Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Killing for God


In the mid 60s, Ervil began to lust after power. He and the reserved Joel had come to loggerheads over Ervil's antics many times over the years, including Ervil's appropriation of other men's wives, Anderson writes.

Joel LeBaron as young man
Joel LeBaron as young man

The physical location of the brothers' power play was a beachfront settlement in Baja California called Los Molinos, which Joel founded in 1964. The property consisted of 8,500 acres, including nine miles fronting the beach. Several dozen Mexican and American Firstborners lived on the property, where they constructed adobe huts, planted wheat fields, and raised goats.

Joel and Ervil had clashing visions on how to use the land, according to Bradlee and Van Atta. While Joel envisioned it as an agricultural paradise where poor Mormons could work on a communal farm, Ervil saw its potential as a tourist paradise.

Despite Joel's opposition, Ervil wooed investors with his millionaire's dream, meeting with moneymen in the States and flying them down to tour the oceanfront, pointing out where the resorts and yacht club would go.

Ervil LeBaron's home in Colonia
Ervil LeBaron's home in Colonia

The church had been broke for years because Ervil had brought in truckloads of Mexican converts at a faster rate than the colony could feed and clothe them. He tried a number of get-rich-quick schemes to support the LeBaron ministry over the years, including a gambling trip to Las Vegas, a fish-selling business, and harvesting pine nuts from national forests in California.

Once, when a potential deal was going sour in Utah, Ervil told a man he'd throw in a couple of nubile women from his flock if he'd "join his ball team," according to Bradlee and Van Atta. The offer deeply offended the man, a mainstream Mormon and family man, who walked away from the negotiations.

But while the money schemes failed one by one and cult members were forced to wear rags and eat meals of porridge, Ervil, who was skimming funds from church coffers, was zipping around the colony's dirt roads in a gold Impala and wearing flashy suits. Cult members who held outside jobs were required to tithe 10% of their wages to the ministry, and Ervil was the one who collected these payments.

When Firstborners questioned him about the car - which they'd dubbed the "Golden Calf"- he said God told him to buy it because it would impress potential converts.

After a while, Ervil's quest for power took a dark turn. When he wasn't chasing skirts or spending the flock's money on new shoes, he was nose-deep in the Old Testament, and he'd come to believe that he had the right - like the prophets of old - to strike down people who disobeyed him.

In Moses' time, breaking the 10 Commandments was punishable by death, and Ervil reasoned that the same rules should apply in the LeBarons' dusty Baja California fiefdom as well. He came up with a series of decrees based on the 10 Commandments, which he called Civil Law, and appointed himself the law's chief enforcer. He decreed that people would die for breaking Civil Law.

His congregation noticed the cold gleam in Ervil's eye as he detailed the ancient death rituals he would apply to transgressors - disembowelment, stoning, and beheading - and shrank bank in their pews. They were getting their first glimpses of Ervil's derangement. It would only get worse.

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