Escape from madness: Walking away from a cult of killers

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Escape from madness: Walking away from a cult of killers

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DALLAS — The daughter of a polygamy cult leader — whose orders led to about three dozen murders in the 1970s and 1980s — has emerged from the shadows decades later to tell her story.

Those killings — including at least three in Utah — were the secretive backdrop to Anna LeBaron's early life.

"We were raised in an atmosphere of fear, chaos and insecurity," she said recently while standing in the driveway of a Dallas home. She lived in the home — briefly, at age 7 — with many children and adult followers of her father, Ervil LeBaron.

"The authorities were after them, and so we moved constantly in an attempt to stay ahead of the law," she said of those days in the mid-1970s when Ervil LeBaron and his followers waged a violent campaign against rivals and turncoats.

Anna LeBaron is now telling her personal story in a new book, "The Polygamist's Daughter." It's a story of abuse, child slavery and fear. But it's also a hopeful tale of a teenager's escape from her father's murderous grip and Anna LeBaron's long struggle to heal her own psychological wounds.

House of fear

The children in Ervil LeBaron's Church of the First Born of the Lamb of God were rarely allowed outside, according to Anna LeBaron. The grown-ups lived in constant fear.

"Even though we didn't know why they were afraid, we could feel it," she said. "We could sense it, and it affected us."

Her family tree is complex, to say the least.

"My dad had 50 children, plus, depending on who you ask and who's counting," she said, seated in her own living room in the Dallas suburbs with dozens of family photos spread out on a coffee table. Her mother, Anna Mae Marston, was one of at least 13 wives joined in "spiritual" marriage to the cult leader. Ervil LeBaron was a father figure for Anna, even though he was absent nearly all the time.

"I can count on one hand the times that I was actually in the same room with him," she said, recalling her first 13 years of life in Mexico, Texas and Colorado.

While LeBaron was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, her father ordered a series of killings that left a trail of bullet holes, bodies and blood across two countries and several states, from Mexico to Utah. Ervil LeBaron was convicted of murder in Utah and died of natural causes in the Utah State Prison in 1981.

But from his prison cell, he ordered killings that continued years after his death.

Retired investigator Dick Forbes tracked LeBaron's crimes for many years for the Salt Lake County Attorney's Office. He has long been considered the leading law enforcement expert on the cult. Years ago he calculated a seemingly definitive number: 28 homicides ordered by Ervil LeBaron, some committed before and some after his death.

"Twenty-eight murders," Forbes said in a recent interview, in which "I know who died, and who did it." But he said other law enforcement agencies recently showed him new information that indicates there were "two to 10 additional murders."

That would make the overall body count at least 30 and possibly as high as 38.

At least two suicides are also attributed to fallout from murders ordered by Ervil LeBaron.

"I was not aware that people had died until I was in my mid-teens," Anna LeBaron said, because the children were kept in the dark by older members of the cult.

She believes those older members lived in constant fear of their own leader.

'Hot lead, cold steel'

Ervil LeBaron did order a few murders outside the cult. In Utah in 1977, two of his wives assassinated rival cult leader Dr. Rulon Allred, gunning him down in front of his patients.

But mainly his killers went after members of LeBaron's own cult. If LeBaron suspected disloyalty, his followers and former followers got what the leader famously called "hot lead, cold steel, and a one-way ticket to hell."

Several of Anna LeBaron's closest relatives plotted murders for her father, including her brother Eddie Marston. Investigators believe Marston was involved in the Utah murder of Robert Simons, who was shot and buried near Wellington, Carbon County, in the mid-1970s.

Marston himself was killed in the 1980s when a second round of murders targeted former cult members.

"He was kind and caring, and I had good memories of him," Anna LeBaron said of her brother. She believes those who killed for her father were good people, victimized by her father's madness.

"Brainwashing," she said. "You think you're doing the right thing and you believe you're doing the right thing. And so you do the things that you're told to do."

In her growing up years, she said the younger kids learned basic scripture. They were even taught the commandments, all 10 of them.

"Thou shalt not kill. Hah!" she said, emphasizing the irony. "That's surprising. But the killing was justified, based on the doctrine of blood atonement. If you had turned your back on the truth, you were blood-atoned because, they were taught, there are some sins that the blood of Christ can't cover.

"I was able to escape before those things became entrenched in my mind."

'Walk away'

In 1982, Anna LeBaron and her immediate family were living in Houston with her mother who was still fervently loyal to Ervil LeBaron. Anna LeBaron was 13 and was just beginning to taste life in the real world outside the cult. She'd grown close to her older sister Lillian and Lillian's husband, Mark Chynoweth. They were quietly drifting away from the cult, losing faith in the teachings of Ervil LeBaron.

A major stress point triggered Anna's decision to escape.

It had started with a good thing; her father was sent to prison in Utah. "My father being put in prison is the best thing that could have happened to any of us," she said.

But when LeBaron died in prison, right-hand-man Dan Jordan moved to consolidate his own authority over the group. Jordan ordered Anna LeBaron's mother to bring her kids from Houston to his home and appliance store business in the Denver area.

Anna LeBaron had previously lived and worked under Jordan and considered him a mean and domineering slave driver. She consulted with her sister Lillian, who advised her to just "walk away."

Anna did just that; she walked away from her mother. Lillian hid Anna in a Houston motel for three nights until her mother left for Denver. At age 13, Anna had walked away from everything she knew.

"When I escaped, I went to go live with my sister," she said of her new life with Lillian and Mark Chynoweth. "They enrolled me in a Christian school. I didn't feel I was rejecting my family as much as I was reaching for something else."

"It definitely took courage, it was such a frightening time," she recalled. "I thought that somebody would follow me and forcibly take me back."

Those fears were not groundless. Even after Ervil LeBaron's 1981 death, he reached out from beyond the grave. His most shocking crime was yet to come, striking at the heart of Anna LeBaron's new life as terrible tragedy caught up with her new family.

Killers become victims

Mark Chynoweth had allegedly plotted murders for Ervil LeBaron in the 1970s. Investigators believe he and Eddie Marston ambushed, killed and buried a Utah man, Robert Simons. Marston allegedly fired the fatal shot with Chynoweth standing nearby. In 1982, though, Chynoweth and his wife Lillian were pulling away from the cult, trying to make new lives.

"He was a loving, caring, compassionate, gentle man," Anna LeBaron said.

Ervil LeBaron as a missionary. (Photo: Deseret News Archives)
Ervil LeBaron as a missionary. (Photo: Deseret News Archives)

Mark and Lillian Chynoweth became surrogate parents for Anna and enrolled her in a Christian school. For several years, as she grew into a woman, her life seemed to be getting on an even keel

But then, the murders started up again.

In 1987, the cult's apparent leader, Jordan, was mysteriously gunned down at a family deer-hunting camp in central Utah.

After Jordan's funeral, Mark Chynoweth explained to Anna LeBaron that he and several others were still in the crosshairs of their dead prophet. Ervil LeBaron had wanted them killed because they refused to follow orders he issued from his Utah prison cell several years before.

"When my father was in prison, he had ordered all his followers to come and bust him out of jail, guns a blazing," Anna said. "Obviously that was a suicide mission, so nobody would do it."

Following that refusal, LeBaron issued what amounted to a hit list, written as scripture in the Utah State Prison.

"The Book of the New Covenant," Anna LeBaron said. "And in there was a list of names of people that had turned their back on the truth and would not follow my dad."

When Jordan was murdered five years after LeBaron's death in prison, former cult members realized that some of LeBaron's fanatical sons and daughters were bent on carrying out their late father's hit list.

"It was a very frightening time," Anna LeBaron recalled.

Then, in 1988, the most horrible of the man's crimes was carried out by seven of his sons and daughters. Three teams of assassins struck simultaneously, killing four people in Dallas and Houston. Among the victims of the so-called "4 o'clock murders" were Anna's beloved brother Eddie Marston, as well as her surrogate father, Chynoweth. The killers also targeted Mark Chynoweth's brother Duane and Duane's 8 year-old daughter who happened to witness her father's death.

"This is where Mark was killed," Anna LeBaron said as she looked at a photo of the used appliance store that he ran in Houston. Anna worked there, too, but was home sick on the day of the 4 o'clock murders.

"I would have absolutely been killed had I been with Mark that day," she said.

The murders devastated Mark Chynoweth's widow. Months later, Lillian Chynoweth — Anna's surrogate mother — committed suicide.

Road to healing

In the years since the brutal events of the 1980s, Anna LeBaron somehow had to forgive not only her late father who ordered the murders, but also one of her brothers, Heber LeBaron. He pulled the trigger on Mark Chynoweth. Four of Anna's siblings, half-siblings and stepsiblings are in prison today serving life sentences without parole.

"I have grieved a lot," she said. "I'm not sure that this kind of trauma is ever fully grieved."

Ervil LeBaron (Photo: Deseret News Archives)
Ervil LeBaron (Photo: Deseret News Archives)

Anna LeBaron's escape from the cult started her on a long quest for healing and wholeness through decades of therapy and counseling. She also credits the help she received in recent years from the nondenominational Gateway Church in the Dallas suburbs. She said it finally allowed her to heal some of the deepest psychological wounds.

Pastor-counselor Bob Hamp helped her navigate a life that couldn't have started off much worse. He says it took courage to walk away from family and 13 years of indoctrination.

"Those things are so ingrained from the early, early stages, there's likely to be even a sense of loss of identity," Pastor Hamp said. "So for her to leave that group wasn't just against every message that she'd received, but that was also against a sense of self that had been deeply implanted in her."

To be fully healed, he said Anna had to come to grips with a father who was almost always absent but still projected all sorts of confusing messages. "Like distance, and uncaring, and even abusive and cruel, and yet somehow portraying those things as benevolent," Pastor Hamp said. "That experience of a father somehow had to be replaced by someone, or something."

"That left a hole, you know, in your heart," Anna LeBaron said about her relationship with her father. "It leaves you longing for something that you've never experienced."

Part of the healing was her commitment to a new Christian faith. She said she found a new father figure in God, and it finally healed the wounds.

"I feel like I have overcome that," she said. "I am now proud to be a LeBaron. I am proud of my family because of everything we have overcome."

Anna LeBaron's life is on track, she said. Her marital arrangements have had some ups and downs, but she's had a successful career in the business world, she has a nice home in the Dallas suburbs, and she has five lively kids of her own, mostly grown up.

"Oh, it's absolutely a happy ending," she concluded. "My story is one of redemption, restoration and dreams coming true."

She has even reconciled with her own mother from whom she ran away at age 13. She said Anna Mae Marston lives to this day at age 85 — still a believer — in a polygamist community in Utah. Anna LeBaron shared the manuscript of her book with her mother before it was published.

She'll be in Salt Lake City on April 29 for a book-signing event at the Barnes & Noble bookstore in Sugar House.


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