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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
(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.