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'Cult-mom' Lori Vallow murdered her 'zombie' children

Lori Vallow
Image: Lori Vallow Daybell glances at the camera during her hearing on Friday, 6th March 2020, in Rexburg, Idaho, USA | Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

On 26th November 2019, police in Rexburg, Idaho, were asked to conduct a welfare check on seven-year-old Joshua ‘JJ’ Vallow. The concerned call had come from JJ’s grandmother, Kay Woodcock, who had been unable to reach him for several weeks, sparking fears for his safety.

When officers arrived at the home of his adoptive mother, Lori Vallow, who was living with her newly married husband, Chad Daybell, they were informed that JJ was staying with Melanie Gibb, a family friend in Arizona. An investigation to locate JJ was launched, and detectives quickly learned that he was not in Arizona with Melanie. Even more chillingly, Melanie disclosed that Vallow had told her in September that JJ had an ‘evil spirit’ in him.

The following day, when detectives returned to Vallow’s home, they discovered that both Vallow and Daybell had disappeared. The FBI was called in to assist and soon found out that Vallow’s 17-year-old daughter, Tylee Ryan, was also missing.

When detectives interviewed Daybell’s family, they reported that he had told them that Vallow had no children, or that her children were deceased. His former sister-in-law, Samantha Gwilliam, recalled: ‘He told me, no, there were no children. They were going to be empty nesters.’

Assistant Chief Gary Hagen asked the public for their assistance in locating the family, stating: ‘We've received numerous false statements from them advising that the children were with family members of friends. We're deeply concerned about the children and their safety... We would even be good with a FaceTime video of the children to make us feel better that they are safe.’

As detectives intensified their search for JJ and Tylee, a more sinister narrative began to emerge, involving a series of suspicious deaths connected to both Vallow and Daybell. Just two weeks after the sudden passing of Daybell’s first wife, Tammy, he and Vallow exchanged vows on 5th November 2019. Daybell claimed that Tammy had been coughing during the night and that when he awoke, she had tragically passed away. He declined to have an autopsy and then received a $430,000 life insurance payment.

Adding to the bizarre nature of the case, in July 2019, Vallow’s fourth husband, Charles Vallow, had been shot dead by her brother, Alex Cox, while she was picking up JJ to take him to school. At the time, Cox claimed that it was self-defense, and that he had been at the family home to make sure the handoff went smoothly since Charles and Vallow were estranged.

Further peculiarities emerged as detectives delved deeper into the lives of Vallow and Daybell. It was discovered that Daybell was an author of doomsday literature, expounding on apocalyptic scenarios. Vallow, in turn, had become enthralled by his teachings, leading to their eventual romantic involvement. Both had deviated from the official doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, following and practicing beliefs that went far beyond the established principles.

According to Daybell, a near-death experience left him with a special connection to the spirit world, and after Vallow met him, she came to believe she had ‘patriarchal power’. Together, they came to hold ‘doomsday cult beliefs’ which included a ‘rating system of light and dark’ for how they ranked the spirits of those around them. Daybell had told Vallow: ‘Satan was ramping up his powers, and that evil is so pervasive in this world, and that it was her job — she was responsible for casting out these zombies.’

While investigating the disappearances of JJ and Tylee, detectives uncovered a significant event. On 8th September 2019, Vallow and Cox had taken the children to Yellowstone National Park. Tragically, that was the last known sighting of Tylee. Two weeks later, Vallow confided in friends that she believed JJ had turned into a ‘zombie’. On the same day, Cox arrived at Vallow's apartment, taking JJ with him but returning him that evening. Friends recall seeing JJ asleep on Cox's shoulder.

The following morning, JJ was gone, with Vallow explaining to friends that her brother had taken him due to his unruly behaviour; he was never seen again. Weeks later, Tammy, Daybell’s wife, was found deceased. Cox himself passed away on 11th December 2019, reportedly due to natural causes, although an autopsy revealed the presence of the drug Narcan in his system.

Detectives held strong suspicions that Vallow and Daybell played a role in the disappearances of JJ and Tylee. Eventually, both she and Daybell were tracked down in Hawaii. On 20th February 2020, Vallow was arrested and charged with two felony counts of desertion and non-support of dependent children. She also faced three misdemeanours, including resisting or obstructing officers, criminal solicitation to commit a crime and contempt of court.

On 8th June 2020, detectives executed a search warrant on Daybell’s home, where they found the bodies of both JJ and Tylee. JJ’s body was buried close to a tree on the property. He was still dressed in red pyjamas and was wearing a pull-up diaper. His arms were bound with duct tape, while a white plastic bag secured with duct tape covered his head. It was determined that he had been asphyxiated. Tylee's dismembered remains were buried nearby. She was burned so badly that an autopsy was not possible.

Daybell was promptly arrested, and both he and Vallow were indicted on charges of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder and grand theft by deception. On 25th May 2021, they were charged with the murders of Tammy as well as JJ and Tylee. The following month, Vallow was additionally indicted by a grand jury on conspiracy to murder her fourth husband, Charles. At first, prosecutors wanted to join the trials, but it was ultimately decided that Vallow and Daybell would be standing trial separately.

Vallow’s trial began in April of 2023, and prosecutors detailed the ‘doomsday cult beliefs’ that she held. They argued that Vallow and Daybell had gradually come to perceive certain individuals, including JJ and Tylee, as ‘zombies’ and believed that the only way to eliminate them was by destroying their bodies. Prosecutors contended that the murders were carried out to fulfil their doomsday prophecy and for personal financial gain.

They also believed that Vallow and Daybell had an accomplice who conspired with them to kill – Alex Cox. Cell phone data placed him at Yellowstone National Park where Tylee was last seen alive, and it placed him at Vallow’s apartment on the evening that JJ was last seen alive as well. At 9am the next morning, his cell phone data placed him at Daybell’s property where the remains were ultimately discovered.

The jury deliberated for seven hours before returning with a verdict, finding Lori Vallow guilty of the murders of JJ and Tylee, and conspiring in the murder of Tammy. She was sentenced to life in prison, while Chad Daybell is still awaiting trial.