I watched the Netflix documentary about Lori Vallow Daybell. Here are my top 3 reactions
‘Sins of Our Mother’ was released this week. Here’s what it did well and some problems with the portrayal
“Sins of Our Mother” hit Netflix on Wednesday. Directed by Skye Borgman, who also made “Abducted in Plain Sight,” this three-part documentary series explores the events leading up to the deaths of children J.J. Vallow and Tylee Ryan.
Here are my three reactions after watching the series:
- The truth-tellers aren’t adequately scrutinized.
- Mainstream Latter-day Saints are properly differentiated from extreme “preppers.”
- The child victims are unfortunately sidelined.
J.J. Vallow and Tylee Ryan, children of Lori Vallow Daybell, went missing in September 2019. Their bodies were found on June 9, 2020, in the yard of Vallow Daybell’s husband, Chad Daybell. Both have been charged with conspiracy to commit murder and first-degree murder in the cases of the children and Daybell’s deceased wife, Tammy Daybell. Their joint trial is scheduled for January 2023 in Ada County, Idaho.
The truth-tellers aren’t scrutinized
“Sins of Our Mother” has a similar aesthetic as the Netflix documentary series “Murder Among the Mormons,” which chronicled the Mark Hofmann bombings. Soft music plays in the background as images pop up on the screen, culminating in an ominous picture of Chad Daybell’s house and property, where the children’s remains were found.
Then, we meet our truth-tellers. Every true crime documentary has them: Ours are Janis Cox, Colby Ryan and Julie Rowe. But, as often happens in documentaries, the truth-tellers don’t undergo scrutiny.
Who is Janis Cox?
Janis Cox is the mother of Lori Vallow Daybell. According to the Deseret News, Cox appeared on the CBS program “48 Hours” in May 2020 to defend Vallow Daybell against the allegations that she harmed her children. In this series, Cox seems to have changed her position.
This changing stance is problematic. Also, Cox is tied to the following:
- According to an opinion written by Judge Tanya S. Chutkan, Janis Cox’s husband, Barry Cox, “was sentenced to a prison term of twelve months and one day and ordered to pay the IRS $232,914 in restitution for ‘the federal income taxes he owed for the 1988, 1989, and 1990 tax years.”
- Judge Margaret M. Sweeney, on June 22, 20212, in an opinion and lawsuit dismissal that listed Barry L. Cox and Janis L. Cox as plantiffs, stated, “this lawsuit is plantiffs’ latest attempt to avoid the payment of federal income taxes.” Sweeney noted that “plantiffs’ odyssey began in the late-1990s.”
- In April 2021, Chutkan wrote, “Plaintiffs Janis L. Cox and Barry L. Cox, appearing pro se, have sued defendant Department of the Treasury, alleging misconduct by the Internal Revenue Service.” Chutkan indicated that Janis L. Cox and Barry L. Cox demand a refund of “al1 (sic) taxes confiscated by the IRS over the past 30 years amounting to approximately $480,000.”
Everyone has faults and flaws. It’s important to still hear from Cox because she’s Vallow Daybell’s mother. At the same time, Cox’s perspective needs to be questioned and scrutinized in a way that shows awareness of what Cox’s bias might be as demonstrated through her own history.
Who is Colby Ryan?
Colby Ryan is the son of Lori Vallow Daybell. When J.J. and Tylee were missing, Ryan issued a public plea to his mother to return the children. He originally believed that his mother wouldn’t harm the children. His “last straw,” according to the Post Register, was when he saw his mother go to Hawaii.
Ryan was in the news leading up to the documentary. On Sept. 4, 2022, Ryan was arrested and booked into the Maricopa County Jail in Arizona on two counts of sexual assault. The charges against Ryan were dropped without prejudice, meaning they could be refiled, and the Maricopa County Attorney Office stated that the case is still under review.
Who is Julie Rowe?
Julie Rowe met Chad Daybell through the group A Voice of Warning in 2015 and the last time she spoke with Daybell was 2018.
Rowe said she had her membership withdrawn from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in April 2019. During the documentary, Rowe mentions that she believes that she has visions but that she thinks that she works for the light side while Daybell worked for the dark side.
What’s the issue with these truth-tellers?
By establishing Cox, Ryan and Rowe as truth-tellers and not scrutinizing their accounts, the public hears a unique perspective but does not have a comprehensive picture of what happened.
Cox, Ryan and Rowe all bring a different perspective to the story that hasn’t been highlighted before. They are set up as sympathetic characters, but the audience does not see that their perspective, like anyone’s perspective would, might be skewed.
This could have been avoided with more scrutiny from someone like Justin Lum, a journalist who reported on this case since 2019. Lum appears in the series but should have a bigger role along with other “outside” perspectives.
The series differentiates mainstream Latter-day Saints from preppers
I watched the series with a friend who is not a Latter-day Saint and does not live in Utah. This friend remarked that it seems like Vallow Daybell just happened to be a Latter-day Saint and her extreme beliefs were connected to the extreme-prepper community.
There are instances where Latter-day Saints question Vallow Daybell’s actions. In the first episode, Barry Cox, Vallow Daybell’s father, said he believes she was influenced by Satan. Ryan describes his mother as becoming obsessed with religion.
A friend of Vallow Daybell, a Latter-day Saint, explained that when Vallow Daybell lived in Hawaii, she claimed she had visions. Vallow Daybell’s friend thought that her beliefs were strange.
The series then explains that Vallow Daybell became involved in a group called Preparing a People. It’s a group of preppers who believe that they need to stockpile food and other supplies for the Second Coming of Christ. Vallow met Daybell at a conference in 2018 after she read one of Daybell’s books in 2015.
Later, the series describes how Daybell viewed himself as a prophet. While I think the series could have explained what Preparing a People is more clearly, the series portrays Vallow Daybell and Daybell’s extreme beliefs as fringe.
J.J. and Tylee are sidelined
I’ve come to expect that true-crime does more to make a celebrity out of the person who allegedly committed a crime than remember the victims, but I still always hope for something different. I was disappointed in this case.
I appreciated that the series concluded with a memorial to J.J. and Tylee, but I didn’t learn anything about either one of them throughout the series. They are mentioned fondly, and Ryan’s efforts to remember them are highlighted.
But I walked away from the series not really knowing who they were.
The focus was on Lori Vallow Daybell — the stated purpose of the documentary. But still, I think we should pause to consider how we make entertainment out of someone’s death and a celebrity out of those charged in their deaths while we know next to nothing about the victims.
J.J. and Tylee can’t speak for themselves, and it is disappointing that their story will be overshadowed.