As Lori Vallow goes to trial, Rexburg hopes to breathe a sigh of relief
The case of 2 murdered children put the small Idaho community at the center of grisly headlines and morbid fascination from around the world
The bodies were discovered on the other side of the fence near a brick home surrounded by farmland, where Peggy Jeppesen now stands on a cold and snowy spring night in southern Idaho. Miles to the east, the Grand Teton looms.
It’s there, about three years ago, police discovered the remains of two children, killed and buried in a shallow grave, in a disappearance that captured the attention of the country and weighed on the small, southern Idaho community.
“A long time ago, sometime in the early ’90s, there was a horrible car accident right here, taking the life of five or six youths,” says Jeppesen, who lives several miles down the road.
She points to the intersection about 20 yards away. “I feel like this area never recovered from that dark cloud. That’s how I feel. Our town has a dark cloud over it.”
Jury selection began Monday at the Ada County Courthouse in Boise, hundreds of miles away, in the trial of Lori Vallow, who along with her husband Chad Daybell have pleaded not guilty to murder, conspiracy and grand theft in the deaths of Lori’s children, Joshua “JJ” Vallow, 7, and Tylee Ryan, 17. They are also charged in connection to the death of Tammy Daybell, Chad’s wife.
Opening arguments will follow, and in the coming weeks, perhaps months, the greater Rexburg area may finally have some closure in the murder case that has taken three years to unfold and has taken an emotional toll on the small Idaho community. After years of having their town under a spotlight, residents are looking for justice to be handed down and their community to be returned to normal.
The Daybell house sits right on the edge of Fremont County, no more than a 15-minute drive from Rexburg.
The property is idyllic. It’s a short walk from the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River, just 6 miles from the St. Anthony Sand Dunes, and on a clear day, Wyoming’s Grand Teton mountains are visible from the back yard. Cattle roam the adjacent pasture, trudging through the snow and wading into the flooded fields. Cottonwood trees tower over the brick, ranch-style home and the red barn behind it. The only noise that drowns out the singing birds is the occasional car whizzing by.
Daybell’s lawyer currently has a lien on the home, though Daybell’s children are reportedly renting it. In the backyard, brightly colored plastic children’s toys are scattered.
‘Where are your kids?’
The story is twisted, in every sense of the word. As a Rexburg police source put it, “picture the craziest story you’ve seen, times 100.”
That’s according to Nate Eaton, the news director and founding member of East Idaho News, who wrote his first story on the missing children the Friday before Christmas 2019.
“Any young, aggressive reporter that really wants to dive into this might end up on ‘Dateline,’” the source told Eaton. He was right.
Eaton jumped on the story and chronicled its twists and turns. With help from East Idaho News’ small newsroom, he reported on the head-scratching death of Lori’s ex-husband Charles Vallow, shot by her now deceased brother Alex Cox, who claimed self defense, in July 2019; the equally mysterious death of Chad’s wife Tammy Daybell, who died in her sleep; Lori and Chad’s marriage in Hawaii just two weeks later; the November 2019 welfare check, where police inquired about JJ; the Dec. 20, 2019, announcement from Rexburg officers declaring JJ and Tylee missing.
And, from a helicopter’s view, the heartbreaking news of the children’s remains discovered behind Daybell’s home.
Eaton’s work elevated him to a household name among true crime fanatics. His dogged pursuit of the couple, who shortly after the November welfare check were holed up at a resort in Hawaii, earned him millions of online page views and more than 100,000 Facebook followers.
“Where are your kids?” Eaton asked a visibly uncomfortable Lori and Chad who were holding hands, dressed for the beach, and hastily walking toward their hotel in an effort to escape the East Idaho News’ camera. “They’ve been missing for four months and you have nothing to say?”
The video went viral. In the months that followed, Eaton couldn’t buy groceries or take his wife out to dinner without being recognized. “Hey, are you the Daybell reporter?” someone shouted to him as he was floating down a river in Island Park with his family. “Good work, man, I love your stuff!”
He was invited to speak at a true crime conference and was bombarded with selfie requests. Fans still do “the Daybell tour,” driving by the home where JJ and Tylee were discovered, the jail where Lori was held and East Idaho News’ newsroom in Idaho Falls, hoping to meet Eaton.
All before the case ever made it to trial.
When asked if the trial will be a weight off his shoulders, Eaton is quick to respond. “Yes. Without a doubt,” Eaton said. “... I think we’re getting near the finish line.”
“I have thought about these kids every day since December of 2019. I can honestly tell you that,” he said.
It’s the biggest story of Eaton’s career, by far. “But it’s not what you really want to be known for,” he admitted.
A three-year media circus
That sentiment is commonplace around Rexburg, the town just a few miles south of the Daybell property that nearly 40,000 people call home, according to U.S. census data. Before the case, outsiders associated the quaint, quiet college town dubbed “America’s Family Community” with Brigham Young University’s Idaho campus. The majority of Rexburg residents are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, according to city officials, and its walkable streets are filled with a mix of college students, farmers and middle-class families. The Applebees near the highway is the only restaurant that serves beer, a waitress said.
But for thousands of people around the country who followed the case, Lori Vallow and Chad Daybell might have been the only two people living in Rexburg.
“There was disappointment that it was happening in our town. Especially as a city leader, right? Obviously those are not the stories we want people to know Rexburg for,” said Matt Nielson, the town’s chief financial officer.
Rexburg will have spent several million dollars when the trial is over, Nielson estimates, factoring in the resources and countless hours detectives, attorneys and other city employees have spent working on the case, traveling around the state and navigating the publicity.
“How much of the other services that they provide are going by the wayside?” he said.
“We want this to be done,” said Natalie Powell, of Rexburg. “Just as much as the snow.”
Since the start of 2020, Rexburg was overrun with media, bloggers, social media influencers and true crime fans as the case unfolded. A line of cars circled the Rexburg Department of Health and Welfare building in late January 2020, the deadline a judge had given Lori to produce her kids. And in February, after Lori was arrested, reporters again flocked to the small Rexburg airport. Crowds gathered outside the courthouse, swarming “Dateline” reporter Keith Morrison. The rural neighborhood where Daybell lived still sees visitors who followed the crime, sometimes stopping by the nearby memorial to take selfies.
“That was wild for Rexburg, and me, to see,” said Eaton.
“No soliciting” and “no media” signs started popping up on adjacent homes, and the community is still a little jumpy when someone knocks on the door. “Can you not!?” shouted one woman who now lives in Lori Vallow’s old townhome near Rexburg’s Main Street. “I’ve heard that before,” said one of Daybell’s neighbors, rolling her eyes, when she answered the door to Deseret News journalists.
“After they arrested him, when they took down the roadblocks it was like Interstate 15, for weeks,” said the neighbor, who asked to remain anonymous. “It was bumper to bumper out there.”
‘We have divided into strange little sub groups’
The neighbor’s request to remain anonymous is partly due to a shared fear among the community that Chad Daybell could be acquitted, and that his followers are still out there.
“You didn’t know who is believing in this stuff,” they said, referring to the obscure doomsday beliefs espoused by Daybell in his numerous books and lectures. It’s now widely reported that Chad and Lori, as they’re referred to here, viewed certain people as “zombies,” consumed by “darkness.” Death, they said, was the only path to light.
“We’re LDS (Latter-day Saints),” the neighbor said, “and we don’t believe in any of this stuff. That was shocking, when we heard they were holding meetings over there. I thought, what?”
Eaton is hesitant to label Daybell a cult leader, pushing back on the narrative frequently peddled by tabloids and bloggers. “I think it was a small group of people,” he said.
But that does little to quell the anxiety of Daybell’s immediate neighbors. They hope the trial is the final chapter in the saga, but many can’t shake the unsettling thought of Chad or Lori returning to the community.
That includes Chris Tunnell, who has lived across the street from Daybell’s home for three years. Unlike some of his neighbors, Tunnell hasn’t followed every update and watched every interview. “I don’t want to watch that crap. I got my own drama,” he said, taking a break from shoveling the night’s fresh snow from his driveway.
“But yeah, it would be scary if Chad got off and moved back,” he said, motioning to the unassuming ranch near his home that has come to symbolize murder and fringe beliefs.
While it’s hard to say how many devout followers Daybell still has, if any, residents say there are still people in the community who are sympathetic to his plight. His children have publicly claimed that their father was duped by Lori. “It’s just not possible. Anyone who says that my dad could kill a person doesn’t know my dad,” said Mark Daybell, one of Chad Daybell’s five children, in a July 2022 CBS interview.
“It has affected our town, we have divided into strange little sub groups,” said Jeppesen. “On occasion, I’d see people that lived near him and if I brought his name up, they’d immediately stick up for him. They’d physically put their hands up and say ‘Chad would never do anything like what people are speculating!’ For me, it was almost creepy.”
Three years later
The fence near the Daybell property, where Jeppesen now stands on a dreary Wednesday night, became a memorial for the deceased children. Signs that read “Justice for Tylee and JJ” are pinned to the wire, next to flowers and ribbons, all covered in a fresh dusting of snow. “Paw Paw and Maw Maw” is written in the corner of one sign from the children’s grandparents, Kay and Larry Woodcock, dated Sept. 14, 2022.
Much of that began with Jeppesen, though she admits “this place brings me no peace.”
As the weeks went by and the kids were still missing, she ordered the signs that now line the fence and can sometimes be seen in front yards around Rexburg. She thought it was a custody dispute — that if Chad saw the signs, he might feel pressured to hand them over to police. The signs arrived in the mail on June 9, 2020, the day police found the bodies.
That afternoon, Jeppesen and her husband drove to the fence, where some residents had already placed flowers and pictures. The road was packed with police, reporters and spectators. She pushed through the crowd with her new “Justice for Tylee and JJ” sign and stuck it in the ground. “Get me out of here,” she told her husband, through tears.
Now, with the trial getting underway, Jeppesen wonders if it’s time to take it all down. “It looks a little trashy with the mud and snow. ... But people need a place to mourn.”