A mother accused in the triple murder of her two youngest children as well as her new husband’s previous wife was willing to “remove any obstacle in her way to get what she wants,” a prosecutor told jurors Monday morning.
“The defendant used money, power and sex to get what she wanted,” Fremont County Prosecutor Lindsey Black said. “It didn’t matter what it was.”
Prosecutors charged Lori Vallow Daybell and her husband, Chad Daybell, with multiple counts of conspiracy, murder and grand theft in connection with the deaths of Vallow Daybell’s two youngest children: 7-year-old Joshua “JJ” Vallow and big sister Tylee Ryan, who was last seen a few days before her 17th birthday in 2019. Prosecutors also charged the couple in connection with the October 2019 death of Chad Daybell’s late wife, Tammy Daybell.
Both defendants have pleaded not guilty, but are being tried separately. Chad Daybell’s trial is still months away. Vallow Daybell faces up to life in prison if convicted.
The children were missing for months before their remains were found buried in Chad Daybell’s eastern Idaho yard, Blake told jurors.
“Charred remains, that’s what was left of Tylee,” the prosecutor said, showing jurors a photo of human remains partially uncovered in a patch of dirt. “You will hear it explained as a mass of bone and tissue. That’s what was left of this beautiful young woman.”
JJ’s body was wrapped in trash bags and duct tape, Blake said — the tape binding his arms in front of him and wrapping around his head.
The kids and Chad Daybell’s previous wife Tammy Daybell were all killed because they stood in the way of the couple’s relationship, Blake said.
“Remember, the defendant will remove any obstacle in her way to get what she wants, and she wanted Chad Daybell,” Blake said.
Defense attorney Jim Archibald presented jurors with a far different picture, describing Vallow Daybell as a “kind and loving mother to her children” who happened to have a particular interest in religion and Biblical prophesies involving the end of the world.
“Some people care less about Biblical prophesies, some people care a lot about it,” Archibald said. “Thankfully in this country, we get to worship as we choose.”
Vallow Daybell is presumed innocent, Archibald reminded jurors, and said the criminal charges themselves — which accuse Vallow Daybell of either directing, encouraging, assisting or participating in the murders — show that prosecutors don’t really know what happened in the case.
“Did she kill, or did she assist, or did she encourage, or did she direct? They aren’t sure,” Archibald said.
Archibald also said Vallow Daybell’s religious beliefs only began to change after she met Chad Daybell, a religious author whose fictional books focused on the apocalypse and were loosely based on the beliefs of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
But Blake said those beliefs veered toward the extreme, with the couple saying people were “dark” or “light,” telling friends and acquaintances that “dark” people had been taken over by evil spirits. They eventually began teaching friends that once those evil spirits were strong enough, the person became a “zombie,” and the only way to free that person’s soul was by killing them.
Friends of Vallow Daybell will testify that she said the children and Tammy Daybell were “dark” before their deaths, Blake said. At least one friend told police that Vallow Daybell called both children “zombies” before they disappeared, according to police records.
“The common theme was the body has to be destroyed,” Blake said. “The defendant and Chad used their self-proclaimed religious teachings to justify their actions to others — their actions from affair to murder.”
JJ Vallow’s grandmother, Kay Woodcock, was the first witness to take the stand after opening arguments. She cried after Madison County prosecutor Rob Wood showed her a photo of JJ taken when he was around 5 or 6 years old, sitting in a vehicle wearing a seatbelt.
“That is my beautiful grandson, JJ,” she said.
Woodcock said Vallow Daybell was once a “doting mother,” but her opinion of the defendant changed after Charles Vallow filed for divorce in early 2019. After Charles Vallow died, once-regular phone calls and visits with JJ dropped off, she said.
She only had contact with JJ three times after his father died, Woodcock said, in short FaceTime video calls. The last call happened the month before JJ was last seen alive, she said. It only was about 35 seconds long.
“He just said, ‘Hi Mama, hi Papa,’” Woodcock said, referring to JJ’s nicknames for his grandparents. “’Gotta go, Mama. Gotta go, Papa. Bye!’”
Woodcock eventually contacted law enforcement agencies and asked them to do a welfare check on JJ. When police couldn’t find either of the kids, they opened a missing persons case.
Rexburg Police started investigating in November 2019. During that period, police say the couple lied about the children’s whereabouts.
Prosecutors say the couple planned to use life insurance money from Tammy Daybell’s death, and that Vallow Daybell kept collecting and spending the children’s social security and survivor benefits after they died. Tylee’s father died after he and Vallow Daybell divorced years earlier. JJ’s father Charles Vallow — who Vallow Daybell was married to when she met Chad Daybell — was shot and killed by Vallow Daybell’s brother, Alex Cox.
Vallow Daybell is charged in Arizona in connection with Charles Vallow’s death, but yet to enter a plea. Cox, who told police the shooting was in self-defense, died a few months after the shooting and was never charged.
The couple married two weeks after Chad Daybell’s previous wife died unexpectedly. An autopsy showed that Tammy Daybell was killed by asphyxiation, Blake said Monday.
The couple had eliminated “any and every obstacle that was in their way of getting exactly what they wanted,” she said.
—Rebecca Boone, The Associated Press