Google the name “Brenda Wright Lafferty.”
Result after result details the Utah woman’s murder in 1984 and yields information about her murderers. There’s little information about Brenda’s life, the vibrant years that preceded her death. Her memory permeates the cultural consciousness only through her violent death.
In modern society, this is not unusual, but it should cause us to pause. Victims of murder are rarely spoken of outside of their murders; they become lost. They deserve better. Brenda deserves better. But, for whatever reason, society has accepted this phenomenon and not questioned what this says about us.
I recognized this phenomenon when I began preparing to write about “Under the Banner of Heaven,” an FX drama that aired its final episode this week. I wanted to understand the ins and outs of the case, so I did all the research that I could and realized that many of my questions about Brenda were unanswered because most of what has been written is about her murder and the events leading up to it.
So I started talking to the people who knew Brenda. From those conversations, this is her story.
Three peas in a pod
Brenda Wright was born on July 19, 1960, in Logan, Utah. Her parents were LaRae Hatch Wright and Dr. James Lewis Wright, and they were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The little family — LaRae, James, Betty and Brenda — moved to Ithaca, New York, while James Lewis Wright was in graduate school. Sharon Wright Weeks, the younger sister of Brenda, told me that Brenda was just learning to walk when the family left for New York.
She said that Brenda had to relearn how to walk when the family arrived in New York. Her dad, she said, told her that Brenda had spent so much time sitting in the car that she needed to relearn how to walk after the move.
After living in Ithaca while her dad completed his doctorate, the family moved to Twin Falls, Idaho, and eventually settled in Kimberly, Idaho.
Brenda, Betty and Bonnie were three peas in a pod growing up. These three sisters were close in age; there was a gap between them and their younger siblings.
The sisters loved going to see their grandparents who lived on a farm in Helmville, Montana. When Brenda and her sisters would go to her grandparents’ farm, she loved to ride their horse named “Happy.” Happy lived in a massive red barn and was a gentle horse that would go wherever the rider wanted.
Sharon remembers Brenda as compassionate and nurturing. One of Sharon’s earliest memories is when her older sister Betty went off to then-Ricks College (now Brigham Young University-Idaho) and Brenda was in charge of watching her younger siblings while her parents helped Betty move.
Sharon remembers being sick and going into the bathroom while Brenda helped reassure her that everything would be OK. “She was just very sweet and kind and loving to us,” Sharon told me.
Joanna Wright Henry, another sister, said, “Brenda and I always had a very different connection. She was like a mother figure to me. She used to carry me around on her hip, curl my hair and help me get dressed for church.”
Once during Primary class at church, Sharon desperately wanted to contribute to the “Pennies by the Inch” charity drive for children’s hospitals, so she went into Brenda’s purse and stole $5 to be able to donate.
Someone in the Primary presidency brought the money back home to her mom, LaRue, and Brenda came out of her room and learned what happened. Sharon told me that her heart was racing and she was afraid because she knew she did something wrong.
But Brenda’s immediate reaction was one of love.
Sharon’s eyes filled with tears as she recalled how Brenda was just “so proud of me for wanting to donate that money. She wasn’t even angry with me for stealing. That was such a profound feeling of forgiveness that I got from her.”
At the time, Brenda was working after school and on Saturdays in the Sears department store. Brenda didn’t ask for the money back; she asked Sharon if she would like to still donate it to the charity. “That’s the kind of person I remember her being, even from the start.”
The most beautiful girl
The Wright family was close-knit, especially the sisters.
In the picture above, the sisters played together on Easter Sunday. Their mom, LaRae, had stayed up all night to finish their dresses. They played on their swing set as much as possible.
As Sharon grew up, so too did her relationship with Brenda. Even though there was a nine-year age gap, the two had a sweet relationship.
Brenda attended school in the Kimberly public school system and people were drawn to her warm personality. Sharon’s friends would eat in the cafeteria at the same time as the high school kids and everyone in her circle just thought Brenda was the most beautiful girl there was.
Throughout high school, Brenda went to movies, scrapbooked, sang and loved going on drives with her friends. Sharon remembered that Brenda would take her and her young siblings driving on the main strip, and the younger siblings had to hide so nobody could see them.
One of Brenda’s favorite snacks was sesame sticks, the kind that had to be kept under a heat lamp. She would buy them at the nut-and-candy counter at Sears where she worked. She also loved to read J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” and William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies.”
Brenda’s sister, Joanna, told me that Brenda introduced her to “Lord of the Rings.” Joanna said, “She could talk in Elvish, she could write in Elvish. She would have loved the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies.”
Brenda graduated from high school in 1978. Two years later, Brenda’s beauty and talent led her to compete at the Miss Twin Falls, Idaho, pageant. To prepare, Brenda would go outside and tan, as well as put lemon juice in her hair to make it lighter, Sharon said. She practiced singing and worked hard to compete.
When the time of the competition arrived, she donned a beautiful dress and sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” She was first runner-up and won a college scholarship.
Brenda dreamed of being a broadcast journalist. Her mother had earned a degree in business education from Brigham Young University. She emphasized the importance of learning to the family. LaRae had worked as a secretary while her husband was in graduate school, and was an industrious stay-at-home mother who loved to make quilts and ceramics, can fruits and vegetables, and care for her children. LaRae also eventually worked as a teacher in Pocatello, Idaho.
Both Brenda’s parents were supportive and encouraging of their daughters receiving an education. “It wasn’t a question of if, but where,” Sharon said. “They started saving for their children’s education as soon as they got married.”
Before transferring to BYU, Brenda did a year of college at the University of Idaho and at the College of Southern Idaho. At both schools, Brenda became involved with the theater programs.
But she wanted to finish her education at BYU. Using her scholarship money from the Twin Falls pageant, Brenda eventually pursued a degree in broadcast journalism there.
She landed a job as a news anchor on BYUtv with Dale Cressman and Bob Waltz on the daily news show. It was at BYU where Brenda met the man who would become her husband, Allen Lafferty.
Sharon chronicled how Brenda and Allen met in 1981 and immediately hit it off. Brenda took Allen home to Kimberly, Idaho, to meet her family, and her family loved him, too. Even though Allen accidentally lit a bush on fire on the Fourth of July, Sharon told me that she and her family were excited for Brenda.
Brenda graduated from BYU the same weekend that she and Allen married. In order to save her family a trip to Utah, she planned her wedding the day before her graduation and her reception the day after her graduation.
When Brenda was married, she went through the Latter-day Saint temple for the first time. Sharon said, “My older sister Betty had already gone through the temple and Brenda was so excited to go through with her. Betty was her best friend; it meant the world to her.”
Brenda loved her Latter-day Saint faith. Sharon said, “She loved the temple, she loved seeing her whole family together dressed in white.” Brenda used her faith to embrace and welcome everyone. “It didn’t matter who they were,” Sharon said, “Brenda welcomed and embraced everyone.”
After she was married, Brenda would go to the temple at least weekly. She continued to work as a news anchor at BYU and soon became pregnant.
Brenda gave birth to Erica Lane Lafferty on April 28, 1983. Brenda loved Erica and loved being a mother.
I asked Sharon if Brenda wanted to continue working as a journalist, and Sharon said that when Brenda had Erica, she made the decision to stay home with her. After her children grew up, she planned to re-enter the workforce.
Brenda’s dad, James, recalled the first time he gave Erica ice cream and said it was one of his fondest memories. He had to stir up the ice cream to make it soft so that she could eat it.
One of the last letters that Brenda wrote was to her sister Joanna. On July 11, Brenda had found a poem and written it out for her sister. “She never missed a birthday card; she was always very loving,” Joanna told me.
Brenda and Erica’s lives were taken on July 24, 1984. They were buried together at the Sunset Memorial Park Cemetery in Twin Falls, Idaho. Their joint gravestone features a depiction of the Salt Lake Temple and the words, “The life spent doing good and accomplishing goals will be remembered beyond that span of life itself.”
In her senior year of high school, Brenda was the editor of the yearbook. Sharon told me that Brenda wrote those words as her editor’s quote for the yearbook.
Brenda Wright Lafferty had rich experiences. She had friends and family. She learned and grew and loved and left a legacy worth remembering — not because of how she died, but because of the life she lived.