Author Leah Sottile discusses her deep dive into two dead children in Idaho, and where extreme religion meets extreme conspiratorial fervor

click to enlarge Author Leah Sottile discusses her deep dive into two dead children in Idaho, and where extreme religion meets extreme conspiratorial fervor
Leah Sottile photo
Chad Daybell's property outside Rexburg, Idaho, where Lori Vallow's children's bodies were found in 2020.

It's a case seemingly made for tabloids and trash TV.

As 2019 neared its end, the world first heard of Lori Vallow, her new husband, Chad Daybell, and the strange tale centered on their lives in small-town Idaho. Sparked by a phone call from concerned grandparents, police in Rexberg discovered that Vallow's two kids, 17-year-old Tylee and 6-year-old JJ, were missing.

In short order, news stories revealed that Daybell's longtime wife Tammy had died under mysterious circumstances just two weeks before he married Vallow. And that her brother and at least one ex-husband had also died under peculiar circumstances. And that the newlyweds, rather than helping police try to find the missing children, flew off to Hawaii. Soon came reports of the couple's unorthodox religious beliefs involving past lives and Doomsday prophecies, and several months later came the discoveries of Tylee's and JJ's bodies buried on Daybell's rural Idaho property.

While the likes of Dateline and 48 Hours were attracted to the case by the obvious salacious aspects, independent investigative journalist and former Inlander reporter Leah Sottile saw something more as she started to dig into the case from her Portland home. Much like the subjects of her award-winning Bundyville podcast tracking the Bundy clan of anti-government extremists and their various armed uprisings across the West, the Vallow/Daybell case featured people who seemed to blend a particular strain of conspiracy-minded religion and anti-government sentiment. But while the Bundys did plenty of interviews and passed their philosophy around the rural part of the West, Daybell and Vallow were living a mainstream Mormon life by all appearances, while also being heavily involved in apocalyptic podcasts, fiction and prepper conventions.

The case is featured in Sottile's first book, When the Moon Turns to Blood: Lori Vallow, Chad Daybell and a Story of Murder, Wild Faith and End Times. It's a well-documented look at the case to date (both Daybell and Vallow's trials will be held concurrently and go to court in January 2023; both could face the death penalty). More impressively, it's a deep dive into the West's predilection for anti-government conspiracies, the celebrity around near-death experiences, and just how mainstream some "extreme" views are in certain communities scattered from Idaho to Utah to Arizona.

In the story of a former beauty queen and an apocalypse-obsessed fiction writer, their whirlwind romance, and their apparently murderous path, Sottile found a natural source for putting her reporting skills and dedication to tracking life on the West's fringes to the test. We talked with her about the case and her reporting; this interview has been edited for length and clarity.

INLANDER: Where did your interest in extreme movements of the West, charismatic people of the West, where did that spark come from?

LEAH SOTTILE: All things lead back to the Inlander with me. I was the music editor, partially because my interest has always been in the weirder side of underground music scenes. At the Inlander, you can do a lot and have to do a lot. So I have some really crazy stories that I was able to do about what felt like fringe cultures at the time. I was covering polyamory before that was in the common parlance. And I wrote about a backyard wrestling group, and I got a ton of space to do that. So I've always kind of been interested in the fringes, whether that's people who feel like they were pushed to the fringes by society, or people who choose to live on the fringes. That's been the common theme of my work for a really long time.

I started freelancing around 2013 and did a story on a prepper, like a survivalist, that was in the [Spokane] Valley, for Playboy. It kind of opened up a world that I was really interested in, that felt like it was in the zeitgeist at the time. Something about what this guy is saying about the world collapsing and just any moment, you know, the United States is going to just slide into turmoil. I could recognize that there was something there that was more than just a novelty. And then, the first day of 2016, we had the takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by the Bundys. When that happened, I just became obsessed with it. I had knowledge of what was happening, but I was also really curious about whether there was something more to this movement. I got really obsessed with that, and covered the trial that ensued for the Washington Post and wrote a bunch of features about the people who took over the refuge for, you know, Outside and Portland Monthly magazine and kind of chipped away at it as a freelancer because I was so curious about all the sort of varying ideologies that were intersecting there. And that's when I sort of just accidentally fell backward into this world of far-right extremism and kind of haven't been able to emerge from it since.

click to enlarge Author Leah Sottile discusses her deep dive into two dead children in Idaho, and where extreme religion meets extreme conspiratorial fervor
Holly Andres photo
Author Leah Sottile

At this point, anti-government extremism is obviously being reported on coast to coast, which wasn't always the case.

When I started, it was like, "I'm writing on the fringe!" Now it's like, "Oh, I'm writing on the mainstream. How did that happen?" With the Bundy story and the initial stories that I was pitching around the standoff, around the trial, around the things coming out of the trial, I was getting rejected left and right.

NOTE: In the intervening years since the Malheur standoff, Sottile continued working on stories about various extreme groups and individuals. As a freelancer, she's free to pick and choose the stories she wants to cover. And the ones that most appeal to her, Sottile says, are "stories that intersect with the land, ideology, history, the West." As she started to dig into the backgrounds of Vallow and Daybell, she found a lot of her interests setting off buzzers in her head.

When you first heard of this Lori Vallow and Chad Daybell case, what was it that got your attention early on?

I made this podcast, two seasons of a podcast called Bundyville, which is about the Bundy family, their takeovers, their ideology, etc. It gets into [former Washington state Rep.] Matt Shea, gets into all kinds of wacky stuff. Because of that, and being somebody who's always very interested in ideology and religion, I had come to learn about this thing called the "White Horse Prophecy," which is like this fringe LDS [Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, aka the Mormons] urban legend that there was a revelation that Joseph Smith had told somebody that the Mormons were going to basically save the United States and the Constitution from falling into the brink of ruin. It's not real. The church doesn't accept it.

After I came out with the first season of Bundyville, where we talked about that, I got a lot of emails from people who are like, "Yeah, it's not as fringe as you think." Like, "I'm hearing about that in church. I've heard about it from my bishop, it's less fringe than you think." And I was like, "Oh, OK. Noted."

When I first heard about Lori Vallow and Chad Daybell and the missing kids, I heard an early news report that said something to the effect of the kids are missing and she's missing. And people close to them think that it might have something to do with her strange religious beliefs. I know Rexburg is super Mormon. And pretty quickly, I dug into some writing that her dad had done, and he was mimicking the White Horse Prophecy. So I was like, "OK, this is bigger than just a missing kids case and a missing persons case." It's potentially informed by this very Western belief system, that some Mormons think that they are going to save America.

NOTE: Sottile's first thought was that perhaps Daybell and Vallow were part of a secretive polygamous community, like something out of author Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven. But she quickly found both Daybell, a self-published author and publisher, and Vallow, the five-times-married former beauty queen, had both grown up in mainstream Mormon congregations across the West. They weren't holed up in a compound, but attending prepper conferences, recording podcasts and hanging out in Hawaii while police searched for Vallow's missing kids Tylee and JJ.

How quickly did you start working on this story when you first heard about it?

I started digging in right away. I have a reporting problem. Like, I just can't not report. I remember sitting down at my computer and just building a timeline. Like, the kids were missing. They [Vallow and Daybell] were in Hawaii. I'm trying to work backwards. I just started reporting, building timelines, requesting documents, diving into what I could find. Really, the most immediate resource was, I just bought a ton of Chad Daybell's books. I just started reading his books, because I thought, "Maybe there's something here. Maybe it's a dead end. I got time, it's the pandemic, we can't leave the house."

"I started digging in right away. I have a reporting problem. Like, I just can't not report."

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He'd written a ton of books. He had a blog that was pretty active. So it was this wealth of information that I could start putting in my timeline. I just started kind of working the story backwards to figure out where my place was in it. And I was really watching the reporting and seeing that nobody's talking about the White Horse Prophecy. They're just telling it as a very tabloid story. And I was like, "There's something being lost because it's a tabloid story. I think there's something here that's a lot bigger."

NOTE: Daybell's books, while certainly niche products sold primarily in Mormon bookstores, revealed to Sottile that he evolved over time from a relatively mainstream, albeit extremely religious, writer into one obsessed with the end times. The onetime journalist created his own publishing house after working at a mainstream Mormon publisher, and his books showed he saw threats from left-leaning political groups to the country's future, he saw God's judgment waiting in the wings, and he saw in himself a sort of prophet capable of foreseeing the future. Through his writing, Daybell's status rose in prepper/survivalist circles and among a certain set of Mormons who bought into the White Horse Prophecy, despite the church's insistence it isn't real. That popularity among extremists in the West "definitely mattered to him," Sottile says, "and definitely mattered to Lori [Vallow]."

click to enlarge Author Leah Sottile discusses her deep dive into two dead children in Idaho, and where extreme religion meets extreme conspiratorial fervor
Leah Sottile photo
A community shrine across the street from where Tylee and JJ's bodies were found.

In reading your book, it's fascinating that this beauty queen woman and this sort of schlubby guy fall in love and sort of drop everything for each other.

There's so many questions that are gonna get answered when this goes to trial. I'm used to reading about the Bundys. And they're doing interviews from jail whenever they are in jail. They love the press, any attention. But with this [case], they got arrested, and silence. Everything just stopped.

In Lori Vallow's background, you have these instances of violence, and accusations of violence, but Chad Daybell doesn't seem to have anything like that.

Everyone that I talked to who knows Chad, works with Chad, did a book with Chad, was like, "he was the most docile, nicest, Mormon man. So kind..." It was almost off-putting. He seemed like he had really low self-esteem. Then all of a sudden, you know, he had dead bodies in his backyard. But if you read his fiction, it is like one murder after another. It's just like death and destruction. It's like cities melting, liberals being hanged. It's really dark.

"Everyone that I talked to who knows Chad... was like, 'he was the most docile, nicest, Mormon man.' ... Then all of a sudden, you know, he had dead bodies in his backyard."

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You were reporting this during the pandemic. How did that work? Were you able to travel?

The majority of this was done in 2020, so there was not a lot that could be done, but there was an awful lot happening. All the court hearings that I would have wanted to be at were on Zoom, so I could attend them in my pajamas, which was nice. The book is super, super document-heavy. I had the benefit of having all the body-camera footage. I had all the different angles, crime scene photos. Every document that every other reporter had, I had too. So I was just building a story from those things and finding out which rabbit holes I wanted to go down. At one point, I did go to Rexburg [Idaho, where the kids' bodies were found on Chad Daybell's property]; I did a bunch of reporting there. A lot of my reporting is informed by alt weeklies, the type of journalism that I do.Walking the walk from Lori's front door to the parking lot and observing everything, sitting outside of where she lives. Or going to the Daybell house and sitting there and listening to the sounds and the smells and trying to sort of soak up those ethereal writerly details.

So how did the book finally come together? Did you pitch it to a lot of publishers?

As with all things I've done that come together in a way that I'm pleased with, it had to get rejected. I've been wanting to write a book forever. I have made attempts and, really, the ideas haven't stuck for me. But this, it just grabbed me with both hands. And I was like, "I think that that means that this is a book." And my agent took it out, and nobody wanted it. It was rejected all across the board. Just another day of freelance rejection, like it was a normal day. And then, obviously, the pandemic wasn't over by Memorial Day [2020] like everyone had said, and there started to be a lot of stories and think pieces in the news about survivalists and preppers and stuff. Then it was like people were ready to hear it.

Your book is full of history and perspective you don't see in tabloid stories about this case. That's got to be hard to get through to a publisher.

This has been my experience completely in writing about the far right. I think it was just that by the summer of 2020, the crushing reality of what we were living under, with an inept presidential administration, a deadly pandemic, freezer trucks full of bodies in the streets. I think people were really scared. People had to be like, "Oh, shit, maybe the world is gonna end!"

I felt lucky that I could kind of give a little bit of perspective. I tried to take this out of being just a tabloid story and be like, "Look, this is more than a pretty lady and these murderers, or accused murderers. It's a bigger thing about who we are, and the violence that we tolerate." And still, this far into the world we're living in now, I think people still think that the racists and the extremists are like, out there in the hills. They really want to think it's not something that's happening in their community or in their church. And I think that this book says, "Reconsider that." ♦

Leah Sottile worked at the Inlander off and on between 2003-2013, including stints as arts editor and music editor. Her work at the Inlander garnered multiple regional and national journalism awards, and also introduced her to her husband, Joe Preston, a former Inlander art director. Her work's been featured in the Washington Post, New York Times Magazine and The Atlantic, and she's the host and reporter of the Bundyville podcast. When The Moon Turns To Blood is her first book.

Dan Nailen

Dan Nailen is the former editor of the Inlander. He's previously written and edited for The Salt Lake Tribune, Salt Lake City Weekly, Missoula Independent, Salt Lake Magazine, The Oregonian and KUER-FM. He grew up seeing the country in an Air Force family and studied at the University of Utah and University of...

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