NOTE: This page includes details about phone calls of Josh Powell wiretapped by police. The wiretap notes include instances of strong language, which have been blurred by Cold.
West Valley City, Utah police needed a break. They were running out of leads after searching for Susan Powell for more than a year and a half. Her husband, Josh Powell, remained the sole suspect in his wife’s disappearance but had avoided being arrested or charged with any crime related to the disappearance.
So, in the summer of 2011, police crafted a plan. They secured court authorization for a wiretap on three phone lines: Josh Powell’s cell phone, his father Steve Powell’s home line (where Josh was then living with this two sons, Charlie and Braden) and Steve Powell’s mobile.
What follows are selected excerpts from the secret Powell wiretap records, obtained and accessed exclusively by Cold.
Powell wiretap: Friday, Aug. 19, 2011
West Valley City police have staged a public search of abandoned mines in the vicinity of Ely, Nev. Media coverage of the event has prompted reporters, such as KSL NewsRadio’s Paul Nelson, to interview Josh Powell.
After conducting a round of media interviews, Josh told his father Steve Powell that the search in Ely was going to come up empty.
Powell wiretap: Saturday, Aug. 20, 2011
Susan Powell’s father, Chuck Cox attended a honk-and-wave event outside a grocery store in Steve Powell’s South Hill, Wash. neighborhood. Steve crashed the event and engaged Chuck in a shouting match in front of TV news cameras. Afterward, Josh’s brother Michael urged Josh to call 911. He believed they could get Chuck arrested for violating a temporary restraining order Josh had obtained earlier in the month.
The temporary restraining order was due to expire the following week. Josh intended to ask the judge to replace it with a permanent domestic violence protective order and had asked his family members to write declarations supporting him. Following the honk-and-wave, Josh talked to Michael about the declarations.
The brothers were also monitoring a private Facebook group called “Where is Susan Powell” using a phony account under the name Molly Hunt. Members of the group were reacting to news of what had happened at the honk-and-wave.
Powell wiretap: Sunday, Aug. 21, 2011
Josh and his family spent hours on the Sunday following the honk-and-wave continuing to work on their declarations. As they talked, Josh provided evasive or misleading comments to his father, brother and sister about his actions in the days immediately following Susan’s disappearance.
One of the primary points Josh planned to make during the scheduled hearing on the protective order was that his father-in-law, Chuck Cox, had once threatened to kill him during an encounter at a playground near Steve Powell’s home.
The supposed threat had occurred on Feb. 27, 2010, less than three months following Susan’s disappearance. Whether it had actually happened was a matter in dispute.
Powell wiretap: Monday, Aug. 22, 2011
Steve and Alina Powell both spoke with reporters early in the day. Both made comments that angered Josh. Steve, for one, revealed to the press that he had recorded an album of songs about and for Susan.
Later in the day, Josh and Michael spent time collecting screenshots of posts in two Facebook groups, “Friends and Family of Susan Powell” and “Where is Susan Powell,” using the phony Molly Hunt profile.
Powell wiretap: Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2011
Susan’s friend and neighbor Kiirsi Hellewell published a blog post detailing Steve Powell’s “immorality and depravity.” The blog caught the attention of reporters in Utah, who called Steve for comment.
Kiirsi’s blog specifically claimed Steve had once sent Susan pornographic photos in the mail. When confronted with this claim by the reporter, Steve said a sexual energy had existed between himself and Susan.
Meanwhile, Josh was behind schedule for the 3 p.m. court hearing on his request for a permanent domestic violence protective order against Chuck Cox.
The hearing did not go in Josh’s favor. Chuck Cox denied having threatened his son-in-law and, in the absence of any physical violence, the judge instead handed down mutual anti-harassment orders to both Josh and Chuck. In a phone call following the hearing, Josh told Michael that he’d “lost.”
But Michael soon convinced his brother winning or losing was irrelevant. Josh simply needed to portray himself as a winner, regardless of the facts.
Powell wiretap: Thursday, Aug. 25, 2011
Steve Powell awoke early and departed home en route to Kennewick, where he was scheduled to attend a business meeting. He spoke to his daughter Alina on the phone driving. Alina expressed concern for her father’s safety, fearing the meeting could be a police trap.
That afternoon, while Steve was still in Kennewick, West Valley City police and Pierce County sheriff’s deputies arrived to serve a search warrant at Steve’s home. Alina met them at the door and was ushered outside, along with Josh, Charlie, Braden and another of Steve’s children, John Powell.
Alina narrated the search for her father as he raced back toward home. Josh, after a time, left the house with Charlie and Braden to rendezvous with a producer for NBC Dateline.
Michael, who was at the time living in Minneapolis, left his condo for fear police could be coming to serve a search warrant there as well.
Michael advised his family to avoid speaking to the media, urging them to keep quiet until they had an opportunity to seek legal counsel.
Hear more of the secret wiretap calls in a bonus episode of Cold: Justice Delayed.
Cold has uncovered new clues regarding the likely contents of an encrypted hard drive seized from the West Valley City, Utah home of Josh and Susan Powell on Dec. 8, 2009, one day after Susan disappeared.
The hard drive was encrypted and has never been accessed, in spite of extensive efforts by law enforcement and ongoing work involving private digital forensics experts.
It is not clear whether or not the device might hold clues pointing to Susan’s whereabouts. However, breaking the encryption could reveal new information about Josh’s activities in the weeks prior to the disappearance.
MyBook World Edition
Detectives seized the device in question while serving their first search warrant at the Powell family’s home on Sarah Circle in West Valley. They located it in the downstairs bedroom that Josh used as his home office. The Western Digital-brand MyBook World Edition was connected by way of an ethernet cable to Josh’s home network.
The MyBook World drive had been in that same position for at least a year and a half. Susan pointed it out while recording a video documenting the family’s assets in July of 2008.
“This is some type of backup device,” Susan said in the video. “It says WD on the side. I don’t know, it like shares the information somehow.”
West Valley police investigating Susan’s disappearance discovered the MyBook World drive was inaccessible after delivering it to the FBI’s Intermountain West Regional Computer Forensic Laboratory or RCFL in Salt Lake City. Based on the FBI’s analysis, it appeared the whole drive had been encrypted using a freeware tool known as True Crypt.
Not all of Josh’s computer drives were similarly encrypted. While reviewing data from Josh’s other computers and digital storage devices, investigators flagged several files referencing encryption, hoping to discover possible passwords or other insights that might help them gain access to the MyBook World drive.
One of those files resided on an array of hard drives in Josh’s desktop computer tower. It had the file name vvdb1NetworkEncrypted.tdb.
Cold obtained a copy of that file and discovered it is a tracking database created by a file backup app called ViceVersa Pro. The database contained a log of files ViceVersa Pro had transferred to a disk named “mybookworld.” While the database did not hold copies of the files themselves, it did record their names and the locations to which they were saved on the MyBook World drive.
Based on this evidence, Cold believes the ViceVersa Pro database is likely an at least partial log of the files saved to the encrypted drive.
Josh made an effort to determine whether or not police had gained access to the MyBook World drive in the months immediately following Susan’s disappearance.
His defense attorney, Scott Williams, contacted police by email in March of 2010, requesting the return of his client’s digital devices. West Valley police Sgt. Robert Bobrowski refused, but offered to have detectives seek out any individual files Josh might need.
“If it is in the encrypted section then your client will need to provide the password to help the process move along,” Bobrowski wrote to Williams.
Josh had previously told police he could not remember the password to the encrypted MyBook World drive.
“If possible, pleas send all photos, audio, and video files you can find. There will be some hundreds of gigabytes in total.”
On April 5, 2010, Josh provided police with a list of files he wanted them to retrieve for him. At the top of the list were his photos and videos, which he described as “basically unreplaceable [sic].”
“Everything that can be released from the white Western Digital drive would be greatly appreciated,” Josh wrote.
West Valley police were unable to accommodate Josh’s request.
In truth, Josh already had copies of many of those files safely in Washington. This became clear after police served a search warrant at the home of Josh’s father, Steve Powell, in South Hill, Wash. on Aug. 25, 2011. At that time, they once again seized Josh’s computers and digital devices.
An RCFL examination of those devices revealed some of them contained copies of Josh’s photo and video library, the very files he had claimed were not replaceable.
On Feb. 5, 2012, Josh killed himself and his sons, Charlie and Braden. The murder-suicide forever deprived police of the possibility that Josh might voluntarily provide the password for the MyBook World drive. The subsequent release of West Valley’s redacted case files in May 2013 publicly revealed for the first time the existence of still-encrypted evidence.
Richard Hickman, who was then a partner in a Utah-based digital forensics firm called Decipher Forensics, saw media reports about the encrypted drive. He contacted Susan’s father, Chuck Cox, and offered to attempt to crack the encryption.
“I reached out and said, ‘Hey, we’d be willing to take a look at it at no charge,’” Hickman said.
Another partner at Decipher, Mike Johnson, had built a pair of powerful computers to mine cryptocurrency. Hickman told Cox those machines could also be used for password cracking. Cox convinced West Valley police to meet with Decipher.
Police case records showed Detective Ellis Maxwell, the now-retired lead investigator on the Powell case, provided Decipher with a copy of the MyBook World drive in December of 2013.
Box Within A Box
Trent Leavitt, a third partner at Decipher, said they put their computers to work on what’s known as a dictionary attack in an effort to guess the password. The dictionary was built off of lists of common passwords collected from past data breaches. Special software used that dictionary, along with variations, to attempt to unlock the encryption.
After a period of time, the software reported success. It had discovered that the encryption on the MyBook World drive accepted the password “ap1124.”
“It’s six characters,” Trent said. “It’s really simple.”
However, when Decipher attempted to access the drive, they discovered it was blank. This led them to believe that Josh had utilized a feature of True Crypt that allowed for the creation of invisible encrypted partitions nested within encrypted volumes.
In essence, a box within a box.
“There might not even be a second layer,” Hickman said. “It could just be, we cracked that top code and it was an empty hard drive.”
The Decipher team put their machines back to work in an effort to crack the suspected second layer of encryption. The software ran through billions of possible passwords.
“That thing would run around the clock, 24/7, for months, if not, you know, close to two years before those things burned up,” Trent said. “And still didn’t break it.”
In October of 2017, word leaked that the Decipher team had succeeded in cracking a password for Josh’s MyBook World hard drive. However, West Valley police had Decipher under a non-disclosure agreement. They were legally prohibited from discussing their work.
“We didn’t talk about the fact that we were even doing it with anybody.”
A short time later, the firm Eide Bailly purchased Decipher Forensics. Richard Hickman and Mike Johnson left the company, but Trent Leavitt brought their copy of the MyBook World drive to Eide Bailly’s new state-of-the-art digital forensics lab in Lehi, Utah.
His work on the Powell case has continued there, when time and resources have permitted.
“Most of its done after hours,” Trent said. “We’ll get together as a group and meet and pull our computers out and start working on it. We’ll collaborate on whiteboards.”
The public revelation of Decipher’s work in late 2017 drew the attention of cybersecurity analyst Rob Burton. He worked for a large corporate employer in West Valley City as a digital forensics specialist and had a keen interest in the Susan Powell case.
“The Susan Powell case had a big impact on me personally,” Rob said. “I was aware of it 10 years ago when the news first broke of Susan’s disappearance and the involvement of Josh Powell.”
Rob decided to approach West Valley police. Like the team from Decipher Forensics and Eide Bailly, he offered to volunteer his time and expertise to the password cracking effort. Police accepted his offer and provided him with a copy of the MyBook World drive. They also required that he sign a non-disclosure agreement.
“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,” Rob said.
He decided to give that folder the codename “Project Sunlight.”
“There’s a lot of dark things related to this case. And especially after listening to the Cold podcast. Josh, Steven and some of their activities and efforts and a lot of dark subject material. But there’s hope and there’s light,” Rob said. “Sunlight is the best disinfectant, I think.”
Hear the surprising discovery we made in Josh Powell’s digital data in a bonus episode of Cold: Project Sunlight.
The last time anyone saw Susan Powell alive, at least the last time that can be proven, was Dec. 6, 2009. Ten years have now passed since that date.
In that time, Susan’s story has spread across the globe. Network and cable news shows have aired hours-long specials about the investigation into her disappearance, as well as the criminal probe that focused on her husband, Josh Powell.
An Unwelcome Anniversary
For Susan’s friends and family members, the anniversary marks a milestone they’d hoped to never reach. Susan, who Josh is widely believed to have murdered, has never been found. The manner of her death has not been determined. Questions persist about the circumstances of that snowy night a decade past.
Susan’s parents, Chuck and Judy Cox, sat down for a special interview with Cold, marking 10 years since their daughter vanished.
“Nothing’s really changed from our point of view because our daughter’s still missing, our children are still dead, our grandchildren are still dead,” Chuck Cox said. “Evil has been exposed, but our response to it is the same. It’s beyond our control.”
The interview was also the first time Susan’s mother, Judy Cox, shared her perspective with Cold on the record.
“It took me a long time to be willing to get in front of cameras or answer questions, because it hurts,” Judy said.
“Every time there’s a body found, every time there’s a you know cadaver found somewhere, we wait here,” Chuck said. “You kind of start wondering, ‘Well is this the one? Is our wait going to be over? Will we be able to put whatever’s left to her to rest with her children?’”
The Coxes also reflected on the legacy of abuse in the Powell family, passed down by Josh’s father, Steve Powell.
“Steve taught [Josh] to be who he was. And Steve’s parents affected him,” Chuck said. “It’s just a sad waste of a life, a waste of time, and the tragedy that his time in life, Steve ruined his family. But is he a victim? And who’s going to judge that? I’m not going to judge that.”
Judy described visiting Steve’s home one time when Josh and Susan were vacationing in Washington. Susan had left their sons, Charlie and Braden, with Josh at Steve’s home while she went to spend time with her family. However, Susan had forgotten something and returned to the Powell house to retrieve it.
“We’re going up the stairs to the second floor,” Judy said. “As soon as I got to the top of the stairs, she looked at me, she goes, ‘Do you feel it?’ I go ‘What? I feel uncomfortable. I am not exactly happy to be here.’ She goes ‘You feel the evil?’”
When police served a search warrant at Steve Powell’s home on Aug. 25, 2011 in search of Susan’s childhood journals, one detective described the scene as a “house of horrors.” Investigators uncovered Steve’s collection of voyeur videos, many focused on Susan, as well as more than 2,000 pages of journal entries about his daughter-in-law. Most of them were explicit.
“I want people to know this story so it doesn’t happen to them.”
Susan had spent years during her marriage to Josh attempting to counter the negative influence of his father.
“The only reason she stuck around as long as she did is because she was trying to follow every everything that [The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints] taught, and she was not giving up on him,” Chuck said. “She kept investing time and energy and love and stuff to try and bring him back and save him and all that when he was a lost case from the beginning.”
Josh lost custody of his sons as a result of Steve’s arrest, due to the fact they had all been living under the same roof since December of 2009. However, during a court-authorized visit with the boys on Feb. 5, 2012, Josh bludgeoned Charlie and Braden and set fire to a home he had rented. All three died in the fire.
In the mean time, the Coxes find comfort in their faith, as well as in the knowledge that sharing their daughter’s story can help highlight the dangers of domestic abuse.
“[Susan] wanted to help [Josh]. She wanted to be a mom and have children and have a happy life and all that. And I think everybody still wants that, and everybody still looking for that,” Chuck said. “By sharing those experiences, talking about this and doing this, we’re helping a lot of people who are in different situations that may be similar but are different.
It’s a daunting thing to stand alone on a stage in front of a crowd.
On May 16, 2019, I stepped out from the wings on the stage of the Eccles Theater on Main Street in Salt Lake City, Utah to face just such a situation. It was a packed house. Looking out through the glare of the stage lights, I could see Susan Powell’s parents and close friends sitting in the first few rows.
Don’t screw this up, Dave, I thought.
Many of the rest of the more than 2,000 people in attendance for the special event, Cold Live, had come to hear the behind-the-scenes story of how the podcast had come to be. They had come to ask questions of myself, retired West Valley City police detective Ellis Maxwell and Utah Domestic Violence Coalition Executive Director Jennifer Oxborrow.
In spite of those nerves, I aimed to do my best in Susan’s honor.
Question and Answer
Both the dress rehearsal and the main event included question and answer sessions. Audience members submitted their questions online and using printed cards during the pre-show and intermission periods.
Ellis, the former lead detective on the Powell case, discussed his frustration in dealing with Josh during the first two weeks of the investigation.
“If we went and took this in front of a judge or court or a jury and we had her last will and testament, we had blood on the tile and we had a theory… I guarantee you that a defense attorney could take this case a thousand different directions to sway the jury or the judge,” Ellis said. “There is absolutely no way that he would have been convicted.”
Ellis said that changed by the spring of 2012, after police eliminated many of the other possible explanations for Susan’s disappearance. However, Josh killed himself and his sons before detectives could secure criminal charges against him.
“I had spectacular investigators on this case that really, really poured everything they had into it.”
Many of the questions aimed at Jennifer Oxborrow dealt with how to help loved ones who find themselves trapped in situations similar to Susan’s.
“It’s a difficult conversation to have. It’s very embarrassing to people sometimes. People just usually want the abuse to stop,” Jennifer said. “Avoid that question ‘Why do you stay? Why did you get yourself into this?’”
Instead, Jennifer said society needs to shift the focus onto the abusers, asking why they choose to mistreat their partners. She added that the most important actions people can take when confronted with situations of domestic abuse are to express support for the victims and direct them to resources.
Jennifer pointed out the availability of help through the Utah 24-hour domestic violence hotline, 1-800-897-LINK, or www.thehotline.org for people in other parts of the country.
How Cold Live Came to Be
KSL, my employer and the company behind Cold, had partnered with MagicSpace Entertainment to craft a program focused on Susan and her sons, Charlie and Braden. Together, we hoped to provide an enlightening look at how Susan’s life and loss have impacted not only her immediate friends and family, but also an entire community.
The director of Cold Live, Jim Millan, and I had spent hours discussing the proper approach.
“Conversations and questions coming at this from the personal and journalism angle created all the ideas for the stage presentation,” Jim said later.
We did not want Cold Live to turn into a funeral in absentia, or to glorify the more ghastly aspects of what occurred in the Powell family. Keeping Susan central was our goal.
“Working with Dave to help him write the story of his journey with Cold was fascinating,” Jim said. “He was open and curious about how it might share something new for an audience and determined to make it worth people’s time.”
A conversation was then playing out among the Cold audience about how Susan had become a victim of domestic abuse. By shining a light on the mistreatment she’d endured, we hoped to help others recognize the warning signs.
Glimpse Behind the Scenes
For me, Cold Live also provided an opportunity to share the backstory to how a news story that I had covered off-and-on throughout the years morphed into an idea for a podcast, then blossomed into an outright obsession. The quest for answers extended beyond the KSL newsroom, filling the dark and quiet hours at home as I reviewed hours upon hours of Josh Powell’s audio journals.
No such undertaking can occur without the help of many talented people. So, during Cold Live, the voice actors who took on the difficult task of portraying Susan, Josh and Steve Powell in Cold told of their experiences filling those roles.
Far too many others went without credit, like composer Michael Bahnmiller. I had to cut part from the program in the interest of time.
Many in the audience had never met or even seen the people who are portrayed in the podcast. Through several video clips, they were introduced with Josh’s ex-girlfriend Catherine Everett, his sister Jennifer Graves and the Powell’s daycare provider Debbie Caldwell, among others.
Susan’s oldest sister, Mary Douglass, even shared her perspective, something that was not present in the podcast itself.
After Cold Live
I walked off stage at the conclusion of Cold Live feeling a little hoarse. A sense of uncertainty and self-doubt pervaded. What would Susan have thought, I asked myself, had she been in the audience?
Susan’s parents and several of her close friends were in the lobby afterward. We shook hands and stood together for pictures.
In a conversation the next day, Susan’s mom, Judy Cox, told me how it felt sitting in the audience and listening to Ellis Maxwell describe his part in the investigation.
“You always learn from your mistakes,” Judy said. “I knew they were working hard and doing their best. We also felt frustrated about things because [Chuck Cox, Susan’s dad] wanted to try to be more involved.”
Chuck, for his part, shared a pragmatic perspective.
“Police aren’t miracle workers, they’re just police. They’re people doing their job,” Chuck said. “I do know their heart was in the right place.”
And, as a parting note, he offered words of thanks for the role that Cold has had in drawing new attention to his daughter’s story.
“I’m so thankful that you took the time to go through it,” Chuck said. “You’re getting the story out and teaching people some stuff. So thank you for the effort.”
Josh and Susan Powell moved from their home state of Washington to Utah at the beginning of 2004. Neither had a job lined up, nor did they have a place to live planned.
Prior to the move, the Powells had worked as live-in managers at a pair of senior living communities. They’d run afoul of management at the first, Orchard Park in Yakima, Wash., due in part to excessive absenteeism related to medical treatment.
That treatment, comprising several months of chiropractic and massage therapy care, had followed a minor car crash on May 12, 2003 in the community of Union Gap, Wash.
Records now recovered exclusively by Cold raise questions about the necessity of the treatment and suggest fraudulent behavior on the part of Josh Powell.
The Union Gap crash occurred as Josh and Susan were driving northbound on an I-82 frontage road called Rudkin Road.
Another motorist who was behind the Powells had glanced away from the road for a brief moment. Bob Powers told Cold he recalled looking back to see the minivan stopped in front of him, for no apparent reason.
“There’s clear roadway ahead, no stop lights, no stop signs, no right or left turn opportunities,” Powers said. “There was no reason for him to be stopped dead center in the middle of the road.”
Powers’ Lexus ES240 sedan collided with the Powell’s minivan at a low speed. The crash caused minor damage to a headlight on the car.
Repair records from Greenway Auto Body in Yakima showed the crash also left a small dent in the rear bumper of the minivan. The shop billed $1275 to Powers’ insurance to repair the damage.
Photos taken by appraiser Kelly Lawson and included with the body shop paperwork showed the damage was mostly cosmetic.
A Union Gap police officer responded to Powers’ phone call reporting the crash. A report authored by the officer described Josh as having claimed he had slowed to make a left-hand turn. The officer’s report also noted that “no injuries were reported.”
Following the crash, Josh had Susan drive him to Memorial Hospital in Yakima. Josh sought an evaluation in the emergency department for symptoms of whiplash.
Records retained by Josh and recovered from his digital archive by Cold, with the assistance of digital forensic experts at the firm Eide Bailly, showed he received a prescription for Vicodin. Josh was also advised to avoid strenuous activity at work “for 3-4 days.”
Susan did not complain of any pain the evening of the crash. She did not request an evaluation at the hospital. However, the morning after the crash, she went to a clinic with general body aches. Susan received a prescription for Celebrex, which she did not end up taking, and similar advice regarding light duty.
On the second day after the crash, Josh convinced Susan they both needed to see a chiropractor. Josh had found one he liked in the Yellow Pages. Josh and Susan spent the next two months seeing the chiropractor two or three times per week. They also made multiple visits to a massage therapist.
All of those visits were billed to auto insurance.
Evidence Against Injury
In mid-July, 2003, Josh decided that his recovery had plateaued. On July 16, 2003, he transferred his and Susan’s care to a different chiropractor.
However, only three days earlier, Josh and Susan had visited a trucking business in Kent, Wash. Josh at the time was considering obtaining a commercial driver license. In video recorded that day by Josh’s father, Steve Powell, Josh can be seen using his arms and upper body to steer a tractor-trailer.
Josh’s personal notes indicate the second chiropractor advised the Powells they should hire a personal injury attorney in an attempt to extract a settlement from Bob Powers’ insurance company. Josh resisted this idea, opting to instead negotiate with the insurance company directly.
“I actually had no idea that this guy had made any claim whatsoever with my insurance company until you guys had come up with that information.”
By August, both insurance companies involved in the claim had become suspicious about the necessity of the ongoing chircopractic and massage therapy treatments. Josh’s insurance provider, Pemco, ordered the Powells to undergo independent medical evaluations.
Records show both Josh and Susan took part in those evaluations on Aug. 19, 2003.
The evaluator noted that Josh complained of “aching, stabbing, or burning pain” in his neck, as well as headaches. Josh also described having hit his head at the time of the crash and blacking out “for about two seconds following the accident.”
On an intake form, Josh checked boxes indicating he was experiencing severe or frequent headaches, shaking or twitching in limbs, loss of motion in joints, spine abnormality and excessive worry or anxiety.
Susan did not check any boxes indicating current symptoms.
The IME paperwork also revealed both Josh and Susan had each missed eight days of work following the crash.
Josh also told the evaluator that he had no “previous problems involving his neck or mid back prior to the motor vehicle accident of May 12, 2003.” In fact, Josh had received similar treatment for neck and back pain following a similar car crash in June of 2000.
In the end, Pemco agreed to cover the lion’s share of the medical costs. It refused to pay for specific treatments provided by the second chiropractor, finding them to be “not reasonable.” Pemco, in turn, received reimbursement from Bob Powers’ insurance provider, State Farm.
Josh’s own negotiations with the other insurance provider proved lucrative. He ended up receiving a check for more than $6,000, above and beyond the covered medical expenses.
A dispute over Josh and Susan’s missed work time as a result of the May 2003 car crash contributed to a worsening of their standing with their employer, Holiday Retirement. In a probationary move, they transferred to a different senior living center in Olympia, Wash. toward the end of 2003.
However, that move brought Josh and Susan physically closer to Steve Powell, who Susan had gone to great lengths to avoid in the months following her rejection of his love confession. So, in the waning months of the year, Josh and Susan decided to move to Utah.
The couple spent the first few months of 2004 living with Josh’s older sister, Jennifer Graves, and her family in West Jordan, Utah.
They obtained jobs with Fidelity through a temp agency. Josh lost his within a matter of days. By February, he was receiving unemployment insurance benefits from the Utah Department of Workforce Services.
On Feb. 8, 2004, Josh filled out paperwork applying for private health insurance coverage from IHC Health Plans. On the form, he listed his occupation as “manager.” He did not disclose that he was unemployed.
Elsewhere on the form, Josh wrote that he and Susan were both in “great health.” On a section of the form dealing with past prescription medications, he omitted the pain medications both he and Susan had received after the May 12, 2003 car crash in Yakima.
Insurance application processing notes later recovered by West Valley City police through an investigative subpoena showed IHC Health Plans quoted Josh a 15% rate increase due to his and Susan’s recent neck and back pain.
Those processing notes included a history of contacts between the insurance agent, sales representative and underwriter. In one exchange, the agent described Josh as “quite difficult to work with” over a request for records related to the chiropractic treatment.
In the final exchange captured in the processing notes, the sales representative asked the agent what it was that Josh managed. The agent replied that she had learned Josh was actually “between jobs.”
Hear about Josh Powell’s two other suspicious car crashes in a bonus episode of Cold: Car Crash Con.
Josh Powell made an unexpected drive from his father’s home in South Hill, Wash. to his former home in West Valley City, Utah on May 5 and 6, 2010. He returned to Washington after spending just hours in Utah.
West Valley City police were at that time conducting a surveillance operation focused on Powell. They believed Powell was responsible for the disappearance and likely murder of his wife, Susan Powell.
During the trip, Josh Powell took a series of photographs with a Nikon digital camera. Police were not aware of the photos until they located copies of them on a hard drive seized from the home of Steve Powell in Washington on August 25, 2011.
Cold obtained copies of those photos with the assistance of digital forensics experts with the firm Eide Bailly. They are published here for the first time.
The photos recovered from Josh’s hard drive by police included a form of metadata specific to files generated by digital cameras. That EXIF data, as it is known, records settings used by the camera, as well as timestamps and, on some devices, geolocation information.
An examination conducted by Cold of the EXIF data recorded by Powell’s Nikon D60 camera shows it did not include geotags. That is because the model of camera Powell used does not include a GPS receiver. However, Cold has managed to manually pinpoint the locations of all of his photos.
This map shows locations of photographs taken by Josh Powell during a trip to Utah on May 5-7, 2010
Cold’s analysis of the timestamps recorded to the EXIF data showed them to be incorrect. Based on Powell’s known locations from police surveillance logs, the timestamps appeared to be offset from Mountain Daylight Time by 13 hours.
This could likely have resulted from someone incorrectly setting the camera’s date and time in regards to AM/PM while in Pacific Daylight Time. At the time these digital photos were created, Josh Powell was living in Washington, which falls entirely within the Pacific time zone.
Josh in Utah
Police surveillance logs indicate Josh entered Utah at approximately noon on May 6, 2010. After stopping for gas in Tremonton, he drove south toward Salt Lake City on the Legacy Parkway. Josh began taking photos from the driver seat of his minivan as he passed through the suburb of Woods Cross.
The photos showed Josh continued from Legacy onto the I-215 west belt and then to westbound I-80. He exited the freeway at Wright Brothers Drive. At about 12:47 p.m., Josh shot a trio of pictures from the parking lot of an office building in the International Center, a business park adjacent to Salt Lake City International Airport.
Josh’s photos showed he next drove to the parking lot of the Wells Fargo call center where Susan had worked prior to her disappearance on Dec. 7, 2009. EXIF data revealed he remained at that location for less than two minutes.
Josh then left the Wells Fargo call center and headed west. He turned south at 5600 West and proceeded to drive to his former employer at Aspen Logistics.
West Valley surveillance logs and Josh’s own photo metadata showed he spent about 20 minutes at Aspen. Detectives later interviewed the company’s HR director, who told them Josh had arrived unannounced under the guise of returning some company property.
Upon leaving Aspen, Josh returned to 5600 West and continued south. He took a large number of photos while driving along the busy stretch of road. The photos did not appear to be of any particular subject.
Josh Powell completed his drive when he reached the Sarah Circle home at 2:37 p.m.
Here Lies Death
Josh’s arrival caught his tenants by surprise.
Dax Guzman had agreed to remodel and finish the basement of the home on Josh’s behalf, in exchange for reduced rent. Josh told Guzman he wanted to check on the progress of the work and explain how he wanted the finished project to look.
“With the amount of work that I put into that basement, I mean if I broke it down, he was paying me like 2 or 3 bucks an hour,” Guzman said.
Josh arrived without warning on that May afternoon to check on the progress of the work and to gather the last of his and his wife’s belongings. The Guzmans were caught by surprise.
“We’re living in the house and he’s giving us deadlines of when he wants things done,” Guzman said. “I’m like, ‘Dude, I’m working. I have a family. … If you want it done, come back and do it. Why don’t you come back to Utah, see how you’re greeted?’”
Josh’s photos indicate he also examined the state of the yard, as well as the contents of a shed on the property.
“When I went into the shed it was kinda weird,” Guzman said. “He had wired a light in it but under the base of where the light was it read ‘Here lies death.’”
Josh also used the opportunity to gather the last of his and Susan’s Utah possessions.
Josh took his final photos in Utah just after 10 p.m. They both depict two young girls sitting on a couch. Cold has been unable to identify the girls or determine where the photos were taken. Due to privacy concerns, those photos are not published here.
Police surveillance logs indicate Josh left the Sarah Circle house en route to Washington at about 11:10 p.m. He headed north toward Idaho on I-15 and I-84, with detectives on his tail.
“He’s of course driving exactly 65 miles an hour the whole way,” U.S. Marshal Derryl Spencer said.
“We couldn’t lose him because we didn’t know where he was going or what he was doing.”
Derryl Spencer, U.S. Marshals Service
Spencer, who was assisting West Valley detectives with their surveillance operation, noted the presence of two large plastic barrels strapped to a tow hitch cargo carrier on the back of the vehicle. A roof box and bicycle were also strapped to the top of the minivan.
“That made it extremely easy to watch him from a distance ‘cause you had this large 55-gallon drum on top of a minivan cruising northbound going 65,” Spencer said.
At approximately 2:20 a.m. on May 7, 2010, Josh left I-84 at exit 194 in Jerome County, Idaho. Police wrote that he appeared to sleep near a field north of the interstate until 10:30 a.m.
This spot was just two miles west of another location where Josh had stopped during a previous drive between West Valley City, Utah and South Hill, Wash. That earlier stop, first discovered by Cold through an analysis of data collected by a court-authorized GPS device hidden on Josh’s minivan the day after Susan disappeared, occurred near where I-84 crosses the Milner-Gooding Canal.
Shortly after resuming his drive on May 7, 2010, Josh stopped at the side of I-84 and took four photos of a farm north of the interstate. All four photos show irrigation sprinklers covered with ice.
Police surveillance records do not mention this stop. Nor do any other West Valley records suggest that police ever identified this spot or conducted a search of it.
Left: Josh Powell’s photo of a field north of I-84 in Idaho on May 7, 2010. Right: Dave Cawley’s photo of the same field on Oct. 17, 2019.
Cold used a combination of Google Earth and Street View imagery, as well as a visit to the site, to determine precisely where Josh had stood while taking the Idaho photos.
West Valley police did, however, take notice of several photos Josh shot later on May 7, 2010 alongside I-84 in rural Oregon.
Josh took those pictures at a spot between Ontario and Farewell Bend, Ore. Several showed his minivan. Others captured the landscape surrounding the interstate.
Detectives flagged the Oregon photos while reviewing the digital evidence seized from the home of Steve Powell on Aug. 25, 2011 as well as Josh’s safe deposit box on Sept. 12, 2011.
Left: Josh Powell’s photo of I-84 near Farewell Bend, Ore. on May 7, 2010. Right: Dave Cawley’s photo of the location on Oct. 17, 2019.
West Valley police, with the assistance of cadaver dogs and sheriffs deputies from Carbon and Malheur Counties in Oregon, conducted a search of the Oregon photo location on May 1, 2012. By that point, Josh had been dead for nearly three months, having killed himself and his sons Charlie and Braden on Feb. 5, 2012.
Case records said “based on the area searched by law enforcement … there was no evidence located to suggest that further searching was required in this particular area.”
Hear about Josh Powell’s other suspicious drives in a bonus episode of Cold: Dumpster Drops.
The Cold podcast came to fruition thanks in part to many talented and creative people who work in the combined newsroom of KSL in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Every single episode of Cold was accompanied by a story on KSL 5 TV, produced by Keira Farrimond. Likewise, each episode included a companion article on KSL.com, written by myself or KSL.com writer Carter Williams. KSL NewsRadio supported Cold with on-air interviews and weekly stories produced by Becky Bruce.
The following list includes links to each of those articles and their associated videos.
Susan Powell remains missing. She became dead under Utah law on Dec. 6, 2014, five years from the date she was last seen alive.
Her husband Josh Powell, the man believed responsible for her death, is dead and cannot be held accountable.
Steve Powell and Michael Powell are both dead. If they knew anything about Susan’s whereabouts, they chose not to disclose that information. The surviving members of the Powell family are living in seclusion, with the exception of Josh’s estranged older sister, Jennifer Graves.
During our interview, Jennifer told me she believes Susan, Charlie and Braden have been reunited in heaven.
“Susan is on the other side. We may not know where her body is, but I know where she is,” Jennifer said. “She’s with her boys and she’s fine. She’s just fine.”
In the wake of Susan’s disappearance, Jennifer had hoped to help Charlie and Braden escape the same destructive family from which she’d extracted herself.
“The biggest single thing that I was concerned about was the boys. I wanted them to get out of that situation and not continue to perpetuate this violent cycle that was continuing through my family,” Jennifer said.
A Generational Cycle
The seeds of Josh’s actions were planted well before the murder-suicide in Washington. They were present from his early childhood, cultivated by a father who himself had been raised in a tumultuous family environment.
Steve Powell made no secret of his own troubled upbringing. He included a story about the kidnapping game his parents had played in the biography section of his music website, stevechantrey.com.
“At an early age my mother made a unilateral and secretive decision to separate from my dad, and moved with my brother, my sister and me to Chillicothe, Ohio,” Steve wrote. “My dad found us after a few months, and my parents reconciled.”
In a previously undisclosed journal entry dated July 9, 2010, Steve was more candid. He made a stunning admission about the development of his own deviancy.
“My parents both contributed to the interruption and distortion of my emotional development,” Steve wrote. “My dad ‘kidnapped’ us when I was eight years old. His mother told us, ‘You will never see your mother again,’ and it took a year for her to find us. For the rest of our lives with her she kept us from our father and villainized him to an extreme degree.”
Steve supposed that separation gave rise to his predilection for voyeurism.
“My mother was the parent I was close to. No doubt this is related to the Oedipal Complex, and at eight years I was probably still in a stage in which I had not yet differentiated myself from my parents,” Steve wrote. “Perhaps this has led to my extreme attraction to the opposite sex and tendency toward voyeurism.”
Steve carried his demons into his own marriage. He attempted to instill his aberrant views on sex and relationships in his children, exposing them to pornography at a young age. He nurtured the development of narcissism in his eldest son, Josh.
Jennifer, alone, appeared to have escaped the maelstrom.
“Part of me doesn’t understand why I walked away from that, where my siblings would not recognize what was going on.”
In June 2013, Jennifer and her co-writer Emily Clawson released a book titled A Light in Dark Places.
“Part of my motivation for writing that book was to kind of show a little bit of the background and the lead up. How things happened,” Jennifer said. “That was one of the things that was so good about writing the book was for me personally to be able to go through that and face those things and that was very therapeutic.”
Susan entered into a marriage with Josh at age 19, not understanding the full scope of his history of family turmoil. Warning signs of the toxicity were evident in some of her husband’s statements and actions yet at her young age, Susan failed to recognize them.
In a Facebook message to Cox family friend Mike Gifford on Nov. 15, 2008, Susan acknowledged her regrets.
“I’m finding out more and more that family/friends were seeing the red flags long before I did and of course I wish they would have said something,” Susan wrote. “Of course I realize I would never take back having my boys and the trials I’ve experienced so far have made me so much stronger and I should really thank the jerk I married for putting me through them.”
A little more than 13 months later, Susan would disappear.
Susan’s writings suggest the absence of physical violence in her marriage made it difficult for her to recognize Josh’s treatment as domestic abuse.
“Often times people who are at risk don’t even realize it because it’s been abuse or violence that’s escalated over time.”
Jennifer Oxborrow, the Executive Director of the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition, said the term “domestic violence” can be a misnomer.
“There’s a lot of talk within the advocacy community about changing some of that terminology,” Oxborrow said. “We can be violent in our communication. We can be violent in the coercive control. We can terrorize people without laying a hand on them. We can do that by threatening to hurt children or animals, by threatening to ruin someone’s career or leave them in a poor situation financially.”
UDVC and similar organizations exist to provide assistance to people in situations like Susan’s. They offer services including legal advocacy and advice to help people safely escape abusive situations.
Susan’s disappearance triggered a sequence of events that have touched many lives.
Law enforcement officers tasked with investigating her presumed murder worked for years in the hopes of bringing Susan home and delivering justice for her family.
To this date, no one has ever been held to account for Susan’s death, a fact that haunts retired detective Ellis Maxwell.
“There’s answers that I’ll never ever get and there’ll never be any justice held against anybody for their actions and the likelihood of Susan ever being discovered is in my personal opinion very super low,” Ellis said.
Ellis expressed regret over not securing a search warrant for the Sarah Circle home on the night of Susan’s disappearance. He described frustration at the unwillingness of prosecutors to pursue criminal charges against Josh.
“I think everybody involved in the case has struggled at one point or another with it.”
In the years since his retirement, Ellis had made sporadic progress on a book of his own. He hoped it would provide insight to other police agencies about lessons he learned through the course of the investigation.
“I thought I could have that thing written in six months but it’s tough because I’m basically just reliving the case,” Ellis said. “I’d sit down and I’d start typing and I’ll type and type and type and do this and do that and then next thing you know, I can’t sleep for two, three days.”
More recently, Ellis has focused on launching a non-profit organization called Shield Guardian. He’s also started sharing his experiences through his website, ellismaxwell.com.
“I have empathy for the Coxes,” Ellis said. “I can’t imagine losing a child and never being able to see them again or put them to rest or not ever have any answers. That would be something I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy. That’s just horrible.”
Dave provides his theory on what happened to Susan Powell in the finale of Cold: Angel of Hope.
Steve Powell served as staunch defender of his son, Josh Powell, in the aftermath of the Dec. 7, 2009 disappearance of Josh’s wife Susan Powell.
Steve told the FBI during an interview on Feb. 24, 2010 that he did not believe Josh had murdered Susan, as West Valley City police then suspected.
“The worst father would be somebody who would kill his wife, would kill their mother. Josh would never do that. I am 100 percent satisfied that Josh had nothing to do with Susan’s disappearance,” Steve told the special agents.
However, a previously unreleased Steve Powell journal entry obtained by Cold has revealed Steve immediately presumed Josh had killed Susan and that Steve had long considered his son capable of murder.
That journal entry, dated Dec. 8, 2009, is presented below. It has been edited to remove derogatory claims, as well as personal information unrelated to the Powell case.
Steve Powell journal, 12:35 a.m., Dec. 8, 2009
I am feeling sick, because it is possible that Susan is dead.
Monday morning Jenny called from Josh’s and Susan’s house, to tell us that the day-care lady had called her when they did not show up with the kids. Evidently the day-care lady also called Susan’s work, and learned that she had not shown up or called in. I called Josh’s work, and learned that he had not shown up or called in. The police came to their house, and this information made us extremely fearful that they might be inside, asphyxiated from carbon monoxide, or dead from some other cause.
It was a relief when the police reported that they were not in the house and their van was not in the garage. However the day wore on slowly with no word, and with all of us wondering if they were abducted, or if they went on an outing and were killed or trapped in a car accident.
In the evening I went to the gym, and while there received a call that Josh had shown up with the boys, but not with Susan. When I was finally able to speak to him, at about 8:30 p.m., he said he saw her early Monday morning (December 7), at just after midnight. He was leaving “late” for an outing with the boys. In the various conversations I had with him Monday evening, between that time and nearly midnight, he said that he had bought a generator-heater of some kind so he could go on winter outings. When he told Susan, who he said was in bed asleep, that they were leaving, he says she said, “Whatever.”
“The story is so implausible, and our conversation with Josh so unconvincing that I fear the worst.”
He says he thought yesterday was Sunday. Hence he did not call work. And when he realized his error, he was out of cell-phone range. That does not make sense to me, since when I spoke to him Sunday at midday he said Susan and the boys had gone to a Stake conference that morning. He also mentioned that she was tired and took a nap that evening. Maybe she was already gone, and he told the boys she was just napping.
None of us were able to reach him on his cell phone all day, and he attributes that to being in the back country. Susan’s cell phone was with him. He says he was using it to look up a number, and forgetfully put it in his pocket, and forgot to take it out, so it was with him all day until he showed up at around 6:00 p.m.
The story is so implausible, and our conversation with Josh so unconvincing that I fear the worst. I think Susan is dead, and Josh spent the 20 hour lacuna disposing of her body far away. I have been lying in bed, trying to sleep, but am having a difficult time. I am having a hard time wrapping my mind around the possibility that she may be gone forever. I know she is a screaming banshee, and the way she treats the boys could be devastating emotionally, but nothing of that sort merited a death sentence. I hope we are wrong, but she could be gone forever with no memorial and no place of rest.
In the last two weeks Josh bought an oxy-acetylene welder, and a Rug Doctor carpet cleaner. I had no clue why he might want a welder, but now I wonder if it was required for the process of mutilating or disintegrating her body. The carpets had been freshly cleaned yesterday, and fans were blowing on the living room carpets when the house was finally entered on Monday morning. The police broke a window to get in. During our conversations Josh was more concerned about the broken window than about Susan. Maybe he really did not do anything to her, and she will show up alive. Maybe that is why he is not concerned. He says she has taken off before for short periods.
As the day wore on, I thought I had lost Josh and Susan and my beautiful grandsons. Now I am worried about my daughter-in-law, who has been such an inspiration to me, in spite of her off and on attitude about me, and her apparent disdain for me. I still love her, and do not want to lose her. It seems that she would have at least contacted her family by now if she were still alive.
I don’t know what I am going to do for hope and inspiration, but for now I need to try to sleep.
Steve Powell journal, 5:35 a.m., Dec. 8, 2009
Sunday night it snowed all night. So Josh headed out after midnight to “camp” with the boys. It was snowing like gangbusters by the time he got out a ways so, according to his story, he decided it was too late to return, and so he kept going. Why? The whole thing sounds so wrong, even if it had nothing to do with disposing of Susan’s body. Why would anybody do that? And furthermore, why would anybody believe that someone would go out in that weather just for an outing?
Michael and Alina are very supportive of Josh, and advised him to tighten up his story, as it sounds weak and unconvincing. Josh responded that the police may have already tapped his phone, which was the same as saying, “Be careful what you say.”
“Why would anybody believe that someone would go out in that weather just for an outing?”
Michael commented (not over the phone) that he blamed his mother for this. He said, “She is the reason I will probably never get married.” I hope Michael finds a partner and happiness. I have not been a good example, since I have avoided long-term relationships with women since separating from Terri seventeen years ago in 1992. My attraction to Susan has influenced that hugely since about 2002. But my unwillingness to take the plunge does indeed suggest a lack of trust on my part. Sometimes I think it was a mistake to not work harder at it, especially now that I am turning 60, and the prospects will no doubt diminish.
Susan has learned how to treat her kids and husband from her mother, and Josh found it intolerable. Michael stated yesterday evening that Josh chose an abusive type like Susan because his own mother was similarly abusive. Terri was emotionally distant from her sons. Her main goal for her sons was to make them into good Latter-day Saints. That seemed to be Susan’s one and only goal in recent months, and Josh balked at it. He played along and attended monthly counseling sessions, and attended church sporadically, but did all he could do to influence his boys in another direction.
So I guess Michael, like me, has learned to distrust the marriage principle. John seems to be a misogynist, and his attitudes become barbs aimed at Alina when he is in the manic phase of his bi-polar disorder. And Josh has suffered through a mutually hateful marriage relationship since April 2001. Josh’s and Susan’s mutual disdain was evident from nearly the beginning of their relationship.
Steve Powell journal, 6:30 a.m., Dec. 8, 2009
I am so tired, but can’t seem to sleep. I e-mailed in my request for sick leave a few minutes ago.
Where is Susan? If she were alive someone would have heard from her. This morning it will begin sinking in to her co-workers that she is not coming back.
Will Josh drop the boys off at the day care when he goes to his 9:00 appointment with the police? He often referred to the woman who operates it as the femi-nazi day-care woman. She and Susan had a fairly tight relationship. The woman evidently has it in for men, and told Josh some time ago that she was the victim of an abusive father. So evidently she and Susan had their abuse in common. Josh wanted the kids out of that day care, but Susan refused to move them, since the lady is a good Latter-day Saint.
Will Josh still be walking free after the 9:00 appointment, or will they lock him up? Through the night I tried to think of things Josh said last night that might suggest that he truly does not have a clue where Susan is. Maybe his story came out sounding cock-eyed because he was so tired. It was a long day for him, starting at midnight Sunday night and going until midnight last night. Michael suggested to Alina and me that if he has killed Susan it was probably not premeditated, since the story is so poorly planned.
As I mentioned, I wonder where I will derive my motivation from. Susan kept me going, and was the inspiration for dozens of songs. She sang background on two of my recordings. Her voice on the instrumental bridge of “My Lydia” seemed so haunting to me that I actually feared that she might die an untimely death. It was like hearing a voice from another world to me. Now I am afraid my fears have been realized. It has only been less than 40 hours since someone other than Josh saw her, but my hope diminishes hourly.
In the middle of the night I had what almost seemed like visions of a fire that consumed her. Shortly after that I smelled something slightly excremental and slightly death-like, and a tingle went through my entire body as I thought Susan’s spirit had passed through my room. The feeling passed quickly, and I could not attribute any of it to other than my imagination.
If Susan does not show up, and if they can connect her disappearance to Josh, I also wonder how I will proceed with my music career, as he is my web master. Will I be able to maintain and update my web site? Or will I be able to earn enough to hire someone else? And so many of my songs are about her, including several on this planned CD, that I am not sure I will be able to continue if she is not found, and is assumed to be dead.
If the worst happened, that is he killed her, did he bury her body? Will it ever be found? Frequently the police break down perpetrators during interrogation, and they end up leading them to where the body is buried. Although her parents mean nothing to me, I feel deeply for them, whatever the outcome. I cannot imagine there will be a good outcome.
Steve Powell journal, 8:00 a.m., Dec. 8, 2009
I am so tired, but unable to sleep. I have been lying here thinking about my grandsons, Charlie and Braden. Could Josh do something like this to their mother? Last night Josh went to the recycler to find a stout piece of cardboard to cover the broken window. He said there was a picture of a woman on the carton. At it lay on the living room floor, Braden lay down on it and said, “Mommy.” That was painful to hear.
Maybe Susan was lying in state on the living room floor after her demise, taking the “long nap” Josh mentioned. He seemed to trip over that when he mentioned it. He started to say it was a long nap, then changed to a regular or average nap, or something like that, as I recall. That may be what caught my attention.
I told Michael and Alina that no matter what Susan’s problems were, she did not deserve the death penalty. Neither one has any sympathy for her. Alina is aware, and I think Michael too, that I was in love with Susan, yet neither seems to be sensitive to any feelings I may have in the matter of her possible demise. That they are so anxious to show solidarity with Josh is also troubling.
I suppose in coming years I could have pursued my dream to be with Susan. I had thought that once I make enough money with my music I would be in a position to give her a reason to make the transition. I had hoped that would solve several problems: 1) Susan would be out of a clearly unhappy relationship (and of course I hoped that by that time she would have given up her beliefs in the Mormon Church); 2) I would have what I have wanted for years (and I was concerned that if I struck up a relationship with someone else, I would have to hide my journals about Susan); 3) Josh would be out of an unhappy relationship; and 4) Josh would not have an onerous child-support burden that would be on his shoulders for years, until the boys turn 18, or even 24 while going to school. But it also occurred to me that it could turn out to be the biggest mistake of my life, placing me in the same miserable situation as Josh has been in for years. So in spite of the painful loss, Susan’s death could be providential.
As for the boys, it pains me to think of them wondering where their mommy is. However, some of the stories Josh told me about how she verbally abused them suggest that they may be better off to suffer the temporary pain and move on. What is even more distressing is the possibility that Josh could go to prison, thus leaving the boys as orphans. If that should happen, the worst thing would be for them to go to live with their grandparents, Chuck and Judy Cox. We all would consider Jenny and Kirk the lesser of two evils as surrogate parents, even though the boys would be brought up in a fanatic-Mormon household. I am sure I would have no claim on the boys, and Terri and Jenny, as well as the Cox grandparents, good Latter-day Saints that they are, would fight any bid I might make for custody.
I feel emotionally depressed, partly because I am so tired. Alina and Michael are 100% for showing solidarity with Josh. I need to be of the same attitude, for the sake of the boys as well as Josh who, after all, is my son. The way his mother and her family treated him while growing up is no excuse for anything he may have done in this matter, but I am not the court or a jury. I am his father.
Steve Powell journal, 8:45 a.m., Dec. 8, 2009
I went into Alina’s room a few minutes ago, to find out if she has heard anything. I was crying. The phone rang and it was Terri. She really sounded distraught. She expressed concern for Josh, which I was glad to hear. She and Jenny are on their way to his place to watch the boys while he goes in to talk to the detective. She said the traffic is so slow because of the snow. He was supposed to be there at 9:00. It is an hour later there, so it is almost 10:00.
Alina mentioned she has mixed feelings about being perfectly straight forward if called on to testify about their relationship. She did not think Susan was quite the bitch Josh made her out to be, and thinks Josh may have helped turn her into a bitch. I can’t disagree with that, and I am with Alina on that. However, I said we should support him in any way we can, partly for the sake of the boys. I would add here that that would be especially true if he does not confess to any crime. In the hands of a good prosecutor circumstantial evidence can yield the death penalty. I doubt Susan is alive, and I doubt Josh’s hands are clean. If he murdered her, I wish he had not. But she did treat him in an almost schizophrenic way, and a person can take only so much.
Steve Powell journal, 10:30 p.m., Dec. 8, 2009
It is so painful to know that I will never see Susan again. I feel like that is reality, in spite of the missing person report that went out to the media today. That’s the way it stacks up in my mind. I feel like Josh did a truly stupid thing, and probably disposed of her body in a very grotesque way. I think he probably went to some former industrial land just west of West Valley City and cremated her. I don’t see how he could live with an image like that in his mind. Her body was beautiful, and she took pains to care for it, and her hair and her face. If she had died naturally at 28 years old, she deserved a satin-lined coffin with her beautiful head resting on a soft pillow.
“A person can take only so much.”
I am still having a hard time wrapping my mind around the idea that she is dead. I am so tired from a sleepless night and a day of mostly pacing and thinking. Josh has been in interrogation since about 11:00 a.m. Terri said the detectives told her he would be sent home to spend the night. I have not been able to reach him. My understanding is that they left off interrogating him to get a bite to eat, and were going to resume at 6:40 p.m. They could still be grilling him.
I want Josh to be with his boys, but I am also angry with him for murdering such a beautiful woman. She had her problems, and communication was a huge one. But she did not deserve to have her life ended at 28. That he could do such a thing once suggests that he could do it again. If things go too badly, he could murder the boys and hang himself to avoid going to prison and leaving them with the Mormon families that would no doubt take custody of them.
Josh’s life with Susan was utterly miserable, as was hers with him. Why she stayed with him I do not know. Evidently this tragedy is my answer for why Josh hung on. He wanted to do it his way and avoid a messy and costly divorce. I have news for him. This will be a very costly process, and he may lose anyway. Why someone who is otherwise so smart would do something so utterly stupid is beyond me.
Years ago I made up my mind that Josh was, of my kids, capable of doing such a thing. But our conversations of late suggested that I had nothing to worry about, although I thought about it with concern at times. He seemed resolved that doing something so callous would be most disruptive to his and his children’s lives. Now I wish I had talked more about the likelihood that someone involved in such a crime would be caught. If I had only known. If I could only turn back time.
Hear how the case went cold in Episode 17: Cold Case.
By May 22, 2013, West Valley City police had received more than 860 tips in the Susan Powell investigation.
The tips ran the gamut, from simple suggestions of where detectives might search for the missing mother, to accounts from self-described psychics of discussions with Susan from beyond the grave.
Sifting out legitimate leads from irrelevant information proved a major undertaking, especially as public interest in the case grew. Many of those tips involved sightings of Josh or Susan Powell in places ranging from Atlanta to Alaska.
One of the most perplexing reported sightings occurred much closer to where the Powell family lived. It happened at the Flying J truck stop in Lake Point, Utah, just off of Interstate 80.
On January 27, 2010, a woman named Denise called police to report having seen Josh and Susan, as well as their sons Charlie and Braden, at the Flying J on the same night as Josh’s winter camping trip on the Pony Express Trail.
Denise described working the register late on the night of Dec. 6, 2009, as a winter storm began dumping snow.
“It was around midnight, 12:30, and I was busier than normal because of the storm. It was coming down like crazy,” Denise said during an interview for Cold. “I heard, ‘Hey, Charlie!’ and then I’m waiting for a customer and I’m just kinda waiting for a response to that and I didn’t hear a response.”
A few moments later, a man approached carrying a toddler in one arm. With his free hand, he placed rescue tape on the counter. A woman stepped up beside the man and also set down licorice and crackers.
“So I looked up and I made eye contact with her and then the dad said he said, ‘Hang on a minute let me buy this stuff and then we’ll go camping,’” Denise said. “I looked over at the RV islands that was just over my right shoulder, and there was nobody there. There was no RVs or anything. And I thought, ‘Camping? In this?’ So turned a little bit further and I’d seen the minivan sitting on pump six.”
This map shows the route Josh Powell claimed to have traveled on his trip out to the Pony Express Trail early on the morning of Dec. 7, 2009. The Flying J Travel Center in Lake Point, Utah sits along the route
Denise rang up the items. While she was doing so, the boy in the man’s arm stirred.
“He looked at his mom and I looked at his little nose — he was just such a cute little man, his little nose was all scrunched up — and I said, ‘Well he doesn’t look too happy about going camping,’” Denise said. “She did the mom thing, rubbed his little cheeks and smiled and said, ‘Yeah, he’s pretty tired.’”
The woman took the child from the man and walked over to the doors, where Denise then noticed another, older boy.
The man handed Denise cash to pay for the items and told her to put the change on pump six. Then, he went out into the storm and left.
Several weeks elapsed before Denise saw Josh Powell’s face on the news. She believed he was the man she’d seen in the Flying J.
“I am positive. I am positive it was them,” Denise said. “Especially that baby. That little scrunched up nose that was just like Susan’s and her making that direct eye contact with me.”
“They were there. 100% they were there. I believe that in my soul and I will stand by that with my words.”
However, Denise’s tip proved impossible to verify. West Valley dispatched a detective to interview her.
“When they asked me, ‘What took you so long?’ that was gut-wrenching,” Denise said.
Police sought video surveillance, both from the store and from an ATM in the store.
“Much to my surprise, Flying J only kept their film for ten days and then they would record over it again. So it wasn’t available for them,” Denise said.
Denise provided police a description of what the people she’d seen had been wearing that night. However, by that point, images of the Powell family had circulated in news reports.
On March 2, 2010, Denise delivered a hand-written statement describing what she’d seen to West Valley police. She never heard back from them.
“I had a lot of anger issues, frustration with them and stuff because I had such valuable information that I felt was discarded,” Denise said. “It’s been very difficult to deal with over the years. I watch these things that they have on TV, all these stories they have on Susan Powell and stuff and it’s like, ‘That is so not true. She was there. I made eye contact with her.’”
The lead investigator on the Powell case, detective Ellis Maxwell, said tips like Denise’s showed why police kept many of the details of their investigation secret.
“The more information that gets out, that’s more information now you have to sift through in these tips and these leads and trying to identify ‘Okay, is this credible information or this information that they’ve obtained because of information that we’ve released?’”
One tip that made the news early in the investigation led to a lot of speculation about Josh. It came from a man named Sherman, who was a regular at a strip club called Duces Wild in South Salt Lake, Utah.
Sherman phoned police on Dec. 14, 2009, a week following Susan Powell’s disappearance. He told them he’d witnessed a disturbance at Duces Wild on the afternoon of Dec. 7. A man who looked like Josh Powell had told Sherman that he’d had a very bad day and had quite a story to tell.
Over the course of the next several days, detectives interviewed the club’s owner, the bartender and another patron who’d interacted with the ‘bad day’ guy.
They learned the disruptive patron had arrived at the club around 2 p.m. and left at approximately 4:30 p.m.
Josh Powell’s phone records would later show that he was mobile during that time period, using his phone first in West Valley City and then later in Lehi, Utah. The Duces Wild patron could not have been Josh Powell.
Police did not announce that conclusion publicly.
“It just makes the investigation a heck of a lot easier to move forward when you can keep the evidence closed until you come to a resolution,” Ellis said. “I can only imagine if we didn’t keep those records sealed and all the information in those affidavits was released, we would have probably ended up with thousands of more tips and leads that we would have had of wasted resources on for nothing.”
Hear how one tip about a stripper named Summer sent police on a goose chase in Episode 16 of Cold: Chasing Leads.