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What You Need To Know About the Lori Vallow Case

Handcuffs and a gavel atop a book of law on a judge's bench.
By Vaidehi Mehta, Esq. | Last updated on

If you're a true-crime junkie, you may recall the recent case of Lori Vallow, whose two children disappeared and whose bodies were later found with all kinds of evidence implicating their mother and stepfather, Chad Daybell. The couple were charged in Boise, Idaho with first-degree murder, conspiracy, and grand theft. They pleaded not guilty to all charges. Opening arguments in the trial began Monday. We recap the background of the infamous couple, along with their other, seemingly unrelated, murder charges.

Lori Vallow's Complicated Relationship History

Born in San Bernadino, California, Vallow was raised a Mormon. Before her involvement with Daybell, friends referred to her as a loving mother. But even before Daybell, Vallow had a checkered past. Vallow often complained that her brother, Alex Cox, wanted a sexual relationship with her. According to Cox's ex-wife in a 2020 phone call, the brother and sister had a relationship of "bizarre" dynamics that was sexual in nature.

John Glatt, author of The Doomsday Mother: Lori Vallow, Chad Daybell, and the End of an American Family, describes Vallow's marriage to her third husband, Joseph Ryan, as "toxic." The two had a daughter together, Tylee Ryan. After Vallow and Ryan divorced, in a custody battle between them, Alex Cox assaulted Ryan.

Vallow met her fifth and current husband and co-defendant Chad Daybell while each were married to other people. Daybell, a writer of doomsday-themed books, was publicizing the release of one of his books at a 2018 event that Vallow attended. The two soon became romantically involved.

'Self-Defense' Shooting of Charles Vallow

Daybell wasn't actually implicated in the first set of murder charges involving Lori Vallow—charges relating to the death of Lori's fourth husband, Charles Vallow. When married, Lori and Charles had adopted a son together. Though born Cannan Todd Trahan, the child was renamed by the couple to Joshua Jaxon Vallow. They called him "J.J." for short. According to the Netflix true-crime docuseries Sins of Our Mother, which investigates Lori Vallow's various criminal charges, Alex Cox had at some point confronted Charles about being abusive towards his former wife.

In July 2019, while Lori and Daybell were married, Cox fatally shot this ex-husband, in alleged self-defense. Mr. Vallow had gone to retrieve his children with Lori at her Arizona home, where Cox had also been living. Upon entering the home, Cox, purportedly believing Mr. Vallow was an intruder, shot and killed the man. Sins of Our Mother shows video footage of Cox speaking to the police who arrived at the Vallow house in the aftermath of the shooting; Cox is seen telling the police that he had shot Charles in an attempt to protect himself, his sister, and her daughter Tylee.

In September 2021, over two years after Charles Vallow's death, the shooting was ruled a homicide. But by that time, only a few months after the shooting, Cox had died of natural causes, so he was never charged with a crime related to Mr. Vallow's death.

Instead, Lori Vallow was later implicated with what was eventually ruled to be a murder, under a conspiracy theory. In June 2021, a Maricopa County (AZ) grand jury indicted her with conspiracy to commit murder of her ex-husband. The indictment states that Ms. Vallow had "the intent to promote or aid the commission of . . . First Degree Murder" and "agreed with Alexander Cox that at least one of them or another would engage in conduct constituting the offense[.]"

Arizona prosecutors did not seek charges against Daybell for the Charles Vallow murder, although suspicions abounded. However, at the time all this was happening, Chad was still married to Tammy Daybell. Tammy died in October 2019, seemingly of natural causes. A month later, Chad and Lori were married in Hawaii.

Murder of the Children: Tylee and J.J.

Despite having prior and unrelated murder conspiracy charges, Lori Vallow didn't truly enter national infamy until the disappearance of her children a few years ago. Her daughter and adopted son, Tylee and J.J., were first reported missing in 2019, at ages 16 and 7, respectively. Tylee was last seen on September 8, 2019, at Yellowstone National Park with J.J., their mother, and uncle Alex Cox; J.J. was last seen a few weeks later.

But Vallow and her husband Daybell seemed unconcerned in the wake of their disappearance, investigators later claimed. The couple refused to answer questions from police concerning the whereabouts of their children. At the same time, the press drew the nation's attention to the disappearances.

In June 2020, investigators first found the remains of J.J. buried in Daybell's home in Rexburg, Idaho. Soon after, in a pit nearby, police detectives found his adoptive sister's remains. Both children had been dismembered and burned. Sins of Our Mother shows video footage from November 2019 of Lori and Alex moving items in and out of a storage locker rented by Lori in Rexburg, Idaho.

Parents Charged with Children's Murders

Vallow, now 49, and Daybell, now 54, were charged in Idaho as co-defendants with multiple counts of first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder, and grand theft. They have pleaded not guilty to all charges. Their indictment also lists Alex Cox as a co-conspirator in the children's murders—but Cox, you'll recall, is dead.

According to When the Moon Turns to Blood, a book about the Vallow case by Portland-based journalist Leah Sottile, "Lori Vallow and Chad Daybell really existed at the fringes, the far right fringes of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" (Mormons) in an "ecosystem of extremism that exists there."

Vallow apparently believed the murders to be necessary to purify the children of the evil spirits that possessed them. A friend of Vallow's elaborated about the co-defendants' views on the children's "condition." He said that the couple believed that their kids "couldn't go to heaven. And they can't go back in their body. The only way they can go to heaven is if you kill the body. When these people have these beliefs, killing the kids to them is mercy."

According the Associated Press, the couple apparently believed that Lori was a "Goddess" reincarnate, "sent to bring the second coming of Christ." The couple used a scoring system to measure whether people were good or evil. According to Boise prosecutors, Chad and Lori also believed that the two children were "zombies" who had died and been repossessed by evil spirits. At trial, Madison County (ID) prosecutor Rob Wood claimed the husband and wife had the children killed. The couple allegedly believed that killing the children would free Tylee's and J.J.'s souls from "limbo."

New Evidence on Tammy Daybell Death

Meanwhile, Daybell's past came back to haunt him when new evidence was literally unburied to implicate him in a separate homicide. Recall that Tammy Daybell died about a month after her husband Chad and Lori Vallow got married—some might say conveniently. At the time, her death was ruled to be due to natural causes. However, investigators later exhumed her body and conducted an autopsy, which ruled her death was actually due to asphyxiation—a homicide. Idaho prosecutors charged Chad Daybell with murder of his late wife, along with Lori Vallow for conspiring with him. Chad is also accused of insurance fraud related to Tammy's death.

Mental Health Questions Put Trial on Pause

Dates for the next hearings in the criminal proceedings against the couple have not been set. Over the course of the three years that prosecutors have been building their case against the couple, Vallow's day in court has been delayed due to concern over her mental health. Soon after being indicted, Idaho's Department of Health and Welfare put Vallow on a mental health evaluation that lasted months, and put her part of the trial on pause. Though she was first deemed competent for trial in April 2022, her trial was paused again for another mental health check months later. Nonetheless, she was again ruled fit to proceed with the trial. Former Idaho Attorney General Dave Leroy said that he thought the issue of mental health was relevant to the case, and that it would likely be discussed in evidence presented at trial. But Idaho doesn't allow an insanity defense, and the defense attorney claimed that he would not seek a defense theory grounded in mental health claims.

After all of the back and forth, last month, the judge finally granted the motion for she and Daybell to be tried separately. But the separation, Leroy claims, was an "advantage to the defense" and a disadvantage to both prosecutors and tax-payers, who have to use many more resources than they would if they tried the couple together.

It's still not clear whether Vallow will ultimately be deemed fit to stand trial, nor whether she will take the stand to testify.

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