[Editors note: The bonus episode “Justice Delayed” contains a great deal of additional information about the events described in this episode.]
Dave Cawley: Ellis Maxwell seems cautious. We’re sitting in a studio at KSL, the radio station where I work, talking about the Susan Powell investigation. I’ve just asked Ellis about the wiretap West Valley police set up on Josh and Steve Powell’s phones in 2011.
Dave Cawley: What can you tell me about that?
Ellis Maxwell: (Laughs) Umm, that’s a good question.
Dave Cawley: Ellis and I have spent hours discussing the case over the past year. We’ve come to know a bit about one another. I’d like to think we’ve developed a rapport. He’s been retired from the police force for two and a half years by the time of this conversation and is, to my ears, very candid.
Ellis Maxwell: Sittin’ here and meeting with you and answering your questions and sharing some insight has, it’s actually been beneficial for me and it’s helped me kinda get through my own struggles from doing it. ‘Cause it’s, it’s always going to be there, it’s never gonna go away.
Dave Cawley: But the wiretap is where Ellis draws the line. He’s not going to reveal inside information of police tactics. I come at Ellis again from a different angle, asking a more general question. What do you have to show a judge in order to get a wiretap?
Ellis Maxwell: To get a wiretap is very difficult. And yes, you have to exhaust every, every other investigative tactic. … But that was the stage we were in the investigation. We’d pretty much wrapped up everything that we could traditionally and now we were kind of kind of going non-traditional direction and we had to be creative and try to get Josh to disclose and, and give us some information.
Dave Cawley: This idea of exhaustion — trying everything else possible before resorting to a wiretap — is an important legal hurdle. Police can’t just listen to phone calls without first proving they’ve given traditional tactics every opportunity to work.
Ellis Maxwell: There’s just nothing left. Basically at the end of the day, the agency has done everything that they can do and they still’ve hit a brick wall. They still don’t have the evidence, the witness, the confession. All of those things and so… And then you’ve got to identify why that wiretap is going to be successful. And clearly Josh and Steve and Josh’s brother Michael, they all communicated frequently and, y’know so, yeah.
Dave Cawley: This is Cold, Episode 11: Operation Tsunami. I’m Dave Cawley.
Before we get too far, I need to make something very clear. In this episode, I’m going into detail on some unconventional tactics police used during the later stages of the Powell investigation. Much of this information has never been disclosed.
In our interviews, Ellis Maxwell refused to go into specifics about what I’ve come to learn was a wide-ranging plan conceived during the summer of 2011, codenamed Operation Tsunami. The intricacies I’ve pieced together come from a series of internal police planning documents that I obtained without the knowledge or approval of Ellis or any of the other law enforcement officers involved in the case.
I am going to be careful and selective in what I share, as full disclosure of the methods and tactics would run the risk of doing real harm to future investigations.
Dave Cawley: Let’s jump back to Sunday, December 6th of 2009: the last day anyone saw Susan Powell alive. The winter sun had just set. Darkness descended on the Salt Lake Valley. Josh Powell was making plans. Susan, his wife, had gone down for a nap after eating a meal Josh had prepared. Her neighbor, JoVanna Owings, sat in their living room of the Powell family’s home, working to unravel a knotted ball of yarn. Josh wanted JoVanna gone.
JoVanna Owings: And he came in and he said that he and the boys were going to go sledding. And I was really concentrating on untangling the yarn so I, I didn’t get his gentle hint that it was probably time for me to go home.
Dave Cawley: Josh grabbed his work-issued laptop just before 5:30 p.m. He opened Internet Explorer and went to accuweather.com, then KSL.com and pulled up the forecast. It showed a huge winter storm was bearing down. He quickly glanced at some weather and traffic webcams from around Utah.
He flipped to Google and typed the words “ely utah map.” The top hit was a page on Ely, Nevada at city-data.com. He clicked that link and his browser cached three thumbnail images showing street, aerial and topographic maps views of Ely. Next, he searched the phrase “sledding tooele utah.”
JoVanna Owings: He started putting the boys’ coats on them and their shoes on them.
Dave Cawley: Minutes later, he shooed JoVanna out of the house.
JoVanna Owings: So, I went out, got in my car. He put the boys in the van. And while I was just doing my seatbelt up, just getting situated, he and the boys just drove off in the van. And then I just went home.
Dave Cawley: JoVanna didn’t see Josh or Susan again that night. She’s still not sure where he went with the boys, or how Susan ended up out of the house.
JoVanna Owings: From everybody else’s accounts, I think that he came home and he got Susan and then left with her and the, and the boys and some camping equipment and heaven only knows where he went after that. I wish I did. It would make my life a little bit easier. It would make everybody’s life a whole lot easier if we could, y’know, put this to rest.
Dave Cawley: West Valley City police took Josh’s work laptop two days later, while serving their first search warrant at the Sarah Circle house. But it took months for the cached internet files revealing those searches to come to light. They were buried among more than five-and-a-half terabytes of information recovered from Josh’s devices.
The fact he’d searched for information about Ely just before leaving the house on the day Susan was last seen alive seemed significant. So let’s talk about Ely.
Ely came into being in the 1870s as little more than a stage stop on the old Pony Express route. A few decades later, prospectors learned the surrounding mountains were rich in copper, gold and silver. A mining boom erupted, bringing in the railroad.
(Sound of steam locomotive whistle)
Dave Cawley: So began a cycle of boom and bust that played out over the next century. Today, Ely serves as the intersection of three U.S. Highways: 6, 50 and 93. It sits roughly midway between Las Vegas and West Wendover, not too far from the Utah-Nevada state line and just a ways north and west of Great Basin National Park. It’s kind of in the middle of nowhere, but barely within range of Josh Powell’s possible desert travels during the span of time that Susan disappeared.
Records show West Valley’s intelligence analysts uncovered the first clues about Ely relatively early, in May of 2010. But it wasn’t until July of 2011, a year and a half after Susan’s disappearance, that they pieced together the full picture. They came to understand that Josh’d done more than just look at maps, traffic cameras and weather forecasts for Ely in the days leading up to Susan’s disappearance. He’d pulled up listings for the Motel 6 and Ramada Inn there.
Ellis Maxwell: We could not ignore it. I mean it came directly off of Josh’s computers.
Dave Cawley: But Ellis didn’t want to run out and start a search around Ely right away. At that point, the bulk of the investigation was focused in Washington State.
Ellis Maxwell: Ironically, the time that we discovered that information kind of fell, y’know, within line of, of the operations that we were doing in Washington. So it didn’t make sense to rush out there and do it, y’know, within that week or two when we discovered that information on Ely. It made more sense to kind of coordinate that with our operations in Washington.
Dave Cawley: That’s as close as Ellis ever came to telling me about Tsunami. Here’s what I’ve learned about those operations from the documents. Police had reached a dead-end in the investigation. Nothing they’d tried to get Josh to slip up or speak out had worked. So they started brainstorming how to get him talking privately while they listened in on his conversations. One prong of that plan included going public with a search around Ely.
Ellis Maxwell: Yes, we wanted Josh to see this on the news, y’know, and see what he had to say about it. And see if it would give us some direction.
Dave Cawley: Of course, Josh wasn’t going to talk to police about it. He’d probably only share with his family. In order for that plan to work, police needed a wiretap so they could monitor Josh’s phone calls.
Utah District Court Judge Judith Atherton approved the wiretap request on August 9th. Everything associated with the wiretap warrant was sealed at that time. It remains sealed to this day. Atherton, who has since retired, did not respond to a request for an interview for this podcast.
Police records show detectives started listening to Josh and Steve’s phone calls on August 16th. Two days later, they announced plans for a search of abandoned mines around Ely, Nevada. This was the launch of Tsunami. Going public with the mine search was a conspicuous shift in strategy. Remember, all of the other mine searches up to that point had happened behind a veil of secrecy.
Dave Cawley: Was the hope that maybe that media coverage would cause him to say something that, uh, you guys might be able to pick up through other channels?
Ellis Maxwell: Bingo. (Laughs)
Dave Cawley: In law enforcement circles, this tactic is referred to as “tickling the wire.”
Mike Anderson (from August 18, 2011 KSL TV archive): In this West Valley neighborhood, friends close to Susan Powell are now hopeful that they’ll hear some answers.
Debbie Caldwell (from August 18, 2011 KSL TV archive): I’m trying not to think about it.
Mike Anderson (from August 18, 2011 KSL TV archive): Debbie Caldwell runs the daycare where the Powell kids spent much of their time. Like many others, she’s just hearing that West Valley police are following up on what could be a major lead in the case in Ely, Nevada.
Debbie Caldwell (from August 18, 2011 KSL TV archive): I really, really, really would like to know where she is, what happened to her. And I want her boys to grow up and know where their mom is and what happened to her. They deserve that.
Dave Cawley: West Valley’s press release announcing the Ely search described it as follow-up on a “possible lead” in the case. As I’ve already explained, that was true. To sweeten the pot, police also said the media would have a chance to shoot photos and video “under certain conditions.”
John Daley (from August 18, 2011 KSL TV archive): For Jennifer Graves, Josh Powell’s sister, the past year and a half have been frustrating. She says she has no idea what news will come tomorrow.
Jennifer Graves (from August 18, 2011 KSL TV archive): Yeah, it must be something, y’know, something’s going on. So I’m as eager as anybody to figure out what it is.
Dave Cawley: Newsroom managers in Salt Lake City were skeptical. They weren’t sure just how much credence to give this invitation, especially because West Valley refused to give any more details out ahead of time, even off the record. The phrasing of the press release prompted speculation that police might have learned the location of Susan’s body. Which, of course, they hadn’t. But the only way for news crews to find out was to make the trip.
Kiirsi Hellewell (from August 18, 2011 KSL TV archive): At this point, we just want answers and we just want to know what happened.
Mike Anderson (from August 18, 2011 KSL TV archive): Those answers could be on the way. With word that West Valley police now have a credible lead in the case, some of Susan’s friends are now eager to hear what they have to say.
Dave Cawley: An operational planning document showed police were more than a little worried the media wouldn’t take the bait. But c’mon, the possibility of a break in Powell story was too big to ignore. No one wanted to sit out that opportunity.
Mike Powell (from August 19, 2011 KSL TV archive): We are here to follow up on investigative information that has led us to this area in direct relationship to the Susan Powell missing person investigation.
Ben Winslow (from August 19, 2011 KSL TV archive): But what, what is that? What are you here for?
Mike Powell (from August 19, 2011 KSL TV archive): Detectives have, have made a pre-emptive, uh, drive out here to, to see, uh, what it was that we, that we may be looking at. The information that detectives have, uh, indicated has led them to this area. And it’s something that they felt strongly enough that we needed to follow up on and to further investigate. That is the reason we are here today.
Jennifer Graves (from August 19, 2011 KSL TV archive): I was expecting more. (Exasperated laugh) I was definitely expecting more. I was just sitting there crying while I was watching it.
Dave Cawley: The team in Nevada took the reporters around to look at some dusty holes in the ground.
Jennifer Stagg (from August 19, 2011 KSL TV archive): This is one of the mine shafts that crews are searching today and they say this one has clearly been breached. You can tell by the fencing that has been bent and moved out of the way. Now, this just may look like a harmless tunnel, it looks very stable, but crews say it is very unstable. There are unseen dangers and they can go through and fall down hundreds of feet.
Dave Cawley: At the same time, another West Valley team was in Washington, conducting eyes-on surveillance of Josh and Steve. A third team back in Utah manned the wire room from 6 a.m. to midnight. They waited for Josh to see the news coverage, to pick up his phone and to call his dad.
Ellis Maxwell: If that was the place that he visited and maybe disposed of Susan, clearly he’s going to mention that. Umm, clearly, he would get nervous. Y’know, his mannerisms would change. There’s a lot of things there that would’ve been beneficial.
Dave Cawley: The first day of the search focused on mine openings and gravel pits a few miles west of town, below a place called Squaw Peak. The news crews watched as the West Valley cops, Bureau of Land Management staff and White Pine County sheriff’s deputies used spotlights to peer into the holes.
It all looked very familiar — and reasonable — to the two abandoned mine experts from the Utah Department of Natural Resources who’d essentially taught West Valley police how to do this work.
Louis Amodt: I know they looked down that way — we weren’t involved in that ‘cause that’s Nevada — but that was still right on the periphery of where it’s possible to look. So that’s why we concentrated in these areas. And also high concentrations of open mines in these areas.”
Dave Cawley: Remember, Louis Amodt and Tony Gallegos had spent weeks in early 2010 practically living in the West Desert with detectives. But Louis said over time, he and Tony had stepped away from helping with the mine searches in person. They had no inside information about the new search.
Louis Amodt: You kind of had to put some distance between because you still couldn’t talk about it and then like you couldn’t just call up the detectives and say “hey, what’s happening?” Because they’re still involved in the investigation and at that point, they wouldn’t be able to tell you anything anyway… It was always in the back of your mind.
Dave Cawley: Both men had been left with a sense of incompletion, a job undone.
Tony Gallegos: I followed some of the headlines and things after—
Louis Amodt: Mmhmm.
Tony Gallegos: —but, little bit of distance but I was still curious and still interested in some sort of resolution so with the headlines about the search or when Josh Powell moved away and those things, I was still sort of following that.
Dave Cawley: Tony though worried what all that publicity might lead to.
Tony Gallegos: Yeah, I remember the headlines about the Nevada searches—
Louis Amodt: Mmhmm.
Tony Gallegos: —and so on. And then I remember the public search groups and, y’know, you’re sort of like “well that’s a great thing.” But, y’know, we went out there with the detectives and we checked out all the sites we could access based on their criteria. Sort of like, you wanted to say “well, you don’t need to look there anymore. Look somewhere else where we weren’t able to spend time.” But then again, you really even didn’t want to encourage people to go into these mine openings—
Louis Amodt: Yeah, ‘cause they’re—
Tony Gallegos: —that were really not safe. And you didn’t want someone being hurt while they’re out searching for someone. It could be families or kids, whoever. That, so, it was good that they were wanting to help, but didn’t really want to encourage people to go poking around the mine openings.
Louis Amodt: It is very dangerous.
Tony Gallegos: Not a safe thing.
Dave Cawley: West Valley police didn’t find anything in Ely that first day. Reporters turned on the department’s spokesman — Sergeant Mike Powell, no relation — when he delivered the news.
Jennifer Stagg (from August 19, 2011 KSL TV archive): We expected an announcement, a break in the case of missing Utah mom Susan Powell. West Valley City police held a press conference hundreds of miles from Salt Lake in Ely, Nevada. But no announcement came.
Mike Powell (from August 19, 2011 KSL TV archive): The information is very limited that I’m able to disseminate to the public, as you are very well aware.
Jennifer Stagg (from August 19, 2011 KSL TV archive): Sergeant Mike Powell says new information led them to Ely but he wouldn’t give any details. After dodging questions about specifics, Sergeant Powell invited the media to a show-and-tell of the rugged hills above the sleepy Nevada town. But what had connected these mine shafts with Susan Powell? Frustrated reporters kept the questions coming and Sergeant Powell eventually issued a statement saying a prior search warrant had led them to Ely. But that’s about as much as he would say. He says the biggest purpose of inviting the media to Ely was to shine the public spotlight back on the case.
Mike Powell (from August 19, 2011 KSL TV archive): This has also brought to, to, to life that there has been some downtime, significant in the media coverage on this case. And obviously at this point, that has changed. And really one of our, uh, biggest and best assets is the public as a whole.
Jennifer Graves (from August 19, 2011 KSL TV archive): It will bring a flood of new leads so that, I guess, I can be grateful for that.
Dave Cawley: Ellis told me gets why the media and the public were so irritated at that point.
Ellis Maxwell: I know the media really thought that it was a ruse and, uh, they were, I think they were upset. But it was a legit lead that uh, and information we discovered that was directly from Josh’s computer and, uh, it was something we had to follow up on.
Dave Cawley: Of course, West Valley police couldn’t — and didn’t — say a word about the wiretap. They obviously couldn’t say there was a larger plan in motion.
The next day, the searchers headed south about 20 miles to the historic Ward Mining District. They checked some of the extensive workings in that area and again came up empty.
John Daley (from August 20, 2011 KSL TV archive): Jen and Keith, we have a pair of mysteries tonight. One is, what exactly happened to Susan Powell? The other is, what exactly was the purpose behind the high-profile search in Ely, Nevada? The city’s mayor says he’s confident in police investigators and that the case will eventually be solved.
Dave Cawley: They held another news conference.
Mike Powell (from August 20, 2011 KSL TV archive): It looks like we’re gonna be done and, and finished with what our, uh, our goals were from the beginning.
Ben Winslow (from August 20, 2011 KSL TV archive): But is there any new leads that were generated from this?
Mike Powell (from August 20, 2011 KSL TV archive): Uh, at this point I don’t have the answer to this.
Dave Cawley: Josh did see the news coverage. He seemed unimpressed. Here’s what he told KSL that day.
Josh Powell (from August 20, 2011 KSL NewsRadio archive): It just didn’t seem like they said anything. Honestly, that’s kind of what went through my mind. … I actually thought that they were gonna be looking in hotels, apartments, y’know, things like that. That’s what I was hoping they’d be looking for: for people, frankly, for Susan.
Dave Cawley: That was an interesting thing for him to say, given that police knew he’d looked at motel listings in Ely. Publicly, Josh didn’t seem the least bit nervous. On the wiretap, police intercepted a call in which Josh said law enforcement was wasting its time in Ely — quote — “that’s for damn sure.”
Ellis Maxwell: Clearly, we did the search and we didn’t discover anything and Josh’s , uh, behavior and his attitude and his mannerisms and his discussions didn’t support that he was concerned at all.
Dave Cawley: As West Valley police were getting their wiretap that August, Josh was in court, asking for a protective order against his in-laws. Bad blood between Josh and the Coxes had kept growing ever more sour, like spoilt milk left out in the sun. Though they lived just four miles apart, Josh had refused to allow Susan’s parents to ever see their grandsons.
Chuck Cox: He’d decided that because we were treating him and his family so bad that we were not allowed to see the boys anymore. Ok, well in a public place they can certainly see grandma and grandpa.
Dave Cawley: One day, Chuck and Judy Cox were leaving Lowes after buying stuff for their yard when someone stopped them in the parking lot and told them Josh, Charlie and Braden were at that very moment inside the store. So Chuck and Judy turned around and went back into Lowes.
(Sound of sliding door opening and closing)
Chuck Cox: We saw ‘em over there and the, and the kids saw us and come running towards grandma and grandpa. And it was like “oh wow.” And he’s “oh, oh.” And it was terrible. We were picking on him and everything because we were in his store, his space.
Dave Cawley: Josh wasn’t going to stand for it. Chuck, for his part, tried to remain calm.
Chuck Cox: The police oftentimes and others had said “don’t you just want to grab him by the shirt and shake him and say ‘tell me where my daughter is!”’ And I say “oh yeah, I’d love to do that” but then he would have a case of assault against me and I, and it, and he’s not going to say anything anyway so why, why give him that satisfaction?
Dave Cawley: In his court filing, Josh accused the Coxes of stalking both he and the boys. Here’s how he described their run-in at Lowes.
Eric Openshaw (as Josh Powell from August 8, 2011 petition for protective order): Cox asked, “can’t we hug our grandchildren now?” And I responded “no you may not, goodbye.” … Chuck Cox mouthed the words “you’re dead” and they refused to leave us alone for several minutes.
Dave Cawley: The encounter, as Josh recalled it, then turned even more sinister.
Eric Openshaw (as Josh Powell from August 8, 2011 petition for protective order): Cox had cornered me and my children between a stack of wood where we were building children’s toys and a rack. I feared he would attack and try to kill me because he believes I am responsible for my wife’s disappearance.
Dave Cawley: Now, no matter how much Chuck disliked Josh, he wasn’t about to murder him in front of the boys — and everyone else — in the middle of a busy hardware store.
Josh went on to call the Coxes “legal strangers” to Charlie and Braden and said their behavior caused bullies to pick on his sons. He also said he expected Chuck to escalate his campaign of “hatred and violence” until Susan returned. The story, no matter how puffed up with hyperbole, was enough for a judge to grant Josh a temporary restraining order.
Chuck Cox: You can write anything you want down for a judge and it’s good for about 7 to 10 days or something, then you have a hearing.
Dave Cawley: But this was a game that two could play. Chuck knew Josh and Steve still had his daughter’s childhood journals. Secretly, police encouraged him to seek his own restraining order against the Powells to keep them from publishing those volumes, as Steve had suggested he might do on national television a month earlier.
West Valley police figured the threat of an injunction would get Josh and Steve talking. It was just another way of tickling the wire.
So on Saturday August 20, 2011 — the same day police were peering into mines outside of Ely, Nevada — Chuck held a honk-and-wave event for Susan.
Chuck Cox: I was assisted (laughs) in the best place to put that honk-and-wave and I didn’t understand exactly why, uh, that I was helped to discover where that was by the police. I, they, they gave me a kind of getting-warmer-getting-colder type approach to where I should maybe set up.
Dave Cawley: Internal police documents revealed this was yet another piece of Tsunami, called “Remember Me.” Chuck set up with pictures of Susan and purple balloons near the intersection of 176th Street East and Meridian in South Hill, just outside a Fred Meyer grocery store around the corner from the Powell family home. He hadn’t been there for long before Steve happened to drive by.
Police, through their prior surveillance work, had figured out where and when Josh and Steve liked to shop.
Chuck Cox: Then to see Steve pull up to the drive-thru and I went “ah, I get it.” (Laughs) And then he came over here and I says “so, I’m the bait.” That’s fine with me, y’know. I, I, I’m willing to help them. They could have just told me what they wanted to do, I would’ve done it. But, y’know.
Dave Cawley: TV news cameras rolled as Steve confronted Chuck. It turned into a shouting match, with Steve accusing Chuck of violating the temporary restraining order. Chuck played his role to perfection.
Chuck Cox: I knew what kind of words I needed out of Steve. I needed him to say that he had the journals, say that they were important. I needed to give the police a reason to give a judge that they needed to get those journals back.
Dave Cawley: Chuck warned Steve he’d better not try to publish Susan’s journals.
Chuck Cox: That’s when he made this charge of I had abused Susan as a child and he had proof in the journals. I said “you shouldn’t have the journals, number one. I haven’t read them and I don’t think you should have read them and you certainly have no right to publish ‘em,” because I’d already been down that road. So I challenged him. He said “well, I can prove it.” I said “well, if you publish it, we will take legal action.”
Dave Cawley: Josh showed up at the honk-and-wave soon afterward. Through tears, he told reporters Chuck was trying to sow discord. One Utah TV station — Fox 13 — stood alongside the Seattle reporters as they interviewed Josh that day.
I’ve learned from never-before-revealed police planning documents detectives had reached an agreement with Fox 13, making the station part of the Tsunami plan. West Valley fed inside information to the station, hoping a reporter would have a chance to confront Josh or Steve with it.
In exchange, Fox 13 agreed to post any videos with Josh or Steve online, in their raw, unedited form. That would allow police to obtain the footage and add it to their evidence. Fox 13 made good on that promise, posting a story with the video to its website after the honk-and-wave. That story and those videos are no longer online.
When asked to comment on the station’s apparent collaboration with police, Tim Ermish — President and General Manager of KSTU-Fox 13 — said “in August of 2011, Fox 13 news sent a reporter to Washington state to interview Josh Powell and also cover a honk-and-wave organized by Chuck Cox. We made the editorial decision to share the unedited video of both newsworthy events with our audience online.”
Dave Cawley: The honk-and-wave generated a lot of phone activity captured on the wiretap. In later reports, police wrote that Josh’s demeanor on the phone was “aggressive,” a 180-degree shift from the tearful way he presented himself to the cameras. He even called a media consultant and asked how to appear more sympathetic when talking about Susan.
In one call with his brother Michael, Josh explained he had never shared with anyone his activities on the night of Susan’s disappearance.
Three days later, Josh’s brother Michael filed a declaration in support of Josh’s request for a protective order. Mike called Chuck “hateful and deplorable.” He, like his brother, accused the Coxes of spreading lies through the media and tearing open his family’s “old wounds.” A Pierce County Superior Court judge held a hearing on Josh’s request for a protective order on August 23rd. True to form, Josh showed up late.
Chuck Cox: Most the time a judge would just say “ok, respondent’s not here, it’s dismissed, move on.” But they waited for him.
Dave Cawley: Josh and Chuck both stood before the judge. For his part, Josh repeated the story about Chuck supposedly mouthing the words “you’re dead” during the encounter at Lowes.
Josh Powell (from August 23, 2011 KSL TV archive): He knew that we would be there and he has been stalking us to come into the places where we would be to try to inject himselves [sic] into our lives which, uh, has not gone well.”
Dave Cawley: Chuck’s attorney, Steve Downing, called that nonsense.
Steve Downing (from August 23, 2011 KSL TV archive): Under no circumstances has Mr. Cox ever, ever threatened Joshua Powell.
Dave Cawley: The hearing didn’t go all that well for either side.
Bruce Lindsay (from August 23, 2011 KSL TV archive): Richard Piatt has a report on the extraordinary tension between the two families.
Rich Piatt (from August 23, 2011 KSL TV archive): That’s right. This happening just within the last hour, Bruce and Deanie. The Washington judge hearing the case didn’t really feel that Powell’s request rose to the level of a full-on domestic violence restraining order, but she did grant anti-harassment orders to Powell based on Powell’s claim that Susan’s father has been threatening him. Cox says that he contacted Powell in fact because he just wants to see the grandchildren.
Dave Cawley: But the anti-harassment order went both ways. Josh was also prohibited from contacting the Coxes, or coming within 500 feet of them. Chuck felt flabbergasted.
Chuck Cox: Really? You’re giving him something? And I’m thinking, it doesn’t really matter. I’m not going to his house anyway. But it’s, on the basis of it, it’s unfair to grant something to somebody who didn’t, he didn’t know what to ask for. He didn’t, he showed contempt for the court by showing up late. He couldn’t even be bothered to be there on time for it. And he had no basis for anything. But they were just going to grant this anyway. And I, it’s just ridiculous that the judge did that. I could not believe they did that. But on the other hand, I went “pfff.” I don’t have any intention of bothering him.
Dave Cawley: Josh might have considered the anti-harassment order a win. Little did he know, his luck was about to take a huge turn for the worse.
Dave Cawley: The very next morning, on August 24th of 2011, a judge in Washington signed a warrant authorizing a search of Steve Powell’s home. They executed the warrant the next day. More than 20 members of the West Valley police department and Pierce County Sheriff’s Office took part.
Gary Sanders: Thank God we had that many because that house and the things we found was just, I hate to say it, but crazy.
Dave Cawley: That’s Pierce County detective Sergeant Gary Sanders. He was the top police liaison for the Powell case in Washington. Gary had written the warrant, based off on information West Valley City’s lead detective, Ellis Maxwell, had provided. The two of them led the charge.
Ellis Maxwell: (Laughs) It was nuts.
Dave Cawley: They pounded on the front door of Steve’s house shortly after noon. Josh answered, only to have a flood of armed cops rush into the house shouting “police, search warrant!” Ellis and Gary flashed copies of the warrant while ordering Josh, John and Alina outside. Alina at first refused to budge, but she didn’t have much choice in the end.
Gary Sanders: Hot day, I remember ‘cause the house didn’t have A/C and it was a huge house. Umm, quadrant homes. I don’t know if you know ‘em. They’re big. Probably 3,000 square foot homes, lots of rooms. But you have all those people living there. And then lots of clutter.
Dave Cawley: A deputy found Charlie and Braden in the house and brought them outside as well.
Gary Sanders: The boys, y’know, were open to seeing us and were, y’know, I think they were happy when the saw outside people. They were excited for it.
Dave Cawley: Steve Powell was not at home. His work schedule that day included a meeting far out of town. What a convenient coincidence.
Ellis Maxwell: Y’know, Steve he was not there. (Laughs)
Dave Cawley: Ok, hang on. I gotta interrupt you there. Umm, I think I came across it somewhere in Steve’s writings that he thought you guys came up with a phony job for him to call him away from the house that day.
Ellis Maxwell: Y’know, maybe. Maybe not. (Laughs) But he wasn’t there. He was a couple hours away on business.
Dave Cawley: Would it be incorrect if I characterized it as “he was called away on a, on a job that turned out not to be valid.”
Ellis Maxwell: I don’t know if it was valid or not. I’m not sure how, I wasn’t there for, for that business meeting.
Dave Cawley: Ok.
Ellis Maxwell: But he wasn’t there, so that was good.
Dave Cawley: Alright, alright. Fair enough. I have to ask the question.
Dave Cawley: Again, Ellis wouldn’t talk to me about this part of the plan. But I’ve learned from never-before-revealed police planning documents that detectives had arranged a business opportunity for Steve and invited him, through an intermediary, to discuss it over lunch at the Red Lobster in Kennewick, Washington. That’s in the tri-cities area, about a four-hour drive away from South Hill.
Obviously, Josh was going to call his dad and alert him to what was happening at the house. Detectives back in Salt Lake City would catch those conversations on the wiretap.
Gary Sanders: I’m pretty sure he was in communication with his father quite a bit.
Dave Cawley: Reporters weren’t far behind the police. Photographers set up their tripods around a perimeter of yellow police tape that fluttered in the summer sun.
Mike Powell (from August 25, 2011 KSL TV archive): We realize that everybody wants to have answers and in due time those answers will be brought forward.
Sandra Yi (from August 25, 2011 KSL TV archive): West Valley police set up its crime scene trailer outside Josh Powell’s Washington home. Authorities use it to conduct interviews and process any evidence. About a dozen detectives joined members of the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department in the search for clues.
Bill Merritt (from August 25, 2011 KSL TV archive): We’ve got reason to believe, we’ve got probable cause to believe, that there are some items of evidentiary value inside the home of the Powells.
Sandra Yi (from August 25, 2011 KSL TV archive): Merritt, who’s in Washington, wouldn’t say what that evidence is. But he says whatever they find will help further the investigation.
Bill Merritt (from August 25, 2011 KSL TV archive): As far as what we’re doing today, this is just a step that has taken us awhile to get to…
Dave Cawley: Word spread quickly, both in Washington and Utah. It wasn’t long before Susan’s dad, Chuck, heard about it.
Chuck Cox: But it was like “ok, this is great. Finally something moving on in a direction where it should be.”
Dave Cawley: The warrant gave police wide latitude. The primary target was Susan’s journals, but it also listed computers and digital media that might hold scanned copies, or anything containing possible passwords that might be used to get past Josh’s encryption. Add to that any photos, videos or trace evidence and you have grounds for a very exhaustive search.
Josh didn’t want to wait around. Problem was, the warrant also applied to his minivan. He wasn’t going anywhere until the detectives searched it.
The team did a first sweep of the house, finding computers in almost every room. Josh’s bedroom held a laptop that was powered on and logged in. Alina’s bedroom contained four computers and a wireless router. One of the searchers disconnected the router, ensuring that no one could remotely log in to any of the machines over the wi-fi.
Josh had other computers. Out in the yard, he told the police he needed them for his job. He didn’t want to see them sucked into the same black hole that had swallowed all of his computers from the Sarah Circle house in Utah. The detectives told him they could speed up the process of releasing the computers back to him, if he’d provide them with all of his passwords. Josh said he couldn’t remember his passwords. They were too long and complex.
Ellis had heard this story before. He put a keyboard in front of Josh and told him to let muscle memory take over.
(Sound of fingers tapping keyboard)
Dave Cawley: Josh tapped out a long string of characters, which the detectives recorded. Josh also handed over a USB key needed to get around encryption on one of his machines.
Ellis Maxwell: In his minimal conversations with us we were able to recover a pretty lengthy password from him as we gave him a keyboard to type it out. But it didn’t assist us in getting into any of his hard drives.
Dave Cawley: On the wiretap, police later overheard Josh telling his brother Michael that he had lied to police about not being able to remember his passwords both then and back in 2010. Of course, Josh said, knew his passwords.
Ellis Maxwell: We were hoping to get some more information from Josh but he just, he wouldn’t talk to us.
Dave Cawley: A West Valley police lieutenant took Alina aside. She, like her brother, was angry that police planned to take her computers. In a later report, the lieutenant said Alina insisted Josh was innocent. She said she’d only change her mind on that if shown clear proof to the contrary. She asked about the search of mines around Ely the prior weekend, saying she believed it’d been a ruse.
The search of Josh’s van was over and done with relatively quickly. Once Josh had his keys back, he loaded Charlie and Braden into their carseats. He told Alina she ought to leave, but she ignored his advice and stayed at the house with her brother, John.
Gary Sanders: So they stay there for 10 hours in the back yard, ‘cause they couldn’t be in the house ‘cause we didn’t want them tampering with evidence. But we tried to respect that they wanted to stay there. So we provided them shade and water and stuff like that. But they stood there the whole time. She, she was on the phone, Alina, a lot that day while she was in the back yard. And I’m sure she was relaying to both Steven and Josh what was going on.
Dave Cawley: News helicopters circled over South Hill.
(Sound of helicopter hovering)
Dave Cawley: Chuck Cox, who didn’t live all that far away, wasn’t close enough by to see it in person.
Chuck Cox: Hmm, I was in a makeup chair.
Dave Cawley: Were you now? That’s kind of an interesting place to be.
Chuck Cox: (Laughs) Yeah, I was in a makeup chair in uh, in a studio down in, in Seattle, getting ready to go on to talk about, uh, Ely. … So I was waiting for that interview and “hey, you’ve got to see this.” And we got the live feed from the helicopter circling the, the place where the police, and I got, “oh great.” I figured “finally, West Valley City’s arresting the idiot,” y’know, “and they’re going to seize everything.”
Dave Cawley: But Chuck was disappointed as the live video feed showed Josh’s minivan weaving around all of the police cars and TV live trucks parked on his street. It went out to Gem Heights Drive and left the neighborhood.
Dave Cawley: Detectives went through the house, room by room. They carried individually numbered plastic tags, like the ones you sometimes get at a restaurant so the server knows where to bring your order. They placed a tag next to any piece of potential evidence, then photographed it.
Gary Sanders: To be thorough and be efficient, we’re documenting, photographing things in place, marking ‘em and then they were basically all transferred over to West Valley right there. They had a 19-foot cargo trailer that they brought up with ‘em. And we just, constantly carrying stuff out, boxing it up, taking and putting it in there for them to take back to West Valley.
Dave Cawley: Just getting around inside the Powell house was a challenge. Bookshelves lined nearly every wall. Steve had quite the library, stuffed with volumes about love, religion and psychology. The bedrooms were all jam-packed with junk. Boxes were piled in the hallways.
Gary Sanders: A hoarder is your biggest nightmare on a search warrant just because you know you have to go through every item. Y’know, you want to make sure that there’s no evidence tucked away. You, you don’t keep your child porn right out on the dining room table or you don’t keep your homicide weapon, y’know, they’re going to be tucked away so you’re going to have to look through everything. So that, that was, that’s why we were there that long. With that many people we were still there that long.
Dave Cawley: Josh’s bedroom was probably the neatest. It was upstairs. On the desk, next to his computer, sat an envelope of 4-by-6 photo prints. The pictures were of an old mine, a place called Blind Miner of the Wasatch, in Big Cottonwood Canyon, south and east of Salt Lake City. A bunch of papers on the desk held notes about Susan’s journals and plans for the susanpowell.org website. A to-do list for the site included “throw out more theories.”
Police found Charlie’s handwriting scribbled on another sheet of paper, dated July 21st of 2011. He’d written “one tine some girl lockt me in a closit with the lite off. And I hate Jeny and Kirk I allso, Susans mom and dad torchird her one thing I now is her dad hit her on the back”
Shelves lined one of the walls in Josh’s room. They were full of little woodworking projects, the fruits of Charlie and Braden’s labors at the Saturday morning hardware store workshops Josh loved to visit. Next to those shelves sat a small desk and the monitor for a security camera system. It was switched on. Live video feeds showed the driveway, the front porch, the yard and the street. Josh, it appeared, had grown rather paranoid.
Gary Sanders: I think he was starting to, he was getting worried.
Dave Cawley: Detectives cracked the lid on a bankers box that sat in front of the bookcase. Bingo: there were Susan’s childhood journals.
Ellis Maxwell: It played out really well. We were able to get in and collect a lot of potential evidence. We were able to recover Susan’s journals that they would not, uh, provide us.
Dave Cawley: Downstairs, in the garage, detectives came across a locked safe. Alina told them it belonged to Josh and she didn’t know the combination. Ellis told her to call Josh and get it, otherwise they’d have to take the whole thing back to Utah and tear it open. Alina dialed Josh and explained the situation. He coughed up the combo. The door to the safe swung open, revealing four CDs. Labels scribbled on the disks with a marker showed three held archives of Josh’s old files: his journals, his finances, his schoolwork and more. The fourth disc appeared to hold encryption keys.
Charlie and Braden shared a bedroom, if you could call it that. It held just a single small bed.
Gary Sanders: Not a normal kid’s bedroom, or two boys’ bedroom. Y’know, you’d think toys, Tonka trucks, tons of Legos, stuff like that. No.
Dave Cawley: It would have made sense for the hardware store woodworking projects the boys had built to be in there, not in Josh’s room. Instead, the walls of the boys’ bedroom were, like most of the rest, lined with shelves of Steve’s books.
John’s bedroom was even more cluttered than the rest of the house.
Gary Sanders: Yeah, John’s was interesting in itself. It had a noose on a, a hangman’s noose. Umm, had like a giant paper pterodactyl that was hanging. Umm, his drawings of, y’know, swords through women’s vaginas and just weird depictions and stuff. And then bags of, like hair and toenail clippings that just… yeah, it was a house of horrors when we went through there. Just, his room and then when we got into Steve’s room.
Detectives went into the master bedroom — Steve’s lair. They stripped the sheets off of the bed. They opened all of his dresser drawers. They found a set of binders full of sheet music: the complete works of Steven Chantrey.
(Sound of Steve Powell’s music)
Steve Powell (from song recording): Can you feel my love and tender care? Strong enough to reach you anywhere.
Dave Cawley: They went into the walk-in closet and found a beige, two-drawer filing cabinet. It was locked. Though, they already had an idea of what it held, thanks to that earlier search of the house Steve had consented to in May of 2010. The lieutenant brought in a power drill and went to work on the lock.
(Sound of electric drill)
Dave Cawley: Let me warn you here. What police found inside the filing cabinet was disturbing.
Gary Sanders: Yeah, I mean, what do you say when you? At first you open it up and you’re like “oh, that’s kinda,” y’know, you’re thinking, some people enjoy sex toys or other things, pornography and stuff like that but this was, like I say, it was 20 to 25 detectives there and we all went “wow.’ We were like “that’s crazy.”
Dave Cawley: The top drawer contained Steve’s trophies of Susan: a black bra, a red blouse and a plastic container full of temple garments. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints wear those garments under their regular clothing as a reminder of promises made to their Heavenly Father within the church’s temples. They view the garments as sacred. Steve had stolen Susan’s garments from out of her dirty laundry nearly 10 years earlier and kept them all that time. The concept that doing so had been an act of heresy only served to enhance his thrill.
(Sound of Steve Powell’s music)
Dave Cawley: There were voyeur photos of Susan, as well as shots from Josh and Susan’s wedding. Steve had used scissors or a razor to cut Josh’s face out of those pictures. His son, it seemed, was not welcome in his fantasies. Then, there were the plastic baggies.
Gary Sanders: The fetish beyond all fetishes and stuff when you’ve got bags of tampons that have been dated and stuff from Susan, bags of her underwear, uh, cotton balls from when she takes, y’know, just taking fingernail polish off. Clippings.
Dave Cawley: In the bottom drawer, police found commercially produced pornography on DVD and some home recording VHS tapes. The lieutenant used a tape deck connected to a TV in Steve’s bedroom to quickly scan the tapes. He discovered they were voyeur videos of Susan and other women. In other words, evidence. Detectives found more VHS and Hi-8 video cassettes scattered around Steve’s room. Some were labeled with Susan’s name. They also located his Hi-8 camcorder, with a tape loaded and ready to use.
Gary Sanders: Y’know, we’re looking through, seeing these 8 millimeter tapes, looking at, umm, DVD drives, CDs and stuff and you’re like “okay, if that’s in there in plain view,” we know what kind of fetishes he has now, “what, what’s on these videos?”
Dave Cawley: They collected them all, to be reviewed in full at a later date. Perhaps most embarrassing of all for Steve though: they found his journals. Fifteen Mead-brand spiral-bound notebooks. Each holding 150 college-ruled pages, more than 22-hundred pages in all. They contained 10 years of his obsessive writings about Susan.
Ellis Maxwell: I think you can categorize it as filthy fantasies of Steven Powell’s.
(Sound of Steve Powell’s music)
Dave Cawley: The investigators cleared the house around midnight. As they were leaving, they learned Josh and Steve might be headed toward Sea-Tac Airport to catch a plane out of town. They raced north in the hopes of catching them, but were unable to spot Josh or Steve’s minivans. As it later turned out, neither Josh nor Steve ran that night, though both probably wished later that they had.
Steve Powell (from song recording): You were my first love. You were my first love.
Dave Cawley: Tsunami had other pieces as well, some of which were never executed due to time, cost or opportunity. The whole operation caused a fundamental shift in the state of play.
In sealed court documents, police later wrote detectives caught Josh lying to his family about where he’d gone in the rental car. As for Steve, he made a call during the raid at his house in which he described being hesitant to bring his laptop into his minivan during the drive back. The van was also listed on the warrant and anything inside of it was subject to seizure. Steve also expressed embarrassment over police finding his tapes, journals and the rest. Steve’s humiliation had only just begun.
Dave Cawley: A couple of weeks before the raid, on August 8th, Josh had walked in into the Bank of America branch about five miles north of his dad’s house. He held an object in one hand.
This was familiar territory for Josh. The bank sat on the southwestern corner of 120th Street East and Meridian. That’s just down the road from the South Hill Mall and kiddie corner from the Mel Korum YMCA where he’d enrolled his sons in summer programs.
Josh knew right where to go. He signed in, then carried the object into the vault that held the safe deposit boxes. His box, number 757, was one of the smaller ones on the wall. It had a light brown face and was just big enough to hold what he carried. Pulling out his keys, Josh opened the box, placed the item into it, then put the box back and re-locked it. He exited the vault and walked out of the bank, never realizing he was being watched.
It wasn’t the police who were keeping an eye on Josh, not that time. It was a member of the public. Now, Josh’s face didn’t really stick out in a crowd but he’d started to open up through the summer of 2011 and had even done some media appearances. When his dad did the Today Show, Josh even provided an interview of his own.
He sat down with a Seattle TV station a little while later and described the loneliness he’d felt since Susan disappeared. All this is to say, the person who spotted Josh at the bank recognized him but didn’t think anything of it at the time. However, after the search warrant raid hit the news, that person called police in Seattle with the tip: they needed to get Josh’s safe deposit box.
Pierce County Sheriff’s detective Gary Sanders showed up at the bank a couple of weeks later, on September 12th. He brought a search warrant and a power drill.
(Sound of electric power drill)
Dave Cawley: The log for box 757 showed it had first been rented a year earlier, in August of 2010. Josh had stopped by a total of 14 times, sometimes coming every other week, other times going a month or two before returning.
After drilling out the lock, Sanders removed the contents of the box: a single 3.5 inch hard drive. That’s the size commonly used in desktop computers. It was bare, not in any sort external case. The drive was Seagate brand, with a capacity of 1.5 terabytes.
A label stuck to the top of the drive held Josh’s name. Next to it was a blue sticky note, marked with seven hand-written dates. The earliest went back to April of 2011. The most recent was August 8th, the same day the witness had seen Josh enter the bank with the drive. This was Josh’s off-site backup. Sanders sealed the drive in a plastic bag, put it in a box and shipped it FedEx overnight to West Valley City.
West Valley detectives took the drive to the Intermountain West RCFL, or regional computer forensics laboratory, to join the rest of the growing pile of digital evidence seized during the search for Susan.
On the next episode of Cold.
Gary Sanders: Josh wouldn’t come out. And y’know, if something like that’s going on and you’ve got police outside, your dad’s getting arrested, people are taking your kids and stuff like that, you’d think he’d come out.