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BOISE, Idaho (AP) — As authorities in Idaho continue to plead with the public for any information about two kids missing for five months, experts say a potential criminal case against the mother, Lori Vallow, could be bolstered if she fails to meet a court-ordered deadline to produce the children.
Seven-year-old Joshua “JJ” Vallow and 17-year-old Tylee Ryan haven't been seen since late September, and police in Rexburg, Idaho, have said they “strongly believe that Joshua and Tylee's lives are in danger.” They've also said that Lori Vallow and her new husband Chad Daybell have lied about the children's whereabouts and even their very existence, with Chad Daybell allegedly telling one person that Lori Vallow had no kids, and Lori Vallow allegedly telling another person that her daughter had died more than a year earlier.
Lori Vallow, who has recently been living in Hawaii, was given a court order earlier this week directing her to bring the kids to an Idaho Department of Health and Welfare office by 5 p.m. Thursday. Details on the case are scarce because child protection actions are sealed under state law, but if she failed to meet the deadline she could face contempt of court charges.
The tangled case spans multiple states and includes investigations into three separate deaths: Lori Vallow's estranged husband, Charles Vallow, was shot and killed in Phoenix in July by Lori's brother, Alex Cox. Cox, who claimed the shooting was in self-defense, died of unknown causes in December. In the meantime, Lori Vallow moved her family to Idaho, and a few weeks later Chad Daybell's wife Tammy Daybell died of what her obituary said was natural causes. But when Chad Daybell married Lori Vallow just two weeks after Tammy's death, law enforcement became suspicious and ultimately had Tammy Daybell's remains exhumed. The test results on Tammy Daybell's remains and on Alex Cox have not yet been released.
Both Daybell and Vallow left town immediately after police came to question them about the missing kids in late November. On Saturday, they were stopped by investigators in Hawaii, served with the order to produce the kids, and then searched.
Failing to produce the children could subject Lori Vallow to a contempt of court charge. That's generally a misdemeanor under Idaho law, with a penalty of just five days in jail and a $5,000 fine.
Thomas “Tad” DiBiase, a former homicide prosecutor in Washington, D.C., said the order to produce the children is good strategy if prosecutors are looking to build a criminal case. DiBiase consults with law enforcement agencies on “no body” murder cases.
“It's actually very clever, because it forces the parent's hand,” DiBiase said Thursday. “Parents who have not done something to their kids are not going to violate a court order, so in that sense it's powerful.”
Bringing missing persons cases to court can be difficult because, without a body, prosecutors are missing their best piece of evidence, DiBiase said.
“If you have a body, you know generally when the murder happened: Did it happen an hour ago, did it happen two days ago, did it happen a year ago, did it happen five years ago? You also don't know how the murder happened, you also don't know where the murder happened,” he said. “It's an enormous challenge, because in addition to that, you don't know whether the person is truly dead or not.”
When the potential victims are kids, however, it's easier to bring a case without a body, he said.
“A 7-year-old is not likely to walk away on their own, never to be found again," he said.
It could be some time, however, before the public knows exactly what is going to happen next in the case. Child protection cases in Idaho are sealed, and the Madison County prosecutor had to get special permission from a judge just to reveal that Vallow had been legally ordered to produce her children.
“We are grateful for the concern and attention being shown regarding the location, health and safety of Tylee Ryan and J.J. Vallow,” Madison County Prosecutor Rob Wood said in a prepared statement released Wednesday evening. “In the event that information comes forward that would be important for the public to know, we will inquire of the court as to whether that information can be shared.”
Wood also asked anyone with information about the kids to come forward.
“We hope and pray that the children will be produced or found and that they are safe and healthy,” he said.
JJ Vallow's grandparents, Kay and Larry Woodcock, have offered a $20,000 reward for information leading to the childrens' discovery. The Woodcocks also said they would make a statement about the child protection order against Lori Vallow at 5 p.m. on Thursday.