Idaho prosecutors have suggested motives, showed graphic photos and described a complicated plot involving efforts to cast out evil spirits in the triple murder trial of a woman accused in the deaths of her two kids and a romantic rival.
On Tuesday, a detective who helped unearth the children's bodies is expected to take the stand.
“The defendant used money, power and sex to get what she wanted,” Fremont County Prosecutor Lindsey Blake told jurors Monday during the first day of arguments. “It didn’t matter what it was.”
Lori Vallow Daybell and her fifth husband, Chad Daybell, are both charged 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.
Vallow Daybell never reported her two youngest children missing, prosecutors said. Instead, Rexburg police said both she and Chad Daybell lied to investigators about the kids' whereabouts. The search for the kids lasted for months before it came to a tragic conclusion in June of 2020, their remains found buried in Chad Daybell's eastern Idaho yard.
Tylee's body had been burned, Blake said, and leaving behind only “a mass of bone and tissue” and some DNA on a pickaxe and shovel. Duct tape had been wrapped around JJ's hands and head, his body wrapped in trash bags.
Tammy Daybell had died months earlier from what was initially reported as natural causes, purportedly dying her sleep in after coming down with an illness. But authorities grew suspicious when they learned Chad and Lori had married just two weeks after Tammy's death. With the search for the missing kids still underway, investigators had Tammy Daybell's body exhumed.
An autopsy showed she died of asphyxiation caused by someone else, Blake said.
As she spoke, she showed graphic photos to the jury of shallow graves, the children's remains and Tammy Daybell's body.
All three of the victims were killed because they were obstacles to Vallow Daybell's romantic and financial goals, Blake told jurors.
“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.
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 authorities and asked them to do a welfare check on JJ, prompting Rexburg Police to open a missing persons case 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 fatally shot 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 had eliminated “any and every obstacle that was in their way of getting exactly what they wanted,” she said.
It may not have been the first attempt on Tammy Daybell's life: Ten days earlier, she had called police to report that a masked man approached her in her driveway and shot at her a couple of times before running away.
Later that night, someone overheard a phone call between Vallow Daybell, who was angry, and another person, Blake said.
“She made statements along the line of, ‘he can’t do anything right,'” the prosecutor told jurors.
Another witness testified that he was also the target of a shooting in October 2019. Brandon Boudreaux was formerly married to Vallow Daybell's niece, Melani Pawlowski.
Pawlowski looked up to Vallow Daybell, Boudreaux said, and the women began attending religious meetings together. Pawlowski grew increasingly religious, he said, fixated on the idea that the world was about to end.
The two divorced in 2019. Boudreaux said he was driving to his new rental home when someone parked in a Jeep Wrangler near his driveway shot at him, the bullet shattering his car window. Boudreaux said he recognized the Jeep as one that had belonged to Tylee.
Vallow Daybell has not been charged with the shooting attempt against Boudreaux, but prosecutor Rachel Smith said the shootings were all part of the same plan to “cause the death of multiple people in her world.”
Rexburg Police Detective Ray Hermosillo is expected to take the witness stand on Tuesday. Hermosillo has testified during previous court proceedings about how investigators unearthed the children's bodies and the condition of the remains. His testimony is expected to take all day.