REXBURG, Idaho — On the day that would have been Joshua "JJ" Vallow's ninth birthday, his mother and her new husband have been charged with murder in a case tied to apocalyptic religious beliefs.
Lori Vallow Daybell and Chad Daybell were both indicted by a grand jury this week on charges of conspiracy and first-degree murder in connection with JJ's death, as well as the death of his sister, 17-year-old Tylee Ryan, Madison County (Idaho) prosecutor Rob Wood announced at a Tuesday news conference.
The couple is also accused in the 2019 death of Chad Daybell's former wife, Tammy Daybell. Both were indicted for additional counts of conspiracy to commit murder, and Chad Daybell faces another murder charge in connection with her death.
The remains of Tylee and JJ, who was 7 when he disappeared, were found on Chad Daybell's property in Salem, Idaho, last June. The two had been missing since September 2019, prompting calls for authorities to investigate and drawing international attention to the couple's reported teachings about evil spirits and "zombies."
Prosecutors say the couple endorsed or espoused religious beliefs to justify or encourage the killings, but the indictment provides limited details.
It alleges the couple texted each other at some point about Tammy Daybell "being in limbo" and being possessed by a spirit named "Viola." They allegedly discussed "death percentages" for Tammy Daybell and the boy in July 2019, the indictment says.
Earlier court filings allege Lori Vallow Daybell said her children had become "zombies," a term she learned from her husband that is also used in the teachings of the "Church of the Firstborn."
Lori Vallow Daybell reportedly told a friend that in the church's teachings, zombies refer to those whose mortal spirits have left their body and have become host to another "dark" spirit, according to a probable cause affidavit filed last year. She further explained that the "true spirit goes into 'limbo' and is stuck there until the host body is physically killed," states the affidavit filed in the case against her husband.
For nearly a year, the couple has been jailed on charges that they worked together to keep the children's bodies hidden. But until Tuesday, no one was charged with their deaths.
Lori Vallow Daybell is also charged with theft of Social Security benefits allocated for the care of Tylee and JJ. Prosecutors say she continued to collect the payments after their deaths.
Chad Daybell was charged with two counts of life insurance fraud for policies connected to Tammy Daybell.
The couple's defense attorneys didn't return messages seeking comment Tuesday.
Chad Daybell's initial appearance is scheduled for 11 a.m. Wednesday, and Lori Vallow Daybell is scheduled for an initial appearance at 11:30 a.m., EastIdahoNews.com reported.
Fremont County prosecutor Lindsey Blake said progress on the case has been slowed by pandemic court restrictions. Prosecutors recently obtained permission to present the case to a grand jury, she said.
"I want to assure everyone that despite the delays, we have been working diligently to pursue justice for the victims in this case, to ensure we have the evidence required to prove the facts beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law," Blake said at the news conference.
Wood said law enforcers from Idaho, Arizona and the federal system have dedicated thousands of hours to solving the mystery of the children's deaths.
"The unprecedented cooperation among law enforcement has been remarkable," he said.
Tylee had last been seen at Yellowstone National Park on Sept. 8, 2019, with JJ, Lori Vallow Daybell and Lori's brother, Alex Cox. JJ was last seen at Kennedy Elementary School in Rexburg on Sept. 23, 2019, according to police.
The case garnered widespread attention after the children disappeared. Chad Daybell and Lori Vallow Daybell were named as persons of interest in the case in December 2019 but went to Hawaii for at least a month that winter. They were served with a search warrant in Hawaii in January 2020, and Lori Vallow Daybell was initially arrested in February 2020 on suspicion of child desertion.
The case then came back to Idaho, where human remains were found on Chad Daybell's property on June 9, 2020. He was subsequently arrested on suspicion of destructing or concealing evidence.
Chad Daybell's first wife, Tammy Daybell, died at the Salem property on Oct. 19, 2019. Authorities had labeled her death as "suspicious" and exhumed her body in December 2019 from a Utah cemetery in Springville for further investigation. The indictment says Cox attempted to shoot her 10 days earlier, and that she and Chad Daybell had signed an application to increase her life insurance to the maximum her policy allowed.
The couple could face the penalty if convicted, and prosecutors will have 60 days to determine whether they will pursue a possible death sentence after the Daybells enter pleas to the charges.
The Douglas family, relatives of Tammy Daybell, released a statement Tuesday following the announcement of additional charges. The statement read in part:
"As the parents and siblings of our dearly beloved Tammy, we want to make a brief statement in light of today's news. First, we'd like to extend our continued love and heartfelt sympathy to the families of Tylee and JJ. Words cannot adequately express the depths of loss and pain that they are suffering, but we hope they know that they are not alone and we grieve and hold a place in our hearts with them at this time."
The family asked for privacy and that "we all be given the space to continue to honor and grieve our loved one the best we can.
"We'd like to thank the tireless efforts of law enforcement, the FBI, and all those who've continued to seek out the answers during the investigations surrounding Tylee, JJ, and Tammy. We appreciate their pursuit of justice, and ultimately some measure of peace for those of us left in the wake of our loss."
Earlier Tuesday, JJ Vallow's grandmother Kay Woodcock remembered his birthday in a Facebook post.
"You were tragically ripped from us & our lives are forever changed," Woodcock wrote in the post. "I cannot express how much we love and miss you."
Woodcock added that she has devoted the rest of her life to seeking justice for JJ and holding the "evil people who violated (JJ's) love & trust" accountable.
"Meanwhile, we keep you in our hearts and dreams every minute of every day," Woodcock said. "We love you lil man. Happy birthday, until we meet again."
Contributing: Garna Mejia, KSL TV; Ashley Fredde, KSL.com