Ep 16: Chasing Leads

By May 22, 2013, West Valley City police had received more than 860 tips in the Susan Powell investigation.

The tips ran the gamut, from simple suggestions of where detectives might search for the missing mother, to accounts from self-described psychics of discussions with Susan from beyond the grave.

Sifting out legitimate leads from irrelevant information proved a major undertaking, especially as public interest in the case grew. Many of those tips involved sightings of Josh or Susan Powell in places ranging from Atlanta to Alaska.


Flying J​

One of the most perplexing reported sightings occurred much closer to where the Powell family lived. It happened at the Flying J truck stop in Lake Point, Utah, just off of Interstate 80.

Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
The Flying J truck stop in Lake Point, Utah sat along the path Josh Powell claimed to have traveled on his way to the Pony Express Trail after midnight on Dec. 7, 2009. Photo: Dave Cawley, KSL Newsradio

On January 27, 2010, a woman named Denise called police to report having seen Josh and Susan, as well as their sons Charlie and Braden, at the Flying J on the same night as Josh’s winter camping trip on the Pony Express Trail.

Denise described working the register late on the night of Dec. 6, 2009, as a  winter storm began dumping snow.

“It was around midnight, 12:30, and I was busier than normal because of the storm. It was coming down like crazy,” Denise said during an interview for Cold. “I heard, ‘Hey, Charlie!’ and then I’m waiting for a customer and I’m just kinda waiting for a response to that and I didn’t hear a response.”

A few moments later, a man approached carrying a toddler in one arm. With his free hand, he placed rescue tape on the counter. A woman stepped up beside the man and also set down licorice and crackers.

“So I looked up and I made eye contact with her and then the dad said he said, ‘Hang on a minute let me buy this stuff and then we’ll go camping,’” Denise said. “I looked over at the RV islands that was just over my right shoulder, and there was nobody there. There was no RVs or anything. And I thought, ‘Camping? In this?’ So  turned a little bit further and I’d seen the minivan sitting on pump six.”

This map shows the route Josh Powell claimed to have traveled on his trip out to the Pony Express Trail early on the morning of Dec. 7, 2009. The Flying J Travel Center in Lake Point, Utah sits along the route

Denise rang up the items. While she was doing so, the boy in the man’s arm stirred.

“He looked at his mom and I looked at his little nose — he was just such a cute little man, his little nose was all scrunched up — and I said, ‘Well he doesn’t look too happy about going camping,’” Denise said. “She did the mom thing, rubbed his little cheeks and smiled and said, ‘Yeah, he’s pretty tired.’”

The woman took the child from the man and walked over to the doors, where Denise then noticed another, older boy.

The man handed Denise cash to pay for the items and told her to put the change on pump six. Then, he went out into the storm and left.


Unverifiable​

Several weeks elapsed before Denise saw Josh Powell’s face on the news. She believed he was the man she’d seen in the Flying J.

“I am positive. I am positive it was them,” Denise said. “Especially that baby. That little scrunched up nose that was just like Susan’s and her making that direct eye contact with me.”

“They were there. 100% they were there. I believe that in my soul and I will stand by that with my words.”

Denise

However, Denise’s tip proved impossible to verify. West Valley dispatched a detective to interview her.

“When they asked me, ‘What took you so long?’ that was gut-wrenching,” Denise said.

Police sought video surveillance, both from the store and from an ATM in the store.

“Much to my surprise, Flying J only kept their film for ten days and then they would record over it again. So it wasn’t available for them,” Denise said.

Denise provided police a description of what the people she’d seen had been wearing that night. However, by that point, images of the Powell family had circulated in news reports.

Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
Denise, a clerk at the Flying J truck stop in Lake Point, Utah, provided this written statement to police in March 2010. Denise claimed to have seen Josh, Susan, Charlie and Braden Powell in the store on the night of Josh Powell’s winter camping trip. Photo: West Valley City, Utah police

On March 2, 2010, Denise delivered a hand-written statement describing what she’d seen to West Valley police. She never heard back from them.

“I had a lot of anger issues, frustration with them and stuff because I had such valuable information that I felt was discarded,” Denise said. “It’s been very difficult to deal with over the years. I watch these things that they have on TV, all these stories they have on Susan Powell and stuff and it’s like, ‘That is so not true. She was there. I made eye contact with her.’”

The lead investigator on the Powell case, detective Ellis Maxwell, said tips like Denise’s showed why police kept many of the details of their investigation secret.

“The more information that gets out, that’s more information now you have to sift through in these tips and these leads and trying to identify ‘Okay, is this credible information or this information that they’ve obtained because of information that we’ve released?’”


Duces Wild​

One tip that made the news early in the investigation led to a lot of speculation about Josh. It came from a man named Sherman, who was a regular at a strip club called Duces Wild in South Salt Lake, Utah.

Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
Sherman, a patron of Duces Wild, told West Valley City police a man he believed to be Josh Powell came to the club on the afternoon of Dec. 7, 2009 and complained of having had a very bad day. Photo: KSL 5 TV

Sherman phoned police on Dec. 14, 2009, a week following Susan Powell’s disappearance. He told them he’d witnessed a disturbance at Duces Wild on the afternoon of Dec. 7. A man who looked like Josh Powell had told Sherman that he’d had a very bad day and had quite a story to tell.

Over the course of the next several days, detectives interviewed the club’s owner, the bartender and another patron who’d interacted with the ‘bad day’ guy.

They learned the disruptive patron had arrived at the club around 2 p.m. and left at approximately 4:30 p.m.

Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
Patrons at the Duces Wild gentleman’s club in South Salt Lake, Utah told police they’d seen a man who looked like Josh Powell making a ruckus at the bar on the afternoon of Dec. 7, 2009. Photo: KSL 5 TV

Josh Powell’s phone records would later show that he was mobile during that time period, using his phone first in West Valley City and then later in Lehi, Utah. The Duces Wild patron could not have been Josh Powell.

Police did not announce that conclusion publicly.

“It just makes the investigation a heck of a lot easier to move forward when you can keep the evidence closed until you come to a resolution,” Ellis said. “I can only imagine if we didn’t keep those records sealed and all the information in those affidavits was released, we would have probably ended up with thousands of more tips and leads that we would have had of wasted resources on for nothing.”


Hear how one tip about a stripper named Summer sent police on a goose chase in Episode 16 of Cold: Chasing Leads.​

Ep 15: Fall of the House of Powell

West Valley police hopped a plane to Minneapolis, Minn. in October of 2011. They were interested in speaking with Josh Powell’s youngest brother, Michael, about his car.

Weeks earlier, detectives had located and seized Michael’s 1997 Ford Taurus from Lindell Auto, a salvage yard in Pendleton, Ore. Michael had sold the car there for $100 on Dec. 23, 2009, just two weeks after the disappearance of Michael’s sister-in-law, Susan Powell.

Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
From left to right: Michael Powell, Steve Powell, Charlie Powell, Josh Powell, Susan Powell. Photo: Powell family

At the time, Michael was living in Minneapolis. He worked at the University of Minnesota and was also studying cognitive science there.

The detective and lieutenant who traveled to meet Michael did not warn him that they were coming. During their ambush interview, the police asked Michael about his scrapped car and if it had been involved in transporting Susan’s body.

Retired detective Ellis Maxwell, who was the lead detective on the Powell case, said Michael refused to talk.

“He wouldn’t answer any questions and he straight told them, like, even if he thought that his brother was involved he wouldn’t tell us anything,” Ellis said.


Apollo Mapping

On Dec. 3, 2011, two months after the unexpected visit with police, Michael went to the website of a Boulder, Colo. company called Apollo Mapping. He entered his personal information into a contact form, along with the message “I am looking for an aerial photo of Pendleton, Oregon taken in October 2011 or later.”

Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
Michael Powell contacted Apollo Mapping on Dec. 3, 2011, hoping to obtain satellite imagery of Pendleton, Ore. Michael had sold his 1997 Ford Taurus to a scrap yard in Pendleton two years earlier.

Katie Nelson, one of the partners and co-owners of Apollo Mapping, responded to Michael’s message by email a few hours later. She said Apollo’s most recent image of the Pendleton, Ore. area dated back to August 2011. She asked if he would like to purchase that image.

Michael responded in the negative, but said he’d be interested if another image taken later than October 2011 became available.

“When he contacted me I just thought he was just a normal guy,” Katie told Cold. “There was nothing weird about our interaction.”


University of Minnesota

Michael’s email exchange with Apollo Mapping took place on his University of Minnesota email account.

On March 6, 2012, U.S. District Court Judge Samuel Alba signed a search warrant authorizing police access to Michael Powell’s digital data at the university. That included all emails sent and received from his university account since Aug. 16, 2011.

By that point, Josh Powell had been dead for a month, having killed himself and his two sons by setting fire to his rented home in Graham, Wash. Police suspected that Josh might have shared information about Susan’s disappearance with Michael, or possibly even enlisted his help with her presumed murder.

The university provided that information to police. While reviewing Michael’s internet sessions, detectives discovered the communication between Michael and Apollo Mapping.

“You pay a lot for the security of knowing that people don’t know your secret.”

Katie Nelson

Detectives had also obtained AAA records that showed Michael’s car actually broke down in Baker City, Ore., not Pendleton. Michael and his younger sister, Alina Powell, had insisted that AAA having the Taurus towed all the way to Pendleton, bypassing several auto shops in Baker City and La Grande, Ore.

“Made him very suspicious, obviously with being super concerned about this vehicle,” Ellis said. “It is interesting that they went 100 miles north to dispose of it and then him being concerned why it wasn’t smashed and looking for satellite imagery.”

Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
West Valley City, Utah police secured a subpoena to recover Alina Powell’s AAA records, which showed her brother Michael Powell’s car had been towed from Baker City, Ore. to Pendleton, Ore.

Detective Darrell Dain contacted Katie Nelson.

“It was kind of surreal, because you don’t really think about yourself being attached to anything like that and I didn’t understand at first sort of the implications of it,” Katie said. “I kind of was like jumped into the middle of something without understanding really what was going on and why it was important and sort of what he was trying to accomplish with this imagery.”


Lindell Auto​

Darrell asked Katie if she would be willing to call Michael, in an attempt to learn what specific area of Pendleton he was attempting to view. She agreed.

Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
Michael Powell hoped to secure satellite imagery of this area in Pendleton, Ore., in an apparent effort to verify if the car he had sold for scrap was still there. Photo: Dave Cawley, KSL Newsradio

“I was like ‘I hope I can help you, I hope I can give you more information and get something out of him’ but also going into it knowing that that might not happen,” Katie said. “It’s like a sort of pressure where you know you’re probably going to fail and it was very cloak-and-dagger.”

Darrell traveled to Boulder to meet with Katie and listen in on her phone call with Michael on Sept. 4, 2012.

“I was surprised he came out and took the time, stayed a night in town to come up for something that was kind of, I mean it was a long shot,” Katie said.

Katie called Michael and told him new imagery of Pendleton had come available. She asked if he was still interested and if he could provide precise coordinates or an address for the spot he wanted to view.

“How about the name of the establishment? I don’t know if you go that way,” Michael said.

Katie told him that would work.

“It should be like Lindell’s. Lindell’s junk, Lindell’s junk yard. Oh, Lindell’s Auto Salvage, I bet,” Michael said.

Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
West Valley police recovered Michael Powell’s 1997 Ford Taurus from the Lindell Auto lot in September, 2011. A cadaver dog indicated the possible presence of human decomposition in the trunk area of the car. Photo: West Valley City, Utah police

Katie told Michael that she would double-check to make sure the new satellite image showed the Lindell Auto lot and would get back in touch later.


Michael’s Desperation​

After Michael hung up the phone, Darrell told Katie that Lindell Auto is where police had located Michael’s car nearly one year prior. A cadaver dog had indicated the presence of decomposition in the trunk.

“It’s just one of those moments where you feel someone’s walked over your grave and you’re like ‘Oh, that’s uncomfortable,’” Katie said.

In a subsequent conversation with Michael, Katie explained the new satellite image only showed part of the Lindell lot. West Valley police records said Michael expressed a desire to purchase a copy of the image.

“So that would have been $437.50,” Katie said. “Rather surprising that someone wants to spend that kind of money but in his desperation, you pay a lot for the security of knowing that people don’t know your secret, which I think is what that was worth to him.”


Hear Michael’s take on Susan Powell’s disappearance in Episode 15 of Cold: Fall of the House of Powell.​

Ep 14: Killing Susan’s Sons

In memory of Susan, Charlie and Braden Powell.

Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast

“I don’t want Charlie and Braden to lose a married mother and father. But more importantly I know they should have HAPPY parents.”

Susan Powell
Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast

“I love my boys, I live for them and I choose not to cheat or do drugs because I wouldn’t want to risk losing them.”

Susan Powell
Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast

“I try so hard to at least about 10 times a day tell my children ‘I love you, you are my favorite!’”

Susan Powell
Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast

“I cherish my boys but realize they’ll grow up and move on.”

Susan Powell
Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast

“I love you Charlie and Braden and I’m sorry you’ve seen how wrong/messed up our marriage is. I would never leave you!”

Susan Powell
Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast

A community finds comfort following the loss of Charlie and Braden in Episode 14 of Cold: Killing Susan’s Sons.