It’s an uncomfortable thing to admit that America is a country besieged by extremist ideologies. But after the 2016 election of a president who made far-right fringe views the new norm for the Republican party, and after the January 2021 storming of the United States Capitol by hundreds of conspiracy-minded citizens hoping to overturn the election, Americans can no longer treat extremist ideologies as an affliction of people far away, out there, out of view. The truth is that violent far-right ideologies simmer on school boards and inside police departments, rage across social media platforms and from flag poles. And extremism sits quietly in church pews on Sundays.
In late 2019, speculation swirled around the disappearance of two children from a small Idaho city — that perhaps the reason they couldn’t be found had something to do with their parents’ “cult-like” religious beliefs. It raised the alarm of journalist, Leah Sottile, who had written about fringe beliefs at the edges of the LDS Church — particularly the “White Horse Prophecy”: a disputed revelation condemned by the mainstream church that blends Patriotism into the faith, and posits that a few chosen Mormons will save the Constitution in the End Times.
In When the Moon Turns to Blood, Sottile’s book out on June 21, she interrogates the apocalyptic belief system of the children’s mother, Lori Vallow, and the doomsday writings of her husband, Mormon fiction writer Chad Daybell, tracing their origins to a paranoia that exists inside the culture of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This is a story of snake oil charlatans and fake prophecies, of a beauty queen whose husbands keep ending up dead. And it is a story of how a horror plot can play out in real-life, right in front of everyone’s eyes, and no one will bat an eye.
Right now, Lori Vallow and Chad Daybell sit in jail, awaiting a trial that is scheduled for January 2023. Both are accused of first degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder, and conspiracy. Prosecutors in Idaho say they will seek the death penalty for both. (They have each pleaded not guilty.)
In this excerpt, drawn from allegations in courtroom testimony, police body cam footage, and original reporting, readers meet the couple on a frigid day in November 2019, just before everything started to fall apart.
Rexburg, Idaho. November 26, 2019
A boy was missing. He had been gone for days, or maybe weeks, or even months, but no one could say for certain. On an icy morning two days before Thanksgiving, a pair of police detectives were dispatched to the town house on Pioneer Road to get an answer. A boy could not be nowhere.
The tall town houses of the Rock Creek Hollow community are all painted in the same muted beige tone. They have the same faux brick facades and the same tightly clipped squares of green lawn. They are finished with beige carpeting and beige marble. In all their beige sameness, a child might get lost trying to find their way home if not for the occasional wreath, or a garden bed marking the way. In the fall, some residents set out bundles of dried cornstalks and pumpkins, and the lawns crunch with a confetti of fallen leaves. In good weather, the evidence of small children is everywhere: bicycles and metal scooters and toys dropped mid-play on the grass, as if their users had been called inside for dinner and trusted that no one would take their things. The missing boy and his family lived in Unit #175.
His name was Joshua, but everyone called him JJ. He was seven years old, with a wide, toothy grin and a laugh that shook his whole body. He carried an iPad tablet with him everywhere and loved video-chatting with his grandparents, far away in Louisiana. He called them Maw-Maw and Paw-Paw. Sometimes they spoke twice in a day.
When the local police department first heard his name, JJ had only lived in Rexburg, Idaho, with his mother, Lori Vallow, and his sister, Tylee Ryan, for a short time. They had come from out of state to the remote city of 28,000: a place that springs out of the vast flat landscape so abruptly, it feels like it is cowering. This is the Idaho where the wind is unrelenting, where the trees are thin and weary, where everything underneath the wide unyielding sky appears to be genuflecting — like it is the blue iris of God, whose gaze is fixed on this very place.
Just up the hill from the townhouse is the Idaho campus of Brigham Young University — the school operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more commonly known as the Mormon Church — and the gleaming white Rexburg Idaho Temple: it was the third of its kind to be constructed in the state of Idaho by the LDS Church. The temple, and this city, are among many that the church has birthed and raised around Interstate 15 — the “Zion Curtain,” as some people like to call it. The corridor runs south through Salt Lake City, like a spine that holds up Utah’s middle.
Businesses in downtown Rexburg wink to one fact everyone knows: this may not be Utah, but it is most certainly Mormon country. After the Shoshone and Bannock Tribes clashed with white colonialist settlers and were removed from much of their ancestral homelands here, this part of Idaho became an outpost of the rapidly expanding LDS Church. And so there are the Eden Apartments, a pizza shop called Righteous Slice, few places to buy coffee, but 15 different LDS churches. Rexburg and the small towns around it emanate outward from BYU and the temple like a stone dropped in still water, where everything is a ripple of the faith.
The bustling college district gives way to a downtown of brick facades characteristic of Old West towns established in the mid-1800s. The ragged edge of Rexburg, like the ragged edge of most small western cities, is a place of loading docks and railroad tracks and metal-sided buildings with tall trucks parked in the lot. Just beyond the pristine temple grounds, tractors kick up clouds of dust in alfalfa and wheat fields.
On that frigid morning, when the detectives knocked on the wooden door of #175, two men answered. One was Alex Cox — Lori Vallow’s eldest brother. The balding 51-year-old had wide-set eyes, a pinched nose, and gray whiskers across his chin. He liked to prop his wraparound sunglasses up on top of his head, even when it wasn’t particularly sunny outside. Lori thought of her older brother as her protector. Her guardian angel.
Standing at Alex’s side was Chad Daybell, a 51-year-old LDS father of five who ran a small book publishing company. Daybell was a jowly, potbellied man with an awkward, quiet demeanor, who gave off the air of a person who was deeply unsure of himself. He wore too-large clothes and walked with a forward-leaning slant, and when he spoke, he mumbled sleepily, like his words were smooth river rocks dropping from his lips.
Detective Ray Hermosillo asked the two men if JJ Vallow was at home. The detective looked the part of a TV show cop: shiny head, goatee, linebacker build. He could have easily moonlighted as a bouncer if Rexburg was that kind of college town.
At the detective’s question, Alex looked to Chad, but neither man said a word. Hermosillo repeated himself. Alex told the officers the boy — his nephew — was out of town, actually. He was visiting his grandmother in Louisiana.
Hermosillo knew that wasn’t true. He told Alex they were asking about the boy because JJ’s Louisiana grandmother, Kay Woodcock, had called the police out of desperation to track down her grandson. Woodcock had told the police that she and her husband had not spoken to JJ in three months and that the last video call they’d had with the boy had struck them as peculiar. In August, JJ had answered when they called, greeting his grandparents with his characteristic enthusiasm. But after a few seconds, they noticed the boy’s eyes flick away, off-screen, as if someone was trying to steal his attention.
“I gotta go!” the boy told them. “Bye!”
The call lasted about 35 seconds, and then there were months of nothing. Their calls went to voicemail. Their texts to his mother, Lori, went largely unanswered, and when she did write back it was in a terse, dismissive tone. It left them with a feeling that something was very, very wrong.
Hermosillo asked Alex for Lori Vallow’s phone number, but he said he didn’t know it. He asked Chad, but he claimed he and Lori had only met a couple of times.
Hermosillo found all of this very strange. The story Alex Cox told about the boy being in Louisiana was a lie, and he knew Chad was Lori’s brand-new husband. The two had been married three weeks earlier on a Hawaiian beach, wearing bright white clothes and purple orchid leis around their necks.
After the men closed the door, Hermosillo called his lieutenant and explained the strange situation. He instructed him to go directly to the Madison County Prosecutor’s Office. They were going to need a search warrant.
Later that morning, a new pair of Rexburg officers arrived on the doorstep of Lori’s beige town house: Detective Dave Stubbs and Lieutenant Ron Ball. They were still looking for JJ Vallow.
This time, Lori Vallow answered the door cheerily. “Hi!” she said at the sight of the two lawmen, and invited them to come inside out of the cold.
At 46 years old, Lori still looked the part of the beauty queen and high school cheerleader she’d once been: sparkling blue eyes, a fluorescent white smile, and always, without fail, wheat-colored hair falling in dreamy curls over her shoulders—the kind of woman who has no bad angle. She was devout in her Mormon faith.
As Lori showed the men inside, she told them that she’d just hung up the phone another detective, who was asking about the whereabouts of her son. “This is a big mess,” she said.
“So, JJ would be where?” Ball inquired.
“He’s with one of my friends in Arizona. My friend Melanie. Her son has autism,” she explained. Lori told them that JJ was also diagnosed as autistic.
“We’re a little concerned,” Ball confessed. The officers who had stopped by earlier had gotten “a bad vibe” from Alex and Chad. “Nobody knew anything about a child,” he said.
“It’s because a lot of stuff has gone on, if you want to know,” she told them, annoyance at the edge of her voice.
“That’s why we’re concerned,” Stubbs said. Their encounter with Daybell and Cox “was kind of weird.”
Lori agreed. “It is very weird. I’ve had to move around a lot,” she explained.
She and her children had only recently arrived in Rexburg from Arizona, but, really, nothing was going right, and she was making plans to move back to Arizona. She spoke of Kay Woodcock — JJ’s grandmother in Louisiana, who had alerted the police that something might be wrong with her grandson — like the woman was a splinter caught underneath her fingernails, a gnat she couldn’t bat away.
It was true that Kay Woodcock was JJ’s grandmother. But her particular relation to Lori was a bit more complicated to explain. By November 2019, Woodcock technically was Lori’s ex-sister-in-law. Lori had been married to Woodcock’s brother, Charles Vallow, for thirteen years. And Charles and Lori had adopted JJ — Kay Woodcock’s grandson, the son of her own son — when the boy was two years old because his birth parents were unable to care for the boy. Lori and Woodcock were not on good terms.
She did not disclose to the officers that Charles Vallow had been killed several months prior. She only told them that Vallow had died and had left no life insurance policy for her or JJ but had given everything he had to Kay Woodcock.
After Charles’s sudden death, Kay Woodcock had become a greater presence in Lori’s life — intrusive, needling, asking questions Lori didn’t want to answer. She feared that Woodcock would take JJ away from her.
“I’m a good person,” she said. “Raised all of my kids! I’ve done everything that I’m supposed to do in life. But everyone is causing me trouble right now.”
Lori told them about her daughter, Tylee Ryan. The only reason they’d moved to Rexburg was for her to attend BYU–Idaho, just up the hill from the town house.
Before they left, the officers asked about the men they’d seen earlier. Who was the guy with her brother? His friend, she told them. Chad.
“What’s his last name?”
“Daybell,” she said.
“Chad… Daybell?” Ball clarified. “D-a-y-b-e-l-l?”
“Mm-hmm. He’s an author,” she said.
“Doesn’t he live, like, out in the… Isn’t that the Chad Daybell that, uh…” Ball stumbled over his words. “Didn’t his wife pass away recently?”
“I think so,” she said.
The officers said they were sorry for bothering her — they didn’t mean to add to her problems.
“I’m sorry that people are constantly knocking on my door looking for me! And I just don’t want to be found,” she sniped, numb to their kindness.
Before they left, she asked a question, one that seemed to be directed to no one at all, a question that had, unbeknownst to the officers, already been answered: “What are they going to do with JJ and Tylee?” There was no hint in her voice that something had already been done.
The detectives told her they needed her friend in Arizona, a woman named Melanie, to call them as soon as possible so they could officially locate JJ.
Once Melanie phoned the police, this whole thing would be over. Lori said she’d pass the message along. The detectives thanked her, said goodbye, and Lori closed the door behind them.
By the next morning — November 27 — when no law enforcement officer in either Idaho or Arizona had located JJ Vallow, and Melanie had not called the police, Detective Hermosillo returned to the beige townhome community—this time with a search warrant.
Inside, the officers found a half bottle of pills with JJ’s name on the label on the kitchen counter—prescription Risperidone, which can treat irritability associated with autism. There were toys. A framed picture of Jesus Christ was on top of the refrigerator. A mess of unoccupied hangers dangled from rods in empty closets.
Lori Vallow was nowhere to be found.
Excerpted from When the Moon Turns to Blood: Lori Vallow, Chad Daybell, and a Story of Murder, Wild Faith, and End Times © 2022 Leah Sottile and reprinted by permission from Twelve Books/Hachette Book Group.
The book can be preordered here.