BOISE, Idaho — A Rexburg Police detective recounted watching an FBI evidence recovery team dig up the remains of a missing 7-year-old on the Fremont County property of Chad Daybell.
The testimony came Monday morning during the first day of the preliminary hearing for Daybell, who was charged with two felony counts of concealment of evidence after the remains of 7-year-old JJ Vallow and 16-year-old Tylee Ryan were unearthed on his property. The children's mother, Lori Vallow, is also charged with two counts of conspiracy to commit alteration, destruction or concealment of evidence, as well as misdemeanors for resisting or obstructing officers, criminal solicitation to commit a crime, and contempt of court.
Neither has been charged with killing the children.
Rexburg Police Det. Ray Hermosillo was the first witness to take the stand Monday. He described the investigation into the missing children's whereabouts beginning with JJ's grandparents asking them to perform a welfare check on the child, who they had not heard from in months.
Hermosillo said he went out to Lori Vallow's Rexburg apartment to check in on the boy. Both Daybell and Vallow's brother Alex Cox were there, but detectives found no sign of Lori Vallow or her children.
The detective testified that he asked Alex Cox where JJ was.
"Initially he didn't respond, he just looked at the defendant Daybell," Hermosillo said.
When the detective repeated the question, Alex Cox said that JJ was living with his grandmother in Louisiana. Hermosillo testified that he told the men that was unlikely, as JJ's grandmother was the one who contacted police.
Daybell told police he had last seen JJ in the apartment in October, but said that he did not know Lori Vallow well, did not have her phone number, and had "only met her a couple times," Hermosillo said.
In fact, Daybell and Lori Vallow had gotten married in Hawaii weeks before police began their search for the children.
Hermosillo said Daybell ultimately admitted that he did have Lori Vallow's phone number, giving the detective an excuse for why he had been untruthful earlier.
"He stated he felt like I was accusing him of something," Hermosillo said.
Both Chad Daybell and Lori Vallow left Idaho for Hawaii a short time later, where police tracked them down in January. Lori Vallow was arrested on charges of desertion of minor children the next month - charges that were ultimately dropped after both children were found dead.
Daybell's arrest came months later in June after police and the FBI served a search warrant at his house June 9.
Hermosillo said the FBI Evidence Recovery team, working with cadaver dogs, found an "area of interest" near a tree on Daybell's property. One area in particular stood out, the detective said: a four-foot by two-foot patch of sod and grass that was shorter than the surrounding weed growth.
As investigators dug into the ground, they uncovered three large white rocks laid in a row on top of a thin piece of wood paneling.
"As soon as they removed the paneling, I could smell the odor of a decomposing body," Hermosillo testified.
The team moved more dirt from the grave, revealing a "a black plastic bag with a round object protruding through the dirt," the detective said. Brown human hair could be seen sticking out of the top, he added.
The recovery team worked to get the wrapped object completely dug up, the detective said.
"It was what appeared to be a small body tightly wrapped in black plastic, covered in duct tape," he said.
JJ Vallow's grandparents, who were sitting in the gallery, sobbed as Hermosillo described the scene. Chad Daybell sat watching the detective, with no expression.
As the search of the Fremont County property continued, Hermosillo said, investigators made another discovery: "A mass of burnt flesh and charred bone" buried in the pet cemetery on Daybell's land.
As the search continued into the next day, investigators continued digging in that spot.
"There was a melted green bucket that appeared that the burnt flesh had been placed in," Hermosillo recounted. "Under the bucket was a partial human skull."
The remains of both children were transported to the coroner's office. Hermosillo said he sat in on the autopsies later at the Ada County Coroner's facility in Boise.
The autopsy of the child wrapped in plastic was first, he said.
Hermosillo said the coroner cut through the plastic wrapped around the body.
"I observed a small child in red pajamas," the detective said. "I also observed a light blue blanket that had been placed on top of him."
The dead child was JJ Vallow, he said.
"From the hundreds of photographs and video I had seen over the last eight months, I recognized that to be the same little boy that was laying on the table."
JJ's head, arms and feet wrapped tightly in duct tape, and a white plastic garbage bag had been secured over his head.
"His hands were folded about chest high. He had duct tape continuously wrapped from elbow, all the way around his arms over his hands, all the way to his right elbow - several layers, tightly wrapped," Hermosillo said.
Those layers were removed to find that JJ's wrists and ankles were bound together. Another strip of duct tape had been placed over his mouth, the detective said.
The hearing is set to continue Monday afternoon. This story will be updated.
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