Disappearance of Susan Powell
On December 14, 2009, her husband Josh Powell was named a person of interest in the investigation, but he was never charged. On February 5, 2012, Josh Powell killed himself and the couple's two young sons, Charles Joshua Powell (b. January 19, 2005) and Braden Timothy Powell (b. January 2, 2007) in a murder–suicide after custody of the boys had been awarded to Susan Cox Powell's parents.
On May 21, 2013, West Valley City police closed their active investigation into Susan Powell's disappearance.
Susan Cox married Joshua Powell (b. January 20, 1976) at the Portland Oregon Temple in April 2001. In about 2004 they moved to Utah to be closer to Joshua's mother and sisters. They resided in West Valley City, Utah. Joshua had a bachelor's degree in business and worked for a number of different companies over the years. Susan was a cosmetologist in Washington, and worked in banking after the family's relocation to Utah.
Cox-Powell's emails to her friends indicated the presence of marital discord. Joshua Powell filed for bankruptcy in 2007, declaring over $200,000 in debts. Friends attributed the Powells' marriage problems to both financial stress and Joshua's "very, very controlling" behavior.
By 2008, Susan was expressing fears and frustrations about her marriage to friends. She recorded a video in July 2009 and wrote a secret will that included the statements "I want it documented that there is extreme turmoil in our marriage" and "If I die, it may not be an accident, even if it looks like one."
Josh Powell's father
After Susan Powell's disappearance, investigators' scrutiny extended not only to Josh Powell, but also to his father, Steven. Steven Powell was said to have become romantically obsessed with Susan. Computer images seized from his house in 2009 turned up 4,500 images of Susan Powell taken without her knowledge, including close-ups of specific body parts.
Steven Powell was alleged to have a long history of bizarre and inappropriate behavior. His ex-wife Terri Powell asserted in her 1992 divorce filing that he was addicted to pornography, that he had fantasized about marrying multiple wives, and he had exposed his children to sexual materials. These allegations were supported by their daughter Jennifer.
On September 7, 2011, Steven Powell was arrested on charges of voyeurism after he was caught photographing his neighbors' children through their bathroom window. He was found guilty and served a two-year prison sentence. On October 27, 2014, the Pierce County, Washington, prosecutor's office announced that Steven Powell’s possession of child pornography charge had been reinstated.
Susan Powell's disappearance
The morning of December 6, 2009, Susan (then 28 years old) and her two sons attended church services at the Hunter 36th LDS Ward / stake building. A neighbor visited them at their home in the afternoon, leaving around 5 p.m.
At first, the entire Powell family — Susan, Josh and their sons Charlie and Braden (ages 4 and 2) — were reported missing on December 7, 2009, by family members. Josh Powell's mother and sister went looking for the family at their home, which is in a suburb of Salt Lake City, shortly after being informed that the children had not been dropped off at daycare that morning. They called the police when they failed to make contact with Josh and Susan. The police broke into the home, fearing that they might be victims of carbon monoxide poisoning. They found no one inside but noticed two fans blowing on a wet spot on a carpet in the home. Susan Powell did not show up at her job at Wells Fargo Financial on December 7; her purse, cell phone, and car were all found at the home.
Later that day, at about 5 pm, Josh Powell returned home with the two children and was taken to the police station for questioning. He claimed he had left Susan sleeping at home shortly after midnight on December 7, and had taken his boys on a camping trip to Simpson Springs Campground in western Utah.
Police and neighbors labeled Susan's disappearance "suspicious" and authorities began investigating. Authorities searched the Powell home on December 9, removing some items. Among the findings during the investigation were traces of Susan's blood on the floor, life insurance policies on Susan for US$1.5 million, and a handwritten letter from Susan describing a turbulent marriage and expressing fear for her life. Documents were released in 2013 regarding DNA testing of blood samples which were taken from Josh and Susan's home in 2009. One blood sample matched Susan, and another sample did not match either Josh Powell or Charles Cox, who were tested at the same time, indicating the blood came from an "unknown male contributor".
In August 2012, police in West Valley City released documents showing how shortly after Susan's disappearance, Joshua took actions that police regarded as highly suspicious. Joshua "did not appear to be concerned about [Susan's] welfare" when first questioned by police; he liquidated her retirement accounts on December 17, 2009; he cancelled his wife's regularly scheduled chiropractic sessions shortly after her disappearance and withdrew his children from daycare; and he had spoken to coworkers about how to hide a body in an abandoned mineshaft in isolated desert of western Utah.
Police interviewed Josh Powell and their eldest son, Charlie. The child confirmed that the camping trip Josh described took place; however, unlike his father, he stated that Susan had gone with them and she did not return. Weeks after Susan's disappearance, a teacher reported that Charlie said his mother was dead. The parents of Susan Powell said that while at daycare several months after Susan's disappearance, Braden drew a picture of a van with three people in it, and told carers that "Mommy was in the trunk".
West Valley City Police Captain, Tom McLachlan, initially told the media that authorities planned to re-question Josh Powell. Police also subpoenaed all footage and interviews (aired and unaired) of Josh Powell from local television stations. On December 14, Josh Powell retained an attorney in connection with the investigation, and police said that he grew increasingly uncooperative with the investigation.
On December 18, Josh Powell took his sons to Puyallup, Washington, to stay with his father, Steven Powell, for the holidays. By December 24, the police considered Josh Powell to be a person of interest in the investigation.
On January 6, he returned with his brother Michael to pack the family’s belongings, indicating he was moving permanently to Washington.
Developments in 2010–2011
In January 2010, Josh Powell moved to Puyallup, Washington, where he occupied a home with his sons and father, Steve Powell, and indicated that he would rent out the house in Utah. It was reported that he returned to his hometown of Puyallup after he had lost his job.
In early 2010, the website SusanPowell.org was established. Described as "the official website of Susan Powell," the site's anonymous entries described Josh as a "loving father" and "grieving husband who was the subject of a smear campaign" by members of Susan's family, his sister Jennifer Graves, and the LDS Church to which Josh and Susan belonged. Additional pages on the site suggest that Susan's disappearance might be connected to the disappearance of Utahan Steven Koecher, an erstwhile Salt Lake Tribune contributor who vanished the same week as Susan, and that Susan and Koecher had perhaps run off to Brazil together. According to Salt Lake City news resources, the website was "widely believed to be written by Josh and his father".
In late 2010, Josh and Steven Powell claimed that Susan had abandoned her family due to mental illness and that she had left with another man. Susan's family rejected these claims as being "unsupported" by any evidence.
On September 14, 2011, Utah authorities discovered what they believed might have been a gravesite and human remains while searching Topaz Mountain, a desert area near Nephi, Utah, that Josh had frequented as a campsite. Excavation of the Topaz Mountain site found no human remains. There were signs of recent soil disturbance and shoveling, but after digging a few feet down, police were unable to find any remains, in spite of careful sifting of the soil. Federal anthropologists also ruled out the possibility of the site's being an ancient burial ground. Police continued to examine the site for a time, but offered no explanation as to why they previously announced the finding of remains when none had actually been confirmed. Authorities said they were following a scent detected by their sniffer dogs.
Relationships between and within the Powell and Cox families had become increasingly hostile. After a police raid in their home in 2011, both Josh Powell and his father Steve spoke to major news outlets regarding journals that Susan had allegedly written about the relationship between her father-in-law Steve Powell and herself. Steve Powell claimed that he and Susan had been falling in love prior to her disappearance, and he cited the content of the journals (written when Susan was a teen) as evidence to support his theory that she was mentally unstable and could have run away with another man.
On September 22, 2011, Steve Powell was arrested on charges of voyeurism and child pornography. Police say he had secretly videotaped numerous women and young girls, including Susan Powell. John Long, assistant Attorney General for Washington State, said that Josh Powell was a "subject" in the child porn investigation. A friend of Steven Powell claimed that Steven was preoccupied with pornography and "was hung up on [Susan] sexually". After Susan's disappearance, the friend reported Steven's apparent obsession with Susan to the police.
On September 23, 2011, a judge issued a permanent injunction forbidding Josh and Steven Powell from publishing any material from Susan's journals, ordering the pair to either return or destroy any journals already published.
Chuck Cox (Susan Cox Powell's father) filed for custody of the children the day after Steve Powell was arrested. A Washington court eventually granted Cox temporary custody of the children. The court said that Josh would have to move out of his father's home if he wanted to regain custody of his children, so he rented a house in Graham, Washington. However, authorities later alleged that he had never actually moved into that house, that he merely made it appear as if he had satisfied the court's instructions while continuing to reside at his father's home.
In late September 2011, Josh Powell's sister, Jennifer Graves, stated that she believed Josh was "responsible for his wife's disappearance". His other sister, Alina, had been suspicious of him as well; however, she later withdrew her suspicions and felt that Josh had been unduly harassed by the investigation.
By the end of September 2011, West Valley City had spent more than half a million dollars on the case. On September 28, 2011, Mayor Mike Winder indicated that he felt that the case was worth the expense. He stated, "We feel that we are getting to that tipping point where we have more hot evidence than we have had in the past two years", and that the case was moving forward.
Psychological evaluations/Early 2012
In late 2011, Josh Powell underwent a series of court-ordered evaluations in Washington. The evaluations by James Manley determined that Joshua had adequate parenting skills, a steady employment history and no criminal record or history of violence/abuse. There were nonetheless multiple causes for concern and continued monitoring. These concerns included the ongoing missing person and child pornography investigations, a failure by Josh to admit normal personal shortcomings, some overbearing behavior with his sons, and Joshua's persistent defensiveness and paranoia (attributed to the police and media attention in conjunction with underlying narcissistic traits). The initial recommendation was for Joshua to have visitation with his sons several times a week, supervised by a social worker.
In the last week of January 2012, police in Utah informed authorities in Washington of the discovery of about 400 images of simulated child pornography, bestiality and incest pornography on Joshua's computer. The images, while not illegal due to their depiction of simulated sex acts in a hand-drawn, or cartoonish 3-D style, were cause for "great concern" to the evaluator particularly given Joshua's earlier denial of possessing any such pornography. Joshua Powell was recommended to receive a more thorough psychosexual evaluation and polygraph, but Manley suggested no change in the visitation schedule with the Powell boys.
Death of Josh Powell and sons
On February 5, 2012, a social worker called 911 after bringing Braden and Charlie Powell to a supervised visit at their father's house in Graham, Washington. The woman, who was supposed to monitor the visit between Josh Powell and his children, said he grabbed the children and would not let her in the door. Soon thereafter, the house exploded, killing Josh and the two children. Local authorities treated the case as a double murder-suicide, saying that the act appeared to have been deliberate.
When authorities notified Steven Powell, who was in jail, he "didn't seem very upset by the news, but was angry towards authorities who notified him". Two weeks later, Steven invoked his Fifth Amendment right to not answer questions about the Susan Powell case. Chuck Cox and others have stated they believe that Steven Powell knows what actually happened to Susan. Steven Powell was convicted of voyeurism charges in May 2012 in a trial which largely skirted the issue of Susan's case.
After a relatively brief investigation, officials confirmed that the explosion had been deliberately planned. The official cause of death for Josh and the two boys was determined to be carbon monoxide poisoning, though the coroner also noted that both children had significant chopping injuries on the head and neck. A hatchet was recovered near Josh's body, indicating that he had attacked the boys with it before being overwhelmed by smoke and fumes. The fire investigation also found two five-gallon cans of gasoline on the premises, as well as evidence that gasoline had been spread throughout the house. Friends and relatives of Josh Powell told authorities that he had contacted them by email minutes before the incident to say goodbye. Some of them, including his pastor, received instructions about finding his money and shutting off his utilities. Records also showed that Josh had withdrawn $7,000 from his bank account and had donated his children's toys and books to local charities the day before the incident. Josh named his brother, Michael, as the main beneficiary of his life-insurance policy.
On February 11, 2013, approximately one year after the death of Josh and his sons, Josh's brother Michael Powell took his own life in Minneapolis where he had moved for graduate school. He jumped from the roof of a car parking structure. Police had questioned Michael several times in 2012 after discovering – two years after the fact – that Michael had abandoned his car in a junkyard in Oregon several weeks after Susan Powell's disappearance; Michael was "evasive" about the incident. Utah authorities have since said they believe that Josh and Michael were accomplices in the murder of Susan Powell.
In a February 2013 interview, psychologist James Manley, who had conducted the 2011/2012 evaluations of Joshua Powell for Washington authorities, expressed that he had felt Powell was possibly involved in his wife's disappearance. However, Manley did not mention these suspicions in his report because they were beyond the scope of his duties and because Joshua had not been charged with any wrongdoing.
On May 21, 2013, West Valley City police announced that they had closed the active investigation into Susan Powell's disappearance. Shortly after, a hand-written will assumed to have been written by Susan was found in a safety deposit box. It contained the line: "If I die, it may not be an accident, even if it looks like one," and instructed the reader not to show her husband the will. A video also surfaced of Susan surveying her home and the destruction of some of her property. An excerpt: "And I had necklaces too, wherever those are [inaudible] got in a rage, as you can see, and broke this, there's studs and pearls and opals in there, broke those and threw all my DVDs and made a mess because he was angry at me about a year or two back," she said.
Jennifer Graves and co-author Emily Clawson wrote a memoir about her suspicions of Josh and her tumultuous family history. The memoir was published in June 2013 as "A Light In Dark Places". Graves was inspired to write the book, she says, "to help other people to recognize abuse in either their own relationships or relationships around them, because it's not always completely apparent."
In March 2015, Chuck Cox won a protracted court battle over the control of Susan's estate. Joshua's mother and his sister Terica had sought to have Susan declared legally dead to collect life insurance, but Chuck Cox ultimately gained full control of the estate.
Steven Powell served 30 months in prison on the voyeurism charge, and was released in 2014. In July 2015, prosecutors successfully asked a judge to reconsider the child pornography charges against Powell that were dismissed in 2011. Steven Powell was convicted on the charges in August 2015, and was sentenced to five years imprisonment. Susan remains a missing person.
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[...] Troyer said that minutes before the fire, Powell sent emails to several people saying, "I'm sorry. Goodbye." To others, including his cousins and pastor, he sent longer emails, with instructions such as where to find his money and how to shut off his utilities.
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