Dave Cawley: Summer had its claws in Salt Lake City. September sun scorched the pavement. The noontime heat made the air appear to wobble. Jeff Lewis stepped into his truck, a red GMC Sierra pickup, outside of his office in an industrial park south of Salt Lake City International Airport. He knew the lunch hour traffic would be bad on the Bangerter Highway, so he opted to take a back road south toward the 201 freeway. Jeff’s route took him down Gramercy Road, to 1820 South, then to an intersection with Bangerter just north of the 201 onramp.
Jeff Lewis: Just before I got onto Bangerter at the intersection, umm, I was sitting at the red light with one vehicle in front of me and it happened to be a little minivan.
Dave Cawley: A blue, 2005 Chrysler Town and Country.
(Sound of traffic on Bangerter Highway)
Dave Cawley: Both the minivan and the GMC were in line, waiting to make right-hand turns onto the southbound lanes of Bangerter. The light turned green.
Jeff Lewis: The minivan started to pull forward and turn right and so I naturally looked left as I was pulling forward and I ran into the back of the minivan.
Dave Cawley: The Town and Country minivan had come to a full, unexpected stop. The GMC hadn’t been moving all that fast, but its front bumper hit the van’s lift gate.
Jeff Lewis: I was just thinking “what are you doing? The light was green, you were going right and then you slammed on your brakes. What were you doing?” Y’know? And yeah, I was upset, too.
Dave Cawley: The minivan did not budge. It hung halfway out in the rightmost lane of Bangerter Highway, frozen. A surge of frustration went through Jeff as it became clear the minivan was not going to pull over.
Jeff Lewis: I pulled around him and then pulled on to Bangerter and pulled over to the right and he pulled up behind me.
Dave Cawley: Jeff put his truck in park, pulled out his phone and dialed 911.
Jeff Lewis: Instantly, my first instinct was to call the cops. Uh, been in a little fender bender, didn’t know what really was going on, uh, the guy was kinda acting weird by not really getting out of the way of traffic. We weren’t really even going very fast, maybe three to four miles an hour.
Dave Cawley: A dispatcher took Jeff’s information as he walked around the front of the pickup.
Jeff Lewis: There wasn’t really any damage to my truck. A couple little scrapes on the front bumper, nothing big.
Dave Cawley: The dispatcher told Jeff a trooper would head his way. He ended the call and glanced over to see the driver of the minivan walking toward him.
Jeff Lewis: He kind of gave off this really weird vibe by the way he approached. Uh, it was kind of like he was a little bit standoffish, uh, just a little bit different. Not like a, a normal person.
Dave Cawley: The minivan driver stuck out his hand, as if he wanted to shake Jeff’s. He introduced himself at the same time. “My name,” he said, “is Josh.”
Jeff Lewis: And I actually told him “I’ve just called the cops, I’d appreciate it if you stay over there by your van” and “I’m calling my insurance right now.” And he said “oh, oh you’ve called the cops.” And I said “yeah I’ve, I’ve, they’re on their way. They’ll be here any time.”
Dave Cawley: This is a bonus episode of Cold: The Car Crash Con. I’m Dave Cawley.
Dave Cawley: Three months before Susan Powell disappeared, Jeff Lewis was involved in a minor fender bender with Susan’s husband, Josh Powell.
Jeff Lewis: Something was really off. I didn’t feel comfortable with the guy. Y’know and, and rightfully so, I was probably, I was pretty upset.
Dave Cawley: Josh had brake-checked Jeff at they were making a right-hand turn from 1820 South onto the Bangerter Highway in Salt Lake City on September 2nd, 2009. Jeff had called 911, then his insurance agent.
Jeff Lewis: Meanwhile, I look over and Josh is on his phone and walking around, acting like no big deal, kind of over by his vehicle. Umm, and then a cop pulled up.
Dave Cawley: Utah Highway Patrol records show the cop — a state trooper — arrived six minutes after Jeff called in to report the accident.
Jeff Lewis: As soon as Josh looked over and saw that there was a cop pulled up, all the sudden his back started hurting and he kind of started holding his lower back and limping back to his vehicle. And he actually got back into his van on the passenger side. The cop got out of his vehicle, walked up to me and asked me “what was that?” And I said “I don’t know, he was perfectly fine while we were waiting for you.”
Dave Cawley: Jeff told me the trooper warned him if Josh asked for an ambulance, he’d have to call for one. Jeff couldn’t believe it.
Jeff Lewis: It wasn’t even enough to really, when I hit him, to really make my head whiplash or my neck whiplash or anything like that.
Dave Cawley: The trooper gave both Jeff and Josh paperwork to fill out. They each wrote out their individual accounts of the crash. Just over 10 years had passed from the day of this crash to the afternoon that Jeff and I sat down for this interview.
Jeff Lewis: Y’know and, and my memory’s a little foggy. It’s been a little while.
Dave Cawley: Thankfully, the paperwork from that day a decade ago has survived. I have copies of both statements and asked Jeff to read Josh’s words.
Jeff Lewis: Josh’s says that “came to a full stop at a red light. Pulled forward and came to another full stop to traffic. Got rear ended.” That was it.
Dave Cawley: Jeff’s version of events included a bit more detail.
Jeff Lewis: Umm, mine. “Was in lane waiting to pull out onto Bangerter. Car in front of me pulled forward to go. I looked left and he’d stopped. I was only going about 3 to 4 miles per hour. Jumped out to see if he was ok and he said he was just fine.” So, it’s a little bit different.
Dave Cawley: Standing on the side of the highway that day, Jeff couldn’t imagine why Josh would need medical treatment.
Jeff Lewis: And so the cop walks over and probably about three minutes later walks back to me and says “well, here comes the ambulance.” Five to ten minutes later, a fire truck and an ambulance pulls up. They pull him out of the vehicle like he, as if he couldn’t even walk. They put him on a stretcher, put him in the ambulance and, and uh, hauled him away.
Dave Cawley: Josh ended up at the Granger Medical Clinic in West Valley City that afternoon, where a doctor diagnosed him with a neck sprain.
Jeff Lewis: I talked with the police officer after and uh, he actually apologized to me and said “y’know what?” This is right after the recession and he said “we’ve seen a lot of accidents.” And he goes “I’m not necessarily saying that he purposely caused the accident, but it looks like he did. And we see these kinda accidents quite a, quite a bit because some people can claim, y’know, doctor bills and, and they’re hurt and distressed and 20 to 30 thousand dollars off of insurance for a settlement.”
Dave Cawley: Utah court records show Jeff received a citation for following too close. He had to pay a $170 fine.
Jeff Lewis: Went home and I didn’t really think anything of it after that.
Dave Cawley: Until three months later, when he spotted a face that seemed somehow familiar on the TV news.
Jeff Lewis: At first, y’know, they were talking about the disappearance of Susan Powell and her husband Josh Powell. They had ‘em on the news and I said “I know this guy. I know this guy.” Didn’t hit me right away but all of the sudden I was like, I was digging through my stuff and I found the incident report and sure enough, it was Josh Powell.
Dave Cawley: It came as a shock. Jeff realized Josh and Susan Powell lived exactly a mile and a half west of him in a straight line.
Jeff Lewis: What’d happened is my insurance called me, umm, it was right around the same time, and they told me that he’d claimed that, y’know of course some vehicle damage. Uh, they paid out for that, I want to say it was about $3,000, which, honestly, $3,000 isn’t, isn’t much damage. Uh, he had a little scrape and a little ding on the, the back of the van, nothing real serious. Umm, they also paid out the ambulance ride.
Dave Cawley: This is backed up by paperwork. An estimate prepared by Rocky Mountain Collision Repair a week after the crash pegged the cost of fixing the minivan at $2,934.
Jeff Lewis: He also tried to claim pain and suffering and they did not pay out the money that he was asking for for that.
Dave Cawley: Pain and suffering. From a fender-bender. A little love tap at less than five miles per hour.
Jeff Lewis: And at the time, my insurance agent actually told me that there was other cases that he’d been involved that was very similar to the same accident. I don’t have any proof on that. That was just what my insurance agent told me.
Dave Cawley: Jeff didn’t have any proof. I do.
Dave Cawley: Let’s step back in time and look at Josh Powell’s second suspicious car crash. Six and a half years before that rear-end wreck on Utah’s Bangerter Highway, and 585 miles away as the crow flies, Josh sat at the wheel of a different minivan. This time, it was his 1997 Plymouth Grand Voyager. Susan sat shotgun. They didn’t have their boys with them, because Charlie and Braden had not yet been born.
Susan Cox Powell (from February 2, 2003 home video recording): They say when you want to have kids, get a dog. But we didn’t want a dog, so we got a bird. We don’t want kids yet though, either.
Dave Cawley: Josh and Susan had been married just over two years. They were then living in Yakima, Washington, working as live-in managers at a retirement center. This is from a video Steve Powell shot, when Josh and Susan first moved in to their on-site apartment.
Steve Powell (from February 2, 2003 home video recording): Yeah well, you don’t want kids until you’ve been in this place long enough to, y’know.
Susan Cox Powell (from February 2, 2003 home video recording): Take the experience with us and find a better job.
Steve Powell (from February 2, 2003 home video recording): Exactly, so. Yeah. So…
Dave Cawley: On May 12th, 2003, the Powell’s minivan rolled north along Rudkin Road in the little city of Union Gap, just south of Yakima. Off to the right, traffic whizzed by on I-82.
(Sound of traffic on I-82)
Dave Cawley: Rudkin, a frontage road, had a posted speed limit of 25 miles per hour.
Bob Powers: It wasn’t like we were going 60 miles an hour down this road. (Laughs)
Dave Cawley: Josh wasn’t even doing 25 as he crept past the Outback Steakhouse, Best Western and truck stop.
Bob Powers: There was no one else on the road at all, no other cars.
Dave Cawley: Bob Powers was also headed north on Rudkin that afternoon in his 1993 Lexus ES340.
Bob Powers: I had come up on him after a, after a turn on the roadway and went “why is he going so slow? There’s nobody in front of him in the,” y’know, he’s obviously lost, is what I’m saying to myself. Y’know, that’s what you say to yourself. Obviously lost.
Dave Cawley: Bob slowed. His focus drifted. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted an odd looking home at the side of the road.
Bob Powers: For whatever reason I’d taken a look at the building and happened to notice that it, y’know that it was, y’know just a ugly roof.
Dave Cawley: As a real estate investor, Bob had something of an interest in odd properties.
Bob Powers: And the minute I’d looked back, y’know he’d, he’d stopped. Y’know, it was very abrupt and I didn’t understand it at all. No need to be stopping. There’s, there, there, clear roadway ahead, no stop lights, no stop signs. No right or left turn opportunities. There was no reason for him to be stopped dead, dead center in the middle of the road.
Dave Cawley: Bob’s right foot stabbed the brake pedal. It wasn’t enough. The Lexus skidded into the back of the minivan.
Bob Powers: Y’know, I think by the time we would’ve even connected we, we had to have been, what was it I said before, might have been going five miles, ten miles an hour or something. It’s gotta be slower.
Dave Cawley: The front driver-side corner of the Lexus hit the van’s rear bumper, just right of center.
Bob Powers: It just couldn’t have been much. It was just a really soft uh, y’know, connection, enough that it, enough that it surprised you but not enough that it jolted you.
Dave Cawley: Airbags did not even deploy, in either car. Josh would later describe whipping his head backward against the headrest. Susan lurched forward against her seatbelt. Her muscles tensed. She didn’t feel pain, only a rush of anxiety. Concerned, she turned to check on her husband. Josh seemed ok, but maybe just a little dazed. Susan popped the buckle on her seatbelt and stepped out of the minivan’s passenger door. She checked herself. Nothing seemed broken or even sore. Josh got out of the van as well, as Bob was stepping from the driver door of his car.
Bob Powers: Got out of the car and uh, I uh, said “well we probably should take each other’s information and uh, let me, let me call and file a report.”
Dave Cawley: Bob had a few years on Josh. He wasn’t quite sure what to make of this younger man.
Bob Powers: I, I do remember him being just somewhat aloof, umm, didn’t seem to be very animated. Kinda odd, y’know, in a, I mean, kind of quiet, didn’t really talk much. Y’know, sort of, uh, participated in the information exchange but didn’t really have much more to add to the conversation. So I call, I was actually the one who called the police.
Dave Cawley: Meantime, they checked their cars for damage.
Bob Powers: What I remember is, wasn’t much damage at all.
Dave Cawley: A Union Gap police officer arrived. He looked at the two vehicles. Then, he wrote up a report. It noted damage to the front driver corner of Bob’s car, but no damage of any significance to Josh’s minivan. The officer wrote Bob a ticket for following too close.
Bob Powers: I was cited for umm, for the uh, incident. Y’know, had a citation written and didn’t feel it was my fault because I felt like it was an abrupt, y’know, stop.
Dave Cawley: All these years later, I found a scanned copy of the officer’s report among Josh’s personal files. I showed it to Bob.
Bob Powers: That’s interesting. Mmhmm.
(Sound of papers shuffling)
Dave Cawley: Josh told the officer that he’d been making a left-hand turn. The officer drew a diagram of the crash, based on Josh’s description.
Bob Powers: I find this interesting, this diagram. This is, this is a, they did this to indicate what the individual had said, that he was starting to take a left turn. But this is not true. This cannot be possible, y’know.
Dave Cawley: The area to the left of where Josh had stopped on Rudkin Road was blocked by a cyclone fence and a locked gate surrounding a fruit warehouse. I’ve been unable to find any indication that Josh and Susan ever visited or had business at that warehouse. That wasn’t the only oddity on the police report.
Bob Powers: Says no injuries were reported.
Dave Cawley: No injuries. That makes what happened next even more odd. Josh handed Susan the keys and sat down in the passenger seat. She took the wheel and steered north to Memorial Hospital in Yakima. When they arrived, Susan told the emergency department staff she was fine but her husband needed an evaluation. Josh went through an exam and x-rays. He received a prescription for ibuprofen and Vicodin. The doctor also told him to take it easy for a few days at work: no heavy lifting, no pouring coffee for the retirement center residents, that kind of thing
Susan awoke the next morning in pain. The adrenaline had worn off and her body ached. But she didn’t go the ER, as Josh had. Instead, she stopped by a clinic right around the corner from their work. A tech took some x-rays and nothing seemed wrong so Susan went home with just some Celebrex, which she never ended up taking. Looking through the records now, it seems that would’ve been a logical place for this story to end. But it didn’t.
On the second day after the crash, Josh convinced Susan they needed to see a chiropractor. He’d found one in the yellow pages so they went in for an evaluation. Afterward, Josh informed his bosses he couldn’t do any physical labor, doctor’s orders. Also, he’d be missing a lot of work while receiving treatment.
Josh and Susan spent the next month and a half seeing the chiropractor, two or three times per week. That wasn’t all. The chiropractor wrote them prescriptions for massage therapy. All of the bills went to Josh’s auto insurance. They were coming to the end of their treatments when July 13th rolled around. That was the day Steve Powell confessed his feelings to Susan, in the voyeur video recording first revealed right here in the Cold podcast. You might remember, Steve had accompanied Josh and Susan to a trucking company in Kent, Washington. Josh wanted to get his CDL and was toying with the idea of working as a trucker.
Josh Powell (from a July 13, 2003 home video recording): Well, ‘cause we’re thinking of moving to Colorado—
Unidentified woman (from a July 13, 2003 home video recording): Oh, are you really?
Josh Powell (from a July 13, 2003 home video recording): —and I thought, of all the things, I want to get a trailer—
Unidentified woman (from a July 13, 2003 home video recording): Uh huh.
Josh Powell (from a July 13, 2003 home video recording): —to put our stuff in, because I hate moving it in and out of storage.
Unidentified woman (from a July 13, 2003 home video recording): Right, right.
Josh Powell (from a July 13, 2003 home video recording): And so if I had a trailer, I’d like to have a way to move it without having to hire someone—
Unidentified woman (from a July 13, 2003 home video recording): Sure.
Josh Powell (from a July 13, 2003 home video recording): —even if I had to rent the truck.
Unidentified woman (from a July 13, 2003 home video recording): Right, right.
Dave Cawley: In the video Steve shot that day, Josh sat behind the big steering wheel, using using his arms and upper body to maneuver the semi. He didn’t wince or show any outward sign of pain as he twisted, worked the stick shift and waved goodby to his dad.
(Sound of idling semi truck)
Josh Powell (from a July 13, 2003 home video recording): See you later.
Steve Powell (from a July 13, 2003 home video recording): Ok, bye.
Dave Cawley: Yet just three days later, Josh pulled out the Yellow Pages again. He believed, according to medical records, that his recovery had plateaued and he wanted to try a different chiropractor. That meant a new round of evaluations, x-rays and manipulations. Josh and Susan went in together, three times a week, just like before. At every visit, the chiropractor billed the insurance for “exercise training” and “neuromuscular re-education.” He even sold Josh on the need for $170 dollars in special pillows and back braces, sending those bills to the insurance as well.
Bob Powers, the driver who’d hit Josh, had no idea any of this was happening.
Bob Powers: They get treatment for what? Nothing? (Laughs) That’s what it seems like.
Dave Cawley: Bob went to court, fighting the ticket he’d received. He brought photos with him, showing tall weeds covering the fence line that Josh was supposedly turning left into.
Bob Powers: Well, there’s no place where he could have been taking a left turn. It was total falsehood. That why I went and took photos is just so I would have whatever information I might need and, and uh, went to present it to the judge and he uh, he said “I think we’re going to rule in your favor.” (Laughs) So he dismissed the ticket.
Dave Cawley: Josh and Susan’s medical bills kept coming. By August, Josh’s auto insurance provider, Pemco, decided it needed to figure out if all of this really was necessary. The company ordered independent medical evaluations for both Josh and Susan. Josh talked to his chiropractor about it. He kept notes. Here’s what he wrote.
Eric Openshaw (as Josh Powell from September, 2003 personal notes): He said we had to sue in order to show a strong effort to get more money or he would make us pay all of the invalid charges out of our money. … He gave me literature to ‘prove’ that I should. I told him I don’t think that is necessary.
Dave Cawley: The independent medical exams, or IMEs, took place on August 19th, 2003, more than three months after the crash. The specialist who did the IMEs described Susan as “very pleasant.” He did not use any such language for Josh. I have copies of paperwork from this IME. On a page listing symptoms, Josh checked boxes for severe or frequent headaches, shaking or twitching in limbs, loss of motion in joints, spine abnormality and excessive worry or anxiety. Susan put a giant slash across the entire form, as if to say she didn’t have any serious symptoms.
The IMEs revealed Susan was fine. Although she sometimes had neck stiffness, she didn’t require any additional treatment to return to her pre-crash condition. Josh was another story. The specialist wrote Josh was “neurologically and orthopedically intact.” But, because of his insistent complaints about pain, Josh would probably benefit from six more weeks of treatment.
Pemco said Josh would have to pay for the pillows himself. It also denied coverage for the exercise training and neuromuscular re-education, finding those were unnecessary and not related to the crash.
Bob was stunned when I described the extent of the claims to him.
Bob Powers: My goodness. And here it’s been, what, 16 years ago? First I’ve heard of it.
Dave Cawley: Josh argued every detail of the bills with the insurance companies and chiropractors. His own records show he negotiated his portions of the bills down to just fractions of their total amounts. Bob’s insurance, State Farm, had quickly paid out $1,300 to replace the dinged rear bumper on Josh and Susan’s minivan. Josh hounded State Farm for more. He claimed there were new problems with the minivan that cropped up after the crash, like bald tires and a malfunctioning door lock. State Farm refused to pay for additional repairs.
The negotiation dragged on for months. In the end, State Farm reached a settlement with Josh. It paid out roughly $13,000 to cover medical expenses. Josh pocketed about half — $6,160.
Bob Powers: Wow. (Laughs) Good income for a couple of months back then, maybe.
Dave Cawley: It’s fair to raise a question here about Susan’s involvement in this claim. I turned to Susan’s journal, hoping to find insight about her side of this experience. But, there are two pages missing from it. The gap in time spans from March 2003 until August 2003, the exact period of time during which this crash and insurance claim took place. It’s also the period of time during which Steve Powell told Susan he was in love with her, and she rejected him. So, one could understand why she might not want this story in her journal.
The entries that followed the missing pages simply described a desire to escape. Here’s what Susan wrote on August 29th, 2003.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from an August 29, 2003 journal entry): Literally every work day we have numerous reminders of why we want to go. Badly. Hopefully soon, our misery can be put to an end. So then we can be living where we want. Happy what we’re doing and sooner able to move on, find a job for Josh and start a family.
Dave Cawley: All of Josh and Susan’s missed work time resulting from the crash had soured their relationship with the owners of the retirement center. They transferred to another center in Olympia at the end of the year, but it didn’t help. So, in January of 2004, Josh and Susan moved to Utah. They were both unemployed at first, but survived off of that $6,100 settlement check.
After a few weeks, Josh and Susan both picked up temp jobs. Josh lost his almost immediately. Susan’s temp position didn’t provide health insurance, so Josh applied for a private plan that February. He listed his occupation as “manager” on the paperwork, failing to disclose he was actually out of work and receiving unemployment. He also wrote on the form that he and Susan were both in “great health.” He explained away all those chiropractic treatments, saying they were just the result of an auto accident.
The agent who handled Josh’s application told him she needed records. He argued with her at length. In processing notes, the agent described Josh as “quite difficult to work with.” But he did cough up the records, eventually. After reviewing them, the insurance company offered Josh and Susan coverage, with a 15% markup. Josh did not take that very well. He pushed back, saying he’d only gone through all those weeks of spine-cracking on doctor’s orders. The agent told Josh they could reconsider the rate in two years, provided he and Susan remained healthy. The insurance company viewed it as an already generous offer, the best they could do.
He wasn’t happy, but Josh swallowed it. The internal processing notes show only then did the health insurance rep raise the question: What, exactly, did Josh manage? The agent called Josh to ask, only to learn he was “now between jobs.”
Dave Cawley: These two car wrecks six years apart exhibited a surprising symmetry. Both were low-speed, rear-end collisions caused when Josh Powell came to unexpected stops in front of other drivers. In both cases, the other drivers insisted there was no apparent reason for him to have stopped. Josh claimed injuries from both crashes, in spite of the fact that neither of the other drivers were injured. Josh sought months of chiropractic and massage therapy care following each crash, billing those visits to auto insurance. In both cases, the insurance companies ended up ordering independent medical examinations, which raised doubts about the necessity of the treatments.
Twice is quite the coincidence.
Bob Powers: And, and you’ve indicated that there was some other, at least another one of these kinds of incidents? Two other incidents? Wow.
Dave Cawley: One before, one after.
Bob Powers: Wow.
Dave Cawley: Three times and it’s no longer a coincidence, it’s a trend. So let’s look at Josh’s third suspicious crash. It happened during the summer of 2000.
Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): It was a really nice summer. I, I was actually content. I was happy the way things were going.
Dave Cawley: That’s Josh’s voice, from his audio journals. It was four months before he met Susan. He’d been living with his dad in South Hill, Washington but had just found an apartment of his own in Tacoma.
Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): It’s a really nice apartment. Two bedroom apartment, it was brand new when I moved in.
Dave Cawley: Josh had a lot going on. He was working long days installing furniture, struggling to stay ahead of his debts.
Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): All told, I think I’m paying out close to $2,000 a month just to live.
Dave Cawley: He’d made new friends at church and anticipated going back to school that fall. His prized possessions were his computer, his entertainment center and his Plymouth Voyager minivan.
Josh Powell (from December 13, 2000 audio journal recording): I might have to let my van go, which is costing me $310 in insurance and payments, which is not much.
Dave Cawley: On the afternoon of June 8th, 2000, Josh drove that minivan north up Meridian in Puyallup. A young woman named Nichole Lyons was right behind him in her 1998 Jeep Wrangler. Nichole lived in the Puyallup area but worked out west, in DuPont. She took a van pool to work each day, leaving her Jeep in a parking lot near Puyallup’s South Hill Mall.
Nichole Lyons: Just right near a little strip mall that used to be a mattress store, for some reason what’s ringing bells.
Dave Cawley: She’d pulled onto Meridian on her way home that day only to find traffic backed up.
Nichole Lyons: Afternoon, y’know, commuting traffic. I would imagine it was around 5, y’know 5ish, 5:15 maybe because that’s when I would have gotten back to my, y’know, van pool spot and then pulled out into the road. So that’s what I recall.
Dave Cawley: And come to an immediate stop, as bumper-to-bumper traffic sat waiting for the light at 39th Avenue to change. The car in front of her, Josh’s minivan, crept forward. So did she.
Nichole Lyons: Thought he was going but he wasn’t.
Dave Cawley: Nichole’s Jeep hit Josh’s minivan.
Nichole Lyons: I rear-ended him just ever so slightly. Really we were going, the, y’know, the miles per hour was like, y’know, two or three, (laughs) maybe. I mean, it was very much we had just started going and then immediately stopped and had impact.
Dave Cawley: Nicole and Josh each pulled off the road, into a parking lot.
Nichole Lyons: Then he seemed from what I recall to be in a hurry.
Dave Cawley: They checked for damage. By design, the Wrangler’s front bumper wasn’t entirely flat. It had two prongs on it, one of which had hit the rear bumper of Josh’s minivan.
Nichole Lyons: I mean, I think there was a little indentation in his bumper from the prong of my vehicle. There was not any damage to my vehicle, whatsoever.
Dave Cawley: They had a quick conversation.
Nichole Lyons: I think there was some talk of do we even want to exchange information and we ended up exchanging information.
Dave Cawley: Josh scribbled Nichole’s license plate and phone number on a paper copy of her auto insurance card, which he kept. He also wrote out his own description of crash. He later scanned both papers into his computer, though Nichole had no way of knowing that.
Nichole Lyons: And I wasn’t sure that he was even going to even turn it in or file a claim.
Dave Cawley: It wasn’t a big deal, as far as she could tell. No police, no ambulance. No problem.
Nichole Lyons: He seemed completely fine. And very, y’know, like I said, in a hurry, “let’s exchange information” and get on his way.
Dave Cawley: The next day, an insurance adjuster came to look at the minivan. He figured the rear bumper cover would need to be replaced, at a cost of about $560, parts and labor. Records obtained by this podcast show the actual cost to repair came in below the estimate, at $452.
Repairs to Josh’s body cost a good deal more. He started seeing — can you guess? — a chiropractor. She wrote Josh had a mild to moderate cervical/thoracic strain or sprain. In other words, neck and back pain. She referred him to a massage therapist to receive two massages a week for the next six weeks. Josh didn’t want to pay for this, though, so he called Nichole’s insurance, Progressive, and started badgering them for money. Here’s what he wrote in his notes.
Eric Openshaw (as Josh Powell from June 6, 2000 personal notes): We talked and I tried to negotiate, but he didn’t negotiate at all until I forced the issue. Then he offered $400 cash and $500 medical. I told him that doesn’t even cover the here and now, medically.
Dave Cawley: The day after writing that, Josh went to the office of a personal injury lawyer in Puyallup. He hired the firm on the spot, agreeing to give them a third of anything they recovered from Progressive. Nichole had told her Progressive agent her side of the story.
Nichole Lyons: I also called it in to my insurance and talked with them and gave a statement of what happened. And then, that was it. I don’t, I don’t remember getting any additional pieces of information from that.
Dave Cawley: Josh’s attorney spent a few weeks gathering up the medical records, then sent a demand letter to Progressive. It said Josh had incurred about $1,500 in medical expenses. It also said he deserved $6,500 in general damages. As such, they wanted Progressive to cough up $8,000. A month later, Progressive settled, agreeing to pay out less than half that amount, about $3,400. That more than covered the medical bills. The attorney took his cut of around $1,100 dollars, leaving Josh with a check for $728. Nichole never knew.
Dave Cawley: Would it surprise you to learn that he claimed, uh, injury out of that crash?
Nichole Lyons: Yeah, that would be surprising. I don’t remember there being any concern of injury.
Dave Cawley: Alright, with all of that background, now we have to look at the paperwork Josh filed with his car insurance company after the crash on Bangerter Highway in Utah back in September of 2009. Josh wrote that he had whiplash. One of the questions on the form asked if he’d previously been treated for “similar symptoms.” He checked no.
Bob Powers: I actually had no idea that, that this guy had made any claim whatsoever with my insurance company until you guys had, y’know, come up with that information. I thought it was pretty revealing.
Dave Cawley: Josh’s own records prove he’d claimed whiplash after that 2003 crash in Yakima, when Bob Powers rear-ended his van.
Bob Powers: I called my State Farm agent and said “did, did this really all happen? I mean, did they actually get some kind of payout?” And he of course told me the extent of the payout. And I says “you’ve got to be kidding me, Joel.” I says “how come there wasn’t there follow up by you guys because I, I, that, that following too close ticket was dismissed at court. I would think you’d have no obligation.” And umm, he says “well, we try to take it out of your hands and not have you, have you worry about it whatsoever and that’s why we haven’t informed you.”
Dave Cawley: While State Farm didn’t share the details of Josh’s 2003 claim with Bob, the company did enter those records into a fraud-prevention database. They were available to Jeff Lewis’ insurance company as it investigated Josh’s 2009 claim.
The 2009 crash happened three months before Susan disappeared. Josh was still undergoing treatment for his “injuries” when his wife vanished. And in the months that followed, the insurance companies ordered another independent medical exam, which I described in episode 6 of Cold. The paper trail from that IME revealed Josh was diagnosed with a rotator cuff strain or partial tear just 10 days after Susan disappeared. He blamed that injury on the crash, even though there was no mention of it in any of the prior medical records.
Jeff Lewis: Yeah, it was, it was an act. He claimed shoulder injury? When the cop pulled up, he was holding his back. It was all an act.
Dave Cawley: Again, that’s Jeff, the guy who rear-ended Josh three months before Susan disappeared.
Jeff Lewis: When I saw him on the news and his wife was missing, uh, my gut feeling was is that he was trying to get insurance money. Right away when I see this, I’m going “man, this guy got rid of his wife for money.”
Dave Cawley: On the surface, none of these crashes seem like much. But taken together, they paint a picture of Josh Powell. Willing to scam the insurance system for a few thousand bucks. Or, in Jeff’s view, maybe a million bucks: Susan’s life insurance.
Jeff Lewis: And then it comes out that, y’know, she did have an insurance policy. And so that’s exactly what I thought he did.
Dave Cawley: I wasn’t sure what I’d find when I first set out to identify the driver who hit Josh on that September day in 2009. To be honest, I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to. There wasn’t enough detail. All I knew was someone crashed into Josh’s minivan on or near the Bangerter Highway. I scoured the West Valley City case files, but came up empty-handed. I checked court records for any case connected with Josh Powell on that date. There weren’t any. I submitted public records requests to multiple police departments, asking for reports of any crash involving Josh’s minivan on or around that date. None had any. It hadn’t occurred to me then that the Highway Patrol might have jurisdiction. While I wasn’t able to identify Jeff, it turned out he was listening to Cold.
Jeff Lewis: My wife actually found it and said “you’ve gotta listen to this” ‘cause she knew the little bit of a background of being in an accident with Josh Powell. So she said “you’ve gotta listen to this podcast. They mention you in this.” And I’m like “wha? They don’t mention me. What are you talking about?”
Dave Cawley: Jeff reached out, indirectly, by leaving a review for the podcast.
Jeff Lewis: On your KSL podcast, I did leave a comment saying “hey, you can reach me. Umm, I’m the guy that got in an accident with him. I’ve been brought up a few times.” And uh, that was probably January of this year.
Dave Cawley: The comment was soon buried and I never saw it. Months went by. Season one of Cold came to an end. Still, I couldn’t shake the sense that I needed to find this driver. So, I turned to social media.
In the minutes immediately after the September crash, Josh’d snapped a photo from the passenger seat of his minivan. It showed the truck that’d hit him, that red GMC Sierra, as well as the other driver. The photo was still on Josh’s phone when detective Ellis Maxwell took it from him the day after Susan disappeared.
Ellis Maxwell (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): Let me see your phone.
Josh Powell(from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): Why?
Ellis Maxwell (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): Let me just see your phone. I’m going to hang onto it until we’re finished.
Josh Powell (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): ‘Kay.
Dave Cawley: When digital forensics investigators went through Josh’s phone with a search warrant several months later, they recovered the picture. Nothing about it raised suspicion.
Jeff Lewis: I don’t think there was ever a sense of urgency to find me, y’know I had a minor brush-in with this guy.
Dave Cawley: And Jeff didn’t come forward on his own back then because he didn’t see how his encounter with Josh could have any relevance. He had no way of knowing that Josh’d used that crash to obtain a prescription for cyclobenzaprine, a muscle relaxant capable of knocking someone off their feet. He didn’t know about Josh’s suspicious shoulder injury, or the IME that suggested Josh was scamming the insurance company.
I had a copy of Josh’s photo, the one from his phone. Over the summer, I uploaded it to Facebook and Instagram, along with a plea for help identifying the man it showed.
Jeff Lewis: My wife actually shot me a picture of me standing outside of my truck. And I said “what the heck, where did you get this?” And she says “well it’s on Facebook. It’s on the, uh, Cold podcast Facebook.”
Dave Cawley: Jeff and I at last connected. He also provided documentation, which I was able to verify as authentic. He was the guy.
Jeff Lewis: But I just, y’know, always found it very interesting, umm, listening to the podcast, uh, being in an accident with this guy, I followed the case. Umm, it’s a heartbreaking situation.
Dave Cawley: When we spoke, Jeff shared feelings of frustration and remorse over how the entire situation had unfolded following Susan’s disappearance.
Jeff Lewis: I felt like, y’know as a father, that uh, the system had completely let those kids down. Umm, there was nothing they could do about Susan, but they, I feel like those kids could’ve been saved.
Dave Cawley: Josh Powell’s car crashes and the petty insurance claims he filed pale in comparison to tragedy of what eventually unfolded in the Powell family. But they help us understand his behavior. With the benefit of hindsight, we can now see the troubling ways in which he attempted to use people. It didn’t matter if those people were the strangers behind him in traffic, or the two children he shared with the woman he mistreated and likely murdered.