Bad Religion: The Kirtland Cult Murders

BadReligion-ebook600One of the early catalysts for Bad Religion came from a horrific event in 1989. East of Cleveland is a quiet little town called Kirtland. This small village has changed little since the 1800’s. It looks like a New England town straight out of Nathaniel Hawthorne or Stephen King. Kirtland is famous for being an early headquarters of the Mormons, where the original temple still stands. It also is the home of the Reorganized Church of Latter Day Saints (also called the RLDS for short). The town is heavily wooded and sits in sharp contrast to nearby Mentor, one of Cleveland’s largest suburbs and home to a nuclear power plant. One hardly knows they are in Ohio’s largest metropolitan areas when passing through Kirtland. Once upon a time, it was a stop along the drive to Geauga Lake Amusement Park and the former Sea World Ohio.

What happened in 1989, though, shocked this city of less than 7,000 people and rattled the RLDS itself. A former member of the church, Jeffrey Lundgren, broke away and formed a cult. Lundgren began preaching some bizarre doomsday predictions. The RLDS ousted him. On the day of his excommunication, a severe thunderstorm hit Lake Country (where Kirtland sits). Lundgren, in his delusional state, took this as a sign from God and moved his followers into a nearby farmhouse.

Lundgren and his family unsettled their neighbors. Police responded to complaints of gunfire, and Lundgren’s son warned neighbor children that, on May 15 of 1988, the ground would open up, allowing demons to emerge. Lundgren exerted tight control over his followers, forbidding them to talk amongst themselves, calling it the sin of “murmuring.” He would eavesdrop on their conversations to build the illusion that he could read their minds.

As authorities began asking some uncomfortable questions, Lundgren told his followers that God required a sacrifice. He selected the Avery family. The Averys were the only five followers who did not live at the farmhouse. In April of 1989, Lundgren lured them to the barn on the property he rented, where he and several followers shot them and buried them beneath the dirt floor. The cult then fled to an isolated mountain town in West Virginia. Lundgren became disillusioned with the cult of his own making and abandoned his followers, moving his family to California.

However, in 1990, police received a tip that bodies had been buried in the barn. They dug up the barn floor. Lake County deputies were sickened by the discovery of the shallow graves. Thirteen of the cult members, including Lundgren and his family, were hunted down and arrested. Lundgren himself received the death penalty and was executed in 2006.

The original idea for Bad Religion, before I switched to the televangelism angle, was based on the cult. Since I did not want to drop a literary bomb on Kirtland or run salt in the wounds of the survivors, I created the fictional town of Chamberlain, named for a Civil War hero from Maine. Still, the murders refused to stay out of the story, so they were grafted into the backstory of Chamberlain police chief Katherine Conway (named for a Cincinnati cop who took a bullet at point-blank range in her own cruiser and survived.) Without making the killings a focal point, it gave Conway a reason for being nervous about a bunch of private detectives shadowing one of the churches in her town.

The other part that made me shy away from cult angle was the ease with which Lundgren built a following and his ability to convince a dozen seemingly normal people to kill an entire family. I did not want to glorify that. Instead, I reduced it to background and let Conway talk about it in lines based closely on those of the first responders and deputy sheriffs at the original scene. Let him be the monster he originally was.

Next week, we’ll look at something a little more cheery: Calvin Leach’s spiritual ancestor, Robert Tilton.

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