Stepbrothers Joshua “JJ” Vallow, 7, and Tylee Ryan, 16, of Rexburg, Idaho, had been missing for months when their mother and her new husband went to Hawaii for a vacation in late 2019. Police eventually found the children’s bodies on the husband’s property. Now Chad Daybell and Lori Vallow are in jail on multiple first-degree murder charges. The couple believe in a fringe Mormon ideology that claims the world is ending and, according to court documents, they thought JJ and Tylee were zombies.
When the moon turns to blood, a new book written by a longtime Oregon-based freelance journalist High Country News Contributor Leah Sottile, explores how the couple’s extremist ideologies developed and led to violence. Sottile’s work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Atlantic and elsewhere, and she has also hosted podcasts, including nine past twoon the legacy of the Oklahoma City bombing, and Bundyville.
Season 1 of Bundyvillereleased in 2018, follows members of the Bundy family, the anti-government extremists who waged an armed confrontation against the federal government on the pastures of southeastern Nevada in 2014 and spearheaded the occupation of National Woe Oregon Wildlife Refuge in 2016. But despite years of reporting on extremist ideologies, writing When the moon turns to blood forced Sottile to reconsider how extremism manifests itself in the West.
HCN recently caught up with Sottile as she geared up for her book launch on June 21. She continues to follow the story of Vallow and Daybell, whose joint trial is scheduled for January 2023. Here, Sottile reflects on how two children ended up buried in a backyard, how religion can incite violence and the need for a more holistic view of extremism.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
When the moon turns to blood is your first book. Why did you want to write this particular story?
I‘I’ve always wanted to write a book, and I‘I searched for the right topics for years. At the end of December 2019, I returned to Portland from Missoula, and saw a story about this lady and her husband: they were missing, and their children were missing. My husband sent it to me and said, “That’s a weird thing you want to know.” He knows that I am interested in bizarre ideas, ideologies and groups. I knew I had to write about this when I automatically created a timeline of what happened.
It became a book when I heard someone say that Lori Vallow had “sectarian beliefs”. This set off alarm bells for me, because much of the work I have‘done on the podcast Bundyville concerned the religious beliefs of the Bundy family and their interpretation of LDS (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) scriptures which is not truly accepted by the mainstream church. … I began to see that these people believe in much of the same religious ideology as the Bundys. There were a lot of things to sink my teeth into and there were a lot of things that weren’t talked about.
Many of your fans have come to you through the Bundyville podcast. What similarities and differences are there between the type of extremism you are talking about Bundyvilleand the genre you covered in this book?
These are shades of a similar thing. The origin of the book was realizing that Lori Vallow’s father believed in the “white horse prophecy”. This is not an accepted doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but some people still believe in it. The bottom line is that people believe that the prophet of the Church, Joseph Smith, prophesied that in the future the Constitution would “hang by a thread,” and that it would belong to the “white horse.” – Mormons – to save this. So it does two things: it gives the LDS people, who were historically oppressed in their early days by the US government, a sense of exception. And it inserts a patriotism into the belief system – that to be a good Mormon you must also be a warrior for the Constitution. It’s very controversial. But you see it on display with the Bundys, and you see it on display with Chad Daybell.
With the Bundys, they got to this point where they started scouring the LDS scriptures for any references they believed gave them permission to fight the government. But with Lori and Chad, he‘is different. At first, Chad is clearly a very, very faithful person who was raised in the Mormon Church, raised in a Mormon culture; this‘That’s it – and his writing (in the fictional Doomsday novels) comes from that perspective. But over time, it begins to change. He goes from writing stories with LDS characters to directly predicting America’s downfall, and LDS people are spared disaster. It is the unbelievers and sinners who are horribly killed. And then he begins to assume to the reader that he actually sees the future – that these books are not stories, but visions. So he positions himself as if he were a prophet, in a way. And that’s very much in the spirit of the Bundys. They see themselves as warriors.
Other similarities are that this story takes place in Idaho, Utah and Arizona, so that’s the same area I was picking with Bundyville. There are cultural things about the wind in the Mountain West that are not‘t in other places.
You have written about extremism in the past for HCN. How did working on these pieces influence your approach to this story?
The High Country News The work that seems most directly related to me is a story I wrote in the summer of 2020, “As a plague sweeps the land, fanatics see a gift from above.” It made me realize how much a person and an ideology can control a place. That’s part of the reason why I like to write for High Country News — this obsessive questioning of place. When I wrote this story, it had been a while since I had written about religion. It just reignited in me how much I enjoy understanding how powerful spirituality is over people.
How do religious institutions reinforce violent ideas?
This‘it’s a bit disturbing. I feel like I’ve gone as far down the rabbit hole as possible. The LDS Church has, for a long time, tried to patrol the fringes of the faith. And these are noble efforts. But at the end of the book, I talk about a talk given by one of the elders of the church and he talks about taking “musket fire” against threats to the faith. I think there are these really scary parts of Mormon history that are very violent. There is a lot on the shoulders of faith leaders. It’s a new faith, so there’s room to grow and change. But I don’t know if they are ready to do it.
This‘it’s a bit disturbing. I feel like I’ve gone as far down the rabbit hole as possible.
Why should people care about far-right extremism in the West? What are the biggest implications?
What I realized while working on this is: we think we can always recognize what extremism looks like. This‘a group of guys holding tactical gear and semi-automatic weapons during a protest or storming the Capitol. But I think what’s so interesting about Chad and Lori is that they really embody what feels like very common extremism in some western cultures. This‘s very allowed to be a prepper. This‘It is quite permissible to hold devotionals and do all that they did. I realized that there were several times when they told people they were violent. Lori told people, ‘I wanted to kill my husband’, there were all these kinds of things going on, and people didn’t.‘t call the police. I wonder if they were wearing the costume of extremism that we‘ve decided everything is scary, if maybe they could have been stopped sooner.
extremism is not‘t what you think it is. It’s not that‘doesn’t look like what you think it does. It’s not that‘don’t talk like you think. He could be sitting in the pews of your church. It’s haunting to realize that sometimes the most loyal people have really scary ideas. High Country News’ eternal quest is to make people understand what the real West is. I think it’s a real western story about the Mormon faith, and I think the religion is important for all of us to understand. Understanding our human experience right now means understanding what large swathes of people believe.
Extremist ideologies look for times when society is weak. Whether it be‘e person or a whole group of people, they watch and wait. And when shit feels real bad, it‘s when, all of a sudden, answers are provided by extremists. If you live with this fear that the world is always ending, then there is‘s fertile ground for the entrenchment of extremism.
Kylie Mohr is a writing intern for High Country News written from Montana. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to editor policy.