Ep 16: Chasing Leads

By DAVE CAWLEY

 

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.

Flying J

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.

The Flying J truck stop in Lake Point, Utah sat along the path Josh Powell claimed to have traveled on his way to the Pony Express Trail after midnight on Dec. 7, 2009. Photo: Dave Cawley, KSL Newsradio

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.

Unverifiable

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.”

Denise

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.

Denise, a clerk at the Flying J truck stop in Lake Point, Utah, provided this written statement to police in March 2010. Denise claimed to have seen Josh, Susan, Charlie and Braden Powell in the store on the night of Josh Powell’s winter camping trip. Photo: West Valley City, Utah police

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?’”

Duces Wild

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, a patron of Duces Wild, told West Valley City police a man he believed to be Josh Powell came to the club on the afternoon of Dec. 7, 2009 and complained of having had a very bad day. Photo: KSL 5 TV

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.

Patrons at the Duces Wild gentleman’s club in South Salt Lake, Utah told police they’d seen a man who looked like Josh Powell making a ruckus at the bar on the afternoon of Dec. 7, 2009. Photo: KSL 5 TV

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.