Convicted killer seeks parole after 35 years; victim's brother calls his testimony 'nauseating'

A man convicted in the brutal killing of a southern Utah college student 35 years ago says he's changed. But the victim's brother says his testimony simply makes him want to throw up.

A man convicted in the brutal killing of a southern Utah college student 35 years ago says he's changed. But the victim's brother says his testimony simply makes him want to throw up. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY — One of the men convicted in the brutal torture killing of a southern Utah college student 35 years ago — who at one point was ordered to serve the rest of his life in prison while his co-defendant is currently on death row — was granted a parole hearing on Tuesday.

On Nov. 22, 1988, Lance Conway Wood, now 56, and Michael Anthony Archuleta, 61, tortured, sexually assaulted and killed 28-year-old Gordon Ray Church and dumped his body in a shallow grave near Kanosh, Millard County, in an area known as Dog Valley.

Both men were convicted of capital murder. But while Archuleta was given a death sentence, a jury could not reach a unanimous decision about Wood's fate, thus sparing him the death penalty. He instead was sentenced to life in prison. In 1990, the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole ordered Wood to serve the rest of his natural life in prison.

That decision was upheld during a rehearing in 1995. In the years that followed, Wood has made several requests for a redetermination hearing. In 2021, the board agreed to take his request under advisement. At that time, due to "Mr. Wood's positive institutional behavior, programming and rehabilitation efforts, consideration of Mr. Wood's age at time of offense, and consideration of current sentencing guidelines," he was granted a parole hearing, according to the board's website.

That hearing was held on Tuesday.

Wood was transferred to a correctional facility in Idaho after his conviction and then to a correctional facility in Oregon in 2013 where he remains today. He appeared by video from Oregon for Tuesday's hearing in Salt Lake City.

During his hearing, Wood described his troubled childhood, how he believes being adopted made him "act out" and how he made selfish choices back then.

"I was a horrible person, for my parents anyway. I put them through a lot," he said Tuesday.

Board of Pardons Vice Chairwoman Melissa Striba noted that Wood's crime was "shockingly violent." While Wood agreed that the "violent nature of the crime is unspeakable," he said his fault was not preventing it from happening.

"There is no excuse for it. … A life was lost," he said, while later adding, "I did not want Church to die."

Wood called his parole officer the next day after the murder saying that he had witnessed Archuleta murder Church. He later led investigators to the crime scene.

During much of his hearing, Wood talked about his accomplishments while incarcerated, how he has actually helped officers while in prison and is currently involved in prison reform to make the system better for everyone — staffers and inmates included.

"There are no excuses. If I was even the fraction of the person I am today, that wouldn't have happened. I can't take that back," he said of his crime. "I'm a different person than who I was."

'A con man and a liar'

But when it was time for Church's brother, Kevin Church, to address the board, it was clear he had heard enough from Wood.

"It's nauseating to listen to this," he said. "He's a con man and a liar. You have never ever accepted responsibility for what you've done."

Church said he's angered that Wood has always referred to himself as simply the accomplice and that he is now bragging about helping corrections officers.

"You changed my family forever and you have never ever said you participated. You're always the accomplice," he said. "You're a tattletale and you're a snitch, that's what you do. … Where were you when my brother was pleading for help?

"To be let out of prison because you're a good-doer now, that would be horrible," Church continued. "You're more evil in my eyes than Archuleta ever will be in my eyes, because he admits what he did. … To sit here and talk about how wonderful you are makes me want to throw up, because you're not. You never were."

Church referenced the 2020 documentary film "Dog Valley" which was made to raise awareness about hate crimes and help the LGBTQ community. Wood agreed to be interviewed for the film, but Archuleta did not. Kevin Church says he was angered by Wood's joking and seemingly flippant attitude in the movie.

At the end of the hearing, Stirba explained that the full five-member board will now vote whether to grant parole, but it will take some time to reach a decision.

"This is a tough case. I know everyone is very anxious for an answer," she said.

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Pat Reavy is a longtime police and courts reporter. He joined the team in 2021, after many years of reporting at the Deseret News and KSL NewsRadio before that.


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