[Editor’s note: The following column discusses the particularly brutal murder of a gay man in graphic detail.]
Some gay bashings catch the attention of our national consciousness while others hardly make a blip on the screen. Few people have not heard of Matthew Shepard, the young man beaten and left to die on fence in rural Wyoming 10 years ago. However, very few have ever heard of Gordon Ray Church, a young drama major who was horrifically murdered in rural Utah 20 years ago. To Judy Shepherd’s credit, she used the senseless death of her son to put a face on gay bashing. Her son became the poster child for hate crime legislation, and while I am certain that Gordon Church’s mother loved him no less then Matthew Shepard’s did, I think perhaps religious and cultural differences allowed Judy Shepard to be a champion of her son.
During the Thanksgiving Holiday in 1988, Gordon Church was brutally tortured and finally slain for being gay. The details of his grisly slaughter were so horrendous that the trial judge put a gag order on reporters. It was rumored that the judge did this to protect Church’s prominent LDS family from Delta from the scandal, but those who know the family said it would not mattered. They simply wanted justice.
Gordon Church’s murder was indeed heinous. In fact, the murder was described by Salt Lake Tribune reporter, Chris Jorgensen, as the most appalling he had ever covered and possibly the most depraved in Utah’s history. In court, it took the reporting coroner two and a half hours of medical testimony to describe the horrendous injuries inflicted upon Gordon’s body.
Gordon Ray Church was born Sept. 14, 1960 in Fillmore, Utah to a devout Mormon family. As a graduate of Cedar High School, Gordon went on to attend Southern Utah State College (now Southern Utah University) as a drama major. One of his college friends said of him, “He was a beautiful person with a big heart and a great sense of humor.”
While cruising around town, the 28-year-old Church met Michael Archuleta and Lance Wood in a Cedar City convenient store parking lot. Archuleta and Wood, both recently released from prison, were out blowing off steam after having had a fight with their girlfriends.
Wood, a handsome, blond 18-year-old Bountiful boy, approached Gordon, who was sitting in his white 1978 Ford Thunderbird, and asked if he wanted company. Gordon said yes. The answer cost him his life.
Wood and Archuleta hopped into the car and the trio cruised up and down Main Street in Cedar City and then up Cedar Canyon. There Archuleta told Wood when they left the car to walk up a trail that he intended to rob Gordon. On the trail back, Archuleta put a knife to Gordon’s neck and made a surface cut. Gordon broke away and ran but Archuleta tackled him and made another cut on his neck, making an X. The force of being thrown to the ground also broke Gordon’s arm.
Forcing Gordon onto the hood of the car, Archuleta then raped him. While Gordon was recovering from the assault, Archuleta went to the trunk of the car and found tire chains to bind Gordon and battery cables.
Now “evil had completely over taken him, and once they started he couldn’t stop.” The men began torturing Church who was pantsless. They attached jumper cables and hooked to the car battery to his testicles to make him scream. During the trial Archuleta admitted to hooking the cables to the battery but accused Wood of attaching the battery cables to Church’s genitals. He then claimed that Wood twisted Church’s neck, until Church fell to the ground.
The pair threw Gordon into the trunk and drove north on I-15 to the Dog Valley exit. Archuleta told Wood that they were going to have to kill Gordon.
Pulling off onto a remote spot, they dragged Gordon out the trunk and threw him on the ground. Wood started kicking Gordon in the head with his shoe and then with his foot on Gordon’s face, Archuleta swung the tire jack “like a golf club … or like a mallet when you play croquet.” After being struck several times by the jack, Church was anally raped with the tire iron, which punctured his liver. Archuleta claimed Wood then stabbed Church in the rectum with the tire iron after the murder. Wood maintained that it was Michael Archuleta who raped Church with the tire iron.
The murderers then dragged Church’s badly beaten and half-nude body off the dirt road and covered with it with dirt and tree limbs. Then they got back in Church’s car and drove north to Salt Lake City. Wood, fearful of Archuleta, went to his parole officer and confessed, but put all the blame on Archuleta.
For this brutal murder, Archuleta received the death penalty while his partner Wood, whom the jury was informed was an Eagle Scout and Mormon, was sentenced to life in prison. Archuleta remains on death row 21 years after the foul deed. He once admitted that Gordon’s ghost haunts him. I hope he does.
I heard Wood was recently paroled but have found no confirmation.
Someone commented on a blog about Gordon’s horrendous death: “I am so sorry for the friends and family of Gordon Church just [sic] an awful crime and I don’t understand how this did not receive the coverage that the Matthew Shepard case did as this could have brought hate crime awareness forward a lot sooner …”