Jury finds Lori Vallow Daybell guilty of murdering 2 of her children
Updated May 12, 2023 at 4:12 PM ET
A jury has found Lori Vallow Daybell guilty of murdering two of her children and conspiring to murder a romantic rival. The verdict was read aloud in court shortly after 3 p.m. ET, and jurors were dismissed moments later.
A sentencing hearing has not been set — it could be several months before one can be held, Judge Steven Boyce said. Vallow Daybell, 49, could face life in prison. She and her husband, Chad Daybell, 54, were indicted on multiple counts two years ago, but they're being tried separately.
Reading of the verdict was live-streamed from the Ada County Courthouse in Boise, Idaho — a departure from the trial's main phase, when Boyce declared daily proceedings would be depicted only via audio, to avoid the release of sensitive and upsetting images.
Prosecutors spent weeks laying out their case against Vallow Daybell, showing jurors graphic images from the scene where her children's bodies were found. The trial spanned more than a month — but in a stunning move, Vallow Daybell's defense team opted not to call a single witness, resting its case minutes after the prosecution finished its presentation.
The jury began deliberating Thursday afternoon, on a case that has attracted wide attention. Prosecutors cite Vallow Daybell's religious beliefs about zombies and a looming doomsday as partial motives for the alleged murders of her two youngest children and her husband's previous wife.
Here's a brief recap of Vallow Daybell's history, and the murder trial:
What is Vallow Daybell accused of?
Vallow Daybell and Chad Daybell were indicted in May 2021 on nine criminal charges, including murder and/or conspiracy charges in three deaths.
Vallow Daybell is accused of killing her two youngest children, Tylee Ryan and Joshua Jaxon "JJ" Vallow. Tylee was nearly 17 when she and JJ, 7, were last seen alive in September 2019. The children's bodies were found in June 2020, buried on property in Rexburg, Idaho, owned by Chad Daybell.
Even before the remains were found, Vallow Daybell was charged with felony desertion of a child and obstruction. Prosecutors accuse her of not reporting her children missing so she could keep collecting benefits.
She is also charged with conspiring to murder Tammy Daybell, Chad's then-wife who was found dead in her home in October 2019 — less than one month before he and Vallow got married in Hawaii. He is Vallow Daybell's fifth husband.
In a separate case in Arizona, Vallow Daybell was also indicted on conspiracy murder charges for allegedly arranging for her brother, Alex Cox, to shoot and kill her fourth husband, Charles Vallow, in July 2019. Alex Cox died in December 2019, of what was determined to be natural causes.
What happened during the trial?
The state called on dozens of witnesses and repeatedly showed jurors disturbing images that showed the horrific conditions of Tylee and JJ's bodies. Tylee's body had been burned and dismembered; JJ's body was wrapped in plastic, with his wrists and ankles bound. A plastic bag was duct-taped over his head.
Much of the evidence in the trial has been circumstantial, including scores of text messages from Vallow Daybell's phone. But a DNA expert also testified that a hair stuck to a segment of duct tape on JJ's body was found to be a match for his mother.
Rather than call its own witnesses, the defense tried — and failed — to get the judge to rule that the prosecution didn't present enough evidence to ask the jury to render a verdict.
"Your honor, we don't believe the state has proved its case, so the defense will rest," defense attorney James Archibald said on Tuesday. But Boyce ruled that there was sufficient evidence to proceed.
The prosecution says Vallow Daybell and Chad Daybell's entire relationship is entwined in a deadly criminal conspiracy they sought to justify with fantastical beliefs. Rather than simply starting a new life together after they met in October 2018, prosecutors say, the couple plotted to kill their closest relatives and benefit from their deaths through insurance payouts and Social Security benefits.
In his closing argument, Archibald said his client was in the thrall of a man she sees as a messiah and her eternal soulmate. He also said prosecutors failed to directly tie Vallow Daybell to her children's deaths. DNA evidence such as hair on a piece of tape, Archibald said, could have resulted from a mother's normal behavior.
How do her beliefs factor into the case?
Lori Vallow went from being a "suburban mom in yoga pants" to someone caught up in an extreme subculture, Oregon-based journalist Leah Sottile has said.
"I have found in my own reporting that Lori Vallow and Chad Daybell really existed at the fringes, the far right fringes of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," Sottile told member station Boise State Public Radio, "and that they ... kind of were able to meet because of this ecosystem of extremism that exists there."
Fremont County Prosecutor Lindsey Blake told jurors that Chad Daybell and Lori Vallow Daybell portrayed themselves as religious figures called "James and Elaina." They purported to be able to "rate" people, detecting whether they might be under the thrall of an evil spirit's dark energy, Blake said.
"The defendant used 'casting' that involved prayer and energy work," Blake told the jury, according to East Idaho News. "Often this casting didn't work and the beliefs evolved to zombies. A common theme was the body had to be destroyed."
Vallow Daybell and Daybell were focused on the "end times" and doomsday scenarios, prosecutors said, and they shared beliefs about people manifesting dark energy.
During the trial and in their indictment, prosecutors have cited text messages between the pair "regarding death percentages for Tammy" Daybell, as well as messages about her being in limbo, and Tammy "being possessed by a spirit named Viola."
The zombie story emerged in 2020
In 2020, Rexburg police detective Ron Ball said in an affidavit that Vallow Daybell's close friend Melanie Gibb described hearing her say that Tylee had become a zombie — a concept Vallow Daybell had picked up from Daybell.
Gibb heard Vallow Daybell call Tylee a zombie — after Tylee had refused to babysit JJ — to which Tylee replied, "Not me, mom," according to the affidavit. Gibb said Vallow Daybell later concluded that JJ had also become a zombie.
Daybell and Vallow Daybell told Gibb that they were part of the "Church of the Firstborn" and had a special mission, directed by the Book of Revelation, Gibb told the detective.
"They also stated their mission was to rid the world of 'zombies,' " Ball wrote.
In their eyes, zombies are controlled by dark spirits — and the host body can only be released through physical death, Ball added.
"Gibb was present with Lori Vallow when Chad Daybell first instructed Lori about his theories of zombies over the phone in early 2019 in reference to Charles Vallow," Ball wrote. Months later, Charles Vallow was killed.
Money is also a big part of the case
"The defendant used money, power and sex to get what she wanted," Blake said in court, according to The Associated Press. "It didn't matter what it was."
Prosecutors say Vallow Daybell and Daybell benefited from the three deaths by funneling money toward themselves in the form of federal benefits and an insurance payout. Their goal, Blake said, was to create a new life, free from their relatives.
Charges against Vallow Daybell include grand theft, with the U.S. government as the victim, after she received Social Security funds intended for the care of Tylee Ryan and JJ Vallow and did not report Tylee's death.
Prosecutors also said that shortly before his wife died unexpectedly at age 49, Chad Daybell signed paperwork to boost her life insurance to the maximum allowed under the policy. An autopsy later determined she had been asphyxiated.
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