He’s been called the “Mormon Manson,” but polygamist Ervil LeBaron and his Mexican-based family managed to make Charlie and his gang look almost tame by comparison. A 6’8” white supremacist and religious fundamentalist who loved to seduce underage girls, LeBaron trained women to kill for him and ordered hits on rival polygamists and “apostates” from his church. And kill they did: Members of LeBaron’s family were responsible for as many as 50 murders, as well as bank robbery, car theft, drug dealing, and selling guns to drug traffickers.
Ervil was eventually arrested for his crimes and extradited to the U.S., where he died in prison in 1981. But his wives, children, and spiritual followers continued their murderous rampage well into the ’90s. As one LeBaron family member put it, “Everyone is an infidel if they don’t believe what you believe.”
Outwardly, however, the LeBarons appeared to be just a wealthy farming clan with bizarre sexual practices who had made an “I won’t bother you if you don’t bother me” pact with El Chapo and the notorious Sinaloa cartel, which had drug smuggling routes near the Mormon colony. But, says Sally Denton, author of The Colony: Faith and Blood In A Promised Land, “I think it’s naive for the public to believe they were just friendly neighbors, saying hello at sicario checkpoints. I don’t believe you don’t live with some of the most violent people in the world without having accommodations. I think they were helping with guns.”
All this fell apart when El Chapo was extradited to the U.S. and sentenced to life in prison, after which rival groups began fighting over the Sinaloa drug empire, which put Mormon lives in danger. And on November 12, 2019, the worst that could happen did happen: on a 12-mile stretch of barren road, a favored drug cartel route that happened to link two Mormon enclaves, as many as 100 sicarios descended on a convoy of three cars containing Mormon mothers and their children and murdered nine people, some of whom were burned alive.
Some said the victims were deliberately targeted, to start a war between the Sinaloa and Juarez cartels; others said it was a case of mistaken identity; and still others said it was an offshoot of a fight for water rights between the Mormons and their Mexican neighbors. Denton begs to differ.
“I think somebody owed somebody something,” she says. “I think there was a great big message, not to the women and children, but to their husbands and fathers. It was not a case of mistaken identity; they were targeted. It was about money; somebody reneged on some kind of deal.”
But The Colony is about a lot more than a perverse, corrupt, and violent Mormon family and its relationship with drug cartels. It is, in fact, a mesmerizing deep dive into Mormon fanaticism, violence, deceit, mental illness, and misogyny, dating back to the religion’s mid-19th century founding by Joseph Smith. It follows Smith’s acolytes after his 1844 murder by a mob in Carthage, Ill. to their eventual landing place in Utah. There Brigham Young began what he called a “Mormon reformation,” which involved “cleansing the wayward Saints through blood atonement,” and ended up in the most infamous episode in Mormon history, the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre, in which a wagon train of 140 men, women, and children passing through Mormon territory were murdered, the slaughter blamed on Paiute Indians. It’s a stain the Church has never been able to wipe out.
“The Church has never accurately acknowledged its role in the massacre,” says Denton. “A lot of people were involved, and the evidence shows it went up to Brigham Young. They blame it on the Paiutes, or on renegades in Southern Utah. It has to have discredited the Church.”
The massacre and Brigham Young’s role in it shine a light on what looks like mental illness in not just Smith and Young but in the LeBaron family. “There are references to a strain of insanity in the LeBaron family, and in the leaders of the Mormon Church historically,” says Denton. “I think it’s the fact the entire Church is based on this communion with God that any man can do, and sets it up with any delusional aspects. You have to look at the visions of Smith and Young, down to the LeBarons, and question what’s the impulse here. I think with the LeBarons, a lot can be explained by incest.”
And then there’s polygamy. The practice was part of the Church since its inception, but when the Mormon leadership realized Utah would never become a state because of its existence, polygamy was outlawed in 1890. That forced recalcitrant fundamentalists south to Mexico, where then-President Porfirio Diaz encouraged them to settle in the northern states of Sonora and Chihuahua, which soon became a hotbed of religious fanaticism (Mexico now has the largest Mormon population outside the U.S., the vast majority not polygamists). During the Mexican Revolution, Pancho Villa forced them to move back to the States, and most never returned. But the LeBarons did, and established Colonia LeBaron in 1944. It soon became a center of sexual deviancy, something that also has been a part of Mormon history since its beginnings.
“When Joseph Smith first introduced [polygamy] it was not without some sexual deviancy,” says Denton, who is herself a descendant of Mormon pioneers and polygamists. “I interviewed wives and daughters who were raised in polygamy, and one of them said they were converted below the belt. It promotes sexual deviancy, a lot of suppression and repression, even in people who don’t have that proclivity. The true believers believe they are creating the kingdom of God on Earth, and the goal is to spread the seed of man, and for the women, it’s to have as many children as possible, and in the LeBaron colony, they began having babies as early as 13 years old.”
Denton’s book is being released at just the right time. Interest in Mormon crime and perversion seems to be hitting some sort of all-time high, thanks to two recent documentaries, a true crime series, and a podcast: Murder Among the Mormons, a Netflix series about a man who forged documents related to the Latter-day Saint movement; Under the Banner of Heaven, an FX on Hulu series about the investigation of the murders of a Mormon mother and daughter, that involves a fundamentalist branch of the church; Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey, a Netflix documentary about fundamentalist pedophile leader Warren Jeffs; and Deliver Us From Ervil, an Apple podcast about the LeBaron family.
“I believe all stories that are deep and legitimate find their level,” says Denton of this Mormon wave. “There are parallels between the LeBaron family and the Mormons in Mexico that are relevant to the impulses of white nationalism and events going on in the U.S. A lot of the same impulses of clannishness, nativism, and white Christian nationalism are the underbelly of all three of these stories.”
But it is the LeBaron massacre victims who are at the heart of The Colony, and the polygamist wives who have to deal with the misogyny of their husbands. Only a handful of people have been arrested for the murders, and to this day, no one really knows who ordered the hit, or why. Denton sees this as a case of how women are expendable in the LeBaron community, that these young mothers and their children should never have been allowed to drive along this dangerous road without their husbands, unarmed.
“In the end I came back to the real victims of this story, the women and children—the ones who always seem to be expendable in these stories,” she says. “I sought to dig deeper into their murders and their relationship to a long and often sordid history of polygamy. I hoped to show not only the forces at work behind the scenes—some of them quite dark—but also to use my own family’s history with the early [Latter-Day Saints] faith to put it all in context.”