EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third in a series about coroners in eastern Idaho.
ST. ANTHONY – Being a caregiver is what Brenda Dye has always wanted to do, and though it’s often difficult, it doesn’t stop her from being there for others in an emergency.
The 46-year-old Island Park woman is almost a year into her second term as Fremont County’s coroner. She’s also an advanced EMT with the quick response unit. Between the two, she has more than three decades of experience dealing with traumatic situations and helping families find closure in the death of a loved one.
Dye was involved in the death investigation of Chad Daybell’s wife, Tammy, and Lori’s kids, 16-year-old Tylee Ryan and 7-year-old Joshua “JJ” Vallow. Dye tells EastIdahoNews.com it’s “by far the most difficult” case she’s ever been involved in.
“It’s just hard to imagine someone doing that to someone they care for and love,” Dye says. “I have kids and I just can’t imagine what the family has had to go through.”
Many were horrified by the images of Tylee and JJ’s bodies presented in court during Lori’s murder trial. Both bodies were found buried in Chad’s backyard in June 2020. JJ was wrapped in plastic and bound by duct tape, while Tylee was dismembered and burned.
A jury found Lori guilty of murder in May. She is serving three life sentences at the Pocatello Women’s Correctional Center, and is awaiting extradition to Arizona to answer for the alleged murder of her fourth husband, Charles Vallow.
Officials determined Tammy died of asphyxiation. Bruises found on her arms and chest suggest she may have been restrained.
Throughout this ordeal, Dye says many people have asked her about the case. One of the questions she’s asked most often is how she’s dealt with it.
The ability to emotionally detach is a skill Dye says is critical in maintaining professionalism. Despite years of training, she struggled and had to seek professional help to deal with her emotions.
“I still have nightmares,” says Dye. “Every time we have a new trial (Chad’s trial begins in April), I have to relive everything again and all those emotions come back. A lot of cases are harder than others, but this has been really hard for me.”
Dye was months into her first term when Tammy died and the kids disappeared. Her first two cases in office involved people she knew, which made dealing with the Daybell case even more difficult.
Another case around the same time involved the death of a family friend.
“I have two sons and one of their friends ended his life,” she says.
The timing of these situations made 2019 one of the most difficult years of her life.
Becoming the second female coroner in Fremont County
Prior to taking office in 2019, Dye had 22 years of experience as an EMT. She was attracted to the healthcare profession at an early age and originally set out to become a nurse.
Ultimately, she felt becoming an EMT was more suitable for her interests.
“I wanted to be a caretaker and I like being outdoors. The adrenaline, being on the ambulance suits me better than being in a clinic, hospital setting,” she says.
Dye decided to run for coroner when her predecessor, Bonnie Burlage, decided not to seek re-election after eight years in office. It was the investigative aspect of the coroner’s role that prompted Dye to run.
“I love trying to save people and get them to the hospital in time. If that’s not possible, then I want to (be involved) in determining the cause of death. Sometimes we’re the last voice of the people who pass away. I like investigating and I like to give the family closure,” Dye explains.
Though there were some intense cases during her first term, Dye says not every case she’s been involved in has been the result of a violent crime. Her most common investigations have been heart attacks and other heart-related issues.
“A lot of elderly people are in Island Park, travel through Island Park. When people come to that high altitude with a history of cardiac disease, a lot of times they pass away,” Dye says.
Dye is now the second woman in Fremont County to serve in this position, and she’s one of the few in the state. The Idaho State Association of County Coroners, which provides standards and resources for coroners in the Gem State, reports 10 out of Idaho’s 44 counties currently have women serving in this role.
It was during the 1920s when the first woman in Idaho was elected coroner. HannaLore Hein, a historian with the Idaho State Historical Society, says Payette County Democrat Edith Landon took office in 1929.
On the eastern side of the state, the first woman to serve in this capacity was Hazel Davis, a Republican from Power County. She was elected in 1934 and sworn-in the following year.
Regardless of gender, Dye says it’s not a job for the feint of heart and it requires a particular skillset.
“It takes a person who can deal with death,” she says. “When people are near death, they need a compassionate person there to help them through it.”
While Dye has seen a lot of death, it’s made her aware of how precious life is. As long as she’s in office, her goal is to make life a little better for the victim’s families and help connect them to resources as they work through the grieving process.