The problem with producing a documentary about an ongoing story is that things can suddenly change before your doc premieres.
That’s exactly what’s happened with the Netflix docuseries “Sins of Our Mother,” which starts streaming Wednesday. A good portion of it is told from the vantage point of Colby Ryan, the adult son of Lori Vallow Daybell, who’s awaiting trial for first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder in connection with the deaths of her fourth husband, her fifth husband’s wife, and her two youngest children — 16-year-old Tylee Ryan and 7-year-old JJ Vallow. The children’s disappearances became a media sensation that ended in horror when their burned bodies were found buried behind the home of Lori’s fifth husband, Chad Daybell.
“The most important part of the story to me was really Colby’s reaction and Colby’s part in this story,” Skye Borgman, the director of the documentary, said in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune. “Oftentimes these stories are told and it’s very much about the crimes — and this one does touch on all of the crimes. But so many times we walk away and we don’t have any idea about the effects on the family. And how people are affected when their entire family is destroyed.
“And that’s where Colby is right now. ... He’s lost his entire network of support that he had basically his entire life.”
“Sins of Our Mother” starts streaming Wednesday. But just days ago, Ryan was arrested and charged with domestic violence sexual assault. Which doesn’t change any of the events portrayed in the documentary, but certainly makes the sympathetic portrayal of him more than a bit awkward — particularly because he’s depicted in the film as a loving and supportive husband, an image at odds with the abuse charges.
“With every story, you’re always prepared for it to take on its own life,” Borgman said. “This one has done it to a greater degree than most, I would say. And I expect it to keep going. … I think it’s far from over.”
She said that before Colby’s arrest. (As of this writing, Netflix still plans to stream the show as scheduled.)
The three-part series puts viewers in Colby’s position — a man in his mid-20s, with a wife and a baby. He learns that his teenage sister and his pre-teen brother have been killed. His mother and his new stepfather, who he’s never met, are arrested.
Police in Arizona are investigating his mother’s role in the death of one of his stepfathers, who was shot to death by his uncle. Police in Idaho are investigating his new stepfather’s role in the death of his first wife, Tammy, who died 17 days before he married Ryan’s mother.
Ryan was being attacked on social media by people accusing him of somehow being involved in all of this. And there are almost unbelievable recordings of Lori dancing around the truth in phone conversations with Colby — she was, at one point, judged unfit for trial, but she clearly knows what she’s saying and what she should say.
Latter-day Saint ties
Very little of what happens is directly tied to Utah, but a lot of it is tied to the fact that both Lori and Chad Daybell were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Chad served a mission to New Jersey, where he “set all sorts of baptismal records,” another returned missionary says in the documentary.
Chad is a graduate of Brigham Young University; he, Tammy and their children lived in Springville before moving to Rexburgh, Idaho; Tammy is buried in Springville, which is where her body was exhumed during the investigation into her death.
“I raised all our kids in the LDS Church,” Lori’s mother says in the documentary. “All of our kids loved the Book of Mormon, and Lori’s always loved the scriptures.”
And Ryan says, “As time went on, the LDS Church was becoming a bigger topic in our house. I think it started to become a little bit more of idolatry. There was just pictures everywhere. Everything was getting replaced slowly with pictures of temples and stuff like that. All over the house — all over everything.”
“Sins of Our Mother” outlines how both Lori and Chad Daybell moved far from their Latter-day Saint upbringings. Chad thinks he’s a prophet. He and his followers think reincarnation is a thing, and he was awaiting an apocalypse, when only 144,000 righteous people would survive. And he would lead them.
“He’s trying to create a new religion on the back of Mormonism,” says forensic psychologist John Mathias.
There are references that only those familiar with the church will understand, like when Chad texts about “Gadiantons” — seemingly drawn from the Gadianton robbers in the Book of Mormon.
And there are audio recordings of Lori recounting religious experiences that are … odd. Dead people, angels — including the angel Moroni — and God talking to her. She and Chad believed they had been married to each other multiple times in previous lives.
Lori is convinced that Chad is indeed a prophet. She believed that her ex-husband, Charles Vallow, and both Tylee and JJ had become “zombies” — evil spirits took over their bodies, and they had to be killed to free their spirits.
“I mean, look, it’s completely off the wall,” Borgman said. “But, we’ve all seen stories or known people who sort of just go too far in their beliefs. I mean, usually it doesn’t end up with the murder of your children.”
The police look bad
“Sins of Our Mother” employs police body camera footage to devastating effect — devastating for the police, that is. They ignored the odd behavior of both Lori and her brother, Alex, after Alex shot and killed Lori’s then-husband, Charles Vallow.
The officers interviewing Lori both before and after the killing are clearly sympathetic to her, ignoring red flags. Before Charles was shot, police officers seem to think the dispute between Lori and Charles was a run-of-the-mill domestic dispute. They certainly don’t seem to take what Charles was saying about Lori and her strange beliefs and threats seriously. One officer even offers Lori advice on how to avoid police he warns her are coming to take her for a mental evaluation.
It’s difficult not to think that if they’d taken Charles’ allegations seriously, he, Tylee and JJ might still be alive.
“I don’t think it reflects well on them,” Borgman said. “But at the same time … I can’t imagine any of those law enforcement officers had the idea that there was any real danger.”
The story continues
Borgman has been working on “The Sins of Our Mother” for almost three years. At one point, she thought the documentary was done — and then police released more tapes and video.
After watching this show and all the other coverage, it’s difficult to imagine that this trial could end with anything other than a guilty verdict. That’s certainly how Borgman expects this to end. But, she cautions, it’s not a done deal.
“I always remind myself — never take anything for granted,” she said. “It’s easy to go, ‘Yep, they’re going to spend the rest of their life in prison.’ But we don’t actually know that yet. We don’t know what law enforcement knows, what the FBI knows, what the lawyers know.”
She said she’s hoping “Sins of Our Mother” will have “greater meaning” than “just another salaciously crime-driven” story.
“With this one, I think Colby was the key to that with this family,” she said. “He really wanted the opportunity to kind of take control of his narrative and have a voice in what was going on, because there was so much being published sort of without his consent, without his knowledge. And he just wanted to be able to kind of put himself out there and say, ‘You know, this is who I am, this is my story. And I’ve been incredibly hurt by it.”
“But I also find great inspiration in the family that he’s created with his wife and children,” she said.
So, yes, beyond the horrific nature of the crimes it chronicles, “Sins of Our Mother” is now incredibly awkward.
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