“I’m basically a ticking time bomb,” Lori Vallow says with a wide smile and a laugh. She’s speaking at the Mrs Texas beauty pageant in 2004 where she is competing.
At the time it must have seemed an innocuous comment about balancing home and work life, but nearly 20 years later the words take on a more chilling aspect after she is found guilty of murdering her two children and conspiracy to murder her husband’s ex-wife.
Prosecutors say the mother-of-three became obsessed with a coming religious doomsday and believed her children were zombies whose bodies had to be destroyed so they could go to heaven.
Vallow and her fifth husband Chad Daybell went from being followers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) to something altogether darker and cult-like, it is claimed.
Religious beliefs in doomsday have been used to harrowing effect by cult leaders again and again to exert control over their followers, sometimes with deadly consequences.
Was it fear of the apocalypse or a belief in the coming of a leader known as “One Mighty and Strong” that resulted in the deaths of seven-year-old Joshua “JJ” Vallow and his big sister Tylee Ryan?
Jurors in Idaho returned guilty verdicts against Vallow on Friday afternoon.
A huge search, mysterious deaths and rumours of doomsday beliefs
Sometimes referred to as the “reddest place in America” for its conservative voting habits, the city of Rexburg in Idaho is home to around 40,000 people.
For many years it was perhaps best known for its large Mormon population – some 95% of people living there are Latter-day Saints (LDS) members – but in September 2019 it was thrust into the spotlight when two children vanished.
Vallow and Daybell told police that JJ was in Arizona with a family friend and that Tylee had died a year before and had been attending a university.
Their disappearance sparked a search which lasted months and grabbed huge media attention. Strangers from around the world became transfixed by the search for the children, rumours of doomsday beliefs… and the mysterious deaths of Vallow’s fourth husband Charles Vallow and Daybell’s ex-wife Tammy.
Charles Vallow had been shot and killed by Lori Vallow’s brother in July 2019, a few months after he filed for divorce. He claimed his wife threatened to kill him and that she believed she was a god.
Tammy was found dead in October 2019 of what doctors at the time thought was natural causes. Vallow and Daybell were married just two weeks after Tammy’s funeral.
It wasn’t until June 2020 that police found the mutilated remains of JJ and Tylee at a property in rural Idaho that belonged to Daybell.
JJ’s body was wrapped in trash bags, his arms bound in front of him with duct tape. Tylee’s remains were charred.
Vallow has now been found guilty of murder and conspiracy to murder after a lengthy trial. Daybell is set to face court in a separate trial at a later date.
‘Church of the Firstborn’
Vallow’s defence team say her religious beliefs began to change after she met Daybell, a fiction author whose books focus on the apocalypse and are loosely based on Mormon teachings.
But prosecutors say those beliefs veered toward the extreme, with the couple saying people were “dark” or “light”, telling friends and acquaintances that “dark” people had been taken over by evil spirits.
They eventually began teaching friends that once those evil spirits were strong enough, the person became a “zombie” and the only way to free that person’s soul was by killing them.
The pair met at a conference in Utah in 2018 and felt an “instant connection”, claiming they had been married to each other in a past life, according to police records.
Vallow’s longtime best friend, Melanie Gibb, told investigators that Vallow and Daybell believed they were part of the “Church of the Firstborn” and that their mission in that church was to lead the “144,000” mentioned in the Book of Revelation.
‘One Mighty and Strong’ to emerge after the apocalypse?
Apocalypticism – the religious belief that the end of the world is imminent – in Western culture goes back thousands of years, retired professor Stephen Kent, an expert on cults, tells Sky News.
While much of the Christian apocalyptic beliefs are rooted in Judaism, he says, the case of Lori Vallow highlights the connection with Mormonism.
“Mormonism has a belief that there will be a terrible apocalyptic period at the end of time.
“Mainstream Mormons are encouraged to stack up food and provisions that will allow them to survive a government collapse for a year – and in those last days before Jesus comes back governments will fall apart.”
Within that there is a belief among fundamentalist movements that a Mormon leader will reveal himself, known as “One Mighty and Strong”.
It is believed he will restore ideal Mormonism after the apocalypse, Professor Kent says, and the surviving Mormons will be the chosen ones.
Since the prophecy was made in 1832 a string of extremist individuals have claimed to be “One Mighty and Strong” and some have extracted dangerous behaviours from their followers, including murder.
Fringe Mormon groups involving apocalyptic beliefs have popped up over the years, often led by men who see themselves as “One Mighty and Strong”, Prof Kent said.
He described Chad Daybell as a “fringe Mormon character” and remarked on his authorship of fiction books about the end of the world.
“I’ve not seen specifically that he saw himself as being ‘One Mighty and Strong’, but he certainly fitted in that position and it seems to me that his followers saw him in that context.”
Escape from a fundamentalist Mormon cult
“Every time I would try to escape, the punishments would get heightened.”
It took Briell Decker four years and multiple attempts to break out of the Mormon cult she was born into, unscrewing a window in the compound where she was being held in solitary confinement and running for her freedom in 2013.
At age 18 she had become the 65th wife of Warren Jeffs, the now-disgraced prophet who led the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS).
It is one of a number of fundamentalist Mormon communities and emerged after its founding members were excommunicated from the mainstream Mormon church for their refusal to abandon polygamy.
Jeffs was convicted of sexually assaulting two other underage girls he took as brides and sentenced to life in prison in 2011.
“I didn’t dare say no to him because of his authority,” Briell tells Sky News about agreeing to marry Jeffs. He had been her school principal before becoming leader just before her 18th birthday. They were married soon after.
“I figured I’d be really punished if I said no to him, so I just went along with it.”
Sermons in the group featured warnings about doomsday, Briell said, comparing them to a “horror movie”.
“It’s used for control for sure, to scare people into being more faithful, praying harder, more loyalty.”
‘The newer compounds have a guard tower’
Unlike so many others Briell was able to escape the FLDS – but it was no sure thing and involved a lot of failed attempts.
She spoke of being moved around for around three years, eventually managing to work her way to an older compound where security wasn’t as tight.
“The newer compounds have a guard tower, they have a gate around them. They’re really hard to escape from.”
She added: “They had four-wheelers that would drive around the perimeter of the property with the men that were assigned to keep the security.”
Briell was able to escape from the older compound and made it into the outside world, where she was adopted by a woman from an organisation that helps people escaping FLDS.
In the years since she gained her freedom Briell was able to obtain ownership of the 44-room mansion where Jeffs and his wives lived. It’s now a refuge for other women fleeing the church.
Her father was kicked out of the FLDS soon after she escaped, but Briell says she hasn’t spoken to her mother in 11 years.
Lori Vallow guilty of murder
Lori Vallow’s trial began in April 2023 – more than three years after her children’s deaths.
Before she was charged with the murders in May 2021 she was ordered to undergo a mental competency evaluation and was declared unfit to stand trial on two counts of concealment in the deaths of her kids.
A judge ordered Vallow to be committed to a mental health facility for treatment. Less than a year later, she was declared mentally fit to stand trial.
The state of Idaho doesn’t allow for an “insanity” defence and requires that defendants have the competence to understand the charges against them.
On Friday morning jurors found her guilty of the murders of Tylee and JJ, and of conspiracy to murder Tammy. She will be sentenced at a later date.