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Family ambushed in Mexico linked to triple-homicide in Houston 31 years ago

HOUSTON – A fundamentalist Mormon community in Mexico is linked to a triple-homicide that happened in Houston more than three decades ago.

Two brothers and an 8-year-old girl were killed execution-style on June 27, 1988, and investigators would eventually learn the killings were “blood atonement” for their sin of leaving a polygamous, Mormon cult called “The Church of the Lamb of God.”

The church, populated primarily of family members, was founded by Ervil LeBaron, a descendant of Mormons who split with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and immigrated to Mexico in the early 20th century to continue the practice of polygamy.

Under LeBaron’s leadership, the church became a criminal enterprise.  

“Stolen cars, they were heavy into credit card abuse, forgery, they’d also done a couple of bank robberies,” said retired Houston police officer Richard Holland who investigated the murders.

Straying from LeBaron’s teachings could be fatal.

“It’s in the covenant, 'Children who are disciplined and won’t obey are to be killed. People who don’t respect my leadership are to be killed,'” said former federal prosecutor Terry Clark.

During the 1970s, a schism in the LeBaron family set off a war that led to the murders of at least 33 people, mostly family members. LeBaron died in prison in 1981 but left a hit list of ex-followers marked for death.

Mark Chynoweth and his brother Duane were on that list. They split with the cult and moved to Houston to start new lives. On that June afternoon in 1988, Mark was gunned down at his appliance shop and Duane was lured to a vacant house and murdered. Tragically, Duane’s 8-year-old daughter was also killed.

The murders stunned Houston and galvanized law enforcement. Sixteen detectives were assigned to the case. The investigators energized by Jenny's death. 

“They were all horrible crimes,” said Holland. “They were the last in a string of many horrible crimes, but the fact that an 8-year-old girl was the last victim, yeah, that stuck.”

Investigators quickly identified potential suspects, and two weeks later, there was a break in the case when six cult members they were seeking were arrested in Phoenix on auto theft charges. No one would talk, but investigators got another break when family member Cynthia LeBaron, fearing for her own life, came forward to name names.

“She was part of the group actually involved in the homicides in Houston, along with sister Natasha LeBaron,” said Clark. “What had occurred since then is that they had killed Natasha LeBaron in Mexico, so Cynthia became concerned that, 'My goodness. I might be next on the list. I'm out of here,' and came forward at that time.”

It would be 2011 before all of the suspects were rounded up and prosecuted.