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'When The Moon Turns To Blood:' Examining the effect of religious extremism on Lori Vallow and Chad Daybell

Cover of the book 'When The Moon Turns To Blood,' black text on off-white background, with separate photos of Chad Daybell and Lori Vallow-Daybell in red.
Twelve Books
'When The Moon Turns To Blood' cover, published by Twelve Books

Initial jury selection remains in progress in the murder and conspiracy trial of Lori Vallow Daybell. She’s charged in the deaths of two of her children, found by authorities in the summer of 2020 on the east Idaho property of her husband Chad Daybell, who is being tried separately. The pair also face charges in the death of his ex-wife.

The crime has attracted worldwide attention which, as expected, has made finding impartial jurors difficult.

Portland-based journalist and author Leah Sottile has written a book about the case called "When the Moon Turns to Blood." Sottile is in Boise watching the beginning of the trial and will be at an event to talk about her book Thursday at Ochos in downtown Boise.

She joined us on Morning Edition, Leah, this is an obviously difficult case, why do you think it has captured the attention in the way it has?

Leah Sottile: Well, I think it's a lot of things. I think that America has a long time fascination with fallen, beautiful women. It's something I talk about in my book a little bit. You know, think about the Casey Anthony case or someone like Anna Nicole Smith. And I think that Lori Vallow, you know, checks a lot of those boxes; the cheerleader, the all-American mom, the beauty queen and things like that.

But I think that what I have focused on, you know, when I'm not working on this case for the past almost decade, I've been writing about political and religious extremism in the western United States. And this is a case that I think what a lot of people miss is that, you know, it's being covered like this true crime murder case. And it is that.

But it is also to me, what happens when extremists talking points and end times rhetoric trickles down into the mainstream because there's so much evidence that, you know, I don't know if it'll be presented in this case, but these are things that I have found in my own reporting that Lori Vallow and Chad Daybell really existed at the fringes, the far right fringes of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints. And that they had, you know, kind of were able to meet because of this ecosystem of extremism that exists there.

You've got your survivalists and your end times preppers, but people who also think we're going to be the chosen ones when the end comes, the end prophesied in the Book of Revelation. So this is about that. And that culture is, you know, at a distance. It's very fascinating. It's a culture that's been around within Mormonism, in the Mountain West, in Idaho and Utah specifically for quite some time. I think what's really scary and sad about this case is that it shows when people believe fervently in these extreme ideologies, they may be willing to commit violence in the name of those things.

Oppie: Is there a lesson that you think people should be taking away as a light is going to be shined on this particular brand of religious extremism, not necessarily just tied to the Mormon Church, but any religious extremism? And what should people be taking away as this aspect of the trial and of the lifestyle is discussed?

Sottile: Well, I think right now it's a little early to know how much religious belief is going to be a part of the trial. I think we can presume that it will be a big part of it. But we're right now in that early jury selection stage. So religion hasn't come up a lot. But I think that when people look at this case, you know, it is hard. It's a nasty set of circumstances that have allowed Lori Vallow to get to where she is. But I think that in looking at, kind of, into this abyss, we can kind of all take away the real sobering truth of when extremism, when extreme ideas are so out there, they're so pervasive, they're on social media. They really do trickle down to the kind of suburban mom in yoga pants that that might, you know… they're mainstreaming. And I think that's one thing that is really kind of sad and scary about Lori Vallow in particular, is that by all means, she was this very normal person that really indulged in the last few years before she ended up in jail. And this real extreme subculture that was that people knew was around but kind of didn't want to talk about, kind of didn't want to look at. And I think we just, we've got to look at these things and we've got to figure out ways to dismantle those systems.

Oppie: We're speaking with author and journalist Leah Sottile on Morning Edition here on Boise State Public Radio. Leah, you first dove in to the freelance reporting world and extremism, chronicling the standoff at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016. The podcast you produced was called BundyVille. What did you discover about reporting on extremism through that event that led you to want to cover or attracted you to this story of the Daybell's?

Sottile: You know, if I hadn't reported on what happened with the Bundys and the Malheur standoff, I never would have gotten to the Vallow case. And I think that's what surprises a lot of people, is they think of me as an investigative journalist and think, well, ‘why would you dive into this true crime case?’ What I learned from my interviews, my first person interviews with the Bundys, was that that standoff and the previous standoff at Bundy Ranch in Nevada, those were motivated by their religious beliefs that they really felt that they had to do those things because of what they believed. And they woke me up to a lot of, kind of, fringe, you know, quote-unquote prophecies, because they're not accepted by the church that exist within Mormonism that I thought at the time. You know, this is so weird. This is so out there. You know, the Bundys are the only people who think this kind of thing that all culminated in a podcast and story series that I made called Bundyville. And after that came out, I was contacted by a lot of people in Idaho and Utah who said, I don't think that you realize how much more mainstream these things are than you think. And so when the Vallow-Daybell case started and people were talking about these kind of quote-unquote, cult-like beliefs that they had, you know, it kind of set up my radar as a reporter thinking, well, do they believe the same things that the Bundys believe? And it turned out, you know, I was pretty quickly able to figure out that, at least with Chad Daybell, that was true with Lori Vallow's husband. So, yeah, it is pretty interesting that, you know, what started as a public lands story in the West and why people would take up arms against the government turned into really understanding kind of all the tentacles of that movement.

Oppie: Leah Sottile’s book is called When the Moon Turns to Blood. It examines the culture of end times paranoia, and the trail of mysterious deaths surrounding Chad Daybell and Lori Vallow, who is currently beginning what is expected to be an eight week trial in Ada County in the deaths of two of her children and her husband, Chad Daybell's ex-wife,

Leah will be at Ochos in Boise for an event this evening between 6 and 8 to talk about the book and her reporting. Leah, thanks for joining us on Morning Edition here on Boise State Public Radio.

Sottile: Yeah, thank you so much for having me.

Troy Oppie is a reporter and local host of 'All Things Considered' for Boise State Public Radio News.

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