The Curse of Kirtland

The village's bloody legacy began long before the Lundgren murders.

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In autumn, Kirtland blazes with a terrible beauty. The gnarled trees, aflame with ruin, circle the village like a golden wall, and the winding roads turn back upon themselves. A blighted barn -- its cornice crumbled, its color erased by the wind -- waits for nightfall to squeeze the dying sun through its milky eye.

Not that this rarefied redoubt lacks Sunday pleasures. Its pristine woods stretching to a terminal forever, Kirtland wears its charming incongruities unassumingly, virtually unvarnished by commercialism and mass industry. Revolutionary War soldiers sleep in its cemeteries, along with a witch or two, while townsfolk pick up the day's mail and the night's solace at the local post office/liquor store.

Lifers keeping score will tell you that the village once claimed 11 churches and 11 taverns, but in recent years, the churches have inched ahead.

The Mormon prophet Joseph Smith called Kirtland his Zion: "There I will give you my law," he commanded his followers in 1830, "and there you shall be endowed with power from on high." On Judgment Day, he proclaimed, the land would swallow the holy and purge the wicked.

It was in Kirtland, from the roof of the temple built by divine command, that Smith and 40 of his flock saw angels and pillars of fire. And it was here that Smith scourged the town nine times, his people fleeing with an angry mob at their heels.

Grown men whisper of the town's curse. Others deny it. But none can deny that Kirtland has a long history of cursed events, culminating in the Lundgren murders in 1989. Jeffrey Lundgren, a Mormon extremist and doomsday cult leader, marched five of his followers into a dingy barn and methodically executed them in the name of an angry God.

Throughout its history, Kirtland has been a place of salvation and a place of fury, a blend of Old Testament-style wrath and Victorian bloodletting. For a village of a mere 7,000, it has seen more than its share of murder and misery, of wailing and gnashing of teeth. And just as it is blessed -- for blood and bone must nourish the fertile field -- so shall it be damned.

"Cult Land," as it is called by some, was founded in 1811. Too poor to care for their own, the city fathers welcomed destitute settlers with a wagon ride to the next burg -- Mentor or Painesville -- where they were promptly dumped.

According to local lore, Kirtland was originally part of Geauga County, which supposedly didn't want the glaciated town, because its ragged borders ruined an otherwise proportionate system of mapping. After some heated haggling, the bastard village was traded for Thompson and became part of Lake County in the early 1800s. (The "official" version, courtesy of the Morley Library in Painesville, has Kirtland going far more quietly into Lake County after it split off from Geauga in 1840.)

Kirtland's core population has always been of modest means, but in recent years big money has muscled in. The town is ringed by a "golden ghetto" -- million-dollar mansions that look down on the poor in the valley from the peaks above.

Industry was slow to come into Kirtland, and paper money was scarce, so chickens and corn liquor became the common currency. To juice the economy, the town built its own distillery, but soon had no one to run it. The first clerk died of frostbite while intoxicated on the job, and the second, also hammered, lost the use of his legs after falling and passing out in the snow. Taking that as a sign, Kirtland leaders shut down the operation and converted the building to a chair factory.

Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, arrived in Kirtland in 1831 from Palmyra, New York, where he spoke of receiving golden plates from God, engraved with a new scripture, and spectacles through which mere mortals could look upon heaven.

In Palmyra, Smith's fantastic proclamations were generally met with malaise. So he set out for Kirtland, where a dynamic preacher named Sidney Rigdon was said to baptize converts in the river with such efficiency that he could dunk the faithful without a break in his elocution. The local sheriff was so moved by Rigdon's preaching that, in the middle of a particularly fiery sermon, he leaped on his horse and fled town, fearing he would be converted.

Teaming up with Rigdon, Smith decreed that his followers must build a three-tiered temple according to God's plan. The ragged band of believers raised high the roof, with the women donating their best glassware and china for the cause. The crockery was shattered and mixed with plaster, so that the outer walls might twinkle like the heavens.

The shrine of glittering dishware is a succinct monument to this ordinary place with mythic dimension, a place that cannot escape its legend or its past.

It was in Kirtland, thousands of miles from the nearest pyramid or desert, that Smith acquired several Egyptian mummy cases and papyri from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which he "translated" as the Mormon Book of Abraham. It was here that Mormon church elder Orson Pratt was pelted with rocks by angry townspeople in 1835. It was here that Smith, having barely eluded death when he was tarred and feathered on the town square, blanketed the area in 1838 with Bank of Mormon script that turned out to be "funny money." It was here that the Mormons' property was seized, and they were marched to a barren gulch now called "Penitentiary Glen," where many froze to death during a winter endured in a tent city.

"I have sworn," the Lord decreed through Smith, casting his glance upon the cursed town, "and by the degree gone forth by a former commandment which I have given unto you, that I would let fall the sword of mine indignation on behalf of my people." The town was to be visited by plagues, and the wicked were to grovel in their misery.

Not wanting to leave their temple to infidels, Joseph Smith's followers tried to raze it with flaming coals covered in straw. The wind blew the flames to a neighboring Methodist chapel that was reduced to ashes, while the temple stood tall.

Today, Kirtland is home to four separate sects of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, each with its own church, preferring division over compromise. The Temple has changed hands numerous times during its history -- at one point, local farmers were said to pen their lambs in the church's self-enclosed pews. It's now owned by the Reorganized Church of Latter Day Saints, a denomination of about 200,000 based in Independence, Missouri.

Over the decades, deviants and dissenters have plotted Kirtland Temple's ruin. But after more than a century, through fire and furor, it remains the village beacon, its diamond-dusted walls now plastered over and bleached white.

The modern era dawned in Kirtland somewhat later than the rest of the world. One morning in 1930, a sonic boom tossed the townspeople from their beds. Contrary to early reports, Armageddon hadn't arrived -- it was just the owner of the old corn mill blowing up her property. Oblivious to her threats, young men skinny-dipping in the mill's stone basin had taunted her relentlessly with their "body exposure." In the throes of rage and frustration, she reached for the dynamite.

Kirtland has had more than its share of grim occurrences (four suspicious death investigations last year and five sex cases so far this year). Though what happens there may not be heard 'round the world, it does echo in the valley with timeless significance. A few of the more recent highlights:

Mid-1930s: A veiled girl walking along Route 6 is sighted by nighttime travelers. When they try to help her, she disappears. She is said to be the ghost of a young woman strangled by an itinerant peddler who was acquitted of the crime, only to confess to it on his deathbed. Reported sightings continue to this day.

1950s and '60s: A legion of mutants with heads the size of melons spring from the woods at night and attack drivers who refuse to pay a toll on the bridge along Wisner Road. They are said to be the tortured patients of a local doctor using them for experimentation. Reported incidents continue to this day.

1970s: Two children who live down the street from the Kirtland Temple are beaten to death with a ballpeen hammer by their mother's boyfriend -- a "Charlie Manson-type nutcase," according to Kirtland Police Officer Steve Sutch. The first officer to arrive on the scene, Sutch says the carnage was the worst he has seen in his 25 years as a police officer.

1980s: According to a news report, Minister Stone of the Kirtland Temple "claimed to feel the presence of the devil in a well-dressed young man standing on the steps of the temple."

April 23, 1988: Kirtland Mayor Mario V. Marcopoli receives a handwritten letter from "T. Brigham Young Sr." stating that soon, "Kirtland will become as famous and well-known around the world as Rome." Kirtland, the florid script states, is part of a divine plan "to add fuel to the fires and attract media attention."

April 24, 1988: Kirtland Police Officer Ron Andolsek, at the Lundgren farm to check out a routine complaint of geese on the loose, becomes suspicious when a nervous and belligerent Jeffrey Lundgren is reluctant to let him on the property.

April 17, 1989: Jeffrey Lundgren, an excommunicated member of the Restored Church of Latter Day Saints drawn to Kirtland by Smith's proclamations, kills the five members of the Avery family. "The fog was blood-red" that day, according to Lundgren's wife, Alice, who helps orchestrate the particulars, then goes out shopping while the murders are performed. With the help of nine followers, Lundgren lures the Averys one by one into the barn, seats them on a chair in "the apple room" at the edge of a mass grave, then blows their brains out to quench the "lion's fire" of the Lord with human sacrifice. The Averys' crumpled corpses are covered with layers of dirt and lime. "I think that changed all of us on organized religion," Sutch says of the murders.

October 1989: Andolsek, a small-town cop with a singular love for the investigative minutiae of police work, is assembling the department's first crime-scene kit. "Watch this," he jokes to his colleagues. "We'll make this, and we'll have a major homicide here."

December 31, 1989: A tip comes in that bodies are buried in the Lundgren barn. After intense digging at the scene, through layers of rock, clay, and lime, Andolsek glimpses the shine of Dennis Avery's belt buckle -- the first indication of the doomed family huddled within, hands folded as if in prayer.

Friday the 13th, August 1993: The bell tower of the Kirtland Temple catches fire. The temple itself is unscathed.

1998: Four people involved in the Lundgren case have died unexpectedly. Kirtland Police Chief Dennis Yarborough collapses at the age of 53 from a heart attack. Lake County forensics expert Richard Kent kills himself with a gun at his home, as narcotics agents close in on him. (Kent had been stockpiling assault weapons and illegally prescribing himself painkillers to feed an addiction he claimed was caused by back pain from digging up the bodies in the Lundgren case. "I can't tell you how many times I woke up from my dreams with Lundgren staring in my face," Kent said.) Also dead is former Lake County Coroner William C. Downing, who testified for the prosecution. Even the janitor at the courthouse during the trial committed suicide, Andolsek says.

The curse? Kirtlandites speak of it in hushed tones, though they say they don't believe. "I've heard of it," says Andolsek. "You can believe anything you want; you can put power to anything. Basically, what you believe is how you react to what's around you."

Officer Sutch cuts in. "You'll find out when Jeff does his 120 years and walks out." Actually, Jeffrey Lundgren is on death row in Mansfield. His son, Damon, received 120 years to life for aggravated murder and kidnapping.

But there is an ominous aura around the elder Lundgren. During his trial, a cult member named Richard Brand, implicated for binding victim Dennis Avery with duct tape so he could be shot, said he feared that Lundgren would be invigorated by the deadly voltage of the electric chair and would rise up and walk away.

Neighbor Doris Straka's living-room window has a panoramic view of the decrepit barn where Lundgren went on his killing spree. She doubts a man of God like Joseph Smith would have really cursed the town. But she doesn't deny it is a cursed place, where "a lot of the heartache has been from someone pursuing God or saying they're pursuing God in a strange manner."

Straka didn't know the Lundgrens well. When they moved into the old Barber farm in 1987, she couldn't have been more pleased, as the previous tenants had been a trial, hosting nightly parties that ran until 3 a.m. and drunkenly pillaging the land with their golf carts and four-wheelers.

The Lundgrens didn't use their riding mower to do donuts. Quiet tenants who raised chickens and harvested apples, they mowed the grounds regularly.

"Most of the neighbors thought, "Well, this could be OK,'" recalls Straka. "But we didn't know [the Lundgrens] were burying their friends."

Straka let her children play with the Lundgren children, though not at the Lundgren farmhouse. "My impression of Jeffrey was that he was very controlling, abusive, and frightening," she says. "When I felt the energy around him, red flags went up. And I felt the abuse in his children, even though they did not speak of it."

The Lundgren children weren't allowed to leave their yard. So Straka's daughter and Jason Lundgren, who were elementary school classmates, would stand at their property lines and converse across Route 6.

The police had warned Straka of cult activity on the farm. But she didn't see anything incriminating -- just a group of hard workers with religious beliefs that were unusual and unbending. The Lundgren children had, for example, told their playmates that the earth was going to open up and demons were going to come out.

When neighbors informed Straka that the Lundgrens had skipped town and federal agents were swarming the grounds, looking for evidence of a plot to take over Kirtland Temple, Straka's first thought was "What have they done with the animals?"

She and her neighbors got permission to check the Lundgren barn. The livestock were fine -- they had been released and were roaming the grounds. Straka and her companions returned them to their pens, unaware of the fresh corpses in the earth beneath their feet.

But standing at the threshold of the apple room, an earthen cold storage space off the main barn, Straka could tell that something was terribly wrong. And it wasn't what was laid out before her -- overflowing garbage bags, stacked eight or nine feet high.

It was what wasn't there.

"I told everyone, "Wait a minute -- you're using your eyes,'" she says. "Close your eyes and smell."

Her neighbors looked at her, puzzled.

"Now then, don't you wonder what's in those bags?" she said. "Because nothing smells." The bags contained the belongings of the cult followers, who had left for West Virginia in a flurry.

She shut the door to the room and secured it with metal bars. "I knew what was wrong was in there."

Straka was also unsettled by a presence in the barn. "I sensed this awful, awful pain and this crying. Which actually wasn't from a dead person." It was, she says, the energy of Lundgren's 18-year-old son, Damon, who watched as his father shot the family and did nothing to stop him.

When the police arrived, Straka told them, ""That's an area I don't want to disturb or move, because that's the area you need. That's where what's wrong is.' That's all I could feel and sense. I wasn't afraid of it -- I just knew I didn't want to be there."

More than a decade has passed since the slaughter, but judging from the farm's hollow visage, the gun could still be smoking, blood soaking into dirt. Weeds grow through the guts of an old Volvo that belonged to one of the murder victims. The heavy grass has collapsed under its own weight, and the many compressed layers, soft and pliable, seem ideal for concealing flesh.

The barn's windows, barred with rusted bedsprings, are shattered where the killers threw rocks from the yard onto the burial pit within, fulfilling a prophecy that they alone could decipher from their skewed version of scripture. The inner walls of the apple room are desecrated with an indecipherable graffiti, a scrawl of dust and clay, bone and fluid. Even the darkness is stale, decaying in the charred walls.

After the bloodshed, the Lundgren farm was rented by a family who didn't mow their lawn. They moved out just last month. "We like it long now," says Doris. "Short grass may make us nervous."

Patched and pockmarked, the stench of death still lingering in the minds of those who saw and those who come to see, the barn sits waiting to be destroyed. But Straka has her own ideas for the property, which was developed in the early 1900s by descendants of the town's first pioneers. The Barbers tilled the soil and sold their produce at a stand on Pecks Corners, now known as the intersection of Route 6 and Route 306.

"Personally, I think it should be preserved," Straka says of the barn. "This is part of Kirtland's history, and for the love that built the farm, the connection to the first family of pioneers who bought land and settled here, I think it should be maintained, cared for, and the farm run if at all possible.

"If it were mine, which it is not, probably just because of the curiosity -- and because the house is magnificent -- I would turn it into a bed and breakfast. And I would save the barn in some way by making a gift shop or an antique mall.

"It's a wonderful farm. It's just had some bad people visit it."

Straka had a visitation of her own the night after the bodies were found. She was sitting on the floor of her living room, trying to pray away her distress, when she had a vision. The doorknob turned, and "two light energies" filled the house.

"It was Cheryl Avery and her youngest daughter, Karen. They had come to assure me that they were at peace.

"It was very difficult for me to learn that the children and their mom and dad had been killed in the name of religion. But it's like Cheryl said when she came to me: "I don't have to worry. My children are not under the control of this person. And for my family, through this horrible person, we are able to be with God.'"

Straka has no plans to leave Kirtland, though occasionally she hears that Lundgren has more followers on death row now than he ever did across the road. She says she has a stake here in God's country, an "enchanted place" where life springs eternal in the valley of death.

Laura Putre can be reached at [email protected].

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