(Sound of traffic in Pendleton, Oregon)
Dave Cawley: Dave Lindell is a bit of a fixture in the city of Pendleton. His dad bought a small auto shop in the eastern Oregon community in 1963. Lindell Auto has been in the family ever since.
Dave Lindell: We run an automotive recycling, auto parts, y’know, scrapping, towing type business. We do a variety of things with cars, and we sell some used cars.
Dave Cawley: The Lindell Auto lot sits on the east side of town, just north of the Umatilla River. Lindell Lane, a street bearing the family name, runs along the other side.
People in Pendleton know Dave. He’s where they go when their cars break down beyond repair. So it wasn’t strange when a guy showed up at Dave’s shop looking to sell a 1997 Ford Taurus on December 23rd of 2009.
Dave Lindell: I don’t remember the circumstances except a fellow called me up out of the blue, which happens on a regular basis, and said “I want to sell a car.” And I says “yeah, we buy cars.” And he came out and the car was, and I remember when I bought it vaguely that I thought “well it’s a little nicer than what people want to get sold.”
Dave Cawley: As for the guy, nothing really stood out about him.
Dave Lindell: I dunno, maybe a 30-something, young 30s. Something like that. Looked like he had a job. Y’know, looked like he, y’know, probably, y’know, had some responsibilities and needed to get somewhere in a hurry.
Dave Cawley: Dave looked over the car. It was 12 years old at that point, but appeared to be in good shape.
Dave Lindell: It was supposed to have, be having transmission problems or something of that nature, and I don’t remember how the negotiation even went or what I paid for it but it was probably two or three or four hundred dollars, in that neighborhood.
Dave Cawley: Actually, it was less. Dave paid just a hundred bucks, then took the title and hauled the car onto his lot.
(Sound of tow truck)
Dave Cawley: Most cars didn’t stay there very for long. He’d strip the good parts, sell those, then send the rest of the wreck to be smashed into a cube. The Taurus though, stuck around.
Dave Lindell: Time went by, we sold a few parts off the car.
Dave Cawley: The taillights went. So did the front passenger door and pieces of the steering column. It was a common enough model of car and in good enough shape that the parts held their value.
Then, on September 20th of 2011, just as Pierce County deputies were preparing to arrest Steve Powell, Dave received an unexpected visit from police. Not the locals, these cops had come up from Utah. They wanted to know about the car he’d bought from Michael Powell.
Dave Lindell: And I remember at the time thinking it was kind of odd because I have a neighbor right behind me that has a car shop, named Mike Powell. Michael Powell is his real name and we do business with him on a daily basis.
Dave Cawley: That shop is called Mike’s Auto Clinic. Dave turned to his staff to ask if they remembered buying a Ford Taurus from the Auto Clinic. They shrugged. Lindell told Detective David Greco he must have bought it, since he bought cars from Mike Powell all the time.
Dave Lindell: And they looked at me kind of “so you know Michael Powell?” I remember him saying that. I says “well, my neighbor, Mike Powell.”
Dave Cawley: There was a moment of confusion on both sides. Lindell tried to figure out why these detectives from two states away were so interested in an old wreck.
Dave Lindell: Well, we dug up the paperwork, which is pretty easy. They gave me the VIN number. I went back by the VIN number. Pulled the file on the car, and I could see where the paperwork had come from and what it was. And then I started to put the picture together in my head that uh, this was to do with that Michael Powell. (Laughs)
Dave Cawley: This is Cold, episode 13: 4 the Kidzz. I’m Dave Cawley. Back after this.
Dave Cawley: Michael Powell had sold his car for a hundred dollars to a scrap yard just two weeks after Susan’s disappearance.
Ellis Maxwell: An intel analyst of ours at West Valley, phenomenal intel analyst, uh, she came across this information and got it right to us.
Dave Cawley: Detective Ellis Maxwell wanted that car. His timing was impeccable. Dave Lindell had just filed paperwork with the state of Oregon to have the car destroyed.
Dave Lindell: In fact, I probably had told my guys at the time I think that if they’d come probably another three months later, it wouldn’t have been there.
Dave Cawley: Dave told the police they were welcome to go look at the car.
Dave Lindell: He told me they’re gonna bring a cadaver dog in, which they did.
Dave Cawley: The police went out to the scrapyard with the dog. Ellis told me this was a tricky situation. Most cars that end up in junk yards have been involved in injury crashes.
Ellis Maxwell: So you’re gonna have, y’know, blood and stuff like that in those vehicles. And this dog went directly, didn’t hesitate, didn’t stop at any other vehicles, went directly to Michael Powell’s vehicle.
Dave Cawley: The dog sniffed around the car, then sat down next to the trunk. That was what the dog was trained to do when it got a hit. Detective Greco returned to the office.
Dave Lindell: And they said they got a hit on it. And then they said “well, we’re gonna load that car up and take it back to Utah.” And I’m like “what?” ‘Cause it was like, I, I uh, was really kinda shocked by the whole thing.
Dave Cawley: The West Valley cops came back the next day. They wrapped the Taurus in plastic and loaded onto a tow truck.
Dave Lindell: I had to figure out what was going on so I called our police chief and says “so, can they just take this car?” And he said “yeah, you gotta give them that car.”
Dave Cawley: Just like that, Michael Powell’s car was gone. Dave Lindell was left with nothing but the money he’d made on a few parts and a bizarre, unexpected story.
Dave Lindell: I guess that’s what I got.
Dave Cawley: Dave’d followed the case of Susan Powell in the news. He’d seen the coverage a few weeks prior, when police had served the search warrant at Steve Powell’s home. But Dave never could have guessed that a key piece of evidence in the case sat on his property for almost two years.
Dave Lindell: I never really thought about Pendleton connection and that connection and this guy stopping half, I guess he stopped halfway to dump the car, so to speak.
Dave Cawley: Halfway between West Valley City, Utah and Puyallup, Washington.
When I first contacted Dave, he seemed just as surprised to hear from me as from police. In fact, he told me “I wondered how long it would be before someone looked me up.” Dave had never told his story to anyone other than a few close friends and colleagues in the auto wrecking business.
Dave Lindell: I didn’t really let it be known. I mean, I thought “well, maybe my local newspaper would be interested in that information.” But I thought “eh, it’ll look like you were just trying to get,” and I don’t really want attention about the thing. And I thought “well, you have this weird connection to this huge story in a way, but it’s probably not something that needs to be talked about a bunch.”
Dave Cawley: Dave told me it seemed odd that Michael quickly accepted his initial lowball offer.
Dave Lindell: He might have thought he was selling it to somebody who’d just run it down there and squish it right away.
Dave Cawley: Once the car was back in Utah, West Valley police tore out the rear seats and trunk carpet. They swabbed them for DNA. They also found strands of hair. They sent the swabs and the hair to Utah’s state crime lab.
Ellis Maxwell: Uh, again we thought it was a huge break.
Dave Cawley: Ellis figured it could mean game over for Josh. They would finally have the forensic evidence they needed for an arrest.
Dave Cawley: Charlie Powell started the first grade at Carson Elementary in the fall of 2011. The school year wasn’t far along when Charlie suddenly missed a string of days starting on September 23rd, the day after his grandpa Steve’s arrest.
Carson elementary records list the absences as being due to a “family emergency.” Charlie and Braden had both been taken into protective custody. When he returned to school at the end of the next week, he was under the care of his maternal grandparents, Chuck and Judy Cox.
Chuck Cox: As one social worker put it, we were re-parenting them. We taught them things like sharing. (Laughs) Taking turns, instead of just grabbing for stuff. I mean, all preschoolers will grab for stuff. But the parents teach them to take turns.
Dave Cawley: Chuck and Judy were retirees. They hadn’t had young kids in the house for years. The Coxes had anticipated one day getting custody of the boys and worried about not having enough room in their house.
Dave Cawley: But you’d raised four girls, so was this like a surprise to you to suddenly have these really wild little boys in the house?
Chuck Cox: (Laughs) Well yeah. It was a challenge. It was a challenge, definitely. … Girls and boys are totally different (laughs), especially uhm, in aggressiveness and, just uh, yeah.
Dave Cawley: That remodel was continuing when the boys landed with the Coxes at the start of October, so things were a bit cramped. The addition was all framed in, but the new bedroom still needed a lot of work.
Chuck Cox: This would, this would have been their bedroom. So we would’ve had plenty of room for two bunk beds in here, or two single beds—
Dave Cawley: Yeah.
Chuck Cox: —and, and a play, place for them to play a little bit and y’know, TV. So we made it so it would be kinda a nice place for the both of ‘em.
Dave Cawley: But Chuck and Judy also knew they weren’t at a point in their lives where they could raise 6 and 4-year-old boys into adulthood.
Chuck Cox: It would have worked much better for them to be with a family that they knew and with brothers and sisters and they would’ve learned more about social interaction and everything and a normal life.
Dave Cawley: In the nearly two years since Susan’s disappearance, the Coxes had grown close with Josh’s estranged older sister, Jennifer and her husband, Kirk. Together, they’d mapped out a plan, in which Jennifer and Kirk would eventually adopt the boys.
Chuck Cox: When we got full custody of them, then we would notify the court of our plans and get things going and explain why and let all the professionals agree this would be a good thing before we did it. And then, y’know, so we weren’t pulling anything on anybody.
Jennifer Graves: We were gonna go forward with a lot of trauma and just bringing them into our home would have created waves for my own family. And I, and we knew that. We knew that. And we were afraid in some respects of that, of what that was going to look like. But we were willing to do it because we knew that they couldn’t stay where they were and we were their best chance of healing and being in a, in a loving family situation.
Dave Cawley: The fact that Steve Powell’s arrest, not Josh’s, put Charlie and Braden in the Cox house threw a wrench into the cogs.
So too did Josh’s mom. Josh had asked his family, everyone but Steve and Jennifer, to file declarations with the court supporting his fight for custody. Jennifer begged her mom not to go along with it. But Terri sided with her son. In her declaration, she wrote Josh was a loving and engaged father. She said Charlie and Braden seemed to be thriving with him, in spite of the trauma and sadness surrounding their mother’s disappearance. Jennifer was crushed.
Jennifer Graves: I wanted them to get out of that situation and not continue to perpetuate this violent cycle that was continuing through my family. And I wanted them to, to be able to have a, a normal, loving family relationship, and as, as much as possible. Y’know they, they wouldn’t go forward with their mother or their father, umm, not that their father was being a good father, but umm, they, they were going to go forward without that. But they could have something. They could go forward and do some healing.
Dave Cawley: The first few family meals with Charlie and Braden at the Cox house were telling. They grabbed for anything on the table, showing no manners. Chuck said they’d learned to fend for themselves while living with Josh and his siblings.
Chuck Cox: They would fix for them and if the kids got something, they got the scraps at the end of the table. It’s the wolf pack and the, they leaders ate first. And that was Josh and his dad and his brother and stuff. If there’s something for the kids, good. If there wasn’t, oh well, you’re just hungry.
Dave Cawley: The boys were used to staying up until 11 o’clock or midnight. They told their grandparents they slept in the nude, sometimes with their father. The revelation caused real concern.
Jennifer Graves: There was obviously something there, some sexual abuse going on. And who knows what else was going on because we were just starting to scratch that surface.
Chuck Cox: We made ‘em wear pajamas to bed, or at least underwear (laugh) and they had to sleep in their own beds. And they weren’t allowed to, they took a bath, they had to take a bath individually because I heard this blub blub blub and one of ‘em had the other one’s head underwater, trying to drown him in the bathtub. And “oh, no no, we’re not doing that.”
Dave Cawley: Josh, meantime, worked to undermine the Coxes. He insisted Charlie and Braden not take part in any church activities. That included the Boy Scout or Family Home Evening, a program that encourages Latter-day Saints to spend Monday evenings together with their families.
Josh started mailing letters right to the Cox house daily. The state social workers told him that was not appropriate. They wanted the letters sent to them first, so they could be reviewed. Josh complied but said his sons’ emotional wellbeing depended on their receiving reassurance from him every single day.
Dave Cawley: It wasn’t unusual for James Manley to receive calls from the Washington Children’s Administration. His work as a forensic psychologist meant he dealt with a lot of cases involving crimes against children. He didn’t think much of it when he took a call from a state social worker in the fall of 2011. The social worker asked if he knew anything about a woman named Susan Powell.
James Manley: And, given my work load, and what I do for a living, I blithely responded “no.’ And I really didn’t know about Susan.
Dave Cawley: Great, that was exactly what the social worker wanted to hear. Washington law required the social workers to work toward reunification, unless there was a good reason not to. They wanted James Manley to find out if any such reason existed.
James Manley: One of the reasons they picked me is because I didn’t really have any background in it. I wasn’t following the case or anything like that.
Dave Cawley: The state hired Manley to put Josh through what’s known as a “psychological evaluation for parenting capacity.” That involved a review of his personal history — his education, his home life, his work and criminal background — as well as a battery of clinical tests and one-on-one interviews.
Social workers sent James a pile of paperwork. It included news clippings about the Susan Powell disappearance. There were court documents, both from Steve Powell’s recent arrest as well as Steve and Terri Powell’s divorce back in the 90s. They also handed over their own reports, detailing all of the interactions social workers had had with the Powell family over the previous 21 months.
James did his homework. He studied news reports about Susan’s disappearance and Josh’s actions since. Toward the end of October, he sat down with Josh for a formal interview.
James Manley: From the start it was a, a unique evaluation. I’ve done several hundred of these and Mr. Powell presented as very down-home guy with a, jeans and plaid shirt. Uh, he was understated and very low-key.
Dave Cawley: But also defensive.
James Manley: And, given the history of he and Susan and all of those proceedings, it made sense that he was defensive.
Dave Cawley: These were the questions James needed to answer: could Josh safely parent his sons? Could he disengage from his family, especially his dad? Did he have any mental illness? Would he benefit from counseling? Could he correct any bad behaviors? As a kicker, the state wanted to know if Josh had trouble with “forthrightness.” In other words, was he trying hide the truth?
James Manley: He certainly was dodgy in the interview, and of course I’m there to ask him questions about uncomfortable circumstances.
Dave Cawley: As they spoke, James noted how Josh used subtle word choices to evade his questions.
James Manley: He was fairly polished but fairly superficial in his responses.
Dave Cawley: Josh glossed over any topic that might cast him in a bad light, like the stuff from his parents’ divorce papers. He denied ever having been physical with his mom or sisters. He said he had never attempted suicide.
James challenged that, showing Josh the court declarations about his teenage suicide attempt. Josh brushed it off, saying stuff got blown out of proportion because of the divorce. Anyway, he said, it’d been so long ago he couldn’t remember the specifics. As far as James could tell, Josh had an excellent memory.
They talked about Josh’s dating history. He mentioned Catherine, the girlfriend he’d lived with for six months before meeting and marrying Susan. Josh said their relationship had ended because Catherine had dated other people behind his back. Of course, that’s not how Catherine and her now husband Dennis described her time with Josh when we spoke.
Catherine Terry Everett: He only wanted me to have him. He was ok with me talking to my family on the phone but other than that, it was just, he just wanted it to be him and his family and was, that was basically it.
Dennis Everett: I think a lot of things she spent years just kind of blocking out from her memory.
Dave Cawley: James asked Josh about his criminal history. Not the stuff involving Susan, but instead something that’d happened when Josh was a boy. Josh said he’d never been in trouble as a teen. Again, James pressed. Come to think of it, Josh said, he’d once been arrested for stealing candy from a burned-out convenience store. Candy? James challenged that. Josh conceded it wasn’t candy he’d stolen. It was Playboy magazines. And he’d spent five days in juvie for the crime.
James asked if pornography was still a part of Josh’s life. Josh said he sometimes looked at porn online, but always checked for a legal disclaimer to make sure the women involved were adults.
Josh said he didn’t use any drugs and hadn’t even touched alcohol since 1998.
James Manley: Generally in my role, you absorb rather than share. It’s not a counseling thing where you go back and forth. You just ask the questions, gather information.
Dave Cawley: James’ job was narrowly defined by the state. He wasn’t there to solve Susan’s disappearance but it did come up, because how could it not. Josh’s answers seemed well polished.
James Manley: Of course, he had probably much more experience than I talking about his wife’s disappearance and uh, those related topics.
Dave Cawley: Those “related topics” included Josh’s winter camping trip with the boys the night Susan disappeared. James figured that part of the story did have a direct bearing on Josh’s parenting abilities.
James Manley: The more I was with Josh the more I recognized that he did not see any wrong-doing of what he, of what was going on in Utah, whether or not he acted inappropriately in what he described as his camping trip in December from the house on the evening that Susan disappeared.
Dave Cawley: In Josh’s view, everything wrong with his life could be attributed to Chuck Cox and his former religion.
James Manley: He was particularly negative towards his uh, past in-laws. He kind of went on about it in almost a grossly misguided manner, approaching delusions, y’know, about the plots of the Mormons against him and so forth and these kind of conspiracy type theories, which really didn’t have a lot of basis.
Dave Cawley: The psychological tests reinforced what James heard with his own ears: Josh didn’t seem capable of seeing anything about himself as wrong.
James Manley: He had traits, narcissism, which is the perfect self. Y’know, the idea of a narcissist is they do not have the ability to see themselves as flawed. Just won’t, won’t happen.
Dave Cawley: James later came to believe that Josh’s narcissism extended to the boys.
James Manley: And so what that means is it’s like Little Josh 1 and Little Josh 2 and not my sons.
Dave Cawley: James was able to observe Josh with Charlie and Braden on a couple of occasions. He sat in on one visit the day before Halloween. A few days later, he went to check out Josh’s new place. The judge had told Josh he couldn’t have the boys for overnight visits unless he moved out of Steve’s home. So Josh rented a three-bedroom house on a quiet cul-de-sac in the community of Graham, not far from Charlie’s school.
James Manley: Meanwhile the boys, I believe it was their first time there so they were scampering around checking the house and stuff.
Dave Cawley: Josh showed the kids around, talking about all the fun they’d have together there. He’d unpacked their toys onto shelves in one of the bedrooms. The garage was still full of clutter, including moving boxes still waiting to be unpacked. James noticed a set of shelves against a back wall.
James Manley: And on the shelves were two or three roll, foam roll-up backpacking pads that you’d sleep on. Brand new. And so, when he brought the boys back from the garage to the living room and he says “see boys, here’s the pads” — he made sure I was watching — “here’s the pads that we’ll use next time we go camping.” And I thought that was pretty interesting. And, of course, I thought “well, that has to do with Susan. That has to do with faking y’know, whatever he was trying to do.”
(Sound of RC helicopter)
Dave Cawley: Josh took out a pair of remote-control toy helicopters and showed Charlie and Braden how to fly them.
James Manley: He was flying them around the house, and he was real patient with the boys. Uh so, when the lights are on, dad’s acting the good dad.
Dave Cawley: But when the lights weren’t on? Different story. Nancy from the precious stone and gem club in Puyallup wrote a letter to the lead social worker, Forest Jacobson.
Nancy: I had read about people saying “what a great dad Josh is. And this is all just unwarranted.” And, and I’m like “he’s not a great dad. No way is he a great dad.” So I had to say something. And that’s when I contacted DSHS.
Dave Cawley: Josh had been bringing his boys to the club meetings for a year. Nancy was then vice president and had observed how Josh treated the boys. She’d watched one time as Josh and Charlie were using a rock grinder. Josh couldn’t keep an eye on Braden at the same time, so he left his three-year-old alone in a corner. Braden wailed for over an hour.
Nancy: He was perfectly fine. It was like his other son wasn’t even there. He was working on the machine with, uh, Charlie and Braden was in, sobbing, crying.
Dave Cawley: Finally, someone confronted Josh and told him to comfort his crying child.
Nancy: And then, then Josh went over and like patted him and said “well, y’know, sometimes we just need to let them cry.” And I’m thinking “no we don’t.” That’s not how you parent. You don’t just let them cry.
Dave Cawley: Nancy said Josh had brought the boys out on field trips, even though she’d told him they weren’t safe for young children.
Nancy: At this point he was fully aware that he wasn’t supposed to be taking the kids on certain field trips. And then he like glazed over and he started talking about their boots. And he goes “they lost their boots. I can’t find their boots. They’re lost.” And it was like he was thinking, his eyes looked really concerned, like where did I lose these boots? So I’m, in my head, I’m thinking “maybe in Utah. Maybe down in the snow somewhere” is what I was thinking. So that gave me the creeps.
Dave Cawley: The boys were constantly getting into mischief. Nancy said Josh only seemed to care when they talked to someone out of his earshot.
Nancy: But once I saw that umm, it was Braden, he went up to a coffee pot that the spout hung over the counter. And he went up and almost turned hot coffee on his face. And his dad was just oblivious to it.
Dave Cawley: Josh wanted the judge to believe he was a great dad. Nancy thought it was an act, one that could not last.
Nancy: There’s no way. There’s no way they can act normal. Not all the time. You can’t, you can’t pull that veil over and expect it to stay there. It’s impossible.
Dave Cawley: In early November, James Manley and DSHS decided Josh’s new house would be an ok place for Josh’s supervised Sunday visits with the boys. Previously, those visits had taken place at a neutral third-party facility.
Ellis Maxwell: It’s just crazy. And I know why they did it. It’s because there were other parents in this facility that complained ‘cause they weren’t comfortable ‘cause Josh was there. So that’s why they turned around, was like “ok, well I guess they can go to his house.” And it’s nuts.
Dave Cawley: Josh wasn’t supposed to have anyone else over at the time of the visits, but Alina always seemed to be just leaving the house or dropping by with salad dressing when the visitation supervisor showed up with Charlie and Braden.
With the boys out of Josh’s control, Ellis Maxwell believed the police had time on their side. In mid-November, Ellis told social worker Rocky Stephenson that they’d found incestuous cartoon images on one of Josh’s computers, one of the ones taken from the Sarah Circle house way back in December of 2009.
Ellis Maxwell: The goal was was to say “hey look, y’know, Josh doesn’t have the kids. He hasn’t had them for some time. The Coxes have them. Clearly we can see a positive change in the children’s behavior over the course of that time. This is something that we discovered early in our investigation and we would like you to take it into consideration uh, when, uh, you take into consideration of releasing these kids back to Josh.”
Dave Cawley: But there was a problem. All of the evidence gathered in West Valley’s investigation remained under a court seal in Utah. Ellis couldn’t just hand it over without first getting a judge’s permission.
Ellis Maxwell: Because it is contraband, it is illegal, I can’t just manufacture a copy because that’s illegal and then give it to the authorities in Washington.
Dave Cawley: The Utah judge set a condition on release of those images to Washington State: it couldn’t happen, unless it appeared Washington was about to return the boys to Josh. But Ellis wasn’t able to tell the social workers that.
At the end of November, the Washington Children’s Administration decided any claims against Josh of negligence or maltreatment of the boys were unfounded. That launched what’s known as a dependency action, which would allow Josh to get the boys back, so long as he followed all of the court’s instructions.
The Washington social workers tried to pump the brakes, expecting they would receive those images from West Valley any day. They didn’t realize the pictures weren’t coming. Without the images, the social workers figured they’d have to return Charlie and Braden to their father by no later than mid-January of 2012. Washington didn’t provide that piece of information to West Valley.
As a pre-condition for reunification, a judge told Josh he and the boys needed to get counseling. The counselor they chose had no idea what was coming. During her first session with Josh, he went on a rant about the Coxes. The counselor brought in the boys. Josh told them, in front of the counselor, that grandpa was in trouble because of the Mormon police. If the Mormon police had their way, Josh said, they would arrest him, too.
A judge had explicitly told Josh he wasn’t supposed to talk about this. During another session, the counselor asked Charlie to draw a picture of a happy time. Charlie went to work with a crayon. He sketched three human figures. Two stood together within a circle, smiling. Charlie crossed them out with an X and wrote the words “don’t play with me.” The third figure was alone in another circle and appeared to be on the ground, as if dead.
Chuck Cox: The boys are talking about their mother now. The boys are finding words. The boys have said things like “daddy’s a bad man.” Charlie had said that “Chuck Cox was a bad person.” And I said “well why, why would you say that.” “Well daddy says Chuck Cox, daddy’s gonna get rid of Chuck Cox,” and this kind of stuff. And I said “I’m Chuck Cox.” “No you’re not, you’re grandpa.”
Dave Cawley: Chuck also told social worker Forest Jacobson about a time in 2010, when Braden had drawn a picture of “camping” at daycare. Braden had told a staff member at the daycare that his mommy was in the trunk.
Chuck Cox: Charlie had said something about Mormon police or whatever. If he’d said anything like that, I would say “really, have you ever seen one of these police?” “Well, no.” “Who told you about police?” “Well, daddy.” “Oh, ok.” “Can you tell me anything about?” “Well, no.” There was just something that was said that he was supposed to say and repeat and he didn’t know what they were.
Dave Cawley: The social workers made weekly visits to the Cox house. Their notes showed the boys were adjusting well to their new surroundings.
Chuck Cox: To the social workers who saw them in the beginning and saw ‘em once a week, it was watching time-lapse photography of the, of the kids and their improvements in their self-esteem and their health and their, everything was so much, each one, it’s like “wow, these are almost normal kids now.”
Dave Cawley: Tammy Forman, who’d been Charlie’s kindergarten teacher at Carson Elementary, could see the progress too when she’d run into him in the hallways.
Tammy Forman: He was a lot more friendly toward me, even though he wasn’t in my class anymore, once he lived with his grandparents. He would say hello to me and be a lot more outgoing.
Dave Cawley: Around Thanksgiving, Jennifer and Kirk Graves as well as Debbie Caldwell, the boys’ daycare provider back in Utah, traveled to Washington to spend time with Charlie and Braden.
Chuck Cox: We were talking somewhat about people they knew back in Utah and the kids were “oh, I kind of remember those people now. Oh yeah, that was a good time, we liked that.” So it was a part that had been taken away from them.
Dave Cawley: Debbie had already spoken her mind to the social workers.
Debbie Caldwell: So I called Washington child protective services and I said “can’t you do anything?” And they were like “well, y’know, if he’s not beating them, there’s nothing we can do.” … I remember after the Coxes got custody of the boys we had had a balloon gathering at the park and I yelled at the detective that was leading the, umm, investigation and I said “do everything you can to keep the boys from going back with Josh. He will kill them.” And he said “oh, you think so?” And I said “yes, I think so.”
Dave Cawley: James Manley, the forensic psychologist, completed his report on Josh in early December. It spanned 22 pages.
James Manley: There was a timeline that I had to follow. There was a court proceeding, which I think it got pushed out a little bit a couple times, awaiting the West Valley reports. Those “reports” — the pornography found on Josh’s computer — had still not arrived.
James Manley: Because of that, the data wasn’t at my disposal at the first publication in my first report.
Dave Cawley: In a nutshell, the report said Josh showed a lot of strengths as a parent, but was under a huge amount of stress. James pointed out Josh’s intense self-focus, his defensiveness and an inability to stay attentive to Charlie and Braden’s well-being. On the other hand, James noted Josh had a stable job. He’d been working from home for a company called One Red X. He also had a place of his own, no substance abuse problems and the intellect necessary to be a good parent.
James Manley: But what was really clear is that he was very attached to his sons. And I could tell that he loved his sons. And they him.
Dave Cawley: So what should happen? That was complicated. James called attention to Josh’s “unresolved legal entanglements” in Utah, saying they were a cause for concern. He suggested Josh see a therapist, one with experience in narcissistic personality disorder. He did not recommend reunification, instead saying two or three supervised visits each week would best balance the interests of both Josh and the boys.
Josh moved quickly to schedule those additional visits. He asked to have those mid-week meets happen at the home of his friend and pastor, Tim Atkins. DSHS agreed. Atkins had become something of a go-between and peacemaker between Josh and the Coxes. He counseled Josh about how to deal with his hard feelings toward Susan’s parents.
On December 19th of 2011, Josh sent this email to Tim.
Eric Openshaw (as Josh Powell from December 19, 2011 email to Tim Atkins): I wanted to send you a special thank you note for all you are doing. It is more than just facilitating visits, it is helping restore a good spirit even in a bad situation.
Dave Cawley: Shortly after Christmas, Charlie and Braden came home from a visit with Josh. Chuck and Judy were getting the boys ready for bed when Chuck glanced into the unfinished addition on the house. Contractors had been putting up drywall in what was supposed to become Charlie and Braden’s bedroom. They’d been taping and mudding seams. The mud was still drying.
Chuck Cox: Then I looked in there and, and, and saw this, little fingers had been in the mud and in the outlet. And the mud was soft enough that you could push it in the outlet.
Dave Cawley: Was that in this room?
Chuck Cox: Yeah, that was, that was that outlet.
Dave Cawley: Ok.
Chuck Cox: (Laughs) Right there. That was that outlet.
Dave Cawley: Charlie had slipped past a barricade to get into the room, unnoticed.
Chuck Cox: But he was, had been pushing the mud into the outlet. So I went out in the kitchen to ask Charlie “why were you doing that?” And he said “well, y’know, daddy had told him to”. So, “did daddy tell you to put it in the outlet?” “No.” “Well, what did dad tell?” “He told me to break things.” And I told Charlie “did you realize Charlie, you could have got shocked by doing that? And I don’t want you to get hurt.” And he, and he started crying. I said “why are you crying?” “Well, I could’ve got hurt.” (Laughs) Wait a minute. You don’t care that you were damaging something. You care that you could’ve got hurt. Yeah ok, well we still got a ways to go here but we get it.
Dave Cawley: Chuck asked the state to cancel Josh’s visitation that week. Josh went ballistic.
Eric Openshaw (as Josh Powell from December 28, 2011 email): My children apparently said I told them to do this. When I asked Charlie why he said that about me, he said the Coxes told him to say it so he said it.
Dave Cawley: Josh wrote that in an email to the social workers, his attorney and his friend Tim Atkins. He accused the Coxes of neglecting the boys.
Eric Openshaw (as Josh Powell from December 28, 2011 email): I am deeply concerned about my sons being killed by electrical shock while no one is supervising them.
Dave Cawley: Atkins responded with an email of his own the next day. He told Josh that going on the attack was not helpful. Tim scolded Josh, politely, and said he shouldn’t have sent the angry email. Atkins was trying to mediate some sort of peace between Josh and his in-laws. But Chuck told Forest, the social worker, he couldn’t ever see reconciliation happening.
In early January of 2012, the Coxes were watching a junior high basketball game with the boys. Charlie and Braden slipped away with one of their cousins. The older cousin grabbed Charlie and started to spin him around.
Chuck Cox: Charlie was being swung and Braden jumped in the middle and as he went around, that swept his feet out from underneath him and he fell down.
Dave Cawley: Braden smacked his head and ended up with a giant goose egg. Chuck took Braden to the ER at Mary Bridge Good Samaritan Hospital. A CT scan showed no skull damage, just a lot of swelling. A few days later, Chuck brought Braden back to the hospital with another injury. This time, it was a bad burn on his left foot.
Chuck told the hospital staff he’d disconnected the water heater at his house while a contractor was setting tile for the remodel. He’d boiled a pot of water on the stove, so they’d have hot water in the house while the heater was offline. He’d put a lid on the pot, then set it on the ground near the couch.
Chuck Cox: He runs around and he puts his foot on the top of the lid and it flipped inside out and he doused his foot and, and then “oh my gosh! What’s going on? How did you get into that? I had a lid on it, it was safe, it was tucked up against the couch, nobody could get to it. And it was,” well, he found a way.
Dave Cawley: To the doctor, the story sounded a bit convoluted. The nurse was skeptical, especially since it was Braden’s second time there in a week. Hospital staff put in a call to the state social workers.
Chuck Cox: Everybody who was there could say what happened and all our stories matched. And they were, there was absolutely nothing, it was just an accident, it happens. But anyhow, they wanted to interview us and do their part.
Dave Cawley: Josh also caught wind of what’d happened. He rushed to the hospital, but staff and a sheriff’s deputy met him in the lobby. They refused to let him see Braden, in part because he didn’t have custody but also because the anti-harassment order he’d asked the courts for the prior fall barred him from coming within 500 feet of Chuck.
Josh threw a fit. When he was at last was able to see Braden, he didn’t try to comfort his son. Instead, he immediately started taking pictures of the injury. Braden’s entire left foot was red. Blisters had formed on the top of the foot and around the ankle. Caretakers wrapped the burn in gauze and gave him morphine. They sent him home with the Coxes, not Josh.
That night, Josh’s attorney demanded social workers pull the boys out of the Cox house. He said it was an unsafe environment. But police and a court-appointed advocate for Charlie and Braden decided the burn was an accident.
Chuck Cox: I had done everything I could at the time to keep him safe and he just, he was just being a boy, running around and I haven’t covered everything obviously because he did get hurt.
Dave Cawley: The social workers decided Braden’s injuries proved that, at worst, the Coxes were just a bit overwhelmed.
Dave Cawley: Toward the end of January, Josh quietly updated the registration information for each of his websites. He took his own name off and replaced it with his brother Michael’s. A few days later, Michael posted his own website on a Google domain. He called it “4theKidzz.” That’s the number four, “the” and then kids spelled K-I-D-Z-Z.
The site hosted a long essay from Michael, dated January 27th, 2012. In it, he accused West Valley police of dumping millions of dollars into a campaign of harassment against his family. Michael called the department “incompetent” and “corrupt.” He mocked the searches for Susan in Ely and Topaz Mountain as charades. He denied any evidence existed to support his dad’s voyeurism arrest.
West Valley police weren’t Michael’s only target. He went on to claim Braden’s burn was no accident. He suggested Chuck and Judy Cox had intentionally inflicted the injury as a form of punishment.
Mike’s language bordered on preposterous. He said Washington child welfare workers were ignoring the “overwhelming obviousness of Josh’s superior parenting ability.” The kicker of it all though was a line that claimed everyone just wanted to “lynch” Josh. Mike wrote the attacks fell short because his brother was “squeaky clean.”
The entire point of the 4theKidzz website was to make the case that Charlie and Braden’s removal had been illegal. In addition to Michael’s essay, it included copies of court documents and emails that social workers had sent to Josh.
That peek behind the curtain caught the attention of reporters. One asked Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services for a comment. When word got back to the social workers, they were not happy. Forest Jacobson fired off an email to Josh, ordering him to explain himself. Josh was apologetic in his reply.
Eric Openshaw (as Josh Powell from February 2, 2012 email): I asked my family about the website they apparently posted and they said it is down. I re-emphasized to them that I am working hard to build bridges with the Coxes for my sons sake and they should help me do that.
Dave Cawley: Just as Michael was posting his manifesto, Pierce County Sheriff’s Detective Gary Sanders was bringing a disc to the home of forensic psychologist James Manley.
Gary Sanders: Doesn’t snow here very often and that day it’d snowed about a foot so I had to drive to his place, Dr. Manley’s.
Dave Cawley: James was expecting to see photographs.
James Manley: The detective came to my home. We looked at the slides.
Dave Cawley: That’s not what was on the disc.
James Manley: Turned out that there were no pictures. There were cartoons and computer generated sketchings.
Dave Cawley: Ellis Maxwell and the West Valley team had at last secured a judge’s permission to share those images with a select number of people, including Gary Sanders, James Manley and Washington State’s attorney general.
James Manley: Also, There were I think close to, if not 300 thumbnail slides that I had to inspect. Some of them depicted, uh, fantasy with long tails of, even appendages, of uh, alien monsters and so forth that were approaching another figure in a sexual manner.
Dave Cawley: Most concerning were computer-generated animations showing lifelike human figures involved in acts of incest.
Josh had made steady progress toward getting his boys back. He had a court date scheduled for Wednesday, February 1st.
Gary Sanders: Y’know, a judge at some point was gonna go “ok, they’ve been away. Steven’s out of the home. He’s the one, the voyeurism, you haven’t proven anything substantial as far as Josh not being a, a fit parent, so we can put the boys back.”
Dave Cawley: James drafted a follow-up to his original report. He expressed deep concern over what he’d seen. The pictures, he said, suggested Josh showed “global approval” of sex acts between adults and children.
James Manley: So that, along with the other facts that came along with that, clearly indicated Mr. Powell needed a psychosexual report, which had to do with his sexuality.
Dave Cawley: He took that recommendation to Pierce County Superior Court judge Kathryn Nelson When Josh showed up for court he looked haggard.
Gary Sanders: Each time Josh came into the court, he looked worse and worse. And that’s where our concern was, too, that he’s, he’s getting to his end. I think he came in that February thinking he was going to be granted custody back.
Dave Cawley: Josh filed a six-page declaration with the court that day. Its tone bounced back and forth, from defiant to conciliatory.
Eric Openshaw (as Josh Powell from February 1, 2012 declaration): A lesser person would fall under the intense scrutiny I am facing, but apparently my inherent resilience as a person makes it increasingly difficult for them to pursue their agendas. I am standing tall for my sons, but it deeply hurts to face such ridicule and abuse.
Dave Cawley: Josh made a veiled reference to his brother’s 4theKidzz website.
Eric Openshaw (as Josh Powell from February 1, 2012 declaration): Information was recently published by people who wanted to support me and the truth. I did not support that effort and I did not even read all of it, but what I did read was accurate. Yet it was censored from the internet due to complaints.
Dave Cawley: Yet Josh also seemed to take some responsibility for the state of affairs.
Eric Openshaw (as Josh Powell from February 1, 2012 declaration): I am sorry for my part in the conflict. … For the sake of my sons, we can all do better. I come back to my partnership for protecting my children which I hope to include a broad network of individuals including the Cox family. It is a two way street and I intend to do my part.
Dave Cawley: Josh concluded by saying he didn’t believe the Coxes should be caretakers for his sons and that it was time for Charlie and Braden to come home. That request struck Susan’s family and their attorney, Anne Bremner, as absurd.
Anne Bremner: There were a lot of other issues, y’know, about Josh and about, one of which also is, the kids could be witnesses. They’ll only say more and more as they get older. That’s a red flag too, that he should not be in a position where he’s got control of them.
Dave Cawley: But Josh’s secret stash of images are what finally tipped the scale.
Anne Bremner: He had like 400 images of cartoon incest porn on his computer.
Dave Cawley: Judge Nelson ordered Josh to undergo a psychosexual evaluation.
Anne Bremner: A lot of people say that’s what really set him off. That he had, like, a real discernible reaction at that court hearing.
Gary Sanders: And it’s a big victory on our part. Y’know, we’re like “ok, cool. Josh is not getting the boys back, the boys are staying with the Coxes. They’re good, they’re safe for now. Things are progressing in the right direction.”
James Manley: People generally don’t like talking about their sex histories. So oftentimes a sexual history polygraph is employed.”
Dave Cawley: A lie detector. And not just any lie detector, an invasive one involving a device called a plethysmograph which would gauge Josh’s physical reaction to sexual stimuli.
Ellis Maxwell: I don’t think Josh, well I know Josh didn’t know what he was up against.”
Dave Cawley: Josh went and asked another psychologist what kind of questions he’d have to face.
James Manley: Everything from when you first held hands to how many sexual partners you have, what kind of sex you had, who you had it with and so forth, masturbation and other kinds of things.
Dave Cawley: The psycho-sexual evaluation was checkmate.
Chuck Cox: That’s the point where he knew he couldn’t get out of it. He was, he was stuck. He would not stand up to a psychosexual evaluation because it’s a lie detector test. And the psychosexual evaluation is not to see if you are a pervert, but how big a pervert you are. And they can ask you any questions they want during that, just to get your reactions to stuff. And they could ask him questions about Susan. Would’ve been perfectly acceptable to ask those questions under that evaluation and hooked up to a lie detector with a few extra leads on it. (Laughs) He would not, there was no way he’s going to fake that. So he knew he could not pass that, in my mind. He knew, that was it.
Dave Cawley: His pastor, Tim Atkins, wrote an email to social worker Forest Jacobson, explaining his family no longer intended to host visits between Josh and the boys. Atkins said people were questioning his own connection to the case. It was creating problems for his church. Atkins said his family had come to realize just how little they actually knew about Josh.
Chuck Cox: But any wolf, raised by wolves is dangerous when cornered. And he was cornered … and the courts never saw him that way.”
Dave Cawley: Judge Nelson’s decision left placement of Charlie and Braden unchanged, with the Coxes. But supervised visitation was allowed to continue at Josh’s house.
Ellis Maxwell: I mean I, it’s beyond me as to why a government official, knowing what they know of the case, knowing what they know of why they took the kids, and then, and then they order this visitation to be done in this particular area, why they would allow the kids to go to the house. … Here you have an individual that is being ordered to take a psycho-sexual evaluation and you’re keeping the kids from him. But you’re going to allow the kids to go to his house for visitation. And I understand, yeah there was a social worker with the kids but, I mean c’mon. That’s just, that’s just ludicrous. But you know what? I’m not the one who has to live with it.
Dave Cawley: On the Saturday following that court hearing, Josh drove to the bank. He withdrew some cash, then transferred the remaining balance to an account belonging to his little sister, Alina. He drove to his storage unit in Sumner and spent more than hour there, sorting through his things. He loaded some of the stuff into his minivan, then went and dumped it at a recycling center. He put the unit’s key in an envelope and mailed it to Alina.
Although he’d won visitation at his house, he took Charlie and Braden’s toys and books out of his rented house and donated them to Goodwill. When he returned home, he parked his van in the garage, next to a pair of five-gallon gas cans that he’d bought from a Fred Meyer department store earlier in the week. They were both full of gasoline.
That night, Josh sent two emails to Dax Guzman, his tenant back in the Sarah Circle house in West Valley City, Utah. One explained that he was forgiving late fees on Dax’s rent. Another told Dax to cut the lock on the shed out back of the house, trash whatever was in there and use the space for himself.
Josh’s old motorcycle was also sitting out in the back yard. He asked Dax to take it to a junkyard. If he received any money for it, go ahead and keep it. Dax’s wife Mindy was the first one to see the messages.
Dax Guzman: She was actually in California. She was headed back to Utah from California. She had, she had told me that “oh, Josh just said that we could use his storage unit and we can get rid of his bike.” I’m like “wow, that’s weird, he’s being nice.”
Dave Cawley: Josh had been a difficult landlord. Dax had agreed to finish the basement in the Utah house in exchange for a break on the rent.
Dax Guzman: We’re living in the house and he’s giving us deadlines of when he wants things done. I’m like “dude, like, I’m working. I have a family. You need to,” I’m like, “if you want it done, come back and do it.” I’m like “why don’t you come back to Utah, see how you’re greeted.”
Dave Cawley: Josh never did return to Utah. The next morning, Dax received a third and final email from Josh. It simply said “I’m sorry. Goodbye.”
On the next episode of Cold.
Dispatcher (from February 5, 2012 recording): Lots of explosions heard. Unknown if it’s occupied. Flames are visible. Ladder 91 sees a huge plume and PD’s aware. Be careful.