This story was first published on EastIdahoNews.com
Ursula Berliner will never forget her encounter with Lori Vallow Daybell. It was short, on an airport shuttle in Maui and an experience Berliner describes as “chilling.”
The Oregon mother had just landed in Hawaii with her husband and daughter last week when they made their way to pick up a rental car. As they boarded the shuttle, she recognized Lori and Chad from stories she had seen in the news. Lori’s children, 7-year-old Joshua “JJ” Vallow and his sister, 17-year-old Tylee Ryan, have not been seen since September.
“Chad was really recognizable but Lori looked a lot different than the pictures I had seen,” Berliner tells. “She was dressed in black, heavy clothes and it was 80 degrees outside. She had big bags under her eyes. I had eye contact with her and she just looked like she felt untouchable – like she knew people would recognize her and it didn’t bother her.”
Berliner said her heart “sank to her legs” and she was concerned the Daybells may be on the run from law enforcement. After getting off the shuttle, she tried to call police but she couldn’t get a cell phone signal. The Daybells went inside to rent a vehicle while Berliner remained outdoors with her family.
“I had just read that she had been talking to a friend and told her all the speculation around them was media hype that she was waiting for it to die down,” Berliner recalls. “I wanted to have an exchange with her where she knew it wasn’t just the media and the police who were watching for them or cared about the children – that there are parents all over, just like me, who see her and are watching her. People who aren’t going to stop looking for the children.”
Berliner says Lori looked right at her through the glass and Berliner mouthed the words, “I see you. Where are your children?”
“I’ll never forget the look on her face. She kind of shrugged and raised the corner of her mouth and eyebrow and she wanted me to know she knows where they are,” Berliner says. “I really wanted to say something but it was a scary situation. There’s a lot of death around the case and my husband was really nervous about me making a scene.”
Berliner and her family got into their rental car and drove away. She sent her photos to the Rexburg Police Department and detectives referenced them in court documents as proof that the Daybells did not have Lori’s children with them.
Two days after Berliner’s encounter, the Daybells returned to Kauai and on Thursday, Lori was arrested on two counts of desertion and nonsupport of children, resisting and/or obstructing an officer, solicitation and contempt.
“Part of me was hoping I would see them again. I just don’t want them to fall out of view but also I hope I never see them again. It was just an awful exchange with her,” Berliner says.
Lori remains in the Kauai Community Correctional Center on $5 million bail. Police continue to search for her children and in an affidavit of probable cause released Friday, detectives say Tylee was last seen Sept. 8 at Yellowstone National Park – a fact that brings some comfort to her aunt, Annie Cushing.
“One of the really pressing questions that I’ve asked throughout this entire thing is when was Tylee last seen,” Cushing says. “I’ve asked that question over and over and over…I was glad to have some kind of date stamp. But at the same time, it was clearly a disconcerting thought of her being out at this national park with this cast of characters and just wondering what they had on their minds.”
Lori married Cushing’s brother, Joe Ryan, in 2002. They were “madly in love” and Ryan couldn’t wait to be a father, Cushing recalls. Lori was “delightful” and loved being a mother but in 2018, Cushing noticed some serious red flags.
“She was much more fixated on the end times,” Cushing says. “In one conversation, she brought it up three different times with what seemed like an increasing sense of urgency. She definitely seemed very scared about the end times and that was when she crossed the line and said, ‘I think sometimes it would be better to put my kids in a car and go over the side of a cliff.'”
Cushing showed visible shock on her face and Lori immediately walked back her statement – saying she was only joking. But Cushing has never forgotten the conversation.
Ryan died of an apparent heart attack in 2018 at age 59. He and Lori had gone through a contentious divorce, according to Cushing, and now she wonders if there may have been more to her brother’s death.
“I really just go back and forth because on the one hand, it is feasible that he could have died of a heart attack because heart disease does run in our family. At the same time, I have questions about the autopsy,” Cushing says. She notes that Ryan’s height and build were listed incorrectly and he had been dead around a week before he was found.
Cushing will likely never have her questions answered surrounding Ryan’s death as he was cremated. He did have a life insurance policy but she is unsure who received the money.
“There’s no question in my mind Joe absolutely would have had life insurance and there’s absolutely no question Lori would not have been the beneficiary,” Cushing says. “I do wonder if he had it in a trust for Tylee that matured when she turned 17 because JJ was last seen the day before Tylee’s 17th birthday. I have no idea but everything surrounding this whole ordeal seems to be motivated by money.”
Cushing is confident Lori will face additional charges and she believes others could be arrested in connection to the children’s disappearance. Lori is fighting extradition to Idaho and will appear for a court hearing in Kauai Monday. Gov. Brad Little’s office is ready to assist in the extradition process.
“We don’t have an established timeline – timing depends on the action of local officials,” Little’s spokeswoman, Marissa Morrison, tells EastIdahoNews.com. “This is a process regularly performed by our office. The circumstances surrounding the extradition process are no different than the numerous cases we handle regularly apart from the overwhelming interest from the media and public.”
Since Tylee’s disappearance, Cushing has become her niece’s advocate – putting together her own timeline of the case and speaking out on behalf of the 17-year-old.
“It’s just been the most mind-numbing thing to watch,” she says, choking back tears. “It’s just the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen play out. I live in New York City and it’s weird to walk by a newsstand and see my family. Yet whatever I’m suffering pales in comparison to what these kids suffered.”
As for Berliner, she returned home from Hawaii a few days ago and continues to follow new developments in the case. She hopes answers are soon found and justice is served for JJ and Tylee.
“Those children are so darling. I hope they’re still alive and they’ll be found but it’s just so heartless and cruel for a mother to neglect them like that,” she says.