When extremism hides in plain sight

Leah Sottile investigates how an Idaho couple’s embrace of fringe Mormon beliefs led to multiple murder charges in her debut book, ‘When the Moon Turns to Blood.’

 

Half-siblings 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 Hawai‘i for a vacation in late 2019. Police eventually found the children’s bodies on the husband’s property. Now, both Chad Daybell and Lori Vallow are in jail on multiple first-degree murder charges. The couple believe in a fringe Mormon ideology that claims that 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 Oregon-based freelance journalist and longtime 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, The Atlantic and elsewhere, and she has also hosted podcasts, including Two Past Nine, on the legacy of the Oklahoma City bombing, and Bundyville 

Season 1 of Bundyville, released in 2018, follows members of the Bundy family, the anti-government extremists who led an armed standoff against the federal government on grazing land in southeast Nevada in 2014, and spearheaded the occupation of Oregon’s Malheur National 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 in the West.

HCN recently caught up with Sottile as she prepared 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 kids 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? 

Ive been wanting to write a book forever, and Ive been looking around for the right topics for years. In late December of 2019, I moved back to Portland from Missoula, and I saw a story about this lady and her husband: They were missing, and their kids were missing. My husband sent it to me and said, “This is a weird thing you want to know about.” He knows that I’m interested in weird ideas, ideologies and groups. I knew I needed to write about it when I just automatically created a timeline of what had happened.

It turned into a book when I heard someone say Lori Vallow had “cult-like beliefs.” It set off alarm bells for me, because so much of the work Ive done on the podcast Bundyville was about the religious beliefs of the Bundy family and their interpretation of LDS (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) scriptures that is not really accepted by the mainstream church. … I started to see that these people believe in a lot of the same religious ideology that the Bundys do. There was a lot to sink my teeth into, and there was a lot that wasn’t being talked about. 

Oregon-based freelance journalist and longtime High Country News contributor Leah Sottile.

Many of your fans came to you via the Bundyville podcast. What similarities and differences are there between the kind of extremism you covered in Bundyville, and the kind you covered in this book? 

They’re shades of a similar thing. The origin point of the book was realizing that Lori Vallow’s father believes in the “White Horse Prophecy.” It’s not accepted doctrine by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but some people still believe in it. The gist of it is that people believe the prophet of the Church, Joseph Smith, prophesied that in the future, the Constitution would “hang by a thread,” and it would be up to the “white horse” — the Mormons — to save it. So it does two things: It gives the LDS people, who were historically oppressed in their earliest days by the U.S. government, a sense of exceptionalism. And it inserts a patriotism into the belief system — that to be a good Mormon, you must also be a warrior for the Constitution. This is very argued about. But you see it on display with the Bundys, and you see it on display with Chad Daybell.

With the Bundys, it came to this point where they started sifting through LDS scripture to find all the references that they felt gave them permission to fight the government. But with Lori and Chad, its different. At first, Chad is clearly a very, very faithful person who was raised in the Mormon Church, raised in a Mormon culture; its everything to him — and his writing (in fictional Doomsday novels) comes from that perspective. But over time, he starts to change. He goes from writing stories with LDS characters to straight-up predicting the downfall of America, and LDS people are being spared from disaster. It’s the nonbelievers and sinners who get killed in horrific ways. And then he starts surmising to the reader that he’s actually seeing the future — that these books aren’t stories, but visions. So he positions himself like he’s 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 it’s in that same zone that I was pecking away at with Bundyville. There are cultural things on the wind in the Mountain West that arent in other places.

You’ve written about extremism in the past for HCN. How did working on those pieces influence how you approached this story? 

The High Country News work that feels the most directly related was a story I wrote in the summer of 2020, “As a plague sweeps the land, zealots see a gift from heaven.” It made me understand how much control one person and one ideology can have over a place. That’s part of the reason I love writing for High Country News — this obsessive interrogation of place. When I wrote that story, it had been a while since I’d written about religion. It just revived in me how much I like understanding how much power spirituality has over people.

How do religious institutions bolster violent ideas?  

Its a little disturbing. I feel like I went as far down the rabbit hole as I could. The LDS church has, for a long time, tried to patrol the fringes of the faith. And those are noble efforts. But at the end of the book, I talk about a speech given by one of the elders of the church and he’s talking about the need to take up “musket fire” against threats to the faith. I think there are these really scary parts of Mormon history that are very violent. There’s a lot on the shoulders of the leaders of the faith. It’s a new faith, so there’s room to grow and change. But I don’t know if they’re willing to do that. 

Its a little disturbing. I feel like I went as far down the rabbit hole as I could.

Why should people care about far-right extremism in the West? What are the bigger implications? 

What I realized as I was working on this is: We think that we can always recognize what extremism looks like. Its a bunch of guys holding tactical gear and semi-automatic weapons at a protest or storming the Capitol. But I think that what is so interesting about Chad and Lori is that they really embody what feels like a really common extremism in certain cultures in the West. Its very permissible to be a prepper. Its very permissible to hold spiritual meetings and do all the things that they were doing. I realized that there were multiple moments where they told people that they were violent. Lori said to people, “I wanted to kill my husband,” there were all these kinds of things happening, and people didnt call the police. I wonder if they had been wearing the costume of extremism that weve all decided is scary, if maybe they could have been stopped sooner.

Extremism isnt what you think it is. It doesnt look like what you think it does. It doesnt talk like you think it does. It could be sitting in the pews of your church. It’s haunting to realize that sometimes the most faithful people have some really scary ideas. High Country News’ everlasting quest is to make people understand what the real West is. I think this is a real Western story about the LDS faith, and I think religion is important for us all to understand. Understanding our human experience in this moment means understanding what large swaths of people believe. 

Extremist ideologies look for times when society is weak. Whether thats a person or a whole group of people, they watch and wait. And when shit feels really bad, thats when, all of a sudden, answers are provided by extremists. If you live with this fear that the world is always ending, then theres fertile ground for extremism to take root.

Kylie Mohr is an editorial intern for High Country News writing from Montana. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy. 

 

High Country News Classifieds
  • CARDIGAN WELSH CORGIS
    10 adorable, healthy puppies for sale. 4 males and 6 females. DM and PRA clear. Excellent pedigree from champion lineage. One Red Brindle male. The...
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...
  • DIGITAL ADVOCACY & MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    The Digital Advocacy & Membership Manager will be responsible for creating and delivering compelling, engaging digital content to Guardians members, email activists, and social media...
  • DIGITAL OUTREACH COORDINATOR, ARIZONA
    Job Title: Digital Outreach Coordinator, Arizona Position Location: Phoenix or Tucson, AZ Status: Salaried Job ID Number: 52198 We are looking for you! We are...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator who is passionate about conservation and...
  • INDIAN COUNTRY FELLOWSHIP
    Western Leaders Network is accepting applications for its paid, part-time, 6-month fellowship. Mentorship, training, and engaging tribal leaders in advancing conservation initiatives and climate policy....
  • MULESHOE RANCH PRESERVE MANAGER
    The Muleshoe Ranch Preserve Manager develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans and methods for large-scale geographic areas. The Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area (MRCMA)...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 52 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • ASSISTANT OR ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    Assistant or Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities Whitman College The Environmental Humanities Program at Whitman College seeks candidates for a tenure-track position beginning August 2023...
  • ANNUAL FUND MANAGER
    Working closely with the Foundation's leadership, the Annual Fund Manager is responsible for the oversight and management of the Foundation's annual operating fund. This is...
  • DATABASE ADMINISTRATOR
    Looking for someone who loves public land and understands the value and importance of data in reaching shared goals as part of a high-functioning team....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) in Crested Butte, CO is seeking an enthusiastic Executive Director who is passionate about the public lands, natural waters and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF VOLUNTEER PROGRAMS
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with volunteer management experience to join...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The conservation non-profit Invasive Species Action Network seeks an executive director. We are focused on preventing the human-caused spread of invasive species by promoting voluntary...
  • NEW BOOK: A FEAST OF ECSTATIC VERSE AND IMAGERY
    Dynamic fine art photographer offers use of images to raise funds. Available for use by conservation groups. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com.
  • WANTED: TALENTED WRITER
    Write the introduction to A Feast of Ecstatic Verse and Imagery, a book concerning nature and spirituality. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com. Writer who works for conservation/nature...
  • MT STATE DIRECTOR- THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY
    The Montana State Director is a member of The Wilderness Society's (TWS) Conservation program team who plays a leading role in advancing the organization's mission...
  • HIGH COUNTRY NEWS EDITORIAL INTERNS
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, is looking for its next cohort of editorial interns....
  • THE MAGICAL UNIVERSE OF THE ANCIENTS: A DESERT JOURNAL
    Bears Ears, Chaco Canyon, and other adventures in the Four Corners area. 60 photos and lively journals. Purchase hc $35 or pb $25 from bigwoodbooks.com...