Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Killing for God

Mormon Mafia

The four LeBaron brothers (Ervil, Joel, Verlan and Floren) with Alma LeBaron
The four LeBaron brothers (Ervil, Joel, Verlan and Floren) with Alma LeBaron

The LeBaron brothers' split also divided the colony. Families chose sides, arguing whether Joel or Ervil was the "true prophet."

Ervil started another church in San Diego, the Church of the Lamb of God. He began to issue angry proclamations against his brother, according to Bradlee and Van Atta. Joel's disregard for his authority was an "act of treason against heaven that carries the penalty of death in this world," Ervil declared.

Joel LeBaron
Joel LeBaron

Joel was slain on a parched August day in Ensenada, a slow-moving beach town in Baja California. Joel and his 14-year-old son Ivan had gone to the house of a Church of the Lamb disciple to pick up a car, and while Ivan waited outside the residence, Ervil's thugs jumped his father inside. Ivan heard someone yell "Kill him!" and gunshots, Anderson writes. The hit men sped off in a station wagon and the boy ran inside to find his father lying face-up on the floor, blood pooling around his shoulders and two bullet holes in his head.

After murdering his brother, Ervil thought that the Firstborners would flock to him like so many sheep. Instead, they filed murder charges against him and chose a new leader - the youngest LeBaron brother, Verlan.

After Joel's funeral - attended by his seven widows and 44 children - Verlan reluctantly took up the reins of the church. Like Joel, Verlan had a quiet demeanor. He preferred to tool around his farm or spend time with his nine wives and 50-plus children than deliver pulpit-pounding sermons.

Certain that he was next on Ervil's hit list, Verlan kept a low profile, traveling constantly, frequently changing cars and residences, and otherwise keeping his whereabouts in question.

In December, Ervil walked into the police headquarters in Ensenada flanked by two lawyers and demanded that the murder charges against him be dropped. He was tired of dodging cops and needed to travel freely to win more converts to his church. But the police were flabbergasted at the sudden appearance of the murder suspect they'd trailed for months and immediately threw him in prison.

When Ervil finally went to trial nine months later, he was found guilty of homicide but only sentenced to 12 years in prison because the prosecution couldn't place Ervil at the crime scene, Anderson writes.

He only served one day of his sentence. Like Lazarus stumbling from his tomb, Ervil walked out of the dank Mexican cellblock on February 14, 1974. A Mexican supreme court had overturned the verdict because Ervil's co-defendants - the church thugs who actually killed Joel - were not present for the trial.

After getting away with murder, Ervil met with a core group of his followers in Yuma, Arizona, according to Anderson. They began to call their leader by a number of honorary titles, including Lord Anointed, One Might and Strong, and Prophet of God. Ervil grew paranoid that the Firstborners would strike back against him, and started carrying a gun and requiring his wives and children to take marksmanship classes from a loyalist who'd served in Vietnam.

Verlan LeBaron
Verlan LeBaron

As Ervil paced back and forth in front of them, telling them they could all be slaughtered at any moment, the group started to act more like a Mormon mafia than a church. They took aliases and had driver's licenses and birth certificates drawn up in their new names. They only made calls from pay phones that couldn't be traced to their location.

Meanwhile, Verlan, also fearing fratricide, was hiding out in Nicaragua. The paranoid cat-and-mouse game between the two brothers who'd chummed around the Mexican countryside together as boys would drag out for years.

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