Dave Cawley: The Giants were playing the Patriots in Indianapolis. Super Bowl Sunday. February 5th, 2012.
Elizabeth Griffin-Hall was at work. As people across the country tuned in to the pre-game coverage, she drove her gray Toyota Prius into the cul-de-sac at 189th Street Court East in Graham, Washington. She steered between two pine trees that flanked the driveway outside a small brown house. It was about noon, Pacific Time. Elizabeth parked the car and pulled the key out of the ignition.
She worked for Foster Care Resources, a company contracted by the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services to supervise visitation in child custody situations. She was bringing Charlie and Braden Powell over for their usual, Sunday visit with their dad, Josh Powell.
Josh waited for them. He pulled opened the front door of his rented house and looked at his sons.
“I have a surprise for you,” he said. The giddy boys took off at clip up the short path between the driveway and front door. Elizabeth hurried along after them. Charlie and Braden slipped past their father and into the house. Then, Josh looked straight at Elizabeth, right into her eyes. Without another word, he slammed the door and locked it.
Nothing like that had ever happened before. Elizabeth pounded on the door. Josh didn’t answer. She rang the doorbell. Again, no answer. She shouted, ordering Josh to open the door. She rang the bell, over and over and over again. No response.
Growing frantic, Elizabeth began to beg. “Please, let me in.” Then, she heard something terrible from the back of the house. Sobs. A child, crying. One of the boys. Elizabeth reeled. Her pulse quickened and breathing accelerated. She smelled the unmistakable odor of gasoline. She went back to her car, pulled out her phone and dialed 911. It was 12:08 p.m.
Elizabeth Griffin-Hall (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): Hey, I’m on a supervised visitation for a court-ordered visit and something really weird has happened. The kids went into the house and the parent, the biological parent whose name is Josh Powell will not let me in the door. What should I do?
Dave Cawley: The dispatcher asked Elizabeth for the address.
Elizabeth Griffin-Hall (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): It’s 8119 and I, I think it’s 89th. Umm, I don’t know what the address is.
David Lovrak (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): Mmkay. That’s pretty important for me to know.
Dave Cawley: While looking, she said “I think I need help right away.”
Elizabeth Griffin-Hall (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): He’s on a very short leash with DSHS and CPS has been involved. And this is the craziest thing. He looked right at me and closed the door. Are you there?
David Lovrak (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): Yes ma’am, I’m just waiting to know where you are.
Elizabeth Griffin-Hall (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): Ok. It’s 8119 189th Street Court East, Puyallup. 88375.
Dave Cawley: What happened next would haunt Elizabeth.
Elizabeth Griffin-Hall (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): And I’d like to pull out of the driveway ‘cause I smell gasoline and he won’t let me in.
David Lovrak (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): You want to pull out of the driveway because you smell gasoline but he won’t let you—
Elizabeth Griffin-Hall (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): I smell, he, he won’t let me in.
David Lovrak (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): He won’t let you out of the driveway?
Elizabeth Griffin-Hall (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): He won’t let me in the house.
David Lovrak (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): Whose house is it?
Elizabeth Griffin-Hall (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): He’s got the kids in the house and he won’t let me in. It’s a supervised visit.
David Lovrak (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): I understand. Whose house is it?
Elizabeth Griffin-Hall (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): Josh Powell.
David Lovrak (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): Ok, so you don’t live there, right?
Elizabeth Griffin-Hall (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): No, I don’t, no. I’m contracted to the state to provide supervised visitation.
David Lovrak (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): I see.
Dave Cawley: Elizabeth told the confused dispatcher this was a high-profile case. Josh was the husband of missing woman Susan Powell.
David Lovrak (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): And their dad’s last name?
Elizabeth Griffin-Hall (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): Powell. P-O-W-E-L-L.
David Lovrak (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): Two ls? (Pause) Two ls at the end of Powell?
Elizabeth Griffin-Hall (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): Yes.
David Lovrak (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): His first name?
Elizabeth Griffin-Hall (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): His first name is Josh.
David Lovrak (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): Black, white, Asian, Hispanic, native?
Elizabeth Griffin-Hall (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): He’s white.
David Lovrak (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): Date of birth?
Elizabeth Griffin-Hall (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): I don’t know, he’s about 39.
Dave Cawley: She grew more agitated. The dispatcher told her he’d have a deputy swing by.
Elizabeth Griffin-Hall (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): Ok, how long will it be?
David Lovrak (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): I don’t know ma’am. They have to respond to emergency life-threatening situations first. The first available deputy—
Elizabeth Griffin-Hall (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): Well this, this could be life-threatening. He went to court on Wednesday and he, he didn’t get his kids back. And this is really, I’m a, I’m afraid for their lives.
David Lovrak (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): Ok, has he threatened the lives of the children previously?
Elizabeth Griffin-Hall (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): I have no idea.
David Lovrak (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): Alright. We’ll have the first available deputy contact you.
Elizabeth Griffin-Hall (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): Thank you.
Dave Cawley: The call ended. Elizabeth backed her car out of the driveway and parked on the other side of the cul-de-sac, a safe distance away from the house.
Then it happened. The house ignited. Fire, fueled by gasoline, moved so so fast that it seemed like an explosion. Heat made the windows burst and thick black smoke billowed out. Fresh air rushed in to the house, smothering some parts of the fire while stoking others.
It was 12:16 p.m. Dispatchers started to receive more calls about the blast. Graham Fire and Rescue Station 95 sits less than a quarter-mile away as the crow flew from Josh’s house. It should have taken just moments for a fire truck to arrive. Elizabeth, watching in shock, could hear wail of the siren. It seemed to swirl around her, as if moving in a circle. She kept waiting to see an engine but it didn’t arrive.
Flames climbed high above the trees surrounding the half-acre property.
Elizabeth Griffin-Hall (from February 5, 2012 dispatch call recording): Hello?
Dispatcher (from February 5, 2012 dispatch call recording): Hi ma’am. Were you calling about the fire in the 82-hundred block of 180th Street Court East?
Elizabeth Griffin-Hall (from February 5, 2012 dispatch call recording): Yes! He exploded the house.
Dispatcher (from February 5, 2012 dispatch call recording): Ma’am do you know the—
Elizabeth Griffin-Hall (from February 5, 2012 dispatch call recording): Yes, he exploded the house.
Dispatcher (from February 5, 2012 dispatch call recording): —ok, do exact address of the house or are you—
Elizabeth Griffin-Hall (from February 5, 2012 dispatch call recording): Yes. It’s 8, it’s 8119 189th Street Court East, Puyallup.
Dispatcher (from February 5, 2012 dispatch call recording): Ok, ok. Stay on the line. Do you know if anyone’s in the house?
Elizabeth Griffin-Hall (from February 5, 2012 dispatch call recording): Yes, there was a man and two children—
Dispatcher (from February 5, 2012 dispatch call recording): Ok.
Elizabeth Griffin-Hall (from February 5, 2012 dispatch call recording): —I just dropped off the children and he wouldn’t let me in the door.
Dispatcher (from February 5, 2012 dispatch call recording): Ok. Stay on the line for the fire department, ok? I’m going to get them on the line. Do not hang up.
Dave Cawley: The dispatcher connected Elizabeth directly to the fire department.
Elizabeth Griffin-Hall (from February 5, 2012 dispatch call recording): I can hear the fire trucks but they’re not here yet. It’s 8119—
Fire department dispatcher (from February 5, 2012 dispatch call recording): We have an engine there.
Elizabeth Griffin-Hall (from February 5, 2012 dispatch call recording): What?
Fire department dispatcher (from February 5, 2012 dispatch call recording): We have an engine there.
Elizabeth Griffin-Hall (from February 5, 2012 dispatch call recording): And the people are saying there’s not somebody here but I was just there and there is somebody here. There’s two little boys in the house and they’re five and seven and there’s an adult man. He has supervised visitation and he blew up the house and the kids.
Fire department dispatcher (from February 5, 2012 dispatch call recording): The kids and the husband, and the father were in the house?
Elizabeth Griffin-Hall (from February 5, 2012 dispatch call recording): Yes. Yes. He slammed the door in my face. So I kept knocking. I thought it was a mistake. I thought it was a mistake and then I called 911.
Dave Cawley: Josh’s final, horrible act was no mistake. This is Cold, episode 14: Killing Susan’s Sons. I’m Dave Cawley.
Dave Cawley: Josh’s little sister Alina awoke that Sunday morning to find an odd email in her inbox. It was a forward from Josh, something to do with his finances. More emails arrived throughout the morning. Josh told Alina, message by message, how to handle his affairs. Then, Alina’s phone beeped. She had a new voicemail.
Josh Powell (from February 5, 2012 voicemail message): This is Josh. I’m calling to say goodbye. I’m not able to live without my sons and I’m not able to go on anymore. I’m sorry to everyone I’ve hurt. Goodbye.
Dave Cawley: Alina called 911.
Alina Powell (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): I think my brother might be in trouble or something.
Dispatcher (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): What’s going on with your brother?
Alina Powell (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): He’s, I don’t know. He’s sending weird emails. He’s saying goodbye and stuff.
Dave Cawley: The dispatcher asked Alina for her brother’s address. Alina said she didn’t know it. The dispatcher asked for her brother’s name. Alina said “Josh Powell.”
Dispatcher (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): Ok, was he going to have supervised visit today?
Alina Powell (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): I, I think so. I mean he was supposed to normally on Sunday.
Dispatcher (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): Ok.
Alina Powell (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): I mean—
Dispatcher (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): And this is the Josh that’s been in the, in the media, right?
Alina Powell (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): Yeah.
Dispatcher (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): Ok.
Alina Powell (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): Yeah, the one that’s been being abused by everyone.
Dave Cawley: Alina struggled to keep her composure.
Dispatcher (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): Alina, calm down. I understand that you’re upset but the more you’re getting upset it’s the less helpful for me, ok? I think I have an address for him off of 80th, umm, I have off of 189th Street Court East is what I’m seeing.
Dave Cawley: Alina still could not confirm the address. Josh’d only lived there a couple of months. She said she’d never bothered to look at the street signs. And in fact, suspicion persists to this day that Josh’d never actually moved into the house, only staged to make it appear as though he had.
Alina Powell (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): I mean I know this has to have been hard on him. The abuse is extremely difficult for him to take. (Sobs)
Dispatcher (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): What, what else, what else did the email, Alina I need you to calm down, ok? What else did the email say?
Alina Powell (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): Nothing. Just he sent several emails saying stuff about how to, how to handle his property or something, how to cancel utilities. I don’t know. It was different emails.
Dispatcher (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): Mmkay.
Alina Powell (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): And they started awhile ago. And a first I didn’t, I didn’t even think anything of it ‘cause it was some weird email that came in this morning that I just like dismissed.
Dispatcher (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): Ok.
Alina Powell (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): And it didn’t say anything from him. It was just some kind of forward from him.
Dispatcher (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): Ok, no problem.
Alina Powell (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): I just missed it.
Dave Cawley: The dispatcher told Alina a deputy would head to 189th Street Court East, but it would be helpful if she could confirm Josh’s address.
Alina Powell (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): The only way to do that would be if I drive over there and I’m, I’m terrified to drive over there.
Dispatcher (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): Well, we’re sending an officer over there so we just need to know where we’re going. We’re not asking you to make any contact with him. We’ll, we’ll have the officer do that.
Alina Powell (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): I’m not afraid of him. He’d never hurt me. I’m afraid of seeing something I don’t want to see. (Crying)
Dispatcher (from February 5, 2012 911 call recording): Alina, you are not helpful when you’re crying.
Dave Cawley: The first sheriff’s deputies pulled up to the burning house at 12:30 p.m., 22 minutes after Elizabeth Griffin-Hall first dialed 911.
Dispatch (from February 5, 2012 recording): Multiple calls of a house. There are lots of explosions heard. Unknown if it’s occupied. Flames are visible. Ladder 91 sees a huge plume and PD’s aware. Be careful.
Dave Cawley: Chuck Cox was at church, in a meeting in the bishop’s office, when his phone buzzed.
Chuck Cox: So I’m in there and I get this text or something, email or something, from somebody. It said that the, Josh’s blown up the house that they’re in. I’m going “no. Where did you hear this?” “It was on Facebook.” “Ok, good. Facebook, I don’t care what’s, there’s no controls on Facebook. Y’know, who knows what it is?” So uh, I said “ok, well I’m not too worried about that.” And I was started to go back in and it went off again and then I says “well, who’s saying this?” And it was “Associated Press is picking this up.” … From the time I found out about it ’til the media gets it, until they start trying to get in touch with me, I know I’m going to have to answer questions. I know that other people are going to want to know “is it true, is it not?” … Somebody has to find out and actually look and see what’s going on. So, it was me, so I went and did what I needed to do to, to find out.
Dispatch (from February 5, 2012 recording): The CPS worker that deals with this residence, they believe that this fire was intentionally-set. She is at scene. She believes that the dad and two children, ages 5 and 7, are inside the house.
Dave Cawley: Susan’s friend, neighbor and advocate Kiirsi Hellewell first learned of the fire from a reporter.
Kiirsi Hellewell: I’d just barely walked in from church and my phone started ringing and I was like “oh what is it now, what has Josh done now?” So I answered it and it was a reporter asking me if I’d heard that there was an explosion at the home Josh was renting in Graham, Washington. And I said “no, I haven’t heard that. What do you mean an explosion. What do you mean a fire?” “Well, we just heard that Josh had the boys and that he’d picked them up for his, his visit with them and the whole house is up in flames.” And I just said “I can’t talk to you right now” and I hung up and I immediately called Susan’s dad and he was driving to the house when he answered the phone and I said “Chuck, is it true?” And he said “I don’t know, I’m on my way there but I think it is.” And then I just started sobbing. And then I called Debbie and I said “Debbie, I don’t want to be the one to tell you this. I do not want to tell you this. And I told her and she just said ‘no, no, no.’”
Dave Cawley: Debbie Caldwell had been Charlie and Braden’s daycare provider when they’d live in Utah. She had traveled to Washington to visit the boys at the Cox house just a few months earlier.
Chuck Cox: I think I called Debbie. I called, I call, called the other people who would know and want to know and need to know that it was actual and then let them start talking to the media and do all that kind of stuff so I can kind of just recover from it, realize what went on.
Debbie Caldwell: Chuck called me and all I said to him was “Chuck, Chuck, is it true, is it true?” And he said “yes” and I didn’t even say goodbye. I just hung up the phone. I was in such a state of shock.
Kirk Graves (from February 5, 2012 KSL TV archive): We’re in shock. We expected that he cared about his kids. Turns out he didn’t.
Jennifer Stagg (from February 5, 2012 KSL TV archive): That’s Josh Powell’s brother-in-law Kirk Graves’ reaction to the news that Josh had taken the lives of his son and his own life in a home explosion.
Dave Cawley: Josh’s older sister Jennifer had returned home from church when her phone rang. It was Kiirsi. Jennifer could only manage to make out something about an explosion and “the kids.”
Jennifer Graves: So I was like “ok. I’m going to go call Chuck and find out what’s really going on here, so you just hang on and I’m gonna call you back.” And so I went in and found my husband in the other room and, and he was in his office. And I didn’t even talk to the kids, didn’t see the kids, I didn’t want to bring this up in front of the kids. We were in his office and shut the door. We called Chuck. He said that he was on his way to figure it out. He wasn’t sure what was going on, he was going to call us back. And so we were kind of just waiting on pins and needles, waiting for him to call back. And finally, I don’t know how many minutes had past, but probably at least ten minutes before we realized, and before we finally decided we can’t wait any longer. We’re just gonna call. And so Kirk called him again and, and uh Chuck had gotten there and the house was a burned out, charred mess. And it was confirmed that Josh and the boys were in there and that they were dead.
And it was, it was such a, such a weight. Such a horrible, a horrible thing my mind couldn’t even comprehend. And it was kinda like I shut down. I just remember sinking to the floor, thinking “I, I should, I should tell someone. This is really bad and I should tell people that this has happened.” And I sat there and I stared at my phone trying to figure out how to make it work because I couldn’t remember how, how to, how to send messages anymore. And I finally was able to get through that and figure it out and get my mind to, to work a little bit again. And I ended up sending this really, really blunt message to a whole bunch of friends and family. And I feel bad now because it was something to the effect of “Josh has blown up his house with Charlie and Braden in it and they’re all dead.” And I sent that, something like that. And it was, and I know, oh my goodness. I think now, and I think “oh my goodness, if I had read, if I had received that message. Oh, oh how horrible.”
And then I heard from people later, y’know, loved ones and friends, about when they received that text. And, y’know, my cousin was in the middle of church and she received that while she was sitting there in Relief Society and looked at that. And she just, she said she just, she stood up, kind of like me, y’know, what do you, what do you even make of that? She stood up and just stood there, looking at it not sure what to do. And finally, as it came through into her mind she, she finally just left. Went and found her, her husband and, and her children and, and they left. And y’know, just situations like, oh my goodness. It was horrible. It was horrible.
And then we came down and, and, we were upstairs and, and we came down and, because the doorbell rang, and my neighbors across the street had, had heard and they were coming to, y’know, to be here. Just to be here with us. And I walked down the stairs and I remember thinking “oh my goodness my children don’t even know.” And I could, and, and then I had to stop and explain to them that their, their cousins had been murdered in a terrible house explosion. And, and of course after that, I was still in a daze. It was just unreal. And we had other people that came, wonderful friends that just came and, and sat with us and fielded the media. Kirk went out. He talked some with the media a little bit. I could not deal with it. I could not do it. But they were camped all over my, my yard, my front yard, and I couldn’t, I could not go out there.
Even in the midst, even in the midst of it, I, I remember thinking even, even through the pain, somewhere deep down inside, they’re ok. They’re ok because they’re now with their mom and Heavenly Father and Jesus. So that was like a little glimmer, a little glimmer of light through the whole thing that just kept me from completely collapsing.
Firefighter (from February 5, 2012 dispatch recording): Command from Engine 95. Confirm one victim, three feet inside.
Dispatch (from February 5, 2012 dispatch recording): Additional male victim found at the same location as the first.
Dave Cawley: Pierce County Sheriff’s detective Gary Sanders was getting ready for the big game.
Gary Sanders: I was making some chili con queso dip and my pager off, ‘cause I was having a Super Bowl party that day, and, and — back when we had pagers, we don’t have pagers anymore but umm — it said, uh, “call dispatch in regards to Josh Powell.” And I was like “hmm, that’s weird. I wonder what’s going on with that.” So y’know, I called dispatch and was like, “hey y’know it’s Sanders, calling about your page.” And they go “yeah, Josh just just blew up the house and he, and he killed the boys with him. And took the boys with him.” And I was just like “[expletive].” Y’know, it was just, it was from here to the bottom, y’know?
I’d played with the boys. The boy had been in my patrol car playing with the lights and sirens. Umm, I’d gotten to know the Coxes, started thinking about that, y’know, how I feel for the Coxes. And I’m like “oh crap, I wonder if they know.” It just sucked. It was, it was, it was a bad day and I’ll forever remember that day.
Where I live was maybe a mile-and-a-half away, if that, y’know, from where that was. And I drove over there and it was still smoldering and it was just a big, chaotic scene with fire trucks and umm, y’know, looking at the house, the devastation, y’know. The gas that he’d poured and the way he’d done it, he made sure he took care of it.
Dave Cawley: Chuck Cox arrived shortly after Gary.
Chuck Cox: There’s something there. So I had to go over, see for myself was it there or was it not? And I saw it that yes, it was indeed, smoke coming out of it. And then I knew what I, I knew what they would be looking at. I knew what the, the first responders were looking at.
Dave Cawley: Throughout his career with the FAA investigating plane crashes, Chuck had examined his share of fiery disasters. He reacted as many pilots would by falling back on his training and checklists.
Chuck Cox: In emergencies, I go into a really calm, do A, B, C and A’s the most important thing and B and then the C. And then I do this. And I just go into that mode and I do what I need to do. So the first thing I need to do is go find out “is it true?” Number two, I gotta notify the people who are waiting to find out, so I told them. Number three, “what do I do next?” What can I do next? Well, cameras or go home?
Dave Cawley: Sanders told Chuck there was nothing he could do at the house.
Chuck Cox: My wife, she didn’t have a phone, so I don’t know if she knows or not so I gotta go back there because being here’s not gonna do anything.
Dave Cawley: Once the flames were doused, Gary walked through the still-smoking remains of the house.
Gary Sanders: Even, well I mean we were pretty sure because with the 911 call with the social worker, seeing the boys go in, hearing them scream and then the explosion, umm, you knew it but you’ve still got to confirm it.
Dave Cawley: Josh had spread gallons of gasoline throughout the entire house, then ignited it.
Gary Sanders: Going through and seeing the bodies and stuff like that, that was a hard thing too. Y’know, just, y’know, two little boys that were innocent and had no play into that and unfortunately mom had been taken away and so they’d been dealing with that.
Dave Cawley: Those three bodies were all together, in a back bedroom. A blackened metal hatchet sat next to Josh’s body. Gary could see that Josh had used it to bludgeon both of the boys about the back of the neck, knocking them unconscious. Coroners though determined the fire and smoke inhalation actually caused the deaths.
Gary positively identified the bodies as belonging to Josh, Charlie and Braden Powell. Dental records later confirmed his observation.
Gary Sanders: Fire does a lot of damage but I think the explosion kinda put a lot of the fire out too, in some essence, y’know, blew the roof off and stuff like that. And there was some damage but you could tell. Unfortunately, y’know, it’s one of those things that will always be up here, because you can tell.
Firefighter (from February 5, 2012 dispatch recording): We have a confirmed, confirmed third signal.
Dispatcher (from February 5, 2012 dispatch recording): All units at the house, confirmed third signal.
Dave Cawley: Like Gary, Ellis was at home preparing for a Super Bowl party.
Ellis Maxwell: Oh it was horrible. It was horrible. Umm, y’know, I was, I was home and I, and I had guests over to the house and, y’know, doing what a lot of people do that, uh, watch Super Bowl Sunday teams go at it.
Dave Cawley: Ellis missed a call from Gary, then received a message from his lieutenant, telling him something had happened in Washington.
Ellis Maxwell: And I get a phone call from, from Gary and he’s like, he goes “have you heard?” And I said “heard what?” And he goes “sit down.” And I was like, and so I went into my office and I sat down. I said “what’s going on?” And that’s when he told me. He’s like “Josh blew up the house with the kids inside.” I think my first comment to him was “well, what the hell were the kids doing at the house?” Because the kids weren’t supposed to be, uh, having visitation at the house. It was supposed to be in a neutral location, in a, in a, in a kind of like public but governed area. And I think my next thing was “are you, are you serious?” ‘Cause it was kind of like I believed it but I didn’t believe. And uh, y’know, so it was, it was, it was crazy. It was an emotional, uh, a roller coaster of emotions. I was upset, I was mad, I was sad. Umm, and I just literally wanted to just jump in my car and drive straight up there.
Dave Cawley: Ellis’ mind raced.
Ellis Maxwell: Obviously, it was all premeditated and he was ready and he was going to carry it out. Clearly Josh had made up his mind that he was going to carry out some sort of act of violence, whether if it was upon himself or others, so whether or not that could have been prevented, umm, I don’t think anybody could say. Y’know, and it’s possible say if the Coxes had the kids and they were at home and he did some surveillance on ‘em and y’know maybe he blows up their house and so instead of the three of ‘em, now there’s five of them or more.
Dave Cawley: Word spread among the rest of the West Valley City team. They made immediate travel arrangements.
Shara Park (from February 7, 2012 KSL TV archive recording): Police won’t comment about other details that involve Susan’s case, but they are saying they’re going to question Steven Powell about it.
Dave Cawley: Dax and Mindy Guzman were renting Josh and Susan’s other house, the one on Sarah Circle in West Valley, Utah. Like Alina, they’d received strange emails from Josh. Then, they saw video of the fire on the news. In one of the emails, Josh had told Dax to take his old Yamaha Radian motorcycle from the back yard and sell it for scrap.
Dax Guzman: I was so mad at Josh I, I umm, I took my sledge hammer, my, and my saws and I shredded his uh, his bike. Like I, yeah. I completely, completely tore that bike apart, right there in the yard. I, yeah. I was really, really mad and just went at it with my sledge hammer and just cut up the frame. Cut up everything. Umm, yeah, it was, it was just evil. I can’t, can’t think it. I can’t process it. I can’t even, like, complete the process in my mind to do what he did. I played with those boys. I hung out with those boys. I’d… (pause) …y’know, it was getting close. That’s why he did what he did. It was getting close. And, y’know, part of me wishes that, the boys, they were gone, but part of me wishes that he would have survived and just lived in pain the rest of his life. That would’ve been so great. Blind, not, maybe lost his hands, his feet, whatever. Just been a, a nub of a person. That would have been ok with me.
Firefighter (from February 5, 2012 dispatch recording): We can put water through the window but do not go in the structure unless absolutely necessary.
Dave Cawley: JoVanna Owings, the last person besides Josh to have seen Susan alive, learned of the fire from her sons. They were watching Super Bowl pre-game coverage when the TV station broke in with a live report.
JoVanna Owings: We were watching the live report and I saw a house burning and I saw police cars and I saw, I think I saw a woman by her car in front and she was just, she was being talked to by other people. And I said “what?” And my boys said “Josh just blew up his house and killed his boys.” And I just, I could not believe that. That’s stuff that people make up and put in a movie. It wasn’t, it wasn’t real to me that that could possibly happen. But I did find out that it was real, it did happen. And I still, I was in shock for a good couple days just like, “how could that happen? How could somebody do that to their children?” I have a strong mothering nature and I, I could never, ever do that to my children. I could not understand how, how a father could do that to his children either.
Jennifer Stagg (from February 5, 2012 KSL TV archive): This was the first visit Josh’d had with the boys since Wednesday’s custody hearing, in which he learned he would not be getting his sons back.
Dave Cawley: Susan’s neighbors weren’t the only ones blindsided by the news. Her coworkers, Linda Bagley and Amber Hardman, were as well. Here’s Amber.
Amber Hardman: I was at work. Super Bowl Sunday. I remember that. And all the sudden my phone just started blowing up. Like, people messaging me “did you hear the news? I’m so sorry.” I hadn’t yet. And we had TVs on everywhere at work. I mean, it’s just how it is and yeah, it was right there on the TV before I’d even had a chance to talk to anybody. I was just looking at my phone, like “what is going on?” I look up at the TV and there it is. Again, it felt like you were in a movie. It didn’t seem real. It almost solidified that he had to have killed her. Like, if you could kill your children, if you can do that, of course you could kill your spouse.
Dave Cawley: Rod Stephens, who’d helped Josh unload his U-Haul when he moved to Washington in January of 2010, had himself moved to Utah in the time since. He found out about the fire from his dad.
Rod Stephens: My father called me up and said “Josh killed his boys and blew up his house.” And in fact, it was in the morning when I got the call and I was actually quite hurt for the boys. I could’ve cared less about Josh but I felt really bad for those two boys.
Dave Cawley: Rod saw the murder-suicide as something of a confession.
Rod Stephens: Dads don’t do that, right? You would sacrifice yourself long before you’d ever, ever let one of your kids get hurt. But not Josh. So, what kind of place of evil he had to get to to kill his two boys? Clearly, he killed his wife. There’s no doubt about it.
Jennifer Stagg (from February 5, 2012 KSL TV archive): And now they’re hoping they’ll finally learn once and for all what happened to Susan after police are able to release more details about the case.
Kirk Graves (from February 5, 2012 KSL TV archive): My feeling is Josh’s just admitted to guilt.
Dave Cawley: Dark memories, long suppressed, rose from the depths of Catherine Everett’s mind when she learned of Josh’s final act. Catherine, who’d been Josh’s only true girlfriend before he met and married Susan, had followed every twist in the case, ever since first seeing her ex-boyfriend on the news in December of 2009.
Catherine Terry Everett: Y’know, when it first broke it absolutely devastated me, ‘cause I’m just like “this is not happening,” y’know. I’m like, “this is absolutely too coincidental. How could this be going on, how could I know this person?” And just knowing that it was very probable that Susan was gone. That he was absolutely and utterly capable of doing something like that.
Dave Cawley: She couldn’t believe that Josh had married, moved to Utah and lived for years less than hour’s drive away from her house.
Catherine Terry Everett: It took me to a bad place, just y’know, mentally and emotionally and I was just like, it made me think about a lot of things that, umm, happened between the two of us, y’know and just the way he was.
Dave Cawley: Like so many others, Catherine and her husband Dennis learned of the house explosion in Washington when they saw it on the TV that day. Catherine had celebrated her birthday just one day before. She wondered if Josh had intended to mark the date.
Catherine Terry Everett: I have to be careful when I talk about it and when I think about it because right after he’d killed himself I had some really, really disturbing dreams where he was there but it was like he was, he wasn’t alive. He was obviously dead. And I’m like “I have to be careful about what I let in, y’know, to myself.” And I said, y’know, “I don’t like to talk about it a whole lot.” And I’m sure in some twisted way he thought that he was going to be reunited with Susan and everything was going to be good and great and I’m like “that’s not the way it works. Those kids are going to go to their mom and you’re not going to be able to touch them again.”
Dave Cawley: Forensic psychologist James Manley, who’d recommended Josh undergo a psychosexual evaluation with another provider, was at work on a different report that day.
James Manley: I was working on a report and the colleague that I referred to, Josh to for the psychosexual texted me or something and says “look at CNN right now.” So I did, and it was a helicopter shot of the smoldering home.
Dave Cawley: James was not was so emotionally invested as Susan’s friends or family. He hadn’t spent the same amount of time with the case as the police who’d been nipping at Josh’s heels for the prior two years. But at the same time, he was closer to what’d happened than almost anyone. He had visited that house.
James Manley: The intense violence that Josh had with his sons, talking to forensics, talking to the policemen, talking to the fire chief, talking to the social worker, or rather the agency supervisor that brought the children to the house that I’d just, y’know, a week or so before cleared along with the social worker, uh, was fairly intense. I would say approaching trauma but it really wasn’t, it wasn’t that close to me. But uh, of course you backtrack, uh, and wonder “did I miss something?”
Shara Park (from February 9, 2012 KSL TV archive): The dispatch agency says the calls from the social worker are now under review. Jodi Maier is a communications supervisor at the dispatch center. She says 911 is often misunderstood. She and her agency is asking for time and understanding as the case is looked at.
Dave Cawley: Attorney Anne Bremner hadn’t heard much from her clients Chuck and Judy Cox in weeks.
Anne Bremner: I didn’t hear anything from them when they had those kids. It was the first time that they were like, ok. They were just great. And so it was, oh, just a heartbreaker, y’know, for them.
Dave Cawley: Anne learned of the fire from a reporter.
Anne Bremner: My phone rang and it was, it was a reporter from Utah and said “did you hear?” And I said “hear, hear what?” And he said “there was an explosion at Josh’s house and they think that three are dead.” And I was thinking natural gas explosion because he said there’s been an explosion. And then I can’t remember if I called Chuck or Chuck called me. I think Chuck called me and I said something, “is it, is it true?” And I think he said he was right outside the house. I will will never forget this part. He said “they’re all gone.” He goes “Anne, we told them so.” And I was just like “oh my God.” I mean, I was just, I, I’ve never felt that sick before about something. I sat in my car for a long time.
Jennifer Stagg (from February 5, KSL TV archive): Bremner says the Cox family doesn’t know what’s next. They’re hoping the West Valley City police release what information they have about the case now that their only person of interest is dead.
Dave Cawley: Pierce County Sheriff’s detective Gary Sanders left the house that afternoon.
Gary Sanders: After doing some initial stuff, I went over to Josh’s, or Steve’s house and spoke with Alina and, y’know, tried to see what she said. And she played the voicemail that he’d left people and stuff. Just unfortunate, y’know, in so many ways.
Dave Cawley: He had another, very difficult visit to make.
Gary Sanders: Went and spoke with Chuck and Judy that day. Y’know, not a, it just sucks in the element of, here he took his daughter and now he took the only two, y’know, parts of his daughter that he had, y’know, taking, taking them the way he did. And then hearing the way that he did it, coward that he was, just infuriates you.
Chuck Cox: Gary and his companion came over to tell me “yes, there was a hatchet involved” and, and then confirm officially, but that was hours later and I’d already been there. It got worse as more and more stuff came out about what really had happened to the boys on that day. Having had Braden in my arms before and seeing a fear in Braden’s eyes and uh, just actually more like a terror. Because he just was living some kind of a horrible thing out in his mind and you couldn’t do anything for him. And I could just see, imagine him seeing Charlie get hit with a hatchet and then dad coming after him. And just, could imagine the terror that was in his eyes when that stuff happened. (Pause) And that made it harder for me. But a father who claims he loves his children and could do that to them… (pause) …and a family that still backs him up, after all that. Still.
Dave Cawley: Ellis and the West Valley team arrived in Washington the day after the fire, on Monday, February 6.
Ellis Maxwell: It was hard. It was, it was super difficult. Let alone I hate the smell of a fire after it’s been put out by the fire department.
Dave Cawley: Pierce County had put up a chain-link fence around the lot. Ellis could see the roof was gone, along with a third of the exterior walls. Almost all of the interior walls were gone, too. Only the skeleton of the wooden frame remained. The beams were gnarled and blackened. It’d been hot inside the house, so hot a wire birdcage had turned goo. It looked like a piece of modern art.
The remains of Josh’s minivan sat in what’d been the garage. The fire had burned the paint right off of it. The tires had burst, then burned to nothing. The window glass had shattered. Everything plastic had melted, including the headlights, tail lights and door handles. The seats were just metal frames and springs, no upholstery.
A few items had survived. The investigators found a couple of scorched cell phones, three badly burned hard drives, a camcorder, a flash drive and some other computer stuff. They also recovered a pile of Josh’s old journals and personal papers. Those included postcards from three tourist attractions in Idaho: Shoshone Falls on the Snake River, the Shoshone Ice Caves and Old Mission State Park outside of Coeur d’Alene.
Ellis Maxwell: Here you are going through this home and looking for anything that is, that can be saved and you could potentially maybe get some answers from, all while in the back of your mind your primary target, the person responsible for Susan, is now gone. And not only did he take himself but he took his kids, too.
Dave Cawley: If Josh had written any sort of confession letter, it burned with the rest of the house.
Ellis Maxwell: Y’know, you’ve got that playing in the back of your mind and then you’re thinking “oh gosh, y’know, who would’ve thought that he would’ve took his kids out and, and murdered them?” And so then you start second-guessing yourself and reflecting back on the years and going “is there something we could’ve done differently to prevent this and, and for it not to go to, y’know, to this extent?” And so it was, it was challenging. And, y’know, it was something that uh, y’know me personally, I had to work through for, for quite some time. And uh, kinda reflect back and y’know, reflect on that day and the future of the case and, y’know, where’s Susan? I mean, it’s a lot.
Dave Cawley: Ellis called Josh’s brother Michael on Tuesday, two days after the fire. Michael didn’t answer. Ellis knew Michael was living in Minneapolis, pursuing a PhD at the University of Minnesota. He called campus police and asked if they could track Michael down. They did and confirmed Mike had no intention of talking to Ellis.
That afternoon, police went to search Josh’s storage unit in Sumner. They tested several items for blood. One indicated for the possible presence of blood. It was a comforter from a bed. The detectives took it.
On Wednesday, three days after the fire, a pair of investigators went to the Pierce County Jail to talk to Steve. FBI Special Agent Jeff Ross showed Steve photos of the bodies. Steve wouldn’t talk.
Ellis Maxwell: Nah, it didn’t phase him.
Dave Cawley: He described that visit in a letter months later.
Ken Fall (as Steve Powell from August 1, 2012 letter): They continuously dangled pictures of three charred bodies, to try to convince me that Josh was evil. And they tried to get me to talk about Josh. They repeated over and over “you know Josh killed Susan” for three hours.
Dave Cawley: Steve told the FBI the only way he’d share his story would be in a book. As Steve was facing off with the FBI, West Valley police were at the Land Recovery Recycling Center in Puyallup. They started sifting through the huge pile of trash from the previous week, looking for the stuff Josh had dumped the day before the fire.
Pierce County called in volunteers to help. It took them several days, but the volunteers did manage to pull out several interesting items. Those included an issue of a church magazine called The Ensign from 1994, several books which Susan had owned as a kid, a road map of Utah with hand-written pen marks around popular tourist attractions and a Portuguese-language Book of Mormon with Josh’s name embossed on the cover.
Josh had at some point marked just four verses in that book of scripture with a red pencil. One of them was Mosiah, chapter 26, verse 30. In English, that verse reads:
Eric Openshaw (as Josh Powell from Book of Mormon markings): Yea, and as often as my people repent will I forgive them their trespasses against me.
Dave Cawley: In the days following the fire, a makeshift shrine to Charlie and Braden popped up along the fence around the burned-out house. Tammy Forman, who’d taught Charlie in kindergarten, said another went up outside of Carson Elementary.
Tammy Forman: And then my kids knew about Charlie. And so my own children were very devastated. My daughter was obsessed with keeping those candles going. So every night she wanted me to drive her over to, to the school so she could make sure all the candles were lit and that was really important to her. And if she couldn’t go, she’d ask her friends to go. And then she and her friends would go and straighten out all the purple ribbons on the trees that people had put up in remembrance of Susan. Yeah, so I know that it was hard on my kids as well.
I felt really numb, so it’s hard to describe. It was like it, it wasn’t, it wasn’t real, like watching a movie about someone else, I guess. I felt very disconnected when I first heard about it. That day also is, I don’t remember it that well, I was just kind of a mess. And the fact that it was so brutal is a lot harder. Like, I’d like, even if he had just blown up the house, that would be better than thinking these boys went into a house, to a dad that they trusted, and that he chopped them up. I, I can’t imagine. I can’t imagine. And almost everyone that I know has some connection to that day. They saw the flames or they know people that were involved. And it really devastated the whole community.
Dave Cawley: Tammy felt angry. She couldn’t understand why Josh had been allowed to have visitation at his house.
Tammy Forman: For a long time after the explosion I would think I saw Josh. It was the weirdest thing. He might have a, like a common look to him or something, but all the time I would do a double take because I’d think I saw him at the gas station or a store or somewhere. And it, it took a long time for me to stop having that experience. I, I don’t know why. And it wasn’t, I didn’t think that I saw Charlie or Braden I would just think I saw Josh frequently.
Dave Cawley: Nancy, from the Puyallup Gem and Mineral Club, found solace from her grief among friends.
Nancy: One good thing was the club. We would have our regular meetings and so it was discussion. It was discussion, the major discussion: should we contact the Cox family? Should we bother them with our feelings? We’re just this little rock club. Who cares about us, really? But another club member said, y’know, “those boys were here. They were club members. And they sat on our laps and they spilled stuff and they ran and they fell down and they got up and they made us laugh and they were club members.”
There was a stone that the boys were interested in and that’s kind of a whole other story but Josh had taken the boys to a club member’s house who had a shop in his house and he wanted to cut a stone for the boys and polish it and give it to ‘em, because he was drawn to the boys as well. He was a older man so they’d be like grandkids to him. So he took, they went to his house, they picked out a stone, and he sliced it and he polished it and he was going to give it to them and it never happened because they died. They were gone.
So, with that, we still had this stone. So our club decided to put a plaque on it and get it to Chuck and Judy. So, I’ll take credit for what it says on it because I’m the one who decided that it was say this. And what I, I took it to a trophy shop and had a plaque put on it that said “Charlie and Braden: Forever in the arms of an angel.” They mounted it on the stone and then we got a hold of Chuck and Judy. And we went to their house, Chuck wasn’t there but we got to have a long discussion with Judy. And it was eye opening, the young couple that she watched pretty much dissolve and turn into what it was. But it was profound. It was profound and touching.
Shara Park (from February 7, 2012 KSL TV archive): And while police try to find answers, Chuck says he’s busy planning a funeral. He says it will be a public one. And Chuck says he’s grateful for the community support and hopes those mourning the loss of his two grandchildren will remember how truly innocent and wonderful they were.
Dave Cawley: Chuck and Judy arranged to inter Charlie and Braden at Puyallup’s Woodbine Cemetery. Susan’s disappearance had been the stuff of network and cable TV for more than two years by that point. Josh’s murder-suicide made national news. The Coxes knew the boys’ funeral was going to draw a lot of attention. So they planned two services, one for the public and one for the family, scheduling both for Saturday, February 11th.
The first took place at the Life Center Church in Tacoma. The church provided a live video feed. Tammy Forman, Charlie’s kindergarten teacher, accepted an invitation to speak.
Tammy Forman: I was really surprised because when I got there, I was immediately taken into where the family was. And that was really awkward because there were people on both sides of the family there. And people who didn’t want to talk to each other. So it was a really uncomfortable situation. But, on the other hand, I really appreciated being treated like family and having them just bring me right in.
Dave Cawley: Josh’s mom, Terri, and sister Alina, sat in a separate section of the auditorium, segregated from the rest of the crowd. Josh’s brother Michael didn’t show up, having stayed in Minneapolis. During the service, Pastor Dean Curry praised both families for setting an example.
Dean Curry (from February 11, 2012 KSL.com archive): These two families who’ve had so much, who’ve had so much pain have come together, have set aside very dark and hurtful moments to celebrate children.
Dave Cawley: Tammy told the crowd Charlie had been a “little scientist” who always had a smile on his face when he knew he was being clever.
Tammy Forman (from February 11, 2012 KSL.com archive): He was an amazing young man. He had an appreciation for nature that I have never seen in someone so young. He loved rocks, sticks, leaves and bugs. He collected these items at recess and always had a hard time parting with them when it was time to return to class. He often left them by the outside door so he could play with them later. On many occasions he tried to sneak a worm or caterpillar into the class. He was a good sport whenever I caught him and he would make sure the bug was safe and sound before joining the class. … He loved learning facts. He called non-fiction books “real books” and he had an amazing ability to remember what he learned.
Dave Cawley: Kristie King from the Mel Korum Family YMCA pre-K program called Braden a “tickle monster,” a budding puzzle master and a “vehicle boy” who loved cars, trucks and trains.
Kristie King (from February 11, 2012 KSL.com archive): It was obvious that Braden loved his grandparents. At the end of each preschool day, he would look out the window to wait for his grandma to pick him up, telling everyone how much fun he had with them and how much he loved them. He just leapt into her waiting arms. He had a heart of gold, always wanting to show affection. Braden liked to hold his teacher’s hand and not let go. He was cuddly with his grandparents, aunts and cousins. Teachers, classmates and even first-time visitors to the house were showered with Braden’s hugs and “I love yous.” And always there was that big, beautiful smile on a face so like his mother’s.
Dave Cawley: Pastor Tim Atkins, who had counseled Josh in the child custody case, spoke. So did Tim Sloan, a long-time friend to the Cox family.
Tim Sloan (from February 11, 2012 KSL.com archive): We must press forward. We have to learn from this experience and strive to become better fathers and mothers. To have more patience and love and kindness. To withhold our anger. To be gracious to others as the Savior is gracious to us. And long-suffering with us.
Dave Cawley: At the conclusion of the service, Chuck and Judy Cox stepped to the microphone. Tears fell from Judy’s eyes as her husband addressed the crowd in a soft voice.
Chuck Cox (from February 11, 2012 KSL.com archive): All their teachers, their social workers, the police, everyone was doing everything they possibly could to keep them safe and to help them and love them. And we thank you for your support. We know that they’re with their mother. Thank you very much.
Dave Cawley: Then, the family followed the single light-blue casket to a hearse, which took the boys to the South Hill Ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There, the Coxes held their second, private ceremony for family members and close friends.
Shara Park (from February 7, 2012 KSL TV archive): Sitting in Charlie and Braden’s room, Chuck Cox finds strength in knowing where his two grandsons are now.
Chuck Cox (from February 7, 2012 KSL TV archive): We believe that, that she’s safe in our Heavenly Father’s arms and, and the children are there with her. There’s been a reunion.
Dave Cawley: Terri and Alina Powell had inquired with the Woodbine Cemetery about having Josh buried next to the boys. That had caused an uproar in the days prior to the funeral. Pierce County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Ed Troyer was not about to let that happen.
Gary Sanders: He and our sheriff did a, a big push for that and made sure that didn’t happen, along with Crimestoppers. Umm, yeah that was, that was a big thing. We were not going to let him be buried next to his boys after he killed their mother, so—
Dave Cawley: And them.
Gary Sanders: Yeah, yes. Exactly.
Dave Cawley: The family laid Charlie and Braden to rest at the Woodbine Cemetery on Monday, February 13th. A single headstone marked the grave. At the top, it showed a picture of Susan and her boys together, smiling. The words “United In Heaven” were engraved at bottom, just below Susan’s name and the words “Missing Dec. 6, 2009.”
Gary Sanders: Ultimately it would be nice someday to find Susan so we can bury her next to ‘em and, and they can be together, but we know now that they are together.
Dave Cawley: Josh’s name did not appear anywhere on the stone.
This is not the end of our story. The search for Susan will continue in episode 15. But this feels like an appropriate moment to express my sincere gratitude to all of the people who’ve shared their memories of Susan, Charlie and Braden. They were loved. They are still loved and they will not be forgotten.