Bonus Ep: Dumpster Drops

By DAVE CAWLEY

 

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.

Josh Powell captured his own image while photographing the intersection of 5600 West and 3500 South in West Valley City, Utah on May 6, 2010. This image has been modified to increase the brightness of the rearview mirror area. Photo: Josh 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.

Metadata

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.

Southbound on the Legacy Parkway, looking southeast toward the Wasatch Mountains on May 6, 2010. Photo: Josh Powell

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.

An office building in Salt Lake City’s International Center business park, as viewed by Josh Powell on May 6, 2010. Photo: Josh Powell

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.

The exterior of the Wells Fargo call center where Susan Powell worked prior to her disappearance, as viewed by Josh Powell on May 6, 2010. Photo: Josh Powell

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 and Susan Powell’s home (right) on Sarah Circle in West Valley City, Utah as it appeared on May 6, 2010. Photo: Josh Powell

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.

The unfinished basement of Josh and Susan Powell’s home on Sarah Circle in West Valley City, Utah as it appeared on May 6, 2010. Photo: Josh Powell

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.’”

The interior of a shed on the West Valley City, Utah property belonging to Josh and Susan Powell as it appeared on May 6, 2010. The sign partially visible in the upper left reads “Here lies death.” Photo: Josh Powell

Josh also used the opportunity to gather the last of his and Susan’s Utah possessions.

Final Departure

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.

Idaho Stops

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.

The I-84 westbound bridge over the Milner-Gooding Canal in Jerome County, Idaho. GPS tracking data revealed Josh Powell stopped near this point for five minutes at 2:01 a.m. on Dec. 19, 2009. Photo: Dave Cawley, KSL

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.

Oregon Stops

West Valley police did, however, take notice of several photos Josh shot later on May 7, 2010 alongside I-84 in rural Oregon.

Josh and Susan Powell’s Chrysler minivan parked alongside I-84 in rural Malheur County, Ore. on May 7, 2010. Photo: Josh Powell

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.”

Photos from Josh Powell’s May 5-7, 2010 trip to Utah. Click or tap to view larger image

Hear about Josh Powell's other suspicious drives in a bonus episode of Cold: Dumpster Drops.