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In new book journalist Leah Sottile explores religious extremism behind Idaho murders

Freelance journalist Leah Sottile said she’s always been fascinated by people on the fringes, which has led to a career exploring extremism in the West.

That journey led her to Chad Daybell and Lori Vallow, a couple known for their cult-like beliefs, and accused of killing their two children, 16-year-old Tylee Ryan and 7-year-old JJ Vallow.

Her new book, “When the Moon Turns to Blood,” explores the couple ties to near death experience and apocalyptic literature, and Latter-Day Saints beliefs outside of accepted church doctrine.

"I think by the time the trial happens in January, which is when it is slated right now, I want people to see that these are much more complex characters than have been portrayed," Sottile said. "There are a lot of things that happened in these people’s lives, and a lot of circumstances that they were born into that they didn't have much of a choice in. That's not to say that they are innocent, not at all, but I think it’s more important to see what they did as a part of a greater story about belief in America."

She says their beliefs cross over with many other political extremists figures she’s covered in the past, such as figures that appear in her podcast “Bundyville,” which explores the rise of the Bundy family, who famously led armed uprising against the Federal Government after it took action against them for their years-long refusal to pay grazing fees, and Matt Shea, a former Spokane Valley legislator with far-right ties who has been investigated for domestic terrorism.

Sottile said before Vallow’s children’s disappearance, and the deaths of both her and Daybell’s spouses, their beliefs didn’t necessarily raise red flags, or lead to action in the religious and political circles around them.

"Extremism is not always burning crosses in the hills,” Sottile said, “It’s in your church pews and it’s in your home maybe and it looks normal, and that's very much what the story of Chad Daybell and Lori Vallow proves is that there’s extremism in plain sight and we really need to think hard about what that says about us as a culture."

Sottile’s new book, “When the Moon Turns to Blood,” is available June 21.

An excerpt of Spokane Public Radio’s interview with Sottile aired the week of June 13. The full interview is available here.

Rebecca White is a 2018 graduate of Edward R Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. She's been a reporter at Spokane Public Radio since February 2021. She got her start interning at her hometown paper The Dayton Chronicle and previously covered county government at The Spokesman-Review.