On May 24, 1989, as Elders Todd Ray Wilson and Jeffrey Brent Ball were about to enter their apartment front door in La Paz, Bolivia, they were gunned down by terrorists with automatic weapons. One of the elders died at the scene and the other died ten to twenty minutes later on the way to the hospital. The Zarate Willika Liberation Army claimed responsibility for the murders.
The next day, the First Presidency issued this statement: "We are grieved to learn of the assassination of two of our missionaries last evening in La Paz, Bolivia. . . . We regret that anyone would think that these representatives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who have been sent to preach the gospel of peace, would be characterized as enemies of any group. They have died as martyrs in the cause of the Lord. We extend our love and sympathy to their families and pray that they may be comforted and sustained in this hour of tragedy."
Missionary work halted for a few days after the tragic event as missionaries were asked to stay in their apartments for security reasons. During that time, members brought in meals to them.
On May 24, the bodies of the two elders arrived by jet to Salt Lake International Airport. Elder M. Russell Ballard stood with the Ball family and patted Sister Ball's hand as she wiped her eyes. Wendy Ball, Jeffrey's sister, was also there. She was currently serving a mission and was brought home from Guatemala to be with the family at this time. Later, inside the airport, Elder Ballard said: "We join with everyone in expressing our deepest feelings of trauma and upset over this awful thing that has happened to Elder Wilson and Elder Ball. We express to all of the friends of the two families, on behalf of them, their appreciation for the outpouring of love and feelings that have come to these families. These missionaries returned to us today in these caskets have fulfilled a noble service in the country they lived in. Missionaries continue to serve in South America and we pray that hearts will be softened and tragedies like this will never occur again to such wonderful, good men who have devoted their lives to preaching the gospel of peace, indeed the gospel of Jesus Christ." ("Sadness Marks Missionaries' 'Homecoming.'" Church News, June 3, 1989)
Two days later, two sister missionaries in Argentina, Yunette Harris and Maria Cristina Nieva died of accidental asphyxiation in Argentina. Grief spread throughout the Church for the loss of these four ambassadors of Jesus Christ. Elder M. Russell Ballard tried to reassure the Saints. He indicated that since the days of Joseph Smith, 447,969 missionaries had served and that only 525 had lost their lives through accident, illness, or other causes while serving. Only 17 missionaries had been killed by assassins since 1831.
On May 28, a special memorial service for the two elders was held at the La Paz Sopocachi stake center. More than 1,500 Church members and nonmembers, including government officials, press representatives, Church leaders and 120 missionaries attended the service, the largest ever held in the stake center.
At the services, President Steven R. Wright, the mission president, quoted from Joseph Smith, saying, "No unhallowed hand could stop the work of the Lord." Bishop Rene Lopez of the Villa Victoria Ward, where the missionaries were laboring, shared his "great sorrow and anguish in behalf of the members for this terrible tragedy." He renewed his commitment to missionary work.
President Wright later reported: "A great outpouring of love was expressed for the missionaries. There has been an overwhelming response from members, not just locally but nationally." The local members had reacted with total shock and horror. Many had come to the mission offices to be consoled in their grief. Government leaders also visited the offices to offer their consolations. The Bolivian press coverage had been "extremely favorable" to the Church. (Bolivians Express Love for Missionaries", Church News, June 3, 1989)
On May 30, two funeral services were held for the elders in their Utah home towns. At the service in Wellington, Utah for Elder Wilson, President Gordon B. Hinckley said: "Missionaries are so dear to the entire church that when one is lost through death the entire church grieves. Only a few have been gunned down by hateful men. . . . The names of Todd Wilson and Jeffrey Ball will be engraved forever in the history of this church as among those who lived as faithful servants of God and died as martyrs to his eternal work. . . . I think as we weep here, there will be those who weep with gladness on the other side of the veil. I think particularly Lehi and Sariah and their children and progeny rejoice over the good work of one who tried to lift and help some of their posterity in the land of Bolivia." (See "Church Honors Missionaries who died in South America," Ensign, 1989, and Sheri L. Dew, "Go Forward With Faith," p. 459).
At the service in Coalville, Utah for Elder Ball, President Thomas S. Monson siad: "Jeff has gone home. He has gone home to God. He's gone home on a missionary transfer. He is still on his mission; he has not been released. He carries on in the spirit of missionary work. . . . I think he would say, 'Do not grieve, Mother. Do not sorrow, Father. I am on the Lord's errand, and He may do with me as he sees fit.' . . . "The void in the heart and the grieving in the soul can be ameliorated in only one way -- and that's through the intervention of the giver of peace, the Prince of Peace, the Lord Jesus Christ. As the Lord rose, so will Jeff Ball rise in the Resurrection and go on toward exaltation in the celestial kingdom. This is my testimony; it is my faith and my belief; it is my knowledge."
In June, 1989, Elder M. Russell Ballard toured Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador. He gave instructions to missionaries concerning safety precautions. On his return, he said: "Contrary to rumors I've heard since I returned, the missionary elders are still wearing white shirts and ties, the sister missionaries are dressing as they always have, and the missionaries are wearing their name tags. We're just being more attentive to caution. We will continue with our efforts in those countries, and we'll do it wisely, prudently and cautiously." ("'Wisely, Cautiously,' Missionary Work Proceeds in Bolivia", Church News, June 24, 1989)
A news conference was held in La Paz to dispel the myth that the missionaries have something to do with government agencies. Elder Ballard met with the federal minister of religions and the Catholic archbishop, both of whom expressed their concern and support.
On June 30, 1989, two men, Nestor and Felix Encinas were arrested for the murders. Bolivia Interior Minister Eduardo Perez said that officers had significant evidence linking the suspects to the crimes.
A wonderful event did arise out of this tragedy. The Faucett Mortuary, had made arrangements for Elder Wilson's services. During the funeral, Sister Faucett was seated by Marsha Bryner, whose son Bill was serving in Bolivia. Sister Faucett mentioned that she had some nonmember friends, the Lobo family, in Bolivia. Sister Bryner sent a letter to her son, asking him to try to locate the Lobos. She wrote: "Maybe now s a time to see if they are ready to hear the gospel." After receiving the letter, Elder Bryner had no idea how to locate the family among the 1.5 million people in La Paz. A week later, he attended a Family Home Evening at the home of Jorge Vidovic, a recent convert. A family had also been invited over to hear the missionaries' presentation. The couple was Jorge and Elena Lobo!! The Lobos accepted the gospel and were baptized on August 2, 1989. President Steven R. Wright confirmed them. He later remarked: "Despite the great tribulations that this mission has endured, the Lord continues to bless the missionary efforts in this part of His vineyard." ("Bolivia Tragedy Plays Role in conversions," Church News, September 9, 1989).