Ep 7: Scouring the Desert

By DAVE CAWLEY

 

Abandoned mines litter the Great Basin.

This abandoned structure sits in Utah’s Gold Hill mining district, near the Utah-Nevada state line. Photo: Dave Cawley, KSL Newsradio

West Valley City police launched an exhaustive effort to scan hundreds of them in the days immediately following the disappearance of Susan Powell on Dec. 7, 2009. The full extent of that search, which began in earnest on Dec. 16, 2009, has never previously been disclosed.

Seeds of Suspicion

The theory that Susan’s husband, Josh, might have deposited her in an abandoned mine rose from several sources.

 

On the day of Susan’s disappearance, Josh told detective Ellis Maxwell that he’d gone camping the night before near Simpson Springs with the couple’s two sons. Several abandoned mines sat in close proximity to Simpson Springs.

 

The next day, Josh and Susan’s 4-year-old son Charlie told another detective  that his mommy had gone camping with them but stayed behind and slept where “the flowers and crystals grow.” Police believed that could’ve been a reference to a mine or to the Dugway Geode Beds, a popular rockhounding site near the Pony Express Trail.

 

The Powell family had visited the Dugway Geode Beds before.

Josh and Susan Powell brought their boys, Charlie and Braden, to the Dugway Geode Beds during a family camping trip on May 31, 2009. Aerial video: Devon Dewey, KSL

Detectives located a document among Susan’s work files in which she described a family outing to the West Desert in May, 2009. The family had gone hunting for geodes. In the document, Susan also made specific references to visiting Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge and Topaz Mountain.

Susan Powell wrote this description about a camping trip with her husband, Josh Powell, and their sons Charlie and Braden in Utah’s West Desert on May 30 and 31, 2009. Photo: West Valley City, Utah police

On that trip, the Powell family had come within close proximity to many abandoned mines in the Simpson, Dugway, Thomas and Fish Springs mountain ranges.

Wells Fargo Christmas Party

Perhaps the most concerning lead pointing police toward the mines of the West Desert came from one of Susan’s closest work friends, Amber Hardman.

 

Amber told detectives that during a company Christmas party in 2008, Josh had drawn her husband into a conversation about true crime TV shows.

 

“I remember hearing him say ‘Those shows are so dumb. Those people always put the bodies in the stupidest places. It’s always so obvious,’” Amber said during an interview for Cold. “Josh was like ‘If it was me, have you ever been out to the West Desert? There’s mines everywhere. Nobody’s going to find anything out there.’”

 

By that point at the end of 2008, Susan had already told several close friends that Josh sometimes scared her and that she did not always feel safe with him.

Mines of the West Desert

The first police searches of Simpson Springs and the Dugway Geode Beds took place on Dec. 9 and 10, just days following Susan’s disappearance.

West Valley City police conducted their first major search for Susan Powell in Utah’s West Desert on Dec. 10, 2009. Photo: West Valley City, Utah police

Clearing hundreds — perhaps thousands — of abandoned mines would require much more time and effort.

 

The mines of most interest to police were scattered across thousands of square miles of the Great Basin. At the outset, West Valley City detectives lacked the knowledge and experience necessary to safely locate and clear them. They turned to the Utah Department of Natural Resources for assistance.

 

In 2009, Louis Amodt headed up Utah’s abandoned mine reclamation program. For decades, he’d worked to secure or permanently close abandoned mines. He and another state mine engineer, Tony Gallegos, agreed to help the police.

“There is no closure for the family and that's the biggest concern.”

Louis Amodt

Both signed nondisclosure agreements, promising not to speak publicly about the effort. They broke their silence for the first time with Cold in the hopes of showing the scope and scale of the effort to search abandoned mines.

 

“There seemed to be a public misconception that nothing was going on,” Gallegos said. “We knew better.”

 

DNR staff put together maps showing mines that Josh Powell might possibly have visited, given the timeline provided by police. Investigators knew Josh had been driving a two-wheel-drive minivan at the time of Susan’s disappearance. It would not have been capable of navigating deep snow or steep, rutted trails.

 

“From the Simpson Springs where they knew where he was, they put a three-hour driving time,” Amodt said. “What we looked at was the Tintics, the Oquirrh Mountains clear out to perimeter, the edge of it would have been the Gold Hill area out in the Deep Creek Mountains.”

The Secret Search

In early January of 2010, Amodt and Gallegos joined the police for a major, weeks-long operation targeting abandoned mines. They set up shop in a barrack at Dugway Proving Ground, a U.S. Army facility on the edge of the search zone.

 

The police dressed in plain clothes and drove unmarked vehicles, to avoid offering Josh Powell any clues as to what they were doing. They used ATVs and sometimes snowmobiles to reach locations away from the main roads.

 

“We expected snow and that our days would start well before daylight and end well after dark,” Amodt said “We’d still be out on the ground looking until the very last light and then find your way back in the dark.”

This map shows the locations and descriptions for nearly all mines searched by West Valley City, Utah police between Dec. 16, 2009 and Jan. 20, 2010

They visually inspected most of the mines using high-intensity spotlights. At shafts too deep to see the bottom, the team broke out a borehole camera. The camera was waterproof, had its own lights and microphone and was attached to a 1,000-foot-long cable.

 

“We had some ropes and some carabiners and stuff so we could safely walk along the outside of the shaft and position so the camera would go right down the center of the shaft,” Gallegos said. “Our instructions were if we actually saw anything we were just going to hold off there and then let the detectives comment on the recording if they wanted to.”

This Jan. 6, 2010 video shows West Valley City police and Utah Department of Natural Resources staff using a borehole camera to inspect the Tintic Retribution mine near Eureka, Utah for the body of Susan Powell. Video: West Valley City, Utah police

On occasion, the searchers physically entered the old workings. That brought with it some significant risks.

 

“The collar — the area right around the opening to the mine — is very unstable. Rocks fall down. There are animals in there. I’ve had rattlesnakes and cougars and things like that inside but then also a bigger concern is that we always carry an air monitor to monitor oxygen levels,” Amodt said.

This Jan. 13, 2010 photo shows police using a spotlight to visually inspect a mine near the Pony Express Trail west of Lookout Pass for the body of Susan Powell. Photo: West Valley City, Utah police

Expanding the Radius

Amodt and Gallegos found themselves phased out of the search effort as the police grew more proficient at the job.

 

In March of 2010, police focused on the Gold Hill region south of Wendover, Utah. They also visited sites in the southern end of the Simpson Mountains which they’d been unable to reach in January due to deep snow.

 

“[We] knew that they were putting some serious effort into looking at all these places, exploring every angle and all the clues they had,” Gallegos said. “That was sort of like ‘These guys, they’re doing a much better job than the public had an idea.’ They were doing their best.”

 

In August and September of 2010, police searched mines in the Silver City area of the East Tintic Mountains. In November, they focused on mines north of Eureka, Utah.

This map shows the locations and descriptions for nearly all mines searched by West Valley City, Utah police between Nov. 4, 2010 and Nov. 16, 2010

Shifting Focus

The mine searches wound down toward the end of 2010, as other investigative leads began casting doubt on the theory that Josh had deposited Susan in the West Desert.

 

Police did conduct several additional searches in the area, including one very public search of mines around Ely, Nevada in August of 2011, based on information gathered from Josh’s computers.

 

Josh killed himself and his boys on Feb. 5, 2012. No formal searches of abandoned mines are known to have occurred since then.

 

In May of 2013, West Valley City police declared the case cold and released a redacted copy of their case file. It included descriptions and photos of most of the mines that had been searched.

 

However, the specific locations for most all of the mines were omitted. Cold later requested GPS files or precise coordinates under GRAMA, Utah’s public records law. West Valley City police responded that they were unable to locate those GPS files or any other documents containing those coordinates.

 

For Amodt and Gallegos, questions lingered about some of the mines they were not able to conclusively clear.

 

“You still wonder, still wonder what happened,” Gallegos said. “Where is Susan Powell?”

 

“Nobody will probably ever have the answers,” Amodt said.

Hear more about the secret mine searches in episode 7 of Cold: Scouring the Desert.