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Is Chad Daybell a doomsday cult mastermind? Trial for the murder of Lori Vallow’s children and ex-wife begins

It’s a bizarre and tragic case of murder, unexplained deaths and apocalyptic cult beliefs about killing zombies – which played out in court for the first time when Lori Vallow stood trial. Now, her doomsday author husband Chad Daybell is on trial. Is he the true mastermind behind it all? Andrea Cavallier and Rachel Sharp explain what to expect in the next chapter of the twisty saga

Wednesday 10 April 2024 11:55
(Ada County Sheriff’s Office/Handout/Facebook/Reuters)

Chad Daybell has been known by many different names over the years: Gravedigger, “doomsday” author, alleged cult leader – but could he also soon be known as a convicted killer?

That’s up to an Ada County jury to decide as they settle in for several grueling weeks of heartbreaking testimony and graphic evidence exhibits in a Boise, Idaho courtroom. After more than a week of jury selection, a panel was finally seated in the case on Monday 8 April with opening statements getting under way on 10 April. The highly-anticipated trial is expected to last at least two months.

Daybell is charged with first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder and grand theft over the deaths of his former wife Tammy Daybell, and his wife Lori Vallow’s children, Tylee Ryan, 16, and son Joshua “JJ” Vallow, 7.

The disturbing saga has shocked the nation over the last few years, which began in 2019 with the question, “Where are the children?” Vallow’s children were missing and she was in Hawaii with her new husband, Chad Daybell, just three weeks after Tammy had died suddenly in her sleep.

Nine months after the children were seen alive, their remains were found in shallow graves on Daybell’s property in Idaho in June 2020.

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

As part of their cult beliefs, the couple allegedly believed in a “rating system of light and dark” for how they ranked the spirits of the people around them. This evolved into the belief that some people were “zombies” and the only way to get rid of the zombies was for the human body to be destroyed and thus rid their lives of “obstacles,” as their text messages later revealed.

Here’s what we know so far of the twisted tale:

Who is Chad Daybell?

Chad Daybell dug graves while he was a student at Brigham Young University and worked as a cemetery sexton in Utah for almost 20 years.

He told the Deseret News in 1992 that he believed digging graves helped him through school.

Daybell later founded his own publishing company, Spring Creek Book Company.

He authored several fiction and nonfiction books – many of them doomsday books loosely based on the teachings centered around The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Chad Daybell claimed he could teleport, see into the future and see dead people, and that he and Lori Vallow were part of the chosen 144,000 (Judge Steven W. Boyce livestream)

He married his first wife Tammy in 1990 and they founded Spring Creek Book Company together in Utah – the company which published his doomsday books.

The couple had five children together and moved to Salem, Idaho, in 2015.

Among his teachings, he claimed he could teleport, could see into the future, see dead people, and that he and Vallow were part of the chosen 144,000.

Tammy Daybell found dead

On 19 October 2019, Tammy, an otherwise healthy 49-year-old, died suddenly in her sleep.

In a chilling 911 call made that day, one of Tammy’s sons is heard first then Daybell gets on the phone and abruptly says: “I’m Chad, the husband. She’s clearly dead.”

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 from natural causes.

Chad and Tammy Daybell before her death in October 2019 (Facebook)

It was only after her two children were reported missing weeks later – and authorities began delving into Vallow and 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.

The results found that Tammy had died “at the hands of another and died of asphyxiation.”

In a shocking moment revealed at Vallow’s trial, Daybell had predicted his wife Tammy would soon be dead – around eight months before he and Vallow allegedly conspired to murder her.

Tammy’s friend Alice Gilbert testified that he once told her he had a vision that Tammy would die before the age of 50.

“He had a vision that Tammy’s time on Earth was coming to an end,” she said. “He didn’t know how or when - but he didn’t see her living past the age of 50.”

Daybell is charged with murder in relation to her death, as well as the murders of the two children. He’s also charged with conspiracy to commit murder for all three deaths.

Vallow was found guilty of conspiracy to kill Tammy, with prosecutors alleging that the couple conspired with Vallow’s brother, Alex Cox.

How did Chad Daybell and Lori Vallow meet?

The pair met in October 2018 at a religious conference in St. George, Utah. They began recording together on the Preparing a People podcast “Time to Warrior Up” as well as other podcasts, many of which focused on the end of the world.

At the time, Vallow was married to Charles Vallow, who had become concerned for his wife’s mental health and went to the police for help. He filed for divorce in January 2019 but later withdrew the filing — and then was killed by his brother-in-law.

Vallow’s brother Alex Cox shot and killed Charles in July 2019 in Chandler, Arizona. Cox claimed the shooting was in self-defence.

Lori Vallow and Chad Daybell married in 2019, less than three weeks after Tammy Daybell died (Tony Blakeslee/East Idaho News via AP, Pool, File)

Just a year after they met, and less than three weeks after Tammy had died, Vallow and Daybell married in Hawaii on 5 November 2019.

Where are the children? JJ and Tylee’s disappearance

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

Chilling photos captured a smiling JJ, Tylee and their uncle 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.

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. JJ’s grandparents raised the alarm after they were unable to get in touch with their grandson.

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

Tylee Ryan and Joshua ‘JJ’ Vallow vanished in 2019 (Family handout)

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

Remains found buried in Daybell’s backyard

Cellphone data places Vallow’s brother Alex Cox in the yard of Daybell’s property in the hours after both of the children’s disappearances. The morning after Tylee was last seen alive, 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.

A month after her children disappeared, Vallow signed a contract for a storage unit at Self Storage Plus in Rexburg. Surveillance cameras show Vallow visiting the unit nine times in October and once in November, often with Daybell or her brother. Authorities later found that it contained children’s items, photos, and clothing.

Tylee and JJ’s remains were found buried in the backyard of Chad Daybell’s Idaho home (Post Register)

Nine months after they went missing, the children’s family members’ worst fears were realised when JJ and Tylee’s remains were discovered buried in Daybell’s backyard in June 2020.

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.

Daybell’s arrest

Daybell was arrested on 9 June 2020 and booked into the Fremont County Jail after the children’s remains were found.

He had left the house during the search as Rexburg Police, Fremont County Sheriff deputies and the FBI swarmed the property and began a dig that lasted for hours. But he was arrested a short time later.

Daybell has shown little to no emotion at his court appearances over the past four years.

On 21 March, he was transferred from Fremont County Jail to the Ada County Jail in Boise in preparation for his trial.

The charges against Daybell

Daybell is charged with first-degree murder in the deaths of Vallow’s two children and conspiracy to commit murder in the death of his former wife Tammy. He’s also charged with insurance fraud.

Prosecutors say that the couple conspired with Vallow’s brother Alex Cox to kill the children and Daybell’s wife both as part of their doomsday beliefs – but also to collect life insurance money, 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.

Chad Daybell could face the death penalty in convicted (Post Register)

“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. Cox died in December 2019. The Maricopa County Attorney’s office previously announced that it did not charge Daybell as well with Charles’ murder – but only because there is “no reasonable likelihood of conviction”.

The doomsday cult

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

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 and their relationship became romantic. And as their relationship grew more intense, so too did their apocalyptic beliefs.

Lori Vallow gives court statement as she faces life in prison

Charles 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”.

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.

Chad and Lori’s revealing texts

Daybell and Vallow exchanged steamy texts in July 2019, just days after Vallow’s brother killed her husband.

FBI Special Agent Douglas Hart testified at Vallow’s trial that the doomsday couple exchanged thousands of text messages, voicemails and photos after meeting at a religious conference in October 2018 including messages “relevant to” the deaths of her children and their spouses and referring to them as “obstacles”.

Two days before Charles was murdered, Vallow texted her niece Melani Boudreaux: “They have an elaborate plan I’ll call you soon … We both need to stay here to defend ourselves. It’s coming to a head! This week will change everything.”

Two days later, Cox shot and killed Charles.

Vallow then sent Charles’ sons a nonchalant text informing them of his death: “Hi boys. I have very sad news. Your dad passed away yesterday. I’m working on making arrangements and I’ll keep you informed with what’s going on. I’m still not sure how to handle things. Just want you to know that I love you and so did your dad!!”

The two brothers desperately begged for information about what happened to their father but Vallow ignored them for lengthy periods and gave only sporadic answers.

Days later, Daybell sent a “love story” he wrote to Vallow through a series of text messages.

A detective described the writings as “a romance novel of sorts” and noted that it follows the relationship between the couple but names were changed to “James” and “Elena.”

It talked about how James knew he was in the “presence of an exalted goddess” who had “returned to earth to perform a special mission” - a mission of progressing together as “translated beings.”

Daybell texts Vallow ‘we’ll give them a reason to scream’

In other chilling messages, when Vallow complained to Daybell about being “tired of taking care of demons” while referring to her children, he offers to “cause pain.”

“We r both so tired of taking care of demons,” she wrote in a text to Daybell in August 2019 – one month before Tylee and JJ were murdered. “We are weary. Please ask the Lord to take them.”

They spoke about inflicting pain on children and giving them “a reason to scream”.

Daybell asked if she wanted him to “cause pain” to the “two three’s” she was travelling with.

She replied to him telling him to hold off, but added that if they started to act up again “we can zap them”.

Daybell agreed and responded: “Sounds great. Yes, If they are going to act up, well at least give them a reason to scream.”

Chad Daybell was booked into the Ada County Jail on 21 March 2024 ahead of his 1 April murder trial (Ada County Sheriff’s Office)

In messages in July 2019, the couple discussed the death percentages on Tylee and JJ.

“She is a 0.13,” Mr Daybell said about Tylee. “I turned the pain to 10 and placed a spiritual virus in here.”

Of JJ, he said “he is at 99.99 Raphael visited him and told him to follow Amy into the light”.

Chad Daybell’s children speak out

Daybell’s five children have only spoken out in public once in an interview with “48 Hours” in September 2021, and defended their father’s innocence.

Garth Daybell, Emma Murray, Seth Daybell, Leah Murphy and Mark Daybell are also the children of Tammy Daybell.

“The time has come that we need to share our story,” Leah Murphy said.

“My father needs someone to be a voice for him. To let people know what’s real – what we know,” Emmy Murray said.

“How is it possible two children are found buried in your father’s backyard and he had nothing to do with it?” the reporter asked Ms Murray. She replied, “He was framed.”

“I don’t know why they (the bodies) would be there,” Ms Murray said. “But I do know that if he were to commit a crime, he wouldn’t be foolish enough to put the evidence in his own backyard. … We presume innocence in this country. Just because things look funny, we don’t send people to jail.”

Convicted killer Lori Vallow now faces charges in Arizona

The trial of the doomsday 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.

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

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 death penalty was taken off the table for Vallow but not for Daybell.

Now, following the jury’s unanimous 2023 guilty verdict on seven counts, Vallow is spending five life terms in prison without parole for killing her children and conspiring to kill Tammy.

In a dramatic closing statement last year, Vallow’s lawyers argued that she had been “under the control” of Daybell, under the spell of the “craziness” of his cult beliefs.

“One year after meeting Chad, four people are dead,” he said.

'Doomsday mom' Lori Vallow Daybell sentenced

“But is Lori a leader or a follower of Chad? She so wants to be a leader but she’s not leading anyone,” he said.

“She’s following Chad. She thinks Chad is following Jesus but he’s not. He’s unfortunately being led by the storm - not the first guy to be led by the storm.”

Now, Vallow will be tried in two separate cases in Arizona on two counts of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder for other deaths.

In one case, court records show that Vallow is accused of conspiring to kill her former husband Charles, who was shot and killed in July 2019 by Cox. In the months leading up to his death, Charles told local police he was concerned that Vallow may hurt him or their children.

In the second case, Vallow and Cox are accused of trying to kill her niece’s ex-husband, Mr Boudreaux, outside his home in Gilbert, Arizona, in October 2019. He survived the drive-by shooting.

A grand jury indicted Lori on the conspiracy charges for Charles’ death in 2021. However, she had to face charges in the deaths of her kids and Tammy Daybell in Idaho before she could face a judge in Arizona.

JJ’s grandparents return to Idaho for second shot at justice

Larry Woodcock, the grandfather of Lori Vallow’s murdered seven-year-old son JJ Vallow, told East Idaho News in a recent interview that he and his wife Kay will be once again traveling from their Louisiana home to Idaho for the proceedings.

Mr Woodcock said he believes prosecutors will prove their case against the alleged cult leader, who he described as a “wimp of a man”.

“I’m totally confident that he’ll be found guilty,” Mr Woodcock said. “If you took a picture of Chad on April 1 in court and you found a picture of him four years ago when he was in court, I don’t think there’s any change.

“His demeanour hasn’t changed, his attitude hasn’t changed – he’s so blasé and just a wimp of a man.”

Larry Woodcock hugs an attendee after the verdict was read at Vallow’s trial (AP)

After spending nearly every day of Vallow’s weeks-long trial in Ada County courtroom, the Woodcocks said they know Daybell’s trial will be different. Woodcock pointed out that while he had a lot of anger towards Vallow, he does not know Daybell as well.

“I was angry at Lori — that she would do something and participate in something like this,” he explained. “I really don’t have a lot of feelings about Chad. I’m angry at him, sure, and I certainly share no love for him. But it’s just a really different set of feelings.”

Mr Woodcock said he hopes Daybell is given life without parole, instead of the death penalty.

“There are certain things in life I think are worse than death. Life in prison without the possibility of ever getting out and dying in prison may be worse than death,” Mr Woodcock added.

“I certainly don’t wish him the best.”

Here’s what to expect Chad Daybell’s weeks-long trial

Daybell’s trial is expected to last eight to 10 weeks.

Jury selection began on 1 April, with a panel finally seated on Monday 8 April.

Opening statements will now get under way on 10 April.

Prior to the trial starting, Judge Steven Boyce granted a request to move the trial from Fremont County due to publicity.

Unlike Vallow’s trial, which attracted large crowds of spectators and true crime enthusiasts from all over the world, filling up the courtroom, and two overflow courtrooms, Daybell’s proceedings is being livestreamed from Judge Boyce’s YouTube page.

Sentencing will happen immediately following the verdict.

Could Chad Daybell be sentenced to death?

If he is found guilty, he could be sentenced to life in prison or could face the death penalty.

His attorney John Prior filed a motion to have the death penalty taken off the table, but Judge Boyce denied the request.

If jurors return a guilty verdict, they first will need to consider whether any aggravating factors apply in the case.

Those aggravating factors could are:

  • At the time the murder was committed, the defendant also committed another murder
  • The defendant exhibited utter disregard for human life
  • The murder was committed during another serious crime
  • The murder was “especially heinous, atrocious or cruel, manifesting exceptional depravity”

If the jurors decide there are no aggravating factors, Judge Boyce will sentence Daybell anywhere from 10 years to life in prison.

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