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Doomsday cult, murders and children buried in a pet cemetery: The twisted case of Lori Vallow and Chad Daybell

With ‘cult mom’ Lori Vallow jailed for life for the murders of her children and her spouse’s first wife and Chad Daybell now on trial, Rachel Sharp delves into the deeply disturbing tale of murders, unexplained deaths and apocalyptic cult beliefs

Wednesday 10 April 2024 14:53 BST
Lori Vallow – infamously dubbed the ‘cult mom’ – was found guilty of first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder and grand theft over the deaths of her daughter and son
Lori Vallow – infamously dubbed the ‘cult mom’ – was found guilty of first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder and grand theft over the deaths of her daughter and son (The Idaho Post-Register/AP/The Independent)

It looked every inch the fairytale wedding.

Dressed in white with pink flower garlands around their necks, the bride and groom couldn’t have looked happier as they exchanged vows on a paradise beach in Hawaii.

Photos captured the apparently blissful day as they toasted their nuptials, embraced and she danced to him playing the guitar. But, behind the photos, something much more disturbing was going on.

Her two children had not been seen alive in two months. His wife of three decades – the mother of his five children – had died suddenly just two weeks earlier.

And her husband had been shot dead by her brother (who would also soon be dead) not long before.

In the four years since the November 2019 wedding of Lori Vallow and Chad Daybell, a deeply disturbing tale of suspected murders, unexplained deaths and apocalyptic cult beliefs about killing zombies has come to light.

In total, five people close to the couple have wound up dead.

Now, Vallow – infamously dubbed the “cult mom” – has finally been brought to justice.

On 12 May 2023, Vallow was found guilty of first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder and grand theft over the deaths of her daughter Tylee Ryan, 16, and son Joshua “JJ” Vallow, seven. She was also found guilty of conspiracy to kill Mr Daybell’s first wife, Tammy.

Vallow was sentenced to life in prison without parole for those crimes on 31 July. And now, Mr Daybell is also on trial for the murders.

Joshua ‘JJ’ Vallow, seven, and Tylee Ryan, 16, were last seen alive in September 2019 (AP)

Separately, Vallow is facing charges in Arizona for the murder of her fourth husband, Charles Vallow.

It’s a bizarre and tragic case that captured the attention of the nation, leaving many with one big unanswered question: how could a woman who for years appeared to be a loving, doting mother murder her children in the belief that they had turned into “zombies”?

Here’s what to know about the case:

JJ and Tylee’s disappearance and murder

JJ and Tylee were last seen alive in September 2019 – not long after Vallow had moved the two children from Arizona to Idaho to be close to Mr Daybell.

Chilling photos captured a smiling JJ, Tylee and Vallow’s brother Alex Cox on a visit to Yellowstone National Park on 8 September.

The photo is now believed to be the last proof of life of 16-year-old Tylee. After that day, she was never seen or heard from again.

Days later, on 22 September, JJ was also seen for the last time – at his school in Rexburg and by his mother’s friends at her apartment that night. By the next morning, the seven-year-old – who had autism – had vanished.

When asked where he was, Vallow told friends Melanie Gibb and David Warwick that he had to be taken away because he was “being a zombie”.

Cellphone data places Vallow’s brother Alex Cox in the yard of Mr Daybell’s property in the hours after both of the children’s disappearances. The morning after Tylee was last seen alive, Mr Daybell also sent a text to his wife to say that he had shot a raccoon and buried it in the pet cemetery on the grounds of their property.

The last photo – and known sighting – of Tylee Ryan (pictured with JJ and Alex Cox at Yellowstone National Park) (FBI)

It would be many more months before investigators – and the children’s desperate family members – knew what had happened to the two siblings.

JJ’s grandparents raised the alarm after they were unable to get in touch with their grandson but Vallow refused to tell authorities where either of the children were.

According to Vallow’s friends, she had claimed that her children were “zombies” and that the only way to free someone’s soul from evil spirits was to kill them.

In June 2020, the children’s family members’ worst fears were realised when JJ and Tylee’s remains were discovered buried in Mr Daybell’s backyard.

JJ’s body was found in a black plastic bag wrapped in duct tape while Tylee’s body had been dismembered and burned in a fire pit, before being buried in the pet cemetery.

The children’s disappearance and deaths brought to light a series of other mysterious deaths connected to the doomsday couple, revealing a pattern of people close to the pair dying suddenly.

Investigators find the remains of the two children at Chad Daybell’s property (Post Register no sales no mags)

Before the search for JJ and Tylee shot to national attention, no connection appears to have been made.

Instead, two deaths that are now alleged to be murdered at the hands of the doomsday cult couple, had been written off as self-defence – or even natural causes.

Charles Vallow’s death: Self-defence or murder?

Two months before when prosecutors say Vallow and Mr Daybell murdered JJ and Tylee, Vallow’s brother Alex Cox shot and killed her husband Charles Vallow. It was the morning of 11 July 2019 and Charles had gone to his estranged wife’s home in Chandler, Arizona, to pick up JJ.

Charles and Vallow had been married since 2006 and had adopted JJ – who was the biological grandson of Vallow’s sister.

Cox claimed that Charles attacked him with a baseball bat so he shot him in self-defence.

Police interviews with 16-year-old Tylee and a smiling Vallow gave a similar version of events.

Charles and Lori Vallow together. Lori is charged with conspiracy to murder Charles in Arizona (Provided)

However, Cox did not perform CPR on Vallow and waited 43 minutes to call police. Investigators say that Charles was also already down on the ground when Cox shot him a second time.

Charles’ death came months after he had filed for divorce from Vallow, saying that he feared for the safety of himself and the children and that Vallow had threatened to kill him.

In February, he had pleaded with authorities to stage a mental health intervention for his wife, warning that she believed she was a god preparing for a second coming.

Court documents reveal that he had also learned about Vallow’s relationship with Mr Daybell that June and had emailed Tammy with the information. He and one of Vallow’s other brothers were planning an intervention over her cult beliefs at the time of his death – an intervention she is believed to have been tipped off about.

At the time of Charles’ shooting, the case was ruled as self-defence. Following his death, Vallow became a free agent but Mr Daybell was still married – for a while.

Tammy Daybell dies in her sleep

Mr Daybell married his first wife Tammy in 1990 and they had five children together. They also founded a publishing company together – the company that released his doomsday books.

Just one month after the children vanished – on 19 October 2019 – Tammy, an otherwise healthy 49-year-old, died suddenly in her sleep.

In a bizarre twist, her death came just 10 days after she had called 911 to report someone shooting at her with a paintball gun in the driveway of their home.

Despite the mysterious circumstances, her husband declined an autopsy and her death was ruled natural causes.

Tammy and Chad Daybell were married in 1990. He is accused of conspiring with Lori Vallow to kill her (Facebook)

It was only after the two children were reported missing – and authorities began delving into Vallow and Mr Daybell, their sudden remarriage and bizarre cult beliefs – that questions began being asked about her death.

Investigators exhumed her body for an autopsy in December 2020 and found that she died “at the hands of another and died of asphyxiation”.

Alleged co-conspirator Alex Cox dead

The deaths didn’t end there.

In December 2019, Alex Cox also died suddenly, aged just 51. At the time, authorities were demanding Vallow present her children.

Tammy was about to be exhumed. And Cox had killed Charles.

One day, Cox was found gasping for air on the bathroom floor of the home he shared with his wife Zulema Pastenes – whom he had married just two weeks earlier.

Alex Cox died suddenly in December 2019 – two months after allegedly conspiring to murder the children (File)

The autopsy found he had a blood clot wedged in the arteries of his lungs and his death was ruled natural causes. However, the overdose drug Narcan was also found in his system.

Days before his death, Ms Pastenes said he suggested his death could be looming.

“Like one or two days before he passed, he said to me, ‘Zulema, if anything happens to me, I want you to know that there is money in a bag in the closet and it’s for you. It’s not much but it’s for you,’” she told police, according to court records.

The day he died, he had also allegedly called Mr Daybell to receive a “blessing” over the phone.

No charges have ever been brought in connection to his death.

The doomsday cult

At the centre of the string of murders and mystery deaths stands the couple’s bizarre doomsday cult.

Mr Daybell ran a publishing company that put out books about apocalyptic scenarios loosely based on the theology of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Vallow followed his books for some time before the pair finally met in person at a religious conference in Utah in October 2018.

At this point, investigators say their relationship became romantic. And as their relationship grew more intense, so too did their apocalyptic beliefs.

Vallow claimed in divorce documents that Vallow believed she was a god-like figure chosen to carry out the work of 144,000 believers.

Multiple friends cited in police reports say that the couple believed they could drive out evil spirits and seek revelations from “beyond the spiritual veil”.

Chad Daybell sits during a court hearing in Idaho (Post Register)

Vallow even believed she could teleport between Arizona and Hawaii, according to documents. But – most chillingly – the couple allegedly believed that people, including JJ and Tylee, had become “zombies”.

They allegedly had a scoring system for ranking how far people’s souls had gone from good to evil.

The only way to then rid an individual of the zombies would be for them to die, according to documents.

Prosecutors believe that Vallow and Mr Daybell used these beliefs to further their plots to kill JJ, Tylee and Tammy.

The charges

Vallow and Mr Daybell were charged with the murders of Tylee and JJ in May 2021 – almost one year after their bodies had been discovered.

Prosecutors said that the couple conspired with Cox to kill the children and Mr Daybell’s wife both as part of their doomsday beliefs – but also to collect life insurance money and the kids’ social security and survivor benefits.

“All of these overt acts were done so Lori could eventually be with Chad Daybell and reportedly complete their mission here on earth,” according to an investigative report.

Lori Vallow Daybell glances at the camera during a hearing in Idaho in 2020 (Post Register no sales no mags)

“This belief system, lust and greed would also lead to the deaths of Tylee Ryan, JJ Vallow and Tammy Daybell.”

In Arizona, Vallow is also charged with conspiring to murder her ex-husband Charles Vallow with Cox.

The Maricopa County Attorney’s office announced that it did not charge Mr Daybell as well with Charles’ murder – but only because there is “no reasonable likelihood of conviction”.

The trial

The trial of the doomday cult couple stalled for the past few years – in part due to the Covid-19 pandemic, mental incompetence and legal wranglings.

Vallow has been behind bars since January 2020 when she was arrested in Hawaii and extradited to Idaho for failing to meet a court order to present her children to authorities.

Mr Daybell has been in prison since the children’s remains were discovered in June 2020.

The case was largely put on hold when Vallow was found not mentally competent to stand trial. She then spent almost a year at a mental health facility before she was ruled competent in May 2022 and the case proceeded through the courts.

The two cases were then severed and the death penalty was taken off the table for Vallow but not for Mr Daybell.

Vallow finally went on trial in April 2023 – and was convicted on all charges for killing her children and conspiring to kill Tammy. She will now spend the rest of her life in prison.

Now, Mr Daybell has his day in court. His trial began with jury selection on 1 April 2024. He is facing the death penalty if convicted.

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