Susan Powell remains missing. She became dead under Utah law on Dec. 6, 2014, five years from the date she was last seen alive.
Her husband Josh Powell, the man believed responsible for her death, is dead and cannot be held accountable.
Steve Powell and Michael Powell are both dead. If they knew anything about Susan’s whereabouts, they chose not to disclose that information. The surviving members of the Powell family are living in seclusion, with the exception of Josh’s estranged older sister, Jennifer Graves.
During our interview, Jennifer told me she believes Susan, Charlie and Braden have been reunited in heaven.
“Susan is on the other side. We may not know where her body is, but I know where she is,” Jennifer said. “She’s with her boys and she’s fine. She’s just fine.”
In the wake of Susan’s disappearance, Jennifer had hoped to help Charlie and Braden escape the same destructive family from which she’d extracted herself.
“The biggest single thing that I was concerned about was the boys. I wanted them to get out of that situation and not continue to perpetuate this violent cycle that was continuing through my family,” Jennifer said.
A Generational Cycle
The seeds of Josh’s actions were planted well before the murder-suicide in Washington. They were present from his early childhood, cultivated by a father who himself had been raised in a tumultuous family environment.
Steve Powell made no secret of his own troubled upbringing. He included a story about the kidnapping game his parents had played in the biography section of his music website, stevechantrey.com.
“At an early age my mother made a unilateral and secretive decision to separate from my dad, and moved with my brother, my sister and me to Chillicothe, Ohio,” Steve wrote. “My dad found us after a few months, and my parents reconciled.”
In a previously undisclosed journal entry dated July 9, 2010, Steve was more candid. He made a stunning admission about the development of his own deviancy.
“My parents both contributed to the interruption and distortion of my emotional development,” Steve wrote. “My dad ‘kidnapped’ us when I was eight years old. His mother told us, ‘You will never see your mother again,’ and it took a year for her to find us. For the rest of our lives with her she kept us from our father and villainized him to an extreme degree.”
Steve supposed that separation gave rise to his predilection for voyeurism.
“My mother was the parent I was close to. No doubt this is related to the Oedipal Complex, and at eight years I was probably still in a stage in which I had not yet differentiated myself from my parents,” Steve wrote. “Perhaps this has led to my extreme attraction to the opposite sex and tendency toward voyeurism.”
Steve carried his demons into his own marriage. He attempted to instill his aberrant views on sex and relationships in his children, exposing them to pornography at a young age. He nurtured the development of narcissism in his eldest son, Josh.
Jennifer, alone, appeared to have escaped the maelstrom.
“Part of me doesn’t understand why I walked away from that, where my siblings would not recognize what was going on.”
In June 2013, Jennifer and her co-writer Emily Clawson released a book titled A Light in Dark Places.
“Part of my motivation for writing that book was to kind of show a little bit of the background and the lead up. How things happened,” Jennifer said. “That was one of the things that was so good about writing the book was for me personally to be able to go through that and face those things and that was very therapeutic.”
Susan entered into a marriage with Josh at age 19, not understanding the full scope of his history of family turmoil. Warning signs of the toxicity were evident in some of her husband’s statements and actions yet at her young age, Susan failed to recognize them.
In a Facebook message to Cox family friend Mike Gifford on Nov. 15, 2008, Susan acknowledged her regrets.
“I’m finding out more and more that family/friends were seeing the red flags long before I did and of course I wish they would have said something,” Susan wrote. “Of course I realize I would never take back having my boys and the trials I’ve experienced so far have made me so much stronger and I should really thank the jerk I married for putting me through them.”
A little more than 13 months later, Susan would disappear.
Susan’s writings suggest the absence of physical violence in her marriage made it difficult for her to recognize Josh’s treatment as domestic abuse.
“Often times people who are at risk don’t even realize it because it’s been abuse or violence that’s escalated over time.”
Jennifer Oxborrow, the Executive Director of the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition, said the term “domestic violence” can be a misnomer.
“There’s a lot of talk within the advocacy community about changing some of that terminology,” Oxborrow said. “We can be violent in our communication. We can be violent in the coercive control. We can terrorize people without laying a hand on them. We can do that by threatening to hurt children or animals, by threatening to ruin someone’s career or leave them in a poor situation financially.”
UDVC and similar organizations exist to provide assistance to people in situations like Susan’s. They offer services including legal advocacy and advice to help people safely escape abusive situations.
Susan’s disappearance triggered a sequence of events that have touched many lives.
Law enforcement officers tasked with investigating her presumed murder worked for years in the hopes of bringing Susan home and delivering justice for her family.
To this date, no one has ever been held to account for Susan’s death, a fact that haunts retired detective Ellis Maxwell.
“There’s answers that I’ll never ever get and there’ll never be any justice held against anybody for their actions and the likelihood of Susan ever being discovered is in my personal opinion very super low,” Ellis said.
Ellis expressed regret over not securing a search warrant for the Sarah Circle home on the night of Susan’s disappearance. He described frustration at the unwillingness of prosecutors to pursue criminal charges against Josh.
“I think everybody involved in the case has struggled at one point or another with it.”
In the years since his retirement, Ellis had made sporadic progress on a book of his own. He hoped it would provide insight to other police agencies about lessons he learned through the course of the investigation.
“I thought I could have that thing written in six months but it’s tough because I’m basically just reliving the case,” Ellis said. “I’d sit down and I’d start typing and I’ll type and type and type and do this and do that and then next thing you know, I can’t sleep for two, three days.”
More recently, Ellis has focused on launching a non-profit organization called Shield Guardian. He’s also started sharing his experiences through his website, ellismaxwell.com.
“I have empathy for the Coxes,” Ellis said. “I can’t imagine losing a child and never being able to see them again or put them to rest or not ever have any answers. That would be something I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy. That’s just horrible.”
Dave provides his theory on what happened to Susan Powell in the finale of Cold: Angel of Hope.
Steve Powell served as staunch defender of his son, Josh Powell, in the aftermath of the Dec. 7, 2009 disappearance of Josh’s wife Susan Powell.
Steve told the FBI during an interview on Feb. 24, 2010 that he did not believe Josh had murdered Susan, as West Valley City police then suspected.
“The worst father would be somebody who would kill his wife, would kill their mother. Josh would never do that. I am 100 percent satisfied that Josh had nothing to do with Susan’s disappearance,” Steve told the special agents.
However, a previously unreleased Steve Powell journal entry obtained by Cold has revealed Steve immediately presumed Josh had killed Susan and that Steve had long considered his son capable of murder.
That journal entry, dated Dec. 8, 2009, is presented below. It has been edited to remove derogatory claims, as well as personal information unrelated to the Powell case.
Steve Powell journal, 12:35 a.m., Dec. 8, 2009
I am feeling sick, because it is possible that Susan is dead.
Monday morning Jenny called from Josh’s and Susan’s house, to tell us that the day-care lady had called her when they did not show up with the kids. Evidently the day-care lady also called Susan’s work, and learned that she had not shown up or called in. I called Josh’s work, and learned that he had not shown up or called in. The police came to their house, and this information made us extremely fearful that they might be inside, asphyxiated from carbon monoxide, or dead from some other cause.
It was a relief when the police reported that they were not in the house and their van was not in the garage. However the day wore on slowly with no word, and with all of us wondering if they were abducted, or if they went on an outing and were killed or trapped in a car accident.
In the evening I went to the gym, and while there received a call that Josh had shown up with the boys, but not with Susan. When I was finally able to speak to him, at about 8:30 p.m., he said he saw her early Monday morning (December 7), at just after midnight. He was leaving “late” for an outing with the boys. In the various conversations I had with him Monday evening, between that time and nearly midnight, he said that he had bought a generator-heater of some kind so he could go on winter outings. When he told Susan, who he said was in bed asleep, that they were leaving, he says she said, “Whatever.”
“The story is so implausible, and our conversation with Josh so unconvincing that I fear the worst.”
He says he thought yesterday was Sunday. Hence he did not call work. And when he realized his error, he was out of cell-phone range. That does not make sense to me, since when I spoke to him Sunday at midday he said Susan and the boys had gone to a Stake conference that morning. He also mentioned that she was tired and took a nap that evening. Maybe she was already gone, and he told the boys she was just napping.
None of us were able to reach him on his cell phone all day, and he attributes that to being in the back country. Susan’s cell phone was with him. He says he was using it to look up a number, and forgetfully put it in his pocket, and forgot to take it out, so it was with him all day until he showed up at around 6:00 p.m.
The story is so implausible, and our conversation with Josh so unconvincing that I fear the worst. I think Susan is dead, and Josh spent the 20 hour lacuna disposing of her body far away. I have been lying in bed, trying to sleep, but am having a difficult time. I am having a hard time wrapping my mind around the possibility that she may be gone forever. I know she is a screaming banshee, and the way she treats the boys could be devastating emotionally, but nothing of that sort merited a death sentence. I hope we are wrong, but she could be gone forever with no memorial and no place of rest.
In the last two weeks Josh bought an oxy-acetylene welder, and a Rug Doctor carpet cleaner. I had no clue why he might want a welder, but now I wonder if it was required for the process of mutilating or disintegrating her body. The carpets had been freshly cleaned yesterday, and fans were blowing on the living room carpets when the house was finally entered on Monday morning. The police broke a window to get in. During our conversations Josh was more concerned about the broken window than about Susan. Maybe he really did not do anything to her, and she will show up alive. Maybe that is why he is not concerned. He says she has taken off before for short periods.
As the day wore on, I thought I had lost Josh and Susan and my beautiful grandsons. Now I am worried about my daughter-in-law, who has been such an inspiration to me, in spite of her off and on attitude about me, and her apparent disdain for me. I still love her, and do not want to lose her. It seems that she would have at least contacted her family by now if she were still alive.
I don’t know what I am going to do for hope and inspiration, but for now I need to try to sleep.
Steve Powell journal, 5:35 a.m., Dec. 8, 2009
Sunday night it snowed all night. So Josh headed out after midnight to “camp” with the boys. It was snowing like gangbusters by the time he got out a ways so, according to his story, he decided it was too late to return, and so he kept going. Why? The whole thing sounds so wrong, even if it had nothing to do with disposing of Susan’s body. Why would anybody do that? And furthermore, why would anybody believe that someone would go out in that weather just for an outing?
Michael and Alina are very supportive of Josh, and advised him to tighten up his story, as it sounds weak and unconvincing. Josh responded that the police may have already tapped his phone, which was the same as saying, “Be careful what you say.”
“Why would anybody believe that someone would go out in that weather just for an outing?”
Michael commented (not over the phone) that he blamed his mother for this. He said, “She is the reason I will probably never get married.” I hope Michael finds a partner and happiness. I have not been a good example, since I have avoided long-term relationships with women since separating from Terri seventeen years ago in 1992. My attraction to Susan has influenced that hugely since about 2002. But my unwillingness to take the plunge does indeed suggest a lack of trust on my part. Sometimes I think it was a mistake to not work harder at it, especially now that I am turning 60, and the prospects will no doubt diminish.
Susan has learned how to treat her kids and husband from her mother, and Josh found it intolerable. Michael stated yesterday evening that Josh chose an abusive type like Susan because his own mother was similarly abusive. Terri was emotionally distant from her sons. Her main goal for her sons was to make them into good Latter-day Saints. That seemed to be Susan’s one and only goal in recent months, and Josh balked at it. He played along and attended monthly counseling sessions, and attended church sporadically, but did all he could do to influence his boys in another direction.
So I guess Michael, like me, has learned to distrust the marriage principle. John seems to be a misogynist, and his attitudes become barbs aimed at Alina when he is in the manic phase of his bi-polar disorder. And Josh has suffered through a mutually hateful marriage relationship since April 2001. Josh’s and Susan’s mutual disdain was evident from nearly the beginning of their relationship.
Steve Powell journal, 6:30 a.m., Dec. 8, 2009
I am so tired, but can’t seem to sleep. I e-mailed in my request for sick leave a few minutes ago.
Where is Susan? If she were alive someone would have heard from her. This morning it will begin sinking in to her co-workers that she is not coming back.
Will Josh drop the boys off at the day care when he goes to his 9:00 appointment with the police? He often referred to the woman who operates it as the femi-nazi day-care woman. She and Susan had a fairly tight relationship. The woman evidently has it in for men, and told Josh some time ago that she was the victim of an abusive father. So evidently she and Susan had their abuse in common. Josh wanted the kids out of that day care, but Susan refused to move them, since the lady is a good Latter-day Saint.
Will Josh still be walking free after the 9:00 appointment, or will they lock him up? Through the night I tried to think of things Josh said last night that might suggest that he truly does not have a clue where Susan is. Maybe his story came out sounding cock-eyed because he was so tired. It was a long day for him, starting at midnight Sunday night and going until midnight last night. Michael suggested to Alina and me that if he has killed Susan it was probably not premeditated, since the story is so poorly planned.
As I mentioned, I wonder where I will derive my motivation from. Susan kept me going, and was the inspiration for dozens of songs. She sang background on two of my recordings. Her voice on the instrumental bridge of “My Lydia” seemed so haunting to me that I actually feared that she might die an untimely death. It was like hearing a voice from another world to me. Now I am afraid my fears have been realized. It has only been less than 40 hours since someone other than Josh saw her, but my hope diminishes hourly.
In the middle of the night I had what almost seemed like visions of a fire that consumed her. Shortly after that I smelled something slightly excremental and slightly death-like, and a tingle went through my entire body as I thought Susan’s spirit had passed through my room. The feeling passed quickly, and I could not attribute any of it to other than my imagination.
If Susan does not show up, and if they can connect her disappearance to Josh, I also wonder how I will proceed with my music career, as he is my web master. Will I be able to maintain and update my web site? Or will I be able to earn enough to hire someone else? And so many of my songs are about her, including several on this planned CD, that I am not sure I will be able to continue if she is not found, and is assumed to be dead.
If the worst happened, that is he killed her, did he bury her body? Will it ever be found? Frequently the police break down perpetrators during interrogation, and they end up leading them to where the body is buried. Although her parents mean nothing to me, I feel deeply for them, whatever the outcome. I cannot imagine there will be a good outcome.
Steve Powell journal, 8:00 a.m., Dec. 8, 2009
I am so tired, but unable to sleep. I have been lying here thinking about my grandsons, Charlie and Braden. Could Josh do something like this to their mother? Last night Josh went to the recycler to find a stout piece of cardboard to cover the broken window. He said there was a picture of a woman on the carton. At it lay on the living room floor, Braden lay down on it and said, “Mommy.” That was painful to hear.
Maybe Susan was lying in state on the living room floor after her demise, taking the “long nap” Josh mentioned. He seemed to trip over that when he mentioned it. He started to say it was a long nap, then changed to a regular or average nap, or something like that, as I recall. That may be what caught my attention.
I told Michael and Alina that no matter what Susan’s problems were, she did not deserve the death penalty. Neither one has any sympathy for her. Alina is aware, and I think Michael too, that I was in love with Susan, yet neither seems to be sensitive to any feelings I may have in the matter of her possible demise. That they are so anxious to show solidarity with Josh is also troubling.
I suppose in coming years I could have pursued my dream to be with Susan. I had thought that once I make enough money with my music I would be in a position to give her a reason to make the transition. I had hoped that would solve several problems: 1) Susan would be out of a clearly unhappy relationship (and of course I hoped that by that time she would have given up her beliefs in the Mormon Church); 2) I would have what I have wanted for years (and I was concerned that if I struck up a relationship with someone else, I would have to hide my journals about Susan); 3) Josh would be out of an unhappy relationship; and 4) Josh would not have an onerous child-support burden that would be on his shoulders for years, until the boys turn 18, or even 24 while going to school. But it also occurred to me that it could turn out to be the biggest mistake of my life, placing me in the same miserable situation as Josh has been in for years. So in spite of the painful loss, Susan’s death could be providential.
As for the boys, it pains me to think of them wondering where their mommy is. However, some of the stories Josh told me about how she verbally abused them suggest that they may be better off to suffer the temporary pain and move on. What is even more distressing is the possibility that Josh could go to prison, thus leaving the boys as orphans. If that should happen, the worst thing would be for them to go to live with their grandparents, Chuck and Judy Cox. We all would consider Jenny and Kirk the lesser of two evils as surrogate parents, even though the boys would be brought up in a fanatic-Mormon household. I am sure I would have no claim on the boys, and Terri and Jenny, as well as the Cox grandparents, good Latter-day Saints that they are, would fight any bid I might make for custody.
I feel emotionally depressed, partly because I am so tired. Alina and Michael are 100% for showing solidarity with Josh. I need to be of the same attitude, for the sake of the boys as well as Josh who, after all, is my son. The way his mother and her family treated him while growing up is no excuse for anything he may have done in this matter, but I am not the court or a jury. I am his father.
Steve Powell journal, 8:45 a.m., Dec. 8, 2009
I went into Alina’s room a few minutes ago, to find out if she has heard anything. I was crying. The phone rang and it was Terri. She really sounded distraught. She expressed concern for Josh, which I was glad to hear. She and Jenny are on their way to his place to watch the boys while he goes in to talk to the detective. She said the traffic is so slow because of the snow. He was supposed to be there at 9:00. It is an hour later there, so it is almost 10:00.
Alina mentioned she has mixed feelings about being perfectly straight forward if called on to testify about their relationship. She did not think Susan was quite the bitch Josh made her out to be, and thinks Josh may have helped turn her into a bitch. I can’t disagree with that, and I am with Alina on that. However, I said we should support him in any way we can, partly for the sake of the boys. I would add here that that would be especially true if he does not confess to any crime. In the hands of a good prosecutor circumstantial evidence can yield the death penalty. I doubt Susan is alive, and I doubt Josh’s hands are clean. If he murdered her, I wish he had not. But she did treat him in an almost schizophrenic way, and a person can take only so much.
Steve Powell journal, 10:30 p.m., Dec. 8, 2009
It is so painful to know that I will never see Susan again. I feel like that is reality, in spite of the missing person report that went out to the media today. That’s the way it stacks up in my mind. I feel like Josh did a truly stupid thing, and probably disposed of her body in a very grotesque way. I think he probably went to some former industrial land just west of West Valley City and cremated her. I don’t see how he could live with an image like that in his mind. Her body was beautiful, and she took pains to care for it, and her hair and her face. If she had died naturally at 28 years old, she deserved a satin-lined coffin with her beautiful head resting on a soft pillow.
“A person can take only so much.”
I am still having a hard time wrapping my mind around the idea that she is dead. I am so tired from a sleepless night and a day of mostly pacing and thinking. Josh has been in interrogation since about 11:00 a.m. Terri said the detectives told her he would be sent home to spend the night. I have not been able to reach him. My understanding is that they left off interrogating him to get a bite to eat, and were going to resume at 6:40 p.m. They could still be grilling him.
I want Josh to be with his boys, but I am also angry with him for murdering such a beautiful woman. She had her problems, and communication was a huge one. But she did not deserve to have her life ended at 28. That he could do such a thing once suggests that he could do it again. If things go too badly, he could murder the boys and hang himself to avoid going to prison and leaving them with the Mormon families that would no doubt take custody of them.
Josh’s life with Susan was utterly miserable, as was hers with him. Why she stayed with him I do not know. Evidently this tragedy is my answer for why Josh hung on. He wanted to do it his way and avoid a messy and costly divorce. I have news for him. This will be a very costly process, and he may lose anyway. Why someone who is otherwise so smart would do something so utterly stupid is beyond me.
Years ago I made up my mind that Josh was, of my kids, capable of doing such a thing. But our conversations of late suggested that I had nothing to worry about, although I thought about it with concern at times. He seemed resolved that doing something so callous would be most disruptive to his and his children’s lives. Now I wish I had talked more about the likelihood that someone involved in such a crime would be caught. If I had only known. If I could only turn back time.
Hear how the case went cold in Episode 17: Cold Case.