‘Dog Valley,' a documentary about a gay Utah student murdered in 1988, is streaming in online film festival

(Image courtesy of Utah Film Center) Gordon Church is the subject of the documentary "Dog Valley," which is screening in this year's Damn These Heels Queer Film Festival.

When writer Chad Anderson learned the harrowing story of Gordon Church, a Southern Utah State College student who was beaten, raped and killed by two parolees in 1988, he wanted to make a documentary honoring Church’s memory.

Nearly a decade before 21-year-old Matthew Shepard was beaten, tortured and left to die in a Wyoming field, Church was killed in a similarly brutal fashion — but his killing did not gain national attention as a hate crime in the same way Shepard’s did.

Anderson, who published his memoir “Gay Mormon Dad” in 2017, had become interested in hate crimes against gay men after coming out as gay. Friends put him in contact with Dave Lindsay, the president of Avalanche Studios, and the two worked together with to produce “Dog Valley,” which is screening in this year’s Damn These Heels Queer Film Festival.

Avalanche usually produces paid commercials and branding videos for companies, but Lindsay and his crew saw Church’s story as a passion project they could work on after hours and on the weekends.

“We don’t just make films for free,” Lindsay said, “but this story was so fascinating and exciting, and Chad was so passionate about it, that we said, ‘You know what, let’s take a look at this.’”

Church had stopped at a 7-Eleven for cigarettes before he was supposed to meet friends for an early Thanksgiving dinner on Nov. 22, 1988. Michael Archuleta and Lance Wood, recently released on parole, encountered Church at the store and convinced Church to go up nearby Cedar Canyon with them. (Archuleta and Wood had met while serving time in Cedar City.)

They drove in Church’s car up the canyon. Based on investigations by the Millard and Iron County sheriff’s departments, the film portrays repeated assaults: The men pulled Church out of his car and put a knife to his neck. Church broke free and tried to escape, but was tackled by his captors, breaking his arm in the process. They raped him, chained him up and threw him in the trunk of his car.

Wood and Archuleta then drove between 70 and 80 miles into unoccupied land in Millard County. The film recounts how jumper cables were attached to Church’s testicles, the men tried to use the car battery to shock him, and then sodomized him with a tire iron. They then beat Church to death with a car jack and buried the 28-year-old in a shallow grave under a tree.

“Dog Valley,” according to Lindsay, is an attempt to raise awareness about hate crimes against LGBTQ people and honor Church’s memory.

The film features reenactments of the crime, and all were shot in the locations where they took place 32 years ago.

Shooting the scene where Church was thrown into the trunk of the car, according to Lindsay, was “a very emotional night” for Anderson and for actor Joseph Paul Branca, who is gay and played the role of Church.

“[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. “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].”

Branca urged people on Twitter this week to see the film. “Gordon would have turned 60 this year,” he wrote. “There were so many similarities between our lives. He was a theater major, a young gay man from a prominent Mormon family in Utah. I couldn’t help but feel like it could’ve been me.”

At one point in the documentary, Anderson fights back tears as he looks through evidentiary photos of Church’s battered corpse and whispers, “Those sons of b----es,” with his hand pressed over his heart.

Anderson drives the narrative of the documentary as the main storyteller, including conducting interviews via a video service with Wood, who is serving a life sentence in an Oregon prison. Lindsay said Anderson also was “emotionally spent” after interviewing Wood.

Church’s family declined to participate in the documentary. Archuleta also declined to be interviewed.

The themes addressed in the film were so heavy that Lindsay said he “wondered if there was going to be a worthwhile message that would come out of it.”

One positive change featured in the film: the 2019 passing of SB103, a Utah law that changed the sentencing process for criminals to account for hateful intent, offered as an example of the progress that has been made to protect LGBTQ individuals since Church’s death three decades ago.

“Hopefully telling this story will raise awareness and help people be kinder to make the world a better place,” Lindsay said. “It’s a good motivator to get people to talk about things they wouldn’t normally talk about.”

He also felt that the film’s reporting about Archuleta’s mother, Stella Archuleta, and his sister, Peggy Archuleta Ostler, showed that Church’s case “like any crime, does not have just one person who’s the victim,” and provided an uplifting ending.

Stella and Peggy, who had never given public interviews about the case before the film, talk about still loving Archuleta — even knowing the crimes that he had committed.

“The film drags you to a dark place before it pulls you back out to a good place, but we hope that the contrast between the dark and the light comes out by watching it,” Lindsay said.

Two months after her interview, Stella Archuleta died after a short battle with cancer. Michael Archuleta, who was sentenced to death, has been living on Utah’s death row since 1989, awaiting the outcomes of a series of appeals in state and federal courts. He is now 54.

Lindsay said that the most surprising part of making the film was learning of Wood’s relationship with Renee McKenzie, who met Wood as she worked with the inmate on prison reform. She appears in the documentary and explains her decision to leave her then-husband, Idaho state Sen. Curt McKenzie, and marry Wood.

The couple later had the marriage annulled, Lindsay said, adding that Renee McKenzie still lives in Oregon, hoping Wood will someday be released again on parole.

The film can be screened as part of the Damn These Heels Queer Film Festival — available on utahfilmcenter.org. Lindsay, Anderson and other members of the Avalanche Studios crew will answer questions during a virtual Q&A session held on Friday, July 17, beginning at 7 p.m. Patrons can sign up for the event on utahfilmcenter.org under the “Schedule of Events” tab.