Jurors in the trial of doomsday mom Lori Vallow this week heard how two of her children were murdered and buried in her apocalypse-obsessed new husband’s Idaho backyard.
The gut-wrenching revelations, which made at least one Ada County juror cry, will weigh heavily on jurors when they have to decide if Vallow was part of a conspiracy to kill 7-year-old son Joshua “JJ” Vallow and 16-year-old daughter Tylee Ryan in 2019, legal experts said.
“When you combine how horrific these murders were with her religious and cultish beliefs and her actions after her children’s disappearance—her seeming lack of concern for their disappearances—all that testimony unveiled shows it was a great week for the prosecution in proving their case beyond a reasonable doubt,” criminal defense attorney Silva Megerditchian, who is not involved in the case, told The Daily Beast.
“The condition of how the children’s bodies were found was emotional, particularly barbaric, and will have a huge effect on that jury. The prosecution has structured a very strong case.”
Prosecutors say that Vallow and her author husband Chad Daybell conspired to kill the kids and then a month later killed his first wife, Tammy Daybell, by asphyxiation for an insurance and Social Security payout.
So far, the trial has focused on Vallow and Daybell’s membership in a renegade branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and her bizarre behavior after her children were officially declared missing. Prosecutors say Vallow initially lied about the whereabouts of her kids—then ceased all cooperation and communication with authorities until her arrest.
Duncan Levin, a criminal defense attorney not involved in the case, told The Daily Beast that the prosecution’s decision to focus on Vallow’s religious beliefs early on in the trial allowed them to “establish a motive for the murders” before they moved on to the physical evidence.
That physical evidence was presented in grisly detail by several prosecution witnesses, including Dr. Garth Warren, who works for the Ada County Coroner’s Office.
He testified that JJ was smothered with a white plastic bag duct-taped over his head. His body was found in a pet cemetery by authorities in June 2020 near his older sister, who died by unspecified means and was dismembered and buried in a fire pit.
JJ was still wearing a red pajama set when he was found and had bruises on his arms and a scrape on his neck. A toxicology report concluded that he was found with low levels of ethanol, the date-rape drug GHB, and caffeine in his system. Warren said it was unclear if the GHB was a naturally occurring product or was given to the child. Jurors were also shown gruesome photos.
“The testimony regarding JJ’s death was especially graphic and hurts Vallow,” Megerditchian said. “The asphyxiation, the plastic bag found over his head—add to that the GHB and alcohol found in his system, shows a particular heinousness.”
Experts say if jurors had any doubt about whether Vallow is guilty, the witnesses who followed Warren could have changed their minds. Megerditchian said the testimony “takes away any doubt that the killings could have been an accident.”
“This is an extremely violent act that they will argue, probably successfully, requires some amount of deliberation,” Levin added. “The prosecution will be sure to use that to support its theory that Vallow and her co-conspirator, Chad Daybell, had a motive and intent to kill the victims.”
The horrendous details the jury heard include the explanation of how investigators determined that Tylee had been hacked by a serrated, bladed tool and torched after her murder. (Her remains were so badly burned, they were found melted in two different places in the backyard.)
Douglas Halepaska, who works for the FBI lab in the firearms and tool marks division, testified that he examined several sharp trauma areas on Tylee’s bones. While he could not determine the exact tool used, he concluded it could have been a machete, hatchet, or cleaver.
A retired Idaho State Police analytical chemist, David Sincerbeaux, testified that he found gasoline on Tylee’s flesh and other debris on Daybell’s property. A forensic biologist with the Idaho State Police, Katie Dace, testified about where she found Tylee’s DNA.
“I found several presumptive positive blood stains on the tools and on several of the tools I found what could be charred flesh,” Dace said, according to EastIdahoNews. Dace also testified that duct tape found on JJ’s ankles, hands, mouth, and around the plastic bag wrapped around his head had irregular edges, leading her to believe someone tore it with their mouth.
Experts predicted the defense will argue the details of the deaths do not necessarily implicate Vallow.
“One way they’ll certainly try to do this is by arguing that Vallow was coerced or manipulated by Chad Daybell and that he was the true mastermind behind the murders,” Levin said.
One witness’s testimony, however, may be hard for the defense to explain.
Tara Martinez, a forensic scientist with the Idaho State Police, testified that she found a fingerprint on a piece of plastic with JJ’s remains that matched Lori Vallow’s late brother, Alex Cox. Another print also matched his palm.
Cox, who fatally shot his sister’s former husband, Charles Vallow, in apparent self-defense, died in December 2019 from a blood clot. Vallow is facing a separate set of charges in Arizona for allegedly conspiring to murder Charles in July 2019.
Former federal prosecutor Neama Rahmani said the defense is sure to try to blame Daybell or Cox for the killings—but jurors weighing Vallow’s fate may not be able to look past the ghastliness of the evidence.
“The shock and awe of the prosecution’s case clinched a guilty verdict. The jurors won’t be able to look past JJ’s asphyxiation or Tyler’s dismemberment,” Rahmani said. “Adding Lori’s bizarre behavior when her children were missing and her own family members’ disbelief in her innocence, we are well on our way to a guilty verdict.”