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REXBURG, Idaho – A company that specializes in recreating complicated crime scenes using 3D models has built a replica of the eastern Idaho property where police and FBI agents in June recovered the remains of missing children JJ Vallow and Tylee Ryan.
Visual Law Group created the model in partnership with KSL-TV, using data gathered from KSL drone overflights of the property belonging to Chad Daybell. He and his wife, Lori Vallow, both face felony charges over accusations they concealed evidence of the deaths of Lori’s children and lied to investigators about their whereabouts for months.
Visual Law Group also referred to photos, videos and verbal descriptions to accurately map the burial sites from which the children were exhumed, as well as other locations of interest on the property. Those include a fire pit and a so-called “pet cemetery.”
Mark Johnson, a former litigator who is now president of Visual Law Group, first proposed creating the model after he came across a link to KSL’s previous exclusive story featuring a satellite image of the Daybell property on the online forum Websleuths.
The satellite image had been captured exactly one year ago, on Sept. 9, 2019. That’s the day investigators have suggested Daybell and Vallow’s brother, Alex Cox, burned and buried Ryan’s remains.
“It was a fairly good image, a little bit of cloud cover,” Johnson said. “Definitely enough imagery that you could see some disturbed dirt.”
Johnson reached out to KSL-TV both to confirm our conclusions of what the satellite image showed, as well as to discuss the possibility of collaborating on the creation of a 3D model of the Daybell property.
Standards of evidence
Johnson said these types of forensic visualizations can be a useful tool for lawyers in the courtroom, but only if created correctly.
“It has to be absolutely to scale,” Johnson said. “It has to be non-prejudicial. It can’t be biased in favor of one party or the other.”
Johnson said 3D models can help judges and jurors understand complex crime scenes. Their reliability as evidence though depends on their accuracy.
“It would be very easy for somebody working for George Lucas to produce an amazing visualization of the events that took place here, but that does not mean it would be admissible,” Johnson said. “It has to be accurate and it has to be fair.”
Making a forensic model
In order to build forensic models, companies like Visual Law Group rely on a wide array of data sources. Those can include extremely precise laser surveying tools, GPS measurements or location-tagged photos.
In the case of the Daybell property, Visual Law Group used more than 900 overlapping aerial images to generate measurements that are accurate down to the inch. Those measurements were then entered into computer software, which was used to render a barebones version of the model.
“Once we had that, it became very easy to reverse-engineer all of that other footage,” Johnson said. “We were able to completely reconstruct the fire pit. We could completely reconstruct the excavation where Tylee’s remains were as well as where JJ was found near the pond on the north side of the property.”
Because the date and location are known, the software was also able to simulate factors such as the weather and position of the sun at a given time of day. As a result, even shadows generated by the model are reasonably accurate.
Not all cases have such a wealth of available data.
Visual Law Group was previously contracted to build a model as part of a federal lawsuit between the widow of a Texas man who died in a snorkeling accident at Molokini Crater in Hawaii on July 20, 2014, and the owner/operator of the diving tour boat.
Mark Strickert died while on an outing with his wife, Mary Strickert, and their two children. Strickert later filed a wrongful death suit against Charley Neal, the captain of the dive boat “Double Scoop,” as well as the company that employed Neal.
Visual Law Group began by building a 3D model of the Double Scoop.
The real challenge came when Visual Law Group attempted to put that model in the simulated water. Ocean waves are dynamic, influenced by a wide array of variables.
“We had quite a bit of weather data,” Johnson said. “We knew the winds and we knew several stations that were running doppler radar.”
Oceanographers from the University of Hawaii informed Johnson that if they had measurements of the ocean’s depth at the site, they could calculate the height of the waves based on the winds.
“There was no available data for the lagoon of Molokini Crater, so we had to do a little detective work ourselves,” Johnson said.
Johnson said his team located a text in the university’s library dating to the 1860s. In it, a tall ship operator described sailing around the lagoon of Molokini, measuring depths using a rope marked with knots. That dataset had been used to generate what’s known as a bathymetry map.
“I asked the oceanographers, ‘Can we work with this?'” Johnson said. “Because of the nature of that particular atoll, they said that would be sufficient and would be expected to be within a half a foot accuracy today.”
Johnson’s team used the map, weather data and video captured by divers beneath the Double Scoop to measure the periodic motion of the waves. They generated a video from that model, which illustrated the ocean conditions from Mark Strickert’s position.
“That became very dramatic, but it was also accurate,” Johnson said. “The people who were on the boat confirmed those, if anything, were less than what they recalled the conditions to be.”
Application In The Courtroom
In part two of our exclusive story tomorrow, we will explore how a model of the Daybell property similar to our own could come into play in the ongoing criminal cases against Chad Daybell and Lori Vallow.
Watch part two of this story Thursday on KSL 5 News at 10 p.m.