Under the Banner of Heaven: The disturbing true story

Under the Banner of Heaven stars Andrew Garfield as a Mormon detective tasked with solving the gruesome murder of 24-year-old Brenda Wright Lafferty (played by Daisy Edgar-Jones) and her infant daughter.

While Garfield and Gil Birmingham’s characters aren’t necessarily based on real people, the rest of the characters are. The mini-series is based on author Jon Krakauer’s non-fiction book of the same name that details the 1984 murder case that shook the state of Utah. 

We put together a brief run-down of the real-life Lafferty case for the true-crime obsessed and generally curious. Potential spoilers for what’s to come in Under the Banner of Heaven follow.

Who was Brenda Wright Lafferty?

Daisy Edgar-Jones as Brenda Wright Lafferty in Under the Banner of Heaven

(Image credit: FX/Hulu)

In 1982, 21-year-old Brenda Wright married Allen Lafferty (played by Billy Howle), the youngest of six Mormon brothers. The two met at an LDS group led by students of Brigham Young University, where Brenda was a broadcast journalism major. She had every intention of pursuing a career as an anchor, but was urged by Allen to become a stay-at-home mom. 

A year later, Brenda gave birth to a baby girl named Erica, and the three lived in the quiet town of American Fork, Utah, just thirty-miles southeast of Salt Lake City.

Brenda wasn’t the biggest fan of Allen’s brother Ron (Sam Worthington), who had been excommunicated from the LDS Church after claiming that he was a prophet who received direct communication from God. Ron and his other brother Dan (Wyatt Russell), who believed in him wholeheartedly, had been part of a fundamentalist offshoot of the church called the School of Prophets – referred to by some as a ‘polygamist cult.’

In 1983, Diana, Ron’s wife of 20 years, filed for divorce. According to court documents (opens in new tab) (as reported on by Utah’s Deseret News outlet), he blamed Brenda for encouraging Diana to pack up and move to Florida with all of the couple’s children in tow.

A ‘divine revelation’

Billy Howle as Allen Lafferty in Under the Banner of Heaven

(Image credit: FX/Hulu)

In January of 1984, Ron Lafferty told his brother Allen (opens in new tab) that he’d had a revelation. God had spoken to him, he explained, and ordered Brenda and their infant daughter to be “removed.”

“Thus sayeth the Lord unto my servants the prophets. It is my will and commandment that ye remove the following individuals in order that my work might go forward for they truly have become obstacles in my path,” Ron wrote down on a yellow legal pad (opens in new tab), as reported in The Chicago Tribune . “And I will not allow my work to be stopped.”

Allen reportedly told his brother that God “had made no such revelation” to him, and that he would protect them with his life. Six months later, Allen would arrive home too late.

On the morning of July 24, 1984, Ron and Dan broke into Brenda and Allen’s home while the latter was away. The pair strangled her with a vacuum cord and slit her throat with a 10-inch boning knife. Dan then when into the back bedroom, where he made sure that 15-month-old Erica received the same fate.

The aftermath

Wyatt Russell as Dan Lafferty in Under the Banner of Heaven

(Image credit: FX/Hulu)

Ron and Dan Lafferty were arrested on August 17, 1984. The brothers were charged with two counts of homicide, two counts of aggravated burglary, and two counts of conspiracy to commit homicide (as God had also ‘ordered the removal’ of two other individuals).

Trial began in January of 1985, but Ron’s suicide attempt in a Utah County jail prevented the two from being tried together. Dan acted as his own lawyer, and spent only 13 minutes in his own defense. He was convicted on two counts of first-degree murder, along with four other felonies, and was sentenced to two life terms.

“I don’t know why those names were on the list,” he said of the ‘revelation.’ (opens in new tab) “The Lord has strange work to do.”

Ron was ultimately convicted and sentenced to death. This was later overturned by the 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, who believed that the judge had made an error in finding Ron competent to stand trial. After his competency was ‘restored,’ a new trial began in 1996, where he was given the death penalty yet again – choosing to die by firing squad. He would go on to make numerous appeals before dying of natural causes in prison in 2019.

Under the Banner of Heaven premieres April 28 on Hulu, with the first two episodes available to stream. The remaining episodes will air weekly in the US. The series will be available on Disney Plus for UK viewers, though an official date has yet to be announced.

For more, check out our list of true crime documentaries that put the victims first.

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