BOISE, Idaho (AP) — An Idaho jury on Friday convicted Lori Vallow Daybell in the murders of her two youngest children and a romantic rival, a verdict that marks the end of a three-year investigation that included bizarre claims of zombie children, apocalyptic prophesies and illicit affairs.
Vallow Daybell showed no expression as the verdict was read. Some in the courtroom gallery wiped tears from their eyes.
Prosecutors in the case described Vallow Daybell as a power-hungry manipulator who would kill her two youngest children for money, while the defense team said she was normally protective mother who fell under the romantic sway of a wannabe cult leader.
Jurors heard both stories Thursday during final arguments in the seven-week long trial, and deliberated for about four hours before breaking for the evening. They resumed deliberations Friday morning and reached a verdict, which was announced shortly after noon.
Vallow Daybell was convicted of conspiring to commit the murders of 7-year-old Joshua “JJ” Vallow, 16-year-old Tylee Ryan, and Tammy Daybell. She was also convicted of grand theft as well as first-degree murder of the two children, a charge that indicates a more direct role in the crimes.
Vallow Daybell's fifth husband, Chad Daybell, faces the same charges, but his trial is still months away.
Prosecutors say the two worked with Vallow Daybell’s brother, Alex Cox, to carry out the crimes. Cox died in December 2019 and was never charged.
Vallow Daybell faces up to life in prison at sentencing, which a judge said would be in at least three months.
JJ's grandparents, Larry and Kay Woodcock, held an emotional news conference outside court and at one point Larry Woodcock began to sing the Willie Neslon song “The Party's Over.”
“JJ, I love you,” he said, choking up. “It started with two children. I said, ’Where are the children? Where are the children? ... Give me back my children,” he said. “This is not the end of this.”
Prosecutors said they were not able to comment on the verdict because of pending charges against Chad Daybell. In a statement, they thanked jurors for their service and said they “remain committed to pursuing justice for Tylee Ryan, JJ Vallow and Tammy Daybell.”
Vallow Daybell wanted the victims' money, so she used sex and power to manipulate her brother and her lover into carrying out the crimes, Madison County Prosecutor Rob Wood told jurors during closing arguments.
“ Money, power and sex,” Wood said, reprising the arguments his team made at the start of the trial. He claimed Vallow Daybell considered the three victims nothing more than obstacles to her goals.
“What does justice for these victims require? It requires a conviction on each and every count,” Wood said.
Defense attorney Jim Archibald countered that there was no evidence tying his client to the killings but plenty showing she was a loving, protective mother whose life took a sharp turn when she met her fifth husband, Chad Daybell, and fell for the “weird” apocalyptic religious claims of a cult leader. He suggested that Daybell and Cox were the ones responsible for the deaths, and that Vallow Daybell's only crime was lying to police about where her children were.
Daybell told her they had been married in several previous lives and she was a “sexual goddess” who was supposed to help him save the world by gathering 144,000 followers so Jesus could return, Archibald said.
“Why can’t people escape religious cult figures, why can’t they break out, why can’t they break away from that mind control?” Archibald said. “Promises are marvelous to some people even if they sound like stupid gibberish to the rest of us.”
At times, the testimony in the case has been heartbreaking — such as when Vallow Daybell’s only surviving child, Colby Ryan, accused her of murdering his siblings in a recorded jailhouse phone call.
Other testimony has been strange, such as when Vallow Daybell’s former friend Melanie Gibb testified that Vallow Daybell believed people in her life had been taken over by evil spirits and turned into “zombies” — including JJ and Tylee. Four of the people the defendant described as “zombies” were later killed or shot at, according to the testimony.
It has also been gruesome, such as when law enforcement officers testified about finding JJ and Tylee’s remains buried in Chad Daybell’s yard.
Tylee had her whole life ahead of her, Wood told the jury, when she was killed in September 2019.
“Tylee’s body was burned beyond recognition. Her body was dismembered in such a grotesque and extreme manner,” that the medical examiner couldn’t determine the cause of death, Wood said. Marks on her pelvis showed she was stabbed, he said.
“JJ Vallow’s voice was silenced forever by a strip of duct tape over his mouth,” just two weeks later, Wood said. “A white plastic bag was placed over his head, and secured with duct tape around and around from his forehead to his chin.”
Evidence shows JJ struggled, Wood said, and at one point the boy’s arms and legs were bound with duct tape.
“He stopped breathing, his heart stopped beating and he died. It was a brutal, horrific murder of a 7-year-old boy with special needs,” he said.
Vallow Daybell never reported the kids missing but continued to collect the survivor benefit checks each child was receiving because of the earlier deaths of their fathers, Wood said.
Wood said Tammy Daybell was slain between Oct. 18 and Oct. 20, 2019.
The defense attorney countered that Vallow Daybell wasn't even in the state when Tammy Daybell was killed. She was in Hawaii, visiting with friends, he said.
Archibald did not call any witnesses during the trial, and Vallow Daybell declined to testify. Instead, Archibald asserted that prosecutors had not proven their case, suggesting that there was not enough evidence to find beyond a reasonable doubt that she committed a crime.
“Of the 15,000 texts you have in evidence, show me one where Lori is part of that conspiracy,” Archibald said in closing arguments.
Under Idaho law, conspiring to commit a murder carries the same penalty as carrying out a murder. Wood reminded jurors of that law, noting that aiding and abetting a crime is akin to committing it.
The case began in July 2019, when Vallow Daybell's then-husband, Charles Vallow, was shot and killed by her brother, Alex Cox, at his home in a Phoenix suburb. The husband and wife were estranged, and he had filed divorce documents claiming that she believed she was a goddess sent to usher in the Biblical apocalypse.
At the time, Cox told police he acted in self-defense, and he was never charged in connection with the death. Cox died later that year of what authorities determined were natural causes. Vallow Daybell was later charged in Arizona in connection with Charles Vallow's death; she has not yet had the opportunity to enter a plea in that case.
According to prosecutors, Vallow Daybell was already in a relationship with Chad Daybell, who was still married to his wife, Tammy Daybell, at the time. She moved to eastern Idaho with her brother and kids to be closer to Chad Daybell.
The children were last seen alive in September of 2019. Police discovered they were missing a month later after an extended family member became worried. Their bodies were found the following summer.
The case has garnered widespread interest not just in Idaho but around the world, and the judge banned cameras from the courtroom in an effort to limit pretrial publicity. The trial was also moved to the capital city of Boise, where 1,800 potential jurors were called and winnowed to a panel of 18 people.