The True Story Behind Hulu’s ‘Under the Banner of Heaven’

Hulu’s new limited series Under the Banner of Heaven, streaming April 28, is an adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s 2003 true-crime bestseller of the same name about the gruesome killings of Brenda Wright Lafferty (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and her baby daughter, which shocked a quiet Mormon town in the 1980s. Like the book, the show explores the 1830 founding of Church of Latter-day Saints by Joseph Smith, and tries to explain the double murder. It soon becomes clear that the rise of fundamentalism in Mormonism, which Krakauer called “the quintessential American religion,” is more dangerous than anyone imagined.

Unter dem Banner of HeavenDustin Lance Black created it (Milk(born in the Mormon church). Over the course of seven episodes, he wanted to explore “just how patriarchal the church had been, and in many ways still was,” he told Vanity Fair before the show’s premiere. “And how such an absolute patriarchal structure threatens the safety of many women.” Specifically, in those fundamentalist sects that continue to embrace polygamy, the custom of having more than one wife or husband at the same time, despite it being outlawed by the LDS Church in 1890.

Black sticks close to the facts of the case, but he created Andrew Garfield’s character, Detective Jeb Pyre—a devout Mormon who has resisted asking tough questions about his religion—specifically for the series. With help from his Native American, non-Mormon partner Bill Taba (Gil Birmingham), Jeb realizes that there is something sinister happening in his town—and it may just test his own faith.

Here’s more information about the tragedy that lies at the heart Unter dem Banner of Heaven.

Brenda Wright Lafferty, who are you?

Brenda Wright Lafferty, a former beauty contestant who was raised in an Idaho Mormon devout family with liberal Mormon values, is now deceased. “She was quite a scrapbooker,” her father, Jim Wright, told Salt Lake City’s KUTV in 2019. A talented actress and singer, she also studied broadcast journalism at Brigham Young University. Lafferty was the youngest child of prominent Utah Mormon families known for strong moral values. He married her in the 1980s. (Though others describe Watson Lafferty the patriarch as being a hard-working disciplinarian, who beat the dog to death once after a row with his wife. Brenda was described by those who had known her as an energetic, confident and fun-loving person. Erica was her firstborn daughter. She and her husband were very dedicated. But, Brenda wasn’t afraid to openly disagree with Allen’s older brothers’ fundamentalist views, which she felt went against the Mormon teachings.

Brenda Wright Lafferty: What’s the story?

Brenda Wright Lafferty (24 years old) was found unconscious on their suburban Utah floor by her husband. According to a Deseret News 2004 report (a Deseret Management Corporation subsidiary), her throat was cut from being choked by the vacuum cord. The couple’s 15-month-old daughter had also been brutally killed in the attack, which took place on Pioneer Day, a holiday commemorating the arrival of Latter-day Saint pioneers in Salt Lake City, Utah.

The slayings had been committed by Allen Lafferty’s older brothers, Ron and Dan Lafferty, who engaged in a more extreme, but small sect of Mormonism called School of the Prophets. After being excommunicated by the LDS Church, the brothers joined the group. They were known for holding fundamentalist views that included the embrace of polygamy. (The School of the Prophets has been referred to as a “polygamist cult” by the Associated Press.)

Dan and Ron went on to become more committed in their faith after their excommunication. They convinced their brothers that these were the Mormon church’s true leaders, and they could talk directly with God. To look more like Biblical prophets, they encouraged their brothers’ hair to be long and grow their beards. Brenda apparently stopped Allen from enrolling in the School of the Prophets. Dan & Ron believed that this was her attempt to separate the family.

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Ron Lafferty and Dan Lafferty killed Brenda Wright Lafferty.

Ron Lafferty said he received a revelation from God that it was possible to kill Brenda Wright Lafferty, her baby daughter. After he suggested that he have a second woman, he believed Brenda was what caused his wife Diana Lafferty to leave him. He reportedly fell into madness after Diana’s death and spent his days writing the things he believed would become scripture. In March 1984, Ron wrote what is now known as “the removal revelation,” in which he stated that Brenda and her baby, who he believed would grow up to be just like her mother, had become “obstacles in my path” and they had to be “removed in rapid succession.” He later shared the note with members of the School of the Prophets, who were alarmed by what they read and forced the brothers to leave the group. Their sister-in-law, and their niece were killed four months later.

It was later revealed that Ron and Dan planned to kill two other people that night: Chloe Low, a church leader who counseled Diana during her divorce from Ron, and Richard Stowe, the Highland LDS Stake president who had presided over Ron’s excommunication. After discovering that Low wasn’t home, the men headed to Stowe’s house, but after getting lost on their way there, they decided to keep driving. Ron and Dan were then arrested after a week at Reno’s buffet.

Ron Lafferty, Dan Lafferty: What’s the matter?

In the beginning, both brothers were to be tried together in connection with Brenda Wright Lafferty’s murder and Erica Wright Lafferty’s daughter. Ron Lafferty, however, attempted to hang himself and kill his brother Brenda Wright Lafferty in the murders of Erica Lafferty. Each of the men was convicted. Ron was sentenced for murdering Brenda and for devising the plot to kill him. After his conviction was overturned by appeal, Ron was sentenced again to death in 1996. He was sentenced to death by firing squad. However, he died naturally in 2019, at age 78. His 34-year tenure on death row made him one of the most eminent condemned prisoners in the country.

After learning of Ron’s passing Brenda’s older sister Sharon Wright Weeks told the Deseret News, “It’s over. I just feel a huge amount of relief.” However, she did express sympathy for the Lafferty family. “I don’t forget for one minute that they lost a family member today,” she said. “It’s hard for them, too. It’s hard for everybody.”

Dan was his own lawyer in January 1985 and was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences without parole. It was discovered that Ron killed Brenda and Dan had murdered Erica during the trial. Dan took credit for the deaths of his daughter and mother in an interview from 2004. He told Deseret News that he committed the crime “the way they did it in the scriptures” and the violent acts “never haunted me, it’s never bothered me. I don’t blame anyone for not understanding it,” he said. “But if you had done it, it wouldn’t haunt you either. It was a strange phenomenon.”

In that same interview, Dan, who is currently serving his life sentence in a Utah state prison, revealed that he’s never apologized to his brother for taking the lives of his wife and daughter. “Allen once asked my mom why I wouldn’t repent,” he said. “There’s some things you can’t repent for. I’m sure Allen thought I was talking about an unpardonable sin. What I meant is, you don’t repent for things that aren’t wrong.

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