Anna LeBaron grew up in a dangerous cult and found freedom at Gateway

Anna LeBaron only recalls seeing her father only three times in her life. She and her siblings spent their childhood shuffling between different hideouts in the United States and Mexico, where they lived in poverty. Why were they in hiding? They belonged to a polygamous cult led by Anna’s father, Ervil LeBaron, who was believed to be God’s one true prophet. 

Ervil had 13 wives, more than 50 children, and several hundred followers who carried out his every demand—even when it meant murdering people on his hit list. The quickest way to get your name on the list was to disobey an order, challenge his authority, or attempt to leave the cult. 

The FBI and Mexican Federal Police struggled for years to locate Ervil, who bounced around from hideout to hideout. Finally, in 1979, he was caught in Mexico, but not before the death toll had grown to 20 and included one of his wives and several of his children. Two years after his arrest, he died in a Utah Prison. The cult was taken over by Dan Jordan, an even more oppressive leader, and Ervil’s dark influence continued in the form of a large hit list he sent out during his last days in prison.

All of this took place while Anna was a little girl, not fully aware of the evil taking place all around her. 

Anna didn’t see her life as strange. Sudden moves from place to place without a chance to put down roots was normal for her. So were the long stretches of time when her mother would disappear from her life, often leaving to join Ervil on secret “mission” trips around the southwest. His influence was so strong that Anna’s mother would leave her 11 children behind anytime he called. Anna was often left in the care of an older sister or another of her father’s wives for weeks and months at a time. Once, when she was seven years old and in the care of an older sister in Dallas, she and several of her siblings were woken up in the middle of the night and quickly herded out the door. They were told to grab only the possessions they could carry and crammed into the back of a box truck, where they sat in darkness as it made the 800-mile drive to Colorado. Fleeing in the middle of the night became commonplace. “I grew up with a sense I was abandoned and on my own, even though I had siblings by my side,” she says. 

Though it all felt normal to Anna, the lack of love and care from a parent caused her to start questioning her family’s way of life. “I still wasn’t aware that there was anything wrong with the way I grew up,” she says. She did as she was told, often doing hard labor six days a week in an appliance repair shop run by new cult leader Dan Jordan, a taskmaster who paid the children pennies. What’s more, Anna became aware that she was being groomed to become the wife of one of the cult followers, whom she would be made to marry after age 15. Her faith in her caregivers crumbled as she was put in harm’s way time and time again, and at age 13 she ran away.

With the help of her older sister Lillian, who had begun cutting ties with the cult, Anna spent several days hiding in a motel while the rest of her family fled to a different state. The fact they left her behind magnified her feelings of worthlessness. However, Lillian and her husband, Mark (also a former cult member), made a place for her along with six of their own children in their Houston home. “They took me in and raised me,” says Anna. “I lived with them until after I graduated high school.”

She finally felt safe, and she began to attend a Christian church where she gave her life over to Jesus. But only a few years after she received salvation, tragedy struck. Mark discovered that because he didn’t attempt to break Ervil out of jail, his name was on the final hit list. Despite his best efforts to protect his family and himself (including buying and carrying a gun), Mark was killed along with several other former members in the infamous “4 O’Clock Murders.” Lillian, unable to cope, committed suicide soon after, which caused Anna to fall into a deep depression. 

Yet life continued. Anna’s pain slowly subsided, and she got married and had five children of her own. Her faith remained strong as her family moved around Texas, and she was involved in a local church no matter where they went. One church referred her to a professional counselor who helped her begin to confront the myriad of painful experiences from her childhood. But something was still missing. Growing up in a group that didn’t value or care for her and constantly put her in harmful situations, she struggled to see God as her Father. Even more than that, she struggled to see herself as a beloved daughter of God with security and significance. 

In January 2005, Anna and her family relocated to Dallas. Though they would live here longer than anywhere they’d lived before, her freedom journey was just beginning, and it started at Gateway. She attended one of Gateway’s first freedom classes called “Levels of Change” as well as many of the classes and programs that followed. It took years for her to discover true freedom from the pain of her past—a journey she continues today—but her biggest breakthrough was realizing God as her Father and His deep love for her.

“I didn’t believe any of it at first,” she says. “Being able to receive His love and take it in, for someone who was raised fatherless—that’s a big leap.” But she persisted, taking every opportunity to confront her past and the lies she had believed for so many years. One big opportunity came in 2015, when she began writing her memoir, The Polygamist’s Daughter, in which she tells her story in detail. 

For the last two years, Anna’s healing journey has centered around recounting her past, and old wounds were reopened. “It’s been a very cathartic process,” she says. “My counselor was worried about me being re-traumatized by the telling of my story.” There were difficult moments—including reading the manuscript to her mother once it was complete—but being surrounded by a group of women who prayed for her every step of the way helped her not only survive the process but overcome so many of the lies from her past. 

And now that the book is released, she can look back and see how far she has come. “Finally, after years of receiving freedom ministry, I attended freedom ministry training so I can help others,” she says. “How I was able to go from a fatherless existence to what I now call a well-Fathered heart—that’s the part Gateway Church has played in my life.” 

 

To read more about Anna’s story, her new memoir, The Polygamist’s Daughter, is available at Barnes & Noble and Amazon.