'Under the Banner of Heaven' series spotlights horrific Lafferty crimes

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SALT LAKE CITY — A new TV series about the horrific murders of Brenda Lafferty and her baby in American Fork in 1984 got a lot of attention leading up to its release on FX and Hulu on Thursday.

The series is inspired by Jon Krakauer's book "Under the Banner of Heaven," which dives into Ron and Dan Lafferty's claim that they were commanded by God to kill their sister-in-law and her 15-month-old baby.

The book was controversial when it was published in 2003 because it argues "the roots of (Ron and Dan's) crime lie deep in the history" of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Ron and Dan grew up in the church but were excommunicated before 1984. For a time, they were a part of a separate splinter group.

Since the horrific crime nearly 38 years ago, the story of Brenda and Erica Lafferty's murders has resurfaced again and again.

"I'd always kind of crossed my fingers that it would just go away so that we could finally let Brenda and Erica rest," said Brenda's sister, Sharon Wright Weeks.

Weeks has always known the story of their deaths was intriguing and interesting to many. She attributes much of the attention to the fact that Ron Lafferty was sentenced to death. She says that is what initially grabbed Krakauer's attention.

She spoke to him at length for his book. And then learned in 2011 that he had sold the rights of the story. That's when she met writer Dustin Lance Black.

Weeks opposed Hollywood telling the story but remembers saying to a family member, "If it's going to go forward, I would rather be involved and make sure that the story is told correctly than not be involved."

Weeks says Black interviewed her in 2011 for what was at the time going to be a movie. She says, "Black promised me he would not write Brenda until he knew her."

She says she hasn't heard from him since and hoped the idea of a movie went away. Then in 2021, she learned along with everyone else about a limited TV series in the works. Finding out through the media, she said, was "extremely painful to me personally."

"My concern is, I think a lot of people will see ("Under the Banner of Heaven") and see it as actual history when it has the contours of history but there's a lot of departures from actual history," said Barbara Jones Brown, who watched the first two episodes of the show during a screening Monday.

Brown is the director of Signature Books and the former executive director of the Mormon History Association. She's also an expert who has helped publish books on the Mountain Meadows Massacre — which Krakauer discusses at length in his book in an attempt to prove his theory.

Brown says the series, "is a fictionalized story in that the main character played by Andrew Garfield is not a true character."

Brown says Garfield's character attempts to represent the mainstream Latter-Day Saint church member of the day. But Brown — who was a high school senior in Provo in 1984 — says even his character was extremist.

"I didn't recognize anything about myself, my family or my culture depicted in the miniseries," she said.

Brown says she believes the conversation about extremism in things like religion and politics is an important discussion to have.

"Violence and extremism can come from anything that people believe in," she said. "I hope that people won't get so bogged down in historical inaccuracies that they avoid the main issue and the main question, which is Black is trying to ask which is, what leads people to extremism?"

Weeks says she spoke to the actual lead detective about the series this week. He told her Black never reached out to him about the case.

"If you don't interview people who were actually there and took charge of the case, I don't know how real it could be," Weeks said.

Weeks says she is not sure she's ready to watch Hollywood's spin on her sister and niece's murders. But she plans to eventually watch the series to fact-check how they portray her Brenda.

"I'll have to wait and see the words that he's put in her mouth to see if I have any objection," she said.

Weeks plans to continue her efforts to get rid of the death penalty. But she says she hopes this series "will be it" and that Brenda and Erica's deaths will finally be put to rest in the media.

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