What Happened to Lori Vallow's Children: A Months-Long Search, Buried Remains and a Very Tangled Web

When Lori Vallow left Idaho for Hawaii, she never gave a clear answer to family or police about what happened to the two children whose remains were found buried in her fifth husband's yard.

By Natalie Finn Apr 03, 2021 7:00 AMTags
Lori Vallows Children, Joshua J.J." Vallow, Tylee RyanREXBURG POLICE DEPARTMENT

Even after Lori Vallow was arrested in February 2020, five months after anyone had last seen her son and daughter alive, police say she couldn't give a straight answer as to the whereabouts of 7-year-old Joshua "JJ" Vallow and 17-year-old Tylee Ryan.

Lori, 47, has been in an Idaho jail ever since awaiting two trials, one on felony charges of conspiracy to destroy, alter or conceal evidence and the other for misdemeanor charges of resisting or obstructing officers, solicitation to commit a crime and contempt of court. She has pleaded not guilty on all counts.

JJ and Tylee were confirmed dead last June after their remains were found buried in the backyard of the home of Chad Daybell, Lori's fifth husband.

"I saw him as the hand and her as the puppet on that hand," Melanie Gibb, a former friend of Lori's, told NBC News' Dateline of the couple after the remains had been positively identified. "They were both like gasoline and fire. Not a good match. But equally destructive to each other. So in a way, they were their equal match, in that they were destructive to each other. They both had deception in them."

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Daybell has pleaded not guilty to felony destruction, alteration or concealment of evidence and and conspiracy to commit those acts, and in October a judge agreed to combine his trial with Vallow's. It's set to begin July 21, while her trial on the misdemeanors is scheduled for Aug. 30.

"From the moment we first heard about it, it was pretty clear from the start that something very bad had happened to these children," Dateline correspondent Keith Morrison, whose Mommy Doomsday podcast delves into the Vallow case, told E! News last month. "For a little while, I think that there was some hope that those children would be found alive. And certainly, anybody who cared about them, as obviously their families did—what was left to their families—was desperately hoping that they were okay. But, you know, there was certainly an understanding as well, that the outcome of this was probably not going to be good."

JJ was last seen at his Idaho elementary school on Sept. 23, 2019. Lori told the school that she planned to start homeschooling her son, who had autism, according to the Rexburg Police, which shared photos from the family's last vacation to aid in the search.

Tylee was last seen with JJ on Sept. 8, during a trip to Yellowstone National Park with their mom and her brother Alex Cox—who had fatally shot Lori's fourth husband, Charles Vallow, in July 2019. (Cox, who died in December 2019 after suffering a pulmonary embolism, maintained he fired in self-defense.)

 

John Roark/AP/Shutterstock

JJ's grandparents on his dad's side, Larry and Kay Woodcock, reported the children missing in late November 2019, after which Lori and Chad left town and turned up on the Hawaiian island of Kauai in January, still maintaining that JJ and Tylee were fine.

Authorities said they suspected the children were in danger.

The children's bodies were found buried in the backyard of Chad's Idaho home, authorities announcing June 13 that they had positively identified them as JJ and Tylee. 

"The Woodcocks and The Ryans are confirming that the human remains found by Law enforcement on Chad Daybell's property are indeed our beloved JJ and Tylee," read a statement from Larry and Kay, as well as Lori's son from a previous marriage, Colby Ryan, and his wife Kelsee. "We are filled with unfathomable sadness that these two bright stars were stolen from us, and only hope that they died without pain or suffering."

Lori's sister Summer Cox Shiflet, who had previously defended Lori to those who expected the worse, took to Facebook to admit that she was wrong, though she was going to continue to see where the investigation went. "Tylee and JJ are completely irreplaceable in our family," she wrote. "I have loved them greatly all of their lives. There are no words that can capture this loss. Words are just inadequate. We have dozens of Tylee and JJ stories that we love and share frequently. We had prayed our hearts out for them and hoped with all of our hearts they were safe. But we sadly have to face this new reality and our family will never ever be the same."

Police had previously searched the Daybell house in Salem, Idaho, in January 2020, carrying out more than three dozen items, including computers, cell phones, medication and paperwork.

Uncredited/AP/Shutterstock

Per NBC News, Madison County Prosecutor Rob Wood said via Zoom at Daybell's June 10 court hearing that the "manner of concealment" of one of the bodies was "particularly egregious." The complaint alleged the remains had been in the yard since sometime between Sept. 22, 2019, and June 9.

Neither Chad nor Lori has offered any information as to what really happened to the kids.

John Roark/The Idaho Post-Register via AP

"The stories that we have heard from her jailers are that she's reading Chad's books, she's writing him letters, she's dancing in her cell," Morrison told E! News. "She still seems to be caught up in the belief that she is going to be swept out of all this and taken up to heaven sometime in the next little while."

How Lori may have reached that conclusion is a complicated story.

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"The events of the past nine months have weighed heavily on our family—it has been one of the most difficult things we have ever had to go through," Matt and Heather Daybell, Chad's brother and sister-in-law, said in a statement to E! News last June. "Some in our extended family are still struggling to accept the reality that Chad could have been involved in something so terribly wrong."

"We also continue to pray for Tammy and Chad's adult children and their spouses," the couple continued. "Because of the difficulty of this situation, our relationship with them has been significantly strained. As a result, we have had no contact with them or Chad for the last many months—we do not know where his children stand at this time."

Tammy being Chad's wife before he married Lori.

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East Idaho News received a statement credited to Tammy Daybell's parents, siblings and extended family in response to the grisly discovery on Chad's property: "As the family of our beloved Tammy, we want to extend our deepest and heartfelt love and sympathy to the families of Tylee and JJ. We share the pain of the tremendous and shocking loss you are enduring. We still suffer and we will suffer with you for many years to come. Please know we will continue our prayers to strengthen your families, as you are finally able to properly lay to rest your precious Tylee and JJ.

"As matters move through the judicial process, we pray that each of our families can be strengthened and trust that justice will be swiftly served.

"We wish to thank the many members of law enforcement and the FBI who continue to work tirelessly as investigations continue, and the public who have shown such love and support for our families. We also ask that our privacy continue to be respected at this time as we continue to grieve for Tammy, and the Woodcock and the Ryan families grieve this unfathomable loss."

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Up until just a few weeks before he married Lori, Chad was married to Tammy, the mother of his five grown children, for almost 30 years. Tammy died at their Salem home on Oct. 19, 2019, and though it was determined to be of natural causes, police opened a new investigation, calling the 49-year-old's death "suspicious."

At first local detectives called to the scene didn't notice anything particularly suspicious, Fremont County Sheriff Len Humphries told EastIdahoNews.com in January 2020. But then Arizona authorities got in touch with his office, Humphries explained. "There is a lot of concern for the safety of the kids," Humphries said. "The information that is coming out of Arizona in reference to deaths of multiple people is concerning."

Tammy's body was exhumed Dec. 11 , 2019, and just this past Feb. 4 authorities announced her autopsy was complete and the Utah Medical Examiner's findings had been handed over to the Fremont County Sheriff's Office. "The contents of this report will not be made public at this time as it is evidence in an open and ongoing investigation," Humphries stated in a news release. "We will release additional information as it becomes available."

Per KSL.com, her family declined an autopsy when she died, so these were the first tests performed on her remains.

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Tylee's father and Lori's third husband, Joseph Ryan, died in April 2018 of a heart attack. Authorities opted to review the circumstances of his death last year after a recording surfaced, purportedly from an October 2018 religious gathering, in which Lori is heard saying, "I was going to murder him. I'm going to kill him like the scriptures say." Per East Idaho News, the context indicated that she was talking about Joseph. Upon further review, Phoenix Police determined that there was nothing criminal about her ex's death.

Lori married Charles Vallow in 2006 and they adopted JJ in 2014. (Kay Woodcock is Charles' sister, so Charles was biologically JJ's great-uncle.)

Charles Vallow filed for divorce in February 2019, noting in his divorce petition—filed in Arizona, where they lived—that he was increasingly concerned by his wife's behavior since she had gotten involved with an extreme offshoot of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints whose main focus is preparing for the impending end of the world. 

According to court documents obtained by Phoenix's Fox 10, Charles alleged that Lori had threatened to kill him if she got in his way, that the end was coming in July 2019 and he wouldn't stop her from being ready. "Mother [Lori] believes that she is receiving spiritual revelations and visions to help her gather and prepare those chosen to live in the New Jerusalem after the Great War as prophesied in the Book of Revelations," the petition reads.

Also noted in the filing, Charles said that Lori had transferred 2,000 Enterprise Rent-A-Car points from his account and had moved a total of $35,000 among their various bank accounts, leaving him worried she was planning to leave the state with JJ. Charles was seeking sole custody.

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The divorce petition was dismissed that March, however, and Charles' son from another relationship told Fox 10 that his father wanted to try to save the marriage. However, the son (he didn't want his name made public) helped his father move from Arizona to Texas with JJ that month as well.

"Lori had basically just disappeared, and he had no idea where she went for I think two-ish months, and so eventually he was like, 'Alright, I have to move away for JJ's sake, for JJ's safety,' and so he decided to move to Houston," the son said.

Charles eventually took JJ back to Arizona, where Lori and Tylee were still living, and it was at their home in Chandler where Charles, 63, was fatally shot by Lori's brother, Alex Cox, on July 11, 2019. Local headlines reported that the shooting occurred during a "family fight," or "family argument." "I got in a fight with my brother-in-law and I shot him in self-defense," Cox told the 911 dispatcher.

According to Cox, Charles and Lori had been having an argument and he went to intervene, worried that Charles would get violent with his sister. Tylee then came into the room with a bat, ostensibly to defend her mom, but Charles took the bat and hit Cox in the head with it. Cox told Chandler police that he then went to his room to get his gun. Charles was shot twice in the chest.

Cox first told police that Lori had left with the kids before he shot Charles, but Lori told investigators she heard the gunshots from the kitchen and then went outside to check on the kids, who were waiting in Charles' rental car, and then drove away in that vehicle.

Uncredited/AP/Shutterstock

Lori was first linked to Chad Daybell when they appeared on an episode of Preparing a People Podcast Network's Time to Warrior Up toward the end of 2018. (Episodes featuring Chad and the two of them together have since been removed and Preparing a People has distanced itself from both Chad and Lori, according to the East Idaho News.)

Chad, who married Tammy Daybell in 1990 in Utah, is the author of numerous faith-themed books, including the Standing in Holy Places series with titles like The Great Gathering and The Renewed Earth.

At the end of August 2019, weeks before Tylee and JJ disappeared, Lori moved with JJ and Tylee to Rexburg, Idaho. Her niece Melani Boudreaux, who had also been living in Arizona, moved to Rexburg in November, according to a recent interview Melani gave.

Before leaving Arizona, Melani filed for divorce from her husband, Brandon Boudreaux, who has since stated in child custody-related court documents and said in interviews with media outlets that his now ex-wife got caught up in the same extreme religious teachings that Lori started following.

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A self-identified friend of Tylee's from Arizona, who didn't want her name reported, told the Boise Post Register in January 2020 that she had texted Tylee on Oct. 19 that she missed her, and received a reply from Tylee's number on Oct. 25, reading "hi. miss you guys too ...luv ya." The friend, who showed the paper a screenshot of the text via Facebook Messenger, recalled thinking the wording didn't sound like Tylee.

"When she lived here, she responded immediately," the friend said. "And when she moved [to Rexburg], it slowly decreased in response time." The friend said Tylee hadn't wanted to move to Idaho and originally planned to stay at her family's house, but ultimately Tylee decided to go to look after JJ. "She was just protective of JJ 'cause he was her little brother," the friend said.

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The girl also told the Post Register that Tylee had already earned her GED, which is why she didn't attend school in Idaho.

Meanwhile, Lori rented a storage unit in Rexburg on Oct. 1, 2019, and visited it nine times and once in November, according to the East Idaho News, which reviewed surveillance footage.

On Oct. 9, Tammy Daybell called 911 to report that a masked man had shot a paintball gun at her, and she had no idea why. She died on Oct. 19 and her funeral was held Oct. 22.

Chad and Lori married on Nov. 5.

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According to authorities' timeline of events, police showed up at the couple's address on Nov. 26 to conduct a welfare check on JJ at the behest of his grandparents, who hadn't heard from him for months. Chad and Lori said he was staying with friends in Arizona.

By the next day, Chad and Lori had left their townhouse in Rexburg.

Authorities later discovered that they flew to Hawaii on Dec. 1, airline records indicating it was just the two of them.

On Dec. 12, 2019, Lori's brother Alex Cox died in Gilbert, Ariz., at the age of 51. Autopsy results released in May stated he suffered from blood clots in his lungs, brought on by other health problems, and died of natural causes. (His family, including his widow, mother, sister and Melani, said in a statement to East Idaho News: "Rampant rumors of evil plots and conspiracy robbed the family of their time to grieve the loss of their husband, son, brother, and uncle. Even so, the family finds comfort in the medical examiner's finding that Alex Cox died of natural causes.")

Later that month, with the search for Tylee and JJ ongoing, Brandon Boudreaux told Salt Lake City's Fox 13, "I spent the last 11 years of my life spending time with Lori and her now-deceased husband Charles," Boudreaux said. "I don't know what happened to those kids, but I know there's people who do, and they're not talking… I love them both. I hope they're safe. They're both just innocent and they didn't deserve to be involved in any of this."

John Roark/The Idaho Post-Register via AP

In the first week of January 2020, Kay and Larry Woodcock, JJ's grandparents, traveled from their home in Louisiana to Rexburg and announced a reward of $20,000 for information leading to answers about the kids' whereabouts.

"These are beautiful young children. They're two extremely intelligent young children, and we want them back. We want them back in our family," Larry said. "We don't say the 'D word.' We don't want to and we're not going to because we truly believe and we hope and pray these kids are alive."

At the time, the Woodcocks didn't know where Chad and Lori were, either, the couple having not yet been located in Hawaii.

"I'm terrified for JJ," Charles Vallow's aforementioned son told Fox 10 at the time. "I'm terrified for Tylee. I'm terrified for everyone surrounding them and their safety. I'm terrified for my family's safety."

On Jan. 10, Chad's brother Matt Daybell—who said he'd last seen Chad at Tammy's funeral—issued a public statement urging his big brother to cooperate in the search for the kids. 

"I have not been close to Chad since childhood," read part of the statement. "My immediate family has had little association with Chad the last many years due to our concerns with his religious claims and particular books he had chosen to publish, including his own. We are deeply saddened at the recent events that have played out the last several months. It is our hope and prayer that JJ and Tylee are safe. We want for the truth to be found—whatever that truth turns out to be. Neither I, nor my wife and children have any more information than what has been reported by the news media. I plead again for Chad to come forward and cooperate with the investigation so that this very difficult situation might be resolved."

JOHN ROARK/AP/Shutterstock

On Jan. 25, Kauai Police served Lori with a notice ordering her to produce the kids for police in Rexburg or the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare within five days (the notice remains sealed because it concerns welfare of a minor case).

The Jan. 30 deadline passed.

Reporters showed up in Hawaii to find Lori and Chad and swarmed into Idaho as the case turned into a national media sensation.

After she failed to comply with the order, Lori was arrested on Feb. 20, 2020. After six days in jail in Hawaii she was sent back to Idaho, where she's been behind bars ever since. Bail was initially set at $5 million, then reduced to $1 million.

Dennis Fujimoto/AP/Shutterstock

In April 2020, the East Idaho News obtained a letter sent from the Idaho Attorney General's Office to Fremont County prosecutors that confirmed that Chad and Lori were under investigation for conspiracy, attempted murder and murder in the death of Tammy Daybell.

The Fremont County Sheriff's Office confirmed to E! News on June 12 that there was still an open investigation into Chad and Lori in connection with Tammy's death.

John Roark/The Idaho Post-Register via AP, Pool

Colby Ryan, Lori's son from her second marriage and Kylee's half-brother, told Dateline's Morrison in an episode that aired May 1 that it hurt "so much" not knowing where JJ and Tylee were. "And on top of that, we have a million questions. So you can't call your own mom. You can't go to your house or her house and see your siblings. You're just out in the cold...Like, how do you not produce the kids? That's the whole reason you're in jail in the first place right now."

Melani Boudreaux, who has since remarried, told Phoenix's CBS 5 in May that she "absolutely" felt she'd see Tylee and JJ again. "I know Lori wouldn't ever do anything to hurt her kids," she said. "I don't have the answers as to why she does the things she does, and why she hasn't spoken as to where they are, but I can't judge her because I don't know what she's going through. I can only love and support her, and hope for everyone to be safe."

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Melani, who said Lori was like a second mom as well as an aunt and friend, said she saw a lot of "judgment" and "a lot of lies" in the way her aunt was being portrayed in the public eye. "I don't know where my cousins are, her children JJ and Tylee, but I love all of them and I know she's doing whatever she can to keep her kids safe."

She said Brandon "took [her] children" from her, and denied abandoning or otherwise choosing to be apart from her kids. (Brandon was granted emergency custody of his and Melani's children because the "Mother was being investigated for numerous felonious acts across numerous jurisdictions," according to court documents filed in Maricopa County.)

But her new husband wasn't so sure that Lori's kids were safe.

"It was a shock finding out Chad and Lori are gone, [that Lori's] kids are missing, people's doors are being kicked down because they can't find the kids," Ian Pawloski, who married Melani after she divorced Brandon, also said in the interview

Ian said that he got a call from his own mother, who told him that Melani's ex had alleged that Melani and Lori were in a doomsday cult, that Chad was a cult leader and that they had plotted to kill Brandon and succeeding in killing Charles Vallow. So Ian agreed to go talk to the police, and FBI agents were there as well. "I was open to sharing everything I knew at that point," Ian said.

"It seems the information I shared with them just turned into this nationwide frenzy," he added.

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Ian said he also agreed to record conversations between Chad and Lori, and between Lori and Melani, for the FBI. "I saw that as the fastest way to get from point A to point B," Ian explained. "Nobody knows where these kids are, there's serious concern about their safety."

Melani admitted she felt betrayed when Ian told her what he had done in December, but she ultimately appreciated that he had cooperated with the authorities to help clear her name.

And of course she was worried about Tylee and JJ, she said, because she knew "the threats that Lori had been getting"—though Melani did not say who was threatening her aunt. Melani also flatly denied being involved with the shooting of Charles Vallow. (She has not been accused or charged with any crimes.)

Dennis Fujimoto/The Garden Island via AP, Pool

On June 9, Chad Daybell was arrested following the discovery of the remains in his yard.

"We are aware that those remains are the remains of children," prosecutor Rob Wood told the court at Chad's arraignment the next day, where his bail was set at $1 million.

"This is the beginning of an investigation into the deaths of children who were found on his property."

(Originally published June 13, 2020, at 7 a.m. PT)