Dave Cawley: When Steve Powell met with the FBI in Tacoma in late February of 2010, he told the special agents his grandsons, Charlie and Braden, didn’t seem to miss their mother all that much.
Gary France (from February 24, 2010 FBI interview recording): Have you uh, dared to ask the kids any questions or have they made any comments to you?
Steve Powell (from February 24, 2010 FBI interview recording): They’ve never made any comments, no. The kids are very happy.
Gary France (from February 24, 2010 FBI interview recording): Yeah.
Steve Powell (from February 24, 2010 FBI interview recording): The only comments, uh, in fact y’know, do they really miss their mother? I don’t even know. I mean I think they do occasionally—
Gary France (from February 24, 2010 FBI interview recording): Yeah.
Steve Powell (from February 24, 2010 FBI interview recording): —and they, and they, maybe before they came to my house maybe there were some questions or whatever. But the kids really have, no they’ve never made any comments. There’s not anything in, nothing in their, their, the way they act that suggests, no. Nothing like that. There’s—
Gary France (from February 24, 2010 FBI interview recording): Yeah.
Steve Powell (from February 24, 2010 FBI interview recording): —no indication. Nothing—
Gary France (from February 24, 2010 FBI interview recording): Yeah.
Steve Powell (from February 24, 2010 FBI interview recording): —nothing morbid about the way they’re thinking or about the way they’re thinking or about the way they’re acting, reacting, talking.
Dave Cawley: Steve’s claim that the boys didn’t talk about their mom seemed dubious at the time.
Steve Powell (from February 24, 2010 FBI interview recording): We have done everything possible to shield those grandsons from the media and from this story. I don’t turn on the TV.
Russ Johnson (from February 24, 2010 FBI interview recording): Which is commendable, by the way.
Steve Powell (from February 24, 2010 FBI interview recording): And, and I’m in a gated community so the media can’t park out in front of my house and, y’know, shine halogen lights on my house all night.
Gary France (from February 24, 2010 FBI interview recording): Yeah, that’s commendable. Yeah. Those kids should be totally free from—
Steve Powell (from February 24, 2010 FBI interview recording): We are, and yet the people, the Cox family and their friends have just put signs up and down on every light post going in and out of our property with Susan’s picture on ‘em and, and I, when I walked Charlie to the park the other day—
Russ Johnson (from February 24, 2010 FBI interview recording): Like a missing thing?
Steve Powell (from February 24, 2010 FBI interview recording): —on the way back, yeah, the missing thing, he says “why is mommy’s picture on the sign post, on those signs?”
Gary France (from February 24, 2010 FBI interview recording): Yeah.
Steve Powell (from February 24, 2010 FBI interview recording): I mean, I’m trying to shield these kids from them. These people are so desperate and they’re so, they’ll stop at nothing to get those kids away from my home.
Dave Cawley: On April 17, 2010, Steve typed this into his digital journal.
Ken Fall (as Steve Powell from April 17, 2010 journal entry): This afternoon Charlie commented that “mommy is lost in the desert.” Josh and Michael were also present, so we all heard it. I asked him where he had heard that. He said he had made it up in his own mind. Michael said we had been talking too much about that desert search that was planned for April 10. Supposedly a couple thousand people were going to be searching in the area Josh and the boys camped on the night of December 6. Susan went missing the next day. We had discussed that plan, and made derisive comments about it. Charlie doesn’t miss much.
Dave Cawley: This is Cold, episode 10: Charlie. I’m Dave Cawley.
Dave Cawley: In the summer of 2006, Josh registered a domain name for a website: susanpowell.org. The following summer he registered three more, one each for his name, his son Charlie’s name and the baby, Braden’s name. These were just the latest in a growing list of web addresses he controlled, going back to his college days. He’d built a site at susanandjosh.net for their wedding in 2001. A few years later, as he tried to build a career selling real estate, he made joshpowellrealtor.com.
Josh’s websites were not fancy. He liked web design though and worked constantly to improve his skills. For a couple of years, he used the domain Charliepowell.org as a sort of sandbox where he could experiment. He built a password-protected portion of the site and posted photos of Susan and the boys there. Throughout 2009, Susan provided family and close friends with usernames and passwords, which created by Josh, so they could see the photos as well.
Susan preferred to just put those photos on Myspace or Facebook, but Josh wasn’t all that interested in social media. He refused to let Susan use his computer for anything but the most basic tasks, like scanning his papers. In 2009, she finally spent $100 to buy her own computer. At the time, Josh groused about the expense and criticized her for buying a system he considered out-of-date.
Shortly after Susan disappeared, someone provided Detective Ellis Maxwell with a username and password for the charliepowell.org site. He logged in and browsed through the photos of the Powell family’s trips to Topaz Mountain and Dinosaur National Monument. A few weeks later, in early early January, he tried to log in again. The credentials did not work. Josh had cut off access.
A short time later, a page popped up on another of Josh’s domains: susanpowell.org. It claimed to be the “official site for information about this beautiful woman, her family and other things she loves.” Text on the main page told visitors it was the only source of new photos and videos of Susan.
While Josh wasn’t personally interested in Facebook, he did pay attention to it. In the days following Susan’s disappearance, her neighbor and friend Kiirsi Hellewell had created a Facebook page to help spread information.
Kiirsi Hellewell: So at first we named it the name of our church congregation. We called it the Hunter 36th Ward group. And then I immediately changed it like it the next day ‘cause I realized it, it shouldn’t be sounding like it’s a church-sponsored thing. And so we named it Friends and Family of Susan Powell. And then the group became huge, like thousands of people joining, like, immediately and it was just crazy how fast it went. I had just made it to keep the neighborhood in contact with each other so I could post the information in one place instead of having to answer 30 or 40 messages every day and 50 phone calls.
Dave Cawley: Public interest in Susan’s case fanned that growth. The page soon had tens of thousands of followers, many of whom had no qualms sharing their negative opinions of Josh. He used Susanpowell.org to respond. As 2010 progressed, new pages appeared on the site. Some were relatively benign, marking Mother’s Day or the six month anniversary of Susan’s disappearance. Others were addressed to Susan herself, as if she were hiding out some place and reading them from afar. Yet others focused on Josh’s activities with Charlie and Braden, like a visit to Mount St. Helens on the 30th anniversary of its eruption.
Ellis Maxwell: By putting up this website, all it is is a diversion.
Dave Cawley: Ellis Maxwell and the rest of the West Valley detectives didn’t put any stock in the notion that Josh was actually trying to send messages of love and support to a distant Susan.
Ellis Maxwell: It’s their way of basically trying to convince society that they care and that they’re trying to help. It’s all it is. They don’t care.
Dave Cawley: Steve Powell, in a digital journal entry dated May 15th, 2010, wrote about the response to the website’s Mother’s Day entry.
Ken Fall (as Steve Powell from May 15, 2010 journal entry): One blogger hit it on the nail by saying that we are probably sitting back and “laughing our asses off.” That is totally true. As I have said before, this web site is about one thing: mind-[expletive]ing the Mormons who have shown a total lack of common sense and decency in this tragedy.
Dave Cawley: Another page titled “Mormons Mobilize” appeared in June of 2010. It explained how Josh believed Susan’s father, Chuck Cox, had used the religion to attack him. He pointed out that the administrators of Kiirsi’s Friends and Family Facebook page were Latter-day Saints. He surmised that they were out to get him because his father, Steve, was an “ex-Mormon.” The instigator, according to the author of the page, was Josh’s sister Jennifer Graves.
Eric Openshaw (as Josh Powell from “Mormons Mobilize” page on susanpowell.org website): For at least 20 years, Jennifer has hated her father, Steve Powell, for openly expressing his views as an ex-Mormon. … All four of Jennifer’s siblings have always felt that Jennifer strongly resented them as well. Jennifer’s long-held grudge has created a divide between Mormons and non-Mormons in the Powell family.
Dave Cawley: The site also announced Josh was leaving The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Eric Openshaw (as Josh Powell from “Mormons Mobilize” page on susanpowell.org website): Josh still knows and loves many Mormons and he is convinced that most Mormons are good people. … However, Josh will not attend the Mormon Church again because of the various pressures placed on Susan, and now on him as well as his extended family.
Dave Cawley: The website explained he was investigating unaffiliated Christianity as an alternative to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He’d met and befriended a local pastor named Tim Atkins and was attending his church instead.
On another part of the site, the Powells recounted Jennifer’s visit to Steve’s home in January of 2010, when she’d confronted Josh while wearing a wire.
Jennifer Graves (from January 22, 2010 wire recording): Can you look me in the eye and tell me you really did not have anything to do with it?
Josh Powell (from January 22, 2010 wire recording): I did not have anything to do with it.
Dave Cawley: The webpage accused Jennifer of being a “convincing story teller” who went on an “hysterical rant.”
Eric Openshaw (as Josh Powell from “Mormons Mobilize” page on susanpowell.org website): Josh tried his best to answer Jennifer Graves’ slightly-more-grounded questions, though they were rare… Jennifer Graves’ insinuations became more exaggerated and hysterical with each time she asked, until Josh finally stopped responding to her altogether.
Dave Cawley: Each new post on the susanpowell.org site prompted a flood of critical reaction among the members of the Friends and Family Facebook page. Kiirsi, the creator and moderator, tried to keep the peace in spite of her own outrage.
Kiirsi Hellewell: Debbie and I would just call each other up and just scream over the phone because we were so furious and so outraged that these slime bags could just be out in public doing this to her, when they were the ones that made her disappear and probably had killed her.
Dave Cawley: Debbie, Susan’s daycare provider, also found herself a target.
Debbie Caldwell: I even got a paragraph on that, that website ‘cause I was a man-hater.
Kiirsi Hellewell: Oh yeah. They called her a man-hater.
Debbie Caldwell: Yeah, even though I’d been married to the same man over 25 years I was a man-hater.
Dave Cawley: By November of 2010, the pretense of the site being a place to share happy moments with Susan in absentia had completely evaporated. The writers lashed out at Susan’s parents, again making unfounded accusations that they’d inflicted emotional abuse upon Susan as a child. For Susan’s dad, Chuck Cox, the website was worthy only of a huge eye-roll.
Chuck Cox: When you started reading things, it’s like “this is why Josh is such a great guy.” I thought this was a Susan Powell website. Y’know, “well, Josh is a great father because…” Well, this is nothing but propaganda for him. … There’s nobody could read that website and not realize what it was, that had any idea about the situation. Y’know so, I was like “oh yeah, that’s not worth my time or anybody else’s time.” Just, y’know, it’s just garbage out there.
Dave Cawley: The website claimed Susan had never considered divorcing Josh, which her own writings clearly contradicted. Susan’s friends, like Amber Hardman, couldn’t believe what Josh and his dad were saying.
Amber Hardman: They’d make these wild stories that nobody would believe but then you look at everything that happened and it is a wild story. It’s hard to believe any of it is real almost. Y’know? I remember living through it and just thinking “what’s going to happen next?” Like, “this is like a horror movie.” Like, everything that keeps happening is so unbelievable.
Dave Cawley: In December, another page appeared. It discussed Susan’s childhood friendship with a woman named Brittainy Cornett, who’d written in Susan’s journal when they were both teenagers. The episode in question had involved a tiff between Susan and her mom over some household chores. Brittainy wrote a private note of support and advice to her friend. Josh published those pages, from one teenage girl to another, for all the world to see.
Eric Openshaw (as Josh Powell from susanpowell.org website): The six page letter Brittainy wrote directly into Susan’s journal describes a real-time account of the emotional abuse Susan suffered in her childhood home.
Dave Cawley: The page made it clear: Josh and his family were weaponizing Susan’s childhood journals.
Dave Cawley: Charlie Powell sat at the edge of the sandbox, away from the other kids. He wasn’t pouting. He seemed fine playing alone. He just stacked rocks and twigs while babbling to himself.
Two adult counselors from the Mel Korum Family YMCA were also at the edge of the sandbox on that day in late August of 2010, watching over the kids. They’d had them in the summer program for several weeks and were familiar with each child’s unique personality. Charlie, they knew, was whiz at science. He loved to talk about stuff way above his age range, like rockets, evolution and how broken bones heal. Sometimes, his science talk caught the staff at the Y off guard. Like the time he said Bill Nye the Science Guy was always right and God wasn’t real.
One YMCA staffer liked to welcome the kids by saying it was a great day to be on God’s green Earth. Charlie would reply that God offended him.
As he muttered to himself on that August day, he said something about how to kill a bear. It caught the ear of one of the counselors, who asked Charlie to repeat what he’d said.
Charlie said the best way to kill a bear was to dig a big hole, put the bear into it and then throw rocks at it. Once the bear was dead, cover the hole with a tree and plant raspberry bushes. He stressed that last detail. It had to be a raspberry bush. That way, he said, the berries would be the sweetest. One of the counselors asked Charlie where he’d heard such a thing. Charlie hesitated, then said “umm, on t.v.”
Another time, Charlie took off chasing a crow during a snack break.
(Sound of crow calling)
Dave Cawley: He seemed intent on catching and killing it. The staff scrambled to stop him. They asked why he wanted to harm the bird. Charlie replied it was bad and needed to die. He said he needed to bury it, covering the crow with rocks and sticks and flowers because then it would be perfect and no one would touch it.
Now, Charlie was just one of many kids taking part in day camp at the Y that summer. He started in July and kept mostly to himself for the first few weeks. Toward the middle part of August though, he started to come out of his shell and develop a rapport with the counselors.
He sometimes did troubling things. He tended to pick on one of his fellow campers, a little girl, by putting sand down her pants and kicking her in the crotch. During a campfire activity one day, he explained that Jesus was part of the Mormons and Mormons were bad and should be killed.
Most of the staff had no idea about Charlie’s background, at least not at first. When he started misbehaving, word got around about who his dad was. Some of the counselors started reading up on the Susan Powell case online. Supervisors at the YMCA could see trouble brewing. They advised the staff to stay civil and document their interactions with Josh.
Braden, then three, acted out in a different way. He cried often and wanted to be held constantly. He seemed to cling to the female counselors. They described him as high-anxiety and extra-needy.
Ellis Maxwell: That timeframe that, y’know, those boys were away from their surroundings that they were comfortable with, right, and going to church with mom and, and daycare and stuff like that and being with mom and, the majority of the time rather than dad, they were allowed to be kids. Once Susan went missing and Josh had those kids and more so when he took them from Utah to Washington, y’know, those kids’ exposure to childhood surroundings and environment kind of came to an end. With the exception of them going to YMCA and stuff like that.
Dave Cawley: Josh said he didn’t want his boys getting too attached to the YMCA staff. He acknowledged they hadn’t seen their mother since December but never actually mentioned Susan by name. From his very first phone call to the YMCA at the start of July, Josh struck the managers as odd. He bombarded them with calls and emails and became irritated when their responses weren’t instantaneous. In person-to-person interactions, he stood or sat very close, keeping his voice hushed as if he feared being overheard.
Yet, he would talk at length about his personal problems, not with his missing wife, but with being unemployed and painted as bad guy in the news media.
Josh inquired if he might be able to get a job at the YMCA, in order to help offset the cost of the day camp. Managers told him he was welcome to apply, just like anyone else. Instead, Josh asked about volunteering. Staff said he would have to apply for one through their parent organization in Tacoma. Josh never did that. Perhaps, Josh suggested, he could just use his computer skills to beef up their registration program or internal software. He was good with computers, he said, and could hack into anything if given enough time.
The whole point of this was Josh didn’t want to pay. He said he was on unemployment and couldn’t afford the programs. No problem, they said, helping him qualify for a 50-percent cut in the dues. But that wasn’t enough for Josh. In one awkward conversation with a supervisor, he broke down and said his life was very hard. He said Mormons were out to get him. They were using the internet to smear his good name. He wondered if the staff might be willing to blog on his behalf, to talk about what a good father he was.
The YMCA staff did not blog about Josh. But they did tell West Valley City police every strange thing he’d done in their presence.
Josh Powell liked lapidary. That’s a fancy word for making things with gemstones or minerals. That’s evident from his interest in rockhounding and geodes in Utah. He wanted to share the hobby with his sons. In September of 2010, he started haunting the meetings of a gem and mineral club in Puyallup.
Nancy: Originally he was like this nice guy. And I go “what do you do?” “Oh, I sell real estate and this and that.” And he seemed just seemed like a nice young man.
Dave Cawley: That’s Nancy. She was vice president of the club at the time. She’s never publicly shared the story of her interactions with Josh, Charlie and Braden. She asked that I not use her last name for this podcast, out of concern for her privacy.
Nancy: I had no idea who he was. I didn’t even know who he was. And I would look at the little boys and I would think “where’s your mommy” in my head. “Where’s your mommy?” And, and then I’d just put it like, well maybe they’re separated and he’s got custody every other week and this is where they go ‘cause it’s something to do, rather than just stay home on a Friday.
Dave Cawley: In those early days, Josh often stayed after the meetings ended to talk to Nancy. He seemed eager to impress her.
Nancy: And it wasn’t until there was a class there and somebody said to me “you know who they are, right?” And I go “who? Who is?” And they go “Josh.” And I go ‘I know that’s Josh, yeah.” And he goes “that’s Josh Powell. His wife’s missing.” And I’m like “no, no!” And I was shocked. And then I went home and I watched the TV, or y’know I pulled it up on the internet and there his face is and I literally cried because, first off, that’s, where’s your mommy. That was answered.
Dave Cawley: Josh kept attending the meetings, week after week. He rarely spoke with the other members, even during social events like field trips.
Nancy: I had heard that he was, his intentions were to learn how to make jewelry with these stones and sell it, so he could make some money. That’s what I heard is what is intentions were for being in the club was to make money off of making some jewelry.
Dave Cawley: The club held a kids corner once a month. That wasn’t enough for Josh. He brought his boys to every meeting, even when they were just dry lectures or discussions of club business.
Nancy: They were just, it was like they were, like they had ants in their pants. They wanted to get up and go. They didn’t like it there until they got to move. And they’d run upstairs. They’d go into areas they shouldn’t go. They, they were so rambunctious but I don’t, I don’t know if that was just to be free.
Dave Cawley: Josh let the boys run wild. The climbed on tables. They dashed up stairs. To Nancy, it seemed the boys were releasing pent-up energy. And they sometimes got into mischief.
Nancy: They weren’t mean but Braden bit one of the women on the bottom. I don’t know why but it was during one of the more, maybe he wanted her to get out of the way, I don’t know. (Laughs) It was one of the busier meetings that we had and he came up behind her and bit her right on the bottom. And, umm, surprise to her.
Dave Cawley: Josh also let the boys to use dangerous equipment, like rock tumblers, unsupervised. Other club members pointed out the obvious risk. Nancy responded by making a new rule saying kids had to have adult supervision to use the machines. When informed, Josh came unglued.
Nancy: Just angry and saying “that’s not fair.” I mean, he would, if it wasn’t going his way, he would lash out.
Dave Cawley: That temper didn’t endear him to anyone. But Nancy and the other club members fell in love with the boys, in spite of their antics. Braden didn’t talk much, but Charlie liked to share, especially when his dad was out of earshot.
Nancy: He was like talk, I don’t know, rubbing his fingers together and talking to me in this quiet, hushed tone. And I couldn’t figure out why and so I was like getting close to him, trying to hear what he was saying. And he was talking about architecture and buildings and I was so impressed with him. I was, I mean this little boy and he, what he was talking about wasn’t the typical thing that a little boy talked about.
Dave Cawley: Those opportunities were pretty rare. Nancy said Josh never paid the boys much mind, until he lost sight of them. One time, Nancy stepped out of the grange where the club met to get something from her car. Charlie and Braden chased her outside.
Nancy: Josh busted through the door and he’s going “what are you guys doing out here!?” I mean, just freaked at them. Just over and above because I was right there. But he, he lost it because they were out of his sight.
Dave Cawley: On another occasion, Charlie bumped into a club member. It led to a stone that Josh’d been polishing falling onto the floor. Josh picked up the stone, spotted a small chip and exploded at Charlie.
Nancy: Screamed at him. Just yelled at him, like, “you broke this, you’ve ruined it!” And the club member was like “no, no, no. You can just put it back on the sander and polish it up again and it’s ok, it’s alright.” So club members were calming Josh down because he got so angry because this rock hit the floor.
Dave Cawley: Charlie’s only real escape came at school. He started kindergarten at Carson Elementary when the YMCA summer programs ended. On September 19th of 2010, Josh delivered a letter to the principal of the school. Here’s what it said.
Eric Openshaw (as Josh Powell from September 19, 2010 letter to Carson Elementary): Charlie is an at risk child due to a vigilante mob being led and encouraged by people who claim to be friends and family… In order to protect Charlie’s physical safety and emotional wellbeing, he must be kept away from anyone claiming to be a friend or family member unless explicitly authorized by me to have contact.
Dave Cawley: The only people Josh authorized to pick up Charlie were himself, his dad Steve, his sister Alina and his brother Michael. The letter included a “no contact” list for Charlie, which singled out not only his maternal grandparents Chuck and Judy Cox, but also his mom, Susan.
Tammy Forman: It was really creepy to me that the first, one of the first things he said to me is “their mom is not allowed to see them.” Because once I found out who he was, I thought “if you killed her, why would you even be saying that. Why would that be an issue for you?”
Dave Cawley: That’s Tammy Forman. She was Charlie’s kindergarten teacher. She did not like Josh.
Tammy Forman: I felt scared when I was around him. I thought he was really creepy.
Dave Cawley: Josh fretted about police and the media getting access to Charlie through the school. It led to him making an unusual demand.
Eric Openshaw (as Josh Powell from September 19, 2010 letter to Carson Elementary): If possible please forbid all outsiders from entering Charlie’s classroom unless they are related to another student (this includes any space while it is occupied by Charlie). If you cannot legally stop them from entering Charlie’s space, you are instructed to immediately hold Charlie in a private area away from the outsiders and contact us.
Dave Cawley: Josh rarely dropped off or picked up Charlie himself, instead sending Alina to do that. She often came with detailed instructions from Josh, or sometimes Steve, about how the faculty were to conduct themselves.
Tammy Forman: But she always seemed very apologetic about where Josh was and I was just happy that (laughs) I was dealing with her and not one of them.
Dave Cawley: A few weeks later, Charlie told his teacher it was okay to swear around Mormons because they didn’t like it and would ask you to stop. If you kept swearing, the Mormons would leave, so you should try to swear around Mormons. Tammy told Charlie he shouldn’t use bad language at school. None of this is to say that Charlie was a bad kid. He wasn’t. Tammy could tell he was very bright.
Tammy Forman: He was very entrepreneurial and extremely curious. Just wanted to know about everything. I would say he was precocious.. He didn’t really fit in. He was very quirky and kind of like a little man. He didn’t, he wasn’t playful. Very serious boy, so I think kids didn’t know what to make of him. They didn’t dislike him, but he was, was always alone. Like, at recess he would just be down on the ground, y’know, looking at some bug or, I don’t even know what. (Laughs) I always saw him out there crawling or, y’know, he had projects going on all the time.
Dave Cawley: While alone, Charlie often wrote.
Tammy Forman: He wrote a story about ants because we had an ant infiltration and he was very concerned that I not hurt the ants so he wrote out directions of how to get rid of ants without hurting them.
Dave Cawley: During class one day, he drew a picture. When Tammy asked what the crayon-scribble-blob was supposed to be, he explained it was a gun.
Tammy Forman: And he drew it upside-down so when I saw it, first saw it, it looked like people on a mountain or something. And I was always on edge about “what’s he drawing?” Umm, and then I turned it around and it looked like a gun to me.
Dave Cawley: Alina pestered Tammy in early October, after Charlie came home from school with a small nick over his left eye. She said Josh wanted to know how it’d happened. Tammy told Alina kids get scrapes all the time. Charlie might’ve even done it to himself. It wasn’t a big deal. But it was a big deal to Josh. He and Alina complained to the school counselor.
Josh tended to monopolize the time at school for events like parent-teacher conferences. One time, he demanded Tammy stay late so he could meet with her one-on-one after he was done at work.
Tammy Forman: And I said that would be fine but our principal will be there. And he said “oh, it’s okay. I can get off work. I’ll come earlier.”
Dave Cawley: He didn’t talk much about his son’s behavior or grades, but instead asked for specifics about what Charlie’d been saying in class.
In January, the Powells started lobbying Charlie’s classmates, inviting them to come to his sixth birthday party.
Tammy Forman: Josh and Steve had almost a campaign going. They wanted kids to go to the party and every day they brought a different kind of candy and there would be an invitation as part of the candy. And they would take a vote, like, have everybody raise their hand “are you coming to Charlie’s party?”
Dave Cawley: Tammy wanted to help Charlie make friends, but had serious misgivings about any kids spending time at the Powell house. She was prohibited from sharing those concerns with the parents of any of the other students. Steve Powell though did a good enough job creeping people out without Tammy’s help.
Tammy Forman: Yeah actually, my daughter was playing out on the playground while I was doing some planning and Steve came to the playground with his camera and was taking pictures of the neighborhood kids playing on the playground and several parents asked him to leave and he was being defiant.
Dave Cawley: In February of 2011, after Charlie turned six, he made a strange comment during a classroom discussion about siblings.
Tammy Forman: Charlie said that his brother was dead one day. He just came and said “my brother’s dead.” … But Charlie more and more would start to say odd things and I’d just send him to the counselor ‘cause I didn’t want any kind of big confession there in front of the class.
Dave Cawley: The principal, Arturo Gonzalez, reached out to the Washington State Children’s Administration. He told them them something horrible might have happened to Braden. The Pierce County Sheriff’s Office sent a deputy to the Powell house. Josh and family were not happy to see a cop on their doorstep. Braden was alive and well, they assured him.
In May, a classmate said Charlie’s mom was dead. He overheard the remark, marched over to that table and shouted that his mom wasn’t dead, she was just away from her parents because they’d abused her. Later that day, Tammy asked Charlie if he was ok.
Tammy Forman: He said “I feel a little better because I’m really smart and I can figure out a way for liars like this student to go to jail for 14 years.”
Dave Cawley: In June, the counselor at Carson Elementary contacted the Children’s Administration again. A classmate had tried to befriend Charlie. Charlie told the other boy “I do not want you to sit by me. I am going to come to your house at night and kill you.” The counselor had taken Charlie aside and asked why he’d made the threat. Charlie told her he wanted to kill the boy because he was a Mormon.
Tammy Forman: And I feel like as the year progressed, he was getting closer and closer to saying something that would have incriminated his dad. There were more and more times when I would feel like “oh, we’re getting really close.” Especially with talking about camping and talking about his mom and the crystals and “my mom’s not dead.” And that kind of thing was happening more and more.
Dave Cawley: Toward the end of the school year, Josh twice turned up at the school and planted himself on the floor of Charlie’s class. Tammy told him that was not acceptable. But Josh wouldn’t leave.
Tammy Forman: And then when people would come in to have him leave, he would say “oh no, I’m fine.” He wasn’t really combative, he just wouldn’t leave. And so then they would have to go get someone else. And eventually the principal would have to come in and escort him out.
Dave Cawley: Josh frequently called the school counselor, venting about the investigation into Susan’s disappearance. He insisted on his innocence. The counselor, who was unnerved, started to screen Josh’s calls.
Tammy Forman: So I didn’t feel like Josh was interested in me romantically. I guess, umm, our administrative assistant felt that from him and was creeped out. She started wearing a fake wedding ring because she didn’t want him to be interested in her. But Steve, on the other hand, it was so creepy. He was like a little boy with a crush when he would come around. Like, he would get all red and be overly polite and accommodating and thankful. And it was really creepy.
Dave Cawley: Josh caused a stir by attempting to join Carson Elementary’s parent-teacher association. The PTA president said he was welcome, assuming he could clear a background check. Other parents were not thrilled. They talked about circulating a petition to try and block Josh’s participation. Josh backed off once word of the dust up hit the news.
Dave Cawley: A small group of people gathered at a city park in West Valley City, Utah on Saturday, October 16, 2010. They came together for an event marking Susan Powell’s 29th birthday. The guest of honor, needless to say, did not attend.
Many of Susan’s close Utah friends, who had been drawn together over the 11 prior months, were there. Neighbor and confidant Kiirsi Hellewell was there. So was the former daycare provider, Debbie Caldwell, and Susan’s sister-in-law, Jennifer Graves.
Jennifer Graves (from October 16, 2010 KSL TV archive): We want closure. What’s done is done. So if she’s alive, we want her back. If she’s not, then we want to know the truth.
Dave Cawley: So too were West Valley City police. They kept a low profile, watching as the small crowd of about 25 people tied notes to strings, which were in turn attached to 150 balloons. The balloons lavender and purple, Susan’s favorite color. Each card included a picture of Susan and message about her disappearance. At the conclusion of the event, the balloons rose into the sky, carrying the messages on the wind.
Crowd (from October 16, 2010 KSL TV archive): Happy birthday!
Dave Cawley: A similar event took place in Puyallup, Washington. Josh did not attend either event. That day, he left home without his boys at a quarter to 9 in the morning. He didn’t return until just after 7:30 that night.
West Valley were watching him, too. They’d visited the YMCA at the end of the summer, setting up in the chapel to interview all the staff who’d interacted with Josh and Charlie.
Ellis Maxwell: See, Charlie was 5, I believe, at the time. Kids are very creative. They have a very active mind at that age and they’re very observant. Their, their brain’s a sponge.
Dave Cawley: Detective Ellis Maxwell was trying to make sense of Charlie’s comments about killing bears and hating Mormons. Did any of it have to do with Susan?
Ellis Maxwell: Yeah, I think you could put a little bit of stock into it. However I just, I’m not sure how well it would hold up.
Dave Cawley: Not only was it a jumble, but it seemed obvious to the police that at least some of Charlie’s responses had been coached. After all, the boys had been living with Steve, Josh, John, Michael and Alina for months.
Ellis Maxwell: They would not talk like traditional adults would talk around their kids. I mean they, they didn’t really watch their language, umm, and so I think a combination of that — what they were exposed to inside that home at Steven Powell’s — and just them themselves and being kids and maybe even the media.
Dave Cawley: Police learned Josh had landed a job working for Microsoft. Steve Powell wrote about Josh’s new job in his journal in early September.
Ken Fall (as Steve Powell from September 8, 2010 journal entry): This is Josh’s 2nd week at Microsoft. He is quite happy there, but incessantly worries that someone will confront him on his wife’s disappearance and he will be let go. He lost the first job that hired him the day before he started, after signing contracts and passing their background check.
Dave Cawley: The police hatched a plan. They knew Josh was commuting by train between Puyallup and Bellevue. What if, they wondered, he happened to meet someone on that train?
Ellis Maxwell: Yeah, the goal was to put a UC on the train and get close with Josh and try to befriend him.
Dave Cawley: UC is short for undercover. This wasn’t going to be just any undercover officer, though.
Ellis Maxwell: Y’know obviously you’re going to get more intel, get more information, it’s, he’s going to be more open and receptive to a female.
Dave Cawley: Ellis hoped the seeds of an incipient romance might just compel Josh to confide some detail that would give him away.
Ellis Maxwell: Yeah, it was a great plan.
Dave Cawley: Detective Ellis Maxwell and his team arrived in Washington in early November, to their plan in motion. They never had the chance.
Ellis Maxwell: Like, the next day we were gonna move forward with it. We were all up there and we were ready to go and he lost his job.
Dave Cawley: Here’s what happened. Josh provided an interview to the Salt Lake Tribune. He told the paper that Susan was “extremely unstable” and would only return home once the public furor over her disappearance dissipated. He called Chuck Cox a “puppet master” who was organizing a “hate wagon” of followers on Facebook. Josh criticized the media for portraying him as a “Marvel Comics super villain.”
On the one hand, Josh finally talking was a boon for the police.
Ellis Maxwell: Y’know, for example Steven Powell and Josh going to the media and saying how, y’know, she was going to be chewed up like hamburger when she returns. Great, kudos man. Why don’t you guys keep this up. Because these are going to be great to introduce when we get into a trial because, y’know, if you genuinely cared about your missing wife and you weren’t responsible you wouldn’t be talking in this fashion, right?
Dave Cawley: But it wrecked the undercover girlfriend operation.
Ellis Maxwell: Josh basically got himself fired from his job because they learned who he was and he’s in front of the media and, uh, he basically lost his job, so, and that happened literally, like the day before our operation.
Dave Cawley: West Valley’s November trip to Washington wasn’t without fruit, though. While there on November 16, West Valley police Lieutenant Bill Merritt and U.S. Marshal Derryl Spencer paid a visit to the Powell home. Steve invited them into the entryway, where they chatted.
Josh was home at the time and also joined in the conversation. Once he did, Steve invited the investigators into the living room. Then they all settled in for a longer talk. Steve and Josh both used the opportunity to berate the police. Steve repeatedly brought up Susan’s childhood journals, even reciting passages from memory.
In a report, Merritt said each time Steve referenced the journals, he seemed to lose touch with reality and stare into the distance. The investigators asked for the journals.
Ellis Maxwell: They initially told us “well we’re not going to turn them over to you, but we’ll make copies for you.” And it’s like “no, we need the journals, not copies.”
Dave Cawley: Josh and Steve proposed a swap. They offered up copies of the childhood journals, in exchange for the adult journal of Susan’s that police had recovered from her workspace. The cops said ‘no deal.’
Dave Cawley: Steve Powell had long shown an unusual interest in his daughter-in-law’s journals. On January 11th of 2003, he wrote in his own journal about visiting Josh and Susan’s apartment when they were still living in Washington state.
Ken Fall (as Steve Powell from January 11, 2003 journal entry): I have had access to their storage room for a few days and couldn’t help but notice two enticing storage boxes, one labeled “Susan’s photos” and one “Susan’s journals.” When it comes to Susan, I stop at nothing. I helped myself to everything in those boxes and have scanned hundreds of pages and photos. … I don’t feel in the least guilty about these things.
Dave Cawley: Steve hadn’t shown a similar desire to preserve his own writings. He noted his “scan-happy” son didn’t bother to make digital copies of Susan’s journals, either.
Ken Fall (as Steve Powell from July 7, 2003 journal entry): I scanned everything into my computer and now have copies of dozens of early pictures and all her journals up to late 2000. If she loves me, as I think she does, she will not be upset. In fact, she will be thrilled that I am so interested in her. Josh hasn’t read them, and never will.
Dave Cawley: Susan’s journals dated back to age 8. During her teenage years, she’d penned frank entries about her family, her crushes, her boyfriends and her heartbreaks. Her teenage relationships were turbulent and intense, as they often are.
Steve found those descriptions titillating. He continued to sneak glances at his daughter-in-law’s current journal whenever he could. Yet, for all of his obsession, Steve couldn’t understand why Susan didn’t spend more time in those volumes talking about him. On October 6, 2003 he wrote:
Ken Fall (as Steve Powell from October 6, 2003 journal entry): Most profound to me is that there is nothing positive said about me. I am almost a footnote. … And with all the other negative comments about me she doesn’t mention a word about my sexual proclivities, which include taking video clips of her from head to foot. … It’s too bad she is silent about sexual magnetism between us. It would have made interesting reading. I would even have enjoyed it if she had called me Satan incarnate for trying to lead her into sexual sin… But there is nothing.
Dave Cawley: Steve’s violation of Susan’s privacy did not stop, even after her disappearance. He started reviewing those nine journals again, this time with Josh’s full knowledge and cooperation. On October 25, 2010, Steve wrote:
Ken Fall (as Steve Powell from October 25, 2010 journal entry): Josh was talking more yesterday about the first days after Susan disappeared. He had told me months ago that the West Valley City police had lied to him during their interrogations, but he went into more detail. I think he is getting a more secure feeling as we read through Susan’s journals and find out who she really is.
Dave Cawley: When Steve and Josh proposed swapping copies of Susan’s journals with the police in November of 2010, they obviously hoped to gain by it. That hope didn’t last. After the police returned to Utah, Steve called U.S. Marshal Derryl Spencer to tell him they wouldn’t be giving up Susan’s childhood journals under any circumstances.
Josh, it seemed, was coming around to his father’s point of view. The pair saw in those journals a defense. They would use Susan’s childhood writings to portray her adult self as promiscuous and emotionally unstable.
Nancy from the Puyallup gem and mineral club said Josh even mentioned the journals to her, as he was filling out club membership papers.
Nancy: He looked away from the paper and up at me and he goes “do you know my story?” And I go “yes, I do.” And he goes “oh, ok.” And then just turned around like it was nothing and kept filling out the paper.
Dave Cawley: Josh left many of the fields blank, telling Nancy he didn’t want people to know his personal information. He went on to say Susan had been mentally ill and confided he was preparing to release her childhood journals.
Nancy: I just said, y’know, “childhood journal, it does not define the adult.” I go “that’s, I wouldn’t, do you really want to do that? I wouldn’t do that. It’s going to come back on you in a negative way.” And his response was “well, her parents are saying bad things about me.” And, and it was almost like he had to one up them. … And I just said “well that will come back on them. If they’re saying something about you, it will come back on them but why don’t you be a bigger man and not give those journals out to anyone? Those are childhood journals.” And he’s going “well you don’t know what I went through. You don’t know.” And I go “oh, you’re right. I don’t know.” And so that conversation, that was it for that conversation. And it was eye-opening and shocking. It’s like it, it’s like it, right now thinking about it, it’s like it wasn’t even real.
Dave Cawley: For Steve, Susan’s journals were proof she had led a double life. On July 14, 2011, he broadcast that theory to the world. Steve went on NBC’s Today show and openly discussed his feelings for Susan. The NBC crew even filmed a segment inside Steve’s house, where he showed off the actual journals.
Rich Piatt (from July 14, 2011 KSL TV archive): But Steven Powell’s own daughter, and Josh’s sister, is disturbed by what her estranged father is doing.
Jennifer Graves (from July 14, 2011 KSL TV archive): I think it’s not ethical. I think the fact, the very fact that he’s isn’t, that he’s even reading them, why? If he thought there was something really there, there was something of value there that was like evidence or something, turn ‘em over to the police. That would be the logical course of action.
Dave Cawley: Josh and Steve had finished scanning each book and claimed to have 2,000 pages of Susan’s writings. They’d obsessively transcribed and annotated them. They intended to put the documents, Susan’s entire adolescence, on the susanpowell.org website, piece by piece. Susan’s friends, like Kiirsi Hellewell, were outraged.
Kiirsi Hellewell: Josh’s dad was reading that and posting pages from it and oh, I was furious. I was in, I think I was in New York at the time, umm, doing some media and I got the news that he was posting, like I watched an interview that he did with the Today show where he was sitting there turning the pages of the journal and reading little excerpts from it. And I was ready to drive to Washington and rip his head off. And I’m not a violent person. Like, I was so angry that the person that she despised most in the whole world — she couldn’t stand him, she loathed him, she told me about all the things he tried to do to her, to hit on her and take pictures of her getting dressed and stuff like that — that he was having that precious teenage journal where she’d poured out all her thoughts and feelings and he was looking at it and reading it.
Dave Cawley: But police couldn’t believe their luck.
Ellis Maxwell: Y’know, them coming forth with the media and letting the media into Steven Powell’s home was great.
Dave Cawley: Ellis Maxwell saw it as a major miscalculation on Steve’s part.
Ellis Maxwell: I mean, there was some things that Steve did that was wonderful and Josh, I was like “right on” because that’s what I needed to get inside Steve’s house.
Dave Cawley: Ellis wasn’t the only one who realized the Today show appearance was a gift in disguise. Kiirsi saw it, too.
Kiirsi Hellewell: I was sitting in the hotel room watching it and I just, John and I were just, my husband and I were sitting there in shock with our mouths dropped open and I said “wow, he just gave the police a search warrant—”
Debbie Caldwell: ‘Cause he said it was evidence.
Kiirsi Hellewell: —because he said “this is important evidence that I have in Susan’s case.” I’m like “oh well, there’s the reason for a search warrant.”
Ellis Maxwell: So when he let the media in the house and let ‘em film his residence and film these journals in his residence, that was money. That was money ‘cause that was our probable cause to, to get inside the house and that’s what we needed. And so there was some things that they did, they were trying to divert attention. And that’s another one, was letting the media in on these journals. Some of it was useful to us. Some of it I didn’t waste time on. And uh, what was useful we capitalized on.
Dave Cawley: On the next episode of Cold.
Chuck Cox: I knew what kind of words I needed out of Steve. I needed to give the police a reason to give a judge that they needed to get those journals back.