By DAVE CAWLEY
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.
Cold host Dave Cawley (right) speaks with KSL Podcasts Director of Audience Development Sheryl Worsley at the Eccles Theater on May 16, 2019. Retired detective Ellis Maxwell and Utah Domestic Violence Coalition Executive Director Jennifer Oxborrow engage in a separate conversation (left). Photo: Josh Tilton, KSL
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.
Cold Live at the Eccles Theater, May 16, 2019. This video is an edited version of the event, comprising elements of both the 4 p.m. dress rehearsal and 8 p.m. performance. Video: KSL TV
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.
Cold Live at the Eccles Theater, May 16, 2009. This video includes the question and answer sessions from both the 4 p.m. dress rehearsal and 8 p.m. performance. Video: KSL TV
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.
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.
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.
Susan Powell buckles her son Braden into his car seat on Dec. 20, 2008 while her other son, Charlie, waits. Photo: Josh Powell
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.
Retired detective Ellis Maxwell (left), Utah Domestic Violence Coalition Executive Director Jennifer Oxborrow, Cold Live director Jim Millan and Cold podcast host Dave Cawley (right) pose for a photo backstage at the Eccles Theater in Salt Lake City, Utah on May 16, 2019. Photo: Sheryl Worsley, KSL Podcasts
“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.
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.
A behind-the-scenes look at the music in the Cold podcast. Composer Michael Bahnmiller discusses how he crafted themes to match the moods and tones of the Susan Powell story. Video: Josh Tilton, KSL
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.
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.
Susan Powell’s friends and parents stand in the lobby of the Eccles Theater in Salt Lake City, Utah on May 16, 2019. From left to right: Catherine Everett, Debbie Caldwell, Ken Caldwell, Judy Cox, Chuck Cox, Dave Cawley, John Hellewell, Kiirsi Hellewell. Photo: Sheryl Worsley, KSL Podcasts
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.”