Almost a decade before the gruesome death of Matthew Shepard in October 1998, the death of a Southern Utah State College student rattled the town of Cedar City, Utah. Now a new documentary, Dog Valley, is retelling the story to honor his memory.
In November 1988, 28-year-old Gordon Church had stopped at a 7-Eleven for cigarettes before meeting friends for an early Thanksgiving dinner. It was there he met Michael Archuleta and Lance Wood, who convinced Church to travel with them to nearby Cedar Canyon where they tortured, raped, and murdered him by beating him to death before burying him underneath a nearby tree.
The Millard and Iron County sheriff’s departments discovered that Archuleta and Wood had pulled Church out of his car and put a knife to his neck.
When he broke free, they tackled him to the ground and broke his arm. Then they raped him, chained him up, and threw him in the trunk of his car, which they drove nearly 80 miles to Millard County.
Archuleta and Wood, who had met in prison and were released just before the 1988 murder, also attached jumper cables to Church’s testicles and tried to use the car battery to shock him before sodomizing him with a tire iron. After beating him to death with a car jack, they burried him in a shallow grave.
Both were put in prison for their crime. Archuleta, now 54, has been living on Utah’s death row since 1989. Wood is serving a life sentence.
In subsequent reports, Wood's and Archuleta's stories have repeatedly contradicted each other. At the time, Wood alleged they decided to rob Church because he was gay, but Archuleta asserted to officers there had been no such conversation.
Furthermore, Archuleta alleged that Church was the one who offered to engage in anal sex after he told them he was gay. However, Wood told police at the time that Archuleta was the one who initiated Church's sexual assault before turning to Wood and asking if he "wanted any," reports The Salt Lake Tribune.
The film reenacts the crime in the same locations it took place over 30 years ago. The filmmakers, Chad Anderson and Dave Lindsay, are screening in the film at this year’s Damn These Heels Queer Film Festival, which will start virtual screening tonight at 6 Pacific time.
Anderson acts as the narrator, conducting interviews with various people and witnesses, including Wood, Archuleta’s mother and sister (who’d never given public interviews before the film), and Wood’s ex-girlfriend Renee McKenzie, who was previously married to onetime Idaho State Sen. Curt McKenzie.
Archuleta refused to be interviewed for the film. Church's family also chose not to participate.
“Hopefully telling this story will raise awareness and help people be kinder to make the world a better place,” Lindsay told the Tribune. “It’s a good motivator to get people to talk about things they wouldn’t normally talk about.”
Joseph Paul Branca, who is gay and played the role of Church, also urged people on Twitter to see the film.
“[Branca] was playing the role of someone who was killed because he was gay, and he has that in the back of his mind in real life anyway,” Lindsay said of the night they filmed the murder scene. “It was a cold, rainy, wet, horrible night when we filmed it. It was draining on everybody, but it was especially draining for [Branca] and [Anderson].”
Lindsay and Anderson will be holding a virtual Q&A session tonight following the screening. Viewers can sign up for the event at UtahFilmCenter.org.