The True Story Behind Hulu’s Under the Banner of Heaven

7 minute read

Hulu’s new limited series Under the Banner of Heaven, streaming April 28, is an adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s 2003 true-crime bestseller of the same name about the gruesome killings of Brenda Wright Lafferty (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and her baby daughter, which shocked a quiet Mormon town in the 1980s. The show, like the book, delves into the founding of the Church of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) by Joseph Smith in 1830, looking to make sense of the double murder. It soon becomes clear that the rise of fundamentalism in Mormonism, which Krakauer called “the quintessential American religion,” is more dangerous than anyone imagined.

Under the Banner of Heaven was created by Dustin Lance Black (Milk), who was brought up in the Mormon church. Over the course of seven episodes, he wanted to explore “just how patriarchal the church had been, and in many ways still was,” he told Vanity Fair before the show’s premiere. “And how such an absolute patriarchal structure threatens the safety of many women.” Specifically, in those fundamentalist sects that continue to embrace polygamy, the custom of having more than one wife or husband at the same time, despite it being outlawed by the LDS Church in 1890.

Black sticks close to the facts of the case, but he created Andrew Garfield’s character, Detective Jeb Pyre—a devout Mormon who has resisted asking tough questions about his religion—specifically for the series. With help from his Native American, non-Mormon partner Bill Taba (Gil Birmingham), Jeb realizes that there is something sinister happening in his town—and it may just test his own faith.

Below, read more about the tragedy at the heart of Under the Banner of Heaven.

Who is Brenda Wright Lafferty?

Brenda Wright Lafferty was a former beauty queen who grew up in a devout, but rather liberal Mormon family in Idaho. “She was quite a scrapbooker,” her father, Jim Wright, told Salt Lake City’s KUTV in 2019. She was also a talented singer and actress who majored in broadcast journalism at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. In the early 1980s, Lafferty married Allen Lafferty, the youngest son of a prominent Utah Mormon family known for their strong values. (Though, others described patriarch Watson Lafferty as a strict disciplinarian who once, after a fight with his wife, beat the family dog to death with a baseball bat.) Those who knew Brenda described her as a fun person, full of energy and confidence. She was dedicated to her husband and her infant daughter, Erica, as well as the church. But, Brenda wasn’t afraid to openly disagree with Allen’s older brothers’ fundamentalist views, which she felt went against the Mormon teachings.

What happened to Brenda Wright Lafferty?

On the night of July 24, 1984, 24-year-old Brenda Wright Lafferty was found dead by her husband on the floor of their suburban Utah home. Her throat had been slashed after having been choked by the cord of a vacuum, according to a 2004 report from the Deseret News, a subsidiary of the Deseret Management Corporation, which is owned by the LDS Church. The couple’s 15-month-old daughter had also been brutally killed in the attack, which took place on Pioneer Day, a holiday commemorating the arrival of Latter-day Saint pioneers in Salt Lake City, Utah.

The slayings had been committed by Allen Lafferty’s older brothers, Ron and Dan Lafferty, who engaged in a more extreme, but small sect of Mormonism called School of the Prophets. The two joined the group after they were both excommunicated from the LDS Church for their fundamentalist views, which included their embrace of polygamy. (The School of the Prophets has been referred to as a “polygamist cult” by the Associated Press.)

Following their excommunication, Dan and Ron became more fanatical in their beliefs, convincing their brothers that they were the true leaders of the Mormon church and could speak directly with God. They encouraged their brothers to let their beards and hair grow long so they could look more like the Biblical prophets. Brenda reportedly stopped Allen from joining the School of the Prophets, which Dan and Ron allegedly believed was her attempt to split up the family.

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Why did Ron and Dan Lafferty kill Brenda Wright Lafferty?

Ron Lafferty claimed that he had received a divine revelation from God to kill Brenda Wright Lafferty and her infant daughter. He believed Brenda was the reason his wife, Diana Lafferty, left him after he suggested he take a second wife. After Diana left him, he reportedly descended into madness, spending his time writing what he believed would one day become scripture. In March 1984, Ron wrote what is now known as “the removal revelation,” in which he stated that Brenda and her baby, who he believed would grow up to be just like her mother, had become “obstacles in my path” and they had to be “removed in rapid succession.” He later shared the note with members of the School of the Prophets, who were alarmed by what they read and forced the brothers to leave the group. Four months later, the pair killed their sister-in-law and niece.

It was later revealed that Ron and Dan planned to kill two other people that night: Chloe Low, a church leader who counseled Diana during her divorce from Ron, and Richard Stowe, the Highland LDS Stake president who had presided over Ron’s excommunication. After discovering that Low wasn’t home, the men headed to Stowe’s house, but after getting lost on their way there, they decided to keep driving. Weeks later, Ron and Dan were arrested in a casino buffet line in Reno, Nevada.

What happened to Ron and Dan Lafferty?

The brothers were initially set to go on trial together for the murders of Brenda Wright Lafferty and her daughter, Erica. But, in December 1984, Ron Lafferty attempted to kill his brother and hang himself in jail. The following year, both men went to trial separately and each were convicted. Ron was sentenced to death in 1985 for killing Brenda and devising the murder plot. His conviction was later overturned on appeal, but, in 1996, he was again convicted and sentenced to death. He chose to be executed by firing squad, but died of natural causes in 2019 at the age of 78 while awaiting an appeal of his pending execution. He was one of the longest-serving condemned inmates in the country, having sat on death row for 34 years.

After learning of Ron’s passing Brenda’s older sister Sharon Wright Weeks told the Deseret News, “It’s over. I just feel a huge amount of relief.” However, she did express sympathy for the Lafferty family. “I don’t forget for one minute that they lost a family member today,” she said. “It’s hard for them, too. It’s hard for everybody.”

Dan, who acted as his own lawyer during his January 1985 trial, was sentenced to two life sentences to be served concurrently without the possibility of parole. During the trial it was revealed that Ron had killed Brenda while Dan murdered Erica. But in a 2004 interview, Dan continued to take credit for killing the mother and daughter without remorse. He told Deseret News that he committed the crime “the way they did it in the scriptures” and the violent acts “never haunted me, it’s never bothered me. I don’t blame anyone for not understanding it,” he said. “But if you had done it, it wouldn’t haunt you either. It was a strange phenomenon.”

In that same interview, Dan, who is currently serving his life sentence in a Utah state prison, revealed that he’s never apologized to his brother for taking the lives of his wife and daughter. “Allen once asked my mom why I wouldn’t repent,” he said. “There’s some things you can’t repent for. I’m sure Allen thought I was talking about an unpardonable sin. What I meant is, you don’t repent for things that aren’t wrong.

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