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Did a doomsday cult really drive Lori Vallow to murder her children?

Power. Money. Sex.

These are the three things that prosecutors say drove Lori Vallow to kill.

And they’re also the three things that experts say make up the playbook of a destructive cult.

“All cult leaders are driven by those three things in that particular order,” Steve Hassan, a world-renowned cult expert and former member of the Moonies cult, tells The Independent.

“Power is number one, then two it’s money which is also used for control, and three is sex. It’s the playbook of a cult leader.”

Vallow soon earned the nickname the “cult mom” not long after her two youngest children Tylee Ryan, 16, and Joshua “JJ” Vallow, 7, disappeared in September 2019.

As the children’s other family members desperately searched for them – and begged Vallow to come clean about where they were – details about her doomsday cult beliefs began to emerge.

The 50-year-old mother-of-three had grown up in the Church of the Latter-day Saints (LDS) but, since meeting her new lover Chad Daybell, her beliefs had grown ever more extreme.

She believed she and Mr Daybell had been chosen for a religious mission to lead “the 144,000” followers – that he was a prophet and she a goddess.

Her murder trial – which ended in a conviction for killing the kids and conspiring to kill Mr Daybell’s first wife Tammy – exposed how these beliefs grew increasingly fantastical and dangerous, invoking zombies, dark spirits and death.

‘Cult mom’

At her trial, prosecutors said that Vallow, Mr Daybell and their inner circle believed in a “rating system of light and dark” with certain death percentages for how they ranked the spirits of the people around them.

Over time, this then evolved into the belief that some people had become “zombies”. And that the only way to get rid of the zombie was to destroy the human body it was in.

Shockingly, this included her two children.

Before their disappearances, Vallow had told friends that they had been taken over by “dark spirits”, and that Tylee was possessed by a demon named “Hillary”, according to courtroom testimony.

Chilling text messages sent to Mr Daybell revealed her complaining that: “We r both so tired of taking care of demons. We are weary. Please ask the Lord to take them.”

One month later, the children vanished.

It would be nine months later before both of their remains were discovered in the pet cemetery of Mr Daybell’s yard in Idaho.

Their final moments had clearly been brutal.

Lori Vallow talks with her lawyers before the jury’s verdict is read at her murder trial

(Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Little JJ, still in his pyjamas, had been suffocated with a plastic bag wrapped around his head with tape, the scratch marks on his neck revealing the young boy desperately fought for his life.

Tylee’s cause of death may never be known as her body was hacked into pieces with a pickaxe and badly burned.

At her trial, a jury found Vallow guilty of murder and conspiracy to murder Tylee and JJ, after hearing how she, Mr Daybell (who stands trial on 1 April) and Vallow’s brother Alex Cox (who is also now dead) conspired to kill them.

But the children weren’t the only victims as Vallow’s descent into extreme cult beliefs led to a trail of death and destruction in her wake.

Mr Daybell’s first wife Tammy and Vallow’s fourth husband Charles are also dead, while others – who testified to being shot at – appear to have had a lucky escape.

It’s a tragic and shocking case that has horrified America for the last four years because of, not only the brutality of the murders, but the unanswered questions that remain around the role cult beliefs played in what happened.

After all, this was a woman who, by all accounts, had long been seen as a good and loving mother to her children.

Can a mother really be driven to kill her own two children – children she has raised and cared for their whole lives – by the power of a cult? Can cult beliefs really wield that much power?

Power of cults

Many of the most infamous cults have ended in murder or mass death.

The Manson Family murdered nine victims under the direction of their leader Charles Manson.

More than 918 people died in the Jonestown massacre.

A total of 39 Heaven’s Gate followers took their own lives under the belief that they would be beamed up to an alien spacecraft.

Dr Hassan knows the power a cult can have on a person all too well.

Back in 1974, the then-19-year-old was recruited into the Unification Church – also known as the Moonies cult. Under the cult’s leader Sun Myung Moon, he quit college and his job, handed over his bank account and believed his family were Satanic.

Tylee Ryan and Joshua “JJ” Vallow

(Family handout)

“I became a different person in the image of Moon and believed that the old Steve had fallen and was Satanic and that armageddon would happen,” he tells The Independent.

For about two and a half years, there was no getting away.

Then, when he fell asleep at the wheel of a van due to sleep deprivation and nearly died, it actually saved him.

While spending two weeks in a hospital bed recovering from his injuries – away from the cult’s direct influence – his family arranged a deprogramming intervention.

“At the end of it, I realised that Moon was a liar and if he was a liar then he wasn’t trustworthy and if he wasn’t trustworthy he couldn’t be god on earth and my whole belief system collapsed,” he says.

“At the point that I had that realisation, I cried and said ‘how did they do this to me? How could I believe these crazy things and turn my back on my friends and family?’”

But it’s this thinking that only certain types of people can be drawn into a cult or cult beliefs which can be dangerous, he says.

“The public has unconscious bias that says when people try to understand other people’s behaviour they tend to overestimate the person’s personality and underestimate the power of the situation,” explains Dr Hassan.

“So people think ‘oh Steve must have got into the Moonies because his family were not nice, or he was looking for something in his life or something’.”

He adds: “The biggest vulnerability is thinking that it could never happen to you.”

‘Breaking down sense of identity’

Dr Hassan explains that cults work by breaking down an individual’s sense of identity.

“Undue influence has been exerted in a systematic way to break down a person’s sense of identity and build them back up in the image of their cult leader,” he says.

Steven Hassan left the Moonies aged 22, and has since become a leading expert on cults and mind control

(Supplied)

“We’d like to believe that we’re rational beings but we’re not. We’re emotional, social beings and we adapt to our environment to the information we receive from our environment.”

Dr Hassan says that there are four components to what he describes as a destructive mind control cult: behaviour, information, thought, and emotional control.

Together, this creates dependency or obedience to the cult leader or cause, he explains.

In Vallow’s case, her progression towards more extreme beliefs “didn’t happen in a vacuum,” he says.

Vallow and Mr Daybell had already grown up in the Church of the LDS.

Mr Daybell was a self-published author who wrote doomsday books loosely based on the teachings of the church and also ran a podcast based on his teachings. He claimed that he was a prophet.

Vallow always “really took the church seriously,” her brother Adam Cox said in his podcast “Tylee and JJs Silver Linings Podcast” with his uncle Rex in 2023.

Mr Cox said his sister was “fun” growing up and that her marriage to Charles Vallow seemed “great”.

But, he said that in the lead-up to all the death and destruction, she had started to see herself as more “spiritual”.

“It just feels like she started to pull away spiritually from where Charles was – her idea of spirituality,” he said.

“With Lori going down that road it was like a snowball… she just kept on picking up different stuff and different stuff and different stuff… she wanted to convince people the end of the world was coming… she was doing food storage… every moment it was getting bigger and bigger.”

One question he said he was still trying to work out the answer to is who was the ringleader in Vallow and Mr Daybell’s relationship.

Leader or follower?

“People ask was Lori brainwashed by Chad or Chad by Lori?” he said.

Based on what Dr Hassan has seen about the case, he is also torn about who is likely the cult leader in this scenario.

Mr Daybell appears the obvious choice as someone who referred to himself as a “prophet” and given that, before the murders, Vallow was said to be a good mother who loved her children – and that “things started getting crazy and weird” after she met Mr Daybell.

But, based on other information that came out at trial, a different picture of Vallow has also emerged – one of a woman “lacking empathy and being focused on transactional things and how they can help her,” says Dr Hassan.

Chad Daybell at a court hearing

(Post Register)

“That profile of her as a malignant narcissist is characteristic of a cult leader,” he says.

“They are narcissists who think they’re above the law, pathological liars, sadistic, paranoid.

“So if Lori is a narcissist and lacks empathy and then she meets Chad and they’re convinced they have a sacred mission together how much was she influenced by him and how much was he influenced by her?

“My guess – and it’s just speculation – is that if the Lori before Chad loved her kids and was a pretty good mom and wanted to do good choices for them then what would lead her to agree to kill them or think they’re possessed? We have to look at what are the sources of influence? Chad is an obvious choice.”

It’s an argument Vallow’s attorneys tried to push in their closing statement at her trial, arguing that she was a “good mom” whose life fell apart after meeting “religious leader” Mr Daybell.

“One year after meeting Chad, four people are dead,” her attorney told jurors.

“Why can’t people escape religious leaders? Why can’t Lori escape and get back to her good mom life?… But is Lori a leader or a follower of Chad? She so wants to be a leader but she’s not leading anyone.”

Leader or follower, brainwashed or brainwasher, it doesn’t change her accountability for the fact that children JJ and Tylee and mother-of-five Tammy are now dead.

“If Lori truly believed she was on a mission from god and that they were all zombies and the kids weren’t her kids anymore but were just demons in their bodies, then she may have thought she was not killing her kids,” says Dr Hassan.

“[But] if she was involved in killing her children then she is guilty… are there aggravating circumstances? Maybe – but she’s still guilty.”

Yet, there are other questions around the power that cult beliefs may have played in Vallow’s killer prowess.

While her bizarre cult beliefs were laid out at trial, so too was the level of planning and conspiring that went into the murders.

On the one hand, Vallow appeared to be preparing for the end of the world based on her bizarre doomsday beliefs.

On the other, she was researching life insurance policies for her children, stealing their social security and survivor benefits and preparing to embark on a new life in Hawaii with Mr Daybell.

In the month before Tylee’s murder, trial testimony showed that the teen’s social security benefits were changed to be payable into her mother’s bank account instead of her own and the mother and daughter then opened a joint account.

Lori Vallow smiles as she leaves a court hearing

(AP)

Less than a month later, Tylee was dead – with all the funds now going straight to her mother.

A similar pattern then unfolded in the days leading up to JJ’s murder.

Following their murders, the couple then eloped to Hawaii and got married on a beach – a wedding that online searches reveal they had been planning for at least six months (when Tammy was alive and well).

It all comes back to those three key components of the cult playbook.

As prosecutors said in both opening and closing statements of Vallow’s murder trial: “Money, power, and sex – that’s what this case is about.”

Whether that involves Vallow being under the spell of a cult, being a narcissistic cult leader or simply the drive of her own conscious desires is still a mystery.

As Mr Daybell’s trial now gets under way, maybe we’ll find out…

This piece was originally published in August 2023.


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