Disappearance of Susan Powell

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Susan Powell
Susan Marie Cox

(1981-10-16)October 16, 1981
DisappearedDecember 6, 2009 (aged 28)
West Valley City, Utah, U.S.
StatusMissing for 9 years, 10 months and 7 days
Cause of deathMurder (presumed); body never found
ResidenceWest Valley City, Utah, U.S.
Known forMissing person; believed murdered by spouse
Spouse(s)Josh Powell
ChildrenCharles Powell (2005–2012)
Braden Powell (2007–2012)

Susan Cox Powell (October 16, 1981 – c. December 6, 2009) is an American missing person from West Valley City, Utah. Susan's disappearance and presumed murder, as well as the subsequent investigation and events, garnered significant media attention. Her husband, Joshua "Josh" Powell, was named a person of interest in the investigation into her disappearance. However, Joshua was never charged; on February 5, 2012, he 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's parents, Charles and Judy Cox.

On May 21, 2013, West Valley City police closed their active investigation into Susan's disappearance, stating that they believed Joshua murdered her and that his brother Michael had assisted him in concealing her body.[1] Since then, there have been repeated attempts to have Susan legally declared dead.[2]


Joshua and Susan Powell with their sons Charles and Braden

Joshua Powell was born on January 20, 1976, to Steven and Terrica Powell in Puyallup, Washington. Joshua's parents had a dysfunctional marriage, caused in large part by Steven's disaffection with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS Church). According to divorce filings by Terrica in 1992, Steven shared pornography with Joshua and his two male siblings, and refused to teach or enforce limits on certain behaviors. As a teenager, Joshua allegedly killed gerbils belonging to one of his sisters and threatened his mother with a butcher knife. He also attempted suicide on at least one occasion.[3]

By 1998, Joshua was living in Seattle as a student at the University of Washington. It was here that Powell began his first relationship with a young woman named Catherine Terry Everett, who he met at a local LDS ward. After the two moved into an apartment together, Joshua became possessive towards Catherine. "He would have restrictions and limitations on what I could and couldn't do when it came to my family," she later recalled. "If I was going to go visit them, he had to come too. I couldn't go by myself." When Catherine visited a friend in Utah without Joshua, she decided not to return to Seattle and broke up with him over the phone.[4][5]

Joshua met Susan Cox, a classmate at his LDS Institute of Religion course, during a dinner party at his Tacoma apartment in November 2000. The two began a relationship and eventually married at the Portland Oregon Temple in April 2001. Joshua had a bachelor's degree in business and worked for a number of different companies over the years,[6] while Susan, a trained cosmetologist, took up a job with Wells Fargo Investments after the family's relocation to West Valley City, Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake City. The Powells went on to have two sons: Charles, born in 2005, and Braden, born in 2007.

For a brief period following their wedding, Joshua and Susan lived at Steven Powell's home in South Hill, Washington. Initially unbeknownst to Susan, her father-in-law Steven had developed an obsessive infatuation with her, which was only inflamed by their close proximity. Steven followed Susan around the house with a camcorder, used a small mirror to spy on her while she used the bathroom, stole her underwear from her laundry, read her adult journals, and even posted love songs online under a pseudonym.[7] In 2003, Steven confessed his amorous feelings to a stunned Susan, who rejected him; the encounter was inadvertently captured by Steven's camcorder microphone. The Powells moved out-of-state soon after, partly so Susan could distance herself from Steven.[8]

Susan's journal entries and email correspondence indicated the presence of marital discord.[9] There was tension with Joshua over his refusal to attend church services with Susan and their children, and over his continued contact with Steven despite his father's ongoing advances towards Susan.[10] Susan's friends also pointed to Joshua's extravagant spending habits and to his "extremely controlling" behavior towards his wife. Joshua filed for bankruptcy in 2007, declaring over $200,000 in debts.[11] Susan recorded a video in July 2008 surveying property damage she attributed to Joshua, 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."[12]


On the morning of December 6, 2009, Susan, Charles and Braden attended church services. A neighbor visited them at home in the afternoon, leaving about 5:00 p.m.[13]

At first, the entire Powell family was reported missing on December 7 by relatives.[14] Joshua's mother Terrica and sister Jennifer Graves went looking for the family at their house 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 Joshua and Susan. The police broke into the house, fearing that they might be victims of carbon monoxide poisoning. They found no one inside, but noticed two box fans blowing at a wet, freshly cleaned couch in the house.[15] Susan did not show up at her job on December 7; her purse, wallet, and identification were all found at the house. Her cell phone was later found in the family's only vehicle, a minivan, that Joshua had been using.[16]

Later that day, at about 5:00 p.m., Joshua returned home with the two boys 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 in western Utah.[15] Police visited Simpson Springs on December 10, but found no evidence of the campsite that Joshua had described.[17] They also found it suspicious that Joshua would take his young boys out camping after midnight when he was scheduled to go to work at his job just hours later. Joshua had not told his boss that he would not be coming into work that day, and explained to police it was because he had thought it was Sunday rather than Monday.[18]


Upon searching the Powell residence on December 9,[17] investigators found traces of Susan's blood on the floor, life insurance policies on Susan for US$1.5 million, and a handwritten letter from Susan expressing fear for her life.[19] DNA test results, released in 2013, matched one blood sample with Susan, while another sample was determined to have come from an "unknown male contributor".[20]

In August 2012, West Valley City police released documents showing that Joshua took actions that were regarded as highly suspicious following Susan's disappearance. Powell "did not appear to be concerned about her welfare" when first questioned by police;[citation needed] he liquidated her retirement accounts; he cancelled her regularly scheduled chiropractic sessions; and he withdrew his children from daycare. Powell had previously spoken to coworkers about how to hide a body in an abandoned mineshaft in the western Utah desert.[21]

Police interviewed the family's eldest son, Charlie,[22] who confirmed that the camping trip Joshua described took place;[23] however, unlike his father, he stated that Susan had gone with them and she did not return.[19] Weeks after her disappearance, a teacher reported that Charlie had claimed that his mother was dead.[19] Furthermore, Susan's parents, Chuck and Judy Cox, claimed that while at daycare several months after the disappearance, Braden drew a picture of a van with three people in it, and told carers that "Mommy was in the trunk".[24]

Investigators informed the media that they planned to question Joshua again,[25] and subpoenaed all footage and interviews (aired and unaired) of Joshua from local television stations.[26] On December 14, Joshua retained an attorney in connection with the investigation,[17] and police said that he grew increasingly uncooperative.[23][27] A few days later, he took his sons to Puyallup to stay with Steven for the holidays. By December 24, Joshua was considered a person of interest in the investigation.[28] On January 6, he returned with his brother Michael to pack the family's belongings, indicating he was moving permanently to Puyallup.[29]

Developments in 2010–2012[edit]

The Powells lived in West Valley City, Utah when Susan disappeared in 2009. Joshua Powell killed himself and their children Charles and Braden Powell in South Hill, Washington in 2012.

In Puyallup, Joshua occupied a home with his two sons, his father Steven,[17][30] his brothers Michael and Jonathan, and his sister, Alina. Joshua indicated that he would rent out his house in Utah.[31] It was reported that he returned to Puyallup after he had lost his job.[32]

Soon afterwards, the website SusanPowell.org was launched. Described as "the official website of Susan Powell," the site's anonymous entries defended Joshua as the victim of a smear campaign by Susan's family, his sister Jennifer, and the LDS Church.[33] Additional posts also speculated that Susan's disappearance was connected to that of Steven Koecher, a Salt Lake Tribune journalist who vanished the same week as Susan, and that the two had run off to Brazil together.[34] Joshua and Steven were widely believed to have written these posts.[35] In late 2010, both men 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.[30]

Investigators' scrutiny extended to Steven Powell upon learning from a family friend that he had been obsessed with his son's wife. Computer images seized from Steven's house in 2010 turned up 4,500 images of Susan taken without her knowledge, including close-ups of specific body parts.[36][37] Police also turned their attention to Michael Powell after learning that he had sold his broken-down 1997 Ford Taurus to a wrecking yard in Pendleton, Oregon, shortly after Susan's disappearance, and had later ordered satellite images of the lot. When police found the car, a sniffer dog indicated that a decomposing human body had been in the trunk. DNA tests on the car proved inconclusive.[38]

On September 14, 2011, Utah authorities discovered a possible gravesite while searching Topaz Mountain, a desert area near Nephi that Joshua had frequented as a campsite.[23] 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 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.[39]

Relationships between and within the Powell and Cox families became increasingly hostile. After a police raid in their home in 2011, both Joshua and Steven spoke to major news outlets regarding journals that Susan had allegedly written about the relationship between Steven and herself. Steven 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 teenager) as evidence to support his theory that she was mentally unstable and could have run away with another man. A judge issued a permanent injunction forbidding Joshua and Steven from publishing any material from Susan's journals, ordering the pair to either return or destroy any journals already published.[40]

On September 22, Steven was arrested on charges of voyeurism and child pornography after police found evidence that he had secretly videotaped numerous women and young girls, including Susan. John Long, assistant Attorney General for Washington State, said that Joshua was a "subject" in the child pornography investigation.[41] A friend of Steven claimed that he was preoccupied with pornography and "was hung up on [Susan] sexually".[37] Chuck Cox filed for custody of Susan's children the day after Steven was arrested. A Washington court eventually granted Cox temporary custody of the boys,[42] ruling that Joshua would have to move out of Steven's home if he wanted to regain custody. Joshua rented a house in South Hill, Washington, but authorities later alleged that he had never actually moved into that house, merely making it appear as if he had satisfied the court's instructions while continuing to reside at Steven's home.[43]

In late September 2011, Joshua's sister Jennifer stated that she believed Joshua was "responsible for his wife Susan Powell's disappearance".[44] His other sister Alina had also been suspicious of him as well; however, she later withdrew her suspicions and felt that Joshua had been unduly harassed by the investigation.[45] By this time, West Valley City had spent more than half a million dollars on the case. On September 28, Mayor Mike Winder indicated that he felt that the case was worth the expense, stating, "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.[46]

In late 2011, Joshua 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 domestic violence. However, Manley also raised issues concerning the ongoing criminal investigations, Joshua's failure to admit normal personal shortcomings, his overbearing behavior with his sons, and his 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.[6]

In the last week of January 2012, Utah police discovered about 400 images of simulated child pornography, bestiality and incest on Joshua's computer. The images, while not illegal due to their being in a hand-drawn, or cartoonish 3-D format, were cause for "great concern" to Manley, particularly given Joshua's earlier denial of possessing any such material. Joshua was recommended to receive a more thorough psychosexual evaluation and polygraph test, but Manley suggested no change in the visitation schedule with the Powell boys.[6] Meanwhile, Michael established a Google Sites page which claimed that Susan's parents were abusing and neglecting the boys in collusion with child welfare authorities, and that West Valley City police had both mishandled the investigation into Susan's disappearance and were harassing Joshua. Lawyers for the Cox family disputed the allegations, and Google removed the site after a few days due to terms of use violations.[47]

Death of Joshua Powell and sons[edit]

Joshua Powell
Joshua Powell

(1976-01-20)January 20, 1976
DiedFebruary 5, 2012(2012-02-05) (aged 36)
Cause of deathSuicide
ResidenceSouth Hill, Washington, U.S.
Known forMurder of sons and possibly wife
Spouse(s)Susan Cox (1981 - c. 2009)
ChildrenCharles Powell (2005 - 2012)
Braden Powell (2007 - 2012)
Victims2 (possibly 3)
Span of crimes
CountryUnited States
State(s)Utah, Washington
Killed3 (including the perpetrator)
Weaponhatchet, carbon monoxide
Date apprehended
Committed suicide
Charles Joshua Powell
Charles Joshua Powell

(2005-01-19)January 19, 2005
DiedFebruary 5, 2012(2012-02-05) (aged 7)
South Hill, Washington, U.S.
Cause of deathMurder (asphyxiation and stabbing)
ResidenceSouth Hill, Washington, U.S.
Known forVictim of homicide
Braden Timothy Powell
Braden Timothy Powell

(2007-01-02)January 2, 2007
DiedFebruary 5, 2012(2012-02-05) (aged 5)
South Hill, Washington, U.S.
Cause of deathMurder (asphyxiation and stabbing)
ResidenceSouth Hill, Washington, U.S.
Known forVictim of homicide

On February 5, 2012, social worker Elizabeth Griffin Hall called 9-1-1 after bringing Charlie and Braden to a supervised visit at Joshua's house in South Hill. Hall, who was supposed to monitor the visit between Joshua and the boys, reported that he grabbed them and would not let her in the door.[48] Soon thereafter, the house exploded, killing Joshua and the two children. Local authorities treated the case as a double murder-suicide,[49] saying that the act appeared to have been deliberate.[50]

When authorities notified Steven, who was in jail, he "didn't seem very upset by the news, but was angry towards authorities who notified him".[51] Two weeks later, Steven invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to answer questions about the Susan Powell case. Cox and others have stated they believe that Steven knew what actually happened to Susan.[52] Steven was convicted of voyeurism charges in May 2012 in a trial which largely skirted the issue of Susan's case.[53]

After a relatively brief investigation, officials confirmed that the explosion had been deliberately planned. The official cause of death for Joshua 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 Joshua's body, and investigators believe that he attacked the boys with it before being overwhelmed by smoke and fumes.[54] 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 Joshua 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.[55] Records also showed that he 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.[56] Joshua named Michael as the main beneficiary of his life insurance policy.[1]

Charles and Braden are buried at Woodbine Cemetery, which also contains a memorial for their mother. Joshua's remains were cremated.


On February 11, 2013, approximately one year after the death of Joshua and his sons, Michael took his own life in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he had moved for graduate school. He jumped from the roof of a parking garage.[57] Police had questioned Michael several times in 2012 after discovering his abandoned Ford at the Oregon wrecking yard; Michael was "evasive" about why he left the car at that location.[1] Utah authorities have since said they believe that Joshua and Michael were accomplices in the murder of Susan.[1]

In a February 2013 interview, Manley, who had conducted the 2011-2012 evaluations of Joshua for Washington authorities, acknowledged his suspicions that Joshua was involved in his wife's disappearance. However, he 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.[58]

On May 21, 2013, West Valley City police announced that they had closed the active investigation into Susan's disappearance.[59]

Joshua's sister Jennifer wrote a memoir with co-author Emily Clawson about the Powell family's tumultuous history. The memoir was published in June 2013 as A Light In Dark Places. Jennifer 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 with Joshua's mother Terrica, and his sister Alina, over control of Susan's estate. Terrica and Alina had sought to have Susan declared legally dead to collect life insurance, but Cox ultimately gained full control of the estate.[60] The Cox family also sued Washington's Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), claiming that the agency prioritized Joshua's parental rights over the safety of the boys and facilitated their deaths. While a lower court initially ruled against the Coxes, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed this ruling and allowed the case to proceed to trial in January 2019.[61] Susan's family also pressured state lawmakers in Washington and Utah to pass a bill that would restrict or block visitation rights for parents being investigated for murder.

Steven Powell was released from prison on July 11, 2017, after serving a total of seven years following his voyeurism and child pornography convictions.[62] Steven died of natural causes in Tacoma, Washington on July 23, 2018.[63]

Susan remains a missing person, but given the fates of her sons, it is widely believed that she was murdered by her husband. There are calls as of March 2018 to have her declared dead, with the cause being homicide.[2]

In the media[edit]

In October 2018, Crime Junkie podcast covered the case in one of its episodes entitled, "Murdered: The Powell Family." [64]

Dave Cawley, a reporter for a news radio station in Salt Lake City, Utah, began a podcast on the Susan Powell case in November of 2018. [65] The podcast, titled "Cold," offers evidence and information from the case that has never before been made public, such as voice and video recordings, interviews, and more.

In December 2018, the Investigation Discovery channel premiered an 85-minute documentary entitled "Susan Powell: An ID Murder Mystery".[66]

A new documentary entitled "The Disappearance of Susan Cox Powell" premiered on Oxygen in May 2019. The two-night special was touted to be the "definitive" account of the investigation, revealing Steven Powell's never-before-seen videos that were seized by police when he was arrested. The documentary included interviews with many who have never spoken out publicly, including Josh Powell's sister, Alina.[67]

See also[edit]


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  3. ^ Adams, Brooke (10 February 2012). "Divorce documents shed light on Josh Powell's troubles". The Salt Lake Tribune. Retrieved 29 March 2019.
  4. ^ Cawley, Dave (14 November 2018). "Cold Podcast Ep 1: To All the Girls I've Loved Before". KSL-TV. Retrieved 29 March 2019.
  5. ^ "Cold: Josh Powell's ex-girlfriend speaks for the first time". MyNorthwest.com. 14 November 2018. Retrieved 29 March 2019.
  6. ^ a b c Mulick, Stacey (2012). Psychologist's report on Josh Powell released Archived 2016-03-04 at the Wayback Machine, Feb 2012, accessed 22 Aug 2015
  7. ^ "Strange Twist in Susan Powell Case: Father-in-Law's Love Songs". Inside Edition. CBS Television Distribution. Inside Edition Inc. 31 August 2011. Archived from the original on 4 May 2017. Retrieved 8 May 2016.
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  33. ^ Anonymous (archived) "Mormons Mobilize Against The Powell Family"
  34. ^ Anonymous, "Utah's Parallel Disappearances: Susan Powell and Steven Koecher (archived)", dated December 8, 2010, URL retrieved February 7, 2012.
  35. ^ Hunsaker, Brent (June 2, 2010). "Josh Powell leaving Mormonism". ABC 4 News.
  36. ^ Curry, Colleen (7 December 2012). "Stephen Powell Took Thousands of Images of In-Law Susan Powell". ABC News. Archived from the original on 12 May 2017. Retrieved 26 January 2015.
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  40. ^ Curry, Colleen (September 23, 2011). "Susan Powell's Dad-in-Law Took Naked Photos of Young Girls: Police". ABC News. Retrieved September 25, 2011.
  41. ^ Silverman, Stephen M. (September 28, 2011). "Josh Powell Now Subject of Child-Porn Investigation". People.com. Retrieved October 5, 2011.
  42. ^ Adams, Brooke (2011). "Photo of Powell 'noose'; More porn allegations emerge". Salt Lake Tribune, September 29, 2011; URL accessed October 5, 2011.
  43. ^ Merryman, Kathleen (February 14, 2012). "Investigators: Josh Powell used house in South Hill area as ruse". The News Tribune. Archived from the original on February 16, 2012. Retrieved February 16, 2012.
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  50. ^ "US father Josh Powell blows himself up with two young children". The Guardian. London. Associated Press. February 6, 2012. Retrieved February 6, 2012. [...] police said he appeared to intentionally blow up a house with all three inside [...] Ed Troyer, the county sheriff's spokesman, said emails that Powell sent authorities seemed to confirm that Powell planned the deadly blast. Troyer didn't elaborate on the contents of the emails, but said they make police believe "this is intentional, this is planned".
  51. ^ "Blast Kills Missing Woman's Husband, 2 Sons (PHOTOS)". Huffington Post. February 5, 2012.
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  54. ^ KOMO Staff & news services (February 6, 2012). "Autopsies: Powell children suffered 'chop injuries'". Retrieved February 6, 2012. Seven-year-old Charles Powell and 5-year-old Braden Powell died of carbon monoxide poisoning, but an autopsy also showed that both boys were attacked by a hatchet, according to the Pierce County Medical Examiner. [...] While it wasn't the official cause of death, the medical examiner's report showed that both boys had significant "chopping injuries" to the head and neck.
  55. ^ KOMO Staff & news services (February 6, 2012). "Autopsies: Powell children suffered 'chop injuries'". Retrieved February 6, 2012. [...] 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.
  56. ^ "Police piecing together timeline of Powell's movements before explosion". kirotv.com. February 10, 2012. Archived from the original on February 14, 2012. Retrieved February 16, 2012.
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External links[edit]