(Sound of wind chimes at Woodbine Cemetery)
Dave Cawley: Our story now returns to where it started: the Woodbine Cemetery and Puyallup, Washington. On December 6th, 2012, Susan’s family and friends gathered at the cemetery to mark the third anniversary of her disappearance. A new monument stood at the top of the hill, above Charlie and Braden’s gravesite. The bronze angel with outstretched wings and arms stood atop a large stone block. It was an Angel Of Hope, a reference to the novel “The Christmas Box” by author Richard Paul Evans.
Nancy: It’s a calm place for me. It feels right that these boys are here because it’s so quiet and calm. Because when I met them it wasn’t quite that way.
Dave Cawley: This monument in Puyallup has become a special place to reflect for people who knew Susan, Charlie or Braden. People like Nancy from the Puyallup Gem and Mineral Club. Or Pierce County Sheriff’s detective sergeant Gary Sanders.
Gary Sanders: Y’know it’s, it’s one of those bookmarks in your, in, in your long line of memory that forever will be there so, periodically, y’know yeah, pay your respects. And the Christmas angel that’s there and it’s a beautiful place, umm, and hopefully they’re at peace now.
Dave Cawley: This is Cold, Episode 18, Angel of Hope. I’m Dave Cawley. Back after this.
Dave Cawley: The sting of loss has never gone away for the people who loved Susan and her boys, friends like Amber Hardman.
Amber Hardman: They were happy boys. Crazy, happy boys, like boys should be. (Laughs) Right? We’d show up and, umm, they’d always be running around playing, sometimes in their underwear. Y’know, just crazy boys. (Laughs)
Dave Cawley: Or Linda Bagley.
Linda Bagley: One of the biggest things I remember about Susan that was something to look up to for me was the service she did for others. She was coloring people’s hair, cutting people’s hair, not charging them. For those that were older, for those that were, needed it maybe that didn’t have the funds, she did all those things for people. And she did all those things for her family, all the service she did for her family and stuff and, and that is something to be admired.
Dave Cawley: Or Debbie Caldwell.
Debbie Caldwell: Charlie liked bugs. He liked to find bugs. He was outdoors, umm, intrigued by things, so he was always looking for things. Now, Braden was all about cars and blocks. So as long as I had the cars and blocks, that was great. But Braden actually had quite a little witty personality. He was kind of a teaser. He liked to tease. You could see that in his personality. That was kind of like Susan, too.
Dave Cawley: Josh’s older sister, Jennifer Graves, still grieves for what should have been: seeing Charlie and Braden grow into bright, happy young men.
Jennifer Graves: The boys’ murder wasn’t the end. It did, it did close a chapter for me, though. Because the single biggest single thing that I was concerned about was the boys. 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 be able to have a, a normal, loving family relationship as, as much as possible.
Dave Cawley: I’ve mentioned Jennifer’s book, A Light in Dark Places, a few times during this podcast. Jennifer told me she hoped that in writing it, she might inspire women in situations like Susan’s to escape.
Jennifer Graves: Part of the motivation for writing my book was trying to instill that courage in others. And that recognition of a bad situation and realizing, the realization that it shouldn’t go on. There needs to be a change in that situation, and sometimes it can be corrected. Sometimes with help people can change and, and you can fix the situation and end up with a good and positive marriage and, and family situation. But sometimes, it isn’t possible. Sometimes the right decision is to get out.
Dave Cawley: Susan’s dad, Chuck Cox, has a similar goal.
Chuck Cox: I would guess probably around 100 people at least have made differences in their lives to prevent themselves from being caught in that same trap. And that’s the reason, the only viable reason for doing it from now on is to let people know about the danger signs that were there.
Dave Cawley: Now-retired detective Ellis Maxwell has also spent the last few years working on a book.
Ellis Maxwell: I thought I could have that thing written in six months but it’s tough because I catch myself basically just start working the case again and analyzing this data and analyzing that and it becomes really taxing. I mean, I’d sit down and I’d start typing and I’ll type and type and type and do this and do that and then next thing you know, I can’t sleep for two, three days.
Dave Cawley: Ellis told me our conversations have helped.
Ellis Maxwell: Sittin’ here and, y’know, meeting with you and answering your questions and sharing some insight has, it’s actually been, uh, beneficial for me and it’s helped me kinda get through my own struggles from doing it. ‘Cause it’s, it’s always going to be there, it’s never gonna go away.
Dave Cawley: But Ellis is just one of many, many people who took part in the Powell investigation. A lot of them still carry the weight of their experiences in a private.
Ellis Maxwell: Everybody involved in the case has, uh, has struggled at one point or another with and, y’know, ‘cause it’s really super challenging and all of ‘em, not just me, y’know, are gonna have to answer questions and live with this case for the rest of their lives as well. Especially when people learn that, how close to the investigation they were.
Dave Cawley: Of course, a key element of that struggle arises from the absence of answers.
Ellis Maxwell: There’s answers that I’ll, uh, never ever get and, y’know, there’ll never be any justice, uh, held against anybody for their actions and y’know the likelihood of, uh, Susan ever being discovered is in my personal opinion, uh, very super low.
Dave Cawley: This is the part where I’m supposed to say I’ve cracked the case, that I’ve found Susan, that she can at last rest in peace with her boys. I’m sorry. I can’t do that. I wish I could. Instead, I’m going to do what reporters are trained not to do. I’m going share my personal views, what I think likely happened to Susan. But I stress, this is a theory. It’s based on evidence and inference but is ultimately nothing more than an educated guess, one that is subject to change. Here goes.
I believe Josh Powell killed Susan. I believe it was crime he considered for quite some time, likely more than two years. I say that because of the steps he took as early as 2007 to obtain life insurance in her name, to establish a trust that would guarantee his access to that money and to secure power of attorney so he could take legal action in her name.
We know from Steve Powell’s journals that Josh spoke in 2008 of wanting Susan to have an “accident.” We know from Susan’s handwritten will that she feared Josh would kill her and that he would try to make it appear as though it were an accident. It seems likely that Josh had threatened Susan’s life repeatedly. Recognizing that danger, Susan had told an old friend in a November, 2008 Facebook message she was ready to make a hasty escape with her sons.
Kristin Sorenson (as Susan Powell from August 15, 2008, Facebook message): I have friends he would never think of if I need to leave in the middle of the night or whatever, a safe deposit box, docs on file, etcetera.
Dave Cawley: Susan had toed right up to the brink of divorce. Her efforts to assert her independence howled around Josh like warning shots over the bow of a ship. He knew what was coming. Josh would not tolerate a divorce. He’d seen just how ugly his own parents’ split had been. He also viewed Susan as his property and their two sons as extensions of himself. Under no circumstance would he allow her custody of them.
For Josh, killing Susan would’ve seemed to solve two problems. It would’ve rid him of a wife he no longer wanted and, if done properly, would’ve paid his bills for years to come.
I’m not sure why December 6th, 2009 was the date he chose to take the final step, but Susan’s impending April deadline for divorce seems a probable factor in the decision.
As for the act itself, I believe Josh used some sort of drug or substance to incapacitate Susan. I can envision a scenario in which Josh intentionally brake-checked another driver a few months before that December day, causing a crash. We know for a fact that after that fender-bender on September 2nd, Josh obtained a prescription for a drug that would do the job: cyclobenzaprine.
The script he filled the day of the crash was for 40 pills, enough to last about a week. When police later found the bottle in the Sarah Circle house in December, it still held 32 pills. If Josh had been in such pain from whiplash, wouldn’t he have taken more? And how many cyclobenzaprine pills would he’ve needed to crush up and put into the cream cheese on Susan’s pancake — the one he personally prepared for Susan on December 6th — to leave her feeling tired?
Susan once mentioned in a Facebook message Josh did not have a gun.
Kristin Sorenson (as Susan Powell from August 15, 2008, Facebook message): No weapons aside from power tools and kitchen knives.
Dave Cawley: It seems plausible that Josh might have used one of his tools, perhaps an electric drill, to kill Susan.
Susan Cox Powell (from July 29, 2008 home video): Every tool case, I mean he’s a tool dream guy. There’s a Bostich nail gun, a Milwaukee drill, a Rigid drill, some type of Rigid sander and a Rigid saw.
Dave Cawley: Josh might’ve used the Rug Doctor he’d acquired to steam clean any blood that made it onto the carpet or couch cushions. Perhaps that job took longer than he anticipated. In his rush, he could’ve missed a spot: the swipe mark of Susan’s blood on the upper head rest of the couch. There were also those small drops of Susan’s blood on the tile floor next to the couch that he failed to notice, perhaps scattered by a spinning drill bit.
It would’ve also taken time to wrap Susan’s body, a necessary step to prevent the spreading of forensic evidence. It’s possible he used one of the several tarps he kept in the garage. Maybe he used the tree wrap he’d purchased to lightly bind Susan’s arms and legs together, leaving no marks or residue, as duct tape might.
In this scenario, Josh would’ve grabbed Susan’s cell phone and powered it off, understanding the risk of it being tracked as he moved her body away from the house. But in his rush to clean and dump the body before heading out on his camping trip, which was to be his alibi, he might’ve overlooked Susan’s wallet, purse and keys. That, in and of itself, might not have been a big problem in his mind. I believe Josh expected he’d have time to return home and tie up loose ends before himself reporting Susan had not come home from work.
He probably didn’t account for Debbie Caldwell. Josh did not like Debbie much. If he’d ever bothered to get to know her better, he might’ve realized that she took the wellbeing of her daycare kids very seriously, that Charlie and Braden’s unexplained absence would cause alarm.
Debbie Caldwell: He didn’t think of the welfare and the wellbeing of the kids.
Dave Cawley: It’s likely Josh was on his way home to finish cleaning up on the afternoon of December 7th when he took that first phone call from JoVanna Owings. He learned at that moment police were already looking for Susan. Worse yet, they’d already been in the house.
JoVanna Owings: I still can’t figure out how he thought. It leaves me at, at a loss.
Dave Cawley: In another phone conversation that afternoon, Josh asked his sister Jennifer Graves, what she knew.
Jennifer Graves: Just more evidence. More evidence that he had this preconceived plan and was involved in her disappearance.
Dave Cawley: If he’d hidden the murder away until he could return home and dispose of it, he might have feared that police had already found it. So Josh went on the defensive. His plan appeared to hinge on the idea that Susan had gone to work. In order to sell that story, he drove south to Point of the Mountain and called her phone, the one he knew was with him in the minivan, to leave this message.
Josh Powell (from December 7, 2009 voicemail recording): Anyway, hopefully you got to work ok and, umm, of course give me a call. We’re I guess planning picking you up, but let me know ‘cause, umm, if you have plans afterwards or whatever.
Dave Cawley: Josh then drove north to Salt Lake City and parked outside of Susan’s work, knowing full well she’d not shown for her shift that day and would not be coming out for a ride home. I place a lot of weight on this. Establishing that Susan had gone to work seemed critical to Josh. He insisted on it from his very first interactions with detective Ellis Maxwell.
Ellis Maxwell (from December 7, 2009 police interview recording): So where, where would your wife be at? Where would you think she’d be at?
Josh Powell (from December 7, 2009 police interview recording): I don’t know. I’m just thinking on her way to work. But not for this long.
Dave Cawley: That insistence leads me to believe Josh intended for Susan’s body to be found and for her death to have appeared as either an accident or as a random act of violence, one for which Josh had an alibi: he was in the desert, witnessed by sheepherders, when it happened.
Susan being found and her death being someone’s fault would’ve been necessary if Josh intended to claim the life insurance. In this scenario, Josh would’ve left Susan’s body somewhere near the Wells Fargo call center where she’d worked. Charlie, if he was awake and in the minivan at the time, might have seen an airplane taking off from nearby Salt Lake City International Airport. And that could explain his perplexing comment to police on December 8th about having flown in an airplane to go camping.
Kim Waelty (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): How did you guys get to where you were camping?
Charlie Powell (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): Umm, we got in a airplane and a airplane went to Dinosaur National Park.
Kim Waelty (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): Oh, you went to an airplane yesterday?
Charlie Powell (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): Yeah and our airplane bring us to Dinosaur National Park.
Dave Cawley: After Josh’s first interview with Ellis Maxwell on the night of the 7th, he’d have returned home still convinced he could make the plan work. His top priority would’ve been the destruction of the murder weapon. I believe Josh took the weapon, again, possibly a power tool, and used his oxyacetylene torch to obliterate it in the garage of the Sarah Circle house.
Next, Josh would’ve sanitized everything: the Rug Doctor, the minivan, the soiled washcloths he’d left in the bathtub. He’d have stayed up all night to do it, even missing his morning appointment with police to make sure he did not miss anything. I believe Josh went in to his second interview with Ellis on December 8 cautious, but confident.
Ellis Maxwell (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): She’s left your boys, she’s left you.
Josh Powell (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): (Snorting) No, I don’t think she did.
Ellis Maxwell (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): You don’t think so?
Josh Powell (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): No.
Ellis Maxwell (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): Help me. Where should we look for her?
Josh Powell (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): I think she would have gone to work—
Ellis Maxwell (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): Ok.
Josh Powell (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): —she would have tried to work.
Ellis Maxwell (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): Alright.
Josh Powell (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): I mean, that’s what she would have been in the process of doing.
Dave Cawley: By the end of that interview, Josh would’ve known the plan, like his wife, was dead. Ellis knew he’d killed Susan, but not how. And he didn’t have the evidence. When Ellis confronted Josh with Charlie’s statement about Susan having gone camping with them, Josh recognized the police did not yet know what had actually happened. Because Susan had not gone out to the West Desert with them. At that point, Josh would’ve known if he were to survive, the plan had to change. Susan would have to disappear forever.
So, on the night of December 8th, Josh obtained the rental car. He drove to the ATM outside of his bank in West Valley and withdrew about $600 in cash.
I believe it’s plausible Josh could’ve then returned to where he’d originally left Susan’s body, retrieved it and moved it to a place where it would be safe from discovery. Somewhere within a slightly less than 400-mile radius of West Valley City, Utah. Probably up north, in one of the dark stretches of southern Idaho. In that frantic process, he strained his shoulder.
During this timeframe, Josh told his own father the same story he’d told the police. Steve Powell was skeptical. But he had no foreknowledge of the murder and no hand in its execution.
Steve Powell (from February 24, 2010 FBI interview recording): I think we’ll find her, I really do.
Dave Cawley: Over the course of the following weeks and months, Steve concocted an alternate reality in mind, rather than face the horrible truth that his son had murdered the object of his unrequited obsession.
Steve Powell (from February 24, 2010 FBI interview recording): I mean Josh, I, I, I am totally comfortable that he had nothing to do with it.
Dave Cawley: The only person Josh confided in was his brother, Michael. Michael’s phone records suggest he was aware of his brother’s plan and, when it went awry, accepted the task of helping Josh manage the mess. I do not believe Michael met Josh on December 8th or 9th, while Josh was unaccounted for in the rental car. I do not believe Michael disposed of Susan’s body. I say this, because Steve Powell’s journals describe Michael as being home in Puyallup on those days.
Michael Powell (from October 20, 2012 deposition recording): I got the impression that the first day he was expecting her to come back because she occasionally left and sometimes he didn’t always know where whereabouts for periods of, y’know, a few hours or, or whatever. And umm, as time went on, I got the impression that he was just getting more and more upset and distraught. By the end of the week, he was in tears. And that’s when I remember, because that’s when, uh, I went down there.
Dave Cawley: So how do I account for Michael’s later paranoia about his Ford Taurus, or the cadaver dog hitting on the car’s trunk?
Dave Lindell: You know I guess you have to wonder, was it purely because of possible car problems he wanted to sell the car, or did he just want to get out of the car? ‘Cause I remember that when we checked the car out, we couldn’t really find that much wrong with the car.
Dave Cawley: I find it likely that while Utah, Josh tasked Michael with disposing of some piece of secondary evidence. Perhaps clothing Susan had been wearing when she died or something similar. Michael might’ve even been taking that object back to Washington in the Taurus when his car broke down. I can imagine Michael’s fear, standing along the side of I-84 between Ontario and Baker City while in possession of murder evidence, wondering if an Oregon state trooper might at any moment pull up behind him. I can picture Michael flinging whatever that item was into the grass alongside the highway before limping the car the rest of the way to Baker City. It would then make sense for Josh to stop at that same spot five months later and take photographs, to ensure whatever it was Michael dumped could not be seen from the interstate.
I do not believe Susan’s body is in Utah’s West Desert. I don’t think Josh disposed of her in a mine. So where is she?
Louis Amodt: Could be in a borrow pit right next to the freeway, somewhere between here and Wendover. Who knows?
Dave Cawley: After all of this, I can only guess.
Ellis Maxwell: Y’know, so I have empathy for the Coxes. I mean that’s, I can’t imagine, y’know, losing a child and, y’know, never being able to see them again or put them to rest or not ever have any answers. That would be something I wouldn’t, uh, wish upon my worst enemy. That’s just horrible.
Dave Cawley: Find Susan. It remains a hope, a wish, a command, a desperate plea. Final thoughts after this.
Dave Cawley: The question of where to find Susan Powell is no longer the one that most bothers me. To understand why, I need to share something that happened shortly before this podcast first launched. It was October 22nd, 2018, three weeks from Cold’s debut.
I arrived home from work on that chilly autumn evening, ready to unwind. In an idle moment, I pulled my phone from my pocket and began scrolling through tweets. I spotted one from the University of Utah. It said “Alert: shooting on campus. Secure-in-place.”
Brian Wahlin (from October 22, 2018 KSL NewsRadio archive): We don’t believe there’s an active threat at this point in time, but don’t have that 100% confirmed.
Dave Cawley: I called the news director at KSL Newsradio, my friend Marc Giauque. He was on his way to the station. He had dispatched a reporter to the scene.
Marc Giauque (from October 22, 2018 KSL NewsRadio archive): The shooting happened earlier today they did find one person deceased. That victim identified as a woman and they did identify a suspect as well.
Dave Cawley: I grabbed my keys, went to my car and raced back to work.
Dave Cawley (from October 22, 2018 KSL NewsRadio archive): The situation as it is ongoing at the University of Utah campus this evening, because of a shooting that happened, fatal shooting, uh, just around 9 p.m. Police are on scene. They are looking for a suspect who has not been located.
Dave Cawley: We came to learn over the following hours and days that Lauren McCluskey, a student at the university, had been shot and killed outside of her dorm by a man named Melvin Shawn Rowland.
Dale Brophy (from October 23, 2018 KSL NewsRadio archive): A couple hours into the investigation we learned that suspect had gotten off of campus in a vehicle. He was picked up. Through an investigative lead at approximately 1:15 in the morning, the suspect was located by Salt Lake City police department downtown off of 600 South. A foot pursuit ensued. The suspect ran into a church, at which time he took his own life.
Dave Cawley: Lauren’s and Susan’s stories are different. Yet, they are the same. Both women lost their lives to a romantic partner. Both women had come to Utah from Washington: Susan to escape her father-in-law, Lauren to perfect her talents as a gifted runner.
Lori McDonald (from October 23, 2018 KSL NewsRadio archive): Lauren was an outstanding student scholar and an accomplished student athlete and the students, staff and faculty who knew her are feeling a profound loss.
Dave Cawley: Melvin had lied to Lauren about his age. Lauren was 21, Melvin was 37. He’d also lied about his status as a convicted felon and sex offender on parole. He’d served time in prison after raping a teenage girl.
One of Lauren’s friends had learned Melvin’s secret and warned her. That’s when Lauren broke off their brief relationship. But Melvin would not leave Lauren alone. He used technology to terrorize. He bombarded Lauren’s phone with text messages, using spoofed phone numbers to make it appear as though the texts were coming from Melvin’s friends. In fear, Lauren called police for help.
Lauren McCluskey (from October 12, 2018 University of Utah police dispatch call recording): I got a text about, y’know, asking if I wanted to go to a funeral. His funeral. And I think they’re trying to lure me somewhere.
Dave Cawley: Yet, Lauren also doubted her own instincts.
Dispatcher (from October 12, 2018 University of Utah police dispatch call recording): Ok, and is there a protective order between you guys or is he just an ex of yours?
Lauren McCluskey (from October 12, 2018 University of Utah police dispatch call recording): Just an ex.
Dispatcher (from October 12, 2018 University of Utah police dispatch call recording): Ok. And are you trying to avoid him? Or not necessarily?
Lauren McCluskey (from October 12, 2018 University of Utah police dispatch call recording): Umm, I would say it’s more just his friends.
Dave Cawley: That changed when, in an email, Melvin threatened to publish intimate photos of Lauren unless she transferred a thousand dollars to his account. She did. Then, Lauren again contacted police. She just wanted the harassment and extortion to stop.
Lauren McCluskey (from October 13, 2018 University of Utah police dispatch call recording): Do you know when an arrest would be made?
Dispatcher (from October 13, 2018 University of Utah police dispatch call recording): Umm, you can talk to an officer, if you want? I can arrange that, if you want that.
Lauren McCluskey (from October 13, 2018 University of Utah police dispatch call recording): Ok. Yeah, that sounds good.
Dave Cawley: But Melvin was not arrested. Police failed to piece together his status as a parole violator. A week elapsed before, on the night of October 22nd, he snatched Lauren in the parking lot outside her dorm, dragged her into the back seat of a car and shot to her to death. Lauren was on the phone with her mom when it happened.
Matt McCluskey (from October 22, 2018 911 call recording): My daughter, Lauren McCluskey, was talking to her mom and then she just started saying “No, no, no, no, no.” And it sounded like someone might have been grabbing her or something.
Dave Cawley: I didn’t know Lauren, but her death shook me. Lauren McCluskey and Susan Powell should both be alive today, along with many, many other women who’ve been killed at the hands of a husband, a boyfriend, a date, a coworker or even just an acquaintance. So I’m less concerned with the question “where is Susan” than I am the question “why does this keep happening?”
One particular passage from Susan’s emails has resonated with me. She wrote it in November of 2008, a little over a year before her disappearance. She said:
Kristin Sorenson (as Susan Powell from November 15, 2008 Facebook message): I’m finding out more and more that family and friends were seeing the red flags long before I did and of course I wish they would have said something.
Dave Cawley: Susan, I make this pledge to you: I resolve to treat the women in my life with respect, compassion and understanding. I vow to believe any woman who expresses through words or actions a concern for her safety. I promise to call out and condemn abusive, manipulative or controlling behavior any time or place I encounter it. And if I ever fail to live up to this standard, I invite those who know me to hold me accountable.
We can do better. We can be better.
To anyone who is listening, I would be honored if you would join me in making this same commitment.
My name is Dave Cawley. Thank you for listening to Cold.