Ep 8: Wearing a Wire

Josh Powell’s estranged older sister, Jennifer Graves, suspected from the very day of Susan Powell’s disappearance that Josh had killed his wife.

Her suspicion only grew in the weeks that followed, as Josh made a hasty retreat from the West Valley City, Utah home the couple had shared for five years. He all but abandoned the house, in favor of living with his father, Steve Powell, in the community of South Hill on the outskirts of Puyallup, Washington.

Jennifer Graves Josh Powell missing mom Susan Cox Powell
This Jan. 27, 2010 photo shows Jennifer Graves hugging JoVanna Owings, the last person to see Susan Powell alive, outside Josh and Susan Powell’s West Valley City home. Photo: Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Jennifer Graves remained in contact with West Valley City police, sharing her impressions and feelings about her brother.

“I kept reaching out trying to reassure them that I was on their side because I knew that they were looking for the truth, and I felt like Josh wasn’t being forthcoming with the truth,” Jennifer said in an interview for the Cold podcast.

Kirk Graves’ Business Trip

On Jan. 13, 2010, Jennifer Graves learned that her husband Kirk Graves would be traveling to the Seattle area on business at the end of the following week.

“I suddenly had this idea that I needed to go, too. And that we needed to go and confront Josh, and see if we could get him to confess,” Jennifer said.

She called Ellis Maxwell, the lead detective on the Susan Cox Powell missing persons case, and asked if confronting her brother would interfere with the investigation. Ellis told Jennifer he couldn’t stop her, but it was a risky proposition.

“That right there tells me there is no doubt, there is no doubt in this sister’s mind that her brother’s responsible.”

Ellis Maxwell

The idea continued to circulate in Jennifer’s mind. She talked the idea over with her cousin.

“We’re just bouncing some ideas off and I’m like, ‘What if I got wired? What if the police were like behind this and actually wired me and we got, like, evidence,’” Jennifer said.

Jennifer called Ellis again.

“It was great,” Ellis said. “I’ll never forget when Jennifer came to me with that proposal. I’m not going to lie, I kind of got a smile on my face and I was like ‘I like this.’”

Josh Powell police interview interrogation missing wife
Josh Powell underwent an hours-long interview with West Valley City police on Dec. 8, 2009, the day after his wife Susan Cox Powell vanished. Image: West Valley City, Utah police

Josh had not cracked under the pressure of two police interviews on Dec. 7 and 8, 2009, the day of and the day after his wife’s disappearance. Ellis believed Josh might react differently when confronted by his own sister.

“She’s a strong person and determined, focused but I think more importantly for me is she knows Josh and she knows Josh better than any of us,” Ellis said, “probably better than Susan did.”

Two-Party Consent

In order for police to wire Jennifer Graves, they needed to secure a warrant that would allow them to break what’s known as the two-party consent rule. Washington law requires all people involved in a recording be informed of and consent to their being recorded.

“Because of that, you really got to jump through a lot of hoops and your warrant’s got to have the right language,” Ellis said.

Ellis pitched the idea of sending Jennifer in wearing a wire to his superiors. They met with the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office, as well as the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office in Washington. The agencies coordinated to secure the warrant and plan the operation.

“We had all the different contingency plans in place and the ‘What if this, what if that,’ so it took some time to work through all of that,” Ellis said.

“If those words are said, they’ll be rushing in. Okay, good to know.”

Jennifer Graves

When Kirk and Jennifer arrived in Washington, police briefed them on the plan. Both signed consent forms before police placed two recording devices on Jennifer. They placed a GPS tracker in the trunk of Jennifer and Kirk’s rental car.

They also provided Jennifer with code words to use in case the situation became violent.

When Jennifer and Kirk headed to her father’s house on the afternoon of Jan. 22, 2010, Pierce County deputies staged nearby, ready to swoop in at the first sign of danger. A police helicopter orbited above.

Jennifer Graves Wire Recording

Jennifer and Kirk Graves arrived at the Steve Powell house around 5:25 p.m. All of Jennifer’s siblings — Josh, John, Michael and Alina — were there. So where Josh and Susan’s sons, Charlie and Braden.

“Relations between my family and I were already strained,” Jennifer said. “So the fact that I would show up is probably a big red flag to them already.”

Still, the situation remained civil as Jennifer played with the boys. Steve Powell invited Jennifer and Kirk to stay for dinner. Josh joined them and spent time talking about his financial troubles and his recent move away from Utah.

Josh did not mention his wife’s disappearance or seem in any way distraught about the events of the prior month.

“It’s the elephant in the room that you completely avoid. Except you have to skirt around it because it’s taking up so much room,” Jennifer said.

After dinner, Jennifer pulled Josh into Steve’s office and began telling her brother that rumors were circulating he’d soon be arrested for Susan’s murder. She advised him to take a plea bargain, to reduce any potential prison sentence.

“No, no. Don’t be ridiculous,” Josh can be heard saying on the wire recording. “I haven’t done anything and there is no plea bargain.”

In this Jan. 22, 2010 wire recording, Jennifer Graves presses her brother Josh Powell for answers about the disappearance of Susan Powell.

Jennifer questioned Josh about where he had gone with a rental car on the night of Dec. 8 through the afternoon of Dec. 9, 2010. Josh responded “nowhere.”

Jennifer then asked what had happened at Josh and Susan’s house on Dec. 6, 2009, the last day Susan was seen alive.

“My attorney has told me just don’t talk about it, about specifics,” Josh said on the recording.

“Josh’s responses and his behavior and his actions when Jennifer approaches him kind of similar to like the interview and interrogations that we conducted with him, like ‘I can’t talk about it, I’ve gotta go through my attorney,’” Ellis said. “I mean, dude you’re not talking to a cop. You’re talking to your sister.”

Jennifer continued to press Josh for answers, but he did not budge. She blasted him for refusing to help in the search for his missing wife. Josh said he was working on a website and handing out fliers about Susan’s disappearance.

In this Jan. 22, 2010 wire recording, Jennifer Graves tells her brother Josh Powell that he will be separated from his sons for a long time if arrested for the murder of his wife, Susan.

Josh and Jennifer’s dad, Steve, then interrupted their conversation. He told Josh that he needed to go and pick up a cake for Charlie and Braden, who had both recently celebrated birthdays. To police, it sounded as though Steve was attempting to help his son escape a compromising situation.

Soon after, Josh left the house with his brothers, John and Michael.

“They were all just trying to play it cool. Pretend like nothing was happening and that they had nothing to do with it,” Jennifer said later.

Steve Powell Disowns His Daughter

After the Powell brothers left the house, Steve told Jennifer and Kirk it was time for them to leave. On her way out of the house, Jennifer told her father that Josh would “have to enjoy it while he can.”

Steve asked Jennifer what she meant. She responded that it was obvious what Josh had done.

“Excuse me? It’s not obvious to me,” Steve could be heard saying on the recording. “It may be obvious to you, but you might be imagining things Jenny. You’ve always had a hard time with reality.”

Steve Powell home Puyallup Jennifer Graves wire recording
Steve Powell ordered his estranged daughter Jennifer Graves to leave this house following a heated argument on Jan. 22, 2010 and never return. Photo: Sean Estes, KSL 5 TV

The conversation became heated as Jennifer remarked that Josh’s story about taking his sons camping in the middle of the night at the same time Susan disappeared didn’t make sense.

“You are a goddamn f—ing b— is what you are to talk about your brother and my son that way, to make things up,” Steve said.

The youngest of the Powell siblings, Alina, then jumped in to defend Josh. She and Steve both seemed to become upset when Jennifer mentioned that Susan had hated Steve for confessing his love for her.

“Did she tell you that,” Alina shouted, “because she’s a lying b— if she said that.”

The argument ended with Steve ordering Jennifer and Kirk to get off of his property.

“I’m rejecting you out of my family,” Steve said on the recording. “I’ve given up on you Jenny. Just leave. Don’t even bother. Don’t even bother coming back.”

Hear what Jennifer Graves took away from her confrontation with Josh in Episode 8 of Cold: Wearing a Wire.

Episode credits
Research, writing, hosting and production: Dave Cawley
Production assistance: Danielle Prager, Adam Mason
Additional voices: Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell), Eric Openshaw (as Josh Powell), Ken Fall (as Steve Powell)
Cold main score composition: Michael Bahnmiller
Cold main score mixing: Dan Blanck
Supplemental music: Dave Cawley
KSL executive producers: Sheryl Worsley, Keira Farrimond
Episode transcript: https://thecoldpodcast.com/season-1-transcript/jennifer-graves-wearing-a-wire-full-transcript
KSL companion story: https://www.ksl.com/article/46459734/cold-federal-law-enforcement-officer-helped-josh-powell-move

Ep 7: Scouring the Desert

Abandoned mines litter the Great Basin. Could the body of Susan Powell be hidden in one of them?

Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
This abandoned structure sits in Utah’s Gold Hill mining district, near the Utah-Nevada state line. Photo: Dave Cawley, KSL Newsradio

West Valley City police launched an exhaustive effort to scan hundreds of old hard rock mines in the days immediately following the disappearance of Susan Cox Powell on Dec. 7, 2009. The full extent of that search, which began in earnest on Dec. 16, 2009, has never previously been disclosed.

Seeds of Suspicion

The theory that Susan’s husband, Josh Powell, might have deposited her in an abandoned mine rose from several sources.

On the day of Susan’s disappearance, Josh told police detective Ellis Maxwell that he’d gone camping the night before near Simpson Springs with the couple’s two sons. Simpson Springs is the site of an historic stop on the Pony Express Trail and home to a Bureau of Land Management campground. Several abandoned mines sat in close proximity to Simpson Springs.

The next day, Josh and Susan’s 4-year-old son Charlie Powell told another detective  that his mommy had gone camping with them but stayed behind and slept where “the flowers and crystals grow.” Police believed that could’ve been a reference to a mine or to the Dugway Geode Beds, a popular rockhounding site near the Pony Express Trail.

The Powell family had visited the Dugway Geode Beds before.

Josh and Susan Powell brought their boys, Charlie and Braden, to the Dugway Geode Beds during a family camping trip on May 31, 2009. Aerial video: Devon Dewey, KSL

Detectives located a document among Susan’s work files in which she described a family outing to the West Desert in May, 2009. The family had gone hunting for geodes. In the document, Susan also made specific references to visiting Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge and Topaz Mountain.

Susan Powell camping West Desert Pony Express Simpson Springs geode beds
Susan Cox Powell wrote this description about a camping trip with her husband, Josh Powell, and their sons Charlie and Braden in Utah’s West Desert on May 30 and 31, 2009.

On that trip, the Powell family had come within close proximity to many abandoned mines in the Simpson, Dugway, Thomas and Fish Springs mountain ranges.

Wells Fargo Christmas Party

Perhaps the most concerning lead pointing police toward the mines of the West Desert came from one of Susan’s closest work friends, Amber Hardman.

Amber told detectives that during a company Christmas party in 2008, Josh had drawn her husband into a conversation about true crime TV shows.

“I remember hearing him say ‘Those shows are so dumb. Those people always put the bodies in the stupidest places. It’s always so obvious,’” Amber said during an interview for the Cold podcast. “Josh was like ‘if it was me, have you ever been out to the West Desert? There’s mines everywhere. Nobody’s going to find anything out there.’”

By that point at the end of 2008, Susan had already told several close friends that Josh sometimes scared her and that she did not always feel safe with him.

The Many Mines of Utah’s West Desert

The first police searches of Simpson Springs and the Dugway Geode Beds took place on Dec. 9 and 10, 2009, just days following Susan Powell’s disappearance.

Simpson Springs campground West Valley City police search
West Valley City police conducted their first major search for Susan Powell in Utah’s West Desert on Dec. 10, 2009. Photo: West Valley City, Utah police

Clearing hundreds — perhaps thousands — of abandoned mines would require much more time and effort.

The mines of most interest to police were scattered across thousands of square miles of the Great Basin. At the outset, West Valley City detectives lacked the knowledge and experience necessary to safely locate and clear them. They turned to the Utah Department of Natural Resources for assistance.

In 2009, Louis Amodt headed up Utah’s abandoned mine reclamation program. For decades, he’d worked to secure or permanently close abandoned mines. He and another state mine engineer, Tony Gallegos, agreed to help the police.

“There is no closure for the family and that’s the biggest concern.”

Louis Amodt

Both signed nondisclosure agreements, promising not to speak publicly about the effort. They broke their silence for the first time with the Cold podcast in the hopes of showing the scope and scale of the effort to search abandoned mines.

“There seemed to be a public misconception that nothing was going on,” Tony Gallegos said. “We knew better.”

DNR staff put together maps showing mines that Josh Powell might possibly have visited, given the timeline provided by police. Investigators knew Josh had been driving a two-wheel-drive minivan at the time of Susan’s disappearance. It would not have been capable of navigating deep snow or steep, rutted trails.

“From the Simpson Springs where they knew where he was, they put a three-hour driving time,” Louis Amodt said. “What we looked at was the Tintics, the Oquirrh Mountains clear out to perimeter, the edge of it would have been the Gold Hill area out in the Deep Creek Mountains.”

The Secret Search of Abandoned Mines

In early January of 2010, Louis and Tony joined the police for a major, weeks-long operation targeting abandoned mines. They set up shop in a barrack at Dugway Proving Ground, a U.S. Army facility on the edge of the search zone.

The police dressed in plain clothes and drove unmarked vehicles, to avoid offering Josh Powell any clues as to what they were doing. They used ATVs and sometimes snowmobiles to reach locations away from the main roads.

“We expected snow and that our days would start well before daylight and end well after dark,” Louis said “We’d still be out on the ground looking until the very last light and then find your way back in the dark.”

This map shows the locations and descriptions for nearly all mines searched by West Valley City, Utah police between Dec. 16, 2009 and Jan. 20, 2010.

They visually inspected most of the mines using high-intensity spotlights. At shafts too deep to see the bottom, the team broke out a borehole camera. The camera was waterproof, had its own lights and microphone and was attached to a 1,000-foot-long cable.

“We had some ropes and some carabiners and stuff so we could safely walk along the outside of the shaft and position so the camera would go right down the center of the shaft,” Tony said. “Our instructions were if we actually saw anything we were just going to hold off there and then let the detectives comment on the recording if they wanted to.”

This Jan. 6, 2010 video shows West Valley City police and Utah Department of Natural Resources staff using a borehole camera to inspect the Tintic Retribution mine near Eureka, Utah for the body of Susan Powell. Video: West Valley City, Utah police

On occasion, the searchers physically entered the old workings. That brought with it some significant risks.

“The collar — the area right around the opening to the mine — is very unstable. Rocks fall down. There are animals in there. I’ve had rattlesnakes and cougars and things like that inside but then also a bigger concern is that we always carry an air monitor to monitor oxygen levels,” Louis said.

West Valley City police abandoned mine Susan Powell
This Jan. 13, 2010 photo shows police using a spotlight to visually inspect a mine near the Pony Express Trail west of Lookout Pass for the body of Susan Powell. Photo: West Valley City, Utah police

Expanding the Mine Search Radius

Louis and Tony found themselves phased out of the search effort as the police grew more proficient at the job.

In March of 2010, police focused on the Gold Hill region south of Wendover, Utah. They also visited sites in the southern end of the Simpson Mountains, which they’d been unable to reach in January due to deep snow.

“[We] knew that they were putting some serious effort into looking at all these places, exploring every angle and all the clues they had,” Tony said. “That was sort of like ‘these guys, they’re doing a much better job than the public had an idea.’ They were doing their best.”

In August and September of 2010, police searched mines in the Silver City area of the East Tintic Mountains. In November, they focused on mines north of Eureka, Utah.

This map shows the locations and descriptions for nearly all mines searched by West Valley City, Utah police between Nov. 4, 2010 and Nov. 16, 2010.

Shifting Focus Away from Abandoned Mines

The mine searches wound down toward the end of 2010, as other investigative leads began casting doubt on the theory that Josh had deposited Susan in the West Desert.

Police did conduct several additional searches in the area, including one very public search of mines around Ely, Nevada in August of 2011, based on information gathered from Josh’s computers.

Josh killed himself and his boys on Feb. 5, 2012. No formal searches of abandoned mines are known to have occurred since that time.

In May of 2013, West Valley City police declared the case cold and released a redacted copy of their case file. It included descriptions and photos of most of the mines that had been searched.

However, the specific locations for most all of the mines were omitted. Cold later requested GPS files or precise coordinates under GRAMA, Utah’s public records law. West Valley City police responded that they were unable to locate those GPS files or any other documents containing those coordinates. Cold was later able to obtain detailed GPS data for the mine searches from an outside source.

For Louis Amodt and Tony Gallegos, questions lingered about some of the mines they were not able to conclusively clear.

“You still wonder, still wonder what happened,” Tony said. “Where is Susan Powell?”

“Nobody will probably ever have the answers,” Louis said.

Hear more about the secret mine searches in episode 7 of Cold: Scouring the Desert.

Episode credits
Research, writing, hosting and production: Dave Cawley
Production assistance: Danielle Prager, Adam Mason
Additional voices: Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell), Eric Openshaw (as Josh Powell), Ken Fall (as Steve Powell)
Cold main score composition: Michael Bahnmiller
Cold main score mixing: Dan Blanck
Supplemental music: Dave Cawley
KSL executive producers: Sheryl Worsley, Keira Farrimond
Episode transcript: https://thecoldpodcast.com/season-1-transcript/scouring-the-desert-abandoned-mine-full-transcript
KSL companion story: https://www.ksl.com/article/46455768/cold-police-excavated-landfill-during-search-for-susan-powell

Ep 6: Josh in the Wind

Steve Powell wasn’t keen on having police visit his house.

It was Dec. 17, 2009, 10 days since his daughter-in-law Susan Powell had vanished from the West Valley City, Utah home she shared with Steve’s son, Josh Powell. Detectives had traveled from Utah to Puyallup, Washington to meet with Steve Powell face-to-face. They wanted to see what, if anything, he knew.

Josh Powell was already the prime suspect in his wife’s disappearance and presumed murder. West Valley City police didn’t know it, but Josh was that same day seeing a physical therapist for a shoulder injury.

Steve wanted to make sure his conversation with police took place somewhere other than his home.

Steve Powell’s Police Interview

West Valley City police detectives Gavin Cook and John LeFavor traveled to Washington from Utah specifically for the interview. Steve Powell told detectives he was willing to talk, but requested they meet at Pierce County’s South Hill Library.

They agreed and invited a Pierce County Sheriff’s detective, Gary Sanders, to join them there. When Powell arrived, the investigators set out a digital audio recorder.

“Basically, why we’re here today, Steve, is to just get an idea of your thoughts, your relationship with Josh and your knowledge of Josh and Susan’s relationship and just kind of build this puzzle and put it together just so we have information,” Cook said.

Steve was coy at first, offering only vague descriptions of some past “issues” in Josh and Susan’s marriage. He claimed the trouble had all occurred early on, in 2002 and 2003.

That was false. The detectives didn’t know it then, but Powell had spent years writing detailed accounts of Josh and Susan Powell’s marital strife in his personal journals.

Steve Powell journal Susan Powell marriage trouble divorce
Steve Powell wrote this journal entry about his son and daughter-in-law’s marriage on March 30, 2008.

Cook and LeFavor noticed Steve seemed to talk about his daughter-in-law in unusual and sometimes uncomfortable terms.

“When she and Josh and I were together with the boys, it was perfect. I mean it was calm, it was pleasant. She was always nice to me,” Steve said. “She seemed to like me a lot.”

The Unrequited Affection of Steve Powell

Susan Cox Powell did not like her father-in-law Steve Powell, a fact investigators had already learned by speaking to her family and friends.

Steve, though, told the detectives that she had been “very open sexually” when living in his house with Josh in early 2002. In the same breath, he claimed Susan’s membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints led to her repressing a desire to be with him.

When Cook asked Steve if his daughter-in-law had ever physically touched him, he said he would “pass on that question.” Steve later conceded that she had not, but admitted that he had touched her several times under the guise of giving her a massage.

“She’d always sort of wanted me to be the instigator or the aggressor, wanted to think that I was, even though it all started with her as far as I’m concerned.”

Steve Powell

LeFavor asked Steve if there was a chance Susan might have slipped up to Washington to be with him or another man.

“I’d love that,” Steve said. “I loved her dearly as a daughter, I loved her dearly as a woman. I mean, she’s beautiful and yeah, she, I was conflicted about her too, I will admit that.”

Steve then pushed past his earlier hesitation and went on a long monologue about his desire. He explained how he had confessed his love for her in 2003.

“I did not want her to go to Utah and I hoped that there was enough feeling there that she would stay and she got really upset at me,” Steve said. “She would not talk to me for months.”

Steve called the love confession “the worst thing I ever did.” He told the detectives that Josh was at first “clueless” about the supposed chemistry between himself and Susan but learned about it after his 2003 confession.

“I did not think our relationship would ever heal, seriously,” Steve said. “He just said, ‘You’re crazy, you are insane.’”

Steve Powell Consent Search

At the conclusion of their interview, detectives Cook and LeFavor told Steve Powell they wanted consent to search his home.

Steve insisted Susan Cox Powell was not there and, through tears, urged the detectives to come see for themselves.

“I’ll be frank with you,” Cook said, “you’re in love with Susan and I think you have been for awhile. … Those feelings might be able to help us.”

“If they can help you, if there’s something I can do, I will help,” Steve said.

West Valley City police detectives Gavin Cook and John LeFavor answer a question from Steve Powell during a consent search of his Washington home on Dec. 17, 2009.

During the search, the detectives met and spoke with Josh’s younger brother John. However, the other Powell siblings who were still living with Steve, Michael and Alina Powell, were not present. They had traveled to Utah the week prior to support Josh.

The detectives did not locate anything inside the house to indicate Susan Cox Powell was being held there.

Josh Powell Shoulder Injury

On the same day Steve Powell was talking to the detectives in Washington, Josh Powell was visiting a physical therapist in Utah.

A driver had hit the back of Josh’s minivan on Sept. 2, 2009, causing minor damage to the van’s tailgate. Josh did not report the crash to police, but did open a claim with his insurance company.

Josh also went to a clinic that day complaining of neck and back pain. He received a prescription for cyclobenzaprine, a muscle relaxant. He immediately began seeing a chiropractor, though not the same one Susan already frequented.

[Editor’s note: significant new details regarding this crash were reported in the Cold season 1 bonus episode Car Crash Con.]

Susan mentioned the crash in several emails and Facebook messages during September and October of 2009. In one, she described Josh’s injury as “classic whiplash stuff.”

Susan Powell email Josh Powell shoulder injury car crash
In this Sept. 22, 2009 email, Susan Powell described her husband Josh Powell’s injuries from a car crash on Sept. 2, 2009.

Nothing in her messages indicated Josh felt any shoulder pain.

However, an insurance document obtained exclusively by the Cold podcast revealed Josh went to Meier and Marsh Professional Therapies on Dec. 17, 2009, just 10 days following Susan’s disappearance. An examination at that time revealed Josh Powell had a shoulder injury: a rotator cuff strain and likely partial tear of a rotator cuff tendon.

Dr. Peter Chalmers, an orthopedic expert at University of Utah Health, told Cold it would have been very unlikely for a low-speed, rear-end car crash to cause a rotator cuff tear like the Josh Powell shoulder injury.

“It’s really, really, really uncommon from that mechanism,” Chalmers said. “In a younger individual, it’s way less likely that a minor trauma would cause a rotator cuff tear.”

Dr. Peter Chalmers, an orthopaedic expert and shoulder surgeon at University of Utah Health, discusses rotator cuff injuries.

Chalmers also explained it would be very unusual for pain from a rotator cuff strain or tear to suddenly reveal itself more than three months after the initial injury.

“It’s not typically something where there’s a really minor thing and then later on all the sudden it becomes a problem,” Chalmers said. “Typically, the initial injury is associated with a lot of pain and disability and then it gets better.”

Josh billed the physical therapist visit to his auto insurance as part of the ongoing personal injury claim tied to the crash. After moving to Washington in January of 2010, Josh began seeing another chiropractor and continued billing those visits to his auto insurance.

American Family Insurance eventually became skeptical that the ongoing treatments were necessary and ordered an independent medical examination.

Josh Powell shoulder injury rotator cuff tear strain
Josh Powell’s auto insurance provider commissioned this independent medical evaluation to determine if chiropractic treatments he was receiving were appropriately covered under a personal injury claim.

That report, dated March 22, 2010, noted nothing in the records from either chiropractor mentioned Josh complaining of shoulder pain. It also concluded that nothing indicated “how [the shoulder injury] is related to this motor vehicle accident.”

Hear more about the Josh Powell shoulder injury in Episode 6 of Cold: Josh in the Wind.

Episode credits
Research, writing, hosting and production: Dave Cawley
Production assistance: Danielle Prager, Adam Mason
Additional voices: Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell), Eric Openshaw (as Josh Powell), Ken Fall (as Steve Powell)
Cold main score composition: Michael Bahnmiller
Cold main score mixing: Dan Blanck
Supplemental music: Dave Cawley
KSL executive producers: Sheryl Worsley, Keira Farrimond
Episode transcript: https://thecoldpodcast.com/season-1-transcript/josh-powell-in-the-wind-rental-car-full-transcript
KSL companion story: https://www.ksl.com/article/46451476/cold-josh-powell-diagnosed-with-shoulder-injury-10-days-after-wife-disappeared

Ep 5: 10 Minutes

West Valley City police missed their best chance to find Susan Powell — alive or dead — by just 10 minutes.

Those crucial minutes came on the night of Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2009, the day after Susan’s disappearance.

Her husband, Josh Powell, had spent most of that day at police headquarters. He’d arrived around noon for an interview with detective Ellis Maxwell that had been scheduled to begin at 9 a.m.

The Josh Powell Police Interview

During their nearly four-hour-long talk, Josh Powell told Ellis Maxwell about his overnight trip to Utah’s West Desert. He described taking his boys, Charlie and Braden, out in their minivan between 1 and 2 a.m. the day prior, Monday, Dec. 7, 2009.

A recording of the Dec. 8, 2009 Josh Powell police interview included his description of the camping trip he’d taken on the Pony Express Trail. Video: West Valley City, Utah police

Josh repeatedly expressed concern that he might need a lawyer. Ellis reassured Josh he was free to leave at any time.

“In the beginning no, I don’t care,” Ellis said during an interview for the Cold podcast years later. “You willingly came in. At this point, we’re not going to put handcuffs on you, we’re not going to take you to jail. We don’t have the probable cause.”

“Well, okay, but I do want the lawyer. Because at this point, I definitely want the lawyer.”

Josh Powell

Josh seemed spooked by attention Ellis had placed on his hands the night before. The detective had photographed some small nicks in the skin of Josh’s hands.

“You’ve implied that my hands have some kind of defensive wounds on them just because they’re all cut up,” Josh said. “That’s just the way they are.”

Josh Powell police interview hands skin dry flaky defensive wounds windburn
Detective Ellis Maxwell took these photos of small nicks in the skin of on Josh Powell’s hands on the night of Dec. 7, 2009. Photo: West Valley City, Utah police

Ellis began to ask more pointed questions. In order to make sure Josh’s answers could be used in court, he needed to read Josh his Miranda rights.

“Obviously, I felt he was responsible,” Ellis said. “The last thing I wanted to do was to get some information and then later be in court and it be all redacted because I illegally obtained this information and I violated his civil rights.”

Detective Ellis Maxwell’s Gambit

While Josh and Ellis were speaking, another detective had Josh’s boys, Charlie and Braden, at the South Valley Children’s Justice Center.

During a forensic interview, Charlie Powell told another detective named Kim Waelty that his mom had gone camping with them but stayed behind in the place with the flowers and pretty crystals.

“That night my mom stayed… sleep where the flowers and the crystals grow.”

Charlie Powell

Ellis, learning of this, decided to confront Josh Powell with the information. It was a gamble, as he had no way of knowing whether or not 4-year-old Charlie’s account was reliable.

“Is it the information we need that’s going to get us what we want? No. But I take advantage of it,” Ellis said.

During the Josh Powell police interview, West Valley City police detectives Ellis Maxwell and Tony Martell confronted him with information provided by 4-year-old Charlie Powell. Video: West Valley City, Utah police

Josh told Ellis that wasn’t true, that his son must have lied.

“She was not with us,” Josh said. “I didn’t leave her at the Pony Express. I didn’t just take her out and drop her off or even do anything.”

Search Warrants Following the Josh Powell Police Interview

Detective Ellis Maxwell took Josh Powell’s cell phone. Ellis told Josh he was free to leave, but police were taking his minivan and his home in order to serve search warrants.

A team of West Valley City detectives and forensic specialists headed to the Powell family home on Sarah Circle. Police seized computers, hard drives and cameras. They took the vacuum cleaner and the Rug Doctor, which Josh said he used to clean his couch two nights prior.

Then, they sprayed a product called Bluestar Forensic on the couch. Bluestar can reveal the presence of blood stains, even many that are not visible to the naked eye, by making them glow blue.

A small swipe mark glowed blue on the headrest of the couch. DNA testing later confirmed the blood had come from Susan Cox Powell.

That wasn’t the only bit of Susan’s blood police discovered in the area Josh had cleaned with the Rug Doctor.

The investigators noticed small droplets on a bit of tile flooring next to the couch, each roughly the size of a ballpoint pen tip.

“I would describe it as if you were to lean over to your left and cough or sneeze and you had some sort of blood in your nasal cavity or in your throat or mouth,” Ellis told the Cold podcast.

Susan Powell blood Josh Powell police interview
This Dec. 8, 2009 police photo shows a series of very small blood spots on the tile floor between the front door of the Powell family home and the living room couch. Detectives located the blood following the Josh Powell police interview. Photo: West Valley City, Utah police

The presence of blood in the house wasn’t a smoking gun. The amount of blood was small and at that point, police did not know whose blood it was. They could also not tell how long the blood had been there.

Josh Powell’s Minivan

Ellis Maxwell searched Josh Powell’s minivan as his colleagues were going through the house.

West Valley City’s major crimes unit had crafted a plan. They received permission from a judge to hide a GPS beacon on the minivan.

“We want him to stick around and get back in his minivan and we want to see where he goes,” Ellis said. “Hopefully he returns to the location — wherever he disposed of her.”

Drafting the warrants, having them signed, executing the searches and placing the GPS tracker all took time. Josh waited at the West Valley City police headquarters lobby for several hours.

Josh Powell police interview van search warrant
West Valley City police Sgt. Robert Bobrowski wrote this report describing Josh Powell’s actions on the night of Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2009.

Police records revealed that Josh left without explanation at about 9:30 p.m.

Ten minutes later, at about 9:40 p.m., Maxwell walked into the lobby of the police station to return Josh’s keys and, hopefully, spring the trap.

Josh Powell police interview van search warrant
West Valley City police detective Ellis Maxwell wrote this report showing Josh Powell left police headquarters on the night of Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2009, about 10 minutes before he was to receive the keys to his minivan.

Josh Powell had slipped the snare.

Hear what police found in Josh Powell’s minivan in Episode 5 of Cold: 10 Minutes.

Episode credits
Research, writing, hosting and production: Dave Cawley
Production assistance: Danielle Prager, Adam Mason
Additional voices: Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell), Eric Openshaw (as Josh Powell), Ken Fall (as Steve Powell)
Cold main score composition: Michael Bahnmiller
Cold main score mixing: Dan Blanck
Supplemental music: Dave Cawley
KSL executive producers: Sheryl Worsley, Keira Farrimond
Episode transcript: https://thecoldpodcast.com/season-1-transcript/10-minutes-josh-powell-police-interview-full-transcript
KSL companion story: https://www.ksl.com/article/46446336/cold-experiment-rules-out-possible-origins-of-mystery-evidence-in-susan-powell-case