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Lori Vallow Daybell is sentenced to multiple life terms for killing her children

Lori Vallow Daybell was sentenced to life in prison without parole in the murders of her two youngest children and a romantic rival. She is seen here during the sentencing hearing at the Fremont County Courthouse in St. Anthony, Idaho.
Tony Blakeslee
Lori Vallow Daybell was sentenced to life in prison without parole in the murders of her two youngest children and a romantic rival. She is seen here during the sentencing hearing at the Fremont County Courthouse in St. Anthony, Idaho.

Updated July 31, 2023 at 4:14 PM ET

Judge Steven Boyce sentenced Lori Vallow Daybell to multiple fixed life terms in prison with no possibility of parole on Monday, handing down punishment for murdering two of her children and conspiring to murder a romantic rival.

The judge ordered Vallow Daybell to serve the prison terms consecutively rather than concurrently, saying it is important for her to be punished for each death.

Vallow Daybell, 50, was found guilty of first-degree murder and conspiracy charges in May, as a jury agreed with prosecutors who said she wanted to eliminate her youngest children as part of a plan to embark on a new life with Chad Daybell, as well as conspiring to murder Daybell's then-wife, Tammy Daybell.

"You chose the most evil and destructive path possible," despite having a wealth of better, less harmful options, Boyce told Vallow Daybell. He juxtaposed her enjoyment of a honeymoon in Hawaii with her children lying in shallow graves in Idaho.

Her children — Tylee Ryan and Joshua Jaxon "JJ" Vallow had been "burned, mutilated and dismembered, and buried like animals," Boyce said.

The judge noted the "disgust" he saw on jurors' faces during the trial. The scene was horrific, Boyce said, adding that while law enforcement, jurors and he himself will be haunted by images of the children's bodies, he saw no sign that Vallow Daybell feels any remorse.

The lengthy trial was full of strange and shocking moments. Prosecutors say Vallow Daybell was motivated by arcane religious beliefs about "dark energy" and the "end times," as well as by her desire to pursue a life with Chad Daybell — which included conspiring to kill his now-deceased wife.

Vallow Daybell says her children and Tammy Daybell visit her

For the first time in the trial, Vallow Daybell gave an accounting of her own actions, speaking in court for roughly 8 1/2 minutes. But she insisted she is not guilty of murder and said her victims have visited her in spiritual form and are happy in the afterlife.

"Jesus knows me, and Jesus understands me," Vallow Daybell said, adding that she mourns those who died. But, she added, "Jesus Christ knows that no one was murdered in this case."

Vallow Daybell said she underwent a personal transformation in 2002, when she says she had a near-death experience while giving birth to Tylee.

"I had access to heaven and the spirit world," she said, adding that while she was tempted to remain in the afterlife, she returned to her body. "Since then, I have had many communications from people now living in heaven, including my children" and other relatives, she said.

"I know for a fact that my children are happy and busy in the spirit world," Vallow Daybell told the court, reading from a statement. She added that her "friend" Tammy Daybell is "also very happy and extremely busy."

Vallow Daybell said, "Tylee has visited me. She is happy ... and free now," adding that her son also visited her as "an adult spirit" who was very tall and is thriving in the afterlife.

When she finished her remarks, the judge asked Vallow Daybell if she was "fully satisfied" with the representation her attorneys had given her during the trial. She said she was.

Defense asked for concurrent sentences

Boyce handed down his sentence after hearing five victim-impact statements from relatives of Tylee and JJ, the children whose bodies were found in 2020, and from relatives of Tammy Daybell, the previous wife of Chad Daybell — who also faces charges in all three deaths.

Later, Bonneville County Public Defender John Thomas, who is one of Vallow Daybell's attorneys, urged Boyce to impose on his client a 20-year fixed term with an "indeterminate" life sentence, with her prison terms set to run concurrently.

Prosecutor Rob Wood asked for the maximum sentence — several fixed life terms without the possibility of parole — saying Vallow Daybell had betrayed her children's trust in a horrific manner.

The children's bodies were found in 2020

A jury found Vallow Daybell guilty of killing her two youngest children, Tylee Ryan and Joshua Jaxon "JJ" Vallow. Tylee was nearly 17 when she and JJ, 7, were last seen alive in September 2019. The children's bodies were found in June 2020, buried on property in Rexburg, Idaho, that was owned by Chad Daybell.

Even before the remains were found, Vallow Daybell was charged with felony desertion of a child and obstruction. Prosecutors said she didn't report her children missing, so that she could keep collecting benefit payments.

Vallow Daybell was also found guilty of conspiring to murder Tammy Daybell, Chad Daybell's then-wife, who was found dead in her home in October 2019 — less than one month before he and Vallow Daybell got married in Hawaii. He is Vallow Daybell's fifth husband.

Zombie beliefs arose during trial

In court documents, Vallow Daybell's close friend Melanie Gibb described hearing her say that Tylee had become a zombie — a concept Vallow Daybell had picked up from Chad Daybell.

Gibb said she heard Vallow Daybell call Tylee a zombie after Tylee had refused to babysit JJ — to which Tylee replied, "Not me, mom," according to a police affidavit. Gibb said Vallow Daybell later concluded that JJ had also become a zombie.

Prosecutors also said Chad Daybell and Lori Vallow Daybell portrayed themselves as religious figures called "James and Elena." And they purported to be able to "rate" people, detecting whether they might be under the thrall of an evil spirit's dark energy.

Tammy Daybell's family speaks out

In a victim-impact statement, Samantha Gwilliam, Tammy Daybell's sister, said her family has been "ripped apart" and thrust into grief, suspicion and sadness by Tammy's unexpected death at 49. It deepened, she said, when the family learned Chad Daybell was remarrying just weeks later, in a ceremony in Hawaii with Lori Vallow.

The more she learned about Vallow Daybell, Gwilliam said, she found only "lies" — from Vallow Daybell's claim that her most recent husband had died of a heart attack to her saying she and Chad Daybell would be "empty nesters" with no young children.

It was only when Tammy Daybell was disinterred and an autopsy was performed, Gwilliam said, that the family began to "get some answers and some truth, after so many lies." That truth, she added, was that Tammy Daybell was both an obstacle for Vallow Daybell and a way to profit from her death, through an insurance policy.

Weeping in court, Gwilliam described how her family's relationships with Chad and Tammy Daybell's children has become strained. She also read a statement from Tammy's father, recounting the toll that Vallow Daybell's actions took on his wife, who died this year.

At one point, Gwilliam compared her sister, a librarian and educator, to Vallow Daybell.

"Because of the choices you made, my family lost a beloved mother, sister, aunt and daughter. She is irreplaceable," she said. "She was 1,000 times the woman you will ever dream of being."

Defense team says Vallow Daybell is "misunderstood"

"I think Lori Daybell is probably the most hated person in America right now," said Bonneville County Public Defender John Thomas, one of Vallow Daybell's attorneys.

But, he said, she is a "very misunderstood person" who is truly "about love" and has been defined by complicated circumstances.

He asked the judge to use his sentence to impart a sense of "hope" that would both punish Vallow Daybell and encourage her to become a model inmate and grow as a person and become "a better version of Lori Daybell."

Thomas urged Boyce to impose on his client a 20-year fixed term with an "indeterminate" life sentence and have terms running concurrently, making her eligible for parole when she is in her 70s.

The case depicted a love affair that turned deadly

Prosecutors say Lori Vallow Daybell and Chad Daybell's relationship was entwined in a deadly criminal conspiracy that they sought to justify with fantastical beliefs. Rather than simply starting a new life together after they met in October 2018, the prosecution said, the couple plotted to kill their closest relatives and benefit from their deaths through insurance payouts and Social Security benefits.

Vallow Daybell's defense attorney James Archibald has said his client was in the thrall of a man she sees as a messiah and her eternal soul mate. He has also argued that the prosecution has produced little direct evidence to tie Vallow Daybell to her children's deaths.

Other criminal cases are still pending

Chad Daybell is expected to undergo his own murder trial for the same three deaths in the spring of 2024.

Other criminal cases are also pending for Vallow Daybell in Arizona, where she previously lived.

She's under indictment there on conspiracy murder charges for allegedly arranging for one of her brothers to shoot and kill her fourth husband, Charles Vallow, in July 2019. That brother, Alex Cox, died in December 2019 of what was determined to be natural causes. She's also accused of conspiring with Cox to murder her niece's ex-husband, Brandon Boudreaux, who was shot at in 2019 but survived.

Those speaking at Wednesday's proceedings in Idaho included Kay Woodcock — the sister of Charles Vallow and grandmother of JJ — who recounted JJ's short life and described precious moments she shared with him and his sister, Tylee.

"This all began with greed," Woodcock said of their deaths, adding that if Vallow Daybell had simply called her to ask, she would have willingly given Vallow Daybell $1 million — the amount of a life insurance policy covering Charles Vallow — if it could have avoided the tragedies that unfolded.

Woodcock asked the judge to ensure that Vallow Daybell never breathes free air again, saying she is "a danger to society" who is beyond rehabilitation.

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Bill Chappell
Bill Chappell is a writer, reporter and editor, and a leader on NPR's flagship digital news team. He has frequently contributed to NPR's audio and social media platforms, including hosting dozens of live shows online.
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