Feb 16, 2017

Anna LeBaron: How I escaped my father's murderous polygamous cult

Anna LeBaron
Brian Wheeler
BBC News, Washington DC
February 17, 2016

Anna LeBaron's father, Ervil, was the leader of a polygamous cult responsible for more than 20 murders. The killings continued even after his death thanks to a hit list he had left behind. Here Anna speaks for the first time about how she escaped from the cult - and her hope to "redeem" the LeBaron name.

"We were taught to live in awe of him as God's prophet, as the one true prophet on Earth."

There is a note of incredulity in Anna LeBaron's voice as she describes her childhood. She speaks slowly and deliberately, as though she can hardly believe it herself.

"We were taught that we were celestial children, having been born from the prophet Ervil LeBaron. And we believed it. Even though we were treated so poorly we still believed we were celestial children."

Anna says she can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times she was in the same room as her father. Yet the power Ervil LeBaron had over his followers, which included his 13 wives and more than 50 children, was absolute.

"He used fear to manipulate and control people," she says. "We were absolutely afraid of not doing what we were told. And we didn't have a voice."

Anna has found her voice now. At 48, she shows no outward sign of the traumatised childhood she vividly describes in her new memoir The Polygamist's Daughter.

Anna LeBaron was born in Mexico in what she would later learn was a cult hideout. Separated at an early age from her mother, Ervil's fourth wife Anna-Mae Marston, she grew up on the run from the law.

Shuttled from one overcrowded safe house to the next, she slept on filthy foam mattresses and scavenged for food in dustbins with the other cult children and Ervil's "sister wives".

"We were taught that we were being persecuted because we were God's chosen people and that the world outside didn't understand us," she says.

"That was how they used to explain all the moving in the middle of the night and staying ahead of the law."

The children were used as unpaid labour in the domestic appliance repair shops that were the cult's main source of income - forced to scrub grease and grime from rusty ovens and refrigerators for 12 hours a day during school holidays.

"I watched siblings of mine receive horrific beatings for any type of attitude," Anna recalls. "And these are young kids. They're kids. How much work can you really get out of a 10-year-old, or an 11-year-old, really? You can get work out of them if you are beating them."

The children were not cut-off entirely from the outside world. They were allowed to go to school, though they were not allowed to talk about what happened at home, and were "taught to lie" Anna says.

The girls were the lowest of the low in the cult's pecking order.

"It was a patriarchy, for sure. And the young girls were groomed to become wives of polygamist men that already had wives. We were groomed to accept that and to know that that's where we were headed, when we became of marriageable age."

Marriageable age, in the LeBaron family, was 15, she says. "So when I escaped at age 13 I escaped by the skin of my teeth!"

Ervil LeBaron - the 'Mormon Manson'

  • Ervil Morrell LeBaron was the founder of the Church of the Lamb of God, an offshoot of the Mormon religion
  • He had 13 wives and more than 50 children
  • To his followers, he was the One Mighty and Strong Prophet, sent to Earth to purify the Mormon faith
  • Dubbed the Mormon Manson by the media, he is thought to have ordered the murders of dozens of people
  • The Church of the Latter Day Saints expelled him in the 1950s because he practised polygamy, which it had abandoned in 1890

Anna did not know it at the time but her father - a powerful, charismatic figure, who at 6ft 4in towered over most of his disciples - was wanted by the FBI and the Mexican police for a string of murders on both sides of the border.

He rarely got involved in the violence himself. But like a vengeful Old Testament prophet he ordered his followers to kill anyone - including one of his own wives and two of his children - who challenged his position as God's representative on Earth or who threatened to leave the cult and complain to the authorities.

His followers believed he was receiving his instructions directly from God, having inherited the mantle of prophet from his father Alma Dayer LeBaron.

"When you are so convinced that someone is right, that you are willing to do anything - and even if you disagree, if you are so afraid to voice that disagreement and you just go and do it - that's the ultimate control," Anna says. "And he had that. People did what he said. To their own detriment."

But Ervil did not have a monopoly on divine revelations. Three of his brothers had, at one time or another, claimed to be God's sole representative on Earth.

Ervil had initially been a follower of his older brother Joel but the pair clashed over Ervil's money-making schemes, including a plan to transform Los Molinos, the modest Mexican settlement where the sect's 200 or so followers had set up home, into a beach resort.

Joel kicked Ervil out of his Church of the Firstborn of the Fullness of Time in 1970. So Ervil started his own sect, the Church of the Lamb of God, and set about eliminating his rivals - starting, in 1972, with Joel.

Using the long-abandoned Mormon doctrine of "blood atonement" which sanctions the killing of sinners to cleanse them of evil, Ervil could claim he was doing his ever-growing list of victims a favour by allowing them to enter Heaven.

God would reveal to Ervil the next victim and he would hand-pick a team of disciples to carry out the hit. The murder plots grew increasingly sophisticated, involving wigs and theatrical make-up, and back-up squads in case the initial plan failed. Refusing to follow Ervil's command was not an option.

"People defied it and many of them paid for that with their lives. And it wasn't until after he died that it kind of started to break up and that power was lost," says Anna.

"However, even from the grave, he was able to control people and their actions and that is just mind-blowing - that from the grave he was able to do that."

Ervil had managed to evade justice in the Mexican courts over the murder of Joel and a deadly commando-style raid on Los Molinos, where the population were stubbornly refusing to accept him as their new prophet.

He was eventually captured by Mexican police and handed over to the FBI in 1979, in circumstances that have never been fully explained. He was later jailed for life for orchestrating the murder of Rulon C Allred, the leader of a polygamous sect in Utah who had rejected Ervil's demands for money and recognition.

Ervil died in Utah State Prison in 1981, after suffering a seizure. But his reign of terror was far from over.

A bloody battle for the succession ensued, with Ervil's chief henchman, Dan Jordan, making an early play for the mantle of prophet - a terrifying prospect for Anna, who had suffered under the tyrannical regime in his Denver repair shop.

Anna was now was living in Houston with her mother, half-sister Lillian and Lillian's husband, Mark Chynoweth, who also ran an appliance store.

Lillian and Mark had been among the most fanatical of Ervil LeBaron's followers but after he was jailed they began to drift away from the cult, joining a Christian church and rejecting his polygamous creed.

When Dan Jordan arrived in Houston to order Anna and her mother to return to Denver with him, the 13-year-old Anna rebelled.

"I could not believe that my mother had been talked back into going back to Denver when we were experiencing a life in Houston that was the most normal I had ever experienced.," she says. "We had lived in the same house for about a year - the longest I had ever lived anywhere - and we were eating food that was purchased in grocery stores. And we were paid to work. We could save up money."

She realised that this might be the best chance she would get to take control of her life.

"It was now or never. And the feelings that I had inside, that bitterness and the injustices that we had experienced, left me with a very strong feeling about not wanting to go back."

She could not have escaped without the help of Lillian, who hid her away in a motel room until her mother had returned to Denver with Jordan.

Anna describes Lillian and Mark as the "heroes" of her story, for taking her in and giving her a chance to change the trajectory of her life.

But their life together would not last. What they didn't know was that in prison Ervil had drawn up a hit list of 50 people he regarded as traitors, buried away in a final, rambling theological tract - The Book of the New Covenants - and that Mark's name was on it.

After Dan Jordan was murdered in an apparent "blood atonement", Mark revealed that he and Jordan had been among a group of followers who had refused to carry out Ervil's orders to bust him out of prison "guns blazing" and so there was a good chance he would be targeted next.

The 38-year-old refused to go into hiding. He opted instead to turn his suburban home into a fortress, but it wasn't enough.

At 4pm on 27 June 1988, he was shot numerous times as he sat in his office chair at Reliance Appliances.

At almost exactly the same time, Mark's brother Duane, owner of another Houston repair shop, was shot dead, along with his eight-year-old daughter Jennifer.

And 200 miles away in Irving, Texas, another of Ervil's former disciples, Eddie Marston - Anna's half-brother - was gunned down next to his pick-up truck within five minutes of the first three killings.

The Four O'Clock murders, as they became known, shocked America. Someone - most likely one of Ervil LeBaron's sons - was working their way through his hit list. The murders took place on the 144th anniversary of the death of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon church.

Anna did her best to comfort Lillian and her six children, while dealing with her own fears.

"I don't think I was a personal target, however, I knew that if something happened, and I happened to be in the way, that I could also be killed. So it was a very frightening time. We were under police protection and it was just scary."

Mark Chynoweth had been the closest thing to a father figure in Anna's life, and she is close to tears as she talks about his death. As a teenager, she read about cult atrocities he had taken part in but insists that was not the man she knew.

"Mark was a kind man. He was generous. And I don't believe for one minute that had he grown up in a normal family setting that he would have done any of the things that he was accused of, on his own.

"He was kind and loving. He was a good father to his children and losing him was very difficult, under the circumstances that we lost him."

In 1997, Anna's half-brother Aaron LeBaron, who had emerged from the succession battles as the One Mighty and Strong prophet, was sentenced to 45 years in prison for orchestrating the Four O'Clock murders. Four other cult members were also jailed for their part in the killings.

By this point, Anna had made a decisive break from what remained of the cult, finding the strength to go away to college and attempt to build an independent life.

She married David, her childhood sweetheart from Houston, who had joined the Marine Corps, and they started a family.

She was determined to break free from polygamy, which she believes leads to women to "numb" their emotions.

"I don't believe it's a natural relationship," she says. "Most women will struggle, having to share their husband or their significant other."

It is not a view shared by her mother, with whom she remains in contact, and who stayed loyal to Ervil to the bitter end.

"My Mom still believes in the practice of polygamy as taught by [Mormon founder] Joseph Smith and still lives in a group that practises that, so that is a little bit difficult to process - how that can be something she sticks with even after all the devastation and the damage that it caused to her own children."

Anna battled depression after the death of Lillian Chynoweth, who committed suicide following her husband's murder in 1998.

At first she coped with the trauma of losing so many loved ones by pretending it had happened to someone else. It would take years of painful therapy for her to finally "acknowledge that these experiences are part of my past".

She now believes her father suffered from some form of mental illness for most of his adult life.

"It is sad to me that he was experiencing these things and not able to reach out and get the help he needed. But, of course, when you are the prophet, how much help do you actually think you'll need?"

Ervil's madness, if that's what it was, cast a long shadow over Anna and her siblings.

The book was only closed on the Four O'Clock Murders in 2011, when after 20 years on the run Jacqueline Tarsa LeBaron became the sixth former cult member to be jailed for taking part in the plot.

But Anna is convinced that the blood-letting is now, finally, at an end.

"I have five grown children and if me telling my story was to put me in any danger, or anybody that I loved and cared about, I would never have done this at all. I believe that is 100% in the past and there is no danger at all for me."

She hopes that by telling her story, in The Polygamist's Daughter, she can "help restore relationships in our family, instead of continuing to bring more separation and more fear".

In one passage, she describes a reunion with her half-brother Richard, who shot dead Duane Chynoweth and his eight-year-old daughter. Richard, who was just 17 at the time of the killings, received a reduced sentence for testifying against other family members.

"As I embraced my long-lost brother," she writes, "the emotion I had held inside for years came out in floods of tears."

And despite everything, Anna says she is "very proud" of her family.

"Even people that were involved in some of the most horrific things that happened have gone on to become caring, kind, loving, productive members of society, that just want good in the world," she says.

She hopes that the book's publication will help to "redeem the LeBaron name," which remains one of the most infamous in American criminal history.

But it is also an attempt to reassert her own identity, for so long suppressed by the cult and her father's malevolent legacy.

"Even though that life could have crushed who I am, in my spirit, in my soul, that has not been the last story," she says.

"So I kind of get to have the final word here, in saying, 'This is who I am.'"

The Polygamist's Daughter, by Anna Le Baron with Leslie Wilson, is published on 21 March


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