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One of Ervil LeBaron's 13 wives - Polygamous murderer denied parole

www.sltrib.com

By Brooke Adams
and Abigail Curtis
The Salt Lake Tribune

Article Last Updated: 02/03/2007 01:38:32 AM MST

A plural wife's hopes of being paroled after serving 28 years for murder were dashed Thursday by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Vonda White, a former wife of deceased Utah polygamist Ervil LeBaron, had been granted release by the state's Board of Parole in September.  It was White's 19th bid for parole, and the first time the board agreed she had served enough time.

But Schwarzenegger reversed the board's decision, saying the gravity of her crime outweighs her positive accomplishments in prison.

White, who is 67, will remain incarcerated indefinitely at the California Institution for Women in Corona, Calif.

The former preschool teacher was one of LeBaron's 13 wives and was seven months pregnant in 1975 when the cult leader ordered her to kill Dean G. Vest in National City, near San Diego.

LeBaron, founder of the Church of the Lamb of God, believed Vest was going to defect and leak information about the sect to the FBI.  On June 16, 1975, White shot Vest twice in the back and once in the head with a gun supplied by LeBaron.

White then called police and told investigators she had been upstairs in her National City home, reading stories to her children when she heard three shots fired downstairs.

After a brief detention, White was released.  She then fled the state, adopting aliases for herself and her five children.  White, who was using the name "Susan Katella," was captured in 1978 in Colorado.

She was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to seven years to life, with the possibility of parole.

LeBaron, who died in Utah State Prison on Aug. 16, 1981, started his sect after a falling-out with a brother over leadership of the Church of the Firstborn of the Fullness of Times.

He ordered followers - including another plural wife - to carry out numerous hits, including the 1977 murder of 71-year-old Rulon C. Allred, leader of the Salt Lake City-based Apostolic United Brethren.  LeBaron considered Allred a rival.

White claimed she carried out Vest's murder because she feared for her safety and that of children.

During White's September hearing, the parole board noted she has been a model inmate who has availed herself of educational and therapy opportunities, with groups like Parables of Jesus and Toastmasters.

"I've been involved in California law for over 38 years and I've not seen a more deserving person," said Edward Williams, presiding commissioner of the parole board.

Linda Buchalter, White's attorney, said her client has paid the price for her crime and then some.

"It would be a tragedy for the governor to not let Vonda White return home," Buchalter said while awaiting Schwarzenegger's decision.  "She is hopeful that she can spend what's left of her life with her family."

But Schwarzenegger said White's crime was "especially atrocious" because of the "dispassionate and calculated manner" in which she carried it out, adding that "her release from prison would pose an unreasonable public-safety risk."

The parole board concluded White's actions were due to "significant stress" placed on her by LeBaron and noted she "may have been a victim of intimate partner battery," but the governor said that did not mitigate the nature of White's crime.  He also noted the San Diego County District Attorney's Office opposed White's release.

Gary Rempel, a deputy district attorney who has worked on the case since 1978, in 2003 described White as having "the heart of an assassin."

"Conformity is something she's extremely good at," he said.  "She's the last person you'd expect to sneak up behind somebody and pull the trigger a couple of times."

Rempel has a personal stake in the case: LeBaron ordered a hit on him in the late 1970s.

"If she goes out, it's going to give a lot of comfort to the people who are still in the cult," the retired prosecutor said.  "They're still doing what they do, and I'm still on the hit list."

The FBI last summer placed Jacqueline Tarsa LeBaron, Ervil LeBaron's daughter, on its list of most-wanted fugitives in Houston.  On June 27, 1988, LeBaron followers carried out four murders of sect members in Houston and Irving, Texas, the FBI says.

But Audrey Walz, White's oldest daughter, said Rempel's fears are unfounded because the cult is defunct.

"Nobody's looking to my mom to be reviving this, resurrecting this cult," Walz said.  "She doesn't want to have anything to do with that at all."

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