In 1984, Jeff Lundgren and his family made a pilgrimage to the small farming community of Kirtland, Ohio. It was by no accident that Lundgren had chosen the largely unknown town of Kirtland. For many Mormons, Kirtland is a sacred place. It is where their prophet Joseph Smith originally found the golden tablets that make up the foundation of their beliefs and it’s where the first church had been established.
Like many others who subscribe to the Mormon faith, Lundgren had been “called” to Kirkland. A calling that locals and the Reorganized Church of Latter Day Saints, alike, wish that they could scrub from their history forever.
Lundgren found work with the RLDS church in Kirtland, giving tours of the historic Morman sites within the city and working as a lay minister, where he’d preach his brand of Mormonism known as “chiastic interpretation.”
Lundgren’s behavior became more bizarre as the years went on, suggesting to some of the church’s congregation that he was a prophet foretold by Joseph Smith to appear before the second coming of Christ. He was also suspected of embezzling anywhere from $25,000 to $40,000 in church funds. The RLDS dismissed Lundgren and his family from the church, but some of his followers decided to continue listening to his teachings.
Since the Lundgren family had been living in a church-owned home near the temple, they were forced to pack up and move out. Settling on a farmhouse on Euclid-Chardon Road, Lundgren and his 20 followers lived together on the property.
Free from the church to teach the Bible “as he saw it,” Lundgren forbade members from speaking with one another and kept a tight grip on the activities of his followers. He forced his members to undergo military drills using his stockpile of weapons and to live in nearly complete isolation from each other and the outside world.
The FBI was notified about Lundgren and his church when a member came forward with information that Lundgren had been running a cult and planning to overthrow the existing RLDS temple by force. Lundgren was questioned about the planned temple takeover, scheduled to coincide with his 38th birthday. Nothing more came of the investigation, but local police and investigators continued to keep a close watch on Lundgren and his followers.
After Lundgren learned of the investigation he became increasingly more paranoid. World disasters would be credited to individual group members for their “sins” and animals on the farm that died under unknown circumstances were said to be the cause of apostates within the group. As Lundgren’s grip over the minds of his followers grew stronger, it was only a matter of time before something bad was bound to happen.
Living with Lundgren were five members of the Avery family. Lundgren had convinced the family to hand him over their life savings and one of their vehicles. With nothing left to provide for Lundgren, the family was deemed to be apostates and their blood atonement was necessary to bring about the second coming of Christ.
Several of Lundgren’s followers dug a pit in the barn, while others kept the family distracted within the house. That night, family members were lined up from oldest to youngest and taken to the barn where they were duct taped at their wrist and ankles, blindfolded, shot, and thrown into the pit. The youngest member of the family, 7-year-old Trina Avery, was given a piggyback ride to her grave.
Prior to their murders, Lundgren had forced Cheryl Avery to write to her extended family and tell them that the family was relocating to Wyoming, effectively ensuring that no one would come looking for her nor the rest of the Averys.
Still under the watchful eye of local police, investigators returned to the farm the day after the murders in order to question Lundgren and his followers further after hearing reports of gunfire coming from the property. Lundgren denied any plans to militantly takeover the existing RLDS temple or any knowledge of the gunshots heard the night prior. Lundgren’s followers insisted that they decided to live on the farm on their own free will and there was no basis for any of the allegations against Lundgren.
In a panic, Lundgren forced everyone to pack up that night and went on the run. As time went on some of Lundgren’s followers splintered from the group. In 1989, a year after the gruesome murder of the Avery family, one of the group’s members decided to come forward.
The member was able to provide investigators with full details of the crime, as well as a hand drawn map indicating where the Averys had been buried. Three days later, after obtaining a search warrant, the Avery family was pulled from their mass grave.
It took less than a year for Lundgren and his accomplices in the murders to be apprehended by police and found guilty of all charges. Lundgren was sentenced to death, but appealed on grounds that a prophet should not be held accountable for their crimes. When that angle didn’t work, Lundgren claimed he was too overweight to execute. The Circuit Court of Appeals would hear none of it, and went ahead with Lundgren’s execution in 2006.