Missing Idaho Kids Case: 6 Details We Learned From Lori Vallow Daybell's Niece in New Interview
Melani Pawlowski and her husband, Ian Pawlowski, sat down with EastIdahoNews.com for a lengthy interview about Lori, her missing kids and their religious beliefs.
Lori Vallow Daybell's niece and her husband have come to her defense, saying they believe she has a "plan" when it comes to her missing children, Joshua "JJ" Vallow, 7, and Tylee Ryan, 17, who were last seen in September.
Melani and Ian Pawlowski's comments were made during a wide-ranging interview with EastIdahoNews.com's Nate Eaton. The couple's attorneys, Garrett Smith and Robert Jarvis, were also on the call.
Here are six things we learned from Lori's niece Melani and her husband Ian about the children's disappearance, Lori's religious beliefs and the claim that members of the family are part of a "cult."
1. Melani thinks Lori is "a wonderful mom" with "no judgment, no drama."
In the interview, Melani describes having a close relationship with Lori from a young age, adding that it was Lori who told her that her mother was seriously ill with diabetes and gastroparesis.
"My mom later passed away when I was 9," Melani told EastIdahoNews.com. "Lori was the one that called and told me the news. She said, 'Your mom’s in a coma and she’s probably not going to make it.' I remember that phone call and I’ve always loved and trusted Lori. She’s always been somebody that has so much unconditional love and no judgment, no drama, and I admire her so much. I don’t think I would have wanted to have that phone call by anybody else to have to give me that news."
Melani said that when she was a teenager, Lori flew her out to work as a nanny for JJ and Tylee.
"I’ve never seen any evidence or anything at all that tells me that Lori would purposely harm her children," Melani said. "It’s hard, all the attacks out there. I still see her as the wonderful mom she is."
Authorities claim Lori knows where her children are or what happened to them, but refuses to help police find them. She was arrested Feb. 20 in Hawaii after defying a court order to show her children to authorities in Rexburg, Idaho, by the court-imposed Jan. 30 deadline.
The children's disappearance has sparked a multi-state FBI investigation, and Lori is being held in jail on $1 million bond on multiple charges, including two counts of felony desertion of a child. She has pleaded not guilty and denied all allegations of wrongdoing. Her attorney, Mark Means, did not respond to InsideEdition.com's request for comment. Lori's preliminary hearing has been set for July 9 and 10.
2. Melani last saw Tylee and JJ at the house where Lori's fourth husband was shot and killed.
Lori's fourth husband, Charles Vallow, was shot and killed by Lori's brother, Alex Cox, at the Chandler, Arizona, home where JJ and Tylee were living with Lori. Charles had come to pick up JJ.
Alex told police he acted in self-defense when he shot Charles, according to body cam footage released by the Chandler Police Department. Alex also claimed Charles came at him with a baseball bat after fighting with Lori and that Tylee had tried to defend her mother with a bat, according to the footage. The body cam footage also shows Lori smiling as she speaks to police after the shooting. Tylee can be seen standing in the background. Alex was not charged in the incident.
Melani said she "absolutely" believes her uncle acted in self-defense when he shot Charles.
"I hated that Tylee had to go through that, and I know there’s been a lot of criticism of how Lori acted afterward," Melani told EastIdahoNews.com. "She’s smiling on camera, and I know when she’s uncomfortable, she’ll just kind of laugh or smile and try to make light of it. I do the same thing. It’s just how we handle being in shock, and every person handles being in shock differently."
Melani said she last saw JJ and Tylee at that same house in Chandler as Lori was packing up to move to Rexburg, Idaho in late August.
"I remember how emotional it was just to be there. It was where this big thing happened. And Tylee thought it was hard being in the house after that situation happened," Melani said. "And Lori – sometimes she’s had to do things to protect her kids."
3. Melani lived next door to Lori in Rexburg, but never saw the kids there.
Melani said she packed up her own home in Arizona on Oct. 31 and moved to an apartment in Rexburg right next door to Lori.
Rich Robertson, an Arizona-based private investigator who was hired by Melani's ex-husband, told InsideEdition.com that he observed Alex and Melani packing things from her house into a U-Haul on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1 before driving up to Rexburg. Robertson said he watched as Melani, a mother of four young children, and Alex discarded children's items on the curb, which he found odd.
But, Melani said, "I did bring all the things they do need with them besides a mattress that had stains on it, broken toys and outgrown clothes that I left out front. It was not all of their belongings – I just took everything that was important to us to consolidate into a smaller apartment."
Robertson's team followed Melani and Alex to Rexburg, but didn't see JJ or Tylee there.
"It was during that period that we realized we were seeing all the adults—Lori Vallow, Alex Cox, Melani Boudreaux—but we weren't seeing the kids. We weren't seeing JJ or Tylee," Robertson told InsideEdition.com. "At that point, Kay Woodcock [JJ's grandmother] contacted the Rexburg Police Department and asked for a welfare check on the kids."
In her interview with EastIdahoNews.com, Melani confirmed that she never saw JJ or Tylee in Rexburg.
"I was getting my home ready and was going to figure out what’s going on with my kids and get them back here. We were going to have a fresh start. And Lori is very independent, doing her own thing. She was next door, but I spent most of my time with Alex," Melani said.
"So if I saw Lori, she was still moving in and getting situated, so I didn’t spend a lot of time over there. I did see some of their things, and she had a room set up perfectly for Tylee and JJ, and it didn’t seem strange to me," she added.
But, Melani claims, Lori told her the kids were happy in Idaho.
"She said that [JJ] loved his school there," Melani said. "She always talked about her children, but during that time – from November to I guess the 20th is about when Ian and I started dating – I didn’t see them, but I didn’t see a lot of Lori. I saw Alex pretty much every day, and anytime I would go over, I’d say, 'Where’s Tylee?' and it was like she was out with friends."
The FBI says Tylee was last seen on Sept. 8 at Yellowstone National Park, where she had traveled with JJ, Lori and Alex. Investigators have said they are waiting for the snow to melt in Yellowstone to search it.
JJ was last seen at his elementary school in Rexburg on Sept. 23, according to authorities.
4. "Lori's always been somebody with a plan."
Melani said Lori and Chad's move to Hawaii after the children were last seen was "planned," but that she lost touch with them for a time after they left Idaho. Melani said she had "every fear in the world of what could have happened" to JJ and Tylee during that time.
"I think most of December, after Lori and Chad just disappeared, and I didn’t have a phone number for them and no contact, I am thinking the worst. I get a phone call from one of Lori’s old friends, and she scares me with a lot of, 'I think this happened, or this could have happened,' and I’m having every 'what-if,' because I didn’t see them the whole time I was up there in November," Melani told EastIdahoNews.com.
Melani said she knew Lori was involved in a dispute with Charles' sister and JJ's biological grandmother, Kay Woodcock. Kay and her husband, Larry, are the ones who asked police to perform a welfare check on JJ in Idaho after not hearing from their grandson for months.
"We were worried about JJ that minute we found out Charles had died," Kay told InsideEdition.com. "I knew last January, Lori, she didn't want JJ, she was already talking about being done with Charles and being done with JJ. It's like she was done being a mother all together."
"I also knew who Lori was, and Lori’s always been somebody with a plan," Melani added.
Kay told InsideEdition.com Lori was angry that Charles had switched the beneficiary on his $1 million life insurance policy to Kay from Lori before his death.
"I think if he wouldn't have had that life insurance, he would be alive and they would be divorced, and that would be that," Kay told InsideEdition.com.
Kay and Larry have petitioned the court in Idaho for custody of JJ even as he remains missing.
5. Lori isn't in a "cult."
Melani has repeatedly denied being part of a cult, and said her faith is firmly rooted in the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints.
Lori, Alex and Melani all remarried in the fall of 2019. Lori and Chad wed in Hawaii Nov. 5, and marriage certificates show Alex married his wife, Zulema, in Las Vegas Nov. 29. Ian and Melani wed the next day in Las Vegas, with Alex and Zulema as their witnesses, she told EastIdahoNews.com.
"There’s no cult. Lori’s my aunt, Zulema’s almost like an aunt to me, Alex is my uncle, and this is my family," she said.
Some of the discussion about a cult began when a document surfaced in which Ian describes Lori's alleged religious beliefs, including the existence of "zombies," "teleportation" and people who have been "possessed by a demon."
Ian told EastIdahoNews.com he agreed to record his conversations with Melani for the FBI as part of their ongoing investigation into JJ and Tylee's disappearance, and wrote the document afterward for Melani's attorneys.
Melani's attorneys say the document contains "extremist" beliefs that Melani does not hold.
Among those beliefs, which Melani denies holding, are the existence of "translated beings" who "may, with the Lord's permission, teleport" and zombies who "have had their original spirits forced from them and have been possessed" by a "demon," "disembodied spirit" or a "worm/slug."
But in their interview with EastIdahoNews.com, Melani said it was one of Lori's friends who brought up zombies.
"Where it comes down to Tylee and JJ and this zombie idea – it came from a disturbing phone call I got from one of Lori’s old friends right after they took off to Hawaii. She told me, 'Lori and Alex did something to Tylee and JJ, and we don’t know where they’re at, and Lori has lied to you, and all these things that didn’t feel right. On that phone call, I felt a lot of fear and doubt, and that’s when I kind of went into this worrying phase," she said.
When asked in the interview if her or Lori's beliefs are "fringe" or "not mainstream" parts of the Mormon religion, Melani consulted with her attorney before answering.
"I’m not in any cult, and I don’t believe anything that is against The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," Melani answered. "There are topics where we don’t have full understanding, like you see in this document – things like translation, we don’t have information on. It’s something that’s talked about in the scriptures. And these are things that are interesting, and you want to learn more about the mysteries of God that no one really has the real answers on.
"These are things to learn about, but there are no beliefs that I have, or that I know that Chad and Lori have, that are against The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or anything inconsistent with that faith," she added.
6. Lori won't tell her family where Tylee and JJ are because her calls are recorded in jail.
Lori's mother, Janis Cox, and her sister, Summer Shiflet, spoke about the case for the first time with 48 Hours last week.
When the children's grandmother and aunt were asked where JJ and Tylee are, Janis replied: "That's a great question."
"She can't tell us," Summer added. "She's in jail, everything's recorded. She can't discuss anything about the case."
Melani echoed that idea in her interview with EastIdahoNews.com, saying Lori doesn't trust the court system.
"She doesn’t have reason to trust a lot of people right now. I can’t ask that question to her. She’s in jail waiting for her time to defend and tell her story," Melani said.
"I don’t think if I asked her she would tell me," she added when pressed on why she doesn't ask Lori where the kids are. "She didn’t tell me before, probably just to not involve me, and whatever she’s got going on – she’s got a plan and I just want to be loving support and do whatever I can. When it comes down to it, every fear, every worry, every doubt that I have – it doesn’t stick to the knowledge I do know of who Lori is and everything she’s done to protect those kids."
The search for JJ and Tylee continues. The Rexburg Police Department asks anyone with information regarding JJ and Tylee's whereabouts or welfare to contact the department at 1-208-359-3000 or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) at 1-800-THE-LOST.
JJ has brown hair and brown eyes, is 4 feet tall and weighs 50 pounds. He has autism and may be in need of medical attention, according to authorities. Tylee has blonde hair and blue eyes, is 5 feet tall and weighs 160 pounds.
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