Cold season 1, bonus 3: Nutty Putty – Full episode transcript

(Sound of light rain)

Dave Cawley: Standing at the top of Blowhole Hill, I can see storm cells sliding south across the Cedar Valley. Off to the west, the Tintic Mountains obscure my view of the Rush Valley. Beyond that, a sea of basin and range, stretching on across Utah and Nevada. It’s early March. Rain has already softened the ground. We’re eight miles off the pavement down a muddy, rutted dirt road.

Spencer Cannon: As you saw coming out here, there’s no fast way to get here. It takes the better part of an hour from Spanish Fork to get here. Anybody from anywhere in Utah County, the, the closest anybody would be in arrival time would be 35 to 40 minutes at the very best if somebody was coming from say Saratoga Springs or, or uh Goshen or Eureka or something like that.

Dave Cawley: If you’re not familiar with an of this geography, that’s okay. All you need to understand is we’re way off the beaten path, standing on the fringe of Utah’s West Desert next to a hole in the ground known as Nutty Putty Cave.

Spencer Cannon: The opening to the cave, it starts up on flat ground up here, flat rocky ground, and you go down into the ground about 15 feet and from there you have to go horizontal. And the only way to get through the first part of the opening, which is 10 or 15 feet long, is to either go flat on your back or flat on your stomach and just kind of move your way through carefully like that and then the cave opens up into some larger caverns.

Dave Cawley: West Valley City police case files indicate they received the first of many tips about Nutty Putty Cave on December 14th, 2009, exactly one week after the date of Susan’s disappearance. People wondered if Josh might have disposed of Susan’s body not in a mine, but in the cave.

This is a bonus episode of Cold: Nutty Putty Cave. I’m Dave Cawley.

[Ad break]

Dave Cawley: Before looking at the plausibility of the Nutty Putty Cave idea, we have to determine if Josh was even aware of the cave. I can tell you with 100-percent certainty that the answer is yes. Here’s why: while sifting through hundreds of Josh Powell’s digital files, I came across a scanned copy of a postcard. The front showed a picture the Heart of Timpanogos, a rock feature inside Utah’s Timpanogos Cave National Monument. The postcard had never been mailed. I could see the address lines on the back side were blank. 

There was no stamp or postmark. What made this postcard curious were two lines scribbled on the back in Josh’s handwriting. They read:

Eric Openshaw (as Josh Powell from undated postcard): Nutty Putty Caves in Eureka (south of Spanish Fork). Hole in the ground with maze.

Dave Cawley: I don’t know when Josh wrote those words or why. The postcard wasn’t dated. But it proved he was at the least aware of Nutty Putty. In addition, West Valley police located a few small, thumbnail images on Josh Powell’s laptop computer, the one they seized with a search warrant the day after Susan’s disappearance. One showed the opening of Nutty Putty. A timestamp showed it had been accessed on December 4th, three days before Susan’s disappearance.

Another showed a man named John Edward Jones who had died in Nutty Putty Cave the night before Thanksgiving. The timestamp for that photo showed it was accessed at 5:25 p.m. on December 6th, about the same time Josh was looking at the weather and information about Ely, Nevada.

John Jones’ death in Nutty Putty was, along with the disappearance of Susan Powell, one of the biggest Utah news stories of 2009.

John Hollenhorst (from November 26, 2009 KSL TV archive): Since Tuesday night, rescuers struggled against the unforgiving topography of Nutty Putty Cave.

Dave Cawley: John had grown up in Utah, attending Brigham Young University before leaving for medical school at the University of Virginia. He was 26 and in his second year there when he, his then pregnant wife and their 14-month-old daughter came to Utah to visit family over Thanksgiving.

John enjoyed spelunking.

Leon Jones (from November 25, 2009 KSL TV archive): He’s been in caves. I got pictures of him at the bottom of the Bloomington Caves, in a tight spot.

Dave Cawley: He’d explored other caves for fun. So on the evening of Tuesday, November 24th, 2009, he and several friends entered Nutty Putty to probe its narrow passageways. But, while wriggling through one narrow stretch at about 8:45 p.m., John became stuck. He couldn’t go forward. He couldn’t go backward. It took some time for other members of his party to discover his predicament and exit the cave, where they could call for help.

Spencer Cannon: Yeah, we got notified late at night. It was after 9 p.m. That’s not uncommon. That, that happens, but where it was, we knew right away that there were a certain set of challenges that we would have to defeat right from the very beginning. Y’know, ggetting here, getting any resources here that we needed to try and effect a rescue, so there’s a major concern there.

Dave Cawley: That’s Utah County Sheriff’s Sergeant Spencer Cannon. Nutty Putty’s remote location meant it took time just for the first responders to get to there, let alone begin the rescue.

The rescuers knew a thing or two about Nutty Putty. It had a troubled history. In fact, Nutty Putty had been closed for several years prior to 2009, due to some close calls.

John Hollenhorst (from November 26, 2009 KSL TV archive): After those earlier incidents, authorities considered closing the cave, instead they’ve allowed a caving group to manage it.

Spencer Cannon: We had two rescues within about a week of each other about four years earlier. One was, I don’t know, maybe 6 or 7 hours long. The other one was about 11 hours long. Uh, it wasn’t the exact same spot. John was stuck quite a bit further in along the same route where the other two had been rescued from.

Dave Cawley: The sheriff’s office called out its volunteer search and rescue team.

Spencer Cannon: Our search and rescue team has a number of members who are experienced cavers and uh, we had experience rescuing people from this cave relatively recently prior to this incident. The good thing about it is that, uh, if there is any good thing about having experience here, is that we, we knew what we were facing. So we knew from the outset exactly what equipment had to be here, what resources had to be here.

Dave Cawley: They went right to work. The members of John’s group told the rescuers where they would find their pinned friend.

Spencer Cannon: He was originally described to have been in an area called Bob’s Push which is just near the Birth Canal area, uh, both restricted physical features inside the cave that are challenging, but uh, it’s where a lot of people want to go when they go in the cave. He was actually beyond that in an unnamed, really unexplored part of the cave that uh, as far as we know nobody had been to. We know now that uh, John had been there, but uh, we don’t know that anybody else ever had been there.

Dave Cawley: Any hope they might have had for a quick and easy rescue evaporated once they reached John’s location.

Eldon Packer (from November 26, 2009 KSL TV archive): Where he is trapped he is on a bend, so there is no there is no way to really get a hold on him to be able to pull him directly straight back.

Dave Cawley: “Constricted” doesn’t begin to describe the narrow space.

Eldon Packer (from November 26, 2009 KSL TV archive): We’ve never seen anything this technical, this tough to get in and get this person out.

John Hollenhorst (from November 26, 2009 KSL TV archive): The Rescuers had to squeeze through narrow twisting passageways. John Jones’ feet were sticking out, his head down, his body completely plugging a narrow tunnel 10 to 14 inches wide.

Spencer Cannon: We were fully confident when we got here that, uh, we’d be able to effect the rescue. It’s what, it’s what our search and rescue volunteers do. They, they don’t uh, go someplace expecting to not have the kind of success they want and it took quite a few hours, even, even 15, 20 hours into it we were still confident that uh, we’d be able to get John rescued and out of there.

Dave Cawley: John had become stuck while angled downward about 70 or 80 degrees, with his arms under his chest. The rescuers could see little more than his ankles. Only the smallest members of the rescue team could even reach the spot.

Spencer Cannon: The areas where they were down in there, uh, sometimes you were making another turn before you even finished the other one that you just came through. And in confined areas like that, you had to have small people.

Dave Cawley: The rescuers worked through the night and into the next morning. Nothing they tried seemed to work. As they tugged at John, his rib cage caught on a lip of rock. It was as if he’d been ratcheted into place.

John Hollenhorst (from November 26, 2009 KSL TV archive): State senator John Valentine has been a volunteer search and rescue worker for 30 years. He says the problem the rescuers could not overcome was a small lip of rock, at a critical bend in the narrow tunnel.

John Valentine (from November 26, 2009 KSL TV archive): The lip basically captured the center part of his body, so as you pulled against it, you were pulling like against a fishhook.

Dave Cawley: John was able to communicate with his rescuers, but not see them. They kept up a constant dialogue with him, seeking to buoy his spirits. Meantime, his family waited, hour after hour outside the cave.

Leon Jones (from November 25, 2009 KSL TV archive): John is an incredible young man. And as an old guy I look up to John, umm, and idolize him. He’s a great example to me.

Spencer Cannon: We let them know that he was talking, he was singing church songs. We let them know that we had set up a communication line so that he could talk to his wife, uh, I think he even talked to some other family members as well.

We had that communication line up, partly already in there for the, for the rescue operation, the volunteers that were conducting it.

Dave Cawley: Most media trucks couldn’t make the final climb up the rocky slope of Blowhole Hill, so Spencer met reporters partway down the side.

Spencer Cannon (from November 25, 2009 KSL TV archive): Anytime you’re in a position where you don’t have control over when you come and go, it’s gonna have an effect on a person emotionally.

Spencer Cannon: We were doing the best we could to make sure the media and then along that with the public knew exactly what was going on.

Dave Cawley: The rescue effort continued straight through the day on Wednesday. At one point, the rescuers rigged up a pulley system along the walls of Nutty Putty. They made progress inching John back up over the lip. 

Rescuer (from November 25, 2009 KSL TV archive): He’s free of the tightest spot where gravity was really working against him and he didn’t have any leverage. There’s still some more tight spots in the cave, actually I think we got him past all the hard spots now.

Dave Cawley: But a rope failed and when it did, John dropped back into the trap more tightly than before.

Spencer Cannon (from November 25, 2009 KSL TV archive): We had him to a level spot where he wasn’t heading down hill with his head below his feet. Uh, during the course of that they have a raising system that uh, that was helping to hold him in position. Uh, one of the devices that is part of that system, uh, failed, uh, and uh, Mr. Jones actually ended up falling back into the area where he had been stuck for so long.

Dave Cawley: Best anyone could figure, John was about 125 feet below the surface. Pinpointing his position from above proved tricky. The place he was stuck was unmapped. Drilling to down to him might miss the mark entirely.

As Josh Powell was at Airgas that same afternoon, hounding employees about buying an oxyacetylene torch, exhausted search and rescuers were struggling with an unsolvable problem at Nutty Putty.

Spencer Cannon: I think that there were no options available that were not considered, even seriously considered.

Dave Cawley: Time and gravity conspired against them. John’s head-down position was precarious because it meant blood pooled in his head. His heart had to work extra hard to push that blood away from his brain. Consider it the cardiac equivalent of running a marathon while pinned in place. The strain, hour after hour, proved too much.

Eldon Packer (from November 26, 2009 KSL TV archive): We were able to send some, one of our cavers in close enough to him that they were able to check him, determine that he did pass away.

Dave Cawley: John died just before midnight on November 25, 2009.

Spencer Cannon: Yeah it was 11:56 p.m. on Wednesday night just before Thanksgiving day.

Dave Cawley: His death came just over 27 hours from the point at which he’d first been stuck. Even then, the fatigued rescuers questioned how they would ever manage to free him.

Spencer Cannon: Once John had been declared dead, there were discussions about “How do we get him out?” There were some rather distasteful discussions as well, things that nobody really wanted to do but ultimately the decision was made that uh, it was too much risk for the rescuers to remain there in an effort to get him out and the decision was made to leave him in place.

Dave Cawley: Leaving John’s body in the cave presented some unique considerations. For one, what would keep anyone else from disturbing his final resting place?

Spencer Cannon: Those issues were part of the discussion and uh, if the decision was made that he would have to remain in the cave, uh it then becomes a sacred place for the families. We did not want it to be disturbed for, for John’s sake, for the sake of the families and their uh, peace of mind and to make it a place that they can come back with at least fond memories of John.

Dave Cawley: The effort to rescue John had made headlines across the country. Deputies knew some people would be drawn to the site like birds to a pile of seed.

Spencer Cannon: Initially there had been a gate down at the, at the main entrance to the cave. That stayed in place initially.

Dave Cawley: Could that gate alone protect John’s remains, forever? The cave sat on public land, owned by the state of Utah. The county sheriff floated the idea of closing the cave, permanently.

Spencer Cannon: Yeah, there were a number of uh, uh, entities that were brought into that discussion. There was the officials from the Schools and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, the sheriff’s office, caving enthusiasts here in Utah County and around Utah—

Dave Cawley: The grotto, right?

Spencer Cannon: —the grotto, grotto clubs, we took input from everybody in, in making the decision. John’s family was included in that discussion as well.

Dave Cawley: The idea met immediate resistance, including from the man who’d first discovered and named Nutty Putty in 1960.

Alex Cabrero (from December 3, 2009 KSL TV archive): These cavers understand the tragedy but think the cave could’ve eventually been reopened.

Daniel Kimball (from December 3, 2009 KSL TV archive): Just because of a tragedy, doesn’t mean you have to close it down.

Kyle Parker (from December 3, 2009 KSL TV archive): I think we should have a say on whether or not. We understand the risks in what we are doing and it’s something that we really love to do.

Dave Cawley: Those arguments did not prove persuasive.

Trevor Bradford (from December 3, 2009 KSL TV archive): I think it was kind of a rash decision for them to just close it all at once.

Dave Cawley: At the end of the week, the Utah County Sheriff’s Office made the call.

Alex Cabrero (from December 3, 2009 KSL TV archive): 

The Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration or SITLA which owns the lands said in a statement “while SITLA recognizes that some in the caving community disagree with this decision, SITLA believes that the consensus decision of the various government entities with responsibility for land management, public safety, and search and rescue to close the cave was the correct one.”

Dave Cawley: Nutty Putty would be sealed.

Spencer Cannon: Exactly how to do that was under discussion. What we ended up doing is our EOD folks, our bomb squad, went in. There was an opening not too far from where John was that kind of constricts the, it’s a constricture that you have to go through to where John is and they took a large amount explosives in there, placed them around that smaller opening, came out of the cave and then set that off and the idea was to cause all that rock to come down and close that part of the opening. That happened on the 1st of December. Then uh, on the morning of the 2nd of December, they had a load of concrete come out here — I believe it was about 30 yards — that was poured down into the main opening to give it as permanent of closure as you could get for it.

[Scene transition]

Dave Cawley: You might be able to see where this going, but there’s a reason I came out to Nutty Putty myself to speak with Spencer Cannon about that tragedy, more than nine years later. The idea that Susan Powell might also be inside Nutty Putty Cave has persisted. It doesn’t work, for a few reasons.

Spencer Cannon: Susan was seen up until the 6th of December. The opening of, uh, Nutty Putty Cave was permanently closed with 30 yards of concrete and explosives on the 2nd of December.

Dave Cawley: For the sake of argument, let’s say that wasn’t the case. I asked Spencer if he would ever attempt to take a low-clearance, front-wheel-drive minivan to the top of Blowhole Hill in December, in a snowstorm.

Spencer Cannon: Not in a hundred years. I, I, I would say it would be virtually impossible for a off-the-rack, off-the-showroom-floor minivan or passenger car to get up here. Even a small four-wheel-drive SUV would be very, very difficult. Something like a Nissan Rogue or a, even a Toyota 4Runner would have a hard time. Uh, something bigger — a full-size pickup truck or full-size SUV — it’s a challenge getting up here in those vehicles. But a passenger car or a minivan like that, it’s not going to happen.

Dave Cawley: Ok, but what if Josh parked at the bottom of the hill and pulled Susan’s body up the slope in a toboggan?

Spencer Cannon: From the place that you could conceivably get close to it to carry something up and hike up here, you’re better part of a half-mile at least and you still have to hike up another 200 or 300 feet in elevation to get to where the opening of the cave was.

Dave Cawley: Say he summoned Herculean strength to make that climb. Could he then have managed to get past the locked gate and push or pull Susan’s limp body through the narrow aperture of the cave’s mouth while flat on his stomach or back?

Spencer Cannon: That first part of it would be extremely challenging carrying something that is just a, a heavy mass over 100 pounds. Strongest of people would have a hard time doing it in that kind of a configuration. Yeah, anybody who’s been in this opening or been in the Nutty Putty Cave knows how difficult it is to get in there by yourself. To get in there with somebody else or something else, it’s just not reasonable, almost impossible to do given what it would take to haul weight in there that is completely unsupported.

Dave Cawley: Where there’s a will, there’s a way as they say, right? If Josh had somehow managed to defeat all of those obstacles, he would’ve had to do it while avoiding the notice of deputies who were parked just feet away.

Spencer Cannon: There are those, uh, smaller number, who might want to go inside and, and do something or collect something and so we had deputies here 24/7 from early on Thanksgiving morning until it was, uh, sealed on December 2nd with concrete and 24/7 we had somebody here.

Dave Cawley: After that, Josh would’ve had to chisel his way through solid concrete.

Dave Cawley: So what I’m understanding is in your mind, there is zero probability that Susan Powell is here.

Spencer Cannon: Zero probability.

Dave Cawley: Susan Powell cannot be in Nutty Putty Cave.

Cold season 1, bonus 2: Marshal Misdirection – Full episode transcript

Dave Cawley: U.S. Marshal Derryl Spencer never expected the Susan Powell investigation to end up in his lap.

Derryl Spencer: I didn’t really suspect anything was gonna come of this. Umm y’know, it was quite a while from the time she went missing.

Dave Cawley: But about six months into the investigation, West Valley City police enlisted Derryl’s help. They were headed to Washington to surveil Josh Powell over Mother’s Day.

Derryl Spencer: In order for West Valley officers, y’know, to travel out of state and carry guns, they had to do it under the U.S. Marshals special deputization so I got involved in the case, uh, primarily as, as like the dad to take the team up there so that they can successfully operate.

Dave Cawley: That operation culminated in a consent search of Steve Powell’s South Hill home, which I described in episode 9 of Cold. But I didn’t explain exactly why Josh and Steve Powell agreed to let police into their home without a search warrant. Derryl Spencer was the reason.

The FBI’s mobile tracking order for Josh’s minivan had expired. The law required that the feds serve Josh with notice that they’d hidden a GPS device on his minivan. They also had to remove it.

Derryl Spencer: I had come up with the idea, y’know like, let, let me take it up there. I’ll knock on the door, we’ll see if he’ll answer the door and let’s tell him that, y’know, “hey I’m a U.S. Marshal and we’re trying to turn this into a missing persons investigation” instead of West Valley just coming after Steve Powell.

Dave Cawley: That’s just what Derryl did. Josh was suspicious.

Derryl Spencer: He starts yelling at me through the door, like “who is it?” And I said “I’m Derryl, I’m with the U.S. Marshals, y’know, can you come talk to me for a second.” He’s very hesitant to come to the door. Umm, immediately he’s like “are you a reporter?” And I just said “no, I’m not a reporter.” I had my creds out and I said “hey, if you’ll peek out the window I’ll show you my creds.” Like, I’m here for the right reasons. I said “I just, I just want to have a man-to-man conversation with you.” 

Reluctantly he did come to the door. He ate it up. He was like “yes, alright, c’mon, c’mon in.” So he invites me in the house. I tell him that I’m working very closely with the U.S. Attorney’s Office out of the District of Utah. I make up some stories about how funding comes in about how I need to, to make sure that we’re being honest with each other. And I ask him for consent to search the house. And he, he, he doesn’t want to give it to me. He’s telling me that, uh, “y’know, I can’t really let you do that.” And I just said “Well you’ve, you’ve gotta meet me halfway. You need to show me that you’re willing to work with me.”

Dave Cawley: Josh and Steve argued about the idea, before finally calling Josh’s defense attorney, Scott Williams.

Derryl Spencer: I’m like “yeah, let’s give him a call!” And so Steve, no Josh calls him, gets him on the phone and just says “hey I’ve, I’ve got a U.S. Marshal in my house.” And I can, I can hear Scott, “tell him to leave right now.” Of course, what any, any defense attorney’s going to say.

Steve ends up on the phone, pulls the phone from Josh, ends up on the phone. He’s trying to control the situation. They’re kinda talking and I can tell that he’s talking Steve out of this, like, like I’m losing ground here. And so I’m just trying to be super calm and, and I said “would it make you feel better if I talked to him?” And so he’s like “yeah, you talk to him.”

So I get on the phone, umm, with the attorney and I’ll never forget, he tells me, he’s like “y’know what, if my client stole a candy bar, I would give you the same advice.” He’s like “you need to leave the house.” And I’m like “that sounds great,” I’m like “thank you, ok thank you.” And he’s like “Derryl,” like ‘cause he knows what I’m doing on the other side of the phone.

So I’m just trying to have them hear that this conversation’s going really well and he’s like “Derryl, you know that I cannot advise my clients to, I’m not going to tell them to give you consent.” And I’m like “that’s great.” I’m like “thank you so much.” And I said “well, we all know that it’s up to your client for the final word,” and I said “so I’ll just have direct communications with them and we’ll figure out the best way to do this.” And he’s like “Derryl—” I’m like “have a great day!” I’m like, “Feel free to call back if you need to talk to them again. And so I hang up the phone. I’m like “gentlemen, I think we’re good to go. I just need you to sign the consent form. (Laughs)” 

Dave Cawley: This is a bonus episode of Cold: Marshal Misdirection. I’m Dave Cawley.

[Ad Break]

Dave Cawley: Derryl Spencer’s interactions with Josh and Steve Powell were good cop-bad cop on a grand scheme.

Derryl Spencer: I had told Steve and Josh, umm, that I had grabbed a bunch of U.S. Marshals and task force officers from the Seattle office. And so, when I really had a bunch of West Valley cops that were there. But I did not want them to know that. They hated West Valley, as you can imagine.

Umm, so I’m just like “look I just, I just grabbed a hodgepodge of, of Marshals and, and task force officers up here.” I said “they’re gonna help me so that we’re not here all day. It would take me, it would take me hours and hours.” I said “we just want to get this done.”

So we uh, I bring them in and I’m kinda just trying to hang out with Josh and Steve and keep them talking, keep ‘em comfortable. Umm, the task force officers, who were actually West Valley cops, come in and uh, y’know they start to search the house and everything. Umm, and they’re walking around and, and they’re badmouthing West Valley. Y’know and I’ve got a West Valley guy standing next to me and I’m just like “y’know, they are just the shadiest agency.” I said “as federal agents, we don’t even work with ‘em. We just, I understand where you’re coming from. And y’know, there’s just, we just have had the hardest time with them as well so I understand.” They were just eating it up. It was, it was hilarious. And uh, a very good friend of mine who’s a West Valley cop who I still hang out with every day, I’m, I’m just badmouthing West Valley right along with Josh and Steve and he looks at me and he’s just shaking his head. (Laughs) And I patted him on the back, I’m like “let’s get to work, Todd. C’mon.”

Dave Cawley: Derryl’s efforts to build a rapport with Josh and Steve bore immediate fruit. No sooner had the police left the house than Steve reached out.

Derryl Spencer: We finished and we got back together and we went to this little pizza joint just outside of Puyallup and Steve was already blowing up my phone with requests. And trying to like, help me out, give me ideas and stuff like this. And uh, he called me and I was, I was floored ‘cause we were eating dinner. I mean, I mean Josh is calling me already, it’s only been an hour.

Dave Cawley: Derryl had secured Josh’s permission to search the grounds of the Sarah Circle house in West Valley.

Derryl Spencer: And he calls me and he asks me if I can move some chairs for him while I was there. And I was like “sure, what do you, what do you need done?” And he had some chairs in one part of the back yard that he wanted moved into this shed. And I was like “ok, no problem.” So he’s, y’know, he’s already thinking we’re, we’re pretty good friends.

Dave Cawley: He used that friendship to look inside the shed, hoping to find any evidence.

Derryl Spencer: Y’know, we do an initial search and of course we’re looking for disturbed ground to see if maybe something would’ve been buried. Uh, we didn’t find anything at all interesting. Umm, but what I did find, in that shed up on a rafter up above, someone had etched with a knife, it said “here lies death.” Which was obviously somewhat concerning. I called the renters immediately and just said “hey, do you know this is here, do you know anything about this?” And she’s like “yeah, we’d seen it but it was here when we moved in.”

Nothing came of it. I don’t know why it was there. I don’t know who put it there. There was no, no, no empirical evidence that I could find that there was anything buried. There was nothing disturbed. Like, you could see the flooring in the shed. It looked very old.

[Scene transition]

Dave Cawley: A bigger issue soon arose. Derryl’s involvement with the Powell case was a bit atypical. Marshals more often hunt down fugitives in far-flung location across the globe than investigate municipal missing persons cases. Derryl was juggling fugitive task force duties. He had traveled to St. Thomas in the U.S Virgin Islands to help take down a wanted drug cartel member.

Derryl Spencer: And while I’m getting ready to do this hit, Powell’s blowing up my phone. And I’m literally, like we’re getting ready to take down a cartel member (laughs) and I’ve got Powell blowing up my phone and I don’t want to miss these phone calls. And so I’ve got, y’know, the team lead that I work for on the SWAT team leader and I was like “hey, this is super important, I got to take this call.” And he’s like “hurry, we gotta go.”

Josh Powell (from May 24, 2010 voicemail to Derryl Spencer): This is Josh, I’m calling about that airbag problem.

Derryl Spencer: So, I end up talking with uh, with Powell and he’s extremely frustrated because he knows that we, that when the tracker was getting pulled that uh, we had, we had messed something up in the van and that he wanted me to fix it. And I said “well let me reach out, reach out to West Valley, we’ll see what we can do.” And he was, he was extremely upset by that.

(Sound of phone ringing)

Steve Powell (from May 27, 2010 phone call recording): Uh, hello?

Derryl Spencer (from May 27, 2010 phone call recording):  Hey, Josh?

Steve Powell (from May 27, 2010 phone call recording): Uh no, Josh, hello, who is calling?

Derryl Spencer (from May 27, 2010 phone call recording): This is Derryl.

Steve Powell (from May 27, 2010 phone call recording): Oh uh, Derryl, this uh, with the U.S. Marshals?

Derryl Spencer (from May 27, 2010 phone call recording): Yeah, is Josh around?

Steve Powell (from May 27, 2010 phone call recording): Oh yeah, he’s kinda in the middle of something, can I have him call you back maybe, or?

Derryl Spencer (from May 27, 2010 phone call recording): Yeah, he’s got my number.

Steve Powell (from May 27, 2010 phone call recording): Is this, is this about the airbag? He was wondering about that.

Derryl Spencer (from May 27, 2010 phone call recording): Yeah, it is.

Dave Cawley: An airbag warning light had illuminated on the dashboard of Josh’s minivan.

Steve Powell (from May 27, 2010 phone call recording): Does he need to call you back on that, or, ‘cause I, I could have him call you back in a, he probably would call you back in an hour or so maybe—

Derryl Spencer (from May 27, 2010 phone call recording): Umm—

Steve Powell (from May 27, 2010 phone call recording): —is that fair Or is it just a message? ‘Cause I can give that to him.

Derryl Spencer (from May 27, 2010 phone call recording): Yeah give it to him. Umm, I’m out of the country right now so my, it’s hard for me to get cell phone service, so—

Steve Powell (from May 27, 2010 phone call recording): Oh, I understand. Yeah, that makes it really hard.

Derryl Spencer: I contacted West Valley, y’know “hey we should, we should resolve this issue.” And they just kind of laughed at me. And I was, y’know, it’s fine, I get it. Like, I, I get that we’re in this investigation. But you’ve got to give to get. You’ve got give to get. And I was like “we should fix this for him.” Number one, like, we got, we got Charlie and Braden he’s driving around with in this van. If there’s an issue, like we should fix this. Like, it’s the right thing to do.

Josh Powell (from May 27, 2010 phone call recording): Hello.

Derryl Spencer (from May 27, 2010 phone call recording): Hi Josh, it’s Derryl.

Josh Powell (from May 27, 2010 phone call recording): Oh, hey Derryl.

Derryl Spencer (from May 27, 2010 phone call recording): How’s it going?

Josh Powell (from May 27, 2010 phone call recording): Oh, it’s good.

Derryl Spencer (from May 27, 2010 phone call recording): Good.

Josh Powell (from May 27, 2010 phone call recording): What’s going on? Did, did I hear that they might be willing to do something about the airbag, or…?

Derryl Spencer (from May 27, 2010 phone call recording): Oh yeah, we’re going to get it fixed. Umm, it’s just going to take a few days, mostly because of the holiday weekend.

Dave Cawley: As Derryl saw it, the airbag issue was a way to build trust and to keep Josh talking. But he found himself standing alone on an island.

Derryl Spencer (from June 8, 2010 phone call recording): Hey is Josh there?

Josh Powell (from June 8, 2010 phone call recording): Oh yeah, this is.

Derryl Spencer (from June 8, 2010 phone call recording): Hey Josh, it’s Derryl. How are you doing man?

Josh Powell (from June 8, 2010 phone call recording): Oh hey, uh, good. How are you?

Derryl Spencer (from June 8, 2010 phone call recording): Good.

Derryl Spencer: I felt like I was having more positive communications with Josh and Steve than I was with some of the attorneys on this case (laughs) and some of the other, uh, players involved. So, it was frustrating. 

Derryl Spencer (from June 8, 2010 phone call recording): So I have, uh, pretty good news, but probably not as good of news as you’d like to hear.

Josh Powell (from June 8, 2010 phone call recording): Ok, what’s going on?

Derryl Spencer (from June 8, 2010 phone call recording): Uh, they’re definitely going to fix the airbag, umm, but you have to fill out a claim. And I can’t even begin to tell you how much headache I’ve gone through trying to get this through. Umm, so first thing tomorrow morning—

Josh Powell (from June 8, 2010 phone call recording): What is, what is a claim? I mean, is that like a very difficult process?

Dave Cawley: Josh and Steve had good reason to keep up their end of the conversation. They wanted Derryl’s help prying Josh’s digital data free from the clutches of West Valley police.

Derryl Spencer: They were trying to kinda use me as a proxy. They wanted, they were, they, like “Derryl, Derryl’s our guy. Derryl’s gonna be able to get us what we want.” And the whole time they wanted those hard drives back. They wanted those computers.

Derryl Spencer (from June 27, 2010 phone call recording): I need to bring them up to Josh though because the, the way the whole thing worked is, normally West Valley just won’t give property like this to anyone. So they’ve kind of gone out on a limb.

Dave Cawley: Josh grew tired of the game in short order. That is when Steve stepped in.

Steve Powell (from June 27, 2010 phone call recording): If you wanna, y’know if you’re in the area sometime and wanna get together, Josh is a little hesitant because of the situation he is in, but I’m not hesitant at all. 

Derryl Spencer (from June 27, 2010 phone call recording): Ok.

Steve Powell (from June 27, 2010 phone call recording): Y’know, I mean, it’s up to you though, y’know, obviously, and it’s your call.

Derryl Spencer (from June 27, 2010 phone call recording): Well to be honest with you, I’m extremely interested, and I would love to hear what you have to say.

Derryl Spencer: Steve soon became the proxy. He wanted to communicate with me instead of Josh. He wanted to be in charge of the communications. Which was fine. Steve was extremely fascinating to talk to. It was uh, yeah, it was, I always felt dark and like I needed shower after getting off the phone with him.

Derryl Spencer (from June 27, 2010 phone call recording): Y’know, I could go look at the FBI stuff, but I’d rather start fresh. I’d rather sit down and talk with you and Josh. Really hear about what you guys think should be done and then we’ll start exploring those avenues. So—

Steve Powell (from June 27, 2010 phone call recording): That’d be great. Yeah, we’d like to do that. I’d like to do that. Yeah.

Derryl Spencer: So he took over the phone calls. And when he didn’t like what I had to say and he didn’t like the direction of the conversation, he would defer to Alina and he would have Alina stonewall me.

Derryl Spencer (from July 2, 2010 phone call recording): Hey, is Steve home?

Alina Powell (from July 2, 2010 phone call recording): Umm, I’m sorry he’s not available right now.

Derryl Spencer (from July 2, 2010 phone call recording): Well what—

Alina Powell (from July 2, 2010 phone call recording): (Unintelligible)

Derryl Spencer (from July 2, 2010 phone call recording): —what about Josh? This is, uh, Derryl with the Marshals. We met when I came up there a while ago.

Alina Powell (from July 2, 2010 phone call recording): Sure. Umm, let me go see if Josh is available. 

Derryl Spencer (from July 2, 2010 phone call recording): Ok. Thanks.

Alina Powell (from July 2, 2010 phone call recording): I’m sorry, I guess he’s not available either.

Derryl Spencer (from July 2, 2010 phone call recording): Ok, umm—

Alina Powell (from July 2, 2010 phone call recording): I wasn’t sure.

Dave Cawley: During one call, Derryl told the Powells he had a trip planned to Seattle for some other business. He wanted to drop off a disc to Josh and maybe talk to Steve.

Derryl Spencer: And so he reluctantly agreed to, to have me come up. And I was like “I’m coming up anyway.” Which was not true. I was only going up there to meet him. I said “let’s just sit down and just, let’s just have this conversation.”

Alina Powell (from July 2, 2010 phone call recording): Y’know, I understand if you guys are really trying to help, that’s wonderful, we appreciate it. It’s just hard for us as outsiders to tell, “ok are they really helping or is this another interrogation tactic?” Y’know what I mean? It’s like we don’t know if they’re, y’know, we just don’t know if you’re helping or not. So—

Derryl Spencer (from July 2, 2010 phone call recording): Right.

Alina Powell (from July 2, 2010 phone call recording): But that’s good if you’ve got…

Derryl Spencer: The day before I was supposed to fly up there he had Alina call me and tell me that like if I wasn’t going to bring any of the computer stuff or any of the evidence or y’know any of these other items that were seized as evidence that, uh, he didn’t want to talk to me. And uh, at this point in time I had, y’know, I almost feel like I’m negotiating with the Powells at one level and then I’m also negotiating with West Valley. I’m like “we’ve got to give to get, gentlemen. C’mon, let’s work, let’s figure something out.” The most I could get West Valley to give me was a couple of family pictures on a CD. And I was like “ok.”

So when I called, Steve wanted to know what I was bringing. Like, I mean, I, I felt like, I felt like a pirate landing on the beach. I’m like, this is what we’re dealing with. Umm, so I just said “y’know I’ve got some family photos and some stuff like that.” And he’s like “well, we wanted computer stuff.” I’m like “I’m sorry, I just, this is, I’m working with West Valley.” And he basically tells me, he’s like “yeah, I’m not going to meet with you tomorrow.”

Derryl Spencer (from July 2, 2010 phone call recording): And, and don’t get me wrong, I understand where you guys are coming from. You have to be very selective because everyone you’ve delt with has been poking Josh on the forehead and I would hope by now Josh is starting to understand that, with me working with him on the airbag and with me, y’know, bringing photos up to him, I’m not going to ask him any questions, it’s not going to be like last time where we wanna go through the house. There’s nothing like that. 

Derryl Spencer: So Alina calls me back pretty late into the night and she’s like “ok, you can come up.” And I’m like “alright.” I’m like “well, can I talk to Josh or Steve?” And she’s like “no, they’re busy. They asked me to call you.” Meanwhile, I can hear these two having a conversation in their, y’know, their house was very small. And I’m like “well Alina,” I’m like “I can hear them talking behind you.” I said “I’m not sure why they’re, they’re using you to do the communications.” And I said “that’s fine. I like you.” And I said “You and I, you and I can, y’know, I’ll open up a dialogue up with you about any part of this any time you want.” And “y’know you can, you can talk to me whenever you want. You know that, right?” You can call me and stuff like that. She was like, she was pretty stonewalled. Umm, I mean, she was just doing what daddy said, told her to do.

[Ad break]

Dave Cawley: At the beginning of July 2010, Steve reserved a conference room at the South Hill Library, the same place he’d first met with West Valley detectives half a year earlier.

Derryl Spencer: We were supposed to meet at like 1 o’clock and then he, of course he’s got to be in charge of everything so he’s gotta, and I need to let him think he’s in charge of everything or he’s gonna start stonewalling me. And he starts dancing around the times. And then he wants to move it. Now he wants to move it, now he wants me to come earlier. And I just said “y’know,” I said “I’m just here relaxing.” I said “I’m just gonna go grab some food.” I said “just call me whenever you’re ready. I’m, I’ve got nothing going on the rest of the day.” So, (laughs), just play your game with yourself and let me know where we’re at. So when I told him that, y’know, him realizing that I was just “whatever, dude.” He’s like “alright, I’ll meet you there now.” (Laughs) Bravo Steve, well played.

Dave Cawley: Derryl wore a wire to that meeting.

Derryl Spencer (from July 7, 2010 wire recording): West Valley police department has been under a lot of scrutiny based on how they conducted themselves—

Steve Powell (from July 7, 2010 wire recording): Yeah.

Derryl Spencer (from July 7, 2010 wire recording): —in, in totality.

Steve Powell (from July 7, 2010 wire recording): Yeah.

Derryl Spencer (from July 7, 2010 wire recording): So, shortly before we came up and met with you last time, we were approached by the U.S. Attorney—

Steve Powell (from July 7, 2010 wire recording): Uh huh, yeah.

Derryl Spencer (from July 7, 2010 wire recording): —and we were asked to basically take a look at everything and report back to the U.S. Attorney’s Office what we thought.

Steve Powell (from July 7, 2010 wire recording): Yeah, ok.

Dave Cawley: Steve wanted to know if the Marshals were working for the Mormons.

Steve Powell (from July 7, 2010 wire recording): Y’know, I’ve discussed it with family and everybody’s pretty suspicious of the Mormon church’s involvement in this and because, I mean frankly, they were very involved in my divorce and they were very, and they, and, and, most of the people that have been on the attack are Mormons here in this case too, so—

Derryl Spencer (from July 7, 2010 wire recording): Sure.

Steve Powell (from July 7, 2010 wire recording): —it’s really a, they’re kind of a vicious attack group is what they are. And, and, y’know, that what they, even the bishop, y’know, my, my ex-wife, and my bishop too attacked me during my divorce and wrote things for the court and those kinds of things so I’m really suspicious but I’ll take your word for it.

Dave Cawley: Steve spoke in rapid-fire.

Derryl Spencer: I’m not sure if he took a breath the entire time. He had so much information. I let him, I, for the most part I just listened. I let him drive that interview. I, I didn’t really have to ask any questions. I mean, I did interject at some point here and there but it was like “uh, uh, uh, go on, it’s fine.”

Dave Cawley: Steve launched into the latest revision on his theory about Susan “absconding” with another missing person, Steven Koecher.

Steve Powell (from July 7, 2010 wire recording): Susan left after Josh left and I don’t know if she left immediately but she probably didn’t wait too long. I’m guessing probably she waited a couple of hours to make sure Josh was long gone and I’m assuming that she and Koecher had some kind of a mutual friend or a contact there in West Valley City. That may be where they met or they could have met when she worked at Fidelity and he worked three blocks away at the, uh, at the Governor’s Office as an intern. So they, they could have met a number of places—

Derryl Spencer (from July 7, 2010 wire recording): Sure, yeah.

Steve Powell (from July 7, 2010 wire recording): —all along the way. We don’t know, we don’t even know that they knew each other. We’re just assuming a lot of things. At least I am.

Dave Cawley: Steve claimed Susan and Koecher had gone first to California to get fake IDs.

Steve Powell (from July 7, 2010 wire recording): At least, at this point, my guess is, that she probably had some identities, two at least, maybe more, and uh, they wanted, they needed documentation, maybe driver’s licenses that didn’t have Utah on them, clearly. I mean, they’re not going to have a Utah driver’s license and look like they look. Y’know, I’m guessing that he probably stopped shaving on, on December 7th and he probably has a beard. These are guesses, obviously.

Derryl Spencer: The way he was telling me the story and the way he was telling me what happened was almost like he’d been rehearsing it for weeks.

Steve Powell (from July 7, 2010 wire recording): I think they both went to Sacramento and I think they, they were there, they got there the evening or the afternoon of the 8th and they were there on the 9th. And on the 9th of December or on the 8th, I think they got married. So I’m saying, that’s my, that’s my conjecture. I think they went over there for documentation.

Derryl Spencer: And he was demanding that, like, I take a team of U.S. Marshals and almost get on a plane and let’s go to Brazil right now. And uh, y’know let’s, let’s put this together.

Derryl Spencer (from July 7, 2010 wire recording): I mean, to the best of your ability you, neither yourself or Josh, you don’t think Susan had a passport prior to her going missing?

Steve Powell (from July 7, 2010 wire recording):  No, neither one of us know.

Derryl Spencer (from July 7, 2010 wire recording): Josh never knew her at all apply to one, for it to be denied—

Steve Powell (from July 7, 2010 wire recording): No—

Derryl Spencer (from July 7, 2010 wire recording): —or anything like that?

Steve Powell (from July 7, 2010 wire recording): —no, never, no. No, it wouldn’t get denied. I mean, if she’d applied for passport under her name, she’s, she hasn’t done anything. She’s never, that I know of, but I mean I, no, I don’t think so. I think that we probably, I mean I suppose she could’ve committed a felony at some point, I don’t know, but I don’t think so.

Derryl Spencer: I’m just like “and I need, I need evidence.” I’m like “Brazil’s a big country. I mean that’s, I mean, this is a needle in a haystack.” I’m like “can you prove to me that they’re there? Show me.”

Dave Cawley: In the middle of the interview, Steve’ phone rang.

(Sound of phone ringing)

Steve Powell (from July 7, 2010 wire recording): Let me see if that’s Josh. Hang on. Hello?

Dave Cawley: It was Josh.

Steve Powell (from July 7, 2010 wire recording): Yeah, Josh. I’m here in this meeting with the Marshals here. What’s up? I’m at the library. Did you want to come and pick that thing up and sign for it or whatever? It’s just a CD, right?

Derryl Spencer (from July 7, 2010 wire recording): Yeah.

Steve Powell (from July 7, 2010 wire recording): What’s, what’s on that?

Derryl Spencer (from July 7, 2010 wire recording): A bunch of family photos.

Dave Cawley: Police had terabytes of his digital data and Derryl had brought that single 700 megabyte CD?

Steve Powell (from July 7, 2010 wire recording): Now is this something that, yeah because see we have all kinds of photos and this might be just stuff we already have anyway. So it’s like, y’know, Josh just feels like it’s a slap in the face. It’s an insult. You’re talking about 5 terabytes of data and they’re sending this over. Y’know, it’s just ridiculous.

Dave Cawley: Derryl redirected Steve back to the topic of Susan and Brazil.

Derryl Spencer: Show me. I said “I’m going to take this information and I’m gonna have to sell it to people who pay my bills to go places.” And I said “what you’ve given me right now is not enough.” I said “this just sounds like a story at this point in time.” And so he tried his best to prove to me that, y’know, those two, umm, were in a relationship, that they were having an affair for quite some time and that they were, y’know, they ran away, they got married and then they went down, y’know, to uh, went down to Brazil.

Dave Cawley: Steve was careful to avoid the topic of his own lust for Susan, until Derryl asked him about it.

Derryl Spencer (from July 7, 2010 wire recording): Is it true that Susan was in love with you?

Steve Powell (from July 7, 2010 wire recording): Yeah. Yeah.

Derryl Spencer (from July 7, 2010 wire recording): That’s true?

Steve Powell (from July 7, 2010 wire recording): That’s true.

Derryl Spencer (from July 7, 2010 wire recording): Ok.

Steve Powell (from July 7, 2010 wire recording): Y’know, girls fall in love with their high school teachers, y’know? They fall in love with their, y’know, it’s just a, it’s like an infatuation and that kind of a thing. So, that’s the truth, she was. And it didn’t really change.

Dave Cawley: Steve went on to claim, without any proof, that Susan had been suicidal, that she’d abused her sons and that she’d felt noncommittal about her religion.

Steve Powell (from July 7, 2010 wire recording): Y’know, Susan had every Wednesday and Thursday off and uh, and she’s claimed that she was going to the temple frequently on those Wednesdays and Thursdays.

Derryl Spencer: Y’know, Susan would go do temple work during the week and he told me that Susan never actually went to do that, that she was meeting with, with, with this Steve character. Umm, so y’know, I just took that for what it was.

Dave Cawley: Derryl’s interview with Steve proved fruitless. In the days and weeks that followed, Derryl went to work attempting to disprove the theory that Susan’s disappearance was linked to the Steven Koecher case.

Derryl Spencer: I was never able to confirm that she had attempted to get a passport, let alone had a passport, even under a potential alias that she might have used. Kinda the same thing with Steve. Was never able to corroborate any passport information. I had also kind of flagged the names with the State Department. They had no record of, of her leaving or coming and going from the country in any way, shape or form. So that also helped in kinda dialing, y’know, possibly. So I also ran Steven Koecher’s. There’s no evidence that he had left the country either. So, I felt like one of those probably would have tripped up the system at some level to show that they left the country. There was no corroborating, no empirical evidence to connect Brazil to Susan’s location at that point in time.

Dave Cawley: Derryl also did his due diligence with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Derryl Spencer: They were helpful. But they, y’know, the church does not keep a written record of, of temple work. At that point in time they didn’t, they might do that now. But at that point in time, they did not document who actually came and did temple work that day. Umm, I think the individual temple collected that information but there was not a database that we could pull to, to get that information so we’ve kinda discredited that as well.

Dave Cawley: In the end, the entire exercise with Steve Powell served as nothing more than misdirection.

Derryl Spencer: He was doing his, I mean it’s obvious. His goals were to derail the investigation, to steer us as far away from possible what was really happening and what was going on, just to get us away from him so that they could, y’know, live in the uh, peaceful Puyallup home that they had created. But that was obvious.

[Scene transition]

Dave Cawley: As the summer of 2010 stretched on, Derryl kept pushing his colleagues at the West Valley City police department to go hands-on with Josh.

Derryl Spencer: I mean, I run a fugitive task force. My, my role in the community is a little bit different than a regular cop’s. I’m not here to help you cross the street. I’m not here to help you change a flat tire. My sole purpose, umm, Congress funds my task force, for us to chase down violent fugitives. And you don’t do that by hugging and holding hands. It’s a, it’s an aggressive job and we hurt a lot of feelings in the process. But y’know, sometimes if you ask nicely, people will just lie to you and want you to go away. So you need to, you need to think outside the box. And that’s constantly what we’re trying to do. And so that’s what I brought to this investigation.“Let’s, ‘kay, we haven’t done this, let’s do this. Hey, let’s, let’s get crazy today. Let’s be aggressive on this case. What, what do you say?” And uh, y’know, it was, it was frustrating because a lot of times I felt like I would bring these, these ideas to the table and it would be like “ok, sounds good.”

Dave Cawley: Derryl’s involvement also started to raise eyebrows up the chain of command. He and detective Ellis Maxwell were at that point several months into their hunt for Summer the stripper.

Derryl Spencer: So we’re getting to that point where the Marshal Service is just like “what are we doing here? Why are we spending thousands and thousands of dollars to, to allow you to work this investigation? We’re flying you all over the country to do these things. We’re paying overtime to task force officers.” I mean, the Department of Justice and Marshal Service was, was dumping a lot of money into this investigation and at one point in time, a higher-up in the investigative branch, uh, reaches out to us and was like “What are you guys doing? If they’re not going to help you work this case, you’re done.” Like “we don’t go out and solve, y’know, crimes and put this together.” So the headquarters was starting to realize like, this is out of our scope. If they’re not going to be more proactive, we’re not going to allow you to do this any more.

Dave Cawley: At the start of November 2010, West Valley police went to Puyallup.

Derryl Spencer: Right before this happens, Marshal Service basically says “you’re done.”

Dave Cawley: The police planned to confront Josh and Steve about Susan’s childhood journals.

Derryl Spencer: This meeting needed to happen. Like, I couldn’t let it be. So, umm, nobody really knows this but I paid for my own ticket to go up there. I just, I, I, I thought if I pushed headquarters a little bit more, they were going to flat out be like “no Derryl, don’t go.” Umm, and I didn’t, it’s almost like “mom says no, I’ll go ask dad.” I just thought “well, how about I don’t ask mom or dad and I just handle it.” So I paid for my own ticket. Umm, I’m on my own dime. Uh, Ellis was already up there and I said “get a double room, I’m crashing with you.” So I went up there, he picked me up at the airport super late at night.

Dave Cawley: So, Derryl returned to the Powell house on November 16th, 2010 with West Valley police Lieutenant Bill Merritt, who he introduced as a U.S. Marshall. 

Derryl Spencer: I felt pretty good about this interaction with the Powells, for a couple reasons. Number one, I’m back in the house and so I think things are moving forward and we’re, we’re, we’re still facilitating conversation which is good, right? And I’ll never forget, uh, Charlie and Braden, the boys, were playing at my feet. And, y’know, I have two sons and so this was like “we’ve gotta fix this.” Like, “we’ve gotta, we’ve gotta make this right.”

Dave Cawley: They talked with Josh and Steve for about an hour and a half, making the case that the Powell family should provide the Marshals with Susan’s childhood journals.

Derryl Spencer: It was the first time I had seen it, but Josh was starting, starting to stand up to Steve and question him on things and they started to bicker, like pretty, pretty aggressively. Like, almost like, borderline domestic. And I’m just sitting on the couch and I’m just like so happy this is happening and watching these two, two argue and fight. The negotiations ensued about this whole thing, like “well can we just get a copy of it?” And then, of course now Steve and Josh are trying to pretend like they’re too computer stupid to figure this whole thing out.

Dave Cawley: The Powells never did end up handing over Susan’s journals and Derryl found himself off the case for good after that. A little over a year later, Josh murdered his sons and took his own life. Steve Powell was, at the time, in the Pierce County Jail.

Derryl Spencer: They went and interviewed him at the jail and he wouldn’t talk to them and he said, uh, he told investigators “if that damn Marshal would have done what I told him, this never would have happened.” So y’know, even at this stage in the investigation and the relationship I’d developed with these two jokers, like they’re still, they’re blaming me for this. Uh, which is, has never really sat well with me, not that, not that neither one of those individuals depict how I feel throughout the day but it was, it was pretty dark to kinda, like these, these, these guys are blaming me for this type thing, like, like I didn’t do my job well enough to find Susan.

Dave Cawley: Derryl Spencer should not bear the blame for what happened to the boys, even though he wishes he could have prevented it. Ultimately, responsibility rests with Josh.

Derryl Spencer: I think people underestimated the darkness and the demons that were Josh and Steve.

Dave Cawley: Derryl, a Marine who served his country in combat and who’s spent his career as a Marshal dealing with violent, dangerous criminals, told me he had the Powells pegged from the get-go. 

Derryl Spencer: I picked up on it right away. I’m like, these, these two, there’s something going on here. There’s, there, this is not right. This is, I did not have a good feeling and I immediately knew that they were capable of making a woman disappear. I could tell. In my gut, in my heart like I knew, like that this, they were involved in this. No doubt about it.

Dave Cawley: And Derryl doubts Susan’s body will ever be found.

Derryl Spencer: There’s no doubt in my mind. Not one sliver of, he did this. There’s no doubt about it. There’s no question in my mind. I knew this throughout the course of the investigation, umm, and it was so frustrating because I, I felt like we had enough evidence. Let’s get this, let’s get him into custody, let’s solve this problem and let’s build, let’s finish building the case from there. We have mechanisms, legal, just, mechanisms that we can take him into custody and hold him in a facility while we finish this investigation and we can get a better control of it. And I just didn’t feel like the district attorney’s office was supportive of that. They, y’know, we would present facts and then “here’s where we’re at.” And, and they kept denying it. And they kept denying it, which was frustrating. I’m not surprised how this ended. I’m just not.

Cold season 1, bonus 1: Anatomy of an Audio Journal – Full episode transcript

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): I do need to be treated well. That’s probably one of the most important considerations in relationships.

Dave Cawley: Josh Powell’s recorded audio journals are one of the most unique and bizarre aspects of the Susan Powell case. When discovered by police, they provided nothing in the way of evidence. But they say so much about who Josh was and how he thought.

This is a bonus episode of Cold: Anatomy of an Audio Journal. I’m Dave Cawley, and I’m speaking with Dr. Matt Woolley, a clinical psychologist based in Salt Lake City, Utah. At my request, Matt reviewed one of Josh’s audio journals from December, 2000. Now, we’re going to talk about it.

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): Susan has been really sweet to me. It’s been overall a really good relationship and in, in many ways, possibly the best relationship overall I’ve been in.

Dave Cawley: You and I are in a small group of people who’ve actually had the chance to listen to one of these Josh Powell audio journals in whole.

Matt Woolley: Yeah. (Laughs)

Dave Cawley: What was that experience like for you?

Matt Woolley: Umm, kind of a mix of, of very interesting and tedious. Right? Because he does spend a lot of time just cataloging and kind of talking about the mundane aspects of his day and what he’s doing. The one we shared, the one I listened to, y’know, he talks about moving in to his apartment and then he describes the various things in his apartment.

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): That apartment, 11016 Waller Road East, apartment F304, is a very comfortable apartment. It’s, it’s big enough to have parties with a lot of people, to eat comfortably, to watch movies comfortably. And I’ve been thinking lately that that apartment might be sufficient to start off a marriage in, if I were to get married.

Matt Woolley: He says some interesting things. Even how he says those things are interesting perhaps to a trained listener like a psychologist because it reflects certain aspects of his personality. But as far as them being full of juicy details, it’s just, y’know, he’s excited that he has a complete DVD collection of Disney and, y’know, the, the, the d—, the, the, the reasons behind why he’s talking about those things may be more interesting but I have to admit, it got a little tedious at times—

Dave Cawley: Here’s a bit—

Matt Woolley: —as anyone’s daily journal would, I would think. Right?

Dave Cawley: Right?

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): At this point, I’m honestly satisfied with my DVD collection, y’know, with a few exceptions. I’ve got a lot of Disney cartoons. I’ve got the Rogers and Hammerstine collection, some holiday and festive videos. Christmas, Mickey’s Christmas, umm, Miracle, It’s a Wonderful Life, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Rudolph, Christmas Story, The Nightmare Before Christmas, the Charlie Brown holiday series with Christmas, Thanksgiving and, and Halloween.

Dave Cawley: One of the things that kind of blew me away about it when I first heard it is, this recording starts with Josh Powell saying, uh, “continuing on from…”

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): Here is is, December 13th, year 2000 still. I ran out of space on the card in this recorder. So I’m going to finish up this journal entry here.

Matt Woolley: Right.

Dave Cawley: …so he’s been talking before. And now he’s going to talk for another hour and 20 minutes.

Matt Woolley: Yeah.

Dave Cawley: I mean, so, he’s committed a significant portion of his day to recording this material. And—

Matt Woolley: Right.

Dave Cawley: —you would think if you’re going to invest that much time and effort, it would be “today was a really big day and here’s why.”

Matt Woolley: Mmhmm.

Dave Cawley: And instead what we hear is “uh, y’know, I want to talk about my debt and, y’know, what I’m doing with my credit cards and…”

Matt Woolley: Right. And if you notice, I’d be interested if you saw this as well, but my feeling was the way he describes a lot of things are sort of literature-like. Instead of just casual conversation, the way you might efficiently speak about what you did that day, I think is where you were going with that is—

Dave Cawley: Mmhmm.

Matt Woolley: —he instead describes things in, in unnecessary detail in an, in sort of a narcissistic way, as if somebody is ever going to care about this. That it’s somehow important, precious information about him, eh, that some day future generations or other people might take a real interest in what he was doing that day. Just the mundane, everything would somehow be interesting and important. So I felt like it was very much a, y’know, it’s a narcissistic activity. It reflects back on himself his own self-importance that, that nobody ever would truly care about.

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): So I need to spend a little more time taking care of this. I’ve got to scan a lot of papers to get, get rid of the actual paperwork. Then I’ve got to organize a bunch of files in my computer. And I’d really like to reformat my hard drive and re-install things a lot cleaner.

Matt Woolley: To him, in his mind and this, and this is fairly young in his, before his marriage, uh, kind of this developing delusion of his grandiosity.

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): My current financial system of using multiple debit cards is something I’d came up with a few months ago. It seems like it was probably back in May or June when I came up with the idea.

Dave Cawley: And is this something, because I hear the question a lot from people who’ve listened the podcast and they’re surprised at all of these journals—

Matt Woolley: Mmhmm.

Dave Cawley: —you’ve got Josh keeping this audio journal. You have Steve writing just, y’know, all of these pages and pages of, of his journal. Uh, you even have Susan journaling a little bit—

Matt Woolley: Yep, yep.

Dave Cawley: —and, and so where does it cross the line from being “hey, that’s a little unusual” to “wow, that’s really strange” in your mind?

Matt Woolley: Well, first of all you have to put it in context. So, they both grew up in the LDS faith and in the LDS church journaling is highly encouraged. So, y’know, the fact that Susan kept childhood and adolescent journals wouldn’t necessarily be unusual, per se. But this, this complete cataloguing of his life, which is what he did not what she did, that’s where it kind of crosses over. Typically, journaling is a mundane activity for the journaler. And so people tend to be fairly efficient with it, if they journal at all. He liked technology and so he was drawn towards this new technology, well not necessarily new but he was on the edge—

Dave Cawley: Yeah.

Matt Woolley: —of digitally recording audio and video. But, umm, where it becomes, I think, uh, crosses a line from kind of odd to very strange is the number of hours that, that are, that are involved. Which, like you said, an hour, I don’t have an hour and 20 minutes in my day to, to do something fun—

Dave Cawley: I don’t, I don’t think many of us do, right?

Matt Woolley: —let alone, yeah. Right. And so that, just the, the sheer minutes and hours, literally hours involved in his audio and some video is incredible. And then the fact that they really are about very, uh, mundane sorts of things. He does get into describing what you might see in a journal a little bit more often like feelings and thoughts about things. However, then it becomes even more kind of this, as if he’s reading a book. It, it, he extends out his descriptions of things well beyond what you’d want to do if you were trying to efficiently record your thoughts and feelings.

And so I’d say those sorts of things combined, plus the fact that it’s really ego-centric, meaning the self. It’s all about him and his thoughts and his feelings about everything. Which, of course, somebody’s listening saying “well, it’s his journal.” But there’s very little indication that he is contemplating or processing the thoughts and feelings and behaviors of other people, other people’s motives in his life or what, how they think and how they feel. There’s really no indication that he’s thinking “oh, I wish I could make someone else happy today.” Y’know, it’s all about his own things, his, his description of how great his, I remember he said he spent $300 on a DVD player and I remember when they used to be expensive like that.

Dave Cawley: Right.

Matt Woolley: Right?

Dave Cawley: Right.

Matt Woolley: So he’s wanting to, y’know, kind of highlight that he has very nice things.

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): I don’t really regret the DVD player. It was, uh, about a $300 purchase and now I’ve got the, y’know, hundreds of dollars-worth of DVDs that I’ve accumulated over the last couple of months. I don’t think that was really a, a problem. I don’t regret it at all.

Matt Woolley: There at times is kind of a “poor me,” sort of picked-on, y’know, attitude that I’m, I’m special but people aren’t recognizing it. So I think all of those factors together really tip the scales into the fact that this is well beyond a typical journal, but the, the highlight is just the number of hours, is y’know, I doubt, y’know, the president has quite so much audio on him.

Dave Cawley: Right. I’m glad you brought up the point about how he seems to lack this empathy for other people. Uh, there’s one particular passage in my mind where he’s talking about “I’m trying to be more active with friends.”

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): Up at UW Seattle it was really, you became a number. I didn’t like that environment. Down in Tacoma, I feel like I have an opportunity to make friends with people where I never could up in Seattle except in church.

Dave Cawley: It’s better now that I’m in Tacoma and I’m hosting these get-togethers where people come over, and isn’t this great.

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): I started a tradition of inviting people over every Sunday and after a few weeks that progressed into a tradition where we just get together as a group, pretty much the same core.

Dave Cawley: And then a little bit later in the recording he comes back and says…

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): People come over to my house and instead of eating what I’m offering them, they come in and say “oh” — they look in my freezer — “oh, I want to make orange juice to go with dinner.” And “I want to put this with my dinner.” Well, eventually when they start doing that, it gets extremely expensive to have these dinners and so I’ve felt like that has, uh, been a, a burden that I can’t take these days.

Dave Cawley: There might be some normal annoyance that most of us would feel at going, y’know, “I’m kind of a poor college student, I don’t have the resources.” But at the same time, there’s almost a shift in the way his voice sounds in my ear—

Matt Woolley: Yeah.

Dave Cawley: —that this is more than just annoyance. Like, this is “how dare they?”

Matt Woolley: Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right. It’s uh, they’ve gone out of bounds of his expectation and he wants to put them back in those boundaries. So, I think specifically he said people will get something out of the fridge and say “oh, I’d like to add this to the meal.” And we don’t know what those things were but, but most likely since he was a poor college student, it might’ve been salad dressing for all we know. Nothing that, y’know, people aren’t, y’know, unthawing his meat supply for the year.

Dave Cawley: It’s not steaks. Yeah, yeah.

Matt Woolley: Right, exactly. And so, I think absolutely there’s a shift in his tone and temper in his voice when he talks about this, this really bothers him. That “how dare they” is definitely a good way to describe the feeling you get when you listen to that shift. How dare they do something in my home that I didn’t intend? Y’know, they’re here to become my friends. And so there’s no reciprocity there and there’s also no acknowledgement that maybe he was popular for a minute. People enjoy being there. They’re comfortable enough to go into his fridge. A different alternative perspective would be like “oh, it’s awesome,” y’know, “people come over and they, they help themselves to stuff. I’m really making real friends.” But no, it was, he can’t control what they’re doing in his environment and it bothers him.

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): At this point, of course, I’m only seeing Susan and I have been for about a month now.

Dave Cawley: This also is really important in my mind because we know that it’s during one of these Sunday dinners that he hosted that he and Susan really hit it off. He didn’t go into it as much in this particular recording but in some of the others that were used in, in Cold, you hear him describe, y’know, Susan after the meal got up and, and was cleaning the dishes—

Matt Woolley: Right.

Dave Cawley: —and that’s when we fell in love.

Matt Woolley: (Laughs)

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): Uh, I think I might’ve asked for help doing to the dishes and she volunteered so we were doing dishes together and I guess she liked that so much that she decided she really likes me.

Dave Cawley: It’s so hard for my mind to understand a 24, 25-year-old guy who meets this, y’know, cute 19-year-old and in none of these recordings, this one included, does he ever say anything about, y’know, she is so, I, I am head over heels for her—

Matt Woolley: Right.

Dave Cawley: —she is so this, that or the other. It’s—

Matt Woolley: None of that typical language.

Dave Cawley: —it’s how she serves me, how she takes care of me.

Matt Woolley: Oh yeah, very specifically. Umm, he, I, I have, if you listen to what, this, this section and then the, the Cold episodes, you obviously see that he has a plan. He is attending church functions, uh, social functions put on by his church, with the primary goal of dating. Trying to find somebody. Complains that girls don’t call him back.

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): I sometimes have difficulty finding girls who are willing to return my phone calls, go out with me. I’ve had over the last, uh, three or four months, I’ve called a number of girls who never returned my phone calls or who always said they were too busy to go out with me.

Matt Woolley: He’s very much in, on the hunt so to speak, for finding a girlfriend and I assume then later a wife. And when he finds Susan, she has these traits that he just has been looking for. She’s very, uh, kind. He said she does, y’know, nice things for him.

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): She’s the first girl I’ve known, that I’ve been dating, who has had a car, who comes to visit me. And y’know, in the past I’ve always been the one to pick up a girl, whether she’s visiting me or I’m visiting her, I’m always the one to do the driving so that’s a great thing.

Matt Woolley: He specifically mentions that she jumps in and does the dishes, that she washes her hands and puts everything back after she uses the bathroom. And it only takes a minute to do that.

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): She also tends to help me clean up, like after we have a party or, or after we have dinner together at my place or something. She helps me clean it up and keeps the kitchen clean. Like when she washes her hands in the bathroom, she wipes up the sink. Which I do, too. I like to keep all that clean. It only takes a second to keep things looking really nice.

Matt Woolley: And it really is all about her serving him, her doing things for him. Her making him feel good and special. Respecting his things, the opposite of what the other guests were doing in the home. She’s putting things back, cleaning up, doing the dishes and then doing nice things for him. And then, in this journal that we listened to there’s also a section where, I mean, this is a hard-working girl. She works very hard. Uh, she goes to beauty school all day, works at J.C. Penney and then drives to his house to meet him and, and serve him again.

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): It really shows that she cares. For her to come over here after her long day and make it a point to see me every day…

Matt Woolley: And so he’s, I think, just found the ideal, in his mind, person to feed his narcissistic self-perception that he’s special and deserves to be treated that way.

Dave Cawley: Yeah. There, as I recall, is a, a particular where he talks about when they started dating. And, uh, he almost sounds a little defensive in saying “well, this was really Susan’s idea,” and y’know, “I wasn’t sure that I wanted to give up all these other options.”

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): When I started getting serious with Susan, it was mainly her idea. I was very hesitant to get into a relationship because I was finally feeling confident about dating and I didn’t want to let go of all my relationships that I could potentially develop.

Dave Cawley: Right after he’s told us that he really has no other options because girls won’t give him the time of day.

Matt Woolley: (Laughs) Right, right.

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): Sometimes I feel like I can’t reach any girls anywhere, that for some reason or another, they won’t give me the, a chance to even go out with them.

Matt Woolley: But in his mind, being a special, precious person that’s deserving of adoration, he must have many, many options. He just hasn’t found them yet. Like—

Dave Cawley: Or, or convinced them yet.

Matt Woolley: Or convinced them yet, yeah. Let them, or given them the privilege. I mean, it’s all of that—

Dave Cawley: Right, right.

Matt Woolley: —self-absorbed, narcissistic thinking and uh, and he even kind of brushes her off at one point when, I think, was it the roommate or the friend was interested in her?

Dave Cawley: Mmhmm.

Matt Woolley: Y’know, he’s like “well,” y’know, “I just,” y’know, “he could have her.” Y’know, he was very nonchalant about it.

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): Tim and I were sort of flirting with her and Tim got her phone number and eventually called her. I was, I gave her my phone number, I didn’t, y’know, everyone was teasing me and I didn’t want to really get her phone number and do what everyone is teasing me that I always do. I didn’t want to be the second person to get it after Tim already got her phone number. Whatever the reasons, I just kind of let it go to some extent.

Matt Woolley: But of course, at that point when he’s saying that, she’d already come around to, to liking him so it was a no-risk way of brushing it off. He knew she was hooked on him.

Dave Cawley: Yeah. That’s a great observation, because there was a competition happening there, I think, for a short time for Susan’s attention between Josh and this particular friend.

Matt Woolley: Yeah.

Dave Cawley: And, and it’s interesting to see the way, uh, he goes back and describes in some other recordings, y’know, when he and Susan met that friend was there and, y’know, was she paying attention to me? Was she paying attention to him?

Matt Woolley: Yeah.

Dave Cawley: And this kind of, uh, this kinda tug-of-war about, y’know, if she pays attention to him, then she’s worthless and I don’t care about her.

Matt Woolley: Absolutely. Not worth going after. Where, y’know, I mean, that, that, y’know, male competition for a girl when you’re in college, of course, happens all the time. But you would probably have somebody in Josh’s position who’s a normally functioning person have a very different approach, which is like, “what can I do to win her?” Like, what can I do? Y’know, she’s seeming to pay attention to my roommate or my friend more than me, but I really like her. Y’know, she’s the light of my life. I’ve got to have her. I’m gonna do this and that. None of that.

Dave Cawley: Mmhmm.

Matt Woolley: None of that from Josh. Josh is just like “oh, well you’re, yeah, worthless. You, you have no value if you’re not all about me.”

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000? audio journal recording): I was feeling very frustrated about dating in general. I didn’t want to have anything to do with any girl. I was feeling like I might have too difficult a time finding someone who will treat me the way I want to be treated.

Dave Cawley: There was a section in the recording that I want to ask you about, umm, in particular because it really hit me when I listened to it the first time and it hasn’t really dulled as I’ve gone back and listened to it on, y’know, repeat listens. And that is this section where Josh describes Susan and her anger.

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): I’ve seen her upset, like that day we were moving and I’ve certainly wasn’t thrilled about that. I wanna see that, that she keeps those kinds of things under control and also the way she treats other people. Like, she comes up, she has an attitude with some people like her sister or some of her friends, that she just needs to keep that under control. Which, I just want to see that she’s doing that for quite a long time before I even feel comfortable with, with her completely. And partly I’m concerned about how she would treat me, if she would pull that attitude on me, which would be completely unacceptable. I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t accept that at all. And secondly, I wouldn’t want someone to come up with some, any kind of attitude with, with our kids.

Matt Woolley: That’s the essence of it. It really isn’t about the kids. A part of a, a narcissist is, they feed themselves their own story, uh, over and over again and kind of reinforcing their own self-worth and their own self-importance. And part of that is being like a good person. Like, I’m better than the rest of you. I’m smarter. Uh, in this case, uh, I’m more righteous and moral. I’m above the rest of you. And so he would say things, in my opinion, in these audio journals, they’re really messages to himself. Like, oh I don’t know that I should choose a woman like this because it might be bad for my future children. But then he goes on to talk about what the real underlying thrust is, I want to get a woman who will serve me all the time, be subservient. And she has a little bit of her own gumption.

Dave Cawley: Yeah.

Matt Woolley: And I, and I think that if we were, if we had been able to see, y’know, examples of what he’s talking about, it probably would’ve been a normal 19-year-old girl, oh I think he uses the word “attitude”—

Dave Cawley: Mmhmm.

Matt Woolley: —“she has an attitude.” Well, of course. She’s 19 and she’s an individual person. She’s gonna have a little attitude when people, when things don’t go her way. That’s—

Dave Cawley: And, and especially dealing with a personality like Josh’s.

Matt Woolley: Of course. He’s very controlling and—

Dave Cawley: Yeah.

Matt Woolley: —rigid and, and so yeah. When she pushed back on him a little bit, we don’t know exactly what that was—

Dave Cawley: Mmhmm.

Matt Woolley: —in dating, which I would assume was very normal and typical. The, the average person would probably look at that and say “oh yeah, that’s, she’s just being, she’s asserting herself as a normal human.” Uh, he, he did, he was worried about that. He was worried that “oh I may,” y’know, “I may not be able to control this woman the way I want to control her ‘cause she’s got a little bit of an attitude.” But then he turns it into this whole morphing of maybe she’d be abusive to the future children.

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): I mean, I think that would screw up my kids to have someone to have a mother who isn’t stable enough with them.

Matt Woolley: That sort of theme plays out later, when after she’s gone missing and the, the investigation is on, when Josh and his father Steve are going through her childhood journals trying to prove that she was abused and she was abusive to the kids and making these stories, just fabricating stories about her abusiveness. And you could see that he was toying with that idea before they were even married—

Dave Cawley: Yeah.

Matt Woolley: —as sort of an, uh, an out or an escape, a way to blame her for problems.

Dave Cawley: Right. Yeah, rather than self-reflect and go “maybe she’s upset with me because A, B, C, or D, it’s just because she has this problem—”

Matt Woolley: Right.

Dave Cawley: “—and she’s gotta get that solved—”

Matt Wooley: Yeah.

Dave Cawley: “before,” y’know, “I will ever consider…”

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): So Susan is always talking about marriage with me. The other day she said something like “would you let me propose to you?” And I didn’t really know what to say so I didn’t say anything. But, uh, first of all, I wouldn’t want a girl to propose to me at all. I would find that probably very uncomfortable. And secondly, I’m not really ready to, to get engaged with Susan anyway. I at least want to get to know her over the long run and see how she is, if, if her, uh, personality changes. Like, I want to see how she can handle stress and, and whether she has patience and stuff in the long run.

Matt Woolley: I think if, people who’ve listened to your podcast, they’ll recognize a theme. And that is that he sees things as kind of a zero-sum game. As plus and minus. Things are either an asset to me or they’re a liability to me. And there, there is very little, if any, I don’t recall anything I’ve read or heard that would make me indicate he has true empathy. He fakes sympathy and empathy at times.

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): I was helping her move and she was in a really stressed-out mood and she wasn’t really being very nice. Well afterwards, and I was just somewhat understanding, I guess. I wasn’t being really rude to her in response but afterwards, she felt really bad so she was going out of her way to just make it up to me, do little nice things for me.

Matt Woolley: The way normal, typical, healthy adults interact is we may be upset with each other in our marriages or relationships but we can, y’know, calm down and empathize and realize “ok, I understand why he or she was thinking this way or that way or feeling this way or that way.” And that helps us compromise and work with people, make real, genuine connections. Umm, but he, he didn’t have that. There’s nothing that I am aware of that is an example of him doing that. It’s just “she needs to serve my needs and if she’s not serving my needs and I can’t make her serve me, then she goes from an asset to a liability.”

And that’s exactly what we see happen over time as she found her own voice, so to speak. Uh, started, uh contemplating the idea that maybe he wouldn’t change. Maybe they did need to divorce and I’m sure there were lots and lots of conversations none of us will ever be privy to that planted ideas in his mind that “she’s going to become a liability. She’s a liability now. I need to eliminate that liability.” But that goes way back—

Dave Cawley: Yeah.

Matt Woolley: —to this, uh, audio journal of shortly just, what, weeks after they met?

Dave Cawley: When Josh records this audio journal, they’ve been dating for about a month and they’re about a month away from being engaged.

Matt Woolley: Yeah. (Laughs)

Dave Cawley: And it’s stunning to me that you hear Josh in this recording say “eh, y’know, Susan’s kind of been the one driving this and I don’t have this,” and less than a month later, he is, he is all in.

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): I realized that she was serious, that she wasn’t going to just start something and walk away. And at this point, I am confident that she, that she is sincere.

Dave Cawley: He recognizes at some point during that span of time that she meets those criteria that you’re looking for—

Matt Woolley: Uh huh.

Dave Cawley: —as you described, and if you don’t lock her in—

Matt Woolley: Mmhmm.

Dave Cawley: —she will leave.

Matt Woolley: Right.

Dave Cawley: And, and maybe it’s, uh, you and I talked a little bit about this kind of idea of a narcissist having a, a protective front—

Matt Woolley: Mmhmm.

Dave Cawley: —and maybe there is that, that, y’know, little piece inside, that voice that’s going “you gotta commit her before she finds out who you really are.”

Matt Woolley: Yeah, I think that’s, that’s absolutely the truth. Umm, I’m, I’m sure he was worried about he’s found the perfect girl for him, meets all his criteria, his check, checklist and she could get away.

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): Felt like I had to make a decision: either get with her exclusively, right then and there and let all these other girls go that I have tentatively scheduled dates with or that I’ve been talking to and that I’ve been planning to ask out any day now. Uh, I either had to let all of those girls go or get with her, to get with her. Or let her go to continue the things the way they were. So that was a very scary step.

Matt Woolley: One way to think of a, a narcissistic personality — and I’ll, I’ll just take a side-step and say personality as the psychologist thinks of it is our way of perceiving, understanding and interacting with the world. And it’s kind of auto-pilot. It’s how we do what we do when we’re not thinking about what we’re doing. It’s just us. And so it’s a very ingrained part of who we are. It is who we are. So most of our personality traits, quirky as they may be are healthy—

Dave Cawley: Mmhmm.

Matt Woolley: —and, uh, capable of us reflecting on them and realizing we may need to improve in certain areas of our life and if you’ve been married then you know there’s someone there to help you reflect on that.

Dave Cawley: Right, yeah, right.

Matt Woolley: And, and, and that can be a hard process—

Dave Cawley: Right.

Matt Woolley: —but a good one. And a, a narcissist typically you may think of them as somebody who’s not building a genuine personality structure. It’s kind of this facade, at least at first its this facade of competency. I’m special, I’m important. And it has to be perfect and pristine and, uh, elevated above everyone else because it’s false. Y’know, he was, a lot of people have told me “oh wow, he was very intelligent.” And we look through the things, we look through the report and we say “ok, he’s above average in intelligence.” But it was a particular kind. It had nothing to do with, uh, really creativity, flexibility, fluid intelligence wasn’t his thing. Interpersonal intelligence was not his thing. Uh, it was very much this mathematical type of intelligence. And it was, so kind of fits that cold exterior. His narcissistic armor, so to speak, this facade, is what he would invest all his time in. That’s who he’s talking to a lot of the time on these tapes is just building up this sense of “I’m special and precious.”

So you think of it as kind of a facade and the real person underneath kind of shrinks year after year after year. But at some point, y’know, when you’re still younger, you’re in your 20s, there may be some of that left that goes “Josh, you’ve gotta lock her down or she’s gonna get away. She’s gonna find out that you’re really not that great.” And so, over time that voice gets smaller and smaller as the narcissistic personality develops a thicker skin. And then the person essentially becomes that false person—

Dave Cawley: Hmm.

Matt Woolley: —in a way. And so I think absolutely he, he probably jumped on getting her locked down in marriage as quickly as he could because during the short period of time of dating, uh, she was demonstrating she needed, she could be who he wanted.

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): She seems like someone I could be with because she’s got the same values in, uh, conserving energy, keeping the house clean, uh, which is important to me.

Matt Woolley: And what we know about Susan is she was attractive, uh, vivacious, energetic. Probably somebody that had a lot of offers for, for dating.

Dave Cawley: And she was just at 19 kind of entering that phase of her life where you would transition from maybe, y’know, boyfriend-girlfriend into, into some of these more serious relationships. And I think a lot of, uh, young adults in that, in that space, they go through a few relationships that, that fail and—

Matt Woolley: Mmhmm.

Dave Cawley: —and they learn along the way and they develop some of those skills.

Matt Woolley: Mmhmm.

Dave Cawley: And I personally look at, y’know, Susan and Josh and see that in some ways, marrying Josh when she did appears to have stunted Susan’s development a little bit.

Matt Woolley: Absolutely.

Dave Cawley: And it’s not until later in her, in her later 20s after she’s kind of had a, a gut full of it that she begins developing a little more independence in stepping out—

Matt Woolley: Mmhmm.

Dave Cawley: —and that puts her in conflict with her husband.

Matt Woolley: Oh yeah, very well said. Umm, that’s one of the, as, as a psychologist and working with people, umm, I’m always concerned when an 18, 19, even 20-year-old says they wanna get married. That, y’know, can work out, I know. Uh, however, that person is giving up, regardless of whether the marriage works out of not, which may be a product more of the two people developing a good dynamic together and, and one of ‘em not being a psychopath, umm, that uh, that you give up that personal development, that young adult experience.

You’ve gone, and we actually have a term for it. It’s called individuating or becoming your own self and you’ve been raised, uh, and learned all the good things and had all the support from your family, your community, etcetera. And now you’re on your own, to some degree. Uh, you’re off to college, being more independent, and you need several years of experience, uh, with taking care of yourself, managing your own finances and maybe most importantly: relationships. How do you handle friendships? How do you handle intimacy?

And so developing competency in your ability to have intimate connection with other people requires practice. It’s not something we’re born with, necessarily. Some people might be a little better at it than the rest, but we need practice. And unfortunately, the time that she could have been practicing that in dating through college, unfortunately she got married.

Dave Cawley: Yeah.

Matt Woolley: And she got married to somebody that had, uh, very ill intentions for her.

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): In the worst case, I would probably end up moving back in with my dad, putting all my stuff into storage. I would probably pay $150 to $200 a month to store everything I own and, of course, that wouldn’t be ideal either.

Dave Cawley: Let’s talk about the broader Powell family dynamics that, uh, I, I think are kind of hinted at in this audio journal. You hear Josh talking about some of his interplay with his dad. What did you take away from that?

Matt Woolley: Umm, so I think there’s that, umm, competition between father and son. Umm, and y’know, like most boys growing up, he when he was younger, y’know, probably wanted his father’s attention and approval and that sort of thing. But when the divorce happens, then something different kind of takes over and takes place and, uh, that’s often referred to as a closed family system. And what I mean by that is, there was a divorce and, uh, the, very contentious. All the kids except for Jennifer, I believe, went with, with the father, with Steve. Josh, there was a, a, maybe a few weeks or months there where he was trying, he and his younger brother were trying to spend some time with mom but she was trying to set some, what seemed like appropriate limits and boundaries to establish, she’s come from this chaotic situation, establish an appropriate home life, uh, and hoping that Josh would give in to. And so he wouldn’t do that and he went back into this family system with his, uh, father. And a closed family system is kind of like circling the wagons, y’know, it’s us versus them. The rest of the world is bad or wrong or evil, typically, and we only can trust each other. Uh, there’s a lot of indoctrination of, kind of delusional, paranoid beliefs, typically, that are happening, which we know, umm, boundary-less.

Steve appears also to be a true narcissist with, y’know, a lot of sexual deviancies and so he would be kind of primed to have no boundaries with his children, that they were a possession of him. He owned them and could do with them what he wanted and so, uh, as they were younger I’m sure there was a lot of abuse and very questionable things that happened to those children in that home, uh, exposure to pornography maybe being the least of the concerns. And we know there was reports of sexual abuse and, and fantasies and things that were just very inappropriate for a child’s development. Josh pushes back, as a teenager would. And so there creates this competition and as soon as Josh quits just following dad’s word to the letter, then Josh becomes an enemy or a liability instead of an asset to Steve. And then Josh becomes maligned by his father as, as soon as his father sees his fiancé and, and then Susan becoming his wife, he wants to possess what Josh owns. And because he’s a sexually deviant, uh, narcissist, then it’s it’s a sexual obsession that is just remarkable.

I mean it’s, it’s unbelievable. The documentation and the, the self-aggrandizing that he has around this. He’ll even tell everyone about it. And he puts his son down. So there’s this tug back and forth during the early years of the marriage. Uh, Josh feels, uh, I think, uh, rebellion against his father and does a very odd rebellion and that is that maybe going to church and becoming an active member of the church was actually a rebellious act against his father, right?

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): I also have been praying almost every night and reading the scriptures at some point every day with, y’know, a few exceptions when I’ve, when I haven’t for one reason or another. But overall, I think I’ve done very well with those over the last many, many months.

Matt Woolley: His father at this point was a self-described anti-Mormon, very, taking every opportunity to run the church down publicly, personally. Uh, so the perfect rebellion against Steve, at that time, for Josh would be to become an active member of the church, number one. Number two, independent from his father. So back to the audio journal that we reviewed—

Dave Cawley: Mmhmm.

Matt Woolley: — umm, he’s talking very, very detailed, very, a lot of detail in his conversation about his independence, so to speak. He has food, he has an apartment, he has things. He’s planning to decrease his debt and be self-sufficient. And so, he’s rebelling against Steve. Whereas, most fathers, a typically functioning father, would be, that’s what you hope. You hope that your kid, you’d be praising them but I’m sure Steve wasn’t. Steve wants Josh to be dependent on him because Josh is just an extension of the narcissistic father.

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): I keep a substantial food supply. I probably have the largest food supply of anyone in my ward.

Matt Woolley: The rebellion going to church, the rebellion by being individual, uh, an individual who’s independent, plays into that relationship. But then Josh has to eat crow several times and move home and there’s that tension. Uh, however over time, Josh tends to develop and become more like his father. He takes on those, uh, harder narcissistic traits and uh, starts to align himself more with his father against his own, uh, wife. It eventually comes out that Steve propositioned Susan and Josh does very little about that, if anything. Whereas, most husbands would be, they’d be ready to fight dad—

Dave Cawley: Yeah.

Matt Woolley: —right? Like, “you kidding me?”

Dave Cawley: Yeah.

Matt Woolley: Your dad is, y’know, propositioning and, and then it’s the music he writes and the videos he shoots and the fantasies he shares. I mean, this is just a really, uh, sick focus but it’s a, he wants to possess what Josh has and push Josh out. Josh is now a liability and so Josh is fighting back. But eventually, Josh loses and Josh’s personality becomes more like his father. He aligns with his father against Susan. Susan now becomes Josh’s liability. So it’s, it’s, it’s umm, an interesting study in generational narcissism and how narcissistic parents can influence narcissistic children and they eventually become aligned in their narcissism. Maybe not in all of their behaviors and attitudes, but certainly in their narcissism.

Dave Cawley: I, in my head I’m thinking about, y’know, two ends of the, of a magnet, right? If you take—

Matt Woolley: Uh huh. (Laughs)

Dave Cawley: —two negative poles and try to push them together—

Matt Woolley: Yeah.

Dave Cawley: —they’re gonna repel each other.

Matt Woolley: Yep.

Dave Cawley: But yet there’s also, there seems to be this attraction between them.

Matt Woolley: Yeah. Yeah, it’s a push-pull, very conflict-based but kind of like you can’t tear ‘em apart.

Dave Cawley: Yeah.

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): Sometimes it feels to me like I do too much, that I’m giving away more than I can afford. Like, giving people rides up to Seattle and who knows where else when I really can’t even afford the gas.

Dave Cawley: We can draw this out and see what happens, uh, after Steve gets arrested where now Josh almost becomes the, the alpha, in a way. Umm—

Matt Woolley: Yeah.

Dave Cawley: —and this is going well beyond the audio journal but I do think it’s, because we’re talking about this interplay relationship, that when Steve goes to jail and Josh becomes kind of the de facto head of that household—

Matt Woolley: Mmhmm.

Dave Cawley: —now he’s the one who’s calling the shots. And I’ve talked to a number of people who were privy to, y’know, the jail phone calls and things of that time who said Josh really asserted himself as being the one who was in authority at that point, which I found interesting.

Matt Woolley: And probably, yeah, definitely an interesting observation and, but, but maybe somewhat predictable—

Dave Cawley: Yeah.

Matt Woolley: —because he’s been vying for that position. There’s not a healthy father-son relationship, where your dad becomes kind of a wise mentor in, as you, and is proud of you for having your own life. There’s none of that. The only way Josh gets any real validation is at first by pleasing his dad, and then later by taking over, becoming his dad.

Dave Cawley: Yeah.

Matt Woolley: And so once dad’s out of the picture, he’s like my, it’s my turn to shine as the narcissistic alpha of this family.

Dave Cawley: One of the, the final things I wanted to kind of touch on is, if we look at, if we look at Josh, especially y’know, in this early timeframe, I’ve had the question listening to these audio journals and reviewing, y’know, the divorce file, do you think there was a, a point in time, or could there be, y’know — if somebody has a child who’s exhibiting, uh, narcissistic behaviors as they’re growing — is there a way to step in and direct or channel that in a way that’s more positive.

Matt Woolley: Yeah, that’s a great question and something that, uh, came to my mind often listening to, to the podcast episodes and then the journals that we reviewed. So you have to look at what is personality? Personality is developmental. Uh, it develops through childhood and adolescence and starts to become more solidified in adulthood. In that context, the answer would be yes. You can see developing traits of maladaptive personality early in a child’s life, sometimes back to elementary school. Uh, so narcissism and, uh y’know, interpersonal coldness, uh y’know, lack of empathy, those things can, can be seen early on.

Uh for, for any clinicians listening, y’know uh, most clinicians would say “we want to rule out other causes of that.” Y’know, there often can be things like abuse and neglect involved in that process. So certainly, y’know, interventions that reduce or eliminate abuse and neglect, provide support, healthy self-esteem and concepts early on should be employed. I personally work a lot with older children, adolescents and primarily for the reason that they’re in this developmental period where things like, whether it’s an anxiety issue, a learning disability or their personality structure is, those things are developing. It’s a great time to get in and make interventions.

To reference current research, we know that some personality disorders tend to have a fairly high loading of genetic predisposition. So, we know that with narcissism specifically and, and antisocial personality disorder and others, there seems to be fair amount of heritability. Now, that’s not destiny. Heritability is not destiny but some of these kids who are born to parents who obviously have met those criteria are at much higher risk for exhibiting those behaviors. So, from a teacher’s point of view, a, a parent’s point of view, other people involved, we would want to pay attention and as those tendencies are exhibited, it’s a great time to consult experts: pediatricians, therapists, people who can help with normal life development, uh, and kind of getting kids course-corrected. However, the problem is, one of the other generational factors may be chaos.

Dave Cawley: Hmm.

Matt Woolley: And so a lot of these kids who are born to parents who are personality disordered in this way — narcissism, antisocial — they may have parents in jail or in trouble with the law who don’t live a calm, normal lifestyle. And so, they’re also in, not just having a genetic predisposition but they’re being raised in a chaotic environment. And I think we see that with the Powell boys. Unfortunately, the potential for them having a normal, healthy life was there but Josh and his family’s influence wrecked that. Y’know, created chaos, created a stressed-out mother who was riding her bike on the freeway to work and back and not having enough to eat and this sort of abusive, chaotic, uncertain environment is, uh, the perfect environment to grow narcissistic personality.

So listeners, people who are teachers, aunts and uncles, parents, grandparents, umm, if you are, uh, concerned at all about that, instead of just wondering and worrying, y’know, talk with a professional like your pediatrician, for starters. That’s usually easy access and then maybe consult with a child or adolescent psychologist. There’s a lot that can be done early in life to help a person grow and develop.

Dave Cawley: Dr. Matt Woolley, thank you so much for, uh, taking the time to speak with us about this. Fascinating, we could go on for hours, I’m sure.

Matt Woolley: Yeah, definitely. Maybe we should, uh, go out to dinner and continue the conversation.

Dave Cawley: That’d be fantastic. Thanks, Dr. Matt Woolley.

Matt Woolley: Thanks.

Cold season 1, bonus 9: Justice Delayed – Full episode transcript

Dave Cawley: Josh Powell’s cell phone rang. It was his brother, Michael. Michael wanted to know what was up with the honk-and-wave event Josh’s father-in-law, Chuck Cox, was staging at that very moment. An event focused on Josh’s missing wife, Susan Powell. Josh and Michael’s father, Steve Powell, had gone over to the event outside the Fred Meyer grocery store in their Puyallup, Washington neighborhood to take photos. But Michael, who was living in Minneapolis, had heard Steve had lost his temper and was shooting his mouth off to reporters. This was a problem.

“We should get off the phone and deal with it,” Michael said.

Josh wasted no time. He hung up and tried to call his dad. It went to voicemail. He tried calling his younger sister, Alina, who had gone to the store with Steve. No answer there, either. He tried them each again, to no avail. Finally, on his third try, he managed to get Alina to answer. He asked her what was going on. Was it as bad as Michael was making it sound? Alina told Josh their father was engaged in a shouting match with Chuck Cox.

“It’s just not worth it,” Josh screamed into the phone.

His call waiting beeped. Michael was calling back. Josh put Alina on hold and answered his brother’s call.

“Hang up with Alina and call 911,” Michael said.

Josh did not do that. Infuriated, he hung up and went to his minivan. He sped out of the neighborhood, whipping around the block to the parking lot of the Fred Meyer store. There, he dialed Alina again. She answered and told him to get there right away.

“I’m already here,” Josh said. He told his sister he was angry Steve had lost his temper.

“You can’t control your own temper,” Alina said.

“I can keep my temper on camera,” Josh shot back.

Josh went to work trying to manage the situation. He found some reporters and pulled them away from the scrum, diverting attention from his father. It wasn’t easy, considering he had his two boys in tow, but he did it. Josh spent about 30 minutes settling the situation before calling Alina again, telling her to grab Steve and get out of there. Alina brushed him off. She said she wanted to go to the gym and relax in the pool. Josh could hear Steve, off to Alina’s side, agreeing. The pool sounded nice.

“Get your [expletive] home,” Josh ordered.

“Shut the [expletive] up,” Alina said, telling her brother not to yell at her.

This didn’t help calm Josh, who was already red hot over what’d happened. Steve had thin skin and Chuck Cox had gone right under it. This was off message, not how Josh wanted his family to behave in public. It made them look guilty. What’s worse, Charlie and Braden had seen some it, too.

Josh headed home. Once there, he called Michael back to let him know how it’d gone. Michael said this could work to their advantage. Two weeks earlier, Josh had gone to court to seek a domestic violence restraining order against the Coxes. A judge had granted a him temporary one. Michael said Chuck’s appearance at the honk-and-wave probably violated the temporary restraining order. So, Michael asked, had Josh done as he’d suggested and called 911? No. So the police hadn’t showed up at the honk-and-wave? No.

“This is a win for Chuck,” Michael shouted at his brother.

Josh said he wasn’t sure Chuck had violated the letter of the law in the temporary restraining order. Michael didn’t care. He told Josh to call 911 now. It wasn’t too late to paint Chuck as threat. Maybe they could still get him arrested. For that to work though, Josh would have to choose his words carefully. Michael told him exactly what to say. They hung up and Josh called 911. He made a bogus report against his father-in-law, accusing Chuck of stalking and accosting his family.

This call, one of hundreds involving members of the Powell family during August of 201, was captured on a wiretap. The wire was the linchpin of a major multi-state police operation I previously uncovered in Episode 11 of Cold. At the time, I knew these recordings existed. But I didn’t know the full content. Now I do.

This is a bonus episode of Cold: Justice Delayed. From KSL Podcasts, I’m Dave Cawley. Right back after the break.

[Ad break]

Dave Cawley: In July of 2020, retired West Valley City police detective Ellis Maxwell testified in Washington’s Pierce County Superior Court. Sort of. He in fact appeared via Zoom, an accommodation made by the court in light of the threat posed by Covid-19.

Stanley Rumbaugh (from July 21, 2020 court recording): Alright, Mr. Maxwell, can you hear me alright?

Dave Cawley: Uh, sort of.

Ellis Maxwell (from July 21, 2020 court recording): Yes I can. Can you hear me ok?

Dave Cawley: He in fact appeared via Zoom, an accommodation made by the court in light of the threat posed by the Coronavirus.

Stanley Rumbaugh (from July 21, 2020 court recording): Yes I can. Can you raise your right hand for me please?

Ellis Maxwell (from July 21, 2020 court recording): Yes sir.

Dave Cawley: Ellis’ testimony came as part of the civil trial between Susan Powell’s parents, Chuck and Judy Cox, and the state of Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services. The suit focused on the deaths of Susan’s sons, Charlie and Braden, at the hands of their father Josh Powell on February 5th, 2012. For the moment, let’s focus on something specific Ellis said in his testimony.

Ellis Maxwell (from July 22, 2020 court recording):  My concern was the environment inside the Powell home, umm, for these children.

Dave Cawley: Cox family attorney Anne Bremner asked Ellis during cross-examination whether he’d had concerns about the welfare of Charlie and Braden before they were taken into state protective custody months before their deaths. Ellis said yes.

Ellis Maxwell (from July 22, 2020 court recording): This is, uh, August 2011. We’ve been investigating this case for some time—

Anne Bremner (from July 22, 2020 court recording): ‘Kay.

Ellis Maxwell (from July 22, 2020 court recording): —and learned a lot of information about Steven Powell, Josh Powell, the family members inside of the home … So yeah, the environment within the home was just concerning to me because of, and there’s other stuff I can’t discuss that’s protected.

Dave Cawley: To my knowledge, the only part of this case still “protected” is the wiretap. So imagine my surprise when, around the same time Ellis made that comment, I independently gained access to more than a thousand pages of wiretap transcripts. Nobody but a small handful of police have ever had access to these documents. To be clear: no source in law enforcement, past or current, provided me this access. I obtained it on my own.

I call them transcripts, but the documents are not always verbatim accounts of the conversations. They’re more summaries sprinkled with direct quotations. And the transcripts only include conversations that were deemed pertinent by investigators at the time. State and federal laws governing wiretaps place strict limits on what, when and how police can listen in on private communications.

In this episode, we’ll reconstruct several of the most consequential conversations involving Josh, Michael and Steve Powell during that critical period in August of 2011. As a refresher, you might want to re-listen to episode 11 of this podcast, Operation Tsunami, before following up with this one. Otherwise, prepare for a never-before-revealed glimpse into what the Powells were thinking, saying and doing during those days. You will come to understand why members of law enforcement tasked with working this case had reason to fear for the safety of Charlie and Braden, a fear Susan’s parents argued Washington social workers disregarded.

[Scene transition]

Josh Powell was going to be late. It was August 23rd, 2011. Three days had passed since the disaster at the honk-and-wave. Josh was due in court in Tacoma for a hearing on his request for a permanent domestic violence protection order against Chuck Cox. The temporary restraining order authorized by the judge a couple of weeks earlier was about to expire. Josh and Chuck were both scheduled to appear before the judge at 3 p.m. It was already close to 2 and Josh wasn’t even close to ready to leave home for what, on a good day, was a 30 minute drive. Over his shoulder, Josh shouted to his younger sister Alina that he needed to go, now.

An inkjet printer made its vvvt-clunk-vvvt-clunk, spitting out page after page of paperwork. They were declarations of support Josh had solicited from his family. In fact, Josh and Michael had spent most of the morning talking about the declarations and Josh was on the phone with Michael right that moment, going through last-minute wording changes to his own statement for the court. Here’s a sample of what Josh had written.

Eric Openshaw (as Josh Powell from August 23, 2011 court declaration): In the past two years, I have primarily focused on protecting and loving my children, finding and working a regular job to provide for my children, engaging my children in fun and educational activities, and contributing to the search for Susan.

Dave Cawley: Since his wife’s disappearance, Josh had collected hours of video of himself with his sons. 

Josh Powell (from May 28, 2010 home video recording): What are you writing?

Charlie Powell (from May 28, 2010 home video recording): Mommy is a beautiful.

Josh Powell (from May 28, 2010 home video recording): That’s right.

Charlie Powell (from May 28, 2010 home video recording): Susan is beautiful.

Josh Powell (from May 28, 2010 home video recording): Yeah. How do you feel about your mommy? Do you love her?

Charlie Powell (from May 28, 2010 home video recording): Mmhmm. I’m happy about her.

Josh Powell (from May 28, 2010 home video recording): We sure love her.

Dave Cawley: Videos he planned to publish online, in an effort to present himself as a model father.

Charlie Powell (from May 28, 2010 home video recording): Michael, I’m drawing a mess, a message to mommy.

Josh Powell (from May 28, 2010 home video recording): That’s right and we will put that on a website for mommy so, so if there’s any way possible she’s going to be able to see it, huh?

Dave Cawley: “Chuck Cox is going to try and paint me as a horrible murderer,” Josh said to Michael over the phone. Michael told his brother to keep calm and do what he’d learned to do while serving in the U.S. Army: remember your training.

Josh’s declaration spanned 11 pages. He painted his missing wife’s father as the ringleader of an online mob.

Eric Openshaw (as Josh Powell from August 23, 2011 court declaration): Cox’s followers have had us under surveillance and have been communicating information back to Cox about me and my sons. … There are numerous people acting in this capacity for Cox. People have claimed it is their right and obligation to keep me under surveillance claiming it is only to protect my children from me.

Dave Cawley: He went so far as to claim, without evidence, that Chuck Cox had once threatened to kill him during an encounter near Steve Powell’s home.

Rich Piatt (from August 23, 2011 KSL TV archive): At a confrontation at a Seattle-area Lowes earlier this year, Powell claims Cox mouthed the words “you’re dead” after Powell refused to let Cox hug their grandchildren.

Dave Cawley: “Nobody can deny that I am a tremendous victim,” Josh said to Michael. “Chuck’s whole intention is to push me to the edge.”

Josh had tasked Michael with collecting screen captures of conversations in the private Facebook group titled Where is Susan Powell? People there had been discussing the case of Josh’s missing wife, often speculating he had murdered her. Josh considered this evidence of harassment. He intended to hand printouts of those screenshots to the judge.

“It’s going to be funny when I walk in there and say all these people are lawbreakers,” Josh said.

Turning to his sister Alina, Josh asked how much was left to print. There were the screenshots, several news articles and Steve’s declaration. Too much. Josh let loose a string of profanities before lashing out at his sons who were underfoot.

“Go play,” he shouted. “Don’t make me tell you again!”

He shoved a handful of highlighters into his briefcase, along with as much of the paperwork as had finished printing.

“I’m headed out the door,” Josh said to Michael before adding “oh [expletive], this isn’t going to be fast enough.”

Josh hung up and went to his minivan. He steered out of his neighborhood, headed for Tacoma. He’d only been gone a few minutes when, from the driver seat, he picked up his cell phone and called Alina back at the house. She told Josh it was good he hadn’t waited around for the print job to finish. She’d stepped away to check on Charlie and Braden and when she’d returned, she’d discovered the printer had jammed.

“This is [expletive],” Josh said. “I’m [expletive] stuck behind someone doing 30 miles per hour.”

As if Alina could do anything about that. But Josh did need a favor from her. He asked Alina to read their dad Steve’s declaration to him over the phone. She didn’t have it. The file was on Josh’s computer.

“You have to tell me the password if you want me to be able to get in,” she said.

Josh gave it to her: ab1234. Then, he said, go to the R: drive, to a folder called “Susan missing archive,” then to a folder called “restraining order against the Coxes.” She did as he asked, reading him the pertinent document.

“Oh [expletive], there’s a sheriff behind me,” Josh said. “I hope I have enough time to park, pass the media and get into the court.”

Less than 20 minutes remained before the scheduled start of the hearing and Josh still had miles to go.

“Oh my god. Oh my god. I just got stuck at a light. Oh [expletive], oh [expletive]. Come on, come on. You’ve got to be kidding me,” Josh said. “Now I’m going 20 miles an hour again. [Expletive]! Problem is, even when I get there, I’m not sure how to park.”

Alina listened on her cell phone as her brother road raged. At the same time, she picked up the home phone and dialed the court.

“Good idea,” Josh said before adding, “I wish I had a [expletive] motorcycle today.”

He’d left his old Yamaha Radian to rust in the back yard of the home he and Susan had shared in Utah when he’d moved back in with his dad in January of 2010. In his declaration, he justified that move not as effort to evade the investigation into Susan’s disappearance, but instead as a way of protecting his sons from the media.

Eric Openshaw (as Josh Powell from August 23, 2011 court declaration): They were shining bright lights into my windows all hours of the night for live shows airing in various time zones. My sons slept with me, but they did not understand the bright lights and crowds. It was giving them nightmares.

Dave Cawley: Alina relayed the directions from the court staffer to Josh, guiding him on where to park. With that done, Josh told Alina, “I’m here. I’m going in.” The hearing did not go as Josh had hoped.

Rich Piatt (from August 23, 2011 KSL TV archive): Today, Cox’s attorney denied making any statement or gesture that could have at all been construed as threatening. Cox goes on to say that it’s outrageous that Powell lies under oath when Cox just wants to see the grandkids.

Dave Cawley: The judge refused to grant a restraining order. Instead, Josh and Chuck received mutual antiharassment orders. They were to leave each other alone for the next year. After leaving the court, Josh called Michael.

“I lost,” he said.

“[Expletive] it,” Michael said. “Publish the journals. I don’t think the judge is being fair.”

For months, Josh had been trying to get someone from the national media to publish Susan’s childhood journals. He believed they would damage her reputation, leading the public to see Susan as a flawed, immoral woman.

Scott Haws (from August 25, 2011 KSL TV archive): Y’see, last month Powell’s husband Josh and her father-in-law announced they would release her personal diaries in an attempt to prove she may have had the mindset to leave her husband and children for another man.

Dave Cawley: So far, no one had actually published them. If it was going to happen, Josh would have to do assume the risk of doing it himself.

“I don’t know what to say, Mike,” Josh said. “A lot of work for nothing. Now I’ve just gotten wasted in the media and public perception and everything else.”

“There is no public perception,” Michael said, “there is just a group of 50 people that don’t like you.”

Michael suggested maybe Josh should move again, to somewhere far away. When Josh asked where, he started singing The Beach Boys hit “Kokomo,” saying “Aruba, Jamaica.” Josh wasn’t going to leave, not without his family.

“I am already gone,” Michael said. He had moved to Minnesota a year earlier, in part to get away from the maelstrom that was Susan’s disappearance.

“If you clam up now and don’t talk to anyone, then this just goes away in two weeks,” Michael added.

“Then I lose,” Josh said. He was tired of losing, tired of maintaining appearances.

“[Expletive] this good guy [expletive],” Josh said.

“You ought to have a beer for once in your life,” Michael told his brother before adding, “It’s just a [expletive] game anyway.”

Then, Josh conferenced Steve in on the call. Steve had heard from a news producer in Utah that Josh had lost in court. Michael shrugged it off. He said they should all just pretend they got exactly what they wanted. Tell the media they were going out to celebrate. Invite them out for drinks. Josh agreed this was a great plan. He picked up the home phone and called a producer for Dateline NBC. He said he’d won and Dateline should rush a camera crew over to film their family’s celebration.

“I hate to gloat,” Josh said, “I just don’t care to have any relationship with the Coxes anymore. I have already done my grieving over the loss of that entire family.”

He didn’t bother to say if that included Susan.

[Scene transition]

Dave Cawley: Dateline was not able to make the party. But a producer for ABC’s Good Morning America named Jim Vojtech did. He stayed at the Powell home late into the evening and called Steve early the next morning, on August 24th. The Powells had been flirting with ABC News about doing a big interview since the prior April, when a freelance producer had showed up on their doorstep and sweet-talked Alina into letting her inside. Steve wrote about that in a May 13th, 2011 journal entry.

Ken Fall (as Steve Powell from May 13, 2011 journal entry): We were kind of thinking that the ABC budget was probably not too slim, so we suggested to Tonya that we all go on a ferry ride from Bremerton to Seattle, and then eat at Salty’s on Alki Point, a really nice restaurant.

Dave Cawley: Steve went on to write about how Vojtech had immediately flown up from California to join them for the dinner.

Ken Fall (as Steve Powell from May 13, 2011 journal entry): They had hired a 14-seat van with a limousine driver for the occasion. … We had a nice chat on the way to Bremerton, and had time along the waterfront while waiting for the ferry.

Dave Cawley: Josh, as he often did, carried his camcorder and filmed the boys.

Tonya Kerr (from April 20, 2011 home video recording): Braden, go down the long way like J, like Charlie did.

Dave Cawley: Charlie and Braden scrambled over the rocks along the Bremerton Boardwalk, right down to the water’s edge.

Josh Powell (from April 20, 2011 home video recording): Don’t you boys dip your feet in the water. Braden, don’t step in the water.

Alina Powell (from April 20, 2011 home video recording): Well, at least they’re in swimming, y’know.

Josh Powell (from April 20, 2011 home video recording): Yeah.

Tonya Kerr (from April 20, 2011 home video recording): (Laughs) There you go.

Josh Powell (from April 20, 2011 home video recording): They’ll, they’d be ok, we could run over to ‘em. But it would make it uncomfortable for ‘em for the rest of the evening.

Alina Powell (from April 20, 2011 home video recording): Yeah, no kidding.

Dave Cawley: Josh kept filming on the ferry and at Salty’s.

Steve Powell (from April 20, 2011 home video recording): Whatever, whatever you want to order, go for it.

Charlie Powell (from April 20, 2011 home video recording): Umm, I want, umm, shrimp…

Dave Cawley: The Powells went all out on dinner, knowing ABC was picking up the bill.

Josh Powell (from April 20, 2011 home video recording): So you want a fresh fruit tart—

Charlie Powell (from April 20, 2011 home video recording): Yeah.

Josh Powell (from April 20, 2011 home video recording): —you want crab and, and lobster. 

Dave Cawley: The dinner was not cheap, as Steve noted in his journal.

Ken Fall (as Steve Powell from May 13, 2011 digital journal entry): The dinner cost over $700.00, including the tip. To put that in perspective, we go out for hamburgers and can get a pretty nice burger at McDonald’s for $1.00.

Dave Cawley: The ABC News team, Steve wrote, had pushed for an interview on that April trip. They’d wanted to have something ready to air by the end of May. Steve had played coy, saying thanks for the dinner, but they just weren’t ready.

Part of Josh’s reluctance at that point stemmed from the fact that ABC News had so far declined his request to publish Susan’s childhood journals. Josh and Steve were at the same time pitching that idea to NBC News. They’d been talking to a producer there named Shelley Osterloh. Shelley was a former employee of the company I work for, KSL, and had developed a rapport with the Powells. Through the summer of 2011, Shelley coordinated with Josh and Steve on planned interviews for an upcoming episode of Dateline. On July 7th, an NBC crew came to Steve’s house to film the boys and Susan’s journals.

Steve sat down with Dateline host Keith Morrison the next day at a hotel in Seatac for what turned out to be a three-hour interview. Here is what Steve said about it in his journal.

Ken Fall (as Steve Powell from July 9, 2011 digital journal entry): They went through about four tapes during the interview. It was a very quiet and secluded room. … They can’t tell us when they will run the Dateline program about this. There is more research to be done.

Dave Cawley: On July 9th, Josh met Shelley and the NBC crew at Tacoma’s Titlow Beach, where he allowed them to again film the boys. So much for his argument that the media gave his boys nightmares. Charlie and Braden tossed stones into the water and watched as a train rumbled by on the tracks adjacent to the beach.

(Sound of waves)

Josh Powell (from July 9, 2011 home video recording): What’s on the train, Braden?

Dave Cawley: The real prize for NBC and ABC alike was not video of the boys. It was an on-the-record interview with Josh. But he’d so far refused to commit.

The wiretap records reveal Josh spent a lot of time talking to a small handful of news producers whom he believed were on his side. When West Valley police staged their search of abandoned mines around Ely, Nevada at the start of the wiretap, Josh told Shelley “they will not find anything out in Ely, that’s for damn sure.” He also told her that before speaking to some local news reporters a few days earlier, he’d put Visine in his eyes. This, presumably, to make it appear as though he’d been crying.

Josh was tiptoeing ever closer to granting a full-blown network TV interview. What appeared to push him over the edge was his loss in court on August 23rd. He at that point conceded the need for a more powerful platform. So that how ABC’s Jim Vojtech ended up speaking with Steve the morning of August 24th, firming up plans for an interview with Josh later that day.

He interviewed with ABC after getting off work that afternoon. And he talked to Shelley again that evening, after her flight landed. Josh told her he’d have preferred to do just a single interview with all of the networks at once. Shelley explained it did not work that way, because ABC and NBC were competitors. Josh was waffling about doing an interview with Dateline, saying he only wanted to talk about Chuck Cox, the Mormons and Susan’s journals. He knew NBC would ask him about Susan and their marriage, topics he did not want to discuss. But, in the end, Josh relented. He agreed to an interview with Keith Morrison, to take place the next day: August 25th. West Valley police had other ideas.

Scott Haws (from August 25, 2011 KSL TV archive): Next on KSL 5 News at noon, more fallout surrounding the mystery of Susan Powell. The search and who’s accusing who in a war of words.

Dave Cawley: More on that after the break.

[Ad break]

Dave Cawley: Steve Powell awoke at about 5 a.m. on the morning of August 25th, 2011. He couldn’t fall back asleep, so he rose, dressed and started his day. Steve had a business meeting scheduled around noon in Kennewick. It was about a four-hour drive, so he had to be out the door pretty early.

The meeting had come about as a result of an email he’d received a week or so earlier. It was a business lead, someone from Utah who had inquired about buying furniture from Washington Correctional Industries. Steve had been skeptical about it, wondering aloud in conversations with Josh and Alina if it might be a scam or a trap. The day prior, Steve had asked his boss if Correctional Industries, their employer, might send another salesman. Everyone else was busy. It had to be Steve.

So, on the morning of the 25th, Steve drove up past Snoqualmie, joining I-90 and crossing the Cascades. Along the way, his phone rang. It was his daughter, Alina, back home. Alina told her dad about a call she’d received that morning from a producer at Inside Edition. Now they wanted to interview Josh or Steve, but Josh had said no. Steve said he couldn’t do it either, since he was on the road.

They talked about the events of the last few days. Two days earlier, as Josh had been preparing to go to court, Steve had received a phone call from a reporter with the Salt Lake Tribune. She’d seen a newly published blog post from Susan’s friend and neighbor, Kiirsi Hellewell.

Kiirsi Hellewell (from August 23, 2011 blog post): Sunday night, news broke about Josh Powell’s father, Steve Powell, having “feelings” for Susan, his own daughter-in-law. I’ve been monitoring Facebook, Twitter, and other places online and have seen many comments on this issue by emotional and outraged people on both sides. I wanted to explain why I personally decided to finally break my silence and talk about these new allegations against Steve Powell.

Dave Cawley: That’s Kiirsi’s voice. She has generously agreed to read portions of that old blog post for use in this podcast. Kiirsi went on to write about how Susan had confided her early in their friendship regarding Steve’s many violations of her privacy.

Kiirsi Hellewell (from August 23, 2011 blog post): When Susan talked about Steve Powell, she expressed extreme disgust and even feelings approaching hatred. Then she told me why she felt this way.

Dave Cawley: Kiirsi spelled out the parts we now know: Steve’s voyeurism, Susan’s rejection of his of advances and the move to Utah to escape Steve’s influence.

Kiirsi Hellewell (from August 23, 2011 Kiirsi blog post): I was, of course, shocked, horrified and disgusted to hear about this. “That’s not all,” Susan said, “there’s more.”

Dave Cawley: Kiirsi then described a conversation she’d once had with Susan, in which Susan claimed to have received a piece of mail from Steve.

Kiirsi Hellewell (from August 23, 2011 blog post): Steve Powell had sent Susan several pictures of Susan’s favorite actor.

Dave Cawley: That was Mel Gibson, for the record.

Kiirsi Hellewell (from August 23, 2011 blog post): At first, Susan thought this was actually a nice gesture on the part of Steve Powell. She wondered if he had changed, and maybe become a kinder person. Then she saw what was sitting in the middle of the stack of pictures: several pictures of naked men.

Dave Cawley: Susan had thrown the pictures in the trash, in disgust. Kiirsi explained she’d provided this information to police in the first weeks of their investigation, but had kept quiet publicly so as not to interfere with their work. She didn’t acknowledge then, but told me just recently, police had given her the green light to share what she knew before she published this blog post.

Kiirsi Hellewell (from August 23, 2011 blog post): I did not want to expose what Susan told me in deep confidence about her father-in-law. But enough is enough. … I will speak up for her now and forever in not allowing this evil to go forward unchallenged.

Dave Cawley: This was part of the police strategy to get Josh and Steve talking on the wiretap. And it worked. Steve took the call from the reporter and was blindsided by her questions about Kiirsi’s blog. Steve did his best to dodge on the specifics, but he did admit to the reporter that a “sexual energy” had existed between he and Susan.

Sarah Dallof (from August 26, 2011 KSL TV archive): Susan’s parents and friends maintain there is no truth to Steve Powell’s statements, that Susan was so uncomfortable around her father-in-law that she moved her family to Utah.

Dave Cawley: Talking to Alina on the phone later that afternoon, Steve had said it wasn’t as if he’d sent photos of himself to Susan. And even if he had sent her photos out of one of his Hustler magazines, she probably would have enjoyed it. These were kinds of conversations Steve had with his youngest daughter.

As Steve continued to drive toward Kennewick, Alina asked him to leave his phone connected and on speaker when he went into the hotel for the business meeting. She would monitor and record on her end, to make sure he was safe. Steve did just that. But, the meeting went off without a hitch. No real surprises.

Afterward, Steve talked to Alina. They agreed the timing of the meeting was strange. Why were people from Utah wanting to talk to Steve this week, with everything else that’d been going on? Alina warned her dad not to get too comfortable. Then, at 20 minutes to 2, Alina heard a knock at the door. Pierce County Sheriff’s deputies and West Valley City police were outside with a search warrant. She narrated to her father as the officers pushed past her and entered the house.

“I knew something was up, I don’t think these people are legitimate,” Steve said. “Those [expletive] [expletive].”

Alina explained TV news stations were already parked outside. They’d arrived before the police had even started stringing up their yellow tape.

“I bet they are looking for my journals on Susan,” Steve said. “God only knows what they’re looking for. What, do they think I had something to do with her disappearance? It can’t be about my relationship with Susan. They have known about that.”

Sarah Dallof (from August 26, 2011 KSL TV archive): Neighbors have been unsure how to react as police from both Washington and Utah serve a search warrant and removed bags and multiple computers from the Powell home.

Dave Cawley: Josh had also been at home when the police had arrived. His phone started to blow up, but he ignored the incoming calls and messages. He didn’t start using his phone again until a couple of hours later, after he’d left the neighborhood with his boys. His first call was to his dad.

“I’m pretty sure I don’t have a job anymore,” Josh said, explaining how the police were taking anything capable of storing digital data. Steve asked if that included his hard drive.

“I’m sure,” Josh said.

“Maybe they’re going to arrest me,” Steve said.

“They’re not going to arrest you, dad,” Josh said. “They just want the journals.”

Sarah Dallof (from August 26, 2011 KSL TV archive): Josh Powell showed us the warrant which spelled out in detail, the seven childhood journals of Susan Powell they were looking for. As well as any electronic copies, passwords, and any other evidence relating to her disappearance.

Josh Powell (from August 26, 2011 KSL TV archive): I had nothing to do with Susan’s disappearance. So, I’m not concerned about what they’re here for or whether they’re staying.

Dave Cawley: He drove south out of his dad’s neighborhood and into the neighboring community of Graham, where he stopped at Frontier Park and then called Michael. Michael’s first question was if Josh had copies of the journals saved in a safe location.

“Of course,” Josh said.

“Hey Josh, you may get a big settlement out of this thing,” Michael said. “These cops are getting sloppier and sloppier. You may be able to sue these people.”

Here, Josh conferenced Steve in on the call with Michael. Steve suggested $10 million would be a good number to go for. Josh was preoccupied though. He’d spotted a helicopter circling overhead and wondered if someone were following him. Michael said he’d even received a call from a Salt Lake Tribune reporter, the same one who’d questioned Steve about Kiirsi Hellewell’s blog. It had spooked him. He wasn’t sure how she’d even found his number. Maybe, Michael said, the police had given it to her. Then, he realized Minneapolis police might be headed for his condo right that minute. He went right to work making a backup of his computer and shuttling personal papers out to his car.

Josh’s call waiting beeped. It was Shelley Osterloh, the Dateline producer. Josh answered. He told Shelley he was ok. He had not been arrested.

“I don’t care if they take me,” Josh said. “They owe it to me to arrest me and let me have my day in court. I am talking about the entire investigation. I want them to show everything they have. The less they have on you, the more they [expletive] with you.”

The warrant raid had blown up Josh and Shelley’s schedule for the Dateline interview that afternoon, but he told her where she could find him. They met up early that evening. Steve, meantime, was talking to Michael as he continued to drive toward home.

“We are a year and nine months in and the police failed at finding Susan because they have not been trying. They have not devoted [expletive] to the investigation,” Michael said.

Then, Michael switched focus to talking about his brother.

“I don’t know what the [expletive] is going on with Josh. Remember when this [expletive] first happened and Josh was quiet and distracted? That made us nervous because he was not talking about what was going on. When there is a crisis, he becomes non-communicative.”

Steve told Michael that Alina was going to call the ACLU and tell them the police were attacking their family and trying to suppress their voice.

“It could be the Mormon church that is bankrolling this,” Steve added. “We need to figure out how to get the journals out there.”

“What’s going on with Josh,” Michael asked. “You know he keeps calling me and then he just sits there quietly. He just plays with the boys and he doesn’t say anything. He is [expletive] around and dropping calls. I just can’t talk to him.”

As if summoned, Josh dialed Steve right then. Steve conferenced him in with Michael. Josh asked where Steve was, but Steve said he did not want to say over the phone.

“Our phones have GPS and they could track us,” Josh said. “If they want it, they got it. They know exactly where I am at, too.”

Josh agreed with the idea of enlisting the help of the ACLU.

“Who wants to take on the corrupt police department,” Josh asked rhetorically before adding, “They will never arrest me.”

[Scene transition]

Dave Cawley: In another call later that evening, Michael told his dad he’d left his condo and probably wouldn’t return that night. It wasn’t safe. Michael told Steve not to do what his gut was telling him to do. Don’t talk to any reporters. Michael said they should only talk to achieve a specific goal.

“Just because you’re angry is not how to do it,” Michael said. “Nobody needs to know anything about this. Let’s not say anything until we speak to an attorney. I get dropped every time some [expletive] media person calls. I get dropped. Put the [expletive] brakes on everything.”

John Daley (from August 26, 2011 KSL TV archive): Salt Lake defense attorney Greg Skordas questions the wisdom of the man making damaging statements about Susan Powell.

Greg Skordas (from August 26, 2011 KSL TV archive): I don’t see that helping anyone at this point.

John Daley (from August 26, 2011 KSL TV archive): Especially if they might be used by prosecutors if they were to bring charges.

Greg Skordas (from August 26, 2011 KSL TV archive): All those statements can be used in, in some capacity down the road. And all those are recorded. And all those can be part of a case if the government choses to use those.

John Daley (from August 26, 2011 KSL TV archive): Skordas says his advice to both Powells would be to stop talking publicly.

Dave Cawley: Steve told Michael what was happening back at the house was a “family emergency.”

“We have a lot of family emergencies,” Michael said. “How come we have so many family emergencies? If they can do all this [expletive] without trial or evidence, makes me feel like an innocent person cannot defend themselves. Maybe we should all just become criminals and arm ourselves and next time the police come to find something they find a nasty surprise.”

[Scene transition]

Dave Cawley: Josh stayed out late that night, interviewing with Dateline’s Keith Morrison. The next morning, he called his boss and told him about the police raid.

Sarah Dallof (from August 26, 2011 KSL TV archive): West Valley police call it the most difficult case anyone in their department has ever experienced. A massive amount of evidence and a trail that lead them to Washington last night. 

Dave Cawley: He explained how detectives had seized his computers, including the one the company had provided. But not to worry. Josh said he’d gone out the night before and purchased a laptop. He’d be back up and running soon.

“I’m sure in time you’ll see all this on the news,” Josh said.

John Daley (from August 26, 2011 KSL TV archive): Josh Powell, calls the search grandstanding by West Valley. Still, he views it as a possible sign that police are considering his theory. That Susan ran away with another man.

Josh Powell (from August 26, 2011 KSL TV archive): It is definitely a different angle than they’ve been purusing.

Dave Cawley: Josh’s boss was understanding, all things considered, and said he’d try to help keep Josh on the payroll. But Josh’s problems just continued to compound. That same morning, Chuck Cox had gone to court.

Sarah Dallof (from August 26, 2011 KSL TV archive): The Cox family filed a restraining order today to block Susan’s journals from being published by the Powell family. They say, they’re pleased the police have them.

Dave Cawley: Later that afternoon, Michael called the house to check on everyone. Alina told him Steve had gone out to run errands, but Josh was at home. Michael asked to talk to him.

“Are you ok,” Michael asked when Josh picked up the phone.

“Yeah,” Josh said. “They know [expletive] well they can’t get me on anything related to Susan’s disappearance. I had nothing to do with it.”

“I don’t even feel safe talking on the phone,” Michael said, to which Josh agreed. But they did not hang up.

After a time, Josh turned to the topic of Steve’s comments about Susan and sexual energy to the Salt Lake Tribune reporter.

“I can’t believe he thinks this is ok or acceptable on any level,” Josh said. “Do you think this is ok?”

“Personally,” Michael said, “I don’t give a [expletive].”

“I can’t believe it,” Josh said. “This is the worst thing that has come out this whole time.”

“This is why I don’t keep a journal,” Michael said a bit later in the conversation.

Sam Penrod (from August 26, 2011 KSL TV archive): Steven Powell told reporters earlier this morning he is relieved West Valley police confiscated his personal journals. While admitting they contain embarrassing entries, he believes his journals will back up his claims that Susan Powell was romantically interested in him. 

Dave Cawley: “I know that Susan wants the journals published,” Josh said.

Here, Michael stopped his brother.

“You shouldn’t say to the judge what Susan thinks,” Michael said. “It makes you look like a jackass.”

“I’m not quite the dummy they say I am,” Josh said.

He went on to discuss his computer passwords, as if to prove the point, saying it was funny police were still trying to crack encryption on devices of his they’d taken almost two years earlier. He explained how he’d used long, unguessable passwords. A 20-character password, he said, was “virtually uncrackable.”

“Even if I knew my [expletive] passwords,” Josh said, “The police don’t have a right to make me tell.”

Bill Merritt (from August 26, 2011 KSL TV archive): He is the only person that we need to talk to, that we still have questions for. We still need to interview. He is the only person that has not cooperated with us to the extent that we have everything that we need. 

Dave Cawley: That night, on something of a whim, Josh decided to skip town. A bit after midnight he loaded his sleepy sons into their carseats and drove off to go camping down south near Mount Saint Helens. He didn’t bother telling Steve about this. So, on the morning of Saturday, August 27th, 2011, Steve awoke to find Josh and the boys gone. In a panic, he wondered if Josh might’ve been arrested during the night. Charlie and Braden, he feared, might already be in the hands of police or, worse yet, the Coxes. He soon learned Josh and the boys were fine.

Around noon, Steve called Michael and told him about Josh’s camping trip.

“[Expletive] him,” Michael said.

Michael wanted to know if his brother had dragged the media along for the trip. Josh had not, hoping to keep the outing private. Steve, not realizing this or not caring, had blabbed to a TV reporter from Utah about Josh going camping at midnight as, Steve said, Josh often did. Alina ratted out Steve about this when Josh called home early that same afternoon.

“That’s going to look stupid, like I’m just doing this for a show,” Josh said. “People are going think this is [expletive].”

Alina did not want to hear Josh whine. She told her brother she was going to hang up.

“Tell dad to quit saying that [expletive] in the media,” Josh said.

Alina told Josh that Steve had said it jokingly. Then, she made good on the threat and hung up on him.

Josh spent one more night out with the boys. Then, on the morning of Sunday, August 28th, 2011, he phoned home while driving back toward Puyallup. Steve answered and apologized for telling the reporter about the camping trip. Steve took his contrition even farther. He said he needed to tell Josh about something the police had found in his bedroom.

“What are they going to find in your journal,” Josh asked.

Steve said he wasn’t sure. Mostly stuff that would show he was obsessed with Susan.

“For all these years,” Josh asked.

“Yes,” Steve replied. “She did things to titillate me.”

Josh agreed with this assessment, calling Susan a “seductress.” But he added he’d only ever seen her go to the point of mild flirtation, not all-out adultery. Like, for instance, the time nearly 10 years before when she’d invited Steve to feel her freshly waxed legs.

“I’ve had chicks do that to me before,” Josh said.

He had even documented one such encounter in his audio journals, describing a time when he and Susan were engaged and she was over at his apartment.

Josh Powell (from March 6, 2001 audio journal recording): Then I got here and Susan was sitting on the couch which was kind of unusual. She usually meets me at the door. She had a blanket on her. Turns out, she’d just waxed her legs. She was waiting for me to get home so she could show me. Discretely, of course.

Dave Cawley: Josh wasn’t understanding. Steve worried police might find reason in his journals to arrest him.

“What do you mean,” Josh asked.

Steve said they should wait until he got home to talk about it, a tacit acknowledgement someone else might be listening.

“I can’t believe what I’m hearing,” Josh said.

“I can’t believe what I’m saying,” Steve replied.

Josh tried to give his dad the benefit of the doubt, figuring it wasn’t as big a deal as he was making it out to be. It’s not like Steve had done anything illegal, right? Steve seized on this line of thought. Right! If anything, his obsession showed he cared for Susan, maybe even more than Josh. It exonerated him. Whatever had happened to Susan, it was her own fault. Here, Steve mentioned how Jennifer, his first child and Josh’s older sister, had as young woman occasionally walked around the house in her underwear.

“I hope you didn’t write anything incriminating about Jennifer,” Josh said.

“No,” Steve replied.

I have read Steve’s journals. And he did write an entry on May 19th, 2005, describing a Sunday at least a decade earlier, before Steve had divorced his wife Terri. Steve had approached Jennifer while her mother was at church.

Ken Fall (as Steve Powell from May 19, 2005 journal entry): I came into the family room and saw Jenny in the little sewing nook, working on something. She had her back to me, so I looked carefully and saw that she had nothing on except bra and pantyhose. … I walked up behind her for a closer look, to see what she was doing and what she was wearing.

Dave Cawley: Steve went on to write about what’d gone through his mind as Jennifer had modeled the clothing she’d been making. Those thoughts do not need to be repeated here.

Ken Fall (as Steve Powell from May 19, 2005 journal entry): Suddenly the spell was broken when her mother arrived home from church. … That was my one and only truly erotic experience with Jenny.

Dave Cawley: Back to the phone call between Josh and his dad. Steve vaguely characterized these journals entries, telling Josh his sister had titillated him. Steve said he had felt similar feelings while reading through Susan’s childhood journals. If the police published his journals, Steve said, it could jeopardize everything. At this, Josh became angry. Not so much at what his father had thought or said in the past, but at the damage disclosure of those facts could do to Josh’s reputation in the present.

“It’s an invasion of privacy,” he fumed, before reiterating that he really hoped Steve hadn’t written anything sexual about Jennifer.

“I may have described some things about immodesty,” Steve said. He wasn’t sure and couldn’t check now because police had the only copy.

“[Expletive],” Josh said.

Steve again said they shouldn’t talk about this on the phone. But Josh was too irate to let it go. He asked his dad if he’d detailed anything illegal. Steve said he didn’t think so.

“Well there you go again,” Josh replied before calling his dad a “dirty old man.”

“Susan started it,” Steve said, “but I couldn’t stop.”

Steve said maybe he should get a restraining order to block the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office from publishing his journals. Josh called this a bad idea. It would make it look like they were trying to hide something, Josh said. The better approach was to try and get the journals invalidated as evidence.

“They can go [expletive] themselves,” Josh said, referencing the police.

He told Steve he shouldn’t have written all of that stuff. And he said, had he known about the dirty journals, he would’ve approached things differently. But he didn’t hold a grudge against his dad. With that, Josh told Steve he and the boys had arrived home. That’s right, the boys. In case you forgot, Charlie and Braden were in the minivan with Josh. They’d overheard it all.

[Scene transition]

Dave Cawley: Minutes later, Steve received a call from his son Michael. The audio blipped, leading Steve to joke police were probably recording their calls. Michael said if so, the cops should stop wasting their time and instead work on trying to find Susan. Of course, police were listening for just that very reason.

Steve put the phone on speaker, allowing Michael to hear both Josh and Alina. The four of them then discussed the search warrant raid. Michael said it had its positives. For one, it’d prompted him to organize and back up all of his data. But Josh wasn’t interested in silver linings. He griped over losing all of his photos and videos of the boys.

Alina Powell (from November 15, 2010 home video recording): Do your little dance, Braden.

Josh Powell (from November 15, 2010 home video recording): Oh it is a happy dance. That’s your happy dance? Oh, cute boy. Give me a kiss. Charlie.

Charlie Powell (from November 15, 2010 home video recording): (Laughs)

Alina Powell (from November 15, 2010 home video recording): Pshhh.

Josh Powell (from November 15, 2010 home video recording): Alright Charlie. Is that your happy dance?

Charlie Powell (from November 15, 2010 home video recording): Yeah.

Josh Powell (from November 15, 2010 home video recording): Good job. You are my special boy and I love you.

Dave Cawley: Then, there was the issue of dad’s journals. Josh had spent a few minutes thinking this over had come around on the topic. The journals, he said, would actually help ruin the public perception of Susan. He called her a “deviant,” but blamed that on her dad, Chuck Cox. Josh said Susan was a victim. At this, Steve chimed in he too was a victim.

“Let’s blame it all on the Mormons,” Josh said.

Then, Josh asked his dad if he’d ever written anything about raping Susan.

“No,” Steve said. “Just some touching.”

Josh and Alina agreed this was fine. They talked about pornography, the issue raised by Kiirsi Hellewell’s blog, with Alina saying she’d had issues about seeing male nudity until she was in her 20s. Josh too said it had taken him years to appreciate porn. Remember, this conversation was happening within earshot of Charlie and Braden.

As Steve went about shredding documents, Michael told his dad and brother they needed to stop talking to reporters.

“I have to sit here 1,700 miles away and listen to what you guys are going to say next.”

Michael said they’d overplayed their hand, telegraphing their moves to the police through the media. Now, their argument that the investigation was a hit job by the Mormons was worthless. The story was now about Steve and an affair.

Sam Penrod (from August 26, 2011 KSL TV archive): Susan Powell’s parents kept their emotions in check when told of these latest claims made by Steven Powell. Still they are very disturbed by Powell’s comments and say their daughter told them her father-in-law made unwanted advances.

Dave Cawley: Josh chimed in, voicing his frustration with Steve, saying he shouldn’t have talked publicly about his feelings for Susan. Doing so had put Charlie and Braden at risk.

Richard Piatt (from August 25, 2011 KSL TV archive): Susan’s friend and daycare provider, Debbie Caldwell, thinks about Susan’s two sons as police again search a place they’re calling home.

Dave Cawley: Michael told Josh he was just as much to blame. In fact, even more so than Steve. They’d both “got their [expletive] kicked” in the media.

Dan Medwed (from August 26, 2011 KSL TV archive): It’s an unusual case.

John Daley (from August 26, 2011 KSL TV archive): Dan Medwed, a former public defender now University of Utah law professor says he’s never seen a case like it. A woman missing for months, her husband mostly silent, then both the husband, a person of interest, and his father start making comments alleging the woman was promiscuous.

Dave Cawley: “If you lose on one battle ground, you can lose the [expletive] war. It’s now a lost cause,” Michael said.

John Daley (from August 26, 2011 KSL TV archive): Medwed says he’s baffled by the comments, which he says lowers credibility and raises suspicions about both men, potentially turning scrutiny away from Josh Powell to his father. 

Dave Cawley: So what should they do from here, Josh asked. Michael said not to say or do anything until they could take their fight into the courtroom. This was advise Steve wasn’t sure he could take. He told Michael he wanted to get out in front of the journals in media. Maybe, he suggested, they could spin it into some kind of attack on the Mormons. Michael told his dad the police had conned him into violating himself. He couldn’t spin it. When Steve insisted he could, Michael became frustrated.

“I don’t want to keep cleaning up for you and Josh,” he said. “So instead of worrying about this, let’s focus on the legal battles.”

Michael said as upset as they all were over the search warrant, they’d feel even more angry if they lost in court.

“[Expletive] the media,” Michael said. “And you and Josh both.”

Within a year and a half of that phone call, Steve Powell would be in prison and Michael, Josh, Charlie and Braden Powell would all be dead.

[Scene transition]

(Sound of court hallway)

Dave Cawley: In February of 2020, I flew from Utah to Washington to attend the opening of the civil trial between Chuck and Judy Cox and the Washington Department of Social and Health Services. The Coxes had received instructions from their attorneys not to talk to the media. We made eye contact across the hall as I entered Pierce County Superior Court, but did not speak.

Their lawsuit centered on claims of negligence on the part of the DSHS case workers who’d taken Charlie and Braden into protective custody in September of 2011, just a few weeks after the phone calls I’ve just described. In opening arguments, Cox family attorney Ted Buck told the jury of 11 men and one woman that the social workers had ignored their policies and training by failing to perform domestic violence screening.

Ted Buck (from February 18, 2020 KSL TV archive): The state utterly failed to do that assessment. Instead, when they got to the point where there was a question, “is there any domestic violence question here,” they checked “no.”

Dave Cawley: The attorneys for the state — Lori Nicolavo and Joseph Diaz — disputed this, arguing Josh Powell’s murder of his children could not have been foreseen or prevented.

Lori Nicolavo (from February 18, 2020 KSL TV archive): West Valley PD had no evidence that would support that Josh would harm his boys. And that’s the question we’re looking at.

Dave Cawley: The trial was scheduled to run for a month. The state was partway through its defense when, in mid-March, a pandemic put the whole thing on pause. And so, Susan’s parents went back to waiting. Four months passed before, in mid-July, the Washington Supreme Court cleared the way for the trial to resume. Judge Stanley Rumbaugh called the jurors back into service.

Stanley Rumbaugh (from July 9, 2020 court recording): Game on. Monday. 9 o’clock. Room 100.

Dave Cawley: At a time when millions of Americans were still facing uncertainty over their jobs, housing and health, these jurors answered the call. They came back with masks. They sat socially distanced. They picked up their legal pads, full of months-old notes, and once again listened.

Stanley Rumbaugh (from July 14, 2020 court recording): Alright, please be seated. Good morning ladies and gentlemen.

Jurors (from July 14, 2020 court recording): Good morning.

Stanley Rumbaugh (from July 14, 2020 court recording): You’ve gotta shout it out, ok?

Jurors (from July 14, 2020 court recording): Good morning.

Stanley Rumbaugh (from July 14, 2020 court recording): Ok.

Dave Cawley: While working on Cold, I’d reached out to Washington’s child protective services agency in the hopes of interviewing the myriad of social workers who’d touched Charlie and Braden’s case. An agency spokeswoman asked me to submit written questions, which I did.

Then, radio silence. She never responded. I never was able to interview the social workers. So I found it fascinating to hear from people like Rocky Stephenson, the CPS investigator who’d been tasked with looking into claims of negligence leveled against Josh.

Rocky Stephenson (from July 16, 2020 court recording): Just a statement that he was a person of interest in a missing persons, uh, uh, that’s relevant, uh, and relevant to the safety of the children but, y’know, Mr. Powell still had all of his rights intact. He hadn’t been charged, he wasn’t really even a suspect in a murder investigation.

Dave Cawley: That, we know, was incorrect. Josh was, at that time, the sole suspect.

Rocky Stephenson (from July 16, 2020 court recording): Just because a person’s a, a, a person of interest doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re not going to treat them with all fairness and respect like we would everybody else.

Dave Cawley: And Paula Strickland, a social worker contracted by the state after CPS placed Charlie and Braden with Susan’s parents. Her job was to help Chuck and Judy Cox adjust to parenting two rambunctious little boys.

Paula Strickland (from July 23, 2020 court recording): Regardless of what anyone thinks, these kids loved their dad and — particularly, Charlie was very verbal about wanting to be with this dad — and they were angry. And they were scared. And we had sent them to the grandparents who they had heard a lot of negative things about.

Dave Cawley: Paula had had repeated interactions with both Charlie and Braden during the months between their seizure by the state and their deaths at the hands of their father. She described how, in her view, the boys had been programmed by Josh to hate and fear their maternal grandparents.

Paula Strickland (from July 23, 2020 court recording): Their dad had told them that, y’know, grandma and grandpa, y’know, were bad people, that they had abused their mother, that they had stolen her journal, that Mormons are bad people, that they destroy families. So there had been a lot of this sort of programming of these negative thoughts.

Dave Cawley: And as Paula was sharing these insights with the jurors, I was reading the secret wiretap transcripts that revealed just how right she was. In one conversation between Josh and Michael, Josh had bragged about how then four-year-old Braden had told him “daddy, [expletive] the Mormons.” In another recording, Josh told six-year-old Charlie that Chuck and Judy just wanted to control him.

“When Chuck Cox is out of our lives,” Josh had said, “you’ll make more friends because Chuck Cox is abusive.”

In yet another call, Josh explained how he’d taught his sons that the Coxes were “predators.”

“I have coached them,” Josh said.

Paula Strickland (from July 23, 2020 court recording): So a lot of the work that grandma and grandpa had to do was regain these kids’ trust and help them feel safe so they could settle down. And, y’know, that’s really when I say adjustment what I mean, is helping these kids find safety again when we had rocked their world.

Dave Cawley: I’m not going to go through a blow-by-blow of the trial here. But I will mention assistant Washington attorney general Joseph Diaz in closing arguments re-iterated the state’s view that at the time of Charlie and Braden being taken into protective custody, it was not a case of domestic violence.

Joseph Diaz (from July 29, 2020 court recording): This was not a domestic violence case. And as much as the plaintiffs want to make it so, it’s not. … Mr. Powell is the sole cause of the murder of his sons. It was not due to any negligence by the state of Washington.

Dave Cawley: The jurors began their deliberations on the morning of Thursday, July 30th, 2020. The following afternoon, Judge Rumbaugh announced they’d reached a verdict.

Stanley Rumbaugh (from July 31, 2020 court recording): Question one: was the state of Washington negligent? Answer: yes. Question two: was such negligence a proximate cause of injury to the plaintiffs? Answer: yes.

Dave Cawley: The jurors calculated damages at $57.5 million dollars for each child. They assigned Josh responsibility for $8,245,000 of that, again for each child. Doing the math, the jury’s judgement against the state worked out to roughly $98.5 million. Chuck Cox, sounded relieved when I spoke to him over Zoom a couple of hours later.

Chuck Cox: Yeah, well I’m still in shock, so. (Laughs) We’ll see. Like I say, I’m just kind of waiting for the next thing and, whatever. 

Dave Cawley: The testimony had included hours of detailed descriptions of Charlie and Braden’s injuries. The big question was how long had each suffered between the start of the attack and the actual moment of death.

Chuck Cox: It was very hard. It was very, I left the rooms at, at times. … And they had their expert that said, “Oh yeah, as soon as you’re unconscious then you don’t feel anything.” Our Dr. Wecht said, “absolutely not, there’s been studies on it.” They’re saying “well, if you’re conscious, y’know, how do you know?” Well, these boys swallowed gasoline and that meant they must have been conscious ‘cause you cannot swallow if you’re unconscious.

Dave Cawley: Chuck offered thanks to his legal team — attorneys Anne Bremner, Ted Buck and Evan Bariault — for their handling of the difficult material. This fight, however, is not over. Weeks after the jury’s verdict, the state attorneys asked Judge Rumbaugh to overrule the high-dollar award, or grant a new trial. At a hearing on that motion on the very day of this episode’s release, Rumbaugh said the jury’s verdict had shocked the conscience of the court. He slashed the damages by two thirds, from nearly $100 million to just under $33 million.

Chuck told me afterward it was an insult to the jury and he intends to continue fighting for the safety of children.

Chuck Cox: We’ve done all that we can to help other people with children in care of DSHS. … That’s, that’s a positive outcome out of the tragedy. And there’s not much else you can do with it, because you can’t bring them back.

Cold season 1, bonus 6: Project Sunlight – Full episode transcript

Dave Cawley: Josh Powell went to court in Tacoma, Washington on the first day of February, 2012. He wore a jacket, a blue shirt and tie and carried a crumpled brown paper sack from a FedEx Office copy center. It contained a typed statement for the court. This is what Josh wrote.

Eric Openshaw (as Josh Powell from February 1, 2012 statement): Having demonstrated my fitness as a parent, it is time for my sons to come home.

Dave Cawley: Josh had lost custody of his sons Charlie and Braden four months earlier, after police raided the South Hill home he shared with his father. Detectives were looking for evidence related to the unsolved disappearance of Josh’s wife Susan. Instead, they’d found his father’s stash of voyeur videos.

Eric Openshaw (as Josh Powell from February 1, 2012 statement): I was living with him at the time, however, within the first month, I established my own home and I have consistently proven my fitness as a stable and loving parent.

Dave Cawley: In court, Josh’s attorney Jeff Bassett told judge Kathryn Nelson his client had done everything she’d asked of him.

Jeff Basset (from February 1, 2012 KSL TV archive): He has been nothing if, uh, if, if not cooperative to the entire, uh, everything that’s been asked of him in this case.

Dave Cawley: Josh’d even gone so far as to endure a psychological evaluation.

Eric Openshaw (as Josh Powell from February 1, 2012 statement): I have proven myself as a fit and loving father who provides a stable home even in the face of great adversity.

Dave Cawley: Not so fast. Assistant Washington Attorney General John Long told the court police in West Valley City, Utah had just shared concerning new evidence.

John Long (from February 1, 2012 KSL TV archive): Based on some information that’s been provided, uh, by a criminal, uh, investigation, a judge overseeing the criminal investigation. Uh, I think it’s clear, uh, from that court order that these, uh, can be linked to, uh, Mister Powell.

Dave Cawley: No one came right out and said it in open court that day, but the evidence in question was a set of nearly 400 pornographic images. They were digital files, most of them small thumbnails. The majority were cartoons, showing characters from animated TV series, often depicting children and adults together. Detectives and the FBI had found the thumbnails on a computer taken out of Josh and Susan’s house in Utah, the day after she disappeared in December of 2009.

In court documents, police said the images belonged to Josh. They were wrong.

This is a bonus episode of Cold: Project Sunlight. I’m Dave Cawley.

[Ad break]

Dave Cawley: Let’s go back again to Judge Kathryn Nelson’s chambers in Pierce County Superior Court on February 1st, 2012. Josh Powell’s attorney Jeff Bassett pushed back against the claim of new evidence against his client. He wondered why detectives were only then raising the issue. If the cartoon pictures were so bad, he asked, why hadn’t police just arrested Josh when they’d first found them?

Jeff Basset (from February 1, 2012 KSL TV archive): And I just think that we are allowing ourselves to be manipulated from outside sources on this case without cause.

Dave Cawley: Detective Ellis Maxwell, the lead investigator on the Susan Powell case, wasn’t in court that day. But he told me he’d tried to secure charges against Josh on those images. Prosecutors would not go for it.

Ellis Maxwell: I’m sure a lot of people were wondering, going “ok, well they’ve had this for several years but now they’re going to introduce it now.” Well that’s why.

Dave Cawley: Police also considered the images contraband, illegal to possess or view.

Ellis Maxwell: And so we had to go through the courts here and they made an exception to release the evidence to the State of Washington for review purposes and it was very specific to where only the judge and the attorney and the social workers and, y’know, it was a small scope, and I think one detective.

Dave Cawley: The judge’s order did not allow Josh to see the images. But it did grant permission for forensic psychologist James Manley to review them.

James Manley: The overall, umm, tone of these were incestuous.

Dave Cawley: James’d already delivered a report about Josh’s parenting capacity to the court in Washington. After viewing the images, he had new concerns. So, James authored a follow-up.

James Manley: I went down to the police station, talked with the guardian ad litem and the detective and the attorney general. Decided, it didn’t take much to decide but we entered a request or petition to the court for a psychosexual evaluation.

Dave Cawley: On the one side, Judge Nelson had Josh making the case for reunification. On the other side stood police, prosecutors and a psychologist, all arguing Josh might not be a safe father, based on these thumbnail images of cartoon incest pornography. Josh, for his part, seemed to make a vague reference to the pictures in his own typed statement to the court that day. He wrote:

Eric Openshaw (as Josh Powell from February 1, 2012 statement): I have recently heard rumblings that some people are dipping deep down to the bottom of the barrel in a desperate effort to find and manufacture fault with me due to their attitudes.

Dave Cawley: The word “manufacture” there is significant. Josh seemed to imply that he believed police had fabricated the new evidence. His protest didn’t sway the judge. She told Josh he was not getting his boys back that day. Instead, Judge Nelson ordered him to take the psychosexual evaluation. You know what happened next. Days after the court hearing, Josh murdered his sons and killed himself.

Gary Sanders: When he was not only not given custody but then the stipulations that they put on him, the psychosexual and some other things, I think  he, that kind of cracked him.

Chuck Cox: The psychosexual evaluation was the end of the road for him. Because, with the revelation that, y’know, he had these pictures on his computer…

Anne Bremner: It’s explicit and it’s of concern. It’s very, very disturbing and so that was something else that they knew about him. And that was found by the West Valley police on his computer.

Dave Cawley: Only, I can now tell you, it wasn’t Josh’s computer. I’ve discovered that the computer in question belonged to Susan.

[Scene transition]

Dave Cawley: Let’s step backward in time to examine how I made this discovery and what it means about ownership of those pornographic images.

Susan Powell sent an email to an old friend on Christmas Eve, 2008, a little less than a year before her disappearance. In it, she vented about the rocky state of her marriage, expressing despair over its dysfunction. She also wrote that Josh didn’t allow her to go online with his computers.

Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from December 24, 2008 email): I love Facebook and Josh is still convinced using it or anything else on the web, automatically uploads evil and doesn’t trust me with most of his computers.

Dave Cawley: The only computer Josh allowed Susan to use at home was a Compaq brand iPaq, by then a nine-yearold model. In a July, 2009 Facebook message, she told another old friend the Compaq computer wasn’t all that useful.

Kristin Sorensen (as Susan Powell from July 13, 2009 Facebook message): The crappy computer I have access to at home is soo old and slow that I literally log into fb, walk away, click profile, walk away because it takes so long to load.

Dave Cawley: Josh, on the other hand, used multiple computers. He’d built a custom tower complete with a RAID array. Susan mentioned that machine in her July 2008 video documenting the family’s assets.

Susan Cox Powell (from July 29, 2008 home video): Here’s the kinds of pimping out stuff he’s done to his computer, he built it himself.

Dave Cawley: Josh also had a work-issued laptop that he often used around the house. But he didn’t seem to think his wife had much need for a computer of her own. 

Linda Bagley: The control that uh, Josh had over her, he wouldn’t let her do certain things.

Dave Cawley: In a July, 2009 email, Susan told her work friend Linda Bagley the only task Josh allowed her to use a computer for was tracking her spending.

Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from July 27, 2009 email): Having every year down to the penny of totals of each category is a priority with my husband and not me.

Dave Cawley: For years, Josh’d tasked Susan with scanning his documents. Susan told Linda doing Josh’s data entry was a waste of time. She wrote:

Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from July 27, 2009 email to Linda Bagley): I enter on each receipt … if it was clothing for Josh, clothing for Susan, accessories for Susan, toiletries for Susan, shoes, cosmetics … groceries is broken down to listening each item or describing if it was produce, frozen, shelf stable foods, incidentals like batteries or non-consumables. … We categorize diapers versus wipes versus diaper ointment versus children’s clothing, children books, children toys, children movies etcetera, etcetera.

Dave Cawley: Susan begged Josh for a better computer throughout 2009. He kept telling her he would build her one, but never did.

Linda Bagley: It was always the best for him and the least they could do for her, but yet she earned as much or more income than he did.

Dave Cawley: Finally, at the end of August, the Compaq iPaq died. Susan felt cut off from her friends and family and she resorted to sneaking onto Facebook at the office. She told a coworker in an email she feared those internet sessions might cost her her job.

Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from September 12, 2009 Facebook message): I just found out, they might be doing “final warnings” and firing people for using “non work related websites.” … I value my job more than email. … I guess, let’s go back to the stone age of cell phones.

Dave Cawley: The solution had been staring Susan in the face for months. She knew of a family that had shut down an in-home business earlier in the year. That family owned several computers they no longer needed. Susan decided to buy one, without telling Josh. That presented a problem, though. At that time, Josh and Susan had only one car.

Linda Bagley: She didn’t get the car, it was him unless he didn’t have the, unless he had the day off maybe or something. It was always him.

Dave Cawley: So on September 18th, 2009, Susan asked her daycare provider Debbie Caldwell to swing by in her Mazda Miata. When Debbie showed up, Susan plopped down into the passenger seat and told Debbie where to go. That night, Susan bought a computer of her own for $100.

In the interest of full disclosure I should mention I know who sold Susan that computer. At this time, I’m opting not to report that detail.

Josh flipped out when he found out about Susan’s purchase.

Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from September 18, 2009 email): Josh immediately pounced on the computer … I told him it was my computer and not to mess with it.

Dave Cawley: The computer was a Dell OptiPlex GX270, far from top of the line. But Susan told her coworkers in this email that it was enough.

Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from September 18, 2009 email): It does what I need and that’s all I care about. I explained I wanted to do Facebook, Hotmail, and let the kids watch movies and such.

Dave Cawley: Susan didn’t want her computer downstairs in the office, where Josh kept his computer. Instead, she cleared space in a small upstairs bedroom. And that is exactly where West Valley City police detectives found it less than three months later, when they entered the house with a search warrant.

[Scene transition]

Dave Cawley: The Dell computer next ended up at the FBI’s Intermountain West Regional Computer Forensics Lab, along with all of the rest of the digital evidence in the Powell case. I talked about the RCFL’s work in episode 12. As a refresher though, here’s FBI Supervisory Special Agent Cheney Eng-Tow.

Cheney Eng-Tow: The software we use goes in and retrieves deleted files, files that are in this so-called like unallocated space that the computer knows can use now. So we’re able to pull stuff that’s deleted and things like that.

Dave Cawley: That’s exactly where investigators found almost all of the cartoon pornography: in unallocated space on the Dell computer’s hard drive. The images had been deleted, likely as part of an automatic purge of web browser cache files. In other words, someone had visited a website hosting the images but had probably not explicitly downloaded copies of them.

Typically, computer files carry metadata that can tell you things like when the file was created, modified or last accessed. Forensic examiners can use that metadata to determine when files were downloaded from the internet. But that’s not always the case with deleted files. They’re often stripped of metadata. This presented a problem for West Valley police. When they and the FBI discovered the cartoon incest pornography in 2010, they opened a new case in the hopes of securing federal child pornography charges against Josh. Police records show a detective even screened the case with an assistant U.S. Attorney. But the AUSA refused to charge, pointing out that police could not prove Josh was the person who’d accessed the explicit cartoons.

The police, FBI and prosecutors all missed something, something that I recently discovered: a timestamp showing when at least some of those cartoon porn images were accessed. I need to take a second and explain how I discovered this. When the RCFL finished its work on the Dell computer’s hard drive, it turned over copies of its findings to West Valley police.

Cheney Eng-Tow: We provide an archive of all of the work that we do. … We also generate a digital report for them. That report will have all of the files that were deemed pertinent.

Dave Cawley: Deemed pertinent. That means the report only included copies of a subset of all of the files found by the forensic software. Now, I have a copy of this report. Reviewing it, I discovered that one of the explicit cartoons still held metadata. It showed the image had last been accessed on March 20th, 2009. That’s six months before the Dell desktop ever entered the Powell house.

That’s not all. The report also included a database indicating all of the files that the forensic software had been able to see. It did not include copies of every file, but you can use the database to see stuff like file names, sizes, metadata and the location where the file had been stored on the file system’s directory.

I know this is all really dull, but just stick with me here. Knowing the date and time from the metadata on that one cartoon image, I was able to find references in the database to several internet cookie files from cartoon pornography websites. They were created just before 1 a.m. on March 22nd, 2009. Again, six months before the Dell computer ever entered the Powell house. The prior owner had failed to wipe the hard drive when selling it to Susan.

This fact carries significant implications. It means neither Josh nor Susan could have been the person who downloaded the cartoon pornography. And because of that, the judge’s order that Josh undergo a psychosexual evaluation, an order that many people close to the case say broke Josh just days before the murder-suicide, was based on flawed information.

[Scene transition]

Dave Cawley: Josh was in a hurry. It was February 3rd, 2009. He and Susan were making final preparations for a vacation to Washington. They planned to spend the better part of a month visiting their families and old friends in the state where they had first met and fallen in love. Before leaving their home in Utah, Josh wanted to finalize the legal trust he’d been working on with an attorney. He was becoming frustrated because the lawyer wasn’t responding to his messages. He complained to Susan about it in this email.

Eric Openshaw (as Josh Powell from February 3, 2009 email to Susan Powell): I can make a generic trust with that software program just to have something done before leaving.

Dave Cawley: Susan replied with an email of her own, urging her husband to worry about it later.

Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from February 3, 2009 email to Josh Powell): Seriously push for generic for now, we don’t need him delaying our entire vacation.

Dave Cawley: More practical concerns were forefront in Susan’s mind. She needed to find someone to watch their pet parrot, Triley, while they were gone.

(Sound of parrot squawking and Josh saying “hello” from undated home video recording)

Dave Cawley: Susan talked her sister-in-law Jennifer Graves into serving as the bird babysitter. But Josh just couldn’t shake his fixation with the trust.

Eric Openshaw (as Josh Powell from February 3, 2009 email to Susan Powell): Let’s plan to go over the language in detail while driving the bird to Jenny’s.

Dave Cawley: Susan made clear she wanted the legal stuff off Josh’s plate as soon as possible.

Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from February 3, 2009, work email to Josh Powell): I’m really really obsessed with the idea of leaving thursday early am to arrive by dinner so if that trust works-good.

Dave Cawley: The looming 15 hour drive didn’t seem to concern Josh much.

Eric Openshaw (as Josh Powell from February 3, 2009 email to Susan Powell): I also need to work on backing up data. I think I finally have a workable plan, but it will take time to process the files. I better start the process before leaving for Jenny’s.

Dave Cawley: Several months earlier, Josh had purchased a one terabyte Western Digital brand “My Book World Edition” external hard drive. He kept it in his basement office, connected to their home network by way of an ethernet cable. Susan even mentioned that hard drive in the video she made documenting the family’s assets in July of 2008.

Susan Cox Powell (from July 29, 2008 home video): And this is some type of backup device. It says WD on the side. I don’t know, it like shares the information somehow.

Dave Cawley: Josh’d come up with a method of syncing copies of his files from each of his computers to the external hard drive, over the home network.

West Valley City police detectives took the My Book World Edition hard drive when they raided Josh and Susan’s home with a search warrant the day after she disappeared. The same day they took Susan’s Dell desktop. Like the Dell, the My Book World hard drive ended up at the RCFL. But investigators couldn’t manage to get anything off of it. Josh’s network backup was locked with encryption. That encrypted hard drive is one of the last persisting mysteries in the Powell case. And for the first time, we have a clue of just what secrets it might hold.

[Scene transition]

Dave Cawley: Earlier in this episode, I mentioned Josh’s homebuilt computer tower. It’s the one with the RAID array that was in the basement office of the Sarah Circle house.

Susan Cox Powell (from July 29, 2008 home video): I think there’s like five hard drives, something about doing RAIDS. There’s those for all of the computer geeks.

Dave Cawley: Again, that is Susan’s voice from the video she made documenting her assets in the summer of 2008.

Josh’s RAID array computer also ended up at the FBI’s computer lab after Susan disappeared, but it didn’t appear to hold much in the way of evidence. Investigators flagged some family photos on it, as well as a single file named “vvdb1NetworkEncrypted.tdb.”

I have a copy of this file. At first, I couldn’t make much of it. I didn’t recognize the file format. A little Googling suggested it was probably some kind of database. But without knowing what program created it, there was little chance of viewing it. Maybe, I figured, something might show up if I tried to open the file as text. When I did, it revealed a single, extremely long line of letters, numbers and foreign language symbols. Almost incomprehensible.

Some dictionary words and even short phrases did jump out, but those foreign characters made it impossible to get a clean read. Scrolling what seemed endlessly toward the right, my eyes started to lose focus. That’s when it happened. A pattern began to emerge. The random placement of these foreign characters wasn’t actually random. On a hunch, I replaced all of those foreign characters with line breaks. That unreadable string of long text transformed into a neat list. Scrolling vertically then, I could see the list was roughly 70-thousand lines long. Each line was a discrete reference to an individual file.

Susan Cox Powell (from July 29, 2008 home video): We’ve got all sorts of files, this is all thanks to me trying to save them.

Dave Cawley: These were file paths. The very first line read “ViceVersa synchronization tracking.” ViceVersa is a file backup app.

Susan Cox Powell (from July 29, 2008 home video): There’s some tapes and DVDs and stuff to back up all the computer geek stuff, our family photos and financial information and…

Dave Cawley: I soon learned the .tdb file extension was short for tracking database. So the file I was looking at was how ViceVersa kept track of which items to synchronize. It was a log of what was copied from where, to where. The source, where the original files were copied from, and the target, where they were copied to, were both represented in the list. Looking through the database, I could see the source was called “tempbackupunorganized.” The target volume carried the name “mybookworld.”

Susan Cox Powell (from July 29, 2008 home video): My Book Work, World Edition. I think that’s the stuff I was looking at earlier that saves information.

Dave Cawley: That means the ViceVersa database file is very likely the table of contents to Josh’s encrypted hard drive.

A few takeaways were evident when I started studying the ViceVersa database file. Josh tended to keep his documents well organized, in a series of nested folders. They had orderly names like business, education, finances, insurance, housing and so on. Each individual file carried a descriptive name.

Many of the files and folders also included exact dates in their names. The formatting was always the same: four digit year, two digit month, two digit day. Josh’s documents dated as far back as the early 90s, when he was a teenager. The most recent files dated to September of 2009, three months before Susan’s disappearance.

Perhaps most important, I recognized some of the files. In fact, I already had copies of some of them, like Josh’s audio journals.

Josh Powell (from March 3, 2001 audio journal recording): So I went home, started working on my computer again. I pretty much need my computer for every aspect of my life right now.

Dave Cawley: But my copies of Josh’s journals came from hard drives West Valley police seized from Steve Powell’s house and Josh’s safe deposit box in Washington in 2011.

Josh Powell (from March 2, 2001 audio journal recording): Today I got up and started working on my computer. I decided better get Windows 98 installed on it so I can start using my scanner and stuff again.

Dave Cawley: So how did Josh have copies of those files in Washington in 2011, if police had seized all of his digital data from the Sarah Circle house in Utah right after Susan disappeared in 2009?

Josh Powell (from March 5, 2001 audio journal recording): None of this technology stuff is particularly esoteric to me.

Dave Cawley: The simple answer is off-site backups. So where did Josh stash his off-site copy?

Back to those emails Josh and Susan exchanged in February of 2009, before leaving on their road trip to Washington. In one, Josh told Susan he wanted a backup of his computer done before their meeting with the attorney. Here’s what he wrote.

Eric Openshaw (as Josh Powell from February 3, 2009 email to Susan Powell): I really intend to fully backup the computer and bring a copy.

Dave Cawley: Now, I can’t say for sure, but it’s reasonable to believe Josh might’ve placed this copy of his digital archive in a safe deposit box. Or maybe, he left it with a friend. If so, he could’ve retrieved it after Susan disappeared and carried it with him to Washington.

Evidence exists to support this idea. As I just mentioned, the Josh Powell journal files I received from West Valley City during my research for Cold came from devices police’d seized in 2011. But they line up with the ViceVersa database from 2009. The folder structure on Josh’s encrypted backup is almost identical to that of his archive as it appeared two years later. They both derived from the same original source.

That discovery raised an interesting question: could the digital data seized by police in 2011 hold the key to unlocking the My Book World hard drive from 2009? To find out, I’d need the help of someone with access to all of the digital evidence.

[Ad break]

Dave Cawley: At the start of October 2013, Susan’s dad, Chuck Cox, sent an email to West Valley police detective Ellis Maxwell. A man named Richard Hickman from a company called Decipher Forensics had reached out to Chuck, offering to help get into Josh’s encrypted drive.

Richard Hickman: I saw the news story about the hard drives being encrypted and the FBI having a hard time being able to crack the encryption and I thought of the uh, the cryptocurrency mining machines that we had in our office that we also utilized for password breaking for forensics from time to time. And so I thought “well, let’s, let’s reach out. Let’s see if we can maybe just donate some time on our machine.”

Dave Cawley: Richard co-owned Decipher with two other partners, Trent Leavitt and Mike Johnson. They had founded the firm in 2011.

Trent Leavitt: Decipher primarily was a computer forensic and cell phone forensic company. We would handle cases in civil litigation, worked with law enforcement as well, on anything from homicide cases to divorces. Sometimes, they were one in the same. And everything in between: intellectual property theft, employment law, civil litigation of all types.

Dave Cawley: That is Trent. West Valley City had declared the Powell case cold five months earlier. At Chuck’s urging, police reached out to Decipher to see if they could help decrypt the “My Book World” hard drive.

Trent Leavitt: I believe we met with detective Maxwell. Very nice guy, very easy to work with. He was actually very appreciative of our willingness to do this for free and try and move things along and get more answers.

Dave Cawley: Trent told Ellis about the machines they intended to use. Decipher had poured about $14,000 into building them. They were both contained in milk crates.

Richard Hickman: You just have this box, this milk crate box and we, we actually took a piece of wood across the side of it to be able to kind of act as a, like, the shelf. And then we just set down these four really powerful graphics cards that are just gaming graphics cards and hooked ‘em up that way.

Dave Cawley: These milk crates weren’t much to look at but they were necessary because the rigs consumed a lot of power and generated a great deal of heat. It required a full-size fan just to keep them cool.

Trent Leavitt: It generated enough heat in the winter that we would open up our windows and didn’t have to turn on the furnace in our office. It, it literally heated our entire office.

Dave Cawley: Ellis was impressed. He ran the idea up his chain of command and received an ok from the deputy chief. So, in December of 2013, West Valley gave the Decipher team a copy of the MyBookWorld drive. The arrangement came with a condition: Decipher had to sign a non-disclosure agreement. They were not allowed to discuss their work.

Richard Hickman: And we didn’t talk about the fact that we were even doing it with anybody.

Dave Cawley: And, the deal required that they report any discoveries to Ellis.

Trent Leavitt: Anything that we find, per our agreement with West Valley City, y’know, when we originally started this, anything we found was to go back to West Valley City and to go nowhere else.

Dave Cawley: Confidentiality wasn’t an issue for Decipher. It was common practice with almost every case they worked.

Richard Hickman: Talking about a case, especially on camera, it’s weird. It’s very weird. (Laughs)

Dave Cawley: Trent and Richard are only discussing this now because West Valley City released them from the NDA, at Cold’s request. My thanks to West Valley for that.

Trent, Richard and Mike hooked up Josh’s encrypted drive up to their milk crate rig. They’d decided to run what’s known as a dictionary attack against the encryption.

Richard Hickman: We put together this strategy of combining a whole lot of, umm, password lists from previous data breaches and dumps that’d happened. Hackers will breach a company, they’ll pull their usernames and passwords and then they leak that to the internet. And so, all of those lists are publicly available. And so, we downloaded a lot of these lists of very common passwords. And then we created our own big combined dictionary, applied a whole bunch of rules to it to say “try the original password and then we’re going to swap all the As with @ symbols, Ss with $, Es with 3s, Is with 1s or !s, all of these different combinations. And, y’know, putting a one on the end putting or maybe combining two passwords and it created this massive dictionary that we knew and it, an our software showed was going to take forever to get through. But we thought why not? Let’s give it a try.

Dave Cawley: It didn’t take long before Decipher encountered some initial success. The tool they used for the dictionary attack came across a password.

Trent Leavitt: ap1124. Is that it?

Richard Hickman: Yep.

Trent Leavitt: I don’t know how I remember that, but some things you just don’t forget.

Richard Hickman: Yep.

Trent Leavitt: ap1124.

Dave Cawley: They plugged that six-character string into the encrypted drive, then attempted to access it. There was nothing there. The drive appeared to be empty.

Richard Hickman: With True Crypt, without getting really super technical, you can have multiple layers of encryption.

Dave Cawley: I’ll have more to say about this point in a bit, but for now, it’s enough to know that this discovery meant Decipher had to start all over again. They set the milk crate machines back to work.

Richard Hickman: It ran for a very long time.

Dave Cawley: The code-cracking software ripped through hundreds of millions, then billions of possible password permutations. Heat took its toll on the milk crate machines.

Trent Leavitt: And that thing would run around the clock, 24/7, for months, if not, y’know, close to two years before those things burned up. And still didn’t break it.

Dave Cawley: Ellis retired around that same time and a different detective, David Greco, took over as caretaker of the Powell case. 2016 passed. Still, no break. In August of 2017, detective Greco dropped in on the Decipher office to check up on things. Richard and another member of their team, Kaly Richmond, told him they still had the encrypted drive and were still working on it. They brought him up to speed on their early discovery, in a sort of good news/bad news kind of way.

Trent Leavitt: ap1124. That’s what we have to give you. It means absolutely nothing.

Dave Cawley: Two months later, in October of 2017, a private investigator working for Susan’s parents called Decipher to check in on things. Trent told the P.I., Rose Winquist, he didn’t have much to say. But he let slip they’d discovered a short password that didn’t provide access to any files.

Trent Leavitt: It’s really not a big deal. There’s nothing here.

Dave Cawley: Rose shared this information. I spoke to her on the phone on the night of October 25th, 2017. She told me then Decipher had decoded a “first layer” on Josh’s encrypted hard drive. At the time, I contacted West Valley police, who confirmed the general thrust of what Rose had said. So, I broke the story on the 10 o’clock news that night.

Dave McCann (from October 25, 2017 KSL TV archive): KSL radio producer Dave Cawley on the phone with us tonight with the latest development and Dave, this has to do with a hard drive.

Dave Cawley (from October 25, 2017 KSL TV archive): It does, Dave. A company called Winquist Investigations is collaborating with Susan Powell’s parents, Chuck and Judy Cox, and they’re working with a Utah company called Decipher Forensics to try and gain access to a copy of one of Josh Powell’s hard drives.

Dave Cawley: I didn’t then understand then that Decipher was working for West Valley, not the Coxes.

Dave Cawley (from October 25, 2017 KSL TV archive): Private investigator Rose Winquist tells KSL they are in need of more resources now to devote to the effort. They’re reaching out to Amazon, hoping the internet giant can use its cloud computing platform to speed up this process.

Dave Cawley: The following day, Rose made the rounds, talking to other local and national media about the encryption.

Rose Winquist (from October 26, 2017 KSL TV archive): This is our biggest hope right now, is, is this computer and the other computers that the police have.

Ladd Eagan (from October 26, 2017 KSL TV archive): Calling it a “potential breakthrough,” a private investigator hired by the parents of Susan Cox Powell hopes a remaining hard drive gives them the clues they need.

Dave Cawley: The brass at West Valley City were not happy. It seemed to them that Decipher had violated the nondisclosure agreement.

Trent Leavitt: I received a phone call from, uh, I’ll just say an official at West Valley City and wanting to know why the press was starting to camp out at the, y’know, the front of the the doors. And I said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Dave Cawley: Trent soon figured it out and went to work attempting to limit the damage.

Trent Leavitt: It violated the trust of another department. In our industry, word gets around pretty quick. When in fact, we didn’t violate the trust, someone else did.

Dave Cawley: But that damage was done.

Trent Leavitt: Obviously, in trying to be cooperative, we just did whatever West Valley City told us to do. And they said “Don’t say anything.” We said, “ok, we’ve been pretty good at that.” So we let West Valley City put out a statement. We just kept our mouth shut.

Dave Cawley: That didn’t keep Trent’s phone from blowing up.

Trent Leavitt: Dozens and dozens of phone calls. Probably from your station as well. And I had no comment. Y’know, I actually just started hanging up on people because I had work to do, and I wasn’t getting it done.

Dave Cawley: The Decipher team feared West Valley would demand the encrypted drive back, shutting down their effort. But the city didn’t do that. And the situation did have a silver lining. The renewed interest in the Powell case started the team thinking about how to whittle down that giant dictionary into something more manageable, a custom dictionary to Josh alone.

Richard Hickman: It’s a much more personalized dictionary, based on the information that we have about him. And so, we can take all of his computer information and even enter in manually information like his birthday, his kids’ names, his kids’ birthdays, family members and important life events and that kind of stuff.

Dave Cawley: But they could only build that custom dictionary if they had access to Josh’s other, unencrypted hard drives.

Trent Leavitt: During the course of that week, umm, our former business partner Mike Johnson said, “I’m positive, there’s more drives in this case that just didn’t give them to us. What if we took all of the drives” and like Richard talked about “created a dictionary of all the drives that aren’t encrypted?”

Dave Cawley: A few weeks after the leak, detective Greco dropped in on the Decipher office again to remind Trent, Mike and Richard they were still bound by the non-disclosure agreement. The Decipher team took the opportunity to ask for copies of all of the digital data from the Powell case. West Valley City agreed, in spite of the recent breach of trust. And, in 2018, the accounting firm Eide Bailly acquired Decipher Forensics. Trent brought the Powell drives with him to his new, state-of-the-art digital forensics lab.

[Scene transition]

Dave Cawley: The October 2017 leak had another unintended consequence. Rob Burton, an IT expert and self-described news junkie, had followed reports about the Powell case from the beginning.

Rob Burton: It affected me very personally, just like many of us here in Utah and nationally.

Dave Cawley: Rob was paying attention when the P.I., Rose Winquist, started doing news interviews about Josh’s encrypted hard drive.

Rob Burton: There was some local news media coverage of the encrypted hard drive that had made the news here in Salt Lake City as well as some podcasts.

Dave Cawley: It was Nancy Grace on her podcast “Crime Stories.” The show characterized the latest news as “a big development” and “the most hopeful lead” in the Powell case in years. Attentive, Rob listened. Several times.

Rob Burton: And as I heard the, the digital forensic details, it just didn’t quite line up.

Dave Cawley: Rob worked for a large corporate employer in Salt Lake City as an information security analyst and digital forensics specialist. He had expertise in this field.

Rob Burton: She kind of glossed over it. I don’t think she fully understood the details and the intricacies that were involved, especially with West Valley City.

Dave Cawley: At one point, a guest on the podcast mentioned there was nothing preventing police from making more copies of the encrypted hard drive and sharing those with other digital forensic experts. That started Rob thinking.

Rob Burton: I actually work in West Valley. My employer has a major IT office in West Valley and so hearing that, I wondered, “I wonder if I could get involved with that?”

Dave Cawley: Rob headed over to West Valley police headquarters on his lunch break one day.

Rob Burton: They were actually very positive, very favorable. I, I, I asked them specifically for the detective involved in the case and he wasn’t there at the time but I left him a message and then he called me back a few days later and met with me.

Dave Cawley: Detective David Greco made a fresh copy of the encrypted “My Book World” hard drive for Rob and delivered it to him at the start of January 2018. Just like with Decipher, Rob signed a nondisclosure agreement. He was gagged from talking about the project.

Rob Burton: In fact, as I started this project two years ago, being under NDA, I knew I just couldn’t just create a folder on my computer called “Susan Powell project” because I was under NDA and kind of had to keep it hidden. And so I named the folder on my computer Project Sunlight because I thought every good secret project has to have a good codename, right? Like you see in movies and TV shows and I named it Project Sunlight Because sunlight is the best disinfectant, I think.

Dave Cawley: Again, West Valley City has granted Rob a release from that NDA at Cold’s request. My thanks to the city for allowing Rob to share his story.

Rob Burton: And now that it’s a little more out in the open, I’m, I’m very relieved to be able to talk about it.

Dave Cawley: Once Rob obtained a copy of the encrypted hard drive, he started tinkering. He bought several computers second-hand and set them up to run a password-cracking program.

Rob Burton: I’ve basically built a small computer lab out of extra computers that I had and uh, that I’ve been able to acquire with some other video cards and then just running the software against it. It’s called Passware and it’s commercially available and it’s what law enforcement agencies also use.

Dave Cawley: Passware began plugging every possible password into the drive, one by one, as fast as it could. This is what’s known as a brute force attack, a different approach from the dictionary attack the Decipher team had first employed.

Rob Burton: There’s a couple different strategies when it comes to decryption, but brute force is kind of the last effort, really, the last ditch effort really, after several of the easier things have been exhausted. You’re really left with brute force. And that’s where you’re basically just trying combinations of letters, numbers, characters to try and brute force that password. To guess it. Password guessing.

Dave Cawley: Passware had only been running for a handful of weeks when something unexpected happened.

Rob Burton: One morning I came in and looked at that and it said “password found 1.” And I thought “oh, is that a bug, was that real?” And sure enough, yeah no, it really did find one password.

Dave Cawley: ap1124. The same password the Decipher team had discovered.

Rob Burton: But we mounted that and it’s blank. There’s no data there.

Dave Cawley: Earlier, I mentioned that I’d get back to the idea of this being an “outer layer” of encryption.

Rob Burton: Think of it as a box within a box.

Dave Cawley: Rob explained, the ap1124 password was the key to open the outer box.

Rob Burton: There’s a process known as plausible deniability that basically, it was used so that if someone was caught and had to give up the password to this drive, say by law enforcement — law enforcement arrests a suspect and convinces them to give up a password to the drive — they could say “ok, well my password is, here’s my password.” Law enforcement thinks “oh great, we’ve got the password to the drive, we can decrypt it.” They can decrypt that outer partition and it can be totally empty. And they think “oh, there’s nothing here.”

Dave Cawley: Cracking the outer partition password brings them no closer to discovering the hidden partition password.

Rob Burton: It’s a whole different password. There’s the outer password and there’s the inner password. So it’s starting over and it’s a much different layer of complexity.

Dave Cawley: ap1124 isn’t very secure, as far passwords go. Nowadays, many websites would refuse to let you use it because it’s not long enough, doesn’t include special characters and uses only lower-case letters. Richard Hickman and Trent Leavitt told me it’s likely the password Josh used on the hidden partition, if a hidden partition even exists, is much more complex.

Richard Hickman: There might not even be a second layer. It could just be, we cracked that top code and it was an empty hard drive.

Trent Leavitt: That’s possibility we’ve talked about.

Richard Hickman: We have no idea, so. We’d like to think that there’s something else to go after.

Dave Cawley: The ViceVersaPro database log I talked about earlier suggests there probably is something to go after. But the only way to know for sure is to either crack the second password or run the brute force attack until the end of time.

Trent Leavitt: No encryption is bulletproof. But if you can delay the amount of time it takes, then becomes improbable.

Dave Cawley: The way you increase the amount of time it takes is by using a long, strong password. Josh did provide police a password for one of his computers in 2011. It consisted of his birth date, his full name, his social security number, his user account name and a string of what appear to be random letters and numbers. It’s 59 characters, including upper and lower case letters, numbers, as well as hyphens, slashes and parentheses.

Rob Burton: However many characters long it may be exponentially increases the complexity and the length that it takes.

[Scene transition]

Dave Cawley: West Valley police were sifting through the first round of digital data seized from the Sarah Circle house in the days after Susan disappeared when, in March of 2010, Josh Powell’s attorney Scott Williams sent them an email. Williams asked for the return of Josh’s computers and hard drives.

The sergeant in charge of West Valley’s major crimes unit told Williams that wasn’t going to happen. But the sergeant said if Josh had a particular file in mind, detectives could try to find it for him. That would go easier, he added, if Josh would cough up his password. 

Josh claimed he could not remember the password. In spite of that, he emailed over his file wishlist a few days later. At the top were his family photos. Here’s what he wrote in his email.

Eric Openshaw (as Josh Powell from April 5, 2010 email to Scott Williams): On the white hard drive, most of it will be in a folder called “photos” or “photos and videos” or similar naming. If possible, please send all photos, audio, and video files you can find. There will be some hundreds of gigabytes in total.

Dave Cawley: The “white hard drive” he’s talking about is the encrypted My Book World drive.

Eric Openshaw (as Josh Powell from April 5, 2010 email to Scott Williams): Everything that can be released from the white Western Digital drive would be greatly appreciated.

Dave Cawley: Josh called the photos and videos “unreplaceable,” even though he already had copies of them safe and sound in Washington. Is it possible then, that this request to police was just a ruse? A way of finding out if they’d managed to break into his encrypted archive?

A bit earlier, I described how I compared the ViceVersaPro database to the digital evidence seized by police in 2011 and discovered they lined up. But there were a few conspicuous omissions from the 2011 data. Files with names like “Gmail email account info” and “encryption instructions” were missing. This suggests that at some point after Susan’s disappearance, Josh performed an audit of his own files and deleted anything that might give away his passwords.

In a more curious omission, Josh appeared to have deleted any file that showed he once owned a set of Ridgid-brand power tools. Paperwork for all of his other tools was still present, but not the Ridgid tools. It’s not clear why he did that.

Back to that email Josh sent police. He told them he also wanted a complete copy of his workissued laptop. 

Eric Openshaw (as Josh Powell from April 5, 2010 email to Scott Williams): And if possible, please find the image that is displayed on the desktop and include it. Or just photograph the computer with the desktop picture showing to try as a memory aid.

Dave Cawley: A memory aid. To what, remember his password?

Kaly Richmond, a member of the digital forensics team at Eide Bailly, recovered Josh’s desktop at Cold’s request. The photo was not what I expected. It’s just a stock image of a chameleon. Whatever it might have meant to Josh, I can’t say. But I can say this: after all of this time spent analyzing the digital data and searching for clues, it’s clear Josh Powell was not some computer genius.

Trent Leavitt: He created some websites. There’s eight year olds that create websites and not, they’re not prodigies. Anyone can get a book and create a website. It’s just sitting down and going through the book.

Dave Cawley: Josh did have aptitude when it came to tech.

Rob Burton: He wasn’t really the smartest but he certainly utilized whatever was available at the time.

Dave Cawley: He could run a database, but cryptography was not his specialty. He was no hacker.

Trent Leavitt: There’s not that many true hackers in the world, from a percentage standpoint. But if you work in technology, people think you’re a hacker and it’s just not the case.

Dave Cawley: TrueCrypt, the program Josh used to encrypt the My Book World hard drive, was available for free on the internet in 2009.

Rob Burton: You didn’t have to be the smartest or the most technical savvy. You could just download it and use it.

Dave Cawley: TrueCrypt is just as strong today as it was a decade ago. There’s no simple shortcut or backdoor to discovering Josh’s password.

Richard Hickman: Just because the resources and technology are a little bit better today doesn’t change the fact that that encryption, in the first place, was top notch and that it’s still going to take that many permutations to get through it.

Dave Cawley: Even if investigators some day make into the drive, they will have to contend with the fact that ViceVersaPro, the program Josh used to back up files to the My Book World drive, also applied its own layer of encryption.

Rob Burton: You hook it up to your home router. You back up several computers. Josh was very meticulous, it sounds like, in doing that.

Dave Cawley: This is how digital forensics works. It’s a constant process of coming up against hurdles and finding ways overcome them. Some solutions are technical. Some are rooted in human nature.

Trent Leavitt: I don’t care who you are, decryption’s not easy.

Dave Cawley: Or fast. And at this point, with Josh, Michael and Steve Powell all dead, there’s no expectation on the part of law enforcement that decrypting the My Book World drive will lead to anyone being held accountable for what happened to Susan. But there is hope that some small clue might lead police to Susan’s body.

Trent Leavitt: If it were my daughter, I’d go to the ends of the earth, just like, uh, the Cox family has done for years now, to make sure I’ve exhausted every avenue possible, if that were my daughter.

Dave Cawley: That is why this effort continues.

Trent Leavitt: Everything that we’ve done on this, everyone that’s participate in helping this, no one’s been compensated for it, at all. It’s just to try and help the Cox family as much as possible, in any way that we can.

Dave Cawley: Trent Leavitt and Kaly Richmond at Eide Bailly, along with Richard Hickman, Mike Johnson and the rest of their old Decipher Forensics team, are still brainstorming new approaches.

Richard Hickman: I would love to see someone else able to do it. If they know a hacker out there that knows how to get into True Crypt, I’d love an introduction.

Dave Cawley: And Rob Burton, now part of the effort, is providing his time and insight to Project Sunlight.

Rob Burton: I as a corporate investigator, I’ve got a little extra time on my hands. I’m not constrained by international terrorist cases or, or other criminal cases that tie up law enforcement resources. And so I have a little extra time that I can devote to this. I, I think it’s worth it and I want to continue and I want to just throw additional resources at it. And as technology improves, software gets better, hardware gets better, I think that we’ll get there eventually. And it’s definitely worth the effort and worth trying. We gotta do what we can.

Cold season 1, bonus 5: Car Crash Con – Full episode transcript

Dave Cawley: Summer had its claws in Salt Lake City. September sun scorched the pavement. The noontime heat made the air appear to wobble. Jeff Lewis stepped into his truck, a red GMC Sierra pickup, outside of his office in an industrial park south of Salt Lake City International Airport. He knew the lunch hour traffic would be bad on the Bangerter Highway, so he opted to take a back road south toward the 201 freeway. Jeff’s route took him down Gramercy Road, to 1820 South, then to an intersection with Bangerter just north of the 201 onramp.

Jeff Lewis: Just before I got onto Bangerter at the intersection, umm, I was sitting at the red light with one vehicle in front of me and it happened to be a little minivan.

Dave Cawley: A blue, 2005 Chrysler Town and Country.

(Sound of traffic on Bangerter Highway)

Dave Cawley: Both the minivan and the GMC were in line, waiting to make right-hand turns onto the southbound lanes of Bangerter. The light turned green.

Jeff Lewis: The minivan started to pull forward and turn right and so I naturally looked left as I was pulling forward and I ran into the back of the minivan.

Dave Cawley: The Town and Country minivan had come to a full, unexpected stop. The GMC hadn’t been moving all that fast, but its front bumper hit the van’s lift gate.

Jeff Lewis: I was just thinking “what are you doing? The light was green, you were going right and then you slammed on your brakes. What were you doing?” Y’know? And yeah, I was upset, too.

Dave Cawley: The minivan did not budge. It hung halfway out in the rightmost lane of Bangerter Highway, frozen. A surge of frustration went through Jeff as it became clear the minivan was not going to pull over.

Jeff Lewis: I pulled around him and then pulled on to Bangerter and pulled over to the right and he pulled up behind me.

Dave Cawley: Jeff put his truck in park, pulled out his phone and dialed 911.

Jeff Lewis: Instantly, my first instinct was to call the cops. Uh, been in a little fender bender, didn’t know what really was going on, uh, the guy was kinda acting weird by not really getting out of the way of traffic. We weren’t really even going very fast, maybe three to four miles an hour.

Dave Cawley: A dispatcher took Jeff’s information as he walked around the front of the pickup.

Jeff Lewis: There wasn’t really any damage to my truck. A couple little scrapes on the front bumper, nothing big.

Dave Cawley: The dispatcher told Jeff a trooper would head his way. He ended the call and glanced over to see the driver of the minivan walking toward him.

Jeff Lewis: He kind of gave off this really weird vibe by the way he approached. Uh, it was kind of like he was a little bit standoffish, uh, just a little bit different. Not like a, a normal person.

Dave Cawley: The minivan driver stuck out his hand, as if he wanted to shake Jeff’s. He introduced himself at the same time. “My name,” he said, “is Josh.”

Jeff Lewis: And I actually told him “I’ve just called the cops, I’d appreciate it if you stay over there by your van” and “I’m calling my insurance right now.” And he said “oh, oh you’ve called the cops.” And I said “yeah I’ve, I’ve, they’re on their way. They’ll be here any time.”

Dave Cawley: This is a bonus episode of Cold: The Car Crash Con. I’m Dave Cawley.

[Ad break]

Dave Cawley: Three months before Susan Powell disappeared, Jeff Lewis was involved in a minor fender bender with Susan’s husband, Josh Powell.

Jeff Lewis: Something was really off. I didn’t feel comfortable with the guy. Y’know and, and rightfully so, I was probably, I was pretty upset.

Dave Cawley: Josh had brake-checked Jeff at they were making a right-hand turn from 1820 South onto the Bangerter Highway in Salt Lake City on September 2nd, 2009. Jeff had called 911, then his insurance agent.

Jeff Lewis: Meanwhile, I look over and Josh is on his phone and walking around, acting like no big deal, kind of over by his vehicle. Umm, and then a cop pulled up.

Dave Cawley: Utah Highway Patrol records show the cop — a state trooper — arrived six minutes after Jeff called in to report the accident.

Jeff Lewis: As soon as Josh looked over and saw that there was a cop pulled up, all the sudden his back started hurting and he kind of started holding his lower back and limping back to his vehicle. And he actually got back into his van on the passenger side. The cop got out of his vehicle, walked up to me and asked me “what was that?” And I said “I don’t know, he was perfectly fine while we were waiting for you.”

Dave Cawley: Jeff told me the trooper warned him if Josh asked for an ambulance, he’d have to call for one. Jeff couldn’t believe it.

Jeff Lewis: It wasn’t even enough to really, when I hit him, to really make my head whiplash or my neck whiplash or anything like that.

Dave Cawley: The trooper gave both Jeff and Josh paperwork to fill out. They each wrote out their individual accounts of the crash. Just over 10 years had passed from the day of this crash to the afternoon that Jeff and I sat down for this interview.

Jeff Lewis: Y’know and, and my memory’s a little foggy. It’s been a little while.

Dave Cawley: Thankfully, the paperwork from that day a decade ago has survived. I have copies of both statements and asked Jeff to read Josh’s words.

Jeff Lewis: Josh’s says that “came to a full stop at a red light. Pulled forward and came to another full stop to traffic. Got rear ended.” That was it.

Dave Cawley: Jeff’s version of events included a bit more detail.

Jeff Lewis: Umm, mine. “Was in lane waiting to pull out onto Bangerter. Car in front of me pulled forward to go. I looked left and he’d stopped. I was only going about 3 to 4 miles per hour. Jumped out to see if he was ok and he said he was just fine.” So, it’s a little bit different.

Dave Cawley: Standing on the side of the highway that day, Jeff couldn’t imagine why Josh would need medical treatment.

Jeff Lewis: And so the cop walks over and probably about three minutes later walks back to me and says “well, here comes the ambulance.” Five to ten minutes later, a fire truck and an ambulance pulls up. They pull him out of the vehicle like he, as if he couldn’t even walk. They put him on a stretcher, put him in the ambulance and, and uh, hauled him away.

Dave Cawley: Josh ended up at the Granger Medical Clinic in West Valley City that afternoon, where a doctor diagnosed him with a neck sprain.

Jeff Lewis: I talked with the police officer after and uh, he actually apologized to me and said “y’know what?” This is right after the recession and he said “we’ve seen a lot of accidents.” And he goes “I’m not necessarily saying that he purposely caused the accident, but it looks like he did. And we see these kinda accidents quite a, quite a bit because some people can claim, y’know, doctor bills and, and they’re hurt and distressed and 20 to 30 thousand dollars off of insurance for a settlement.”

Dave Cawley: Utah court records show Jeff received a citation for following too close. He had to pay a $170 fine.

Jeff Lewis: Went home and I didn’t really think anything of it after that.

Dave Cawley: Until three months later, when he spotted a face that seemed somehow familiar on the TV news.

Jeff Lewis: At first, y’know, they were talking about the disappearance of Susan Powell and her husband Josh Powell. They had ‘em on the news and I said “I know this guy. I know this guy.” Didn’t hit me right away but all of the sudden I was like, I was digging through my stuff and I found the incident report and sure enough, it was Josh Powell.

Dave Cawley: It came as a shock. Jeff realized Josh and Susan Powell lived exactly a mile and a half west of him in a straight line.

Jeff Lewis: What’d happened is my insurance called me, umm, it was right around the same time, and they told me that he’d claimed that, y’know of course some vehicle damage. Uh, they paid out for that, I want to say it was about $3,000, which, honestly, $3,000 isn’t, isn’t much damage. Uh, he had a little scrape and a little ding on the, the back of the van, nothing real serious. Umm, they also paid out the ambulance ride.

Dave Cawley: This is backed up by paperwork. An estimate prepared by Rocky Mountain Collision Repair a week after the crash pegged the cost of fixing the minivan at $2,934.

Jeff Lewis: He also tried to claim pain and suffering and they did not pay out the money that he was asking for for that.

Dave Cawley: Pain and suffering. From a fender-bender. A little love tap at less than five miles per hour.

Jeff Lewis: And at the time, my insurance agent actually told me that there was other cases that he’d been involved that was very similar to the same accident. I don’t have any proof on that. That was just what my insurance agent told me.

Dave Cawley: Jeff didn’t have any proof. I do.

[Scene transition]

Dave Cawley: Let’s step back in time and look at Josh Powell’s second suspicious car crash. Six and a half years before that rear-end wreck on Utah’s Bangerter Highway, and 585 miles away as the crow flies, Josh sat at the wheel of a different minivan. This time, it was his 1997 Plymouth Grand Voyager. Susan sat shotgun. They didn’t have their boys with them, because Charlie and Braden had not yet been born.

Susan Cox Powell (from February 2, 2003 home video recording): They say when you want to have kids, get a dog. But we didn’t want a dog, so we got a bird. We don’t want kids yet though, either.

Dave Cawley: Josh and Susan had been married just over two years. They were then living in Yakima, Washington, working as live-in managers at a retirement center. This is from a video Steve Powell shot, when Josh and Susan first moved in to their on-site apartment.

Steve Powell (from February 2, 2003 home video recording): Yeah well, you don’t want kids until you’ve been in this place long enough to, y’know.

Susan Cox Powell (from February 2, 2003 home video recording): Take the experience with us and find a better job.

Steve Powell (from February 2, 2003 home video recording): Exactly, so. Yeah. So…

Dave Cawley: On May 12th, 2003, the Powell’s minivan rolled north along Rudkin Road in the little city of Union Gap, just south of Yakima. Off to the right, traffic whizzed by on I-82.

(Sound of traffic on I-82)

Dave Cawley: Rudkin, a frontage road, had a posted speed limit of 25 miles per hour.

Bob Powers: It wasn’t like we were going 60 miles an hour down this road. (Laughs)

Dave Cawley: Josh wasn’t even doing 25 as he crept past the Outback Steakhouse, Best Western and truck stop.

Bob Powers: There was no one else on the road at all, no other cars.

Dave Cawley: Bob Powers was also headed north on Rudkin that afternoon in his 1993 Lexus ES340.

Bob Powers: I had come up on him after a, after a turn on the roadway and went “why is he going so slow? There’s nobody in front of him in the,” y’know, he’s obviously lost, is what I’m saying to myself. Y’know, that’s what you say to yourself. Obviously lost.

Dave Cawley: Bob slowed. His focus drifted. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted an odd looking home at the side of the road.

Bob Powers: For whatever reason I’d taken a look at the building and happened to notice that it, y’know that it was, y’know just a ugly roof.

Dave Cawley: As a real estate investor, Bob had something of an interest in odd properties.

Bob Powers: And the minute I’d looked back, y’know he’d, he’d stopped. Y’know, it was very abrupt and I didn’t understand it at all. No need to be stopping. There’s, there, there, clear roadway ahead, no stop lights, no stop signs. No right or left turn opportunities. There was no reason for him to be stopped dead, dead center in the middle of the road.

Dave Cawley: Bob’s right foot stabbed the brake pedal. It wasn’t enough. The Lexus skidded into the back of the minivan.

Bob Powers: Y’know, I think by the time we would’ve even connected we, we had to have been, what was it I said before, might have been going five miles, ten miles an hour or something. It’s gotta be slower.

Dave Cawley: The front driver-side corner of the Lexus hit the van’s rear bumper, just right of center.

Bob Powers: It just couldn’t have been much. It was just a really soft uh, y’know, connection, enough that it, enough that it surprised you but not enough that it jolted you.

Dave Cawley: Airbags did not even deploy, in either car. Josh would later describe whipping his head backward against the headrest. Susan lurched forward against her seatbelt. Her muscles tensed. She didn’t feel pain, only a rush of anxiety. Concerned, she turned to check on her husband. Josh seemed ok, but maybe just a little dazed. Susan popped the buckle on her seatbelt and stepped out of the minivan’s passenger door. She checked herself. Nothing seemed broken or even sore. Josh got out of the van as well, as Bob was stepping from the driver door of his car.

Bob Powers: Got out of the car and uh, I uh, said “well we probably should take each other’s information and uh, let me, let me call and file a report.”

Dave Cawley: Bob had a few years on Josh. He wasn’t quite sure what to make of this younger man.

Bob Powers: I, I do remember him being just somewhat aloof, umm, didn’t seem to be very animated. Kinda odd, y’know, in a, I mean, kind of quiet, didn’t really talk much. Y’know, sort of, uh, participated in the information exchange but didn’t really have much more to add to the conversation. So I call, I was actually the one who called the police.

Dave Cawley: Meantime, they checked their cars for damage.

Bob Powers: What I remember is, wasn’t much damage at all.

Dave Cawley: A Union Gap police officer arrived. He looked at the two vehicles. Then, he wrote up a report. It noted damage to the front driver corner of Bob’s car, but no damage of any significance to Josh’s minivan. The officer wrote Bob a ticket for following too close.

Bob Powers: I was cited for umm, for the uh, incident. Y’know, had a citation written and didn’t feel it was my fault because I felt like it was an abrupt, y’know, stop.

Dave Cawley: All these years later, I found a scanned copy of the officer’s report among Josh’s personal files. I showed it to Bob.

Bob Powers: That’s interesting. Mmhmm.

(Sound of papers shuffling)

Dave Cawley: Josh told the officer that he’d been making a left-hand turn. The officer drew a diagram of the crash, based on Josh’s description.

Bob Powers: I find this interesting, this diagram. This is, this is a, they did this to indicate what the individual had said, that he was starting to take a left turn. But this is not true. This cannot be possible, y’know.

Dave Cawley: The area to the left of where Josh had stopped on Rudkin Road was blocked by a cyclone fence and a locked gate surrounding a fruit warehouse. I’ve been unable to find any indication that Josh and Susan ever visited or had business at that warehouse. That wasn’t the only oddity on the police report.

Bob Powers: Says no injuries were reported.

Dave Cawley: No injuries. That makes what happened next even more odd. Josh handed Susan the keys and sat down in the passenger seat. She took the wheel and steered north to Memorial Hospital in Yakima. When they arrived, Susan told the emergency department staff she was fine but her husband needed an evaluation. Josh went through an exam and x-rays. He received a prescription for ibuprofen and Vicodin. The doctor also told him to take it easy for a few days at work: no heavy lifting, no pouring coffee for the retirement center residents, that kind of thing

Susan awoke the next morning in pain. The adrenaline had worn off and her body ached. But she didn’t go the ER, as Josh had. Instead, she stopped by a clinic right around the corner from their work. A tech took some x-rays and nothing seemed wrong so Susan went home with just some Celebrex, which she never ended up taking. Looking through the records now, it seems that would’ve been a logical place for this story to end. But it didn’t.

On the second day after the crash, Josh convinced Susan they needed to see a chiropractor. He’d found one in the yellow pages so they went in for an evaluation. Afterward, Josh informed his bosses he couldn’t do any physical labor, doctor’s orders. Also, he’d be missing a lot of work while receiving treatment.

Josh and Susan spent the next month and a half seeing the chiropractor, two or three times per week. That wasn’t all. The chiropractor wrote them prescriptions for massage therapy. All of the bills went to Josh’s auto insurance. They were coming to the end of their treatments when July 13th rolled around. That was the day Steve Powell confessed his feelings to Susan, in the voyeur video recording first revealed right here in the Cold podcast. You might remember, Steve had accompanied Josh and Susan to a trucking company in Kent, Washington. Josh wanted to get his CDL and was toying with the idea of working as a trucker.

Josh Powell (from a July 13, 2003 home video recording): Well, ‘cause we’re thinking of moving to Colorado—

Unidentified woman (from a July 13, 2003 home video recording): Oh, are you really?

Josh Powell (from a July 13, 2003 home video recording): —and I thought, of all the things, I want to get a trailer—

Unidentified woman (from a July 13, 2003 home video recording): Uh huh.

Josh Powell (from a July 13, 2003 home video recording): —to put our stuff in, because I hate moving it in and out of storage.

Unidentified woman (from a July 13, 2003 home video recording): Right, right.

Josh Powell (from a July 13, 2003 home video recording):  And so if I had a trailer, I’d like to have a way to move it without having to hire someone—

Unidentified woman (from a July 13, 2003 home video recording): Sure.

Josh Powell (from a July 13, 2003 home video recording): —even if I had to rent the truck.

Unidentified woman (from a July 13, 2003 home video recording): Right, right.

Dave Cawley: In the video Steve shot that day, Josh sat behind the big steering wheel, using using his arms and upper body to maneuver the semi. He didn’t wince or show any outward sign of pain as he twisted, worked the stick shift and waved goodby to his dad.

(Sound of idling semi truck)

Josh Powell (from a July 13, 2003 home video recording): See you later.

Steve Powell (from a July 13, 2003 home video recording): Ok, bye.

Dave Cawley: Yet just three days later, Josh pulled out the Yellow Pages again. He believed, according to medical records, that his recovery had plateaued and he wanted to try a different chiropractor. That meant a new round of evaluations, x-rays and manipulations. Josh and Susan went in together, three times a week, just like before. At every visit, the chiropractor billed the insurance for “exercise training” and “neuromuscular re-education.” He even sold Josh on the need for $170 dollars in special pillows and back braces, sending those bills to the insurance as well.

Bob Powers, the driver who’d hit Josh, had no idea any of this was happening.

Bob Powers: They get treatment for what? Nothing? (Laughs) That’s what it seems like.

Dave Cawley: Bob went to court, fighting the ticket he’d received. He brought photos with him, showing tall weeds covering the fence line that Josh was supposedly turning left into.

Bob Powers: Well, there’s no place where he could have been taking a left turn. It was total falsehood. That why I went and took photos is just so I would have whatever information I might need and, and uh, went to present it to the judge and he uh, he said “I think we’re going to rule in your favor.” (Laughs) So he dismissed the ticket.

Dave Cawley: Josh and Susan’s medical bills kept coming. By August, Josh’s auto insurance provider, Pemco, decided it needed to figure out if all of this really was necessary. The company ordered independent medical evaluations for both Josh and Susan. Josh talked to his chiropractor about it. He kept notes. Here’s what he wrote.

Eric Openshaw (as Josh Powell from September, 2003 personal notes): He said we had to sue in order to show a strong effort to get more money or he would make us pay all of the invalid charges out of our money. … He gave me literature to ‘prove’ that I should. I told him I don’t think that is necessary.

Dave Cawley: The independent medical exams, or IMEs, took place on August 19th, 2003, more than three months after the crash. The specialist who did the IMEs described Susan as “very pleasant.” He did not use any such language for Josh. I have copies of paperwork from this IME. On a page listing symptoms, Josh checked boxes for severe or frequent headaches, shaking or twitching in limbs, loss of motion in joints, spine abnormality and excessive worry or anxiety. Susan put a giant slash across the entire form, as if to say she didn’t have any serious symptoms. 

The IMEs revealed Susan was fine. Although she sometimes had neck stiffness, she didn’t require any additional treatment to return to her pre-crash condition. Josh was another story. The specialist wrote Josh was “neurologically and orthopedically intact.” But, because of his insistent complaints about pain, Josh would probably benefit from six more weeks of treatment.

Pemco said Josh would have to pay for the pillows himself. It also denied coverage for the exercise training and neuromuscular re-education, finding those were unnecessary and not related to the crash.

Bob was stunned when I described the extent of the claims to him.

Bob Powers: My goodness. And here it’s been, what, 16 years ago? First I’ve heard of it.

Dave Cawley: Josh argued every detail of the bills with the insurance companies and chiropractors. His own records show he negotiated his portions of the bills down to just fractions of their total amounts. Bob’s insurance, State Farm, had quickly paid out $1,300 to replace the dinged rear bumper on Josh and Susan’s minivan. Josh hounded State Farm for more. He claimed there were new problems with the minivan that cropped up after the crash, like bald tires and a malfunctioning door lock. State Farm refused to pay for additional repairs.

The negotiation dragged on for months. In the end, State Farm reached a settlement with Josh. It paid out roughly $13,000 to cover medical expenses. Josh pocketed about half — $6,160.

Bob Powers: Wow. (Laughs) Good income for a couple of months back then, maybe.

Dave Cawley: It’s fair to raise a question here about Susan’s involvement in this claim. I turned to Susan’s journal, hoping to find insight about her side of this experience. But, there are two pages missing from it. The gap in time spans from March 2003 until August 2003, the exact period of time during which this crash and insurance claim took place. It’s also the period of time during which Steve Powell told Susan he was in love with her, and she rejected him. So, one could understand why she might not want this story in her journal.

The entries that followed the missing pages simply described a desire to escape. Here’s what Susan wrote on August 29th, 2003.

Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from an August 29, 2003 journal entry): Literally every work day we have numerous reminders of why we want to go. Badly. Hopefully soon, our misery can be put to an end. So then we can be living where we want. Happy what we’re doing and sooner able to move on, find a job for Josh and start a family.

[Scene transition]

Dave Cawley: All of Josh and Susan’s missed work time resulting from the crash had soured their relationship with the owners of the retirement center. They transferred to another center in Olympia at the end of the year, but it didn’t help. So, in January of 2004, Josh and Susan moved to Utah. They were both unemployed at first, but survived off of that $6,100 settlement check.

After a few weeks, Josh and Susan both picked up temp jobs. Josh lost his almost immediately. Susan’s temp position didn’t provide health insurance, so Josh applied for a private plan that February. He listed his occupation as “manager” on the paperwork, failing to disclose he was actually out of work and receiving unemployment. He also wrote on the form that he and Susan were both in “great health.” He explained away all those chiropractic treatments, saying they were just the result of an auto accident.

The agent who handled Josh’s application told him she needed records. He argued with her at length. In processing notes, the agent described Josh as “quite difficult to work with.” But he did cough up the records, eventually. After reviewing them, the insurance company offered Josh and Susan coverage, with a 15% markup. Josh did not take that  very well. He pushed back, saying he’d only gone through all those weeks of spine-cracking on doctor’s orders. The agent told Josh they could reconsider the rate in two years, provided he and Susan remained healthy. The insurance company viewed it as an already generous offer, the best they could do.

He wasn’t happy, but Josh swallowed it. The internal processing notes show only then did the health insurance rep raise the question: What, exactly, did Josh manage? The agent called Josh to ask, only to learn he was “now between jobs.”

[Ad Break]

Dave Cawley: These two car wrecks six years apart exhibited a surprising symmetry. Both were low-speed, rear-end collisions caused when Josh Powell came to unexpected stops in front of other drivers. In both cases, the other drivers insisted there was no apparent reason for him to have stopped. Josh claimed injuries from both crashes, in spite of the fact that neither of the other drivers were injured. Josh sought months of chiropractic and massage therapy care following each crash, billing those visits to auto insurance. In both cases, the insurance companies ended up ordering independent medical examinations, which raised doubts about the necessity of the treatments.

Twice is quite the coincidence.

Bob Powers: And, and you’ve indicated that there was some other, at least another one of these kinds of incidents? Two other incidents? Wow.

Dave Cawley: One before, one after.

Bob Powers: Wow.

Dave Cawley: Three times and it’s no longer a coincidence, it’s a trend. So let’s look at Josh’s third suspicious crash. It happened during the summer of 2000.

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): It was a really nice summer. I, I was actually content. I was happy the way things were going.

Dave Cawley: That’s Josh’s voice, from his audio journals. It was four months before he met Susan. He’d been living with his dad in South Hill, Washington but had just found an apartment of his own in Tacoma.

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): It’s a really nice apartment. Two bedroom apartment, it was brand new when I moved in.

Dave Cawley: Josh had a lot going on. He was working long days installing furniture, struggling to stay ahead of his debts.

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): All told, I think I’m paying out close to $2,000 a month just to live.

Dave Cawley: He’d made new friends at church and anticipated going back to school that fall. His prized possessions were his computer, his entertainment center and his Plymouth Voyager minivan.

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): I might have to let my van go, which is costing me $310 in insurance and payments, which is not much.

Dave Cawley: On the afternoon of June 8th, 2000, Josh drove that minivan north up Meridian in Puyallup. A young woman named Nichole Lyons was right behind him in her 1998 Jeep Wrangler. Nichole lived in the Puyallup area but worked out west, in DuPont. She took a van pool to work each day, leaving her Jeep in a parking lot near Puyallup’s South Hill Mall.

Nichole Lyons: Just right near a little strip mall that used to be a mattress store, for some reason what’s ringing bells.

Dave Cawley: She’d pulled onto Meridian on her way home that day only to find traffic backed up.

Nichole Lyons: Afternoon, y’know, commuting traffic. I would imagine it was around 5, y’know 5ish, 5:15 maybe because that’s when I would have gotten back to my, y’know, van pool spot and then pulled out into the road. So that’s what I recall.

Dave Cawley: And come to an immediate stop, as bumper-to-bumper traffic sat waiting for the light at 39th Avenue to change. The car in front of her, Josh’s minivan, crept forward. So did she.

Nichole Lyons: Thought he was going but he wasn’t.

Dave Cawley: Nichole’s Jeep hit Josh’s minivan.

Nichole Lyons: I rear-ended him just ever so slightly. Really we were going, the, y’know, the miles per hour was like, y’know, two or three, (laughs) maybe. I mean, it was very much we had just started going and then immediately stopped and had impact.

Dave Cawley: Nicole and Josh each pulled off the road, into a parking lot.

Nichole Lyons: Then he seemed from what I recall to be in a hurry.

Dave Cawley: They checked for damage. By design, the Wrangler’s front bumper wasn’t entirely flat. It had two prongs on it, one of which had hit the rear bumper of Josh’s minivan.

Nichole Lyons: I mean, I think there was a little indentation in his bumper from the prong of my vehicle. There was not any damage to my vehicle, whatsoever.

Dave Cawley: They had a quick conversation.

Nichole Lyons: I think there was some talk of do we even want to exchange information and we ended up exchanging information.

Dave Cawley: Josh scribbled Nichole’s license plate and phone number on a paper copy of her auto insurance card, which he kept. He also wrote out his own description of crash. He later scanned both papers into his computer, though Nichole had no way of knowing that.

Nichole Lyons: And I wasn’t sure that he was even going to even turn it in or file a claim.

Dave Cawley: It wasn’t a big deal, as far as she could tell. No police, no ambulance. No problem.

Nichole Lyons: He seemed completely fine. And very, y’know, like I said, in a hurry, “let’s exchange information” and get on his way.

Dave Cawley: The next day, an insurance adjuster came to look at the minivan. He figured the rear bumper cover would need to be replaced, at a cost of about $560, parts and labor. Records obtained by this podcast show the actual cost to repair came in below the estimate, at $452.

Repairs to Josh’s body cost a good deal more. He started seeing — can you guess? — a chiropractor. She wrote Josh had a mild to moderate cervical/thoracic strain or sprain. In other words, neck and back pain. She referred him to a massage therapist to receive two massages a week for the next six weeks. Josh didn’t want to pay for this, though, so he called Nichole’s insurance, Progressive, and started badgering them for money. Here’s what he wrote in his notes.

Eric Openshaw (as Josh Powell from June 6, 2000 personal notes): We talked and I tried to negotiate, but he didn’t negotiate at all until I forced the issue. Then he offered $400 cash and $500 medical. I told him that doesn’t even cover the here and now, medically.

Dave Cawley: The day after writing that, Josh went to the office of a personal injury lawyer in Puyallup. He hired the firm on the spot, agreeing to give them a third of anything they recovered from Progressive. Nichole had told her Progressive agent her side of the story.

Nichole Lyons: I also called it in to my insurance and talked with them and gave a statement of what happened. And then, that was it. I don’t, I don’t remember getting any additional pieces of information from that.

Dave Cawley: Josh’s attorney spent a few weeks gathering up the medical records, then sent a demand letter to Progressive. It said Josh had incurred about $1,500 in medical expenses. It also said he deserved $6,500 in general damages. As such, they wanted Progressive to cough up $8,000. A month later, Progressive settled, agreeing to pay out less than half that amount, about $3,400. That more than covered the medical bills. The attorney took his cut of around $1,100 dollars, leaving Josh with a check for $728. Nichole never knew.

Dave Cawley: Would it surprise you to learn that he claimed, uh, injury out of that crash?

Nichole Lyons: Yeah, that would be surprising. I don’t remember there being any concern of injury.

[Scene transition]

Dave Cawley: Alright, with all of that background, now we have to look at the paperwork Josh filed with his car insurance company after the crash on Bangerter Highway in Utah back in September of 2009. Josh wrote that he had whiplash. One of the questions on the form asked if he’d previously been treated for “similar symptoms.” He checked no.

Bob Powers: I actually had no idea that, that this guy had made any claim whatsoever with my insurance company until you guys had, y’know, come up with that information. I thought it was pretty revealing.

Dave Cawley: Josh’s own records prove he’d claimed whiplash after that 2003 crash in Yakima, when Bob Powers rear-ended his van.

Bob Powers: I called my State Farm agent and said “did, did this really all happen? I mean, did they actually get some kind of payout?” And he of course told me the extent of the payout. And I says “you’ve got to be kidding me, Joel.” I says “how come there wasn’t there follow up by you guys because I, I, that, that following too close ticket was dismissed at court. I would think you’d have no obligation.” And umm, he says “well, we try to take it out of your hands and not have you, have you worry about it whatsoever and that’s why we haven’t informed you.”

Dave Cawley: While State Farm didn’t share the details of Josh’s 2003 claim with Bob, the company did enter those records into a fraud-prevention database. They were available to Jeff Lewis’ insurance company as it investigated Josh’s 2009 claim.

The 2009 crash happened three months before Susan disappeared. Josh was still undergoing treatment for his “injuries” when his wife vanished. And in the months that followed, the insurance companies ordered another independent medical exam, which I described in episode 6 of Cold. The paper trail from that IME revealed Josh was diagnosed with a rotator cuff strain or partial tear just 10 days after Susan disappeared. He blamed that injury on the crash, even though there was no mention of it in any of the prior medical records.

Jeff Lewis: Yeah, it was, it was an act. He claimed shoulder injury? When the cop pulled up, he was holding his back. It was all an act.

Dave Cawley: Again, that’s Jeff, the guy who rear-ended Josh three months before Susan disappeared.

Jeff Lewis: When I saw him on the news and his wife was missing, uh, my gut feeling was is that he was trying to get insurance money. Right away when I see this, I’m going “man, this guy got rid of his wife for money.”

Dave Cawley: On the surface, none of these crashes seem like much. But taken together, they paint a picture of Josh Powell. Willing to scam the insurance system for a few thousand bucks. Or, in Jeff’s view, maybe a million bucks: Susan’s life insurance.

Jeff Lewis: And then it comes out that, y’know, she did have an insurance policy. And so that’s exactly what I thought he did.

Dave Cawley: I wasn’t sure what I’d find when I first set out to identify the driver who hit Josh on that September day in 2009. To be honest, I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to. There wasn’t enough detail. All I knew was someone crashed into Josh’s minivan on or near the Bangerter Highway. I scoured the West Valley City case files, but came up empty-handed. I checked court records for any case connected with Josh Powell on that date. There weren’t any. I submitted public records requests to multiple police departments, asking for reports of any crash involving Josh’s minivan on or around that date. None had any. It hadn’t occurred to me then that the Highway Patrol might have jurisdiction. While I wasn’t able to identify Jeff, it turned out he was listening to Cold.

Jeff Lewis: My wife actually found it and said “you’ve gotta listen to this” ‘cause she knew the little bit of a background of being in an accident with Josh Powell. So she said “you’ve gotta listen to this podcast. They mention you in this.” And I’m like “wha? They don’t mention me. What are you talking about?”

Dave Cawley: Jeff reached out, indirectly, by leaving a review for the podcast.

Jeff Lewis: On your KSL podcast, I did leave a comment saying “hey, you can reach me. Umm, I’m the guy that got in an accident with him. I’ve been brought up a few times.” And uh, that was probably January of this year.

Dave Cawley: The comment was soon buried and I never saw it. Months went by. Season one of Cold came to an end. Still, I couldn’t shake the sense that I needed to find this driver. So, I turned to social media.

In the minutes immediately after the September crash, Josh’d snapped a photo from the passenger seat of his minivan. It showed the truck that’d hit him, that red GMC Sierra, as well as the other driver. The photo was still on Josh’s phone when detective Ellis Maxwell took it from him the day after Susan disappeared.

Ellis Maxwell (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): Let me see your phone.

Josh Powell(from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): Why?

Ellis Maxwell (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): Let me just see your phone. I’m going to hang onto it until we’re finished.

Josh Powell (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): ‘Kay.

Dave Cawley: When digital forensics investigators went through Josh’s phone with a search warrant several months later, they recovered the picture. Nothing about it raised suspicion.

Jeff Lewis: I don’t think there was ever a sense of urgency to find me, y’know I had a minor brush-in with this guy.

Dave Cawley: And Jeff didn’t come forward on his own back then because he didn’t see how his encounter with Josh could have any relevance. He had no way of knowing that Josh’d used that crash to obtain a prescription for cyclobenzaprine, a muscle relaxant capable of knocking someone off their feet. He didn’t know about Josh’s suspicious shoulder injury, or the IME that suggested Josh was scamming the insurance company.

I had a copy of Josh’s photo, the one from his phone. Over the summer, I uploaded it to Facebook and Instagram, along with a plea for help identifying the man it showed.

Jeff Lewis: My wife actually shot me a picture of me standing outside of my truck. And I said “what the heck, where did you get this?” And she says “well it’s on Facebook. It’s on the, uh, Cold podcast Facebook.”

Dave Cawley: Jeff and I at last connected. He also provided documentation, which I was able to verify as authentic. He was the guy.

Jeff Lewis: But I just, y’know, always found it very interesting, umm, listening to the podcast, uh, being in an accident with this guy, I followed the case. Umm, it’s a heartbreaking situation.

Dave Cawley: When we spoke, Jeff shared feelings of frustration and remorse over how the entire situation had unfolded following Susan’s disappearance.

Jeff Lewis: I felt like, y’know as a father, that uh, the system had completely let those kids down. Umm, there was nothing they could do about Susan, but they, I feel like those kids could’ve been saved.

Dave Cawley: Josh Powell’s car crashes and the petty insurance claims he filed pale in comparison to tragedy of what eventually unfolded in the Powell family. But they help us understand his behavior. With the benefit of hindsight, we can now see the troubling ways in which he attempted to use people. It didn’t matter if those people were the strangers behind him in traffic, or the two children he shared with the woman he mistreated and likely murdered.

Cold season 1, bonus 4: Dumpster Drops – Full episode transcript

Dave Cawley: About a month before Susan Powell disappeared, she hosted a party at her home on Sarah Circle in West Valley City, Utah. The party wasn’t for a birthday or anything like that. It was a sales pitch. Susan had become interested in a multi-level marketing company called Wildtree. She wrote about it in an email to her work friend Linda Bagley in October of 2009.

Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from October 9, 2009 email): I went to a wild tree party, kind of interested in their product, or just the menu concept.

Dave Cawley: Wildtree pitched itself as a health-oriented meal planning service. Customers bought menus, oils and herbs for Wildtree recipes through representatives, who in turn received price breaks for bringing additional buyers and sellers into the organization.

Tempted by the prospect of getting Wildtree for cheap, Susan agreed to host a party at her own home on the night of November 4th, 2009. She urged Linda to come.

Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from October 9, 2009 email): It’s settled. I’m having a party b/c Josh didn’t get to taste it and it sounds like it would have something for you.

Dave Cawley: Social sales pitches were not really Linda’s kind of thing, but she went along with it to help her friend. Linda even ordered some Wildtree food. But in the days and weeks that followed the party, her package failed to arrive. Then, Susan disappeared. The Wildtree product at last delivered, it went to Josh. Detectives swarmed Susan’s office, interviewing her coworkers. Linda was among them.

Linda Bagley: I’d mentioned it in the, to the police that I had this product and that she hadn’t given me and I said I’d probably never see it. So, (laughs) but I had gotten Josh’s number and I called him and I left him a voicemail.

Dave Cawley: In her voicemail, Linda asked if there was any way she might be able to pick up her food order. Josh didn’t respond. He had other things on his mind at that point. Less than two weeks after his wife’s disappearance, Josh packed their sons Charlie and Braden into the family minivan and headed to Washington State. Linda figured that was the end of it. Then, a month after her friend vanished, something strange happened to Linda.

Linda Bagley: I was taking, uh, the weekend off … So I was in Idaho, at Costco with my mom actually and the phone rings and I look at the, umm, number and it says Josh Powell. And I’m like “ah,” y’know, “what do I say, what do I do, I got to act calm.” Y’know? I answered the phone and he said he’d found the stuff and he would be happy to drop it off.

Dave Cawley: Linda told Josh she was out of town, but he wasn’t bothered. He said he was back in Utah for a few days and would drop it off at her work. As I’ve recently learned, it was one of many, many drops Josh made after his wife vanished.

This is a bonus episode of Cold: Dumpster Drops. I’m Dave Cawley.

[Ad break]

Dave Cawley: On the afternoon of January 7th, 2010, Josh Powell stopped by the Wells Fargo call center where his missing wife Susan had worked. He ran into a security guard in the lobby and explained he had a package that he wanted to deliver to Linda Bagley. But Linda was in Idaho, as she’d told Josh on the phone.

Linda Bagley: I don’t know if he didn’t believe me and he was testing me, y’know, to see if I just didn’t want to see him or something. But he asked for me, even though I told him I wasn’t going to be there.

Dave Cawley: The security guard explained Josh could leave the package with the head of security, but that person was out of the office at the moment. Josh said he would wait. And so he did, right in the lobby. Word spread among Susan’s coworkers.

Salt Lake City dispatcher (from January 7, 2010 911 call recording): 911, what is your emergency?

Dave Cawley: One even called 911.

Richard (from January 7, 2010 911 call recording): Josh Powell is in our building.

Salt Lake City dispatcher (from January 7, 2010 911 call recording): Who’s Josh Powell?

Richard (from January 7, 2010 911 call recording): Well, you’ve seen the news, the guy that supposedly abducted his wife and went camping with the kids.

Salt Lake City dispatcher (from January 7, 2010 911 call recording): Ok.

Richard (from January 7, 2010 911 call recording): I mean, he’s not causing any problems but I’ve, we’ve seen him all over the news and stuff and he’s sitting down in our lobby just sitting there.

Dave Cawley: The coworker told a Salt Lake City police dispatcher it might be a good idea if detectives in neighboring West Valley knew Josh was there. The dispatcher contacted West Valley to ask if Josh was wanted.

West Valley police (from January 7, 2010 911 call recording): Yeah, no. As far as I’m aware, he’s just a person of interest. And the last I heard, he wasn’t — I mean, just between you and I — he wasn’t even living here, so—

Dispatcher (from January 7, 2010 911 call recording): Yeah, that’s what I, I mean, I’ve heard things just through work but not anything like, I don’t watch the news to see what they’re saying because, who knows anyway. So—

West Valley City police (from January 7, 2010 911 call recording): Yep.

Dave Cawley: The truth of the situation was, West Valley detectives had a good idea of where Josh was thanks to a GPS tracker they’d hidden on his minivan. But that was a closely guarded secret.

 When Linda returned to work, her boss’ boss asked her to come in for a sit-down with the head of security.

Linda Bagley: And so it’s like “ok.” And the security guy came in and he says, umm, “Josh Powell stopped by and wanted to give this to you and can you tell me more about what’s going on here?” (Laughs)

Dave Cawley: Why was Linda receiving a gift from Josh Powell?

Linda Bagley: I think they suspected me for a minute as being maybe a mistress or another “oh here’s the sideline, oh look we found this new possible thing that,” y’know.

Dave Cawley: The head of security told Linda Josh had acted very odd, even becoming emotional. He asked her why.

Linda Bagley: Like “maybe you’d know more about why he would feel that way.” Y’know, and I’m like maybe he was thanking me because I didn’t accuse him and, (laughs) and y’know, I came out trying to be neutral and, and on his side like he wasn’t, hadn’t done anything, even though I suspected, I, I felt from the beginning that he had done everything that I still feel he did.

Dave Cawley: Linda did her best to explain, it was not a gift, just some product from a multi-level marketing thing she’d gone to. She eventually had to explain that again to West Valley police.

Linda Bagley: And they’re like “oh, ok.” But I think they suspected something more than there was. (Laughs)

[Scene transition]

Dave Cawley: I mentioned the GPS tracker detectives placed on Josh’s minivan on December 8th, 2009, the day after he returned from his outing on the Pony Express Trail claiming to have no clue where Susan might be.

Ellis Maxwell: So he’s got the umm, GPS tracker on his van.

Dave Cawley: Detective Ellis Maxwell, West Valley’s lead investigator on the Powell case, talked about the tracker in episodes 4 and 5 of Cold. It’s how police had known Josh took a drive out to West Wendover, Nevada and to a gravel pit on the Friday after Susan’s disappearance. Curious behavior that ultimately led detectives nowhere.

Ellis Maxwell: Just another situation, another possibility that we may catch a break or, uh, collect some more information to assist with the investigation and uh, he does nothing.

Dave Cawley: The particular device tucked away on Josh’s minivan wasn’t just some Garmin unit attached with duct tape. It had a specialized battery, capable of powering the tracker for weeks at a time. It also had a cell phone radio, so it could communicate with a server any time it was in range of cell towers.

Ellis Maxwell: We’ve got what’s called geo-fencing. And you can set boundaries. So if he crosses one of those boundaries then it will send you an alert.

Dave Cawley: Detectives would actually receive SMS text messages when the tracker left Salt Lake County or crossed state lines, for example. Every fix recorded by the tracker included a time stamp, right down to the second. If the tracker stopped moving, it could power itself down to save battery. Then, if it detected motion, it could power itself back up again. And police could log in to the server and see the tracker’s position in very close to real time.

Data from that GPS tracker was not included in the case file documents released by West Valley police when the Powell case went cold in 2013. To my knowledge, it’s never been examined by anyone outside of law enforcement. When I obtained copies of the tracking files several months back, that’s what I set out to do.

[Scene transition]

Dave Cawley: Former FBI agent Greg Rogers spent most of his 30 years with the bureau serving undercover. He worked narcotics cases. He infiltrated biker gangs and militia groups. He posed as a hit man, repeatedly.

Greg Rogers: You’d be amazed how much work there is in that area.

Dave Cawley: To be honest, he kind of still looks the part: longer gray hair, leather vest, though it’s now under a sports coat now. I shared my findings from the review of the GPS data with Greg in part because he didn’t work the Powell case himself. I needed an objective perspective from someone who knows the tech and the tactics.

Greg Rogers: Police departments have analysts and somebody should have been tracking this information every day that should have been their job. Where’s he going? Where’s he stoppin’? And then the next logical question is “why is he doing that” and “what are we going to do based on his activity?”

Dave Cawley: Greg is also an expert on the criminal mind. He teaches a course at Utah Valley University to would-be cops.

Greg Rogers: I teach on criminal profiling and the, y’know, serial killers, psychopaths. So it’s, yeah, so it’s always been a real interest of mine.

Dave Cawley: By the time Greg and I sat down to talk, I’d already spent weeks going through the data. In December 2009 alone, the GPS device recorded tens of thousands of data points. To make sense of them, they needed to be reformatted. Twice. Only then could I bring the information into Google Earth with all of the metadata intact. It’s tedious work.

Point by point, I retraced the van’s moves, looking for anything that might have escaped the attention of investigators ten years ago. Some of the trips at first seemed random, until I noticed a pattern having to do with dumpsters. The first significant discovery appeared on Monday, December 14th, 2009, one week after Susan disappeared.

The GPS tracker powered up just after 10 a.m. that morning, having detected motion. It moved west, away from the Powell family home on Sarah Circle, down 4100 South to a state highway on the far western side of the Salt Lake Valley called U-111. The minivan turned left onto U-111 at a T-intersection, heading south. It cruised along for about six miles, until it reached 7800 south. There, it pulled into an apartment complex called Serengeti Springs. At 10:23 a.m., the minivan pulled up to a dumpster in a back corner of the complex and stopped. Less than a minute later, it started moving again. It went directly back to Sarah Circle.

I showed this to Greg and asked what he made of it.

Greg Rogers: My guess would be that Powell had items that he believed contained DNA or other forensic evidence, and he’s getting rid of them. Based on the time and the fact that it’s a condo complex, people are coming and going, it wouldn’t look unusual for him to get out of the car with the garbage bags, be throwing them in a dumpster. Just look like anybody that lives there. Be a whole different thing to be trying to remove a body from your car to put in a dumpster. So my guess is he was using that dumpster to get rid of items from the home where I, of course, believe that he, uh, murdered Susan. That would be my first guess, that he was getting rid of whatever he used in that. He’s obviously had done enough research to know what would contain DNA and what could be harming to him. And he, he must have believed there was a search warrant coming.

Dave Cawley: In fact, West Valley police had already served two search warrants at the home. They’d also searched Josh’s van twice the week prior, once with his permission and the second time with a warrant. You might remember, it was during the warrant search of the minivan the day after Susan disappeared that detective Ellis Maxwell found a pair of trash bags.

Ellis Maxwell: When we get his van, not only did he clean it all out but he also had the garbage from inside the kitchen of the home, the garbage sack was in the van.

Dave Cawley: The second trash bag, tucked away in a storage space behind the minivan’s driver seat, held the melted metal item and burned drywall panels mentioned in Cold episode 5, the likely evidence that Josh had destroyed the night before with his oxyacetylene torch.

Ellis believed Josh had intended to toss those trash bags somewhere far away from the house, where detectives wouldn’t find them. But Ellis found them first. Based on the GPS data, it seems likely Josh had yet other items he wanted to ditch in a dumpster days later.

Back to the tracking data. On the afternoon of Wednesday, December 16th, 2009, the minivan left the Sarah Circle house on another drive across the Salt Lake Valley. This time, in west south and east. It took a circuitous path into Sandy, a suburb nestled against the foot of the Wasatch Mountains. At 3:02 p.m., the minivan pulled into a parking stall at Flat Iron Mesa Park.

Dave Cawley: What do you see there?

Greg Rogers: Yeah, same thing, a dumpster and it’s no accident that these are not close to his residence.

Dave Cawley: Another dumpster.

Greg Rogers: Flat Iron Mesa, this is a big dog walking park. There’s a lot of people there. There’s gonna be a ton of cars, he could pull in there anytime you wanted to and walk over to that dumpster and wouldn’t attract any attention at all.

He’s not showing up at midnight. He’s not trying to uh, be there when nobody’s there, he doesn’t care. He’s picking places where, you know, he could open the back of his car, grab a garbage bag, walk to a dumpster and wouldn’t raise any suspicion at all.

Dave Cawley: The minivan left the park at 3:04 p.m., after a stop of just two minutes. It headed north, to the intersection of 900 East and 4500 South. The minivan came to a stop within line of sight of another dumpster behind a Walgreens pharmacy. The minivan circled the Walgreens, slowing as it went by the dumpster, but it didn’t actually stop.

Greg Rogers: That’s by a business?

Dave Cawley: Mmhmm.

Greg Rogers: That’s not by a, uh, residential neighborhood or a park. I bet there’s probably some signage on that dumpster that it’s not for public use or something like that. He didn’t want to attract attention. So he didn’t want to pull up there and put something in that dumpster. Because, somebody could have walked out of that business and said, 

“hey man, that’s, that’s our business.” And then they grabbed the bag. That’s a problem for him. So my guess is he got up there and saw that that was walled in and it wasn’t, you know, just publicly accessible. So he just kept driving.

Dave Cawley: Right into downtown Salt Lake City. At 500 South and Emery Street, it pulled into the parking lot of a church and once again cruised by, but did not stop at, a dumpster. Looking at satellite imagery, Greg noticed the dumpster outside the church was surrounded by a wall and fence.

Greg Rogers: You can see that it’s got doors on it that are closed, they may be locked. He’d already decided what dumpsters, what types of dumpsters he was going to use. And if he didn’t like what he saw, he just kept driving. He didn’t he didn’t have to be anywhere.

Dave Cawley: Instead of stopping at the church, the tracking data showed the minivan hopped a couple of blocks south to Poplar Grove Park. It pulled into the parking lot at 4:05 p.m. and remained there for about 12 minutes.

Greg Rogers: He obviously had more than one bag. He hit more than one dumpster. He had things all divvied up. He had a plan that he thought was genius. It was “this is how I’m going to hide this stuff. The cops are never going to figure this out.”

Dave Cawley: There aren’t any dumpsters at Poplar Grove Park. But on any day of the week, any time of year, there are plenty of garbage cans.

Greg Rogers: Public place, other cars there. People probably walking their dogs around there and be as you well know, when people are walking their dogs they pick up after their dogs, they use the garbage cans. Wouldn’t be at all unusual a walk up to one of those garbage cans and throw a bag in it.

Dave Cawley: Three confirmed stops near dumpsters or garbage cans, with several other dumpster drive-bys during the first two weeks following Susan’s disappearance. Yet, there are no mentions of this in West Valley police case files.

Greg Rogers: Question is, why wasn’t somebody on him and why weren’t they going through those dumpsters?

[Scene transition]

Dave Cawley: The following day, on Thursday, December 17th, 2009, West Valley police served their third search warrant at the Sarah Circle house. Josh wasn’t at home at the time. He’d left his boys there with his brother, Michael.

The GPS tracker revealed Josh didn’t go far. The minivan circled the neighborhood around the time detectives appeared at the house. It parked outside of one church, then another. To Greg, it appeared Josh was keeping an eye on the investigators.

Greg Rogers: Has an obvious need to be, uh, up to speed with what’s going on. Because a guy like Josh thinks he’s, uh, immeasurably smarter than these people that are working him, or that are working that case. So he’s just keeping tabs.

Dave Cawley: As the detectives tore through Josh and Susan’s medicine cabinet, the minivan headed east up 4100 South to Meier and Marsh Professional Therapies. It stopped there for over an hour and a half. That’s the physical therapy visit during which Josh was diagnosed with a rotator cuff strain or tear, an injury that escaped the notice of police.

Later that afternoon, Josh went to the bank where Susan had kept her handwritten last will and testament in a safe deposit box. Detectives had been there days earlier, emptying out the box. Josh spent more than hour at the bank, arranging to have Susan’s retirement accounts cashed out. On his way home, he drove by another dumpster outside Hunter Junior High School, then parked across the lot from it for 20 minutes.

Josh spent a good chunk of Friday, December 18th, 2009 meeting with his attorney in downtown Salt Lake City. The tracking data showed the minivan parked outside the attorney’s office for over three hours. On his way back home, Josh stopped at the Mountain America Credit Union branch on 5600 West in West Valley City. That’s where he Susan did most of their banking. Financial records obtained by police with a subpoena showed that’s when Josh withdrew Susan’s final paycheck, which had come in a week earlier by direct deposit. He took $450 of it as cash and moved the remaining $227 into his checking account. Josh was preparing to leave Utah.

Greg Rogers: He was getting ready to go, no question. He’s getting ready to go after those search warrants. There’s nothing for him here. Y’know, he’s, you know, he’s gonna lose his job. Y’know, it was a lifelong pattern of his to retreat to his father’s house. And so that was going to happen.

Dave Cawley: Josh departed home shortly before 10 p.m. that night. The tracker showed that he drove to the parking lot of a strip mall at 5600 West and 3500 South. He parked next to a pair of dumpsters from 9:56 p.m. to 9:59 p.m.

Greg Rogers: Anything he thought could hurt him and those search warrants, he had bagged up and ready to go. And so he’s just, he’s just getting rid of stuff.

Dave Cawley: Then, the minivan headed north toward Interstate 80.

Greg Rogers: But then again, it begs the question how do you do that when they’re running search warrants and, yeah. Why isn’t someone following you around and doing dumpster dives after you’ve been there?

Dave Cawley: We don’t know whether or not West Valley police ever did dive these dumpsters, but if so they didn’t take any photos or keep any notes. In an email, police spokeswoman Roxeanne Vainuku told me “the absence of a location being documented in a log does not equate to investigators being unaware of the location.”

Just before reaching the freeway onramp, the minivan flipped a U-turn. It went right back to that same set of dumpsters. Had Josh forgotten something? Or perhaps checking to see if police were there, digging through the garbage?

They weren’t, but Greg couldn’t understand why not when I showed him the tracking data.

Greg Rogers: If you suspect that he’s going to all these dumpsters and you see all this tracking thing that the next thought should be “we need to find out what he’s throwing in there.” You don’t even need search warrants. Once he chucks it in the dumpster, it’s, you can dumpster dive.

Dave Cawley: Unless police didn’t happen to be watching the tracker at that time.

Greg Rogers: Somebody should have been, their whole job should have been this tracker.

Dave Cawley: Again, West Valley police spokeswoman Roxeanne Vianuku, by email, told me “any location where Powell visited, was subsequently visited by an investigator.” She added that during periods when Josh wasn’t under physical surveillance, the tracking data was downloaded “each day.”

Greg Rogers: And when you’ve got this tracker on him, it’s easy surveillance. You’re not going to get burned. Because you don’t need to be, y’know, following him close in a car. You could have planes up or you could even be a mile away with your laptop saying “oh look, he just hit another dumpster.” And then you send guys to that dumpster.

[Scene transition]

Dave Cawley: After one last stop at the Sarah Circle house, the minivan made its way back to the freeway. It took the onramp to eastbound I-80 at 10:42 p.m. A late start for the long drive to Washington. The minivan cruised east to I-15, then north. Josh stopped for gas at a Pilot Travel Center in the town of Marriott-Slaterville, paying cash, then continued north to Tremonton. He took the split for I-84 westbound there.

The clock ticked past midnight. At 12:22 a.m. on Saturday, December 19th, 2009, the minivan pulled off the freeway on Utah exit 20, just east of Rattlesnake Pass. It stopped briefly next to some roadside weeds, crossed under the freeway, doubled back and then took the westbound onramp at 12:28 a.m.

To Greg, it looked like perhaps Josh — or one of the boys — had just needed to relieve himself.

Greg Rogers: Pit stop or, which is probably what happened, but he could have also been cleaning himself, because he’s leaving unannounced, they’ve just run all these warrants. I’m sure he had some suspicion that they were following him to see if he was taking off. He might’ve even believed that, uh, they would attempt to arrest him if he was trying to leave the state. Who knows. But, having traveled with young children myself, (laughs) it could have just as easily been “hey dad, you know?” Yeah.

Dave Cawley: The minivan crossed the border into Idaho at 12:44 a.m. The GPS tracker sent out a text alert to the detectives. In West Valley case records, detective Ellis Maxwell wrote that the tracker lost cell service a short time later.

Josh continued driving. There’s very little to see between the town of Snowville, Utah and the Snake River near Rupert, Idaho, especially after dark. No towns, no truck stops and in 2009, limited cell service. But after crossing the Snake at 1:31 a.m., the minivan entered the fertile expanse of southern Idaho farmland between Burley and Bliss. It’s a region known as the “Magic Valley.” The minivan cruised right past a pair of off-ramps leading to Burley, logical places for a driver to pull off if gas or a pit stop were needed.

At 1:44 a.m., the minivan came to an abrupt stop at the side of the highway. It remained there for 10 minutes. Too short a time to sleep or even, say, to change a flat tire. So why did Josh stop?

It’s not clear.

Josh pulled back onto the roadway at 1:54 a.m., continuing west. The minivan passed by another freeway exit without stopping. It traveled seven miles until, at 2:01 a.m., Josh slammed on the brakes right as he passed over the top of the Milner-Gooding Canal. It was a rapid deceleration, from more than 70 miles per hour to a full stop about 335 feet past the bridge. The minivan remained there for five minutes.

Two strange stops in southern Idaho, just before and just after 2 a.m.

Greg Rogers: Those are unusual times for pitstop for the kids. My guess is, the age of those two boys they were asleep. So it’s, it’s very interesting. It’s by a canal. It’s a great place to dump something. Nobody’s ever going to find that if you know what you’re doing.

Dave Cawley: The canal in question diverts water from the Snake River to farms and ranches. It typically only flows from mid-March to mid-October. I recently visited the site. The canal wasn’t flowing, having been shut off for the winter. Still, a foot or so of murky green water occupied the bottom of the concrete-lined trench. Thick, high weeds surrounded its banks. Anything tossed in those weeds, or in the canal itself, would disappear from view of the traffic just feet away on the freeway.

Greg Rogers: I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if he was still just getting rid of whatever he was getting rid of, ‘cause we have no idea what the murder weapon was. So, knife, gun, we know he’s not opposed to killing someone in a violent manner because he killed his children with an ax. But, could have been a ligature. Could have been a, a rope. Uh, you throw a rope in that canal, it’s gone. It’s never gettin’ found. And six minutes is plenty of time to walk from that car to that water.

Dave Cawley: This is speculation. There’s no evidence left to tell us one way or another what Josh Powell was doing during these two stops. But the time and location are suspicious.

Greg Rogers: He clearly had some reason for doing it. And he didn’t want people to know where he was stopping and the times he was doing stuff and, umm, y’know, again he, he had a plan that we’ll never know what it was but I can assure you that he thought it was absolutely brilliant. Wasn’t, he was getting tracked. But yeah, so, but he didn’t know that. So yeah.

Dave Cawley: He was getting tracked, but these two stops in Idaho and the December dumpster visits in Utah are not mentioned in West Valley police case files. I’m not sure if they were ever discovered by investigators or searched by dogs or detectives a decade ago.

Greg Rogers: From the beginning, everybody knew this was going to be a case you were going to have to prove on circumstantial evidence, the chances of finding the body were very slim.

Dave Cawley: I should point out, both locations are well within the range of the 807 miles traveled by Josh in a rental car 10 days earlier. You might remember he was unaccounted for for 18 hours. He came back on the grid while traveling south through Tremonton, Utah, as if returning from Idaho.

Greg Rogers: Proving a, a first-degree murder beyond a reasonable doubt without the body, without a murder weapon is difficult. So, but had you found bags full of forensic evidence that he’s getting rid of, that’s pretty helpful. I wasn’t aware that they had this tracking information. And to be brutally honest, being polite, it’s uh, it’s stunning. He was getting rid of evidence, no question.

[Ad break]

Dave Cawley: The remainder of Josh Powell’s December, 2009 drive to Washington State proved uneventful. He pulled off at a couple of rest stops, likely to sleep. And he started using his financial cards again once he was in Washington State.

A few weeks passed before Josh returned to Utah in the minivan. On that drive in early January of 2010, the minivan did not make any inexplicable stops on the side of the highway. It only ever left the interstate for gas, fast food or pit stops.

Josh arrived back at the Sarah Circle house with his brother, Michael on January 6th, 2010. Media cameras were waiting when they pulled into the cul-de-sac.

Jennifer Stagg: I had been keeping in very close contact with a lot of sources who knew him and, uh, people who were very in-the-know. I guess, family members of both he and Susan and close family friends.

Dave Cawley: KSL TV reporter Jennifer Stagg had worked the Powell story from the beginning. She’d received a heads-up from a source about Josh’s travel plans.

Jennifer Stagg: I was so personally invested in this story because I had built relationships with everyone involved. Y’know, I had a relationship with his sister, Jennifer Graves. I had a relationship with the Hellewells.

Dave Cawley: But Josh wasn’t feeling talkative. He avoided the cameras. The next day, he dropped off Linda Bagley’s Wildtree order at Susan’s work, as I mentioned at the start of this episode. Then, on the morning of Monday, January 11th, 2010, Josh drove the minivan from the Sarah Circle house to a strip mall at 5600 West and 3500 South. This was the same place where he’d stopped on his way out of town in December. Once again, the minivan made repeat visits to a series of dumpsters. And once again, there’s no indication these dumpsters were searched by police. To be fair, the media didn’t catch it, either.

Jennifer Stagg: He was really, really hard to track.

Dave Cawley: But of course, no reporter had a GPS tracker hidden on the minivan. The minivan also visited a U-Haul store on that Monday morning. That’s where Josh rented the truck and trailer he used to empty out the house.

Jennifer Stagg: The turning point for me was when he packed up and moved out of his house.

Dave Cawley: Once again, Josh didn’t talk to the reporters who stood at the curb, observing as his soon-to-be former neighbors loaded the U-Haul.

Jennifer Stagg: I think I actually asked him at one point, like, “if Susan’s missing, what if she comes home and you’re not here? What if she comes home and you’re not here?” And he didn’t answer me. He just kept going. But in my head, that’s what I’m thinking, like, “you don’t pack up your house and move out of state with your kids if your wife is missing,” right?

Dave Cawley: When Josh and Michael departed Utah in the U-Haul, they left Josh’s minivan in the garage of the Sarah Circle house. The GPS tracker went dormant.

This next period in late January is when Josh’s sister Jennifer Graves went to confront him in Washington while wearing a wire. In that recording, Josh discussed the drive in the U-Haul.

Kirk Graves (from January 22, 2010 wire recording): Did Mike drive part of the way? Did he really?

Dave Cawley: He told his brother-in-law Kirk Graves that he and Michael and traded off time at the wheel.

Josh Powell (from January 22, 2010 wire recording): Yeah, Mike shouldn’t be driving the truck.

Kirk Graves (from January 22, 2010 wire recording): Is that one of your new toys, Charlie? Oh my goodness.

Kirk Graves (from January 22, 2010 wire recording): I’m not sure Mike should be driving anything. But—

Kirk Graves (from January 22, 2010 wire recording): (Laughs) He does have kind of a bad track record, doesn’t he?

Josh Powell (from January 22, 2010 wire recording): I’m just kidding. He’d probably drive just fine but, but he’s just not comfortable in the truck so it is…

Dave Cawley: Josh needed to get his minivan back, and he needed to finish getting the Utah house ready for renters. So, Josh boarded a Southwest Airlines flight on the evening of Thursday, January 28th, 2010. Before flying out of SeaTac, he called his Utah neighbors John and Kiirsi Hellewell. He asked them to pick him up from Salt Lake City International, which they agreed to do.

Kiirsi Hellewell: I was thinking, if I try to pretend to be his friend still and stay on his good side, he has a lot more chance of talking to me than if I scream in his face and grab his coat and say “where’s Susan?”

Dave Cawley: But John and Kiirsi were playing both sides. Kiirsi sent an email to West Valley police detective Ellis Maxwell to let him know Josh was coming back into town. John sent a text to Jennifer Stagg.

Jennifer Stagg: I mean, nobody wanted to get to the truth more than they did, right? And so they very much we’re working with me, closely. And so yeah, they were like “come (laughs), be here at this time.”

Dave Cawley: Josh’s flight arrived at around 9:30 p.m. Jennifer and a TV photographer were waiting.

Jennifer Stagg: I kind of wanted him to know that we were keeping close tabs without spooking him. And then, yeah, we headed over to baggage claim and waited for him to come down that escalator.

(Sound of escalator)

Dave Cawley: The escalator she’s talking about carries passengers down from the TSA security checkpoint to the baggage carousels.

Jennifer Stagg: And you can see everything below. And I have jet-black hair. I’m pretty recognizable. And the minute his eyes went on me, you saw that, like, it was like a ghost. He went white. And he knew why I was there. We made eye contact, yeah? We made eye contact and he was kind of like “oh my gosh.” You saw this moment of like “what is happening?” And I think at that moment he realized that we were following him, like, we were tracking everything that we could that he was doing and it definitely spooked him.

(Sound of baggage carousel)

Jennifer Stagg: There’s nowhere to hide and it puts you kind of right in the middle of the action at the bottom of that escalator so, yeah, there was no way getting around talking to me in some way.

Dave Cawley: Josh had no need to wait around. He hadn’t checked a bag or even packed a toothbrush. He dodged Jennifer’s questions while looking for John Hellewell.

Jennifer Stagg: I realized pretty fast he was not going to talk to me and then he just bee-lined out of there.

Dave Cawley: Josh turned to John and asked “how did they find out?” John replied “someone on the plane must have recognized you and called.”

In Josh’s absence, Susan’s friends and neighbors had plastered the front of the Sarah Circle house with purple ribbons and paper hearts. Paint on the windows carried messages like “we miss you” and “we love you Susan.” Signs on the front lawn read “we will find you” and “we will bring you home.” These messages confronted Josh when he arrived at the house. He took out his camera and took photos of the decorations.

The next day, West Valley police obtained another search warrant for Josh’s minivan. On the prior searches, they’d failed to pull the air filter from the engine bay. Detectives hoped the filter and door jambs might hold dust or particles that could show where the van had been when Susan disappeared.

They took the minivan to serve the warrant. Josh complained to his dad about it, as Steve Powell later told the FBI.

Steve Powell (from February 24, 2010 FBI interview recording): Y’know, when they first got there they wanted his, his van again and they took the air filter out I guess and don’t ask me what that’s all about since he’s gone all the way from Utah to, to Puyallup and back in the van since this tragedy began.

Russ Johnson (from February 24, 2010 FBI interview recording): Oh yeah? When, when did he do that?

Dave Cawley: The air filter didn’t hold anything useful, but the warrant service wasn’t a total bust. While police had the van, the FBI also planted a second GPS tracker on it. This was a major win for police, because their original court order authorizing the GPS tracking was due to expire in just days. The federal order for the second tracker extended that ability for at least another month and a half.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the tracking files from the FBI’s device. The final date for which I currently have tracking data is February 7th, 2010.

That date happens to be an important one.

[Scene transition]

Dave Cawley: Just after midnight on that Sunday morning, the minivan made its way north up 5600 West, as if it were headed to Susan’s work or Interstate 80. This time, it didn’t go either of those places. Instead, the minivan turned west onto California Avenue. It went about half a mile, stopping just shy of the entrance to the Salt Lake Valley Solid Waste landfill. It pulled into to a small parking lot under a high voltage power pole. A green sign at the entrance of the fenced lot read “recycling drop-off center.” The minivan pulled up to a set of large industrial dumpsters and stopped. It remained there for 14 minutes.

Afterward, Josh grabbed some Del Taco and drove back to the Sarah Circle house. Then, he hit the road for Washington. Another late-night departure. The minivan made three unusual stops as it passed through Utah’s Weber Valley in those early morning hours. First, it exited northbound I-15 at 12th Street, turned around and jumped right back on the freeway. It did the same thing at the next exit to the north, Pioneer Road.

I showed this to Greg Rogers, the former FBI undercover agent.

Greg Rogers: That just looks like cleaning to me.

Dave Cawley: “Cleaning.” Josh making sure he was not being followed.

The third stop came at 2700 North in the community of Farr West. The minivan left the freeway and drove directly to the back side of a burger restaurant. It pulled up at a dumpster. Next, the minivan moved east. It drove into the lot of a plumbing supply store and once again stopped at a dumpster.

Remember, this happened a full two months into the search for Susan.

Greg Rogers: Classic paranoia, even though this is later, they’re still searching his vehicle. And he is thinking all day every day about what could they find in my, in my house or in my, any of my cars, anywhere else that they could put on me. So, that’s what he’s doing. He’s just coming up with, stuff he hadn’t thought of earlier.

Dave Cawley: Police had served three search warrants at Josh and Susan’s house. They’d searched his van repeatedly. And Josh had made multiple suspicious trips to dumpsters. What could he have possibly still had to dispose of at that point?

Greg Rogers: At this stage of the game he’s already gotten rid of anything he thinks that’s got DNA on it or that’s linking him to the homicide. But uh, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have other stuff that he doesn’t want law enforcement to ever find. Yeah, and as we know from his father’s behavior and his, hiding an SD card in your house, finding that on a search warrant, that’s tough. You don’t have to be very bright to hide that where it’s not going to be located by law enforcement. He could’ve had stuff like that, from who knows what uh, his, his and his father’s predilections with cameras are well known. It could have been something that simple, which is very easy to hide, much more difficult to locate.

Dave Cawley: West Valley police did catch a whiff of what Josh was up to, or at least a small piece of it. Case records show that the next morning, detective David Greco logged in to check the tracking data. He noticed the midnight stop at the recycling drop-off near the county landfill. Police rushed out to inspect the site. They peered into each of dumpsters: one for cardboard, one for plastic, one for glass. But no evidence. Unfortunately, the case records suggest they missed catching the stops at dumpsters farther the north, out of town, in the Weber Valley.

Looking at the data now, 10 years after Susan’s disappearance, it seems a critical oversight. When I notified West Valley police of these findings, police spokeswoman Roxeanne Vianuku told me by email “the hindsight of a reporter in 2019 does not always equate to mistakes made by investigators a decade ago.”

I’ll be the first to admit, it’s a lot easier to see this stuff in hindsight once you know what you’re looking for. Detectives at the time had a lot on their plates. They were already searching mines, interviewing and re-interviewing friends and neighbors, serving subpoenas and pouring over records. I asked Greg if GPS tracking might sometimes lead overworked investigators to feel they have a safety net.

Greg Rogers: That’s one way to look at it but it’s incorrect.

Dave Cawley: Greg said it’s not enough in criminal cases to just show where a person went. It has to be backed up with other evidence, like photos, eyes-on surveillance, a wiretap or a dumpster dive to recover discarded evidence. But think about all of the dumpsters I’ve described in this episode. There’s a pattern of behavior there. Certainly, prosecutors could have used that against Josh in a criminal trial, right?

Greg Rogers: They’d bring it up. But you know, the defense attorney would say? Good defense counsel would get up on cross examination right after the, some cop said “he went to this dumpster went to that dumpster.” I wouldn’t want to be that police officer because the question you’re going to get on cross is “well, did you check what he put in the dumpster? Did you actually see him put anything in the dumpster? Can you say, for sure that he even did put anything in the dumpster?” The answer to all those questions is no. The prosecutor may not bring it up for that reason, because they would know you’re going to get pounded for not checking those dumpsters. That’s a, that’s a huge misstep.

[Scene transition]

Dave Cawley: A few minutes ago, I mentioned the decorations Susan’s friends and neighbors had placed outside the Sarah Circle house in Josh’s absence. We can only guess what he must have thought about them.

Josh Powell (from February 24, 2010 video recording): Clearly, it’s a targeted, no doubt a hate campaign.

Dave Cawley: Apparently we don’t have to guess. Josh recorded this video to tell us what he thought of all the posters, fliers and ribbons.

Josh Powell (from February 24, 2010 video recording): And we believe that that is because they want to spread hate.

Dave Cawley: Josh filmed this from the driver seat of his minivan after returning to Washington in February. He and his brother Michael drove around their neighborhood, noting how people had taped fliers with Susan’s name and face to mailboxes, light poles and signposts. This made him angry, because the fliers were placed where he was sure to see them.

Josh Powell (from February 24, 2010 video recording): So, clearly it’s not an effort to find Susan. It’s clearly a target effort to act as a reminder for us and our neighbors.

Dave Cawley: At one point in the video, Josh even described the fliers as “an assault.”

Josh Powell (from February 24, 2010 video recording): Charlie and Braden don’t understand why the people keep doing this. And they don’t really need to understand the full situation. And it’s sick for these people to try to push this situation on them.

Dave Cawley: Again, Josh recorded this in Washington, not Utah. But it sheds light on how he viewed the broader community’s response to Susan’s disappearance. He believed the so-called “hate campaign” went back to one man: Susan’s dad.

Josh Powell (from February 24, 2010 video recording): Clearly, Chuck Cox needs to get his organization under control. If he doesn’t know about this, fine. But he will be aware of it soon ‘cause we’re gonna be telling him.

[Scene transition]

Dave Cawley: Josh Powell made one other drive between Washington and Utah that deserves a closer look. I mentioned it in episode 9 of Cold. It occurred just before Mother’s Day, in May of 2010. You might remember, police were surveilling Josh as he made an unexpected trip from his dad’s house to the Sarah Circle house.

Derryl Spencer: Josh left the house and we started to follow him and we followed him all the way back to Salt Lake City. So that was, I mean, I literally drove to Puyallup, Washington one day and then we drove back to Salt Lake the next day.

Dave Cawley: That’s U.S. Marshal Derryl Spencer, who took part in the operation with West Valley officers.

Derryl Spencer: Extremely hard to watch him ‘cause y’know he’s of course driving exactly 65 miles an hour the whole way and (laughs) to follow someone clandestine, y’know secretively, through multi-state was extremely difficult, but we did it.

Dave Cawley: The FBI’s tracking order was expiring.

Derryl Spencer: We couldn’t lose him because we didn’t know where he was going or what he was doing.

Dave Cawley: What Josh was doing was grabbing the last of his and Susan’s personal belongings from the Sarah Circle house.

As Josh approached the Salt Lake Valley on Utah’s Legacy Parkway, he started snapping photos on a Nikon DSLR from the driver seat of his minivan. Police didn’t realize this until more than a year later, after they seized Josh’s computers from his dad’s home with a search warrant on August 25th, 2011. That’s when they recovered copies of those photos.

The pictures Josh took have never been released. I was able to retrieve copies with the help of digital forensics experts Trent Leavitt and Kaly Richmond from the firm Eide Bailey. They donated time, expertise and equipment to the effort.

The camera Josh used did not have GPS capability, so there are no coordinates hidden in metadata. But I’ve managed to geolocate all of them using a combination of Google Earth and Street View imagery. They show Josh did not drive directly to his and Susan’s home in West Valley. Instead, he first pulled into the International Center, a business park west of Salt Lake City International Airport.

He took a few photos in the parking lot of an office building on Wright Brothers Drive, then went around the block to the Wells Fargo call center where Susan had worked. Timestamps on the photos show he only stayed there for about two minutes. Then, he drove to his old work at Aspen Logistics. All along the way, Josh took pictures, of nothing in particular. Just streets, road signs and traffic. Same thing after he left Aspen and drove to the Sarah Circle house. Pictures of nothing.

Josh packed the minivan to the brim. When he departed for Washington late that same night, a roof box and an old bicycle were on top. A tow hitch cargo carrier hung off the back, loaded down with two large, blue plastic barrels. Police tailed him into Idaho, keeping an eye from a distance.

Derryl Spencer: That made it extremely easy to watch him from a distance ‘cause you had, y’know this, this large 55-gallon drum on top of a minivan cruising, y’know, northbound on 65. So, y’know, I’m glad the, that the uh, blue 55-gallon drum was there to help us out.

Dave Cawley: Police surveillance logs showed Josh pulled off of I-84 at exit 194 in southern Idaho at about 2:20 a.m. He slept there until 10:30 a.m.

That exit is just two miles beyond the canal where Josh had stopped for five minutes at 2 a.m. on his December 2009 drive to Washington.

After waking on that May morning, Josh proceeded westbound on I-84 toward Boise. He’d only gone about 10 miles before he stopped. He took his camera, stepped out of the minivan and walked into the weeds alongside the interstate. Josh took four photos of a farmer’s field. On it were irrigation sprinklers, covered in ice. Maybe it’s a clue. Or maybe it’s unrelated to anything having to do with Susan.

Greg Rogers: He could’ve been driving by this and thought, as, as unusual as it would seem to you and I, he could be driving by that and go “oh, that looks cool.” And he believes he’s a phenomenal photographer, and he likes the ice the way it’s coming off the wheels of the watering stuff and so he’s like “yeah, I’ll stop and take that.”

Dave Cawley: Greg Rogers, the former FBI undercover agent, told me he doesn’t believe Josh’s brain functioned the way yours or mine might.

Greg Rogers: You have to understand he, he has no remorse at all for killing Susan. All of this that’s happening to him now is just inconvenient. But it has nothing to do with him feeling badly about what he did. So if he sees something that interests him, y’know, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if he saw that was a cool pic.

Dave Cawley: A few hours down the road and Josh stopped again. This time in Oregon, north of Ontario in rural Malheur County. He shot more photos of the scenery at the side of the road. I mentioned these shots in episode 15 of Cold. Since that time, I’ve had the opportunity to visit the site myself. It sits at the crest of a hill, surrounded by more hills. Ranch land of the old Oregon Trail. A vista bare of trees. To the east, the land falls away into a tributary of the Snake River called Wheel Gulch.

Josh took 11 pictures there: many of his van, others of the landscape, one of a soaring hawk. The photos have not previously been published, but you can see them now at Ask yourself as you look at them: what might have Josh been thinking as he stood there, wind in his hair, road noise roaring behind him? Was this just his art?

Greg Rogers: That would make perfect sense to him. To you or I, we’d think “wow, how can you be interested in art or photography or” you, you murdered your wife brutally. But to an absolute psychopath, that’s just an inconvenient fact.

Cold season 1, episode 18: Angel of Hope – Full episode transcript

(Sound of wind chimes at Woodbine Cemetery)

Dave Cawley: Our story now returns to where it started: the Woodbine Cemetery and Puyallup, Washington. On December 6th, 2012, Susan’s family and friends gathered at the cemetery to mark the third anniversary of her disappearance. A new monument stood at the top of the hill, above Charlie and Braden’s gravesite. The bronze angel with outstretched wings and arms stood atop a large stone block. It was an Angel Of Hope, a reference to the novel “The Christmas Box” by author Richard Paul Evans.

Nancy: It’s a calm place for me. It feels right that these boys are here because it’s so quiet and calm. Because when I met them it wasn’t quite that way.

Dave Cawley: This monument in Puyallup has become a special place to reflect for people who knew Susan, Charlie or Braden. People like Nancy from the Puyallup Gem and Mineral Club. Or Pierce County Sheriff’s detective sergeant Gary Sanders.

Gary Sanders: Y’know it’s, it’s one of those bookmarks in your, in, in your long line of memory that forever will be there so, periodically, y’know yeah, pay your respects. And the Christmas angel that’s there and it’s a beautiful place, umm, and hopefully they’re at peace now.

Dave Cawley: This is Cold, Episode 18, Angel of Hope. I’m Dave Cawley. Back after this.

[Ad break]

Dave Cawley: The sting of loss has never gone away for the people who loved Susan and her boys, friends like Amber Hardman.

Amber Hardman: They were happy boys. Crazy, happy boys, like boys should be. (Laughs) Right? We’d show up and, umm, they’d always be running around playing, sometimes in their underwear. Y’know, just crazy boys. (Laughs)

Dave Cawley: Or Linda Bagley.

Linda Bagley: One of the biggest things I remember about Susan that was something to look up to for me was the service she did for others. She was coloring people’s hair, cutting people’s hair, not charging them. For those that were older, for those that were, needed it maybe that didn’t have the funds, she did all those things for people. And she did all those things for her family, all the service she did for her family and stuff and, and that is something to be admired.

Dave Cawley: Or Debbie Caldwell.

Debbie Caldwell: Charlie liked bugs. He liked to find bugs. He was outdoors, umm, intrigued by things, so he was always looking for things. Now, Braden was all about cars and blocks. So as long as I had the cars and blocks, that was great. But Braden actually had quite a little witty personality. He was kind of a teaser. He liked to tease. You could see that in his personality. That was kind of like Susan, too.

Dave Cawley: Josh’s older sister, Jennifer Graves, still grieves for what should have been: seeing Charlie and Braden grow into bright, happy young men.

Jennifer Graves: The boys’ murder wasn’t the end. It did, it did close a chapter for me, though. Because the single 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. And I wanted them to be able to have a, a normal, loving family relationship as, as much as possible.

Dave Cawley: I’ve mentioned Jennifer’s book, A Light in Dark Places, a few times during this podcast. Jennifer told me she hoped that in writing it, she might inspire women in situations like Susan’s to escape.

Jennifer Graves: Part of the motivation for writing my book was trying to instill that courage in others. And that recognition of a bad situation and realizing, the realization that it shouldn’t go on. There needs to be a change in that situation, and sometimes it can be corrected. Sometimes with help people can change and, and you can fix the situation and end up with a good and positive marriage and, and family situation. But sometimes, it isn’t possible. Sometimes the right decision is to get out.

Dave Cawley: Susan’s dad, Chuck Cox, has a similar goal.

Chuck Cox: I would guess probably around 100 people at least have made differences in their lives to prevent themselves from being caught in that same trap. And that’s the reason, the only viable reason for doing it from now on is to let people know about the danger signs that were there.

Dave Cawley: Now-retired detective Ellis Maxwell has also spent the last few years working on a book.

Ellis Maxwell: I thought I could have that thing written in six months but it’s tough because I catch myself basically just start working the case again and analyzing this data and analyzing that and it becomes really taxing. I mean, 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.

Dave Cawley: Ellis told me our conversations have helped.

Ellis Maxwell: Sittin’ here and, y’know, meeting with you and answering your questions and sharing some insight has, it’s actually been, uh, beneficial for me and it’s helped me kinda get through my own struggles from doing it. ‘Cause it’s, it’s always going to be there, it’s never gonna go away.

Dave Cawley: But Ellis is just one of many, many people who took part in the Powell investigation. A lot of them still carry the weight of their experiences in a private.

Ellis Maxwell: Everybody involved in the case has, uh, has struggled at one point or another with and, y’know, ‘cause it’s really super challenging and all of ‘em, not just me, y’know, are gonna have to answer questions and live with this case for the rest of their lives as well. Especially when people learn that, how close to the investigation they were.

Dave Cawley: Of course, a key element of that struggle arises from the absence of answers.

Ellis Maxwell: There’s answers that I’ll, uh, never ever get and, y’know, there’ll never be any justice, uh, held against anybody for their actions and y’know the likelihood of, uh, Susan ever being discovered is in my personal opinion, uh, very super low.

Dave Cawley: This is the part where I’m supposed to say I’ve cracked the case, that I’ve found Susan, that she can at last rest in peace with her boys. I’m sorry. I can’t do that. I wish I could. Instead, I’m going to do what reporters are trained not to do. I’m going share my personal views, what I think likely happened to Susan. But I stress, this is a theory. It’s based on evidence and inference but is ultimately nothing more than an educated guess, one that is subject to change. Here goes.

I believe Josh Powell killed Susan. I believe it was crime he considered for quite some time, likely more than two years. I say that because of the steps he took as early as 2007 to obtain life insurance in her name, to establish a trust that would guarantee his access to that money and to secure power of attorney so he could take legal action in her name.

We know from Steve Powell’s journals that Josh spoke in 2008 of wanting Susan to have an “accident.” We know from Susan’s handwritten will that she feared Josh would kill her and that he would try to make it appear as though it were an accident. It seems likely that Josh had threatened Susan’s life repeatedly. Recognizing that danger, Susan had told an old friend in a November, 2008 Facebook message she was ready to make a hasty escape with her sons.

Kristin Sorenson (as Susan Powell from August 15, 2008, Facebook message): I have friends he would never think of if I need to leave in the middle of the night or whatever, a safe deposit box, docs on file, etcetera.

Dave Cawley: Susan had toed right up to the brink of divorce. Her efforts to assert her independence howled around Josh like warning shots over the bow of a ship. He knew what was coming. Josh would not tolerate a divorce. He’d seen just how ugly his own parents’ split had been. He also viewed Susan as his property and their two sons as extensions of himself. Under no circumstance would he allow her custody of them.

For Josh, killing Susan would’ve seemed to solve two problems. It would’ve rid him of a wife he no longer wanted and, if done properly, would’ve paid his bills for years to come.

I’m not sure why December 6th, 2009 was the date he chose to take the final step, but Susan’s impending April deadline for divorce seems a probable factor in the decision.

As for the act itself, I believe Josh used some sort of drug or substance to incapacitate Susan. I can envision a scenario in which Josh intentionally brake-checked another driver a few months before that December day, causing a crash. We know for a fact that after that fender-bender on September 2nd, Josh obtained a prescription for a drug that would do the job: cyclobenzaprine.

The script he filled the day of the crash was for 40 pills, enough to last about a week. When police later found the bottle in the Sarah Circle house in December, it still held 32 pills. If Josh had been in such pain from whiplash, wouldn’t he have taken more? And how many cyclobenzaprine pills would he’ve needed to crush up and put into the cream cheese on Susan’s pancake — the one he personally prepared for Susan on December 6th — to leave her feeling tired? 

Susan once mentioned in a Facebook message Josh did not have a gun.

Kristin Sorenson (as Susan Powell from August 15, 2008, Facebook message): No weapons aside from power tools and kitchen knives.

Dave Cawley: It seems plausible that Josh might have used one of his tools, perhaps an electric drill, to kill Susan.

Susan Cox Powell (from July 29, 2008 home video): Every tool case, I mean he’s a tool dream guy. There’s a Bostich nail gun, a Milwaukee drill, a Rigid drill, some type of Rigid sander and a Rigid saw.

Dave Cawley: Josh might’ve used the Rug Doctor he’d acquired to steam clean any blood that made it onto the carpet or couch cushions. Perhaps that job took longer than he anticipated. In his rush, he could’ve missed a spot: the swipe mark of Susan’s blood on the upper head rest of the couch. There were also those small drops of Susan’s blood on the tile floor next to the couch that he failed to notice, perhaps scattered by a spinning drill bit.

It would’ve also taken time to wrap Susan’s body, a necessary step to prevent the spreading of forensic evidence. It’s possible he used one of the several tarps he kept in the garage. Maybe he used the tree wrap he’d purchased to lightly bind Susan’s arms and legs together, leaving no marks or residue, as duct tape might.

In this scenario, Josh would’ve grabbed Susan’s cell phone and powered it off, understanding the risk of it being tracked as he moved her body away from the house. But in his rush to clean and dump the body before heading out on his camping trip, which was to be his alibi, he might’ve overlooked Susan’s wallet, purse and keys. That, in and of itself, might not have been a big problem in his mind. I believe Josh expected he’d have time to return home and tie up loose ends before himself reporting Susan had not come home from work.

He probably didn’t account for Debbie Caldwell. Josh did not like Debbie much. If he’d ever bothered to get to know her better, he might’ve realized that she took the wellbeing of her daycare kids very seriously, that Charlie and Braden’s unexplained absence would cause alarm.

Debbie Caldwell: He didn’t think of the welfare and the wellbeing of the kids.

Dave Cawley: It’s likely Josh was on his way home to finish cleaning up on the afternoon of December 7th when he took that first phone call from JoVanna Owings. He learned at that moment police were already looking for Susan. Worse yet, they’d already been in the house.

JoVanna Owings: I still can’t figure out how he thought. It leaves me at, at a loss.

Dave Cawley: In another phone conversation that afternoon, Josh asked his sister Jennifer Graves, what she knew. 

Jennifer Graves: Just more evidence. More evidence that he had this preconceived plan and was involved in her disappearance.

Dave Cawley: If he’d hidden the murder away until he could return home and dispose of it, he might have feared that police had already found it. So Josh went on the defensive. His plan appeared to hinge on the idea that Susan had gone to work. In order to sell that story, he drove south to Point of the Mountain and called her phone, the one he knew was with him in the minivan, to leave this message.

Josh Powell (from December 7, 2009 voicemail recording): Anyway, hopefully you got to work ok and, umm, of course give me a call. We’re I guess planning picking you up, but let me know ‘cause, umm, if you have plans afterwards or whatever.

Dave Cawley: Josh then drove north to Salt Lake City and parked outside of Susan’s work, knowing full well she’d not shown for her shift that day and would not be coming out for a ride home. I place a lot of weight on this. Establishing that Susan had gone to work seemed critical to Josh. He insisted on it from his very first interactions with detective Ellis Maxwell.

Ellis Maxwell (from December 7, 2009 police interview recording): So where, where would your wife be at? Where would you think she’d be at?

Josh Powell (from December 7, 2009 police interview recording): I don’t know. I’m just thinking on her way to work. But not for this long.

Dave Cawley: That insistence leads me to believe Josh intended for Susan’s body to be found and for her death to have appeared as either an accident or as a random act of violence, one for which Josh had an alibi: he was in the desert, witnessed by sheepherders, when it happened.

Susan being found and her death being someone’s fault would’ve been necessary if Josh intended to claim the life insurance. In this scenario, Josh would’ve left Susan’s body somewhere near the Wells Fargo call center where she’d worked. Charlie, if he was awake and in the minivan at the time, might have seen an airplane taking off from nearby Salt Lake City International Airport. And that could explain his perplexing comment to police on December 8th about having flown in an airplane to go camping.

Kim Waelty (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): How did you guys get to where you were camping?

Charlie Powell (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): Umm, we got in a airplane and a airplane went to Dinosaur National Park.

Kim Waelty (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): Oh, you went to an airplane yesterday?

Charlie Powell (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): Yeah and our airplane bring us to Dinosaur National Park.

Dave Cawley: After Josh’s first interview with Ellis Maxwell on the night of the 7th, he’d have returned home still convinced he could make the plan work. His top priority would’ve been the destruction of the murder weapon. I believe Josh took the weapon, again, possibly a power tool, and used his oxyacetylene torch to obliterate it in the garage of the Sarah Circle house.

Next, Josh would’ve sanitized everything: the Rug Doctor, the minivan, the soiled washcloths he’d left in the bathtub. He’d have stayed up all night to do it, even missing his morning appointment with police to make sure he did not miss anything. I believe Josh went in to his second interview with Ellis on December 8 cautious, but confident.

Ellis Maxwell (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): She’s left your boys, she’s left you.

Josh Powell (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): (Snorting) No, I don’t think she did.

Ellis Maxwell (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): You don’t think so?

Josh Powell (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): No.

Ellis Maxwell (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): Help me. Where should we look for her?

Josh Powell (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): I think she would have gone to work—

Ellis Maxwell (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): Ok.

Josh Powell (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): —she would have tried to work.

Ellis Maxwell (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): Alright.

Josh Powell (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): I mean, that’s what she would have been in the process of doing.

Dave Cawley: By the end of that interview, Josh would’ve known the plan, like his wife, was dead. Ellis knew he’d killed Susan, but not how. And he didn’t have the evidence. When Ellis confronted Josh with Charlie’s statement about Susan having gone camping with them, Josh recognized the police did not yet know what had actually happened. Because Susan had not gone out to the West Desert with them. At that point, Josh would’ve known if he were to survive, the plan had to change. Susan would have to disappear forever.

So, on the night of December 8th, Josh obtained the rental car. He drove to the ATM outside of his bank in West Valley and withdrew about $600 in cash.

I believe it’s plausible Josh could’ve then returned to where he’d originally left Susan’s body, retrieved it and moved it to a place where it would be safe from discovery. Somewhere within a slightly less than 400-mile radius of West Valley City, Utah. Probably up north, in one of the dark stretches of southern Idaho. In that frantic process, he strained his shoulder.

During this timeframe, Josh told his own father the same story he’d told the police. Steve Powell was skeptical. But he had no foreknowledge of the murder and no hand in its execution.

Steve Powell (from February 24, 2010 FBI interview recording): I think we’ll find her, I really do.

Dave Cawley: Over the course of the following weeks and months, Steve concocted an alternate reality in mind, rather than face the horrible truth that his son had murdered the object of his unrequited obsession.

Steve Powell (from February 24, 2010 FBI interview recording): I mean Josh, I, I, I am totally comfortable that he had nothing to do with it.

Dave Cawley: The only person Josh confided in was his brother, Michael. Michael’s phone records suggest he was aware of his brother’s plan and, when it went awry, accepted the task of helping Josh manage the mess. I do not believe Michael met Josh on December 8th or 9th, while Josh was unaccounted for in the rental car. I do not believe Michael disposed of Susan’s body. I say this, because Steve Powell’s journals describe Michael as being home in Puyallup on those days.

Michael Powell (from October 20, 2012 deposition recording): I got the impression that the first day he was expecting her to come back because she occasionally left and sometimes he didn’t always know where whereabouts for periods of, y’know, a few hours or, or whatever. And umm, as time went on, I got the impression that he was just getting more and more upset and distraught. By the end of the week, he was in tears. And that’s when I remember, because that’s when, uh, I went down there.

Dave Cawley: So how do I account for Michael’s later paranoia about his Ford Taurus, or the cadaver dog hitting on the car’s trunk?

Dave Lindell: You know I guess you have to wonder, was it purely because of possible car problems he wanted to sell the car, or did he just want to get out of the car? ‘Cause I remember that when we checked the car out, we couldn’t really find that much wrong with the car.

Dave Cawley: I find it likely that while Utah, Josh tasked Michael with disposing of some piece of secondary evidence. Perhaps clothing Susan had been wearing when she died or something similar. Michael might’ve even been taking that object back to Washington in the Taurus when his car broke down. I can imagine Michael’s fear, standing along the side of I-84 between Ontario and Baker City while in possession of murder evidence, wondering if an Oregon state trooper might at any moment pull up behind him. I can picture Michael flinging whatever that item was into the grass alongside the highway before limping the car the rest of the way to Baker City. It would then make sense for Josh to stop at that same spot five months later and take photographs, to ensure whatever it was Michael dumped could not be seen from the interstate.

I do not believe Susan’s body is in Utah’s West Desert. I don’t think Josh disposed of her in a mine. So where is she? 

Louis Amodt: Could be in a borrow pit right next to the freeway, somewhere between here and Wendover. Who knows?

Dave Cawley: After all of this, I can only guess.

Ellis Maxwell: Y’know, so I have empathy for the Coxes. I mean that’s, I can’t imagine, y’know, losing a child and, y’know, 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, uh, wish upon my worst enemy. That’s just horrible.

Dave Cawley: Find Susan. It remains a hope, a wish, a command, a desperate plea. Final thoughts after this.

[Ad break] 

Dave Cawley: The question of where to find Susan Powell is no longer the one that most bothers me. To understand why, I need to share something that happened shortly before this podcast first launched. It was October 22nd, 2018, three weeks from Cold’s debut.

I arrived home from work on that chilly autumn evening, ready to unwind. In an idle moment, I pulled my phone from my pocket and began scrolling through tweets. I spotted one from the University of Utah. It said “Alert: shooting on campus. Secure-in-place.”

Brian Wahlin (from October 22, 2018 KSL NewsRadio archive): We don’t believe there’s an active threat at this point in time, but don’t have that 100% confirmed.

Dave Cawley: I called the news director at KSL Newsradio, my friend Marc Giauque. He was on his way to the station. He had dispatched a reporter to the scene.

Marc Giauque (from October 22, 2018 KSL NewsRadio archive): The shooting happened earlier today they did find one person deceased. That victim identified as a woman and they did identify a suspect as well. 

Dave Cawley: I grabbed my keys, went to my car and raced back to work.

Dave Cawley (from October 22, 2018 KSL NewsRadio archive): The situation as it is ongoing at the University of Utah campus this evening, because of a shooting that happened, fatal shooting, uh, just around 9 p.m. Police are on scene. They are looking for a suspect who has not been located.

Dave Cawley: We came to learn over the following hours and days that Lauren McCluskey, a student at the university, had been shot and killed outside of her dorm by a man named Melvin Shawn Rowland.

Dale Brophy (from October 23, 2018 KSL NewsRadio archive): A couple hours into the investigation we learned that suspect had gotten off of campus in a vehicle. He was picked up. Through an investigative lead at approximately 1:15 in the morning, the suspect was located by Salt Lake City police department downtown off of 600 South. A foot pursuit ensued. The suspect ran into a church, at which time he took his own life.

Dave Cawley: Lauren’s and Susan’s stories are different. Yet, they are the same. Both women lost their lives to a romantic partner. Both women had come to Utah from Washington: Susan to escape her father-in-law, Lauren to perfect her talents as a gifted runner.

Lori McDonald (from October 23, 2018 KSL NewsRadio archive): Lauren was an outstanding student scholar and an accomplished student athlete and the students, staff and faculty who knew her are feeling a profound loss.

Dave Cawley: Melvin had lied to Lauren about his age. Lauren was 21, Melvin was 37. He’d also lied about his status as a convicted felon and sex offender on parole. He’d served time in prison after raping a teenage girl.

One of Lauren’s friends had learned Melvin’s secret and warned her. That’s when Lauren broke off their brief relationship. But Melvin would not leave Lauren alone. He used technology to terrorize. He bombarded Lauren’s phone with text messages, using spoofed phone numbers to make it appear as though the texts were coming from Melvin’s friends. In fear, Lauren called police for help.

Lauren McCluskey (from October 12, 2018 University of Utah police dispatch call recording): I got a text about, y’know, asking if I wanted to go to a funeral. His funeral. And I think they’re trying to lure me somewhere.

Dave Cawley: Yet, Lauren also doubted her own instincts.

Dispatcher (from October 12, 2018 University of Utah police dispatch call recording): Ok, and is there a protective order between you guys or is he just an ex of yours? 

Lauren McCluskey (from October 12, 2018 University of Utah police dispatch call recording): Just an ex.

Dispatcher (from October 12, 2018 University of Utah police dispatch call recording): Ok. And are you trying to avoid him? Or not necessarily?

Lauren McCluskey (from October 12, 2018 University of Utah police dispatch call recording): Umm, I would say it’s more just his friends.

Dave Cawley: That changed when, in an email, Melvin threatened to publish intimate photos of Lauren unless she transferred a thousand dollars to his account. She did. Then, Lauren again contacted police. She just wanted the harassment and extortion to stop.

Lauren McCluskey (from October 13, 2018 University of Utah police dispatch call recording): Do you know when an arrest would be made?

Dispatcher (from October 13, 2018 University of Utah police dispatch call recording): Umm, you can talk to an officer, if you want? I can arrange that, if you want that.

Lauren McCluskey (from October 13, 2018 University of Utah police dispatch call recording): Ok. Yeah, that sounds good.

Dave Cawley: But Melvin was not arrested. Police failed to piece together his status as a parole violator. A week elapsed before, on the night of October 22nd, he snatched Lauren in the parking lot outside her dorm, dragged her into the back seat of a car and shot to her to death. Lauren was on the phone with her mom when it happened.

Matt McCluskey (from October 22, 2018 911 call recording): My daughter, Lauren McCluskey, was talking to her mom and then she just started saying “No, no, no, no, no.” And it sounded like someone might have been grabbing her or something.

Dave Cawley: I didn’t know Lauren, but her death shook me. Lauren McCluskey and Susan Powell should both be alive today, along with many, many other women who’ve been killed at the hands of a husband, a boyfriend, a date, a coworker or even just an acquaintance. So I’m less concerned with the question “where is Susan” than I am the question “why does this keep happening?”

One particular passage from Susan’s emails has resonated with me. She wrote it in November of 2008, a little over a year before her disappearance. She said:

Kristin Sorenson (as Susan Powell from November 15, 2008 Facebook message): I’m finding out more and more that family and friends were seeing the red flags long before I did and of course I wish they would have said something.

Dave Cawley: Susan, I make this pledge to you: I resolve to treat the women in my life with respect, compassion and understanding. I vow to believe any woman who expresses through words or actions a concern for her safety. I promise to call out and condemn abusive, manipulative or controlling behavior any time or place I encounter it. And if I ever fail to live up to this standard, I invite those who know me to hold me accountable.

We can do better. We can be better.

To anyone who is listening, I would be honored if you would join me in making this same commitment.

My name is Dave Cawley. Thank you for listening to Cold.

Cold season 1, episode 17: Cold Case – Full episode transcript

Dave Cawley: Journal of Steve Powell, 12:35 a.m., December 8, 2009. 14 hours following the first report of Susan Powell’s disappearance.

Ken Fall (as Steve Powell from December 8, 2009, journal entry): 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. … 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, he said he saw her early Monday morning, 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.”

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 backcountry. 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. … In the last two weeks Josh bought an oxyacetylene 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.

Maybe he really did not do anything to her, and she will show up alive. Maybe that is why he is not concerned.

Dave Cawley: This is Cold, episode 17: Cold Case. I’m Dave Cawley. Right back after this.

[Ad break]

Dave Cawley: Two days after Josh murdered Charlie and Braden, his aunt and uncle, Maurice and Patti Leach, issued a written statement. It said Josh had represented himself with great restraint during the child custody proceedings. It said the murder-suicide was as a result of questionable practices of government agencies, by religious bias, by internet kangaroo courts and the news media. It said all of the above had circumvented the Powell family’s due process rights and that was a national tragedy.

Patti Leach was Steve Powell’s sister.

Andrew Adams (fromMay 16, 2013 KSL TV archive): If there’s anybody alive that has knowledge of what happened to Susan Powell, her family believes, it’s Steven Powell and he may perhaps be the best remaining lead in the investigation, despite the fact he’s not talking.

Dave Cawley: Not with police, anyway. While in prison, Steve exchanged letters with with his niece, Nicki Cardenas. At the end of July, 2012, Nicki sent him a copy of a CNN article about James Holmes, the Aurora, Colorado movie theater mass shooter. I mentioned in episode 15 that West Valley police detective Darrell Dain had adopted the phony persona of Shamus from the Department of Defense during a meeting with Steve around that same time. It turns out, Shamus planted a seed.

After Michael committed suicide in February of 2013, Steve became convinced this shadowy figure, Shamus, was responsible for both the Aurora shooting and Michael’s suicide. He supposed the Army, using Shamus, had delivered psychotropic drugs to both Holmes and Michael. Or maybe it was a chemical weapon, procured from the Army’s Deseret Chemical Depot in, of course, Utah.

Steve also wondered if Shamus had engineered the December, 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. They were all connected in Steve’s mind, part of a single, sprawling conspiracy.

[Scene transition]

Dave Cawley: Just days before Michael Powell’s suicide, Washington State Senator Pam Roach introduced Senate Bill 5162.

Pam Roach (from February 1, 2013 Washington Legislature recording): We do have a judge that did have material from West Valley police and chose to ignore it. We have a judge who did order a psychosexual evaluation, chose to make decisions without the results of that order.

Dave Cawley: SB 5162 wasn’t a very catchy name. Supporters called it Charlie and Braden’s Law. Steve Powell called it the Cox-Roach bill.

Pam Roach (from February 1, 2013 Washington Legislature recording): We had a fast track for reunification. DSHS, though they recommended to the judge that Josh, uh, Powell not have the kids, were none the less on a fast track for reunification. That’s what two days a week for two hours a, uh, a visit is.

Dave Cawley: Chuck and Judy Cox traveled to Olympia to speak in support of the bill.

Chuck Cox (from from February 1, 2013 Washington Legislature recording): Without this law, a surviving spouse is essentially able to achieve custody by murder. Or, as in this case, causing the disappearance of Charlie and Braden’s mother, then refusing to cooperate with police.

Dave Cawley: Put simply, the bill meant to prohibit parents suspected of murder from having access to their kids until the murder case was resolved. It would’ve cemented in law many of the suggestions made by the DSHS review board after Josh killed Charlie and Braden.

Judy Cox (from from February 1, 2013 Washington Legislature recording): DSHS and others like West Valley police, Pierce County police, umm, did not take it seriously. And so, because of that, we felt this was a big problem and why it was, in our opinion, treated lightly, that the boys would be ok.

Dave Cawley: Rick Bartholomew from the Washington State Bar Association said the bill was problematic.

Rick Bartholomew (from from February 1, 2013 Washington Legislature recording): Some investigations will take years, umm, and ultimately a person can be exonerated or at least the investigation doesn’t, uh, doesn’t prove anything.

Dave Cawley: The bill underwent changes to address those concerns and on March 12, 2013, the Washington State Senate voted 48 to 1 in favor, sending the bill to the house. Where it stalled, indefinitely. Charlie and Braden’s Law never actually became law. That is, at least not in Washington.

House clerk (from March 5, 2014 Utah Legislature recording): First substitute senate bill 173 having received 72 yes votes, 0 no votes, passes the House, will be signed by the speaker and returned to the Senate for the signature of the president.

Dave Cawley: The following year, in 2014, the Utah Legislature passed a similar bill. 

Craig Hall (from March 5, 2014 Utah Legislature recording): The bill has been changed dramatically in order to thread the needle between protecting parental rights and also protecting the rights of children in these very unusual and unique situations, and infrequent situations.

Dave Cawley: SB 173 changed Utah law, empowering the courts and child welfare workers to keep minor children away from a parent suspected of murder.

[Scene transition]

Dave Cawley: Journal of Steve Powell, 5:35 a.m., December 8, 2009. 19 hours following the first report of Susan Powell’s disappearance.

Ken Fall (as Steve Powell from December 8, 2009, journal entry): 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.”

Michael commented … that he blamed his mother for this. He said “she is the reason I will probably never get married.” … So I guess Michael, like me, has learned to distrust the marriage principle. John seems to be a misogynist … 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.

I am so tired, but can’t seem to sleep. I e-mailed in my request for sick leave a few minutes ago.

[Scene transition]

Dave Cawley: West Valley City police were fast approaching the end of the road. In early 2013, leads in the search for Susan were dwindling. Yet, public focus on the case remained high.

Ellis Maxwell: Yeah, there’s a lot of people in the country, in the world that wanted answers, from the media all the way down to the Cox family because, y’know, believe it or not, they didn’t know a whole lot more than anybody else.

Dave Cawley: As lead detective, Ellis Maxwell served as keeper of the case files. He’d organized reports, warrant affidavits, interview transcripts and everything else for more than three years.

Ellis Maxwell: Y’know, over the course of the investigation I’d managed the digital case file so, y’know I’d, I’d kind of prepared it as, as we were moving through so that we went into a trial it was all done and I could just hand it over to the attorneys.

Dave Cawley: With no chance of a criminal prosecution, West Valley faced a question: what do to with all those documents?

Ellis Maxwell: I don’t think the department could just stand back and go “no.” They’re gonna have to release, umm, some information and there’s a lot of information.

Dave Cawley: The city had received a large number of requests for copies of case files under GRAMA, Utah’s open records law.

Ellis Maxwell: It was decided to sit down and, and go through that entire file and redact it and, and then, y’know, it came down to “ok, do we just release it all or let the GRAMA requests come in” and the decision was made to just, uh, make a public release of it.

Dave Cawley: But the job of redacting all of those documents — blacking sensitive information like medical or financial data, names of potential witnesses, police operational plans — took a lot of time.

Ellis Maxwell: Y’know, we spent days in a, in a big conference room and uh, there was, gosh like eight or 10 of us, and they weren’t just detectives. There was a lot of attorneys in there and, y’know, it was basically myself, maybe a couple of detectives and the rest was legal going through and redacting all of that information. And uh, y’know, it was a daunting task to say the least. I mean, there’s thousands and thousands of documents and reports and, umm, yeah.

Dave Cawley: Before they could give any of those documents out, police also had to ask a judge to rescind the secrecy order that had surrounded the case since its inception.

Ellis Maxwell: The only reason it happened is because the case essentially came to an end. Like, there’s, there’s nobody that can be held accountable. This case is never gonna go into the justice system so now we’ve reached a point that there, we can’t, there’s no reason to retain that information and keep it closed.

Dave Cawley: Before taking that step, West Valley police wanted to finish one more search, this time in Scotts Mills, Oregon.

Andrew Adams (from May 20, 2013 KSL TV archive): Police say they remain committed to the case and finding closure for Susan’s family.

Mike Powell (from May 20, 2013 KSL TV archive): We can’t forget the Cox family, the effect that this has had on them.

Dave Cawley: Detectives had come across information about a piece of property in Scotts Mills where Josh’s aunt and uncle, Patti and Maurice Leach, had previously lived. They’d rented a house on 176 heavily wooded acres in the rural area north-east of Salem.

Ellis Maxwell: The information that we’d received is that it was possible that, y’know, because Josh traveled several hundred miles and if he was to relocate this body, it is probable that he could’ve made it to this area and disposed of her, buried her body there.

Dave Cawley: The mileage meant Josh couldn’t have made it to Scotts Mills in the rental car alone. In order for this theory to work, he’d have needed an assist from Michael or Steve.

Ellis Maxwell: There was a little bit of time, like a day maybe that we couldn’t really account for Steve. Not a whole day but maybe 12 hours or six hours or something like that and it kind of fell in line with this whole piece of property that was related to Steve’s family.

Dave Cawley: Josh and Susan had also visited the property once, together. After Susan disappeared and Josh moved to Washington, Maurice and Patti had invited Josh to come visit in order to get away from the media but Josh never took them up on the offer. West Valley police obtained a federal search warrant. They briefed the Marion County Sheriff’s Office and, on May 14th, 2013 arrived in Scotts Mills with a team of cadaver dogs.

Ellis Maxwell: There was a lot of digging and a lot of searching of this ground.

Dave Cawley: The dogs indicated the possible presence of decomposition at one location. Police spent an entire day raking and probing the ground, running the dogs over and over it. Ultimately, they didn’t find anything. No body, no evidence.

Andrew Adams (from May 16, 2013 KSL TV archive):  Today, police conceded they’re coming to the end of their list of leads. And they even acknowledged the possibility the Susan Powell case could even become a cold case.

Mike Powell (from May 16, 2013 KSL TV archive): Obviously Susan’s still missing so there are pieces that we don’t have. There’s information we don’t have.

Dave Cawley: Police did not reveal at the time that while those dogs were searching in Scotts Mills, a detective and FBI agent were in nearby Silverton, grilling Josh’s uncle Maurice Leach. Maurice’d agreed to take a lie detector test. An FBI polygrapher came down from Portland. During the interview, police records say Maurice told the agent he believed Charlie and Braden were still alive. Steve’d told Maurice the pictures the FBI had showed him following the fire were unrecognizable and possibly staged. Detective Alva Davis told Maurice that was not the case. He had personally seen the bodies.

Over the course of their hours-long conversation, Maurice’s perspective changed. Police records say he expressed anger at Josh and Michael, saying they’d lied to him. He wanted to have words with Steve, because Steve had told him police had made up the stuff about finding pictures of young, naked neighbor girls in his house.

I made several attempts to contact Maurice. He never responded to my messages.

Andrew Adams (from May 16, 2013 KSL TV archive):  Cops arrived here on Tuesday. They combed acre after acre but ultimately called the search when cadaver dogs didn’t turn up leads.

Mike Powell (from May 16, 2013 KSL TV archive): We have not rested. We have not had a break. We have been diligent and meticulously investigating this entire case.

Dave Cawley: West Valley returned home from Oregon on May 16, 2013, empty-handed.

Ellis Maxwell: Y’know, at this point, y’know, a lot of us are just tired. Y’know, it’s been a long investigation and when I say tired, like we’re not physically tired but we’re just mentally like, you only, I mean I don’t know how many times an individual can, uh, come across a potential breaking lead in a case and be shut down. It’s like “nope, this ain’t it. Need to go find something else.” And so I, I think we were all hopeful, I was hopeful. But again at the end of the day, just tons of resources and uh, no results. But we were able to say that she wasn’t there.

Dave Cawley: Detectives weren’t alone in feeling that sense of exhaustion. Chuck Cox wasn’t ready to stop searching. He wondered if Susan’s body might have ended up much closer to home — Steve Powell’s home.

Haley Smith (from November 7, 2013 KSL TV archive): Earlier this year, a Washington judge awarded Powell’s victims, two young girls, 1.8 million dollars. … Powell is now claiming he’s just recently learned about the damages and is in no position to pay up.

Dave Cawley: But Steve did have assets, including the South Hill house from which he’d once filmed those underage neighbor girls.

Nkoyo Iyamba (from May 20, 2014 KSL TV archive): The family of the two little girls that Steven Powell was convicted of photographing now own that house. They were awarded that property in a court-ordered settlement.

Dave Cawley: Chuck, working with his attorney and a private investigator, brought cadaver dogs to the house. They probed the yard, on the suspicion that Josh or Steve might have buried Susan there. Just as with police in Oregon, they didn’t find anything.

[Scene transition]

Dave Cawley: Journal of Steve Powell, 6:30 a.m., December 8, 2009. 20 hours following the first report of Susan Powell’s disappearance.

Ken Fall (as Steve Powell from December 8, 2009, journal entry): 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? … 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. … Michael suggested to Alina and me that if he has killed Susan it was probably not premeditated, since the story is so poorly planned.

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.

[Scene transition]

Dave Cawley: Four days after the end of the search in Scotts Mills, Oregon, West Valley City leaders called a press conference.

Wayne Pyle (from May 20, 2013 KSL TV archive): After three-plus long years of the investigation into the disappearance of Susan Powell, we are announcing the end of the active phase of the search for Susan.

Dave Cawley: The case had gone cold.

Mike Powell (from May 20, 2013 KSL TV archive): Today, Susan is still missing. We do not know where she is or what happened to her.

Dave Cawley: That same day, the city attorney and detective Darrell Dain, aka Shamus, went to court and asked a judge to lift the secrecy order.

Ellis Maxwell: I had to sit down myself and, y’know, my supervisors, we had to sit down with the Cox family and, uh, share everything with them first. And so we met with them and, and we shared with them everything that we could share with them and uh, I believe we gave their attorney a copy of that release on a USB drive.

Dave Cawley: Next, reporters received their copies of the redacted case file on 32 gigabyte flash drives.

Mike Winder (from May 20, 2013 KSL TV archive): Tens of thousands of pages and as you go through those, it will be easy to Monday morning quarterback perhaps, uh, but I think at the end of the day, you’ll see a police force that was completely dedicated from the beginning, completely professional from the beginning and did everything they could do to, to find Susan and bring her home.

Dave Cawley: Technically, the Powell case remained open. There were still loose ends, including the ongoing efforts to crack the encryption on one of Josh’s hard drives. So that version of the case file released to the media, was a snapshot in time. Going forward, Ellis continued to take care of the case file. 

Ellis Maxwell: From that point I ended up leaving the major crimes division, or major crimes unit, and went to managing the sex offender compliance program. And then I developed a college internship program and so I ran both of those and took care of the Powell case and every once in awhile I would handle some other investigative cases as they came along but, uh yeah, I did that from ’13 up until December of ’15 when I retired. I had my 20 years and I was done. I was out. (Laughs)

Dave Cawley: Public release of the redacted case file was a huge win for Susan’s family. They seized on the documents. Within days, they began handing out fliers along I-84, from Pendleton, Oregon to Tremonton, Utah.

Andrew Wittenberg (from May 29, 2013 KSL TV archive):  The search for missing Utah mom has led Chuck Cox to a small Tremonton florist. It’s his first time in Utah in more than six months. His hope of finding her was renewed when West Valley police disclosed all their investigation materials.

Chuck Cox (from May 29, 2013 KSL TV archive):  Hopefully we get some more tips, some new tips. And, uh, we did, actually, as a result of the KSL coverage of that.

Dave Cawley: But the redacted case file didn’t paint the whole picture. Important details about Josh and Michael’s relationship and movements in the days after Susan’s disappearance were not included.

Chuck Cox (from May 29, 2013 KSL TV archive): We decided we needed to come down and put out these fliers and get some attention to the people that live along that corridor.

Dave Cawley: The public learned of Michael dumping his Ford Taurus, but the fine detail of his apparent later paranoia over it not have been destroyed. People seized on the reports of Josh having had an affair, not realizing those tips had been largely discredited. The redacted case file held many rabbit holes.

Ellis Maxwell: I don’t think an average person, uh, could sit down and look at this and really wrap their mind around it. Because there’s just, there’s way too much information, way too many details. There was 100 different directions that this case could have gone.

[Scene transition]

Dave Cawley: Journal of Steve Powell, 8:00 a.m., December 8, 2009. 22 hours following the first report of Susan Powell’s disappearance.

Ken Fall (as Steve Powell from December 8, 2009, journal entry): 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. As it lay on the living room floor, Braden lay down on it and said “mommy.” That was painful to hear.

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 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.

[Scene transition]

Dave Cawley: Steve Powell completed his sentence on the voyeurism charges and left prison on March 23rd, 2014.

Jennifer Graves (from March 23, 2014 KSL TV archive): I knew it was coming and it was gonna be today and y’know what, it had to come and so I’m not particularly pleased about it, but it had to come.

Dave Cawley: Jennifer Graves had no intention of reconciling with her father, who was a registered sex offender.

Carole Mikita (from March 23, 2014 KSL TV archive):  Powell will be on probation for 30 months, required to wear a GPS locator and attend a sex offender treatment program. The corrections facility says he plans to live in Tacoma.

Dave Cawley: That plan soon fell apart. In July, the Washington court of appeals reinstated the child pornography count that Judge Ronald Culpepper had tossed out at the beginning of Steve’s 2012 trial. Steve appealed to the Washington State Supreme Court but the high court declined to take the case.

So, on October 27, 2014, Pierce County prosecutors obtained a new arrest warrant for Steve Powell. Steve and his sole surviving son, John, were living together at a halfway house in Tacoma’s Hilltop area. Pierce County sheriff’s detective sergeant Gary Sanders went and knocked on the door.

Gary Sanders: He was surprised. He tried shutting the door on me but with the warrant, you don’t get to shut the door. … So, John opened the door and I said “is your dad here?” And then Steve was like “whoa, no, you guys,” y’know, and I was like “nope, got the warrant.” So I was able to put him in handcuffs again and take him back to jail one more time.

Dave Cawley: Gary slapped a pair of pink handcuffs on Steve’s wrists.

Gary Sanders: Only two times I’ve used pink handcuffs.

Dave Cawley: You used those?

Gary Sanders: Yes. Umm, handcuffs that, uh, a certain detective from West Valley gave me.

Dave Cawley: Steve’s prison letters had revealed he believed police couldn’t arrest him again on the child pornography charge. He figured that would amount to double-jeopardy. That’s not exactly how double-jeopardy works.

Steve’s second trial didn’t go any better than the first. On July 15th, 2015, a jury found him guilty. The judge sentenced him to five additional years in prison. In August of 2015, Steve appealed that conviction. Washington’s court of appeals heard arguments, then rejected the appeal. Steve in 2017 asked the Washington Supreme Court to review his case. Again, the court declined. Steve was stuck.

[Scene transition] 

Dave Cawley: About a month before Michael jumped from the parking garage in Minneapolis, Chuck Cox had gone to court in Utah and asked to be named conservator of his daughter’s estate. Susan, in the eyes of the law, was still alive, and would be until five years after the date of her disappearance.

Chuck’s move put him in position to exercise authority over Josh and Susan’s trust and, by extension, her share of the life insurance money. After Michael’s suicide, Chuck amended the trust, making himself sole trustee. He froze out Josh’s mom, Terrica and sister, Alina. Steve had voluntarily surrendered any claim to the money. That might seem a noble gesture, but remember, Steve owed his voyeurism victims restitution. It was in best interest to be penniless.

A year later, in May of 2014, the federal court in Tacoma decided the interpleader lawsuit over the life insurance money. It split the proceeds like this: two-and-a-half million dollars to Susan’s estate, three-quarters of a million dollars to Michael’s estate, about 21-thousand dollars to Alina and 16-thousand dollars to John. Attorney Anne Bremner considered it a victory for the Cox family.

Anne Bremner: Y’know, we won the insurance battle.

Dave Cawley: But hang on a second. That October, Josh’s mom Terri sued Chuck. In her complaint, she said Chuck’s change to the trust had been illegal. She wanted an injunction to keep him from spending any of the money. Terri argued she was entitled to half of the proceeds through the trust, an amount totaling 1.1 million dollars. Terri and Chuck ended up settling out of court, in 2015. Terms of the arrangement were not disclosed.

Anne Bremner: When Michael killed himself, I thought “case over,” Right? “We’re done.” Here came the rest of the Powells.

Dave Cawley: That’s an understandable perspective, given what I’ve just described. But let’s talk about Terri for a minute. You haven’t heard Terri Powell’s voice in this podcast, aside from that first 911 call she made the day of Susan’s disappearance. There’s a reason for that. Terri has long shunned the media. She’s repeatedly expressed a desire to have no contact when I’ve reached out to her. But Terri did speak with police during the investigation and what she said can provide some insight on her mindset.

Terri Powell (from February 1, 2010 police recording): Y’know, I’ve blocked so much of it out, I can’t even remember. In fact, I’m surprised I can even talk about it. Usually, I’m just falling apart.

Dave Cawley: Jump back to February 2010. Jennifer had just confronted Josh while wearing a wire. Steve was formulating his theory about Susan running off to Brazil. And Terri sat down to speak with Ellis Maxwell.

Terri Powell (from February 1, 2010 police recording): I want Susan found.

Ellis Maxwell (from February 1, 2010 police recording): Yeah

Terri Powell (from February 1, 2010 police recording): I want the truth known. I want my family well. I don’t know what we’re going to have to go through from here to there.

Ellis Maxwell (from February 1, 2010 police recording): I don’t know either.

Terri Powell (from February 1, 2010 police recording): I want all my family well.

Dave Cawley: Terri shared many of the troubling events from her divorce. She described how Steve had manipulated the kids, exposing them to pornography and turning them against her. She said she’d felt concern at one point that Steve had “inappropriate interest” in the children, though she never saw him act on it. Terri didn’t seem to remember Josh having threatened her with a knife when he was a teenager, a claim documented in her divorce records.

Terri Powell (from February 1, 2010 police recording): Uh, one thing I’d like to mention, don’t know if I’ve ever specifically said this, I’ve, I’ve never known Josh to be violent.

Ellis Maxwell (from February 1, 2010 police recording): Mmhmm.

Terri Powell (from February 1, 2010 police recording): Never seen him violent—

Ellis Maxwell (from February 1, 2010 police recording): Mmhmm.

Terri Powell (from February 1, 2010 police recording): —that I can ever recall. … I, I can’t imagine him being that way.

Ellis Maxwell (from February 1, 2010 police recording): Mmhmm.

Terri Powell (from February 1, 2010 police recording): And I think that that’s significant, something you should hear from me.

Terri Powell (from February 1, 2010 police recording): Mmhmm. Yeah, absolutely.

Dave Cawley: Ellis observed there similarities between how Steve’d treated Terri and how Josh’d treated Susan. Terri couldn’t see it.

Terri Powell (from February 1, 2010 police recording): I don’t see Josh as manipulative.

Ellis Maxwell (from February 1, 2010 police recording): Mmhmm.

Terri Powell (from February 1, 2010 police recording): I do see him as, y’know, he’ll get in and get things done and he also had, hass a certain disregard for trying to accommodate other people and their needs. But he also seems very gentle.

Dave Cawley: Terri would give her son the benefit of the doubt.

Terri Powell (from February 1, 2010 police recording): The, the kids care about Josh and they, y’know, they want to see, umm, their, they, they want to help him. But I didn’t get any sense when I’ve been around them — and, and they’re willing to do that. They’re willing to help him, which I’m, y’know, I’ve been glad for because I felt like he needed help somehow or another.

Dave Cawley: Ellis, as gently he could, tried to warn Terri that the person responsible for Susan’s disappearance would be held accountable.

Ellis Maxwell (from February 1, 2010 police recording): Eventually there’ll be a—

Terri Powell (from February 1, 2010 police recording): Some kid of answers.

Ellis Maxwell (from February 1, 2010 police recording): —somebody’s gonna have to, yeah, somebody’s gonna have to account for it.

Dave Cawley: But as we now know, no one ever has.

[Ad break]

Dave Cawley: Journal of Steve Powell, 8:45 a.m., December 8, 2009. 23 hours following the first report of Susan Powell’s disappearance.

Ken Fall (as Steve Powell from December 8, 2009, journal entry): I went into Alina’s room a few minutes ago, to find out if she has heard anything. I was crying. 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 [expletive] Josh made her out to be, and thinks Josh may have helped turn her into a [expletive]. 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 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.

[Scene transition]

Dave Cawley: Chuck and Judy had first filed their wrongful death lawsuit in the Pierce County Superior Court. In late November, 2014, it jumped to the U.S. District Court in Tacoma. The suit accused Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services, DSHS, as well as the social workers who’d handled Charlie and Braden’s case, of failing to protect the boys, ignoring the threat Josh presented.

Anne Bremner: We want the DSHS to switch gears which is, it’s the best interest of the child. That’s what they should be looking at, not reunification at any cost.

Dave Cawley: Attorney Anne Bremner and the rest of the team took that argument to the judge.

Anne Bremner: What we’re saying is, based on the facts that I think everybody knows, is that there were red flags about Josh. The biggest one being the disappearance of his wife and his involvement.

Dave Cawley: October 7th, 2015, the federal district court ruled against the Coxes. In his decision, Judge Ronald Leighton wrote the court could not “exercise the luxury of hindsight” in judging the social workers for failing to prevent the murder. Leighton said federal law provided the social workers absolute immunity. DSHS, he said, had done its job in notifying the state court of the goings-on, so it also could not be blamed. According to the order, Pierce County Superior Court Judge Kathryn Nelson’s decision to allow visitation at Josh Powell’s house was the closest thing to a cause for the murder.

In a footnote, Judge Leighton also mentioned the failed effort to pass Charlie and Braden’s Law in Washington. He called it bad public policy in general, even though he conceded it would have benefited everyone in the Powell case case. On this, the judge and Anne Bremner disagreed.

Anne Bremner: It should be the law in every state in the nation. It’s pretty simple. Pretty simple, right?

Dave Cawley: Two months later, the Coxes appealed the ruling to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. It took two years before the appeals court heard oral arguments on the case.

Ted Buck (from December 4, 2017 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals oral argument recording): The CPS workers failed to even review the divorce file.

Morgan Christen (from December 4, 2017 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals oral argument recording): Had they reviewed it, is there something they would have found there that you think would have changed this outcome?

Ted Buck (from December 4, 2017 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals oral argument recording): I, yes your honor, I believe that they would have. They would have found that he had threatened to kill his mother with a knife when he was younger. That he had killed animals before. All classic signs people who can snap, people who can do very violent things.

Dave Cawley: Attorney Ted Buck argued the case on behalf on the Coxes in Seattle on December 4th, 2017, almost eight years to the day after Susan’s disappearance.

Ted Buck (from December 4, 2017 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals oral argument recording): The court assumed, without evidence in the record, that Judge Nelson had as much information as the law enforcement officers who were warning the social workers that they had concerns about the safety of the boys. That Judge Nelson had as much information as the Coxes, who’d known Josh Powell for years, as his own sister who obviously had known him for many, many years. The court assumed that the judge knew that visitations were regularly occurring at the Powell house, when the record does not support that.

Dave Cawley: Assistant Washington Attorney General Peter Helmberger argued the “hunches and beliefs” of Susan’s friends and family members were not grounds for concern over and above the courtordered supervised visitation. He noted Charlie and Braden had not been afraid of their father, in fact they’d dashed to greet him at every visit.

Peter Helmberger (from December 4, 2017 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals oral argument recording): It wasn’t concern based on him being violent towards his children unsupervised—

Morgan Christen (from December 4, 2017 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals oral argument recording): There had to be a finding and there was, the box was checked, that the children were at risk of danger and that was the justification for requiring supervised visitation with the natural father, right?

Peter Helmberger (from December 4, 2017 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals oral argument recording): Correct. But it wasn’t, it wasn’t based on any reports or allegations of, of abuse, of physical abuse directed towards—

Morgan Christen (from December 4, 2017 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals oral argument recording): We understand.

Peter Helmberger (from December 4, 2017 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals oral argument recording): —towards his children.

Dave Cawley: Chuck left the courtroom that day feeling confident.

Chuck Cox: To me it was like, why aren’t you ruling now? 9th Circuit, they were very impressive in their ability to get past the bull and down to the truth.

Dave Cawley: So Chuck waited for good news. None came. Time went by and he was reduced to waiting for any news.

On January 10th, 2019, right in the middle of this podcast, the appeals court released its decision. The opinion upheld the immunity for the social workers, meaning they cannot be sued as individuals. But the appeals court reversed the district court’s decision regarding DSHS, sending the Cox family’s negligence claim against the state of Washington back down for trial.

Ted Buck (from December 4, 2017 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals oral argument recording): A jury needs to be able to determine whether, in the face of all of those risks, the state was deliberately indifferent in not moving visitation back to a secure facility, in not assuring that you had a supervisor there who could intervene. These are jury issues.

Dave Cawley: As I record this, that trial is still to come. Anne Bremner said she still hopes a jury will find in their favor, forcing a change in priorities and placing the safety of children above the parental rights of suspected murderers.

Anne Bremner: And it’s going to mean a lot to me and to the Coxes if we get that. It will mean everything.

[Scene transition]

Dave Cawley: Of course, one could also argue Washington might not have needed to protect Charlie and Braden from Josh if police in Utah had arrested him in the first place. In the years since the murder-suicide, many people have accused the West Valley City police department of botching the case. So I asked Ellis Maxwell point-blank, if he agreed.

Ellis Maxwell: No, absolutely not, we didn’t botch the case. Umm, it just comes from ignorance in my opinion. But, y’know, I respect it and I understand where they would come up with that. Not knowing everything that I know, you know and, uh, the rest of the investigative team, it’s easy for people to, y’know, Monday morning quarterback the case. Super easy. So I don’t get offended when I hear it and I think the reason why is ‘cause I understand where they’re coming from.

Dave Cawley: But why didn’t he just arrest Josh?

Ellis Maxwell: We were getting there but Josh beat us to the punch, unfortunately.

Dave Cawley: Ellis told me he’d hoped to screen the case against Josh for formal charges — body or no body — in the spring of 2012. Which raises an interesting point: the case had never been screened.

Sim Gill: And the tragedy is that we were moving towards that process. We don’t get to control human behavior.

Dave Cawley: Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill came into office in 2011, midway through the Powell investigation. He learned that while members of his staff had worked with police on search warrants and subpoenas, detectives and prosecutors had not met to review the evidence in a holistic way.

]Sim Gill: I wanted to make sure everybody who was part of the investigation got to give their input and as well as a collaborative collective of legal minds who said “ok, what is the flexibility of the range of our options that we have?”

Dave Cawley: Deputy D.A. Blake Nakamura told me prosecutors were willing to go forward with a no-body case, but it depended on police chasing down every possible lead.

Blake Nakamura: The unique challenge in those kinds of cases is it creates an opportunity for all these alternative explanations that are contrary to what the allegation of a homicide would be: they went off, they met somebody else, they had debt and so they were trying to leave the debt. Remember, there only has to be one person saying I have some reasonable doubt.

Dave Cawley: As we’ve seen, the Powell family worked hard to create those alternative explanations: Susan ran off to Brazil with Steven Koecher, Susan was “sexually motivated,” Susan was suicidal, Susan had abused her boys.

Blake Nakamura: And when you’re having to defeat that by circumstantial evidence that the person, no, is gone. Like, no contact with family, no activity in financial records. That tends to create a compelling picture, but when you’re dealing with reasonable doubt, sometimes that’s not enough.

Dave Cawley: It might seem likely to the majority of people that Josh Powell killed his wife, but prosecutors needed evidence to prove that.

Sim Gill: It’s not just the court of public opinion that gives you a successful prosecution. It’s the evidence that’s necessary under our rule of law with the burden of proofs that we have. When you don’t have that physical body, when that forensic piece is missing there is a whole host of logical possibilities and if I have more than one logical possibility in any realistic sense, I have reasonable doubt.

Dave Cawley: Not arresting Josh at the outset had been a tactical decision. Even now, Sim does not second-guess it. 

Sim Gill: This is not television. This isn’t CSI. This isn’t cutaways where you browbeat somebody and they confess. This is real life.

Dave Cawley: And of course, there would’ve been no point in arresting Josh from the beginning if prosecutors were not at that point prepared to file charges.

Blake Nakamura: When decisions are made to file or not file, those are not light decisions. They are not light decisions because it is a situation where if we file and we’re not successful in that, we can’t go back and say “geez, can you give us another shot?”

Dave Cawley: If they’d charged Josh with murder and a jury acquitted him, it wouldn’t have mattered if someone later discovered Susan’s body. Double jeopardy would’ve prohibited them from charging him again.

In the wake of the Powell case, Sim instituted changes within the district attorney’s office. They mandated in-person screenings of homicide cases before a team of prosecutors, ensuring a diversity of viewpoints and rigorous debate over the strength of the evidence. It’s tough to say if that process could’ve changed the outcome in the Powell case, were it in place from the beginning. But Sim, like Ellis, doesn’t believe police botched the investigation.

 Sim Gill: Absolutely not. Absolutely not. If anything, what I want to communicate from what we learned and what we observed and what we interacted with, that commitment to finding the truth never, they never wavered from that.

[Scene transition]

Dave Cawley: On June 6th, 2017, I mailed a letter to Steve Powell. In it, I described my work on this podcast and expressed my interest in speaking with him. In particular, I hoped Steve and I could discuss his planned autobiography, which he’d outlined and given the tentative title “Somewhere on the Moon.” Steve didn’t responded to my letter.

A few weeks later, Steve left prison again after serving just a fraction of his five-year sentence. He’d received time off for good behavior. I actually staked out his address during a visit to Tacoma that October, but never saw him.

Jennifer Graves: Thus far my dad’s been pretty closed mouth about everything in relation to this case and I don’t think he’ll ever change that. Maybe. I don’t know. I mean, miracles happen but I don’t see it happening at this point. I do believe that he knows about stuff, that Josh probably told him stuff. Maybe he wasn’t privy to it as, as he was planning or, or uh, executing his plan. But I think that in, y’know, at the end he was told. I think he knows. Will he ever tell? I doubt it.

Dave Cawley: Pierce County sheriff’s detective sergeant Gary Sanders kept tabs on Steve after he left prison. At that point, Gary was running the county’s sex offender monitoring program.

Gary Sanders: And they’d notified us that he was up in King County, which kind of threw us off, umm, because of health issues.

Dave Cawley: Steve’s health had taken a nose-dive. In the summer of 2018, Gary learned Steve’d been admitted to St. Joseph Medical Center in Tacoma. Gary called the hospital, in the hopes Steve might make a dying declaration. But the hospital told him, Steve was getting better.

Gary Sanders: They mentioned that he was on progression, getting towards outpatient, being released and stuff, umm, so I’d, I’ve kinda, I was still monitoring him but I was not as concerned for the dying declaration.

Dave Cawley: Then, just before 5 a.m. on July 22nd, 2018, Steve Powell died at the hospital from severe cardiomyopathy, heart failure. No one bothered to inform Gary.

Gary Sanders: And I called down there to say “hey, how is he doing, where was he at, still in the hospital?” And umm, they initially wouldn’t tell me anything just because of rules of and stuff and then I explained because of the monitoring and they, they informed me that he’d passed away.

Dave Cawley: Word of Steve’s death started to spread. I learned of it early the morning of July 24th. I immediately sent a text to Ellis.

Ellis Maxwell: Matter of fact, when I learned of, from you, of Steve’s passing, I fired off a text to a couple of other guys that I’m real close with that were a great asset to the investigation and, y’know, we had our chuckles and, y’know, there wasn’t a lot of, of love lost there, so, I mean, we still talk about Steve Chantrey and his music and (laughs), y’know, we’re cops. We laugh about it. That’s how we get through things.

Dave Cawley: Chuck Cox reacted differently to Steve’s death.

Chuck Cox: When Steve passed, I got thinking “what a waste of a life.” He, he’s, he ruined the lives of his children, his family, he took my daughter and the grandchildren, tore apart his own family and now he’s gone. Just what a loss.

Dave Cawley: Steve’s death certificate showed he was cremated on August 6th of 2018. It listed Alina as his next of-kin. Many news stories at the time suggested Steve had died knowing important information about the whereabouts of Susan’s body. But Gary, like Ellis, wasn’t so sure.

Dave Cawley: Did you hold much hope that he might say anything or was that kind of a slim chance in your mind?

Gary Sanders: I think it was a slim chance. Umm, he, he didn’t, I don’t, I don’t think he would have told us. … And to be honest, I don’t know if he did know.

[Scene transition]

Dave Cawley: Journal of Steve Powell, 10:30 p.m., December 8, 2009. 36 hours following the first report of Susan Powell’s disappearance.

Ken Fall (as Steve Powell from December 8, 2009, journal entry): 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.

I want Josh to be with his boys, but I am also angry with him for murdering such a beautiful woman. … 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.

Dave Cawley: On the conclusion of Cold…

Jennifer Graves: Sometimes it isn’t possible, sometimes the right decision is to get out.

Cold season 1, episode 16: Chasing Leads – Full episode transcript

(Sound of seagulls and idling diesel engine)

Dave Cawley: Snowflakes swirled outside the Flying J Travel Center in Lake Point, Utah. They danced on the wind that also buffeted big-rigs on the nearby interstate. Denise worked the register alone. The only other employee on shift at the time was out shoveling snow off of the walks.

Denise: It was around midnight, 12:30 a.m., and I was busier than normal because of the, the storm. It was coming down like crazy.

Dave Cawley: Denise heard someone shout “Hey Charlie” across the store. A few moments later, a man in a leather jacket stepped up to the counter.

Denise: It’s this really tall man carrying a baby. And I said “is there anything else for you tonight?” And I looked down at his stuff and it was rescue tape.

Dave Cawley: A pair of gloved hands dropped a couple other items on the counter: crackers and licorice. Denise glanced up to see a woman standing next to the man, smiling.

Denise: So I looked up and I made eye contact with her and then the dad said “hang on a minute let me buy this stuff and then we’ll go camping.” So quickly, I turned around and looked out the window, cause I knew it was snowing like crazy and 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 there. And I thought “camping? In this?” So, I turned a little bit further and I’d seen the silver minivan sitting on pump six.

Dave Cawley: Denise thought the woman looked well-put together, especially for it being nearly 1 a.m. But she also noticed red rings around the woman’s eyes, as if she’d been crying. The toddler in the man’s arms stirred.

Denise: 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 says “well he doesn’t look too happy about going camping.” And she did the mom thing, rubbed his little cheeks and smiled and says “yeah, he’s pretty tired.”

Dave Cawley: The mom scooped the boy from the man’s arm and walked over to the door, joining another, slightly older boy who was pushing on the glass, trying to get outside.

(Sound of door opening)

Dave Cawley: Together, they walked out to the minivan. The man paid for the stuff with cash and told Denise to put the change on pump six. Then, he left as well. Denise didn’t think about that encounter again, until two months later when she saw a picture of Josh Powell on the news. She called West Valley police in a state of shock.

Denise: I truly believe I was the last person to see her. I truly do. And that’s very haunting.

Dave Cawley: Denise told police she’d seen Josh and Susan Powell, as well as their boys, together in the Flying J at 12:30 a.m. on December 7th off 2009.

Denise: The did request the video surveillance and, 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.

Dave Cawley: Denise provided a written statement. She told detectives what the people she’d seen were wearing. The detectives, in turn, asked her why she hadn’t reported this sighting for weeks.

Denise: When they asked me “what took you so long?” that was gut-wrenching. It just made me feel like I was discredited, so to speak, when they asked me that. And that was a horrible feeling. Here, something so tragic has happened and I’m trying to help, ‘cause they were there. They were there. And, and how to I convince them? They’ve got to know that they were there and, and believe that they were there.

Dave Cawley: This is Cold, episode 16: Chasing Leads. I’m Dave Cawley.

[Ad break]

Dave Cawley: Denise has harbored some hard feelings for West Valley police over the last nine years.

Denise: I had a lot of anger issues, frustration with them and stuff because I had such valuable information that I felt was discarded. But then, you know, ten years time and you experience other things, I come to realize how difficult it is for them to put anything through the system.

Dave Cawley: Here’s the problem with Denise’s tip: it can’t be verified. Not by any other witnesses, not by surveillance camera footage, not by financial records. By the time Denise reported it, a lot of information had come out in news reports. Police had to ask themselves: were her memories influenced by what she’d seen on TV?

Ellis Maxwell: 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 “ok, is this credible information or this information that they’ve obtained because of information we’ve released?”

Dave Cawley: By the start of 2013, West Valley police had received more than 800 tips in the Powell case. They ran the gamut, from simple suggestions of where to look for Susan, to detailed psychic conversations with a ghostly figure, to simple but unverifiable stories like Denise’s. People reported sightings of Susan in Georgia, Montana, Hawaii and Alaska.

A woman named Robin claimed to have seen Josh and the boys at the Comfort Inn in Sandy, Utah while working there on the morning of December 7th of 2009. Police went to the hotel and verified there was no record of Josh having stayed there.

A card dealer at the Montego Bay Casino in West Wendover, Nevada claimed Josh was a regular at his table on weekends. A woman named Darlene said she’d flirted with Josh on an elevator at the Imperial Palace hotel and casino in Las Vegas, because he smelled nice.

Perhaps the oddest tip of all came from the Duces Wild “gentleman’s club” in South Salt Lake, Utah.

Sherman (from March 8, 2010 KSL TV archive): His erratic, belligerent behavior is what brought attention to him.

Dave Cawley: Police heard from a patron of Duces Wild, one week after Susan’s disappearance. The man, named Sherman, told them on the afternoon of December 7th, he spotted a guy at the club who seemed very drunk.

Jennifer Stagg (from March 8, 2010 KSL TV archive): Sherman was sitting next to the man and asked him if he was ok.

Sherman (from March 8, 2010 KSL TV archive): He kept repeating that he had a really bad day and he had a story to tell. When I asked him to tell the story he says “no you don’t want to her my story, I’ve just had a really bad day.”

Dave Cawley: A few days later, Sherman saw Josh Powell on the news and thought he looked a lot like the man he’d encountered at the club.

Jennifer Stagg (from March 8, 2010 KSL TV archive): Sherman says the man was shouting at the strippers and the bar tender. He tried to take another patron’s drink. The bar’s owner said the man was acting erratically.

Rydell Mitchell (from March 8, 2010 KSL TV archive): Talking to himself, speaking out load, wasn’t really making any sense.

Dave Cawley: A couple of officers went to Duces Wild. Other patrons recounted a story about a man who’d caused a ruckus on December 7th. The bartender told detectives this belligerent customer was not a regular and it seemed like he’d been “on something.” He did look like Josh Powell, but she couldn’t say for sure that it was him.

Jennifer Stagg (from March 8, 2010 KSL TV archive): Police say they aren’t able to confirm it was in fact Josh Powell at Duces Wild, the day his wife Susan was reported missing.

Tom McLaughlan (from March 8, 2010 KSL TV archive): I’m not trying to discredit, uh, the individuals involved. Uh, but uh, sometimes, y’know, the, eyewitness accounts can, can be mistaken, so you can’t rely wholly on that. You try and verify. And at this point, uh, we are not able to verify through, uh, independent means that that was Josh.

Dave Cawley: “Bad day” guy had arrived around 2 p.m. and left the bar at about 4:30 p.m. Josh’s phone records showed he was near his home in West Valley at 3 p.m. and down south at Point of the Mountain a half an hour later. Josh could not possibly have been at Duces Wild.

There was another big problem with the story. Josh didn’t drink. His journals included several references to his not liking alcohol, or even being around others who are drinking.

Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): It was starting to wear me down to, to have to be around alcohol in the house and, and cussing.

Dave Cawley: Steve Powell also wrote about the Duces Wild story, once it made the news.

Ken Fall (as Steve Powell from March 10, 2010, journal entry): Even Josh’s detractors came out and said they did not believe the story. Josh has never been to a strip club, even though he does not feel there’s anything wrong with such an activity.

Dave Cawley: Josh’s attorney, Scott Williams, responded to a news story about the Duces Wild tip by saying he had no idea why anybody would make that kind of claim about Josh.

[Scene transition]

Dave Cawley: A woman called 911 shortly before midnight on December 11th of 2009, just five days into the search for Susan, and told a dispatcher she’d been having an affair with Josh Powell. She said her name was “Kristine.” Through slurred words, she described having met Josh at a comedy club. She said he’d claimed his wife had died of cancer. She’d only realized that wasn’t true when she saw Susan’s face on the news. The call disconnected. Kristine called 911 again, a few times actually.

Dispatch handed the information off to West Valley City police. An officer got “Kristine” on the phone again just before 1 a.m. and thought she sounded drunk. Kristine said she lived in Oregon, even though she was calling from Utah on a phone with a Utah area code. The officer asked Kristine for Josh’s phone number, to test her honesty. She became upset and hung up the phone.

Police traced the number Kristine had called from to an address about 10 blocks to the east of where Josh and Susan lived. A patrol officer went to the house and knocked on the door around 3 a.m. No one answered. Kristine’s tip went cold.

Then, in July of 2010, Detective Ellis Maxwell double-checked Kristine’s number against Josh’s phone records. It did turn up only once, just after midnight on December 12th of 2009, the same night she’d called 911. The phone records showed no one picked up at the Powell house. Kristine had never talked to Josh, at least not on any phone West Valley police knew about.

Ellis kept digging. He learned the phone number “Kristine” had called from actually belonged to a woman named Kourtney.

Ellis Maxwell: She called in relatively early after this made the news and, uh, she left a bogus name and filed these allegations that, y’know, she was having an affair with this guy and y’know that took a little bit of time to track her down.

Dave Cawley: Police made contact with Kourtney in August. She was hesitant to talk.

Ellis Maxwell: And it’s like “eh,” y’know obviously we can’t force people but it kind of doesn’t work like that, right?

Dave Cawley: They convinced Kourtney to come in to the station for a chat. She sat down with the detectives and told her story. Kourtney said she’d met Josh through the phone chat service LiveLinks and that they’d dated for about six to eight months. Also, Josh hadn’t used his real name. He’d gone by John Staley.

Kourtney claimed Josh’d paid her about $800 for sex over the course of their relationship. He’d meet her at the Hunter Library, just around the corner from her house. Then, they’d drive up one of the nearby canyons to make out or have sex. Kourtney even took a drive with the detectives to visit those spots in Millcreek and Butterfield Canyons, on the outskirts of the Salt Lake Valley.

Ellis Maxwell: We did a little field trip and, uh, yeah. Nothing evolved from it.

Dave Cawley: The whole thing smelled fishy. Ellis asked Kourtney to take a lie detector test. She didn’t want to do that. Was Kourtney telling the truth about John Staley? Ellis didn’t think so.

Ellis Maxwell: She never called him, they never had communication, stuff like that. So, y’know, it was put to bed.

Dave Cawley: The Cold team reached out to Kourtney to ask for her side of the story, but she never responded, casting further doubt on her story. But what Kourtney had claimed did lend credence though to an even wilder tale from a man named Andrew Andersen.

[Scene transition[

Andrew Anderson: You know my background, right?

Dave Cawley: That was the first question Andrew asked me when we sat down to talk about the Powell case. What he meant was he’d done time.

Andrew Anderson: I was just lettin’ you know that that’s the case.

Dave Cawley: Andrew Andersen’s troubles with the law started in 2007, when he was 21, with an arrest for forgery in West Jordan, Utah. Court records show the busts cascaded from there. By 2009, he racked up more arrests for forgery and financial fraud. They resulted in the filing of felony charges in at least 15 separate cases. The other misdemeanors scattered in between were just garnish, like parsley on a plate.

Andersen resolved most of those cases with plea deals. He spent some time in jail, but bounced out on probation before long. He just kept getting into trouble. So in February of 2010, a judge ordered Anderson to prison for up to five years.

Andrew Anderson: When I went to prison, I went to prison for like, checks, credit cards, all that.

Dave Cawley: The Utah Department of Corrections operates two prisons. One at Point of the Mountain, midway between the main population centers of Salt Lake City and Provo, Utah. The other in the rural, central Utah town of Gunnison. But many state inmates end up serving their sentences in county jails, because the two prisons are overcrowded. Andersen told me he spent time in a lot of different jails over the course of his sentence.

Andrew Anderson: Washington County sucks. Davis County sucks, it’s alright but it sucks. Uh, Weber County, Cache County they all suck. Salt Lake County sucks.

Dave Cawley: Andrew was in the Box Elder County Jail when, in the summer of 2010, he reached out to U.S. Marshal Derryl Spencer and West Valley police detective Gavin Cook. He described meeting Josh Powell in July of 2009 at a place called Fat Cats in the city of South Salt Lake. He was hanging out there with a few people when a woman named Summer walked in with a guy he didn’t recognize.

Andrew Anderson: Summer was a stripper and she was just using him ‘cause he was paying, just giving money, money, money, money.

Dave Cawley: Summer seemed close, physically, with the guy. They were kissing and hanging onto one another. Andrew told the investigators Summer had met this guy through a phone chat service, possibly LiveLinks or QuestChat. Come to think of it, maybe it was on Craigslist. He wasn’t sure.

Andrew Anderson: He was, like, possessive. Very possessive.

Dave Cawley: Like how, in what way?

Andrew Anderson: Like if she would talk to me or say she went to get a beer or something, he’d be all weird about it. Does that make sense? Like, “why are you talking to that dude?”

Dave Cawley: It didn’t end at Fat Cats.

Andrew Anderson: Well that’s where I first met him and then, y’know I’ve been to Wendover with him and a couple other places, so.

Dave Cawley: The guy didn’t go by the name Josh. He had a different name but Andrew couldn’t remember it. Summer probably had a different name too, for all Andrew knew.

Andrew Anderson: I don’t know if that’s her stripper name or real name or anything. But you know out on the street and the game, all, ‘cause, y’know, she liked to smoke meth and party and do all that stuff. And she was a stripper, not that that makes her any different than anybody else. It was her job.

Dave Cawley: Andrew knew Summer through a mutual acquaintance who’d been on the same ankle monitor jail release program with him.

Andrew Anderson: The people I was hanging out with before are, were like, gutter I guess you want to say it. Out committing crimes, doing all that stuff.

Dave Cawley: Andrew said he was locked up again by December of 2009 when he first saw Josh Powell on the news. He was sure Josh was the possessive guy he’d met that summer day at Fat Cats. He started hearing through the grapevine that Josh and Summer had had an argument. Summer threatened to tell Josh’s wife about their affair. Josh said he’d already killed his wife.

Andrew Anderson: For some reason he spilled beans to her. So… (laughs)

Dave Cawley: The story, as Andrew had heard it, went that Josh had dumped Susan’s body in a mine or buried her at a campground out in the desert. For Ellis this sounded just plausible enough.

Ellis Maxwell: There could be, there could’ve been, still, something there. But it wouldn’t have, it wouldn’t have been information that would have found Susan. This would have been information that you could discredit Josh’s credibility.

Dave Cawley: The idea of Josh having lead a secret double life, spending his money on strippers and gambling trips, caught the imagination of detectives.

Ellis Maxwell: There was a small portion of it that I, I kind of believed, I still kind of believe. Maybe Josh was involved in, y’know, maybe some prostitution and uh, y’know, it’s possible. And y’know we definitely looked at it.

Dave Cawley: But Andrew’s information didn’t exactly come from a position of pure altruism.

Andrew Anderson: I said “well, I can’t do a dang thing sittin’ in here. How can I go find Summer? You get me on the street with a furlough or something, get me out of prison, then I could do it.”

Dave Cawley: Andrew told the investigators Summer was slender, white, blonde and probably in her late 20s or early 30s. She might have worked at Duces Wild, the same strip club where patrons had reported seeing a guy who looked like Josh on the day Susan disappeared. That coincidence was not lost on the police.

Ellis Maxwell: Here we’ve got Duces Wild, we’ve got Kourtney, we’ve got Andrew with this story and it’s like “this is kind of weird.” And, y’know, there very well could be something there.

Dave Cawley: Detectives went to work. They made a list of possible Summers, to compare against a spreadsheet of licensed exotic dancers. Police records also say Andrew suggested they talk to another woman who’d been at Fat Cats that day. Her name was Emily, and she was attending a family reunion in Michigan. Police hopped a plane and went to see Emily.

Andrew Anderson: It looks bad on me even though I didn’t give Emily’s name. They, something, I don’t know, y’know, how her name got brought up and I said “I was hanging out with her at the time. She very well could know her. That’s somewhere to start.”

Dave Cawley: Emily met the investigators at Fayette Historic State Park, on Michigan’s upper peninsula. They asked if she’d ever been to Fat Cats. She said no. They asked if she knew Andrew. Again, she said no. Emily admitted she’d been involved in fraud and forgery. Her memory was bad because she’d spent much of late 2009 strung out on methamphetamine. In fact, she’d been locked up for the first half of 2010. Her trip to Michigan was a probably against the rules of her release.

The police put the screws to Emily and her memory started to come back. Yes, she did know Andrew, but only by his alias.

Ellis Maxwell: His, his moniker name was Cowboy. (Chuckles)

Dave Cawley: Yes, Emily knew Summer. They’d printed checks and ID cards together. Yes, she’d been to Fat Cats and remembered seeing a guy acting weird, aloof and possessive of Summer. He’d drank beer, spent time on a PDA and drove off at the end of the night in a dark-colored SUV. That didn’t sound like the Josh Powell Ellis Maxwell knew. Still, it was a lead.

Ellis Maxwell: Yeah, knowing Josh, you’re thinking “nah, he’s not the type of person that would get involved in prostitution” but being in police work for 20 years, nothing really surprises me anymore.

Dave Cawley: Detectives identified more possible “Summer” candidates. One lived in Moab, a desert resort town in the south-eastern part of Utah. They checked her out, even visiting her apartment in person. She was not the right one. Another possible Summer met with police in mid-August of 2010. She agreed to take a lie detector test, which she passed. Andrew said she wasn’t the right Summer when he later saw her picture.

Andrew Anderson: They were going to St. George. They were going to Moab. They were, Derryl and Maxwell were all over the place, man.

Dave Cawley: That same month, Andrew sent U.S. Marshal Derryl Spencer a letter, asking for help getting moved to a better jail or into a residential drug treatment program. He said it would free him up to spend all his time searching for Summer.

Andrew Anderson: I didn’t like where I was at. So Derryl was helping me get moved around to where I wanted to be at, where the prison had space at better jails, for helping them. And finally he just got me back to the prison where I wanted to be.

Dave Cawley: There was a problem though. Andrew’s story kept shifting. He added new bits, like that Summer was a “featherwood,” or female member of a white supremacist gang. In spite of not being able to positively identify Summer, Andrew did provide information on other cases that seemed to check out.

Toward the end of September, police learned Emily had returned from Michigan. Word was getting around that she, too, was on the hunt for Summer.

Ellis Maxwell (from September 30, 2010 police recording): So this whole time you’ve been out and you’ve been amongst these people. You haven’t obtained any information that we need on this Summer girl?

Emily L. (from September 30, 2010 police recording): I’ve tried.

Ellis Maxwell (from September 30, 2010 police recording): I thought you said you could get it.

Dave Cawley: At the end of September, Emily showed up at West Valley police headquarters for an interview.

Emily L. (from September 30, 2010 police recording): When I first ran into these guys, they came up and saw me they’re like “do you know so and-so, do you know so-and-so, have you ever been here or here or here” and I’m like “no.” And I honestly didn’t think I had. And then when they started like, jogging my memory, mentioning different places, times, people, I was kind of like “well, that could be.” Y’know what I mean? And I wasn’t lying.

Dave Cawley: She’d agreed to undergo a lie detector test.

Steve O’Camb (from September 30, 2010 police recording): Do you know Summer?

Emily L. (from September 30, 2010 police recording): No.

Steve O’Camb (from September 30, 2010 police recording):  Is this the month of September.

Emily L. (from September 30, 2010 police recording): Yes.

Steve O’Camb (from September 30, 2010 police recording): Have you ever talked to Summer about the murdered wife?

Emily L. (from September 30, 2010 police recording): No.

Dave Cawley: So, police decided to put Andrew and Emily together in the same room.

Andrew Anderson: I was in Davis County Jail and all of the sudden Emily showed up there one day.

Dave Cawley: The police left Andrew and Emily alone for a bit then split the two up and asked each what they’d talked about. Andrew and Emily gave two different accounts of their conversation. What’s more, Emily admitted to having used meth that very morning. In her purse, the police reported finding another person’s checkbook, credit cards and I.D. The police arrested her and handed her over to a probation officer, who had just obtained an arrest warrant.

A week later, the police also gave Andrew through a lie detector test. They asked if he actually believed it was Josh Powell he had seen at Fat Cats back in July of 2009. Andrew said yes. The test did not reveal any signs of deception.

Andrew Anderson: They gave me lie detector test after lie detector test and I passed them all.

Dave Cawley: Andrew kept writing letters. On April 25th of 2011, he sent a letter to detectives Gavin Cook and Ellis Maxwell. He said he’d been in touch with people who knew where Summer was hiding. She had agreed to talk, in exchange for full immunity and half a million dollars in cash.

Andrew’s story continued to evolve. He claimed Susan had got wind of Josh spending time on chat lines and going out in public with prostitutes. Enraged, she’d planned to leave with the boys. Josh had used his supposed connections in the criminal underworld to keep that from happening. Andrew felt frustrated. He he’d given police information, but seemed to get nothing in return.

Andrew Anderson: In all honesty I was just, I wanted to help ‘em out but I was also trying to help myself out. Because I was given an 18 month sentence, that’s what my max was supposed to be and I did five-plus years on it.

Dave Cawley: In July of 2011, Andrew told police he’d found out who’d put out the “hit” on Josh. He dangled that carrot in an effort to keep from being moved to the prison in Gunnison. At the start of August, Andrew provided a list of possible Summer associates, people who might know where to find her. He also told detectives Susan’s body could be in some mountains south of Interstate 80 in Utah’s West Desert. But the specific directions he gave didn’t make any sense.

By December, as Josh was fighting for custody of his boys in Washington state, Andrew landed just where he didn’t want to be: in Gunnison. He didn’t give up trying to work a deal. On the two-year anniversary of Susan’s disappearance, he begged for help getting out. In a letter, he claimed to have given police information about Steve Powell possessing child pornography, before the August, 2011 search warrant raid at Steve’s house.

Andrew Anderson: I gave them all that information and Steven Powell got put away for child pornography, all that stuff. And Josh Powell, I said go look on Josh Powell’s computer right now and you’ll have plenty to arrest him.

Dave Cawley: That’s a claim not backed up by the facts. I asked Andersen to explain that. He stood by his claim that his tip prompted the raid.

Andrew Anderson: I liked Maxwell a lot but as soon as Maxwell got that information about Steve Powell, they were up there arresting him.

Dave Cawley: So I asked Ellis if Andrew’s tips in any way contributed.

Ellis Maxwell: There wasn’t anything that, uh, Andrew shared with us that benefited the investigation. Nothing.

Dave Cawley: Still, a detective drove out to meet with Andrew in January of 2012. Andrew’s story changed again. He no longer said Susan’s remains were in Utah.

Andrew Anderson: Susan Powell’s in Idaho, dude. Between Idaho and Washington. That’s where she’s at.

Dave Cawley: Andrew offered yet more names of people who might help find Summer. Some of the people he suggested were incarcerated, others were living on the streets. Tracking them down was not easy, but police did. None had any useful information. One complained that Andrew was “nuts.”

Ellis Maxwell: That’s a, that’s a really good example of depleting your resources and burning up valuable time.

Dave Cawley: Around the start of February of 2012, right around the time Josh killed the boys, police in the city of South Salt Lake served a search warrant at house frequented by one of the people Andrew had named. West Valley detectives caught wind of it. They compared notes with their colleagues in South Salt Lake. At last, they were able to come up with a likely identity for “Summer.”

They took her picture to the prison in Gunnison and showed it to Andrew. He said she was not the right Summer. Enough was enough. Ellis confronted Andrew.

Ellis Maxwell: I, I, I believe I specifically asked him what he wanted out of this. What was he looking for because information he was sharing with us, uh, y’know, wasn’t taking us anywhere. We weren’t gaining any ground. We weren’t getting any evidence. We weren’t getting any information.

Dave Cawley: Ellis wanted to know why Andrew hadn’t come forward with all of the information at the beginning. He asked why Andrew, of all people, would be the source. Andrew did not have good answers.

Ellis Maxwell: Andrew Andersen. Yeah he, he burned up a lot of our time. Umm, and y’know, we had some very frank conversations with him, uh, through that time frame, uh, and eventually, uh, we shut the door.

Dave Cawley: The most Ellis could say was that someone who looked like Josh might have been at Fat Cats in July of 2009 with a blonde woman who went by the name Summer. Or maybe it was all bogus.

Ellis Maxwell: Y’know, it’s kind of ironic that you end up with three leads that are out of the Salt Lake Valley here that involve Josh and, uh, sexual activity. And I think that uh, you’ve got to put a little more weight into that, into those leads because it’s not your traditional lead of, like well for example the Flying J allegations there. Y’know, there was, there was that. That was it.

Dave Cawley: As for Andrew, his trouble with the law continued. Prison records show he was released on parole at the end of 2013. Finally, he could hunt down Summer and get her to talk.

Andrew Anderson: Well the last time I heard from her was 2012, 2013. She’d write me letters and stuff like that. Yeah. Then all of the sudden they stopped, so…. (Laughs)

Dave Cawley: In 2014, Andrew was accused of passing forged checks. It resulted in his parole being revoked for half a year. He got out again at the end of 2015.

Andrew Anderson: Word on the street when I got out, and I tried to relate it to Derryl, was that she overdosed on heroin. Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know. But I’ve not seen her around.

Dave Cawley: Then, in 2017, Andrew was accused of stealing his own brother’s identity in order to rent an apartment. He cut a plea deal and got off with time served. When I talked to Andrew in June of 2018, he told me he was done looking for Summer.

Andrew Anderson: The only ways to do it is to start going to strip clubs and uh, hanging out with escorts and strippers again. And that, I don’t like that so, I’m far beyond that.

Dave Cawley: Andrew expressed a lot of anger over how everything had played out and called West Valley police “idiots.”

Andrew Anderson: It’s just frustrating, man. It really is and I know West Valley feels, or should at least have guilt about and know that they screwed up pretty dang bad.

Dave Cawley: But how much time and effort did the investigators spend on a lead that went nowhere?

Ellis Maxwell: I think they were spun off from information they received from the media and that’s why it’s important for us to have those records sealed. 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’ve, y’know, wasted resources on for nothing.

Dave Cawley: Ellis said they couldn’t ignore Andrew’s tip, just because it came from an inmate.

Ellis Maxwell: It was likely. I mean, it was something that we definitely had to explore and you know what if we would’ve, if we would’ve found some evidence there to, to support any of those or all three of them, ok now we’ve got, y’know, we’ve got a motive. Right? I mean, outside of that, our motive is what? He doesn’t want to go to church? We probably spent a little bit more time on that than what we should have but at the end of the day, y’know, it’s not going to hurt our investigation. You do what you’ve gotta do.

[Ad break]

Dave Cawley: West Valley police were never able to develop solid information to back up any claims of infidelity involving Josh. They even went so far as asking Steve about Summer or Kourtney while he was in prison after Josh killed Charlie and Braden.

Ken Fall (as Steve Powell from July 31, 2012, journal entry): We could not talk Josh into dating. His only concern, his whole life, was his boys.

Dave Cawley: Questions of infidelity in Josh and Susan’s marriage, weren’t just reserved for Josh. West Valley police also had to determine if Susan might have been unfaithful. Three days before Susan disappeared, she typed an email to a male coworker at Wells Fargo Investments.

Kristen Sorenson (as Susan Powell from December 4, 2009 email): I’ve dreamed about at least 5 coworkers since I’ve come here. Some dreams are G, some are PG-13 and one rate X. … It was hard to look at that person for about a month afterwards.

Dave Cawley: Co-workers were not the only ones who crept into Susan’s dreams. Mel Gibson made frequent guest appearances. Most of the dreams were innocuous, but she tended to share with the people who showed up in them, anyway.

Linda Bagley: I really didn’t feel like she realized how much she was turning somebody on, that what she was saying was not maybe the, ‘cause she was just an open book. It didn’t matter if you were a guy or a girl. So when you’re TMI and it’s a guy, it’s going to have a different effect than if you’re TMI and it’s a girl. (Laughs)

Dave Cawley: That’s Linda Bagley, one of Susan’s closest work friends. Linda saw it clearly: Susan had admirers. The attention caused problems.

Kristen Sorenson (as Susan Powell from September 22, 2009 email): I even had a coworker pat my rear while here. I retired those jeans from work that very day.

Dave Cawley: Susan wrote that email in September of 2009. She was always very clear about her commitment to her marriage. Some of her admirers chose not to hear that.

Kristen Sorenson (as Susan Powell from September 28, 2009 email): They got the wrong idea, both here and when I was at Fidelity. I’m learning guys don’t differentiate married or not so you don’t do date like things like going out to lunch.

Ellis Maxwell: She wore her heart and her emotions on her shoulder. She would, uh, if she genuinely cared about you or felt comfortable with you or trusted you — whether if you’re a coworker or a member in her ward or, uh, just a neighbor — she would, she would talk openly with people. Y’know, other people — I won’t single out males — but they may pick up that vibe as being something different, right? “Ah, they’re delivering a message that they’re interested,” right?

Dave Cawley: Ellis Maxwell and the rest of the West Valley major crimes team obtained a year’s worth of Susan’s work emails in March of 2010. There were thousands of messages. They had to create a spreadsheet just to keep track of all of the people in those conversations. Several men stood out from the crowd.

Ellis Maxwell: We weren’t just focusing on Josh we were looking at everything—

Dave Cawley: Yeah.

Ellis Maxwell: —and everybody.

Dave Cawley: Ellis knew he had to talk to these coworkers.

Ellis Maxwell: And y’know, that’s part of investigative work as well is recognizing that and saying “gosh, do I really think this person’s involved? No. Does it look like it? Could there be a probable chance? Maybe.” You’ve got to prove and disprove.

Dave Cawley: The big scandal of 2009 at Susan’s office was the divorce of a woman she worked with and that woman’s subsequent marriage to a coworker. The office romance prompted all kinds of office gossip. For Susan, it led to some reflection about her own thoughts of divorcing Josh.

Kristen Sorenson (as Susan Powell from April 13, 2009 email): If I was separated from Josh, I wouldn’t already be dating. I’d be hanging out with the girls, dealing with lawyers, trying to get and keep custody of my kids.

Dave Cawley: The guy who she sent that email to had joked that Susan and Josh could deal with their marital troubles by buying a copy of the Kama Sutra. Susan’s friend and coworker Amber Hardman told there was zero chance of Susan having an affair.

Amber Hardman: She liked that guys were flirting with her but she said she would never act on it and I believe her. She spent most of her lunch breaks and breaks with me. We’d hang out and walk around the building or go exercise in the exercise room so, I mean, I know she wasn’t spending her extra time at work with these people.

Dave Cawley: Susan’s email exchanges with male coworkers always seemed to return to the topic of her marriage.

Ellis Maxwell: She would make it very clear that she was only interested in Josh. Y’know, though she would share, y’know, her thoughts and her stories and everything else, y’know, it would be followed with, y’know, how much she cared about Josh and their relationship.

Dave Cawley: And yet, one guy in particular caused police concern. His name was Ryan.

Ryan B. (from June 9, 2010 police recording): It’s like I told a friend, I’m like “if they’re talking to me there at the bottom of the barrel again.” (Laughs)

Gavin Cook (from June 9, 2010 police recording): Well, we’re just making sure we didn’t miss anything.

Dave Cawley: Ryan and Susan were former coworkers. When they’d worked together, he sometimes gave her rides home. West Valley detectives interviewed Ryan, more than once.

Ryan B. (from June 9, 2010 police recording): I don’t know, she always referred to me as her sugar daddy because I’d always bring chocolate at work. She was really cool.

Dave Cawley: Susan and Ryan’s friendship had progressed to a point where she privately called him her “back burner husband.”

Ryan B. (from June 9, 2010 police recording): Yeah we, we got along great at work. She was a sweetheart. She was just, she was just uh, yeah, she was great. Umm… (pause) I don’t know. One thing that always struck me are her boundaries. She would tell me things that my wife should tell me.

Dave Cawley: Ryan, like Susan, was married. Privately, Susan figured if they ever both ended up divorced, he was an option.

Ryan B. (from June 9, 2010 police recording): We kept in touch via email and she’s like “do I come across as a flirt?” And I’m like “yes, I think you do more than you know.” (Laughs)

Dave Cawley: Ryan got along with Josh as well as anyone could, but he didn’t respect him much. He knew Josh was a realtor.

Ryan B. (from June 9, 2010 police recording): I would call Josh and ask real estate advice. And then I’d do the exact opposite of what he’d tell me. And I sold my house, go figure.

Dave Cawley: Susan and Ryan fell out of touch for awhile after she gave birth to Braden. Then, in October of 2008, he sent her an email out of the blue. It said, “I miss you.”

I should mention here that I contacted Ryan and asked him to do an interview. He declined. I’m not using his last name out of consideration for his privacy.

Susan responded to Ryan’s 2008 email with a long message all about her troubles with Josh. She also mentioned her dreams.

Kristen Sorenson (as Susan Powell from October 25, 2008 email to Ryan B.): Still having my dreams but lately only the old “jerk ex boyfriend” from junior high and high school appears. Although there has been the intermittent male coworker over here appearing. Just think, that could be you.

Dave Cawley: Ryan told Susan he’d had several dreams about her as well. One, he said, would’ve made her blush. He explained he had a cell phone his wife couldn’t access and said she could call him any time, for any reason. Susan gave Ryan her cell phone number as well.

In another email, Ryan called Susan “my dear.” In a follow-up message, he said she had the right to be happy.

Kristen Sorenson (as Susan Powell from an October 28, 2008 email to Ryan B.): So are you going to make me happy? Problem is, I still love the guy I married. I just don’t know if I’ll ever get that back.

Dave Cawley: Ryan replied that he didn’t want to interfere with what Susan had going, but said “I have always thought you were beautiful.” Susan continued to vent about Josh’s laziness. In April of 2009, she teased Ryan about possibly taking over.

Kristen Sorenson (as Susan Powell from April 11, 2009 email to Ryan B.): So you are saying I’d have to marry you in order to get some work done around the house? Too bad the plural marriage thing is frowned upon now. Maybe services in exchange for the handy work I can’t get Josh to do? Too bad I have a conscience and morals and stuff… dang that.

Ryan B. (from June 9, 2010 police recording): She’d told me that Josh never, ever wanted sex. That, and I told her, generally that’s because he’s looking at porn or he’s cheating on you. (Laughs)

Gavin Cook (from June 9, 2010 police recording): What was her response?

Ryan B. (from June 9, 2010 police recording): Oh no, no, I don’t think that.” But I told her, Generally when a guy doesn’t want it, umm, it’s one of those two factors.

Kristen Sorenson (as Susan Powell from April 11, 2009 email to Ryan B.): Oh if only I had my chocolate daddy to goof off with and influence my naughty dreams. Oh by the way, I did have another one, but sorry, you weren’t the male coworker I dreamed about. … So now you have competition.

Dave Cawley: There was more.

Kristen Sorenson (as Susan Powell from April 11, 2009 email to Ryan B.): Josh stayed out late Thursday night for a computer geek thing, and I asked him how long he thought it’d be, like 6, 9 or midnight and he said “have your boyfriend gone by 9.” And so I said to obviously nobody in the room, “oh did you hear that Ryan? He says we have until 9.”

Dave Cawley: You can just imagine what detectives thought when they first read all of those emails.

Ellis Maxwell: Definitely with that coworker, y’know, he needed to be, uh, talked with and, and ran through a CVSA.

Dave Cawley: Ryan agreed to come in an take the lie detector test at the end of June of 2010.

Ryan B. (from June 9, 2010 police recording): I, I, I don’t think she would be capable of cheating on Josh because, her faith.

Dave Cawley: Ryan spoke candidly. He denied knowing what’d happened to Susan.

Ryan B. (from June 9, 2010 police recording): If she ran off, she would’ve taken the kids. I mean, at the risk of her life, she would have taken the kids.

Dave Cawley: The test showed he was telling the truth.

[Scene transition]

Dave Cawley: No discussion of leads in the Susan Powell investigation is complete without addressing Steve Powell’s theory about Susan running off with Steven Koecher.

Ellis Maxwell: It’s hilarious. It was comical, umm, and how that evolved and developed, I don’t know if it was a combination of Josh and Steve collaborating and going “Look, Josh…”

Dave Cawley: I mentioned this back in episode 9, when describing Steve’s February, 2010 interview with the FBI. He suggested to a pair of special agents that Susan had slipped away to Brazil.

Steve Powell (from February 24, 2010 FBI interview recording): I mean, y’know, that’s one of the reasons I wanted to send this stuff on to the FBI because the FBI has access to passport records, I mean, I assume you do. I don’t know. Maybe you guys don’t have any easier time than the rest of us trying to get information but Josh says she didn’t have a passport and I say she did.

Dave Cawley: Steven Koecher was 30 years old when he vanished from the area of Henderson, Nevada on December 13, 2009. That’s about a week after Susan was last seen at her home in West Valley City, Utah, more than 400 miles from Henderson. A home surveillance camera captured video of Koecher walking away from his car at a cul-desac in the Sun City Anthem retirement community.

Like Susan, Koecher was a practicing member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He’d served a two-year mission for the church in north-eastern Brazil, speaking Portuguese. After his mission, he’d bounced around several jobs in the Salt Lake City area.

Steve Powell (from February 24, 2010 FBI interview recording): Even though he lived in St. George, he didn’t move there until April of, of last year. And before that he worked in Salt Lake City. At one place he was two blocks from where she worked. Y’know?

Russ Johnson (from February 24, 2010 FBI interview recording): Ok.

Steve Powell (from February 24, 2010 FBI interview recording): He worked at the Salt Lake Tribune, she worked at Fidelity Investments.

Dave Cawley: It’s not clear what brought Koecher to the outskirts of Las Vegas, but some have speculated it might have been a job opportunity. Steve Powell had a different take.

Steve Powell (from February 24, 2010 FBI interview recording): Goes down to this area, arranges for a boat, y’know, probably in Boulder City and on the 13th he comes down here, abandons his car in Henderson. Don’t ask me why Henderson and don’t ask me why he abandoned his car. Why didn’t he just — oh no, I mean, God, stupid — I mean, obviously he was trying to make it look like a disappearance, y’know, like the Susan Powell disappearance.

Dave Cawley: Ellis said the coincidence of two people disappearing around the same time deserved attention.

Ellis Maxwell: The Koecher thing, yeah. Steppin’ outside the box looking in, y’know, some people could be like “now this is, this is weird, this is just odd that these two people go missing and there’s a period of time there that it was, y’know, could be very likely.”

Dave Cawley: Steve’s theory was based on a perception of Koecher that was detached from reality. He wrote this in one of many journal entries about the theory.

Ken Fall (as Steve Powell from May 17, 2010 journal entry): Susan has always been attracted to “bad boys.” I sort of visualize Steven Koecher as a “ne’er do well” who carries around a guitar and a skateboard, and who has a college degree by virtue of his parents’ affluence.

Dave Cawley: Steve suggested Koecher might have disguised himself by growing a beard and mustache and putting on a hat. Susan, he said, had probably adopted a “black-haired Latin look” and told the special agents to seek evidence at cosmetology supply stores in Brazil.

Russ Johnson (from February 24, 2010 FBI interview recording): You think they hooked up in West Valley somehow.

Steve Powell (from February 24, 2010 FBI interview recording): I think so.

Russ Johnson (from February 24, 2010 FBI interview recording): Ok.

Steve Powell (from February 24, 2010 FBI interview recording): I really do.

Russ Johnson (from February 24, 2010 FBI interview recording): Alright.

Steve Powell (from February 24, 2010 FBI interview recording): I think so. That’s my surmise.

Gary France (from February 24, 2010 FBI interview recording): Did you run this all by Josh? This theory?

Steve Powell (from February 24, 2010 FBI interview recording): Yeah and again, Josh’s attitude is “hmm, sounds pretty plausible to me.”

Dave Cawley: Josh was only humoring his father. He didn’t buy the Koecher theory at all. Steve conceded as much in his journal.

Ken Fall (as Steve Powell from May 15, 2010 journal entry): Josh had a hard time thinking she would run off with another man. Michael kept reminding me that I’d feel pretty bad if I touted such a theory and later found out she had been raped and tortured for weeks or months. Michael and Josh don’t talk about Steven Koecher much.

Dave Cawley: In August of 2010, Steve wrote that one of his nephews had drawn his attention to the website Reddit, where he saw several interesting AMA or “ask me anything” threads.

One came from a Redditor using the handle Missing-Inaction, who on August 19th of 2010 posted an AMA thread with the title “I faked my own suicide and left the country.” Missing-Inaction claimed to be a man in his late 20s who suffered from depression and fled his life in the U.S., ending up in Peru. Steve supposed Missing-Inaction might actually be Susan. He dismissed the obvious problem that Missing-Inaction was a man.

Ken Fall (as Steve Powell from August 29, 2010 journal entry): I spent so much time last weekend and yesterday reading everything MIA said, most of it in context with the questions posed to her, I have begun to hope I am hearing from Susan finally.

Dave Cawley: Steve took interest in another AMA session as well, where a Redditor described life in Fortaleza, Brazil. That’s exactly where Steve believed Koecher had gone with Susan.

Ken Fall (as Steve Powell from August 29, 2010 journal entry): The person writing, who calls himself Slavishmuffin — I’ll refer to him as SM — Coincidentally Susan’s initials are SMP, or SMK if she has married Koecher, which I also think is a strong possibility, for Susan Marie. So it wouldn’t be too unusual for Koecher to come up with a handle that uses her initials.

Dave Cawley: Steve was really stretching here. The theory continued to grow more elaborate and nonsensical. In an August 2nd, 2011, journal entry Steve wrote:

Ken Fall (as Steve Powell from August 2, 2011 journal entry): Josh found out today that a flight plan is not required for small planes. Susan would have known that tidbit, since her father Chuck Cox works for the FAA. I suggested months ago that investigators check flights out of Lake Havasu and since Steven Koecher was in that area the day before he disappeared. And of course I believe Susan is with him. It also occurred to me today … that maybe Chuck Cox himself picked Susan and Koecher up at one of those airports.

Dave Cawley: Ellis Maxwell contacted police in St. George, Wendover and Henderson, all cities tied to the Koecher case. The agencies compared notes. They created a timeline that showed Koecher was in St. George — 300 miles away from West Valley — on the day of Susan’s disappearance.

Ellis Maxwell: So yeah, kudos to Steve bringing that up. Great, thank you. Y’know, I ran that lead down with some of my peers and again, y’know, I wasn’t expecting to find anything but I was hopeful, y’know. Maybe, maybe there is a chance that Mr. Koecher and her eloped but, umm, no. Nothing came of it.

Dave Cawley: Just to be sure, they compared phone records and found no contacts between Koecher’s number and Susan’s.

Ellis Maxwell: But it was, uh, it was, it was definitely helpful because that could’ve been another red herring and now it’s been put to bed and we can focus on Josh.

Dave Cawley: On the next episode of Cold.

Wayne Pyle (From May 20, 2013 KSL TV archive): We are announcing the end of the active phase for the search for Susan.