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Satellite photo shows Chad Daybell property on likely day of child’s burial

REXBURG, Idaho — A satellite captured a photograph of Chad Daybell’s property on the outskirts of this eastern Idaho community just hours after police believe Daybell and another man, Alex Cox, finished burning and burying remains of 16-year-old Tylee Ryan on Sept. 9, 2019.

The eye-in-the-sky photo, obtained exclusively by KSL TV and KSL’s Cold podcast team, includes a cluster of dark pixels at the same spot where police recovered Ryan’s remains while serving a search warrant months later, on June 9, 2020. The dark pixels likely represent ground which had been recently disturbed.

It is not clear if police or prosecutors were previously aware of the image’s existence. A probable cause affidavit filed in support of an arrest warrant for Chad Daybell made public last Friday said investigators located the spot primarily using location data from Alex Cox’s cell phone.

A partial view of southern Fremont County, Idaho, centered on property owned by Chad Daybell, captured by a Pléiades satellite on Sept. 9, 2019.

Eye in the sky

The photo comes from a satellite system called Pléiades 1, which was manufactured by the European aerospace company Airbus and is operated by the French national space program, CNES. Pléiades is one of many Earth-observation satellite systems constantly photographing the surface of the globe for scientific and research purposes.

“It’s a lot of construction companies, engineering companies. We get a big chunk of academics as well,” said Katie Nelson, co-owner of the Colorado-based satellite imaging reseller Apollo Mapping. “We have satellite imagery that goes back to 2000 that can show you what a place used to look like.”

Pléiades 1 consists of two satellites that orbit the Earth at an altitude of just over 430 miles above sea level. From that height, they capture images at a resolution of 70 centimeters, meaning each pixel in the image corresponds to 70 centimeters on the ground. After processing, those images are presented at a resolution of 50 centimeters.

“Which is not enough to see a person. It’s enough to see a group of people,” Nelson said. “We get a lot of people who think that satellite imagery is high enough resolution to see people and they’ll want to monitor their spouse or monitor their employees or see if someone broke into their place at a specific time… none of these are things we can do.”

Photos from the Pléiades satellites are commercially available through a variety of resellers, including Apollo Mapping. KSL purchased a copy of the Sept. 9 image for this story.

Pet cemetery

Tylee Ryan was last seen at Yellowstone National Park on Sunday, Sept. 8, 2019 with her uncle Alex Cox and younger brother, seven-year-old JJ Vallow.

Tylee Ryan and JJ Vallow stand with their uncle, Alex Cox, on Sept. 8, 2019. (Photo courtesy FBI Salt Lake City Field Office)

According to the probable cause statement, police were able to use a series of cell phone tracking technologies to later trace Cox’s movements from Yellowstone back to Rexburg, where he and his sister Lori Vallow were then living in neighboring apartments.

Early the next morning, Cox’s phone pinged at his sister’s apartment. Hours later, at 9:21 a.m., the phone was at Chad Daybell’s property in an area east of the barn referred to by Daybell as the “pet cemetery.”

Police said Cox appeared to remain there until 11:39 a.m.

Minutes later, at 11:53 a.m., police said Daybell texted his wife Tammy Daybell, writing that he’d spent the morning burning “limb debris” and burying a raccoon he’d shot in the pet cemetery.

At 1:32 p.m., a Pléiades 1 satellite photographed a swath of southeastern Idaho, including the 3.75 acre parcel in Fremont County owned by Chad Daybell.

Analyzing the image

In the Pléiades image, Chad Daybell’s property can be seen wreathed by clouds. Visible are the Daybell house, as well as some small outbuildings and a large barn. The cluster of dark pixels are seen directly to the east of the barn’s north wall.

Chad Daybell’s property in Fremont County, Idaho as viewed by the Pléiades satellite on Sept. 9, 2019.

KSL’s analysis of the satellite image shows the area of disturbed ground was roughly five feet wide by six-and-a-half feet tall, larger than one might expect for the burial of a small animal such as a raccoon.

This measurement was obtained by examining the image pixel-by-pixel. Because each pixel of the image corresponds to 50 centimeters on the ground, the width and height can be determined by counting the number of pixels on each side of the dark spot and multiplying by 50.

A pixel-level view of the cluster of dark pixels visible on Chad Daybell’s property from satellite imagery captures on Sept. 9, 2019. Annotations added by KSL.

In order to verify the accuracy of this measurement, KSL used the same method to measure another object with known dimensions: the barn on Chad Daybell’s property. According to Google Earth, the long side of the barn measures 56 feet.

This Google Earth screenshot shows the barn on Chad Daybell’s property in Fremont County, Idaho as it appeared in 2015. Google Earth’s measurement tool reveals the barn is roughly 56 feet long.

The most recent aerial image of the Daybell property available in Google Earth is at a higher resolution than that from the Pléiades satellite; however, the Google image dates back to September of 2015, four years before Tylee Ryan and JJ Vallow disappeared.

In the Pléiades satellite image, the long edge of the barn is represented by 34 pixels. At 50 centimeters per pixel, the length of the barn is thus estimated at 1700 centimeters. There are 30.48 centimeters in a foot, so dividing 1700 by 30.48 results in a measurement of 55.77 feet. This is reasonably close to the 56-foot measurement obtained from Google Earth.

A pixel-level view of the barn on Chad Daybell’s property in Fremont County as captured by the Pléiades satellite on Sept. 9, 2019. Annotations added by KSL.

The same technique can also be used to estimate the distance between the barn and the cluster of dark pixels in the satellite image as 50.85 feet. That distance corresponds to the spot where police were observed exhuming Ryan’s remains.

Significance to the Daybell case

The Pléiades image seems to support assertions by police that Chad Daybell and Alex Cox buried Tylee Ryan’s remains on the morning on Sept. 9, 2019, just one of several deaths to which police have linked Cox.

Investigators also believe Cox had a hand in killing JJ Vallow. The same probable cause statement that detailed the discovery of Tylee Ryan’s remains also said pings from Cox’s cell phone on Sept. 23, 2019, placed him at the location where police later located Vallow’s remains.

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Joshua “JJ” Vallow and Tylee Ryan in images provided by Rexburg police during the search for the children. (Photos courtesy Rexburg Police Department)

Cox had also shot and killed Charles Vallow, his sister Lori’s estranged husband, in Chandler, Ariz. on July 11, 2019. Charles Vallow had filed for divorce months earlier and sought sole custody of JJ, claiming Lori Vallow no longer wanted the children. Cox had told police he shot Charles Vallow in self-defense.

Police are also looking into the circumstances behind the death of Chad Daybell’s first wife, Tammy Daybell. She had reportedly died in her sleep. At the time, her family declined an autopsy and she was buried in Springville, Utah, where she and Chad and spent much of their lives before moving to Idaho.

Chad Daybell and Lori Vallow married on Nov. 5, 2019 in a private ceremony in Hawaii.

The sun sets over Hanalei Bay on the island of Kaua’i on Jan. 16, 2020. Chad and Lori Daybell were staying in Princeville, to the east of Hanalei, on that date. (Photo: Dave Cawley, KSL Podcasts)

On Dec. 11, 2019, investigators exhumed Tammy Daybell’s remains and sent them to the Office of the Utah State Medical Examiner for an autopsy. Results of that autopsy have not been made public.

The following day, on Dec. 12, 2019, Alex Cox died in Arizona. The Maricopa County medical examiner determined his death was a result of natural causes, including blood clots in the lungs.

Chad and Lori Daybell were still on the island of Kaua’i when, in late January, police served Lori Daybell with a child protection order. The disappearances of JJ and Tylee had by then raised significant concerns, leading to a judge demanding that Lori Daybell return to Idaho and reveal the locations of the children.

After Lori Daybell failed to arrive in court at the appointed time, police on Kaua’i arrested her on Feb. 20, 2020. She was subsequently extradited to Idaho to face criminal charges of desertion and nonsupport of children, resisting and/or obstructing an officer, solicitation and contempt of court. She remains in custody.

Police search Chad Daybell’s property

Then, on June 9, 2020, investigators served the search warrant on Chad Daybell’s property on the outskirts of Rexburg, Idaho and located the remains of both children.

Rexburg police dig for human remains on Chad Daybell’s property while serving a search warrant on June 9, 2020. (Photo: Mark Wetzel, KSL 5 TV)

In the probable cause affidavit supporting Chad Daybell’s arrest, Rexburg police wrote that Daybell had watched officers and FBI agents from his SUV as they searched. When they uncovered JJ Vallow’s remains, Daybell reportedly drove away from the house. Officers pursued and arrested him a short distance away.

Daybell remains in custody, facing two felony charges of concealment or destruction of evidence. He has pleaded not guilty and requested a jury trial.