Dave Cawley: About a month before Susan Powell disappeared, she hosted a party at her home on Sarah Circle in West Valley City, Utah. The party wasn’t for a birthday or anything like that. It was a sales pitch. Susan had become interested in a multi-level marketing company called Wildtree. She wrote about it in an email to her work friend Linda Bagley in October of 2009.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from October 9, 2009 email): I went to a wild tree party, kind of interested in their product, or just the menu concept.
Dave Cawley: Wildtree pitched itself as a health-oriented meal planning service. Customers bought menus, oils and herbs for Wildtree recipes through representatives, who in turn received price breaks for bringing additional buyers and sellers into the organization.
Tempted by the prospect of getting Wildtree for cheap, Susan agreed to host a party at her own home on the night of November 4th, 2009. She urged Linda to come.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from October 9, 2009 email): It’s settled. I’m having a party b/c Josh didn’t get to taste it and it sounds like it would have something for you.
Dave Cawley: Social sales pitches were not really Linda’s kind of thing, but she went along with it to help her friend. Linda even ordered some Wildtree food. But in the days and weeks that followed the party, her package failed to arrive. Then, Susan disappeared. The Wildtree product at last delivered, it went to Josh. Detectives swarmed Susan’s office, interviewing her coworkers. Linda was among them.
Linda Bagley: I’d mentioned it in the, to the police that I had this product and that she hadn’t given me and I said I’d probably never see it. So, (laughs) but I had gotten Josh’s number and I called him and I left him a voicemail.
Dave Cawley: In her voicemail, Linda asked if there was any way she might be able to pick up her food order. Josh didn’t respond. He had other things on his mind at that point. Less than two weeks after his wife’s disappearance, Josh packed their sons Charlie and Braden into the family minivan and headed to Washington State. Linda figured that was the end of it. Then, a month after her friend vanished, something strange happened to Linda.
Linda Bagley: I was taking, uh, the weekend off … So I was in Idaho, at Costco with my mom actually and the phone rings and I look at the, umm, number and it says Josh Powell. And I’m like “ah,” y’know, “what do I say, what do I do, I got to act calm.” Y’know? I answered the phone and he said he’d found the stuff and he would be happy to drop it off.
Dave Cawley: Linda told Josh she was out of town, but he wasn’t bothered. He said he was back in Utah for a few days and would drop it off at her work. As I’ve recently learned, it was one of many, many drops Josh made after his wife vanished.
This is a bonus episode of Cold: Dumpster Drops. I’m Dave Cawley.
Dave Cawley: On the afternoon of January 7th, 2010, Josh Powell stopped by the Wells Fargo call center where his missing wife Susan had worked. He ran into a security guard in the lobby and explained he had a package that he wanted to deliver to Linda Bagley. But Linda was in Idaho, as she’d told Josh on the phone.
Linda Bagley: I don’t know if he didn’t believe me and he was testing me, y’know, to see if I just didn’t want to see him or something. But he asked for me, even though I told him I wasn’t going to be there.
Dave Cawley: The security guard explained Josh could leave the package with the head of security, but that person was out of the office at the moment. Josh said he would wait. And so he did, right in the lobby. Word spread among Susan’s coworkers.
Salt Lake City dispatcher (from January 7, 2010 911 call recording): 911, what is your emergency?
Dave Cawley: One even called 911.
Richard (from January 7, 2010 911 call recording): Josh Powell is in our building.
Salt Lake City dispatcher (from January 7, 2010 911 call recording): Who’s Josh Powell?
Richard (from January 7, 2010 911 call recording): Well, you’ve seen the news, the guy that supposedly abducted his wife and went camping with the kids.
Salt Lake City dispatcher (from January 7, 2010 911 call recording): Ok.
Richard (from January 7, 2010 911 call recording): I mean, he’s not causing any problems but I’ve, we’ve seen him all over the news and stuff and he’s sitting down in our lobby just sitting there.
Dave Cawley: The coworker told a Salt Lake City police dispatcher it might be a good idea if detectives in neighboring West Valley knew Josh was there. The dispatcher contacted West Valley to ask if Josh was wanted.
West Valley police (from January 7, 2010 911 call recording): Yeah, no. As far as I’m aware, he’s just a person of interest. And the last I heard, he wasn’t — I mean, just between you and I — he wasn’t even living here, so—
Dispatcher (from January 7, 2010 911 call recording): Yeah, that’s what I, I mean, I’ve heard things just through work but not anything like, I don’t watch the news to see what they’re saying because, who knows anyway. So—
West Valley City police (from January 7, 2010 911 call recording): Yep.
Dave Cawley: The truth of the situation was, West Valley detectives had a good idea of where Josh was thanks to a GPS tracker they’d hidden on his minivan. But that was a closely guarded secret.
When Linda returned to work, her boss’ boss asked her to come in for a sit-down with the head of security.
Linda Bagley: And so it’s like “ok.” And the security guy came in and he says, umm, “Josh Powell stopped by and wanted to give this to you and can you tell me more about what’s going on here?” (Laughs)
Dave Cawley: Why was Linda receiving a gift from Josh Powell?
Linda Bagley: I think they suspected me for a minute as being maybe a mistress or another “oh here’s the sideline, oh look we found this new possible thing that,” y’know.
Dave Cawley: The head of security told Linda Josh had acted very odd, even becoming emotional. He asked her why.
Linda Bagley: Like “maybe you’d know more about why he would feel that way.” Y’know, and I’m like maybe he was thanking me because I didn’t accuse him and, (laughs) and y’know, I came out trying to be neutral and, and on his side like he wasn’t, hadn’t done anything, even though I suspected, I, I felt from the beginning that he had done everything that I still feel he did.
Dave Cawley: Linda did her best to explain, it was not a gift, just some product from a multi-level marketing thing she’d gone to. She eventually had to explain that again to West Valley police.
Linda Bagley: And they’re like “oh, ok.” But I think they suspected something more than there was. (Laughs)
Dave Cawley: I mentioned the GPS tracker detectives placed on Josh’s minivan on December 8th, 2009, the day after he returned from his outing on the Pony Express Trail claiming to have no clue where Susan might be.
Ellis Maxwell: So he’s got the umm, GPS tracker on his van.
Dave Cawley: Detective Ellis Maxwell, West Valley’s lead investigator on the Powell case, talked about the tracker in episodes 4 and 5 of Cold. It’s how police had known Josh took a drive out to West Wendover, Nevada and to a gravel pit on the Friday after Susan’s disappearance. Curious behavior that ultimately led detectives nowhere.
Ellis Maxwell: Just another situation, another possibility that we may catch a break or, uh, collect some more information to assist with the investigation and uh, he does nothing.
Dave Cawley: The particular device tucked away on Josh’s minivan wasn’t just some Garmin unit attached with duct tape. It had a specialized battery, capable of powering the tracker for weeks at a time. It also had a cell phone radio, so it could communicate with a server any time it was in range of cell towers.
Ellis Maxwell: We’ve got what’s called geo-fencing. And you can set boundaries. So if he crosses one of those boundaries then it will send you an alert.
Dave Cawley: Detectives would actually receive SMS text messages when the tracker left Salt Lake County or crossed state lines, for example. Every fix recorded by the tracker included a time stamp, right down to the second. If the tracker stopped moving, it could power itself down to save battery. Then, if it detected motion, it could power itself back up again. And police could log in to the server and see the tracker’s position in very close to real time.
Data from that GPS tracker was not included in the case file documents released by West Valley police when the Powell case went cold in 2013. To my knowledge, it’s never been examined by anyone outside of law enforcement. When I obtained copies of the tracking files several months back, that’s what I set out to do.
Dave Cawley: Former FBI agent Greg Rogers spent most of his 30 years with the bureau serving undercover. He worked narcotics cases. He infiltrated biker gangs and militia groups. He posed as a hit man, repeatedly.
Greg Rogers: You’d be amazed how much work there is in that area.
Dave Cawley: To be honest, he kind of still looks the part: longer gray hair, leather vest, though it’s now under a sports coat now. I shared my findings from the review of the GPS data with Greg in part because he didn’t work the Powell case himself. I needed an objective perspective from someone who knows the tech and the tactics.
Greg Rogers: Police departments have analysts and somebody should have been tracking this information every day that should have been their job. Where’s he going? Where’s he stoppin’? And then the next logical question is “why is he doing that” and “what are we going to do based on his activity?”
Dave Cawley: Greg is also an expert on the criminal mind. He teaches a course at Utah Valley University to would-be cops.
Greg Rogers: I teach on criminal profiling and the, y’know, serial killers, psychopaths. So it’s, yeah, so it’s always been a real interest of mine.
Dave Cawley: By the time Greg and I sat down to talk, I’d already spent weeks going through the data. In December 2009 alone, the GPS device recorded tens of thousands of data points. To make sense of them, they needed to be reformatted. Twice. Only then could I bring the information into Google Earth with all of the metadata intact. It’s tedious work.
Point by point, I retraced the van’s moves, looking for anything that might have escaped the attention of investigators ten years ago. Some of the trips at first seemed random, until I noticed a pattern having to do with dumpsters. The first significant discovery appeared on Monday, December 14th, 2009, one week after Susan disappeared.
The GPS tracker powered up just after 10 a.m. that morning, having detected motion. It moved west, away from the Powell family home on Sarah Circle, down 4100 South to a state highway on the far western side of the Salt Lake Valley called U-111. The minivan turned left onto U-111 at a T-intersection, heading south. It cruised along for about six miles, until it reached 7800 south. There, it pulled into an apartment complex called Serengeti Springs. At 10:23 a.m., the minivan pulled up to a dumpster in a back corner of the complex and stopped. Less than a minute later, it started moving again. It went directly back to Sarah Circle.
I showed this to Greg and asked what he made of it.
Greg Rogers: My guess would be that Powell had items that he believed contained DNA or other forensic evidence, and he’s getting rid of them. Based on the time and the fact that it’s a condo complex, people are coming and going, it wouldn’t look unusual for him to get out of the car with the garbage bags, be throwing them in a dumpster. Just look like anybody that lives there. Be a whole different thing to be trying to remove a body from your car to put in a dumpster. So my guess is he was using that dumpster to get rid of items from the home where I, of course, believe that he, uh, murdered Susan. That would be my first guess, that he was getting rid of whatever he used in that. He’s obviously had done enough research to know what would contain DNA and what could be harming to him. And he, he must have believed there was a search warrant coming.
Dave Cawley: In fact, West Valley police had already served two search warrants at the home. They’d also searched Josh’s van twice the week prior, once with his permission and the second time with a warrant. You might remember, it was during the warrant search of the minivan the day after Susan disappeared that detective Ellis Maxwell found a pair of trash bags.
Ellis Maxwell: When we get his van, not only did he clean it all out but he also had the garbage from inside the kitchen of the home, the garbage sack was in the van.
Dave Cawley: The second trash bag, tucked away in a storage space behind the minivan’s driver seat, held the melted metal item and burned drywall panels mentioned in Cold episode 5, the likely evidence that Josh had destroyed the night before with his oxyacetylene torch.
Ellis believed Josh had intended to toss those trash bags somewhere far away from the house, where detectives wouldn’t find them. But Ellis found them first. Based on the GPS data, it seems likely Josh had yet other items he wanted to ditch in a dumpster days later.
Back to the tracking data. On the afternoon of Wednesday, December 16th, 2009, the minivan left the Sarah Circle house on another drive across the Salt Lake Valley. This time, in west south and east. It took a circuitous path into Sandy, a suburb nestled against the foot of the Wasatch Mountains. At 3:02 p.m., the minivan pulled into a parking stall at Flat Iron Mesa Park.
Dave Cawley: What do you see there?
Greg Rogers: Yeah, same thing, a dumpster and it’s no accident that these are not close to his residence.
Dave Cawley: Another dumpster.
Greg Rogers: Flat Iron Mesa, this is a big dog walking park. There’s a lot of people there. There’s gonna be a ton of cars, he could pull in there anytime you wanted to and walk over to that dumpster and wouldn’t attract any attention at all.
He’s not showing up at midnight. He’s not trying to uh, be there when nobody’s there, he doesn’t care. He’s picking places where, you know, he could open the back of his car, grab a garbage bag, walk to a dumpster and wouldn’t raise any suspicion at all.
Dave Cawley: The minivan left the park at 3:04 p.m., after a stop of just two minutes. It headed north, to the intersection of 900 East and 4500 South. The minivan came to a stop within line of sight of another dumpster behind a Walgreens pharmacy. The minivan circled the Walgreens, slowing as it went by the dumpster, but it didn’t actually stop.
Greg Rogers: That’s by a business?
Dave Cawley: Mmhmm.
Greg Rogers: That’s not by a, uh, residential neighborhood or a park. I bet there’s probably some signage on that dumpster that it’s not for public use or something like that. He didn’t want to attract attention. So he didn’t want to pull up there and put something in that dumpster. Because, somebody could have walked out of that business and said,
“hey man, that’s, that’s our business.” And then they grabbed the bag. That’s a problem for him. So my guess is he got up there and saw that that was walled in and it wasn’t, you know, just publicly accessible. So he just kept driving.
Dave Cawley: Right into downtown Salt Lake City. At 500 South and Emery Street, it pulled into the parking lot of a church and once again cruised by, but did not stop at, a dumpster. Looking at satellite imagery, Greg noticed the dumpster outside the church was surrounded by a wall and fence.
Greg Rogers: You can see that it’s got doors on it that are closed, they may be locked. He’d already decided what dumpsters, what types of dumpsters he was going to use. And if he didn’t like what he saw, he just kept driving. He didn’t he didn’t have to be anywhere.
Dave Cawley: Instead of stopping at the church, the tracking data showed the minivan hopped a couple of blocks south to Poplar Grove Park. It pulled into the parking lot at 4:05 p.m. and remained there for about 12 minutes.
Greg Rogers: He obviously had more than one bag. He hit more than one dumpster. He had things all divvied up. He had a plan that he thought was genius. It was “this is how I’m going to hide this stuff. The cops are never going to figure this out.”
Dave Cawley: There aren’t any dumpsters at Poplar Grove Park. But on any day of the week, any time of year, there are plenty of garbage cans.
Greg Rogers: Public place, other cars there. People probably walking their dogs around there and be as you well know, when people are walking their dogs they pick up after their dogs, they use the garbage cans. Wouldn’t be at all unusual a walk up to one of those garbage cans and throw a bag in it.
Dave Cawley: Three confirmed stops near dumpsters or garbage cans, with several other dumpster drive-bys during the first two weeks following Susan’s disappearance. Yet, there are no mentions of this in West Valley police case files.
Greg Rogers: Question is, why wasn’t somebody on him and why weren’t they going through those dumpsters?
Dave Cawley: The following day, on Thursday, December 17th, 2009, West Valley police served their third search warrant at the Sarah Circle house. Josh wasn’t at home at the time. He’d left his boys there with his brother, Michael.
The GPS tracker revealed Josh didn’t go far. The minivan circled the neighborhood around the time detectives appeared at the house. It parked outside of one church, then another. To Greg, it appeared Josh was keeping an eye on the investigators.
Greg Rogers: Has an obvious need to be, uh, up to speed with what’s going on. Because a guy like Josh thinks he’s, uh, immeasurably smarter than these people that are working him, or that are working that case. So he’s just keeping tabs.
Dave Cawley: As the detectives tore through Josh and Susan’s medicine cabinet, the minivan headed east up 4100 South to Meier and Marsh Professional Therapies. It stopped there for over an hour and a half. That’s the physical therapy visit during which Josh was diagnosed with a rotator cuff strain or tear, an injury that escaped the notice of police.
Later that afternoon, Josh went to the bank where Susan had kept her handwritten last will and testament in a safe deposit box. Detectives had been there days earlier, emptying out the box. Josh spent more than hour at the bank, arranging to have Susan’s retirement accounts cashed out. On his way home, he drove by another dumpster outside Hunter Junior High School, then parked across the lot from it for 20 minutes.
Josh spent a good chunk of Friday, December 18th, 2009 meeting with his attorney in downtown Salt Lake City. The tracking data showed the minivan parked outside the attorney’s office for over three hours. On his way back home, Josh stopped at the Mountain America Credit Union branch on 5600 West in West Valley City. That’s where he Susan did most of their banking. Financial records obtained by police with a subpoena showed that’s when Josh withdrew Susan’s final paycheck, which had come in a week earlier by direct deposit. He took $450 of it as cash and moved the remaining $227 into his checking account. Josh was preparing to leave Utah.
Greg Rogers: He was getting ready to go, no question. He’s getting ready to go after those search warrants. There’s nothing for him here. Y’know, he’s, you know, he’s gonna lose his job. Y’know, it was a lifelong pattern of his to retreat to his father’s house. And so that was going to happen.
Dave Cawley: Josh departed home shortly before 10 p.m. that night. The tracker showed that he drove to the parking lot of a strip mall at 5600 West and 3500 South. He parked next to a pair of dumpsters from 9:56 p.m. to 9:59 p.m.
Greg Rogers: Anything he thought could hurt him and those search warrants, he had bagged up and ready to go. And so he’s just, he’s just getting rid of stuff.
Dave Cawley: Then, the minivan headed north toward Interstate 80.
Greg Rogers: But then again, it begs the question how do you do that when they’re running search warrants and, yeah. Why isn’t someone following you around and doing dumpster dives after you’ve been there?
Dave Cawley: We don’t know whether or not West Valley police ever did dive these dumpsters, but if so they didn’t take any photos or keep any notes. In an email, police spokeswoman Roxeanne Vainuku told me “the absence of a location being documented in a log does not equate to investigators being unaware of the location.”
Just before reaching the freeway onramp, the minivan flipped a U-turn. It went right back to that same set of dumpsters. Had Josh forgotten something? Or perhaps checking to see if police were there, digging through the garbage?
They weren’t, but Greg couldn’t understand why not when I showed him the tracking data.
Greg Rogers: If you suspect that he’s going to all these dumpsters and you see all this tracking thing that the next thought should be “we need to find out what he’s throwing in there.” You don’t even need search warrants. Once he chucks it in the dumpster, it’s, you can dumpster dive.
Dave Cawley: Unless police didn’t happen to be watching the tracker at that time.
Greg Rogers: Somebody should have been, their whole job should have been this tracker.
Dave Cawley: Again, West Valley police spokeswoman Roxeanne Vianuku, by email, told me “any location where Powell visited, was subsequently visited by an investigator.” She added that during periods when Josh wasn’t under physical surveillance, the tracking data was downloaded “each day.”
Greg Rogers: And when you’ve got this tracker on him, it’s easy surveillance. You’re not going to get burned. Because you don’t need to be, y’know, following him close in a car. You could have planes up or you could even be a mile away with your laptop saying “oh look, he just hit another dumpster.” And then you send guys to that dumpster.
Dave Cawley: After one last stop at the Sarah Circle house, the minivan made its way back to the freeway. It took the onramp to eastbound I-80 at 10:42 p.m. A late start for the long drive to Washington. The minivan cruised east to I-15, then north. Josh stopped for gas at a Pilot Travel Center in the town of Marriott-Slaterville, paying cash, then continued north to Tremonton. He took the split for I-84 westbound there.
The clock ticked past midnight. At 12:22 a.m. on Saturday, December 19th, 2009, the minivan pulled off the freeway on Utah exit 20, just east of Rattlesnake Pass. It stopped briefly next to some roadside weeds, crossed under the freeway, doubled back and then took the westbound onramp at 12:28 a.m.
To Greg, it looked like perhaps Josh — or one of the boys — had just needed to relieve himself.
Greg Rogers: Pit stop or, which is probably what happened, but he could have also been cleaning himself, because he’s leaving unannounced, they’ve just run all these warrants. I’m sure he had some suspicion that they were following him to see if he was taking off. He might’ve even believed that, uh, they would attempt to arrest him if he was trying to leave the state. Who knows. But, having traveled with young children myself, (laughs) it could have just as easily been “hey dad, you know?” Yeah.
Dave Cawley: The minivan crossed the border into Idaho at 12:44 a.m. The GPS tracker sent out a text alert to the detectives. In West Valley case records, detective Ellis Maxwell wrote that the tracker lost cell service a short time later.
Josh continued driving. There’s very little to see between the town of Snowville, Utah and the Snake River near Rupert, Idaho, especially after dark. No towns, no truck stops and in 2009, limited cell service. But after crossing the Snake at 1:31 a.m., the minivan entered the fertile expanse of southern Idaho farmland between Burley and Bliss. It’s a region known as the “Magic Valley.” The minivan cruised right past a pair of off-ramps leading to Burley, logical places for a driver to pull off if gas or a pit stop were needed.
At 1:44 a.m., the minivan came to an abrupt stop at the side of the highway. It remained there for 10 minutes. Too short a time to sleep or even, say, to change a flat tire. So why did Josh stop?
It’s not clear.
Josh pulled back onto the roadway at 1:54 a.m., continuing west. The minivan passed by another freeway exit without stopping. It traveled seven miles until, at 2:01 a.m., Josh slammed on the brakes right as he passed over the top of the Milner-Gooding Canal. It was a rapid deceleration, from more than 70 miles per hour to a full stop about 335 feet past the bridge. The minivan remained there for five minutes.
Two strange stops in southern Idaho, just before and just after 2 a.m.
Greg Rogers: Those are unusual times for pitstop for the kids. My guess is, the age of those two boys they were asleep. So it’s, it’s very interesting. It’s by a canal. It’s a great place to dump something. Nobody’s ever going to find that if you know what you’re doing.
Dave Cawley: The canal in question diverts water from the Snake River to farms and ranches. It typically only flows from mid-March to mid-October. I recently visited the site. The canal wasn’t flowing, having been shut off for the winter. Still, a foot or so of murky green water occupied the bottom of the concrete-lined trench. Thick, high weeds surrounded its banks. Anything tossed in those weeds, or in the canal itself, would disappear from view of the traffic just feet away on the freeway.
Greg Rogers: I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if he was still just getting rid of whatever he was getting rid of, ‘cause we have no idea what the murder weapon was. So, knife, gun, we know he’s not opposed to killing someone in a violent manner because he killed his children with an ax. But, could have been a ligature. Could have been a, a rope. Uh, you throw a rope in that canal, it’s gone. It’s never gettin’ found. And six minutes is plenty of time to walk from that car to that water.
Dave Cawley: This is speculation. There’s no evidence left to tell us one way or another what Josh Powell was doing during these two stops. But the time and location are suspicious.
Greg Rogers: He clearly had some reason for doing it. And he didn’t want people to know where he was stopping and the times he was doing stuff and, umm, y’know, again he, he had a plan that we’ll never know what it was but I can assure you that he thought it was absolutely brilliant. Wasn’t, he was getting tracked. But yeah, so, but he didn’t know that. So yeah.
Dave Cawley: He was getting tracked, but these two stops in Idaho and the December dumpster visits in Utah are not mentioned in West Valley police case files. I’m not sure if they were ever discovered by investigators or searched by dogs or detectives a decade ago.
Greg Rogers: From the beginning, everybody knew this was going to be a case you were going to have to prove on circumstantial evidence, the chances of finding the body were very slim.
Dave Cawley: I should point out, both locations are well within the range of the 807 miles traveled by Josh in a rental car 10 days earlier. You might remember he was unaccounted for for 18 hours. He came back on the grid while traveling south through Tremonton, Utah, as if returning from Idaho.
Greg Rogers: Proving a, a first-degree murder beyond a reasonable doubt without the body, without a murder weapon is difficult. So, but had you found bags full of forensic evidence that he’s getting rid of, that’s pretty helpful. I wasn’t aware that they had this tracking information. And to be brutally honest, being polite, it’s uh, it’s stunning. He was getting rid of evidence, no question.
Dave Cawley: The remainder of Josh Powell’s December, 2009 drive to Washington State proved uneventful. He pulled off at a couple of rest stops, likely to sleep. And he started using his financial cards again once he was in Washington State.
A few weeks passed before Josh returned to Utah in the minivan. On that drive in early January of 2010, the minivan did not make any inexplicable stops on the side of the highway. It only ever left the interstate for gas, fast food or pit stops.
Josh arrived back at the Sarah Circle house with his brother, Michael on January 6th, 2010. Media cameras were waiting when they pulled into the cul-de-sac.
Jennifer Stagg: I had been keeping in very close contact with a lot of sources who knew him and, uh, people who were very in-the-know. I guess, family members of both he and Susan and close family friends.
Dave Cawley: KSL TV reporter Jennifer Stagg had worked the Powell story from the beginning. She’d received a heads-up from a source about Josh’s travel plans.
Jennifer Stagg: I was so personally invested in this story because I had built relationships with everyone involved. Y’know, I had a relationship with his sister, Jennifer Graves. I had a relationship with the Hellewells.
Dave Cawley: But Josh wasn’t feeling talkative. He avoided the cameras. The next day, he dropped off Linda Bagley’s Wildtree order at Susan’s work, as I mentioned at the start of this episode. Then, on the morning of Monday, January 11th, 2010, Josh drove the minivan from the Sarah Circle house to a strip mall at 5600 West and 3500 South. This was the same place where he’d stopped on his way out of town in December. Once again, the minivan made repeat visits to a series of dumpsters. And once again, there’s no indication these dumpsters were searched by police. To be fair, the media didn’t catch it, either.
Jennifer Stagg: He was really, really hard to track.
Dave Cawley: But of course, no reporter had a GPS tracker hidden on the minivan. The minivan also visited a U-Haul store on that Monday morning. That’s where Josh rented the truck and trailer he used to empty out the house.
Jennifer Stagg: The turning point for me was when he packed up and moved out of his house.
Dave Cawley: Once again, Josh didn’t talk to the reporters who stood at the curb, observing as his soon-to-be former neighbors loaded the U-Haul.
Jennifer Stagg: I think I actually asked him at one point, like, “if Susan’s missing, what if she comes home and you’re not here? What if she comes home and you’re not here?” And he didn’t answer me. He just kept going. But in my head, that’s what I’m thinking, like, “you don’t pack up your house and move out of state with your kids if your wife is missing,” right?
Dave Cawley: When Josh and Michael departed Utah in the U-Haul, they left Josh’s minivan in the garage of the Sarah Circle house. The GPS tracker went dormant.
This next period in late January is when Josh’s sister Jennifer Graves went to confront him in Washington while wearing a wire. In that recording, Josh discussed the drive in the U-Haul.
Kirk Graves (from January 22, 2010 wire recording): Did Mike drive part of the way? Did he really?
Dave Cawley: He told his brother-in-law Kirk Graves that he and Michael and traded off time at the wheel.
Josh Powell (from January 22, 2010 wire recording): Yeah, Mike shouldn’t be driving the truck.
Kirk Graves (from January 22, 2010 wire recording): Is that one of your new toys, Charlie? Oh my goodness.
Kirk Graves (from January 22, 2010 wire recording): I’m not sure Mike should be driving anything. But—
Kirk Graves (from January 22, 2010 wire recording): (Laughs) He does have kind of a bad track record, doesn’t he?
Josh Powell (from January 22, 2010 wire recording): I’m just kidding. He’d probably drive just fine but, but he’s just not comfortable in the truck so it is…
Dave Cawley: Josh needed to get his minivan back, and he needed to finish getting the Utah house ready for renters. So, Josh boarded a Southwest Airlines flight on the evening of Thursday, January 28th, 2010. Before flying out of SeaTac, he called his Utah neighbors John and Kiirsi Hellewell. He asked them to pick him up from Salt Lake City International, which they agreed to do.
Kiirsi Hellewell: I was thinking, if I try to pretend to be his friend still and stay on his good side, he has a lot more chance of talking to me than if I scream in his face and grab his coat and say “where’s Susan?”
Dave Cawley: But John and Kiirsi were playing both sides. Kiirsi sent an email to West Valley police detective Ellis Maxwell to let him know Josh was coming back into town. John sent a text to Jennifer Stagg.
Jennifer Stagg: I mean, nobody wanted to get to the truth more than they did, right? And so they very much we’re working with me, closely. And so yeah, they were like “come (laughs), be here at this time.”
Dave Cawley: Josh’s flight arrived at around 9:30 p.m. Jennifer and a TV photographer were waiting.
Jennifer Stagg: I kind of wanted him to know that we were keeping close tabs without spooking him. And then, yeah, we headed over to baggage claim and waited for him to come down that escalator.
(Sound of escalator)
Dave Cawley: The escalator she’s talking about carries passengers down from the TSA security checkpoint to the baggage carousels.
Jennifer Stagg: And you can see everything below. And I have jet-black hair. I’m pretty recognizable. And the minute his eyes went on me, you saw that, like, it was like a ghost. He went white. And he knew why I was there. We made eye contact, yeah? We made eye contact and he was kind of like “oh my gosh.” You saw this moment of like “what is happening?” And I think at that moment he realized that we were following him, like, we were tracking everything that we could that he was doing and it definitely spooked him.
(Sound of baggage carousel)
Jennifer Stagg: There’s nowhere to hide and it puts you kind of right in the middle of the action at the bottom of that escalator so, yeah, there was no way getting around talking to me in some way.
Dave Cawley: Josh had no need to wait around. He hadn’t checked a bag or even packed a toothbrush. He dodged Jennifer’s questions while looking for John Hellewell.
Jennifer Stagg: I realized pretty fast he was not going to talk to me and then he just bee-lined out of there.
Dave Cawley: Josh turned to John and asked “how did they find out?” John replied “someone on the plane must have recognized you and called.”
In Josh’s absence, Susan’s friends and neighbors had plastered the front of the Sarah Circle house with purple ribbons and paper hearts. Paint on the windows carried messages like “we miss you” and “we love you Susan.” Signs on the front lawn read “we will find you” and “we will bring you home.” These messages confronted Josh when he arrived at the house. He took out his camera and took photos of the decorations.
The next day, West Valley police obtained another search warrant for Josh’s minivan. On the prior searches, they’d failed to pull the air filter from the engine bay. Detectives hoped the filter and door jambs might hold dust or particles that could show where the van had been when Susan disappeared.
They took the minivan to serve the warrant. Josh complained to his dad about it, as Steve Powell later told the FBI.
Steve Powell (from February 24, 2010 FBI interview recording): Y’know, when they first got there they wanted his, his van again and they took the air filter out I guess and don’t ask me what that’s all about since he’s gone all the way from Utah to, to Puyallup and back in the van since this tragedy began.
Russ Johnson (from February 24, 2010 FBI interview recording): Oh yeah? When, when did he do that?
Dave Cawley: The air filter didn’t hold anything useful, but the warrant service wasn’t a total bust. While police had the van, the FBI also planted a second GPS tracker on it. This was a major win for police, because their original court order authorizing the GPS tracking was due to expire in just days. The federal order for the second tracker extended that ability for at least another month and a half.
Unfortunately, I don’t have the tracking files from the FBI’s device. The final date for which I currently have tracking data is February 7th, 2010.
That date happens to be an important one.
Dave Cawley: Just after midnight on that Sunday morning, the minivan made its way north up 5600 West, as if it were headed to Susan’s work or Interstate 80. This time, it didn’t go either of those places. Instead, the minivan turned west onto California Avenue. It went about half a mile, stopping just shy of the entrance to the Salt Lake Valley Solid Waste landfill. It pulled into to a small parking lot under a high voltage power pole. A green sign at the entrance of the fenced lot read “recycling drop-off center.” The minivan pulled up to a set of large industrial dumpsters and stopped. It remained there for 14 minutes.
Afterward, Josh grabbed some Del Taco and drove back to the Sarah Circle house. Then, he hit the road for Washington. Another late-night departure. The minivan made three unusual stops as it passed through Utah’s Weber Valley in those early morning hours. First, it exited northbound I-15 at 12th Street, turned around and jumped right back on the freeway. It did the same thing at the next exit to the north, Pioneer Road.
I showed this to Greg Rogers, the former FBI undercover agent.
Greg Rogers: That just looks like cleaning to me.
Dave Cawley: “Cleaning.” Josh making sure he was not being followed.
The third stop came at 2700 North in the community of Farr West. The minivan left the freeway and drove directly to the back side of a burger restaurant. It pulled up at a dumpster. Next, the minivan moved east. It drove into the lot of a plumbing supply store and once again stopped at a dumpster.
Remember, this happened a full two months into the search for Susan.
Greg Rogers: Classic paranoia, even though this is later, they’re still searching his vehicle. And he is thinking all day every day about what could they find in my, in my house or in my, any of my cars, anywhere else that they could put on me. So, that’s what he’s doing. He’s just coming up with, stuff he hadn’t thought of earlier.
Dave Cawley: Police had served three search warrants at Josh and Susan’s house. They’d searched his van repeatedly. And Josh had made multiple suspicious trips to dumpsters. What could he have possibly still had to dispose of at that point?
Greg Rogers: At this stage of the game he’s already gotten rid of anything he thinks that’s got DNA on it or that’s linking him to the homicide. But uh, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have other stuff that he doesn’t want law enforcement to ever find. Yeah, and as we know from his father’s behavior and his, hiding an SD card in your house, finding that on a search warrant, that’s tough. You don’t have to be very bright to hide that where it’s not going to be located by law enforcement. He could’ve had stuff like that, from who knows what uh, his, his and his father’s predilections with cameras are well known. It could have been something that simple, which is very easy to hide, much more difficult to locate.
Dave Cawley: West Valley police did catch a whiff of what Josh was up to, or at least a small piece of it. Case records show that the next morning, detective David Greco logged in to check the tracking data. He noticed the midnight stop at the recycling drop-off near the county landfill. Police rushed out to inspect the site. They peered into each of dumpsters: one for cardboard, one for plastic, one for glass. But no evidence. Unfortunately, the case records suggest they missed catching the stops at dumpsters farther the north, out of town, in the Weber Valley.
Looking at the data now, 10 years after Susan’s disappearance, it seems a critical oversight. When I notified West Valley police of these findings, police spokeswoman Roxeanne Vianuku told me by email “the hindsight of a reporter in 2019 does not always equate to mistakes made by investigators a decade ago.”
I’ll be the first to admit, it’s a lot easier to see this stuff in hindsight once you know what you’re looking for. Detectives at the time had a lot on their plates. They were already searching mines, interviewing and re-interviewing friends and neighbors, serving subpoenas and pouring over records. I asked Greg if GPS tracking might sometimes lead overworked investigators to feel they have a safety net.
Greg Rogers: That’s one way to look at it but it’s incorrect.
Dave Cawley: Greg said it’s not enough in criminal cases to just show where a person went. It has to be backed up with other evidence, like photos, eyes-on surveillance, a wiretap or a dumpster dive to recover discarded evidence. But think about all of the dumpsters I’ve described in this episode. There’s a pattern of behavior there. Certainly, prosecutors could have used that against Josh in a criminal trial, right?
Greg Rogers: They’d bring it up. But you know, the defense attorney would say? Good defense counsel would get up on cross examination right after the, some cop said “he went to this dumpster went to that dumpster.” I wouldn’t want to be that police officer because the question you’re going to get on cross is “well, did you check what he put in the dumpster? Did you actually see him put anything in the dumpster? Can you say, for sure that he even did put anything in the dumpster?” The answer to all those questions is no. The prosecutor may not bring it up for that reason, because they would know you’re going to get pounded for not checking those dumpsters. That’s a, that’s a huge misstep.
Dave Cawley: A few minutes ago, I mentioned the decorations Susan’s friends and neighbors had placed outside the Sarah Circle house in Josh’s absence. We can only guess what he must have thought about them.
Josh Powell (from February 24, 2010 video recording): Clearly, it’s a targeted, no doubt a hate campaign.
Dave Cawley: Apparently we don’t have to guess. Josh recorded this video to tell us what he thought of all the posters, fliers and ribbons.
Josh Powell (from February 24, 2010 video recording): And we believe that that is because they want to spread hate.
Dave Cawley: Josh filmed this from the driver seat of his minivan after returning to Washington in February. He and his brother Michael drove around their neighborhood, noting how people had taped fliers with Susan’s name and face to mailboxes, light poles and signposts. This made him angry, because the fliers were placed where he was sure to see them.
Josh Powell (from February 24, 2010 video recording): So, clearly it’s not an effort to find Susan. It’s clearly a target effort to act as a reminder for us and our neighbors.
Dave Cawley: At one point in the video, Josh even described the fliers as “an assault.”
Josh Powell (from February 24, 2010 video recording): Charlie and Braden don’t understand why the people keep doing this. And they don’t really need to understand the full situation. And it’s sick for these people to try to push this situation on them.
Dave Cawley: Again, Josh recorded this in Washington, not Utah. But it sheds light on how he viewed the broader community’s response to Susan’s disappearance. He believed the so-called “hate campaign” went back to one man: Susan’s dad.
Josh Powell (from February 24, 2010 video recording): Clearly, Chuck Cox needs to get his organization under control. If he doesn’t know about this, fine. But he will be aware of it soon ‘cause we’re gonna be telling him.
Dave Cawley: Josh Powell made one other drive between Washington and Utah that deserves a closer look. I mentioned it in episode 9 of Cold. It occurred just before Mother’s Day, in May of 2010. You might remember, police were surveilling Josh as he made an unexpected trip from his dad’s house to the Sarah Circle house.
Derryl Spencer: Josh left the house and we started to follow him and we followed him all the way back to Salt Lake City. So that was, I mean, I literally drove to Puyallup, Washington one day and then we drove back to Salt Lake the next day.
Dave Cawley: That’s U.S. Marshal Derryl Spencer, who took part in the operation with West Valley officers.
Derryl Spencer: Extremely hard to watch him ‘cause y’know he’s of course driving exactly 65 miles an hour the whole way and (laughs) to follow someone clandestine, y’know secretively, through multi-state was extremely difficult, but we did it.
Dave Cawley: The FBI’s tracking order was expiring.
Derryl Spencer: We couldn’t lose him because we didn’t know where he was going or what he was doing.
Dave Cawley: What Josh was doing was grabbing the last of his and Susan’s personal belongings from the Sarah Circle house.
As Josh approached the Salt Lake Valley on Utah’s Legacy Parkway, he started snapping photos on a Nikon DSLR from the driver seat of his minivan. Police didn’t realize this until more than a year later, after they seized Josh’s computers from his dad’s home with a search warrant on August 25th, 2011. That’s when they recovered copies of those photos.
The pictures Josh took have never been released. I was able to retrieve copies with the help of digital forensics experts Trent Leavitt and Kaly Richmond from the firm Eide Bailey. They donated time, expertise and equipment to the effort.
The camera Josh used did not have GPS capability, so there are no coordinates hidden in metadata. But I’ve managed to geolocate all of them using a combination of Google Earth and Street View imagery. They show Josh did not drive directly to his and Susan’s home in West Valley. Instead, he first pulled into the International Center, a business park west of Salt Lake City International Airport.
He took a few photos in the parking lot of an office building on Wright Brothers Drive, then went around the block to the Wells Fargo call center where Susan had worked. Timestamps on the photos show he only stayed there for about two minutes. Then, he drove to his old work at Aspen Logistics. All along the way, Josh took pictures, of nothing in particular. Just streets, road signs and traffic. Same thing after he left Aspen and drove to the Sarah Circle house. Pictures of nothing.
Josh packed the minivan to the brim. When he departed for Washington late that same night, a roof box and an old bicycle were on top. A tow hitch cargo carrier hung off the back, loaded down with two large, blue plastic barrels. Police tailed him into Idaho, keeping an eye from a distance.
Derryl Spencer: That made it extremely easy to watch him from a distance ‘cause you had, y’know this, this large 55-gallon drum on top of a minivan cruising, y’know, northbound on 65. So, y’know, I’m glad the, that the uh, blue 55-gallon drum was there to help us out.
Dave Cawley: Police surveillance logs showed Josh pulled off of I-84 at exit 194 in southern Idaho at about 2:20 a.m. He slept there until 10:30 a.m.
That exit is just two miles beyond the canal where Josh had stopped for five minutes at 2 a.m. on his December 2009 drive to Washington.
After waking on that May morning, Josh proceeded westbound on I-84 toward Boise. He’d only gone about 10 miles before he stopped. He took his camera, stepped out of the minivan and walked into the weeds alongside the interstate. Josh took four photos of a farmer’s field. On it were irrigation sprinklers, covered in ice. Maybe it’s a clue. Or maybe it’s unrelated to anything having to do with Susan.
Greg Rogers: He could’ve been driving by this and thought, as, as unusual as it would seem to you and I, he could be driving by that and go “oh, that looks cool.” And he believes he’s a phenomenal photographer, and he likes the ice the way it’s coming off the wheels of the watering stuff and so he’s like “yeah, I’ll stop and take that.”
Dave Cawley: Greg Rogers, the former FBI undercover agent, told me he doesn’t believe Josh’s brain functioned the way yours or mine might.
Greg Rogers: You have to understand he, he has no remorse at all for killing Susan. All of this that’s happening to him now is just inconvenient. But it has nothing to do with him feeling badly about what he did. So if he sees something that interests him, y’know, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if he saw that was a cool pic.
Dave Cawley: A few hours down the road and Josh stopped again. This time in Oregon, north of Ontario in rural Malheur County. He shot more photos of the scenery at the side of the road. I mentioned these shots in episode 15 of Cold. Since that time, I’ve had the opportunity to visit the site myself. It sits at the crest of a hill, surrounded by more hills. Ranch land of the old Oregon Trail. A vista bare of trees. To the east, the land falls away into a tributary of the Snake River called Wheel Gulch.
Josh took 11 pictures there: many of his van, others of the landscape, one of a soaring hawk. The photos have not previously been published, but you can see them now at thecoldpodcast.com. Ask yourself as you look at them: what might have Josh been thinking as he stood there, wind in his hair, road noise roaring behind him? Was this just his art?
Greg Rogers: That would make perfect sense to him. To you or I, we’d think “wow, how can you be interested in art or photography or” you, you murdered your wife brutally. But to an absolute psychopath, that’s just an inconvenient fact.