I grew up in a violent, fundamentalist, polygamist cult—a radical offshoot of the modern-day Mormon church. My father, Ervil LeBaron, was the man at the top.
He demanded total allegiance. In the 1970s and ’80s, he commanded followers to carry out mob-style hits on those who opposed him or fled his cult. He referred to these killings as “hot lead, cold steel, and a one-way ticket to hell.” Media outlets nicknamed my father “the Mormon [Charles] Manson” for the atrocities he committed, and authorities in multiple states (and Mexico) issued arrest warrants for him and his murderous followers.
We moved unexpectedly and often, living in constant fear of getting caught. On many occasions, we left home in the middle of the night to stay one step ahead of the authorities. The FBI and Mexican police would raid our homes, looking for my father and the others who had carried out his orders.
We experienced poverty of mind, spirit, and body. It doesn’t take any mathematical genius to realize that one man cannot support 13 wives and over 50 children. His ministry consumed all his time. Some of his wives worked, and others went on welfare, but they could never manage to make ends meet. Everyone, even young children, worked long hours in grueling conditions to ensure we didn’t starve. Even so, we regularly scavenged—or outright stole—to meet basic food and clothing needs.
As you can imagine, we were never allowed to make friends with anyone outside the cult.
Until a few years ago, the only pictures I had of my father were newspaper clippings, including one (from the National Enquirer) of him in handcuffs after the Mexican police finally tracked him down. After being taken into custody by the FBI agents waiting across the border, he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in a Utah prison.
A Difficult Mourning
Even though I grew up in a religious group that claimed to believe the Bible, I had no idea who Jesus was. When anyone in our tight-knit community spoke the name of Jesus or mentioned Christianity, they did so with contempt and derision. But God had his eye on me even then. When I was very young and living in an overcrowded house in Denver, I took advantage of an opportunity to go to Sunday school, provided by a local church that sent a bus down our street every Sunday morning.
The teachers handed out prizes if you took home papers, answered the questions, and brought them back the next week. I didn’t always know the answers, but I definitely wanted the prizes.
One day the Sunday school teacher asked us, “Who is God’s Son?” I had no idea how to answer. After a while, though, I figured out that no matter which question the teacher asked, if you answered “Jesus” you would be right about half the time. That meant more prizes!
My older brother Ed, who lived and worked in Houston, wanted a better life for us. I remember the day, not long after my father’s imprisonment, when he showed up in Denver with a U-Haul truck. For what seemed like the first time, we were allowed to pack up all our belongings before we moved. Living in Houston, I experienced my first taste of a stable, non-chaotic life.
After about a year—that was probably the longest I’d ever lived in the same place—the phone rang one Sunday morning. I picked up the receiver and heard my mother talking on the extension upstairs. The caller reported that my father had been found dead in his prison cell. I was shocked, but having never spent any significant time with him, I found it difficult to mourn as a normal child would.