Leah Sottile likes to fall down rabbit holes. It’s where she digs out facts and captures the context that makes her reporting stand out.
When Lori Vallow and Chad Daybell made national news after the disappearance of Vallow’s children, it was immediate fodder for tabloids. The case played out on social media, from the couple’s arrest in Hawaii to the discovery of Tylee Ryan and J.J. Vallow’s bodies in the backyard of Daybell’s Idaho home.
As more details emerged surrounding the Vallow children’s disappearance and the couple’s cult-like fringe religious beliefs, it became clear to Sottile that there was more to the story, she said.
“There’s a possibility to write a nuanced story that tells us about who we are and what kind of violence festers among us,” Sottile said. “And there’s also true victims here who haven’t seen justice.”
“When the Moon Turns to Blood: Lori Vallow, Chad Daybell, and a Story of Murder, Wild Faith, and End Times,” was released last month and examines the extreme religious beliefs held by the couple and how they fit into the landscape of extremism in the west.
Sottile, who lives in Portland, will be in Spokane on Wednesday to discuss her book with the Northwest Passages Book Club.
Sottile, who started her journalism career in Spokane at Gonzaga University and then the Inlander, is known for her in-depth and longform reporting and has always wanted to write a book but just hadn’t found the right subject. Often focused on extremism, Sottile has also delved into court and crime reporting but didn’t want to write a typical true crime novel.
She had just read Michelle McNamara’s “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” and noted the obsessiveness that runs through successful true crime books, Sottile said. A self-admitted obsessive reporter, Sottile entered the confusing and manic world of Chad Daybell’s apocalyptic novels tied to the doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Daybell self-published dozens of books, first novels, then books detailing his and other people’s near-death experiences. Sottile read almost all of them, filling the pages with color-coded tabs to help her analyze and pull out themes that evolved over time.
“If I was to take them seriously, as his fans do, then what were the greater themes at play?” Sottile said.
The books opened up doors to how Daybell’s beliefs became more extreme over time and to the writers, like W. Cleon Skousen, he admired. Skousen, a conservative author and longtime supporter of the John Birch Society, was also a favorite of Cliven Bundy and his family, the subject of Sottile’s podcast Bundyville.
“All of a sudden, I was seeing all these dots connect,” Sottile said.
Sottile also landed interviews with people close to the case like Brad Daybell, Chad Daybell’s brother.
“It helped me understand him in a way that I don’t think I could have otherwise,” Sottile said.
She accessed thousands of pages of public records from Arizona, where Vallow is charged with conspiring to kill her estranged husband, Charles Vallow.
“It was like a giant reporting knot that I was trying to untangle over a couple of years,” Sottile said.
The book starts with a vivid description of the police arriving to Vallow’s Rexburg home in 2019 after her son, J.J. Vallow, had been reported missing; it then backtracks to Vallow’s and Daybell’s childhoods, their tumultuous relationships with their Mormon faith, and how they both were drawn into “prepper” circles of people readying for the end of the world. Once together, Daybell and Vallow began having visions and seeing people in their lives as evil or dark forces, Sottile details in the book.
While Sottile has made progress on the tangle, the full truth of the circumstance surrounding the deaths of Tylee Ryan, J.J. Vallow and Tammy Daybell, Chad’s wife, won’t come out until the couple’s trial in January.
In the years since the children went missing, extremism and fears around the end of the world have become more mainstream topics with the COVID-19 pandemic, widespread racial justice protests and economic struggles.
“The people in the book had some pretty specific beliefs around the world ending and religious beliefs, tied up around the book of Revalation,” Sottile said. “What’s kind of mind-boggling, that discussion about the world ending… it’s like we’ve all been talking about that for the last couple of years.”
There was a lot more going on behind the deaths than was initially portrayed, Sottile said. Vallow and Daybell aren’t just a crazy couple who are accused of committing horrific acts of violence, she said.
“There’s a whole historical context that infuses their specific fringe religious beliefs that is a part of our world,” Sottile said.
The couple’s extreme religious views are central to the book, but it’s not a slight at religious people, Sottile said.
“I think one of the worst things that people can do is manipulate someone’s religious beliefs,” she said.
Wrestling with how all the themes in the book intersect left Sottile yearning for a straightforward conclusion, but there just isn’t one, she said.
“I kept writing this book and I kept looking for, like, a silver lining. What I realized is, it’s not my job to put a bow on something, to make it nicer,” Sottile said. “It’s a lot bigger than the deaths of these people. It’s about, what do these deaths mean?”
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