(NEW YORK) — As children, they were part of one of the most dangerous polygamous cult movements in history, with members committing a mass killing at the behest of its late leader.
And now two sisters who grew up in the LeBaron Cult are telling their story of escape, shock and living in fear.
“Daughters of the Cult,” a five-part ABC News Studios docuseries now streaming on Hulu, chronicles the story of several people, including Anna and Celia LeBaron, who were involved in Ervil LeBaron’s splinter Mormon fundamentalist group that operated throughout the Southwest and Mexico.
The sisters said they were lucky to be alive as their father controlled dozens of their family members and manipulated his followers to enact a deadly wave of violence against rival groups and others who opposed him.
“Many of my siblings are afraid to tell their stories, and I don’t blame them,” Anna LeBaron said.
“We’re afraid. We’re doing this afraid,” Celia LeBaron said, referring to participating in the docuseries.
After the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ended polygamy in 1890, it excommunicated members who were still marrying multiple spouses. Those former members created their own splinter group to continue their polygamous relationships.
Ervil LeBaron and his brother Joel were descendants of that group and led the community in 1951 after their father died.
The brothers formed the organization called “Firstborn of the Fullness of Times.”
Ervil LeBaron had over 13 wives and at least 50 children, according to his family.
Celia LeBaron described her family’s upbringing as very “closed-minded,” as her father claimed to be the “Prophet of God.”
“We were indoctrinated from birth,…and it was absolute brainwashing,” she said.
A rift began to form between Joel and Ervil LeBaron when Ervil accused his brother of being a “false prophet.” Celia and Anna LeBaron said their father then became more militant, practicing military drills and arming his family and other cult members, including the children.
“Ervil wanted all of Joel’s followers to bend the knee to him and give him their tithe money,” Anna LeBaron said.
In 1972, Joel LeBaron broke off and formed another group, the “Church of the First Born of the Lamb of God.” Later that year, Joel LeBaron was murdered in Mexico by Ervil LeBaron’s followers at his orders, law enforcement learned.
Hunted by the FBI, Ervil LeBaron would move his family around the U.S. and Mexico to avoid capture, unbeknownst to his children. Anna LeBaron said she moved as many as 15 times before she was 10.
“We were awakened up in the middle of the night one night. Told not to ask any questions. It was all hush hush, urgent tones and scary,” she said. “We were just told, ‘quickly, put on your shoes. Don’t ask any questions.'”
Celia LeBaron said that she and her siblings were taught not to trust the authorities and that they were agents of evil.
“If they were to ask us any questions, we were literally trained to say ‘I don’t know,'” she said.
Ervil LeBaron eventually turned himself in to the Mexican police, and was convicted for his brother’s murder in 1974. However, his conviction was overturned by a higher court on a technicality and he was released.
This would be the start of years of violence orchestrated by Ervil LeBaron, who used members of his group and family, including two of his wives, to murder rival polygamous leaders.
“I think they felt like they were doing the right thing because we were God’s chosen people,” Anna LeBaron said.
Ervil LeBaron didn’t just target rivals with violence, according to Anna and Celia LeBaron. He used his supporters to murder family members who crossed him or threatened to leave the group.
Rebecca LeBaron, Anna and Celia’s half-sister, was believed to have been murdered while pregnant with her second child, at Ervil LeBaron’s orders, when she expressed interest in leaving the cult, according to the sisters. Her body was never found and no one was arrested in connection with her disappearance.
“So many of the women in our group were taught to stay quiet. You weren’t allowed to complain, you weren’t allowed to question, you weren’t allowed to think your own thoughts about anything. It was normalized to just do what you’re told, and not ask any questions. And so, that’s what we did,” Anna LeBaron said.
Authorities in both Mexico and the U.S. tried to apprehend Ervil LeBaron and even raided many of the places he and his followers lived.
In 1979, he was apprehended by Mexican authorities and extradited to the U.S., where he was convicted in the murder of Rulon Allred, another polygamous leader.
Although he was behind bars, Ervil LeBaron still wielded power among his followers and family, according to Anna and Celia LeBaron.
He allegedly wrote letters to his followers with violent messages and orders, including one where he told them to break him out of captivity.
“When you read his writings, you would understand that these are not the writings of a man who is in his right mind,” Anna LeBaron said.
Ervil LeBaron was sentenced to life in prison in 1980, and he died while in prison a year later from an apparent heart attack.
Shortly after his death, Anna LeBaron was living in Houston with her mother. Her sister Lillian and her brother-in-law Mark Chynoweth were also living in the city and they were having misgivings about the cult, according to Anna LeBaron.
Anna LeBaron claimed that Dan Jordan, her father’s second-in-command, met with her mother and claimed that Mark was evil and she needed to move to Denver.
Anna LeBaron, then 13, ran away from her mother to her sister Lillian’s home in 1983.
“I felt like I had one chance. One chance to get out of there. So I started walking,” she said. “I am absolutely certain that somebody is going to come and find me. It was very frightening because I knew if somebody saw me, that was the end.”
“I didn’t feel like I was being rebellious. It never occurred to me that I was gonna be isolated from my mom and my siblings,” Anna LeBaron added.
Celia LeBaron remained with the family in Denver for another three years and said she was being emotionally and physically abused by Jordan and his wife.
In 1986, she called her sisters in Houston and Lillian arranged for a flight to leave the cult.
“I landed in Houston and walked down the runway, and there was my sister and her husband. And I knew, in that moment, that I was safe. I moved in with my sister and I got reunited with Anna,” Celia LeBaron said.
The sisters would later find out that their former family and organization would be involved in a gruesome series of killings orchestrated from beyond the grave.
While in prison, Ervil LeBaron wrote a manifesto titled, “The Book of the New Covenants” which was printed and distributed to his members.
The book contained a hit list of people who were deemed enemies of the church.
Anna LeBaron said she and her family members had heard of rumors of such a kill list and were concerned.
On June 27, 1988, at exactly 4:00 p.m., members of Ervil LeBaron’s cult took part in simultaneous shootings targeting people who were on that hit list.
Former follower Duane Chynoweth and his 8-year-old daughter and Eddie Marston, Ervil LeBaron’s stepson, were among the victims.
Mark Chynoweth was also shot six times in what was dubbed the “4 O’Clock Murders.”
“It was other parts of our family. Other people that we loved were killing these precious humans that we adored,” Celia LeBaron said.
The sisters immediately told authorities about their father’s plans, but they remained in constant fear that they could be next.
Anna LeBaron said she had trouble applying to colleges as administrators feared other students’ parents would be concerned. Her sister Lillian would eventually take her own life.
Seven cult members were arrested over the next two decades in connection with the murders. Five were convicted. Cynthia LeBaron was granted immunity for testifying against her co-conspirators.
Jacqueline Tarsa LeBaron was captured in 2010 and pleaded guilty to conspiracy to obstruct religious beliefs a year later. She was sentenced to five years in prison but was released early.
“It was better that they be in prison. But there are a lot of mixed emotions,” Celia LeBaron said. “These are people that you love. That you care about. It was heart-wrenching.”
The sisters said they have tried to live their lives the best they can despite their trauma.
“It’s been over 40 years since I escaped my father’s cult,” Anna LeBaron said. “To be able to grow and become the person that I am today. To heal enough that I was able to write my own story and to publish my book. I want to be an inspiration to others. Anyone who’s experienced abuse, neglect, abandonment, those things don’t have to define us today. I have overcome all of the odds, and here I am.”
“Daughters of the Cult” is produced by ABC News Studios, All3Media and Main Event Media. Emily Bon, Jimmy Fox and Jacob Cohen-Holmes are executive producers. Sara Mast is director and executive producer, and Smith Glover is co-executive producer. ABC News Studios’ David Sloan is the senior executive producer, and Beth Hoppe is the executive producer.
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