The investigation into the disappearance of doomsday mom Lori Vallow’s children has exposed a bitter, mudslinging custody battle between her niece and the niece’s ex-husband—with allegations of cult membership, child-stealing, and attempted murder.
The fight is being waged between Melani Pawlowski and Brandon Boudreaux, an Arizona couple who were married with four children until things started to get very strange in the summer of 2019.
That’s when, according to Boudreaux, his wife began spending a lot of time with Vallow, her aunt, and joined what he called a doomsday cult. She suddenly demanded a divorce, blindsiding Boudreaux.
"I thought I had a happy marriage, so it was pretty overwhelming," Boudreaux told the Arizona Republic a few months ago.
Things were about to get more overwhelming. On Oct. 2, Boudreaux was returning home when a 2018 Jeep Wrangler pulled up with a rifle with a silencer poking out of the window, he said. A bullet came whizzing at him and barely missed his head.
According to Boudreaux and prosecutors, the car belonged to Charles Vallow, husband of Lori Vallow.
There was no way Charles was at the wheel, however. He had been dead for months. In July, while estranged from Lori, he traveled from his home in Texas to hers in Arizona to see their adopted 7-year-old son, J.J., and stepdaughter Tylee, 17.
Lori would later tell police that Charles became physical and her brother, Alex Cox, shot him dead in self-defense—although police are re-investigating his death in light of recent disturbing developments.
After the shooting, Boudreaux said, he became fearful for his life and the safety of his children so he filed for custody. Pawlowski moved to Idaho, where Vallow had moved after her husband’s death, and a judge granted Boudreaux temporary custody. He told the Republic he was in hiding with them in another state.
About a month later, Vallow remarried—tying the knot with Chad Daybell, an author who penned apocalyptic novels for a Mormon audience. His wife of almost 30 years, Tammy, had suddenly died just weeks earlier and was buried without an autopsy (though her body has since been exhumed).
Vallow’s children were not at the wedding; according to police, they had vanished weeks earlier and when authorities showed up on the newlyweds’ doorstep to check on Tylee and J.J.’s welfare, Lori lied about where they were.
That set into motion the investigation that would eventually generate headlines around the world, drawing scrutiny to the deaths of Vallow and Daybell’s previous spouses, raising questions about the fate of Tylee and J.J., and providing new ammunition for Boudreaux in his legal tussle with Pawlowski, who had also since remarried.
A court filing by Boudreaux on Feb. 19, first reported by Fox 10, included a number of unsubstantiated allegations of nefarious behavior by Pawlowski: that she was involved in a cult where “adults and children alike have been being killed off like flies” and that she was involved in the Oct. 2 shooting.
“Brandon believed Melani, his wife at the time, had a million dollars of reasons to have him killed,” the filing alleged in reference to a life insurance policy. He claimed that Vallow’s brother, Cox, was the gunman; Cox has since died of unknown causes.
In the court papers, Boudreaux also alleged that Pawlowski knows where Tylee and J.J. are and that she had ominously told her new husband, “Sometimes children are full of light and then just like that they go dark.”
Arizona police have said they were not able to corroborate the litany of lurid accusations—and Pawlowski fired back with a barrage of her own allegations in a statement from her attorneys.
“Sadly, and irresponsibly, much of the media has quoted Brandon Boudreaux’s biased, vindictive, and fake accusations as truth and fact when they are his resentful, vengeful, and dishonest efforts to get full custody of Melani’s children,” attorney Garrett Smith said.
“Brandon Boudreaux deceptively took Melani’s children out of state and kept them unlawfully, Melani was the stable parent in her children’s lives while Brandon Boudreaux traveled for weeks and was rarely home.”
The statement went on to level ugly charges about Boudreaux’s behavior and his family, including criminal misconduct, while defending Pawlowski.
The lawyers said Pawlowski does not know where Vallow’s children are and told the FBI as much during three sit-downs. They added she had nothing to do with the Oct. 2 shooting, which they suggested was an “elaborate manipulation.”
“Melani has never been associated with a cult,” another attorney, Robert Jarvis, added. “Melani is a lifetime member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and her beliefs are consistent with the Church. Melani holds close to her belief in a loving God. She loves her children and respects life.”
In the middle of all this finger-pointing, the question of where Tylee and J.J. are remains unanswered.
Police in Rexburg, Idaho, have said they believe the pair are in danger and that Vallow and Daybell have refused to cooperate with the investigation. A day after investigators asked Vallow and Daybell about the children, the couple left Idaho and eventually resurfaced in Hawaii.
An Idaho judge ordered Vallow to return with the children, but she failed to show, and she was arrested on charges of child desertion, contempt of court, and promoting criminal behavior. That last count stems from an allegation that she asked a friend to lie for her and tell police that she had J.J.
Initially held on $5 million bail, Vallow has since waived extradition and will soon return to Idaho to face the charges. Her attorneys say she plans to fight the allegation and did not comply with the court order only because she did not want them to end up in foster care. He did not, however, say where the children are.