lundgren before beginning surveillance of the farmhouse.
But it wasn’t long before he hatched a new scheme…
It turned out Dennis Avery wasn’t sharing all his money with Lundgren, instead keeping some back for his family. Furious that his power was being undermined, Lundgren declared that Avery had fallen into sin.
He believed the Averys were threatening his hold over the other cult members, and therefore had to be sacrificed.
Using his twisted interpretation of the Scriptures and powers of persuasion, Lundgren enlisted other cult members to help with his plan to kill the family.
So, on 17 April 1989, when the unsuspecting Averys arrived for a party at the farmhouse, they were led, one by one, into the barn, while the others were distracted by cult members in the house.
Dennis was first to be led away, believing his help was needed. Instead he was bound, gagged and thrown into a pit before being shot.
It’s believed a chainsaw was used to drown out the gunshots.
Cheryl was next to be lured to the barn, under the same pretext, and she suffered the same fate.
Next to die were Trina and Rebecca, before 7-year-old Karen was led playfully to her deathon the shoulders of Ronald Luff – another cult member.
Once they’d all been slaughtered, the pit was filled with soil, rocks and rubbish.
Twisted Lundgren continued to preach that the murders were ‘God’s will’.
The following day, the cult fled, moving to a remote campsite in West Virginia.
Months passed, and nobody reported the Averys missing. It seemed Lundgren had got away with the murders.
Until, that December, a former cult member contacted the police and told them about the untimely deaths.
The farmhouse was searched, and, in the New Year, on 3 and 4 January 1990, the bodies of the slaughtered family were recovered from the pit.
Lundgren, Alice, their son Damon and 10 other cult members were arrested. In the coming months, they were all convicted and jailed for their parts in the murders.
Lundgren said God had spoken to him and ordered the killings.
During his trial, he told jurors, ‘It’s not a figment of my imagination that I can, in fact, talk to God. I am a prophet of God.’
Convicted of the murders, Jeffrey Lundgren was handed the death penalty.
And, despite numerous appeals, in October 2006, his own fate was sealed.
For a long time, Lundgren had considered himself an extremely powerful man. But neither his claimed belief in God nor the courts could spare him from execution and, just as he had ended the lives of others, his own life was terminated.