On Jan. 4, Enoch, Utah, police arrived at the home of Michael and Tausha Haight to perform a welfare check after a friend of Tausha’s had become alarmed when she hadn’t shown up for an appointment. In the home, police found eight bodies—those of Tausha, her five children, ranging in age from 4 to 17, and her mother, Gail Earl, who had all been shot to death, as well as the body of Michael Haight, who had apparently died by suicide after murdering the family.
In the following weeks, the case has drawn public attention from far beyond southern Utah. According to gun-violence research organization Everytown, an average of 70 women are shot and killed by an intimate partner every month in the U.S. We’ve already had several other mass murders in 2023 that could be characterized as “family annihilation,” whether attempted or accomplished. None of these have attracted the online attention the Haight case has. The family were active and seemingly devout members of the Mormon Church—or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as it prefers to be called—and well-known members of their community, a small, rural, mostly Mormon town outside Cedar City, Utah, approximately 215 miles south of Salt Lake City and 60 miles north of St. George. And after the deaths, both the Haight and Earl families released statements drawing on their religious faith that confounded onlookers inside and outside of Mormonism.
As often happens when an event involving members of the LDS church rises to the level of national scrutiny, the public has divided into various camps on just what parts of this horrible story are the religion’s “fault.” Here we have horrific domestic violence committed by a member of a church that promises a surefire plan for family peace and togetherness. Outside the church, the response has been one of both horror and disbelief at the quickness to forgive that has been demonstrated publicly by the families and by the Enoch community. Within the church, the case has stoked calls for reform and acknowledgement of the danger of patriarchal authority to women and children in the faith, but also defensiveness—a feeling that the church had nothing to do with the crime, and that to blame Mormonism is an act of anti-Mormon prejudice.
As of this week, the following facts in the case have been verified:
Michael and Tausha Haight had been married for 19 years, and had five children: 17-year-old Macie; 12-year-old Briley; 7-year old twins, Ammon and Sienna; and 4-year old Gavin. About two weeks prior to the murders, on Dec. 21, Tausha Haight filed for divorce. Gail Earl was staying with the family to help Tausha with the children in the midst of the divorce. According to Tausha Haight’s sister, Jennie Earl, Michael Haight had removed all firearms from the Haight home in the days leading up to the murders.
Local police confirmed early on that the family had previously been known to them due to a prior investigation. On Wednesday, reporters from the Associated Press published a piece drawn from the files associated with that investigation of Michael Haight for alleged child abuse against the couple’s eldest daughter, Macie. The case had apparently been opened in 2020 after a friend of the family raised concerns with the Utah Division of Child and Family Services.
Macie told police her father had choked her until she thought she might die, grabbed her by the shoulders, and pushed her into the sofa. Michael told police he had not intended his actions to be violent, but that Macie had been “mouthy,” and that he had been having a tough year due to his father’s death. A police officer warned Michael his behavior was “close to assaultive.” The investigation also uncovered that Michael was controlling and demeaning toward Tausha, including monitoring her text messages and surveilling her email. Tausha told police that she preferred charges not be filed against Michael, hoping the investigation would be a “wake-up call.” Police decided not to press charges. When questioned following the investigation about why charges had not been pressed, they told reporters there was insufficient evidence. The Enoch city manager has defended the police’s decision.
Those are the facts, and they are, sadly, familiar to anyone who follows how these crimes of family annihilation unfold. (Unconfirmed stories about the abuse that were posted by friends of the family members on Facebook—friends I tried to contact, and who have since taken down their accounts or did not reply—added upsetting corroborating details.) But it’s been the public response of the community that surrounded the Haights that’s drawn the biggest reaction.
On Jan. 6, Tausha’s family released a statement on the tragedy to the media and public, acknowledging the hurt they and the community were feeling and expressing their faith in God and the “plan of salvation that extends far beyond the mortal loss of those most precious to us.” They cautioned the media and public against politicizing the family’s story, particularly in order to motivate gun control or reform. Instead, they noted that all the adults in the household were trained in using firearms to protect themselves, and blamed the removal of those guns for the tragedy. They also called on the media to “turn their attention to the weightier matters surrounding this event,” which include the value of life, God’s ability to “render a forgiving heart,” and religion’s power to heal and promote love.
Arguably a political statement in its own right, the family’s advice to the media in this press release drew early scrutiny about the community’s and the family’s culture and politics. Here was a family with ample access to “protective arms,” unfettered by local authorities (despite, as it would later become clear, a prior complaint of child abuse), and with a clear history of devout religiosity, and their surviving relatives were arguing that the weightiest matters to cover following the tragedy were the need for expanded access to guns and the following of Christian religious principles. If one religious man could simply remove his family’s guns and their ability to defend themselves, despite both of the adults involved having gun rights under local law, and then murder his entire family, exactly how useful are guns and faith in preventing such tragedies?
Then came the obituary, which has now been removed from both the Spectator, the local news outlet that originally published it, and the local mortuary’s memorial page for Michael Haight. The obituary went viral after Shannon Watts, an activist with the gun control advocacy organization Moms Demand Action, tweeted it along with her own commentary on the family’s reactions:
The obituary, which Watts posted screenshots of after it was taken down, and whose authors have not been named, entirely omitted the facts of the end of Michael Haight’s life and the ends of his family’s lives, most significantly the fact that everyone concerned died by his hand. It painted instead a picture of a flawless family man, a service-minded father and churchgoer, detailing Haight’s time as a missionary for the church as a young man as well as his leadership in the church’s lay ministry. As a Boy Scout, the anonymous author or authors wrote, Michael “achieved the rank of Eagle Scout.” In fact, the obituary claimed, “He excelled at everything he did.”
His obituary noted the births, but not the deaths, of each of his children. “Each of these children were truly a cherished miracle” to Tausha and Michael, the authors wrote, adding: “Michael made it a point to spend quality time with each and every one of his children. Michael enjoyed making memories with the family,” and had recently sold his insurance business “to allow more flexibility to spend time with his family.” The remembrance went on to list the family members he is survived by, but not those who preceded him in death.
The obituary post on the mortuary’s memorial page included an open comment section, which had gathered about 30 comments from members of the Haights’ church community before it was deleted. Some comments praised Haight as a joy to work with in positions of church authority, while other community members expressed their appreciation for his work as an insurance agent. “Michael was our insurance agent,” wrote one. “We drove all the way from St. George to have him help us,” wrote another. “He was always good to us and always willing to lend a helping hand. We don’t know the whys and how’s but I do know it’s not our right to judge. And the Lord loves Michael very much.”
A self-identified family member of Michael’s wrote, “Michael was funny. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the time we visited the cowboy/ghost town and Michael decided to be the wife in the cut outs. I’m grateful for his example of Christlike love and service, his life and his friendship. I pray that peace and comfort will come to his family left behind, with the reassurance that you will be together again one day.”
No one in the comments mentioned his murdered children, wife, or mother-in-law directly.
Among some progressive Mormons, the case has prompted conversations about the role of the religion’s unique beliefs about the afterlife in producing this oddly calm response. Was the idea that righteous Mormons will be connected to their families of origin for eternity perhaps making people’s efforts to cope with the murders a bit too easy?
Mormon LGBT advocate Calvin Burke tweeted, “My fellow Latter-day Saints, if you believe that it ‘isn’t your place to judge’ the actions of a member of our church who murdered his entire family—including his five children—Repent now. Or you will go to hell. And you will deserve it.” Others replied asking for a more nuanced view of Michael: “I’m for condemning the actions, but my theology requires waterfalls of grace for him as much as for his family. There is no room for wrath in my faith. It’s just too large a burden to bear.”
Progressive Mormon writer Meg Conley drew attention to the religion’s elevation of men’s testimony and the downplaying of women’s, as well as double standards around morality and sin.
Writer Gabrielle Blair, who grew up in a small Mormon town in southern Utah, cast blame on the men in charge of the town for not raising flags about Haight’s behavior. In addition to blaming the police, Blair wrote that she suspected that church leaders—who are all men, due to the church’s beliefs that only men can be priests, and who interview all active members regularly about their lives, faith, and general well-being—were likewise alerted to complaints, either from Haight’s children or his wife, prior to the divorce: “I’m no prophet, but as details have come to light, it turns out my assumptions were exactly right. I’m so fucking furious,” Blair wrote. “So many men knew about this … Specific men, who had specifically agreed to care for vulnerable people in their community, and who had authority to do something about it, knew how shitty this guy was. And they did fucking nothing.”
How might things have gone differently if someone in the Haights’ religious circles, those who claim to have admired Michael so greatly, even after he committed such heinous crimes, had instead confronted him about his behavior or his attitude toward his family? And if, on the other hand, no men in the Haights’ church community suspected anything was wrong with Michael’s behavior, and never heard a complaint from his wife or children, despite the leadership structures Blair mentions, then truly—just what are they good for?
Others have criticized the Earl family’s GoFundMe page for the victims, which had raised just over $100,000 at the time of writing, for “any funeral expenses if needed, legal fees, and a memorial fund in honor of Tausha’s children.” The page features a family photo of the Haights that originally included Michael, Tausha, and all five of the Haight children, but Michael has been edited out of the photo and replaced with an illustration of Jesus Christ that’s commonly circulated in Mormon media. Christians and non-Christians alike took issue with the photo, including some who made small-dollar-amount contributions to the GoFundMe for the pleasure of arguing about the tastefulness of the edited photo in the donor comments section. Wrote one $5 donor: “This man murdered his five children, his wife, and his mother-in-law instead of accepting an impending divorce and seeking therapy. How dare you replace his face with that of Jesus Christ, your lord and savior. How dare you.”
Another donor wrote back, “For everyone who is angry that they replaced that horrible man with Jesus, consider that Jesus is the one who is with them now. Not the man responsible for taking their lives. You are all misinterpreting the meaning behind it. They wanted him out of the photo. This family is grieving and your insults are making it worse.”
As a former Mormon myself, this latter reading of the photo seems to me to be the right one. To remove Michael from the photo and replace him with Jesus indicates a belief on the part of the family that Michael is not with the children any longer, and that instead, the Haight family is under the protection of Jesus Christ in the afterlife. Despite their politicized early statement against gun control and in favor of greater religiosity as the answer to tragedies like this one, reports from the funeral last week for the children, Tausha, and her mother Gail indicate that even with the family’s belief that all of these lost loved ones are reunited with Christ, they miss them dearly and are just beginning to reckon with their loss. Belonging to the LDS church doesn’t mean you don’t feel grief, and things people say online in the aftermath of a tragedy can’t represent the entirety of their feelings and reactions.
Generally, the public and media have an unspoken commitment to not criticizing or questioning the families of the deceased as they mourn and make sense of the tragedy in their own ways. Who are we, some might say, to quibble with how a family facing this tragedy mourns their loss and comforts themselves? To many, casting blame on a grieving community and family feels uncharitable. After all, what do you say when something so horrific, something that so defies our understanding of family, of parenting, of humanity itself, happens in your community or in your family? And if faith is bringing them peace, who are we to judge?
There is a world in which an entirely secular reading of the case could suffice to explain Michael Haight’s apparent crimes. Domestic violence and gun violence are in no ways unique to conservative religions. In fact, intimate-partner mass killings like this one are more common in the United States than the more high-profile public mass shootings most of us hear about. “A guy who kills his wife and children and sometimes kills himself is the most common type of mass killing,” criminologist James Alan Fox told USA Today as part of a study on mass killings last year.
Perhaps much of the public controversy around the killings and the family and community response could be quelled if the leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were to wade in and offer some clarity. According to their beliefs, just what is the likely eternal fate of a man who kills his whole family? What kind of grace, if any, does the church believe Michael deserves, and what can it say to dissuade any further crimes like this among its believers? What resources do they offer families facing an abusive and controlling patriarch, and where might they have done more in the case of the Haight family?
So far, church leadership has been silent regarding the case. Its last statements on child abuse came last year, regarding a lawsuit from three children who were sexually abused by their father over the course of many years, and whose Mormon bishop had heard a confession about the abuse from the father himself and had been encouraged by church legal representatives not to report it to law enforcement. That statement began, “For generations, leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have spoken in the strongest of terms about the evils of abuse and the need to care for those who are victims or survivors of abuse …We echo those sentiments and teachings today. Our hearts are broken as we learn of any abuse. It cannot be tolerated. It cannot be excused. The Savior Jesus Christ wants us all to do better and be better.”
Perhaps the statement that “Good dads, good men, do not hurt, do not shoot, and do not kill their families” feels so obvious and uncontroversial it shouldn’t need to be made. The Haight case suggests it may be worth saying out loud after all.