Lori Sally moved to Elkhart in 2009 when the family of her partner Yassin, whom she met online after divorcing her ex Tony and moving to Washington state, decided the burst housing bubble meant they could snap up cheap real estate there. She was hesitant—they had just had their first child and had been saving to buy a house on the beach. Eventually she relented. Looking back, she thinks that maybe if she and Yassin had just stayed in Washington and raised their family, they might still be together. But after the move, Yassin grew more religious, and Lori says that his deepening belief brought out a violence she hadn’t seen. “If I wore something he didn’t like, I was a prostitute,” she said. “I’d go from obedient housewife to prostitute in one shirt.”
Lori dyes her long, thick hair a color called Midnight Ruby and dresses her kids, ages 8 and 9, in Halloween costumes year-round. She sips on a silver can of Monster Energy Zero Ultra as she navigates through the old Elkhart neighborhood where she and her family used to live.
"If I wore something he didn’t like, I was a prostitute. I’d go from obedient housewife to prostitute in one shirt."
There’s Sam’s old house, she says, pointing to a pink brick two-story with a now-crumbling roof and ivy climbing up the drainpipe. There’s where Yassin and I used to live with the kids, Lori nods to a tan three-story home, a dilapidated fence in the yard. There used to be a swing set in front of a row of manicured hedges.
“I built that fence,” she says.
When they got to Elkhart, Lori became pregnant with another child. Meanwhile, Yassin and his brothers started an international shipping company from their house. ViaAddress’s business model was simple: If someone in, say, Thailand wanted to buy an item on eBay, but the seller didn’t ship to Thailand, the buyer could have the item shipped to Elkhart, and ViaAddress would ship it to Thailand for a fee.
Business grew quickly—so quickly, in fact, that they relocated to a warehouse in an industrial part of town, and Lori helped manage it until her due date. But from the beginning, Lori was wary of the suspicious wares coming through the facility: fake IDs, strange pieces of metal, huge bulk orders of knives.
“A lot of high-dollar items,” says Angela Benke, who worked alongside Lori at the warehouse. “Real Rolex watches. Jewelry. A lot of dolls that were high-dollar, in the box—special edition things. And then we started seeing swords and metal pieces. And I thought, what is this?”
The products would occasionally be mislabeled—once she noticed a box full of gun parts marked 'Toys.' Lori called the police whenever she saw that someone had tried to send something illegal through the service, but she felt like Moussa, who also had a job in the warehouse, was working against her: There were cameras everywhere, and a database that tracked the status of each shipment, so Moussa always knew when she’d called the police about the packages. On a few occasions, the police failed to show up until the next morning, and the packages mysteriously disappeared overnight. The ViaAddress website also had a strange glitch: Every time Lori would ban shipping to countries that were generating the majority of illegal orders, weeks later they’d appear unbanned.
By June 2011, Lori had had enough. She was on the verge of quitting the business and leaving Yassin when her sister Sam—who was living in Oklahoma—called to say she’d broken up with her boyfriend, Raphael LeBraun. “I was like, ‘Well, I’m having trouble with my relationship, and you’re having trouble with your relationship. Why don’t you move up here,'” Lori says. “You can just have one of our houses, and work at our business, and hey, we’ll be hunky dory. We’ll be sisters again. And so, she agreed to do that. And it was just the absolute worst decision I have ever made in my entire life.”
Before long, Sam and a few other workers staged a strike because Lori wouldn’t allow them to wear flip flops on the warehouse floor. She also began hanging out with Moussa. “She just had this need to please the Elhassani family,” Lori told me later. “And Moussa was the one that was most like her. He was exactly the same. He did the exact same stuff. He would go to the mosque on Fridays and act like he was the most pious. But then he would be doing hardcore drugs and stealing and all of this other really crazy stuff on the side. They were exactly the same.”
One sweltering night in July 2011, Lori and Yassin got into a heated argument—a frequent occurrence, according to Sam, who at the time was on the porch of their shared Indiana home smoking a cigarette. After several minutes of yelling, Lori came flying out onto the porch and grabbed Sam’s cell phone out of her hand. “[Lori] is like "I'm calling 911.’ I'm like, ‘Why?’ And she's like, ‘Because he beat me up,’” Sam recalled. When the police arrived at the scene, they asked Sam what she had seen; she told them that she had been on the porch the whole time and had only heard the fight. Lori, who believes Sam witnessed Yassin’s abusive behavior towards her throughout their relationship, was furious. That night, Yassin was taken into custody on domestic assault charges, and the rift between the sisters began to grow.
“I was like, ‘Well, I’m having trouble with my relationship, and you’re having trouble with your relationship. Why don’t you move up here.' And it was just the absolute worst decision I have ever made.”
“Whenever they were fighting I had to choose her side even though it took my place of living and my job away from me,” Sam recalled. (Yassin’s family employed Sam at the warehouse and he owned the house she was staying in.) “But when they were together I had to act like nothing ever happened…It was exhausting.”
Sam was asked to testify in the case. More than two years later, on September 25, 2013, after she’d married Moussa and had their first child, 27-year-old Sam arrived at Elkhart Superior Court to tell the judge what happened that night.
In her official testimony, Sam recalled Lori as the aggressor of the fight, and said she barely heard Yassin yell at all; she testified that Lori didn’t appear upset by the fight until the police showed up and she told them she’d been abused; she said that like herself, Lori bruised easily. “And isn’t it true,” the state’s attorney asked Sam towards the end of his cross-examination, “that you don't believe that whatever your sister is going through is really comparable to what you suffered at the hands of your ex-husband?”
Sam thought about Andrew, about his violent outbursts, about how once he’d been so close to making good on his threats to kill her that she ended up hospitalized for days in Evansville.
“That’s correct,” she said. Yassin was found not guilty.
And that was it. The testimony broke Sam and Lori’s relationship in such a way that it could never truly be repaired. Lori left her job at the warehouse, and divorced Yassin. Sam had another child with Moussa, and fell deeper under his spell. The two saw each other one more time before Sam left for Syria, at a birthday party for Lori’s son Ibrahim. They barely spoke.
Around lunchtime on February 4, 2017, Lori was at home in her apartment in South Bend, Indiana, suffering from some kind of mold poisoning. The day before, Lori—who was then 31 and had a career as an electrician—was squatting beneath her kitchen sink trying to fix a leak when her hand went through the wall, unleashing black mold spores that caused an allergic reaction.
She lost her voice and couldn’t stop coughing. Her skull felt like a steel drum that her brain was beating against. She settled into her “Mama Bear chair,” an antique floral armchair with matching ottoman, to try to relax. She thumbed at her phone, flicking through her emails, and she saw one from Sam. It was the first time there had been any communication between the sisters in months.
“Please tell Mom and Dad and anyone that can help me and the kids, that Moussa brought me and the kids illegally to Syria,” Sam wrote. “Out of all places in Syria, he chose Raqqa. So, we have been ‘living’ here for almost 2 years. Please don’t be angry with me, please tell everyone I will explain everything later when I have time. Right now is the only time I can do this, the only time I am free is now.”
Lori shot up out of the chair. She forgot about the mold and the breathing trouble and the coughing, and began to pace around the apartment, reading the rest of the email as she did:
“I really hope you can help me…I love you so much and I am so sorry for any way I may have ever hurt you, and please forgive me. Please pray for us. Please tell everyone to forgive me for anything I have done. Please ask Mom and Dad to forgive me, every day I am being punished for my sins.”
Lori wished it was some sort of prank, but she knew even Sam, whom she considered a top-notch fabricator, couldn’t concoct this. Wouldn’t concoct this. And then she saw the proof: There was an attachment. Lori double-clicked it. It was a video, and as she watched it, her heart had never ached so much: There was Matthew, her 8-year-old nephew, dressed all in black, waving a machine gun. “By the will of Allah, we will have victory,” he said, “so get ready for the fighting has just begun."
At the end of the email, Sam asked Lori to contact a man named Florian Mueller, whom Sam said could smuggle her and the kids out. “Please make him feel special so he doesn’t give up on me,” Sam begged.
“Sam is in Syria,” Lori wailed. “But I’m going to get her back.”
Lori called every agency she could think of that could help her figure out what had happened to her sister. First she dialed Homeland Security. Her voice was so raspy and quiet from the mold that the people on the other end could barely hear her, and she had to beg them to stay on the line. She called the State Department. The FBI. Her parents. When her mother answered, Lori collapsed into heaving sobs, her breathing so belabored by the mold and the crying that she could barely choke out the words. “Sam is in Syria,” she wailed into the phone. “But I’m going to get her back.”
Lori called senators and lawyers, she called family aid groups and foreign embassies. “I went to different politicians. I quit my job, I stopped everything that I was doing and focused solely on working on this issue,” she said. “I was going door to door, politicians’ offices, asking them to help with the situation. [The government] had no opinion one way or the other [if she was a terrorist]. They just honestly did not care.”
Knowing that Lori had established connections to ISIS, the FBI began using her as an informant. Lori funneled any information she could glean from Sam or the Elhassani brothers back to them. Soon, “Florian” reached out to Lori via WhatsApp. The smuggler—whom Sam says was an amalgam of Moussa, his brother and possibly a few of his friends—told Lori that if she could send them money through Western Union, he would smuggle Sam and the kids out of Syria. To prove his legitimacy, Florian sent “proof of life” photos of Matthew so Lori knew the kids were safe. In one, dated February 13, 2017, Matthew, looking thin, holds a sign that says: “I love you Lori. Happy Valentine’s Day.” The photo was accompanied with a voice message from Sam. “Hi Lori, thank you for your help,” she says. “Today is the 13th of February 2017. I hope the picture from Matthew is okay for you. The situation is getting worse day by day and I hope you’ll be able to get things done fast. I love you and I’m so lucky to have you as a sister. Thank you so much for everything.”
Negotiations with Florian dead-ended when the ransom money he requested from Lori began to balloon. Sam now believes the brothers never intended to help her escape, but were instead simply trying to extort money from her family. So Lori switched tactics. After Moussa died in the siege, Sam lived for a short time with his brother, Abdelhedi, one of Elhassani’s other brothers confirmed. Lori got his phone number from her mother-in-law, and through a pitch-perfect mixture of flattery and tough love, she extracted details about her sister’s situation from the ISIS fighter.
“Asalaamu alaykum,” she wrote on WhatsApp in October of 2017. “Thank you so much for giving me a chance to speak with my sister. You don’t know how worried i have been!”
“No problem,” Abdelhedi responded. “She is free here to do what she wants. But she chooses to stay in the land that is ruled by the rule of Allah instead of the rule of man.”
He occasionally allowed Sam and Lori to communicate through audio messages sent over WhatsApp. They developed a code Abdelhedi couldn’t understand, relaying childhood memories meant to serve as allegories for what was happening in their lives.
Abdelhedi also sent photos of the kids in Syria. In one, Matthew and Sarah are posing in front of the house next to theirs, which had been reduced to rubble the day before. Abdelhedi’s wife had died inside the structure, and he apparently made the kids pose in front of it. Matthew is squatting with his hands on his knees peering seriously into the camera. Sarah is dressed in a pink shirt and holds a small orange and white kitten up to her face, which has the hollow expression of a child who hasn’t slept in days. Both are covered in the dust and dirt of a city at war.
Lori was furious, barely holding it together. “I would do things with my kids, and just like breakdown and start crying because that's what kids should be doing. And I think about what Matthew and Sarah were doing. And they were barely hanging on, being blown up, and not eating enough…when my kids were skating at the skating rink and jumping in the bouncy house.”
Then, on November 9, 2017, Lori received an audio message from Sam:
Hey Lori this is Sam, I just want to tell you I love you so much and I miss you I miss all of our family please tell everybody I love them and I miss them and that we're fine, we're okay. And just so you know everything is okay, remember the time we were at the neighbor’s house swimming in the pool, mom and dad said we could go swim in the pool anytime we wanted to and one of the neighbor kids fell in and you jumped in and saved her? I remember how happy you were that you saved her. I know you always want to save everybody, but sometimes you have to see who it is that really needs to be saved.”
That incident had never happened. Lori knew this was code. Sam was telling Lori that she didn’t need her help anymore. Sam was getting ready to run.
Lori thought getting Sam out of a refugee detention camp would be easier than negotiating ransom with terrorists. The trouble, she soon found, was that the U.S. government seemed uninterested in helping. Legal experts told her that the case was complicated, with no real precedent. Sam had been a victim of domestic abuse who also went willingly into ISIS territory, where her son had been trained to become an Islamic terrorist. Did she deserve rehabilitation, or punishment, or both?
But Lori was simply desperate to bring Sam and the children home. As part of her original blitz, she’d reached out to a BBC filmmaker named Josh Baker, who made a documentary about the case. In it, Lori appears in a black blazer, her dark hair half-up and teased in the front, begging the U.S. government to bring her sister—an American citizen—home to face whatever she needed to face.
“Should people be punished for going to Syria and doing what they’re doing? Absolutely,” she says in the video. “But should we abandon them over there? No.”
Finally, in July of 2018, Lori got her wish. A tuberculosis outbreak was roaring through the camp and resources had started to dwindle. Josh learned that the Kurdish forces would be willing to release Sam if they could arrange for someone to come get her. It was an arrangement that would skirt direct U.S. government involvement, but it was her only hope. Lori called her father Richard, who was hesitant to get involved, and urged Lori to instead rely on the judgment of the State Department and of Matthew’s father Juan, a former U.S. soldier who served in the Middle East and was wary of bringing Matthew back from Syria. The two men felt the situation would be best left to the government, but Lori refused to be discouraged. A friend put her in touch with Clive Stafford Smith, a British attorney and human rights expert who was building a name for himself negotiating the release of U.S. and British citizens from refugee camps in the region. Smith had experience on the ground in Syria, and volunteered to go instead. But just as they were about to put their plan into action, American forces—perhaps tipped off to the plan by Lori’s phone, which she believes was bugged—swooped in, picked up Sam and the kids in a military cargo plane and flew them back to Indiana.
A few days later, in July of 2018, Lori received a call from the FBI.
“Okay, so you probably already know—” the agent started.
“Yeah,” Lori responded.
“I wanted to tell all of this to you in person, but I can’t.”
“I wasn't able to tell you everything I wanted to tell you and I hope you understand that, right?”
“Uh, huh. Oh yeah, I understand.”
“So, I've done my best to do that, but I wanted to make sure you heard it from me, too, that [Sam is] in our custody, that she'll be very well taken care of,” the agent continued, his tone confident and reassuring. “I can't give you a whole lot of details on that, but I can pass a contact number for you, okay? I don't know what they'll be able to tell you. That's not my lane, alright? But I can do that, okay?”
Lori scrambled for a pen, a scrap of paper, anything to record the number.
“Okay, so a contact number,” she urged. “Who?”
“For Indiana Department of Child Services,” the agent said. “I'm sure you can make an inquiry [about the kids] that way.”
For the first time in more than a year, Lori felt herself breathe.
On the day of Sam’s hearing, Lori meets me for lunch at a roadside Lebanese restaurant called Elia’s. Lori will get to see Sam today for the first time since a series of December hearings in the same courthouse, though she won’t get to talk to her or hug her. The lawyers told her Sam isn’t doing well and is struggling on her PTSD medication, and Lori wants to judge for herself.
In the courthouse, she sits and listens, sneaking smiles to Sam when she can. The trial is scheduled for January 6, 2020, almost three years after Lori first received that email from Sam asking for help getting out of Syria.
After the hearing Lori and I sit in the parking lot in her red and white Ford pickup.
“It’s always good to see Sam,” she says.
Lori believes her sister went to Syria willingly, and that she deserves jail time for what she’s done. In our previous conversations, she likened it to joining a gang and then getting caught in a drive-by. “It's like you knew beforehand it was going to happen,” she said. “And yeah, it happened… and we’re all sad that it happened. But how much responsibility do you hold in that for yourself?” It’s hard for her to think about, Lori said, knowing everything that Sam and the kids went through in Syria. But no one is responsible for any of it but Sam.
I ask Lori what the best possible outcome of this case would be.
“Sam needs help, more than just medication,” Lori says. “She definitely has needed help for a long time.” The best case scenario is treatment, regardless of jail time.
“And what’s the worst case?”
It’s sweltering in the truck. A storm has just passed, and the sun is cooking the inside of the cab.. Lori’s profile is backlit by the sudden afternoon light.
“Acquittal,” she says. “That nothing will happen. They’ll just let her go.”
“Really?” She nods. “Because at that point, no matter how hard [her lawyer] is fighting for her now, if he’s not her attorney anymore, it’s just over for her. No one’s going to be there. She’s just going to be out there. She’s going to be left completely alone.”
"I will never forgive her for what she’s done. But I love her. She’s my sister. I feel like she needs someone, and I don’t mind being that someone."
For Lori, what comes next is more about duty than forgiveness: Even when Sam gets out of jail, the two will never be truly close again. Not the way they were when they were kids. There’s still so much Lori resents: for leaving her that first time to be with Andrew, for testifying against her in the domestic violence case, for the hell she put them through in Syria.
“I will never forgive her for what she’s done. But I love her. She’s my sister. I feel like she needs someone, and I don’t mind being that someone,” Lori says. I thought of the biggest fights I’ve had with my three sisters, the Christmas Eve screaming match when I thought my sister might drive us off the road just to end the argument. Sisters can be crueler to each other than anyone else in our lives, because we tell ourselves that this relationship is impossible to destroy.
Recently Sam gained access to the troves of material her lawyers have turned up during the discovery part of her case. Now she believes Lori never intended to rescue her from Syria, and was only interested in saving her children, of whom she says Lori wanted custody. (Matthew has since gone to live with his father Juan; the other three children will likely be placed with Richard and Lisa.) “[Lori is] angry with me because she feels like she lost custody of her kids because I didn’t lie in court that day,” Sam said, referring to when she testified as a witness for Lori’s ex-husband Yassin in the domestic abuse case. “He was not charged with assault or battery or domestic abuse or whatever, so she’s angry with me, and she blames the fact that he has custody of their kids on me.”
When Sam’s trial begins this January, lawyers on both sides will attempt to detangle the complicated relationship between the Sally sisters in an effort to explain the crimes Sam is accused of. And it could be Lori’s turn to testify against Sam, just as Sam did against Lori in 2011. What will she say?
Jessica Roy Deputy Editor Jessica Roy is the Deputy Editor of ELLE.com.