Let’s play pretend. Dogs bark, their noises bounce off the bare trees, so we’re not sure how close or far away they are. They could be barking at each other, at squirrels, or people who got too close to their property, or maybe they simply want their presence to be known.
We are children living near 8671 Euclid-Chardon Road. It is April 1988. We are seven years old. Our feet press into the brown, dead grass causing water to squish beneath us as we run toward each other. The snow has melted. We are unconcerned about what is under us. We are happy to be outside after a winter spent indoors.
Many houses are isolated in Kirtland, but not here, not on this stretch of road. Our backyards roll into one another. Fog blows out of our mouths as we discuss what game we are going to play. Ghosts in the graveyard, one of us suggests. Not dark enough, another counters. Regular tag. Build a fort with bare, crisp twigs and tree branches laying around. One of the kids playing with us is Caleb Lundgren. We are standing in a small circle. He motions for us to come closer. We form a huddle. He tells us a secret: in May, demons will come out of the ground. Right where we are standing. We imagine claws ripping out of the mud and the grass, grabbing our ankles, pulling us down as the demons ascend.
One of us runs home and tells our parents what Caleb said. They call the Kirtland Police Department on April 29, 1988, to report what seven-year-old Caleb has said about the demons. This is also the first time that a resident of Kirtland voices a concern that there is a cult living at 8671 Euclid-Chardon Road.
Demons do not emerge from the ground.
May 2, 1988. Kirtland Police Chief Dennis Yarborough informs Jeffery Lundgren that the police are aware, informed by a former cult member, that Lundgren plans to attack and take over the Kirtland Temple on May 3, 1988. The cult needed to secure the temple for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. After his discussion with Yarborough, the Kirtland Temple plan is canceled.
April 17, 1989. Lundgren tells his followers if they want to see God, the Averys must be sacrificed. The Avery family is murdered.
January 3, 1990. The Kirtland Police Department, acting on a tip from a disgruntled Lundgren Cult member, begins a search of the Lundgren barn, looking for the bodies of the Avery family.
As the story broke, news crews and reporters showed up on the scene. WEWS interviewed the neighbor across the street, Doris. In the video of her interview, Doris stands in her muddy driveway, wearing a pink coat and a hat that looks like a puff of white fur hugging her brown hair. The Lundgren barn looms behind her. According to the reporter’s voice-over, Doris told them that the kids were nice kids, playing on the lawn.
Nice is currency in the Midwest. Nice can hide so many secrets.
They were nice kids.
They were nice kids.
The “nicest kids you could ever meet.”
The nicest kids you could ever meet were Darren and Trent Sabol. Darren and his family lived in Concord Township, a sixteen-minute drive from where I lived on the border of Mentor and Mentor-on-the-Lake. Like Kirtland, Concord borders the concrete and shopping centers and busyness of Mentor, but is considered living in the country. There are a lot of trees, larger yards separated from the street by split-rail fences, long driveways, and quiet. In Concord and Kirtland, you can see the stars dotting the dark sky like shards of glass. Concord, to me, was a place where rich people lived. Families that lived in Concord didn’t have problems.
I was wrong.
It has been thirty-three years since my last confession.
Darren wore argyle sweaters and had a controlled wave of black hair on top of his head. He was narrow, thin—quite the contrast to my chubby, wide body. Darren was quiet and smart. Assumptions were made about Darren: the same assumptions made about me. The bullies called our lunch table the “fag table.”
Darren sat in front of me in French class. We were in ninth grade. I had won a fight with my parents to take French instead of German. My father was semi-fluent in German. He had tried to teach me some of it.
“Was ist das?” he’d ask as I walked into the kitchen to get some pop or water. He’d always stand by the sink. The light from the canopy over the stove, the only light in the room, provided just enough light to see him standing there. He swayed back and forth, beer bottle in hand. German lessons only happened when he was drunk. I didn’t want to be like him.
Was ist das? What is that? He only said this when I walked into the kitchen. He only said it when he was drunk.
One day, in French class, we were given a quiz. My foot hovered over the carpeted floor. The desk seats had an opening in the back that left your butt exposed. The kid behind me—one of the popular kids, a bully—-kicked me in the butt. It jarred me. I wanted to scream at him. But I’d been conditioned at home to take it, suffer through the assault. I said nothing, hoping he got his fill after one kick. He didn’t.
He kicked again.
A third time.
“Stop it,” I whispered to him, afraid I’d get in trouble for talking during a quiz.
He leaned forward. His eyebrows were one straight line across his forehead. “I’ll stop, if you kick him.”
He pointed at Darren.
I shook my head. Turned back around, and he kicked me again. This time, he got my tailbone.
“You know how to make it stop.”
I scooted my desk forward, closer to Darren. I swung my foot, but stopped short of actually kicking him. I should have stuck to my no. I should have taken the kicks from the kid behind me. But I swung my foot again and kicked Darren.
He turned around. He looked confused; he seemed to wait for an apology. I didn’t offer one. He turned back around.
“Do it again.”
Darren pushed his desk forward.
The kids behind me laughed.
The teacher told them to be quiet.
When the bell rang, Darren walked out and didn’t wait for me to walk with him down the hall. The next day, I tried to talk to him between classes in the locker bay. He hurried past me. He sat with other people at lunch.
I never got to apologize to him because not long after this incident, Darren died.
“Do something. He’s shot my son.” Mary Sabol, Darren’s mother, yelled this as she fled the house barefoot into the winter night, according to The Plain Dealer on February 6, 1991. She ran to her neighbors as her husband, Ron Sabol, fired shots at her.
The report says: Mary and Ron Sabol argued in the living room. The fight between them escalated to the point where Darren felt the need to intervene. Something I had done many times with my own parents.
But then Ron had a gun. He shot Darren in the shoulder. That’s when Mary ran out of the house, dodging the bullets and screaming for help.
When the police arrived, they found Darren in the living room, gunshot wounds to his shoulder and his head. He had tried to call someone before he died, leaving bloodstains on the phone. Upstairs, they found Darren’s older brother, Trent, in the hallway with five shots to his chest and face. They found Ron in his bedroom, one shot to his temple.
At school, the morning after Darren had been murdered, the principal made an announcement that we were to stay in our homerooms until lunch. My homeroom was also the room where Darren and I had French class. I sat only a couple of rows over from the desk where I had kicked him, where I had betrayed him.
Counselors were available. I thought about going. I wanted to talk about how guilty I felt for kicking Darren, for not protecting him. But I didn’t.
We were fourteen, Darren and I. He died. I did not. I’ve carried the guilt of what I did to him for twenty-eight years. Would I have carried this for so long if he hadn’t died? Probably not. I imagine that violence was common in his home, as it was in mine. We never discussed it. Where was the room for such a conversation? Even if we did discuss it, what solution could we have offered each other? Who would have believed us? The couple of times I tried to tell someone, they would say, But your parents are so nice. As a child, there were times that I feared for my life. I still wake up from nightmares. Screaming. I turn on my TV, the lights, afraid of the demons that lurk in the dark. My family doesn’t like for me to talk about it. It isn’t nice.
We can be nice and still do horrific things.
We can use nice as an excuse to ignore things that are not nice because we don’t want to jeopardize the illusion of nice.
On April 10, 1989, Jeffery Lundgren told two of his followers to dig a pit in the floor of the barn. It had to be big enough to fit five bodies. A week later, the Avery children were withdrawn from school. On the same day, the Averys were brought out one by one to the barn behind the Lundgren’s rented house.
Dennis Avery went out there thinking he was going to help fellow cult members with camping equipment. He was gagged. They dragged him to the pit and shot him twice in the back.
Cheryl Avery was told her husband needed help in the barn. She was gagged and duct tape was put over her eyes. She was shot three times, once in the stomach, twice in the chest.
A chainsaw was left running so that their nice neighbors wouldn’t hear the gunshots.
The children were brought out in birth order, oldest to youngest.
Trina Avery, fifteen years old, shot twice in the head.
Rebecca Avery, thirteen years old, shot twice.
Karen Avery, seven years old, shot in the head and chest.
They had time to see the pit, to see the body of their husband, their mother, their father, their sister in the pit. The pit, now a grave, was filled in with dirt, rock, lime, and garbage.
This is not a nice thing to think about. It is not a nice thing to write about. It makes me wish I wrote about nice things. Ignoring not nice things doesn’t stop them from happening.
Months later, when the Avery’s bodies have been found, exhumed from their shared grave, when Doris is interviewed in her pink coat and furry white hat, the only time we hear her speak, hear her voice, is when she says, “It seemed to be the best kept secret in town. I still think it is. Probably maybe in the nation.”
She laughs in that way people do when they are uncomfortable.
Bruce Owens Grimm has published essays in The Rumpus, The Kenyon Review online, Ninth Letter, The Poetry Foundation’s Harriet Blog, Older Queer Voices, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and elsewhere. He has attended residencies and workshops at The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Vermont Studio Center, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA), and he received a Lambda Literary Residency fellowship to attend The Sundress Academy of the Arts residency. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. More information can be found at www.briankornell.com.
Read earlier installments of CULTLAND right here.