Why the Vallow-Daybell murders are among the bleakest in true crime memory

A banner featuring two smiling children hanging on a wire fence in a rural snowy scene. Blue artificial flowers and a teddy bear also hang on the fence.
A picture of Tylee Ryan, left, and J.J. Vallow is seen on a fence opposite the property where their bodies were found in 2020, on April 4, 2023, in Rexburg, Idaho. | Natalie Behring/Getty Images

Two missing children, a quadruple homicide, and the darkest of true crimes. Lori Vallow finally faces a reckoning.

One of the most high-profile and tragic cases in recent true crime memory received a partial conclusion Friday, as Lori Vallow-Daybell, a.k.a. Lori Vallow, was found guilty in an Idaho court for the murder of her two children. Vallow was sentenced for the murder of 16-year-old Tylee Ryan and 7-year-old J.J. Vallow, as well as conspiracy to murder Tammy Daybell, the previous wife of her fifth husband, religious guru Chad Daybell.

The course of the investigation into the fates of the children, who went missing in fall of 2019, drew international headlines and spawned an ongoing outpouring of public grief and concern. Those fears were only heightened when Tammy Daybell died under mysterious circumstances just weeks after their disappearances.

Jurors deliberated on Thursday and Friday and found Vallow guilty on all counts, including murder, conspiracy to commit murder, and grand theft. Her defense team had called no defense witnesses, and instead argued that the prosecution had not proven its case. They were overruled. The prosecution, in its turn, called more than 60 witnesses and delivered harrowing testimony, including from members of Vallow’s family, who movingly recounted confronting Vallow after her children went missing.

The presiding judge, Steven Boyce, will likely deliver Vallow’s sentence within three months. She could face up to life in prison. Her alleged co-conspirator in the murder, Chad Daybell, pleaded not guilty and will face an additional trial. Daybell faces an additional murder charge for the death of his wife, Tammy. In Arizona, Lori Vallow faces one additional charge of conspiracy to commit the murder of Charles Vallow. She likely will be extradited soon to stand trial on that charge.

Two missing children and an unraveling string of mysteries

On a cold, rainy day in November 2019, two frantic grandparents called police in Idaho for a welfare check on their 7-year-old grandson. Neither he nor his 16-year-old sister had been seen in months, and their mother’s story kept changing.

When police tracked down 46-year-old Lori Vallow, she laughed, joked, and told them her son was staying with a friend. They were just at the movies. She sent the police on their way.

But Vallow was lying.

The next day, police returned to the house, only to find that Vallow and her husband had vanished overnight — with no sign of Vallow’s two youngest children.

The ensuing investigation revealed two missing children, four homicides, two homicide attempts, and a manhunt spanning three states. Boiling below it all, a cauldron of dark elements — greed, theft, fraud, extreme religion, doomsday cults, demons, and delusions. Even with Lori Vallow’s trial, which began April 3, 2023, in Boise, Idaho, finally promising answers, the case stands as one of the most confounding in the annals of true crime: that of a mother whose grandiose delusions were fed by a manipulative, rapacious doomsday guru and enabled by her fiercely loyal brother, even to the point of death.

Vallow, her fifth husband Chad Daybell, and her brother Alex Cox all allegedly killed Vallow’s two youngest children, J.J. Vallow, 7, and Tylee Ryan, 16, as well as her fourth husband, Charles Vallow, 62, and Daybell’s first wife Tammy Daybell, 49. They further allegedly committed a tasering, an attempted shooting, and a previous attempt to kill Tammy Daybell. The natural death of Alex Cox at the peak of the investigation is one more tragic question mark in a case full of them.

What too frequently gets lost amid this tragedy is that it was likely preventable. Prior to his murder, Charles Vallow spent months trying to get anyone and everyone to realize his ex-wife was growing more and more dangerous. He tried and failed to have her mental health evaluated. His divorce filing stressed she was threatening to kill him. He forwarded her emails to family members, trying to get them to realize the depths of her religious delusions — including evidence that she saw her own children as evil.

But Lori used classic abuse tactics to undermine Charles. She bonded with police and alienated Charles from his family before anyone would listen. Even among the few who recognized Lori’s delusions, no one fathomed the coming horrors of this case. Could Lori — friendly, funny cheerleader and pageant winner, a blonde, blue-eyed mom next door — really ruthlessly orchestrate four murders, then pack up and escape to Hawaii as though nothing had happened?

The answer, as the world would learn over the long saga of this high-profile case, was yes. But by the time anyone beyond Charles realized it, it was already too late.

Lori Vallow seemed stable on the surface — until she didn’t

Lori Vallow was born in 1973 to Barry and Janis Cox, members of the sovereign citizen movement with permanent animosity toward the federal government and, at one point, a $335,000 tax debt to the IRS. Her large family tended toward extremes in their LDS upbringing.

Vallow married shortly after graduating high school in California, but neither her first nor her second marriage lasted. Her third husband, Joseph Ryan, adopted Vallow’s son by her previous marriage, Colby, and in 2002 she gave birth to their second child, Tylee. In 2004, she competed in the Mrs. Texas pageant, where she stressed the importance of being a good mother and joked that she was “a ticking time bomb.” She also appeared that year on Wheel of Fortune — because, she reportedly said, God told her to.

In 2007, during a bitter custody battle with Ryan, a court ordered Vallow to undergo a psychiatric evaluation after she stated “death would be an option” rather than grant Ryan custody. During a custodial visit, her brother Alex Cox repeatedly attacked Ryan with a taser. Ryan told authorities he was “afraid of what they [Cox and Vallow] might do,” including Vallow “killing herself and her daughter or him.”

Despite this turmoil, the family rebounded well with Lori’s fourth husband, Charles Vallow. Born in 1956, Charles was a lively athlete from Louisiana who briefly became a semi-pro baseball pitcher. In 2013, he and Lori adopted 6-month-old Joshua “J.J.” Vallow, the grandson of Charles’s sister.

The family seemed truly happy during this time, according to those close to them. Charles’s ex-wife described him as “light, he was bubbly, charismatic and so full of joy.” Tylee was bright and outgoing. She was a fangirl who loved Teen Wolf and Supernatural, her friends, her Jeep, and especially her little brother. J.J. was a cheerful, rambunctious kid who seemed to be perpetually smiling. As for Lori, her former sister-in-law said “she was a very, very loving and doting mother.”

One of the striking things about this case is how rapidly things went downhill. In October 2018, Lori met religious guru Chad Daybell, and friends and family quickly started to notice a “seismic shift” in Lori’s personality.

Chad Daybell put Lori Vallow on a collision course with delusion

As a child, Chad Daybell “obsessively killed bees.”

Born in 1968 and raised in Springville, Utah, he was a driven student who got a journalism degree from Brigham Young University. There, he met and married Tammy Douglas, who halted her own education to support his. Tammy was smart, warm, and multitalented. She seemed to be perpetually active, taking classes in everything from Zumba to clogging, all while raising their five children and working as a librarian.

A lifelong Mormon, Chad claims to have had two near-death experiences that gave him special access to the spirit world. In 1997, on what he claimed were orders from God, he abruptly quit his journalism career to work as a cemetery sexton and write LDS fantasy novels, part of the era’s broader Christian fantasy craze. In 2015, again acting on the abrupt orders of the divine, he relocated his family to Rexburg, Idaho. There, he began posting to a forum of Mormon doomsday preppers. He also began contributing to Preparing a People (PAP), a niche LDS podcasting network that hosted in-person workshops and conferences. Daybell exerted a magnetic pull over this small community; PAP co-founder Michael James told members he and his wife followed Daybell to Rexburg. (James also denied to East Idaho News that the group was a cult.)

In October 2018, PAP member Melanie Gibb befriended Lori Vallow. Together they attended a PAP conference where Daybell was also speaking. According to Gibb, during their very first conversation, Daybell told Vallow they had been married in many previous lifetimes. Vallow was thrilled. None of what Daybell told her was part of LDS theology, but her beliefs were already off the map of mainstream Mormonism; now, they veered even further.

On October 30, 2018, Daybell ranked all of Vallow’s family members, sight unseen, by levels of spirituality. “4.1 and above have made covenants to their side,” he wrote. “They rarely switch sides.” He labeled Vallow’s 16-year-old daughter a “4.1 D” for “dark” spirit.

Lori soon told friends that Charles was now a “zombie” — he’d been taken over by a dark spirit. Lori claimed to be a “god” chosen to usher in the apocalypse while Charles was a demon named Nick Schneider. She claimed to teleport and said she could create natural disasters — powers she threatened to kill him with. Lori’s delusions quickly became so alarming that in January 2019, Charles requested an involuntary hold order against her. While Charles was on an out-of-town trip, he told police, Lori had canceled his flight, stolen his truck from the airport, withdrawn $35,000 from his business bank account, changed the locks to their house, and absconded with their children to a hotel.

Despite all this, rather than taking Charles seriously, police believed Lori, who, in a classic abuse tactic known as DARVO (deny, attack, and reverse victim and offender), filed her own report against Charles. In footage with chilling similarity to Gabby Petito’s boyfriend Brian Laundrie, she joked with police, convincing them Charles was the mentally unstable one. “He just goes nuts sometimes,” she laughed. Tylee, interviewed with her, corroborated her version of events.

“I don’t see you being a danger to yourself or anybody else,” one of the interviewing officers reassured her.

The next month, Charles filed a protective order against her and filed for divorce. Lori tried to lock Charles out of his own insurance benefits, apparently in a failed attempt to keep him from switching the beneficiary from her to his sister. During this time, Lori gave J.J. to Charles and vanished for over two months. Charles moved to Houston; despite his fears, he ultimately returned J.J. to her and remained married, though estranged. “Things have changed so dramatically in the past 6 months,” he texted a friend, per Dateline. “Something snapped. It is so unbelievable and scary.”

Another brother of Lori’s, Adam Cox, was one of the few family members who believed Charles. He and Charles began planning an intervention for Lori, with Charles scheduled to fly to Arizona for a visit in July. Charles also finally confronted Lori about her relationship with Chad.

The intervention never came. Instead, Lori found out and begged friends and family for help. “It’s all coming to a head this week,” she wrote Alex on July 10.

The next day, Charles was dead.

The death of Charles Vallow

On July 11, 2019, police responded to a call from Lori Vallow’s home in Chandler, Arizona. They found Charles Vallow dead from two gunshot wounds, with Alex Cox claiming self-defense. With Lori and Tylee backing a story that Charles attacked Alex, police initially closed the incident without much investigation.

Yet things felt suspicious. Charles had arranged to pick up J.J. for school; he’d have had little motive to get into a fight then and there. Further, ballistics showed that at least one shot appeared to have been fired at Charles while he was already lying on the ground, not tussling as Alex Cox claimed.

Police later reopened the case and released footage of Lori and Tylee’s interview on the day of the murder. Once again, Tylee was crucial in substantiating her mother’s claims that Charles was unstable and volatile.

Following Charles’s death, Lori wrote Daybell to complain that Charles had changed his insurance beneficiary, but noted, “I’ll still get the 4000 a month from SS” — referencing her children’s Social Security benefits. A month after Charles’s death, she switched Tylee’s benefit payout from Tylee’s bank account to her own.

From there, it was only a matter of time.

The deaths of J.J. Vallow, Tylee Ryan, and Tammy Daybell

Kay Woodcock is Charles Vallow’s sister and the grandmother of J.J. Vallow. After Charles’s death, the Woodcocks saw J.J. less and less. Their last face-to-face communication with him was a brief FaceTime video chat early in August 2019.

“We were worried about J.J. the minute we found out Charles had died,” Woodcock later said. “I knew last January, Lori, she didn’t want J.J., she was already talking about being done with Charles and being done with J.J. It’s like she was done being a mother all together.”

Following Charles’s death, Lori moved her children to Rexburg to be near Chad Daybell. It’s unclear if Tammy ever knew her husband of nearly 30 years was having an affair.

Tylee Ryan was last seen at Yellowstone National Park with her family on September 8, 2019, two weeks before she would have turned 17. A photo from that day shows Tylee holding a smiling J.J. and grinning, while her uncle Alex Cox stands laughing behind her.

From left, J.J. Vallow, Tylee Ryan, and Alex Cox. This photo, taken at Yellowstone National Park on September 8, 2019, is believed to have been taken the day before Cox allegedly shot and killed Ryan.

The next day, authorities believe, Cox shot and killed her.

That morning, Chad texted Tammy to explain why there was a freshly dug burial site in their backyard: “I spotted a big raccoon along the fence. I hurried and got my gun … I got close enough that one shot did the trick. He is now in our pet cemetery. Fun times!”

J.J. Vallow was spotted at his new Rexburg elementary school on September 23, 2019. The last known photo of him shows him sitting at home in red pajamas. The next morning, Lori complained to her friends J.J. was behaving like a “zombie,” climbing on cabinets and misbehaving. Authorities believe he, too, was killed later that day by Cox.

Lori continued to collect Social Security benefits for each of her children following their deaths.

Following the move to Idaho, a flurry of marriage rearrangements took place. Lori ordered wedding rings for herself and Chad Daybell. Alex Cox married a PAP member. Soon after, Vallow, Daybell, and Cox all are accused of trying to rid Vallow’s niece of her husband, Brandon Boudreaux. On October 2, 2019, Alex Cox, driving a Jeep registered to Charles Vallow, allegedly stalked Boudreaux’s home in Gilbert, Arizona. As Boudreaux returned home, “the back window of the Jeep opened up and Brandon witnessed the muzzle of a firearm pointed towards his vehicle and a gunshot was fired.” The bullet struck the side of Brandon’s car and the Jeep briefly chased him as he fled the scene.

Meanwhile, Chad Daybell was working on ending his own marriage. On September 8, he increased Tammy’s life insurance to the maximum amount. Around the same time, he told an old friend he had visions of her dying. On October 9, Tammy posted to Facebook. “Something really weird just happened … I had gotten home and parked in our front driveway … A guy wearing a ski mask was suddenly standing by the back of my car with a paintball gun. He shot at me several times, although I don’t think it was loaded.” The indictment later stated the “paintball gun” Tammy spotted was a real gun, and the shooter in the ski mask was allegedly Alex Cox.

Tammy’s luck wouldn’t last. On October 18 or 19, Chad Daybell is believed to have murdered his wife by asphyxiation. Three weeks later, on November 5, Chad and Lori were married in Hawaii, with the rings Lori purchased before Tammy’s death.

As with Charles Vallow’s death, initially authorities did not suspect foul play, even though Tammy was young and healthy. Not even this whirlwind of suspicious activity garnered significant police investigation.

That all changed on November 26, 2019, when the Woodcocks demanded a welfare check for their grandson J.J. Once police realized they’d been played, authorities quickly moved to reinvestigate Charles Vallow’s death, exhume Tammy Daybell’s remains, and find the children.

Less than three weeks after his marriage, Cox died from blood clots in his lungs on December 12, 2019. His death increased the urgency of the case. Where were Tylee and J.J., and where were Lori and Chad?

After two months of searching, Vallow and Daybell were discovered in Hawaii, in a moment famously captured by East Idaho News. After failing to produce J.J. and Tylee within a 30-day window, Lori was arrested in February 2020 and extradited back to Idaho, where she was given a $1 million bond. A lengthy court process unfolded, with Vallow pleading not guilty; neither she nor Daybell would confess the whereabouts of J.J. or Tylee.

As with the Delphi murders, the dearth of police updates meant online speculation ran rampant; especially baffling was why the police seemed to be making so little effort to look for J.J. and Tylee instead of waiting for a confession from Daybell and Vallow that seemed unlikely to come. It’s unclear, for example, why it took authorities so long to receive subpoenaed phone records, though it’s likely the pandemic threw an already complex investigation into further chaos. On June 9, 2020, authorities searched Chad Daybell’s property and found the bodies of Tylee Ryan and J.J. Vallow. Both had been buried under a layer of rock and topsoil; Tylee’s body had also been burned. Daybell was arrested the same day and charged with murder alongside Lori; he, like Lori, remained in jail awaiting trial.

The lead-up to the trials was rocky. Two lawyers stepped down from Vallow’s defense, and a third was removed. A judge took himself off the case at the request of the defense. Vallow was initially found incompetent to stand trial after the court agreed to separate her trial from Daybell’s. Meanwhile, Daybell’s children claim he was completely innocent, that he was lured and manipulated by Lori all along. If Daybell’s defense strategy is to blame it all on Vallow, Vallow has previously blamed it all on Cox; she claims her children died in Cox’s apartment and neither she nor Daybell had anything to do with it. While Alex Cox makes a convenient scapegoat, however, his motive for murder is nothing without Vallow herself. This might be why Vallow’s lawyers ultimately chose not to mount a defense on her behalf apart from cross-examining prosecution witnesses.

The court banned cameras from Vallow’s trial, which meant few explosive moments of the kind recent court junkies are used to seeing from high-profile trials such as that of Alex Murdaugh earlier this year. Still, the trial proved moving and emotional, with multiple witnesses crying during harrowing testimony. On April 11, Vallow asked and was refused a request to leave the courtroom due to the graphic nature of testimony about her children’s deaths. At one point, new dramatic audio from a jailhouse phone call between Vallow and her sister, Summer Shiflet, was played, in which Shiflet tearfully told Vallow, “You threw them away like garbage! In a pet cemetery!”

When Vallow asked, “You don’t think I’m in pain?” Shiflet responded, “No, I don’t. You were dancing on the beach, having a great time! You got wedding pictures while your kids are in the ground!” Prosecutors also played jailhouse phone audio from Vallow’s conversations with her surviving son Colby Ryan, who also testified against his mother.

One thing the trial failed to make clear is how much, if at all, Vallow still believes in the delusions that brought her to this dark place. Her friend, Melanie Gibb, claims that Vallow frequently expressed doubt that Daybell was the real deal. Was Lori Vallow really under the thrall of her religious delusions? Or was she under the thrall of something even darker, a deadly cocktail of love, greed, selfishness, and mental illness? Although jurors ultimately rejected Vallow’s plea of innocence, the verdict fails to offer a fully satisfying answer to that question. It’s one that will likely haunt followers of this case for years to come.

Update, May 12, 5:30 pm ET: This story was originally published on April 14 and has been updated with the verdict of Lori Vallow’s trial.

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