Ep 4: Find Susan

Detective Ellis Maxwell was getting tired of waiting.

When Josh Powell returned home with his two sons on the afternoon of Monday, Dec. 7, 2009, he found the West Valley City police department awaiting him.

“He clearly can’t get into his driveway with all the cop cars and everything,” Ellis said. “I approach the passenger side of the vehicle and he rolls down the window and I ask him, ‘where the hell have you been?’”

Josh told Ellis he’d gone for an impromptu camping trip in Utah’s West Desert with the boys, ages 2 and 4, even as a significant winter storm swept across the region.

He expressed surprise over hearing his wife, Susan was nowhere to be found.

The Disappearance

Debbie Caldwell, the Powell family’s daycare provider, sounded the alarm that morning when the boys, Charlie and Braden, failed to arrive at her home as scheduled.

Police learned neither Josh nor Susan had showed up for their shifts at work. Calls to both of their cell phones went straight to voicemail.

Officers feared the whole family might have been overcome by carbon monoxide gas. They broke a window to gain access to their home.

Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
This Dec. 8, 2009 image of the Powell house shows the window police officers smashed to gain entry to the home covered by a piece of cardboard. Photo: West Valley City, Utah police

The house, on a quiet cul-de-sac called Sarah Circle, was empty.

There was no sign of a struggle but officers noticed family’s minivan was missing from the garage. When Ellis walked through the house, he found Susan’s purse sitting on the bedroom dresser.

“Her wallet’s in there, her ID’s in there, her keys are in there,” Ellis said. “You could tell there’s no credit cards missing or anything like that. No cash is missing. She had jewelry in the bathroom and the bedroom. None of that appeared to be missing.”

In the living room, Ellis noticed two box fans blowing air at a damp spot on the couch. It appeared as though the couch had recently been cleaned.

Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
This composite of two photos show the locations of box fans that West Valley City police located in Josh and Susan Powell’s living room. They were both pointed at the foot of the couch. Photo: West Valley City, Utah police

An Unlikely Outing

Josh’s return with the boys should have come as a relief. There was a problem though. Susan was still missing. Josh said he had no idea where she was.

Ellis asked Josh to accompany him to the department’s west side substation for an interview that evening.

West Valley City police detective Ellis Maxwell questioned Josh about his camping trip on Monday, Dec. 7, 2009

Ellis pressed Josh for details about the camping trip. Josh said he’d left his home between 1:30 and 2 a.m. that morning, driving his minivan down the Pony Express Trail.

“How far down the Pony Express did you go?” Ellis asked.

“Not very far. Maybe 20 miles. I don’t know,” Josh said.

Josh said he’d pulled off to the south side of the dirt road and made camp at about 4 a.m. He’d slept until about 7 a.m., then woke up and started a fire to make s’mores with Charlie and Braden.

That’s when he said he realized it was Monday, not Sunday, and that he’d missed work. Instead of rushing home to beg forgiveness, he wandered “all over the place” with the boys.

“We drove further out the Pony Express to that campground and we turned around. When it got old, we drove back,” Josh said.

This map shows the route Josh Powell claimed to have traveled to and from the Pony Express Trail on Monday, Dec. 7, 2009. He failed to offer police more specific information about locations he visited in the desert on that day

Recreating the Route

Josh’s story seemed a poor alibi. After all, what father takes his 2 and 4-year-old children out of bed at 2 a.m., to go camping in subfreezing cold?

Surely, Susan would have protested.

In order to test the timeline provided by Josh, I attempted to recreate his trip in early December, 2017.

Josh Powell told police he left his home on Sarah Circle between 1 and 2 a.m. and drove 20 miles down the Pony Express Trail, arriving around 4 a.m. Cold host Dave Cawley reenacted that route in an effort to verify Josh’s story

I departed from Sarah Circle at around 2 a.m., just as Josh said he had. I drove north on 5600 West until I reached I-80, then headed west on the freeway. At Lake Point, I exited the freeway and headed south through the Tooele and Rush Valleys.

A cold wind howled as I turned off Utah State Route 36 onto the dusty, washboarded Pony Express Road. I drove about 20 miles down the dark trail, with only the lights from the nearby Dugway Proving Ground, an Army base, on the horizon.

About a mile or so shy of Simpson Springs, I left the Pony Express Trail on a rocky two-track path and parked near a well-used campfire ring. The 85-mile trek took just shy of two hours.

Like Josh, I went to sleep in the back of my car at about 4 a.m. I awoke about three hours later, bleary-eyed.

Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
This campfire ring sits along a rocky two-track path just north of Simpson Springs. Josh Powell claimed to have camped at a similar spot on the day of his wife’s disappearance. Photo: Dave Cawley, KSL

The trip proved that Josh’s timeline did work.

The Carwash

On his drive home, Josh said he stopped to wash his minivan at a carwash on the north side of Main Street in Lehi. Only one carwash matches his vague description — at the corner of Main Street and 100 East.

Josh Powell told police he stopped to wash his minivan on the drive back from the Pony Express Trail. He couldn’t say exactly where the carwash was, in spite of having been there just hours earlier

Josh cleaning his minivan in Lehi, 30 miles south of his home in West Valley City, didn’t make much sense. Slush, salt and grime still covered the roads from the morning’s snowstorm.

However, it would have been a wise move if he feared the mud splattered on the wheel wells and body panels might give away exactly where he’d stopped in the West Desert.

At the conclusion of their interview, Detective Maxwell asked Josh if he could search his minivan. Josh agreed.

Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
Josh Powell signed this consent form, allowing West Valley City police to search his minivan on the night of Dec. 7, 2009

The minivan was packed with supplies. Those included a shovel, rake, broom, electrical circular saw, folding hand saw, box cutter, gas-powered generator, plastic gas can, space heaters, humidifier, tarps, sled, fire extinguisher and more.

In particular, Maxwell noticed a plastic tote containing camping supplies.

“Just ridiculous amounts of unopened camping equipment that you would find in Kmart or Walmart,” Maxwell said. “This guy has all kinds of stuff back there.”

Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
Police located these camping supplies in Josh Powell’s minivan on Dec. 7, 2009. They appeared to be unused. Photo: West Valley City, Utah police

The most interesting discovery, though, came from the center console.

Maxwell’s partner found a pink Motorola cell phone buried deep in the storage area between the driver and front passenger seats.

“Then I say to him, I’m like, ‘Josh, why do you have Susan’s cell phone?’” Maxwell asked. 

Hear how Josh responded in Episode 4 of Cold: Find Susan.

Ep 3: Faith and Finances

Susan Powell loved to talk.

In her early 20s, Susan learned how to chat with strangers while studying and practicing cosmetology. But as she grew older and experienced deepening dissatisfaction with her marriage, the topics of her conversations became much more personal.

“She was very open, she was like an open book,” coworker Linda Bagley said. “It felt like she really liked me because she would tell me things that you would think that you would only tell someone that you’re close friends [with].”

Seeds of Discontent

Susan and her husband, Josh, were both active members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when they met in October of 2000. They’d married in one of the church’s temples the following April, making vows “for time and all eternity.”

Josh didn’t stick with the religion for long. Within a few years of their marriage, he quit attending Sunday services and pressured Susan to do the same.

Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
Susan described Josh as her “eternal companion” in a November, 2008 letter describing her unhappiness with his falling away from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

She remained committed, both to her faith and to her marriage vows. Susan believed Josh was her eternal companion.

Josh took advantage of his wife’s devotion by exerting tight-fisted control over the family’s finances. He became furious any time Susan spent more than he thought she should on necessities, including food for herself or their two young sons.

She dealt with it by growing a garden.

Susan describes her garden in a 2008 video recording she made in preparation for a possible divorce.

Josh would not even spend on gifts for Susan. He gave her a cheap whiteboard calendar for her birthday in October of 2008. When she unwrapped the gift, she noticed it was damaged.

“The lining was white discolored to yellow in parts, plastic. Which he immediately noticed and said he would fix,” Susan wrote in an Oct. 18, 2008 Facebook message. “I’m wondering if I should do tit for tat and give him a white board ‘to do list’ or something lame like that for Christmas.”

Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
Josh gave this whiteboard calendar to Susan as a birthday gift in October of 2008. It was hanging on the refrigerator when she disappeared 14 months later. Photo credit: West Valley City, Utah police.

Full Disclosure

Susan saw a counselor and encouraged Josh to join her, an offer he most often refused.

On one occasion, Susan’s father Chuck Cox attended a session. The counselor observed that Susan was being abused. Chuck told his daughter he agreed.

Chuck Cox saw his daughter Susan as a victim of abuse, even though Josh did not physically strike her.

Susan’s parents bought her a cell phone, in case she ever needed to make a quick escape. They paid the monthly bill, to prevent Josh from seeing who she called or texted.

Susan Powell opened up to neighbors, relatives and even the occasional stranger about her troubles. She vented about her husband, how poorly he treated her and how much she yearned for him to act more like the man she’d married.

“She did want to make it work,” Bagley said. “Her first part of the married life she said was nice and good and they worked together and he was different. But he started changing and being more strict and just being harder to live with.”

Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
In this April 14, 2009 work email, Susan went back and forth about the state of her marriage.

The Fight

On Friday, June 27, 2008, Susan asked her close friend and neighbor, Kiirsi Hellewell, to come over to the Powell family’s home. Susan handed Kiirsi a stenographer’s notepad. Kiirsi knew how to write quickly using a form of shorthand.

Susan then began to recount the worst argument of her marriage to date. She and Josh had just gone through a shouting match over faith and finances. 

“She was just pacing up and down, and really angry,” Hellewell said. “So angry she couldn’t sit still.” 

Susan said the argument rocked her so deeply, she felt she needed to document it as evidence. 

Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
Kiirsi Hellewell typed up her shorthand notes of Josh and Susan Powell’s argument on June 27, 2008

The next day, Susan drafted a handwritten will while at work. In it, she spelled out a fear for her life. 

“If I die, it may not be an accident, even if it looks like one,” she wrote. “Take care of my boys.”

Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
Susan Powell wrote this last will and testament while at work on June 28, 2008, expressing fear for her life

Susan’s messages to her friends soon displayed hints of that same fear.

Josh had purchased a million-dollar term life insurance policy for her. Susan recognized the purchase made little sense, unless he expected something horrible to happen.

Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
In this Sept. 22, 2009 work email, Susan told a colleague she did not believe Josh was capable of infidelity, but hinted he might have wanted her dead

The Deadline

Susan resolved to make a change.

She began diverting part of her paycheck into a personal account. Against Josh’s wishes, she paid tithing to her church. She bought her own computer, because he wouldn’t let her use his. Susan insisted on spending time with her female friends. Many of those friends encouraged her to leave Josh.

To Susan, it seemed a risky move.

Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
In this Aug. 11, 2008 Facebook message, Susan worried that Josh might do something unpredictable if she demanded a divorce

Coworker Amber Hardman offered to help her escape with the couple’s two boys, Charlie and Braden.

“She was so worried he would track her down no matter what she did,” Hardman said. “It was like she had no way out and I was like ‘He doesn’t know where we live. What if you came to our house and we found somewhere for you to go in another state? He would not know.’ She was like ‘No, he will figure it out. He will find me.’”

Money is control and I’m his asset to be controlled and abused and I’m not allowing that any longer.

Susan Powell

Susan’s emerging independence set her on a collision course with Josh.

“I’m just letting him decide if he’s going to deal with me or not,” Susan wrote in a Sept. 20, 2008 Facebook message to a brother-in-law. “Money is control and I’m his asset to be controlled and abused and I’m not allowing that any longer.”

As 2009 drew to a close, Susan told friends she had set a date. If Josh refused to get back into church and into marriage counseling by the time of their wedding anniversary in April, 2010, she would move forward with divorce.

Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
In this Sept. 18, 2009 work email, Susan floated the idea of setting a deadline for Josh to change his behavior

Then, Susan disappeared.

Paper Trail

Police in West Valley City, Utah used a series of search warrants and subpoenas to obtain copies of Susan’s emails and Facebook messages in the weeks following her December 2009 disappearance. The correspondence provided investigators valuable insight into her state of mind.

Police included redacted versions of those messages when they publicly released their case file in 2013.

The thousands of pages of messages revealed just how isolated, frustrated and trapped Susan felt in the years leading up to her disappearance.

In the time since, many of Susan’s friends came to see lessons in the conversations they once shared with her.

“As much as we all tried to help her get out and talk to her, keep pushing. Keep doing more,” Hardman said. “If you know someone that’s in a bad situation, use Susan as an example. Bad things can happen. You don’t want this to happen to anybody.”

Hear why Susan decided against divorce in Episode 3 of Cold: Faith and Finances.

Ep 2: Wake Up Little Susie

Steven Craig Powell lived much of his life with a camcorder in front of his face.

He was prolific, filling boxes with VHS and Hi8 video cassettes. Many of the recordings were mundane, documenting birthdays, family trips or conversations with relatives.

Others were outright disturbing. Steve’s lens often followed strangers in parking lots. He would zoom in on the bodies of women and girls without their knowledge, from the cover of his minivan.

Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
A still frame from one of Steve Powell’s many videos of women in public. He often recorded people from parking lots using a Hi8 camcorder

Susan Powell, his daughter-in-law, was one of his favorite subjects to film. 

Steve’s Obsession

Steve’s oldest son Josh Powell married Susan Cox in April of 2001. Steve attended wedding events in both Oregon and Washington with his camcorder.

Video of Josh and Susan’s April, 2001 wedding reception in Spokane, Washington recorded by Steve Powell.

“When Josh first brought her home I didn’t think much of her,” Steve later wrote in his journal. “I didn’t think she was that pretty or anything. Now I can’t take my eyes off her.

In 2002, Josh and Susan Powell briefly moved into Steve’s home in South Hill, Washington. The proximity inflamed his infatuation, stoking the embers into outright obsession.

He began following Susan around the house, camera in hand.

Home video recorded by Steve Powell of his daughter-in-law Susan in 2002, as she prepared for work

When Josh graduated from the University of Washington Tacoma business school that year, Steve filmed the entire convocation. His attention frequently turned to Susan.

Video from Josh Powell’s 2002 graduation from the University of Washington Tacoma recorded by his father, Steve Powell.

Steve Powell’s journals revealed even more troubling behaviors. He stole Susan’s soiled underwear from the laundry basket, replacing the pilfered pieces with duplicates.

“Evidently she took note and began noting the arrangement in her laundry hamper and found that it had been gone through. I learned that she was noting these things from Josh,” Steve later wrote in a Jan. 11, 2003 journal entry. “He called and said it appeared that someone was going through her laundry and ‘she didn’t like that.’ So she wanted me to keep her hamper out of sight of the other boys. The fox is in the henhouse, as they say.”

He even used a small mirror to spy on her when she used the bathroom.

Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
Steve’s journal, Jan. 12, 2003

Steve collected Susan’s soiled hygiene products from the trash, placing them in plastic baggies that he marked with the date. His journals revealed he recognized this behavior as aberrant.

“What I’ve written about Susan represents the first time I’ve mentioned fetishes and what might be considered sociopathic. I mean, who looks under the bathroom door with a mirror? I tend to think a lot of guys do,” Steve wrote on Jan. 11, 2003.

Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
A collection of Susan Powell’s undergarments and hygiene products located by police within a locked drawer inside Steve Powell’s bedroom closet in South Hill, Washington on Aug. 25, 2011. Photo courtesy: West Valley City, Utah police

The conduct continued even after Josh and Susan moved into their own apartment. During visits, Steve swiped Susan’s childhood journals and took them home to create digital copies.

He dared to read her adult journal on a number of occasions, but was discouraged to learn Susan did not write about him.

“I am almost a footnote,” Steve wrote in one journal entry. “And with all the other negative comments about me she doesn’t mention a word about my sexual proclivities, which include taking video clips of her from head to foot.”

Filthy Fantasies

In his journals, Steve expressed a desire to have Susan for himself. He recounted explicit daydreams focused on his son’s wife.

I am so madly in love with Susan that I would do something desperate to have her.

Steve Powell

Steve frequently wrote about the contentious nature of Josh and Susan Powell’s marriage. He yearned for them to divorce.

“It’s very problematic to be madly in love with your son’s wife,” Steve wrote on Feb. 24, 2003. “I am so madly in love with Susan that I would do something desperate to have her.”

Steve offered to give Susan a massage during a visit to the apartment she and Josh shared in Yakima that same month. He rubbed her legs, arms and shoulders.

Later that night, he placed his camcorder on a tripod in his hotel room and recounted the experience as he undressed.

Steve Powell gave Susan a massage in February of 2002. Afterward, he recorded himself undressing and describing the experience. This clip has been edited to remove explicit content.

Confession and Rejection

Steve learned in July of 2003 that Josh and Susan Powell were considering taking a new job in Greeley, Colorado. Steve’s journal entries showed the news imparted him with a sense of desperation.

He wanted to confess his feelings.

“I was (and had been all day) going over what to say to Susan. ‘If things don’t work out with Josh would you consider marrying me?,’” Steve wrote on July 8, 2003. “When the possibility of a ‘no’ comes to mind my subconscious mind put a gun in my hand and I shot myself.”

About a week later, on July 13, 2003, Josh and Susan traveled to a trucking firm in Kent, Washington. Josh, interested in obtaining a commercial driver’s license, was receiving instruction from the company.

Steve drove to the trucking company as well, bringing his camcorder.

At one point, as Josh practiced driving a semi, Steve offered to give Susan a ride to her parents’ house in South Hill. She agreed and sat down in the passenger seat of his minivan.

I don’t know where you’re going with this.

Susan Powell

Steve placed his camcorder in a bag but failed to stop the recording. He drove south on Washington State Route 167. The picture on the tape was black, but the microphone captured the conversation.

Susan talked about the motivations for the possible move out of Washington.

Steve couldn’t take it. He fumbled to express his feelings.

“Just having you go away is really, really hard for me because it just seems like, anyway, I’m probably wrong but I’ve really fallen in love with you,” Steve said.

Silence hung, thick in the air. Susan, who was 21-years-old to Steve’s 53, was trapped in the minivan. She tried to change the topic.

Steve wouldn’t allow it.

“Maybe I’ve got the wrong impression from you because, well I guess what I was wanting to really know, because I am going crazy and your leaving just, I can’t think of anything else other than you,” Steve said.

“I don’t know where you’re going with this,” Susan said.

Listen to the rest of Susan’s response in Episode 2 of Cold: Wake Up Little Susie.

Ep 1: To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before

Josh Powell struggled to connect with girls.

He chased a lot of romantic interests as a young man but met with repeated rejection. He had a habit of unnerving the women he pursued.

Josh had only two serious relationships in his adult life: his marriage to Susan Cox in 2001 and his relationship with a young woman named Catherine in 1998.

Yet little has been known about Catherine’s story before now.

Those two relationships bore some striking similarities. Catherine and Susan were each 19 when they started dating Josh. Both were active members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and met Josh at church-related events.

Both soon found themselves trapped by a partner who controlled their personal lives, drained their bank accounts and seemed repulsed by physical affection.

Catherine’s relationship with Josh differed from Susan’s in one critical way: she escaped.

Imagine Catherine’s surprise, then, when she saw her ex-boyfriend’s face on the TV news 10 years later, in December of 2009.

Catherine describes learning of Susan Powell’s disappearance on the news

The Forgotten Ex

I first became aware of Catherine while reading a report prepared by Dr. James Manley, a forensic psychiatrist from Tacoma, Wash. He interviewed Josh in late 2011, as part of an evaluation of Josh’s parenting capacity.

At the time, Josh was the sole suspect in the disappearance and presumed murder of Susan.

He’d lost custody of his sons after police served a search warrant at the home he shared with his father, Steve Powell, in South Hill, Wash. The investigators had located a large cache of voyeur videos created by Steve, calling into question the environment inside the Powell family home.

During the evaluation, Dr. Manley asked Josh about his past relationships. Josh said he’d had one serious girlfriend before getting married. He’d met Catherine at a church function in 1998. They were together for about 16 months.

Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
An excerpt from Forensic Psychologist James Manley’s report on Josh Powell, detailing his past relationship with “Catherine.”

Washington State released Manley’s report after Josh killed himself and his sons, Charlie and Braden, on Feb. 5, 2012. It did not include Catherine’s last name or any other identifying details.

Josh’s Journals

Police in West Valley City, Utah seized a large number of computers and hard drives during their investigation into Susan Powell’s disappearance. Detectives and FBI agents had sifted through terabytes of information, flagging files of interest.

Those files included Josh’s text and audio journals.

Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
A short reference to Josh Powell’s journals discovered among hundreds of pages of West Valley City, Utah police reports from the Susan Powell investigation.

In 2017, I requested copies of those journals under Utah’s public records law, the Government Records Access and Management Act. In response, West Valley City provided a DVD containing more than 3,500 files.

I reviewed each and every one.

The “journals” were not well organized. They were not in bound books. Instead, Josh appeared to have documented his days on individual scraps of paper. He’d later created digital copies of those notes using a flatbed scanner.

Other times, he’d spoken his journal entries into a handheld audio recorder, then used a computer program to covert those recordings to text.

Sometimes I feel like I can’t reach any girls anywhere, that for some reason or another they won’t give me even a chance to go out with them.

Josh Powell audio journal, Dec. 13, 2000

There were unexplained gaps in some of the written journals. Entries from 1998 and 1999 included blank lines where Josh had used correction fluid to white-out references to a specific person.

Based on the time and context, I suspected this was Catherine.

Breadcrumbs to Catherine

Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
A letter from Josh Powell to a friend, July 6, 1998.

A couple of weeks later, Josh again mentioned bringing Catherine to the wedding in an email.

“I have been planning to come on a Greyhound,” Josh wrote. “I have been spending a lot of unbudgeted money lately on Catherine.”

The clincher though came in a brief, handwritten journal entry from the weekend before Thanksgiving, 1999.

Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
Josh Powell’s handwritten journal from Nov. 20, 1999, referencing a meeting with a woman named Catherine Terry and her fiancé.

The next day, Josh added a bit more.

Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
Josh Powell’s handwritten journal from Nov. 21, 1999 describing a meeting with Catherine Terry in Seattle.

Catherine now had a last name.

The Social Network

I typed “Catherine Terry” into Google. The results included references to a woman named Catherine Everett.

Turning to Facebook, I pulled up the page “Friends and Family of Susan Powell.”

Susan’s neighbor Kiirsi Hellewell created the page in the days immediately following her disappearance in December of 2009. It quickly grew to include tens of thousands of members.

I ran a search in the group for the name Catherine Everett. The results included two posts from a woman named Catherine Terry Everett.

Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
Two posts made to the “Friends and Family of Susan Powell” Facebook group by Catherine Everett in 2009 and 2010.

Switching over to Facebook Messenger, I typed out a brief message.

“I’m a reporter with KSL. For the last couple of years, I’ve been researching and writing an investigative podcast about Josh and Susan Powell. As part of that, I’ve obtained files from Josh’s computers dating back to the mid 1990s. I know you had a relationship with Josh back then. You are mentioned in some of these files,” I wrote. “Can we speak? I’m hoping you can help me understand a few things about who Josh was before he met Susan.”

About 30 minutes later, my phone rang.

It was Catherine.

Listen to Catherine’s story in Episode 1 of Cold: To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before.