Dave Cawley: A crowd milled around tables in the banquet hall of a downtown Salt Lake City hotel. They munched on food and chatted about the latest workplace gossip. Susan loved it. She rarely had the opportunity anymore to rub shoulders with people outside of work and church. This fancy Christmas party with her coworkers felt like a big event. It was December of 2008: one year before her disappearance.
Most people there were dressed up. Susan had shown up in jeans. Still, she was having a good time. Josh seemed to be as well, to her surprise. He was engrossed in a conversation about programming — HTML, .Net — all that nerd stuff that went over Susan’s head. Her interest in computers only reached as far as her MySpace page or maybe Facebook. Josh though lived with his nose buried in a laptop. He didn’t read much, except for technical manuals and how-to books about programming. He was pestering the Wells Fargo Investments IT guy at the table, bragging about his websites.
Amber Hardman, one of Susan’s best work friends, sat with her husband Scott at the same end of the table.
Amber Hardman: Prior companies that we had worked for didn’t have work parties where our spouses were invited so it was nice to be able to bring our spouses and hang out and get to know each other, so…
Dave Cawley: The conversation turned to television. Josh and Susan had recently binged seasons of the show 24. They also loved crime dramas, like CSI.
Amber Hardman: They were obsessed with this one show and they’d actually watch it together. That was one thing I remember. Susan would talk about how her and Josh would actually watch that together and they liked that show. So, something they had in common. (Laughs)
Dave Cawley: True crime stories fascinated Josh. He liked to dissect the missteps made by killers.
Amber Hardman: Yeah, they were talking about it and I remember hearing him say “those shows are so dumb. Those people always put the bodies in the stupidest places. It’s always so obvious.” And that’s kind of where it turned to the conversation about the mines and the western desert. Josh was like “if it was me, have you ever been out to the West Desert? There’s mines everywhere. Nobody’s going to find anything out there.” And I thought that was crazy. (Laughs) Only because, who would think of that, like… (laughs) Who actually sits there and thinks about where they’re gonna hide a body that would be better than these TV shows? Y’know? “They’ve got it all wrong.” But, y’know, Josh…
Dave Cawley: This is Cold, Episode 7: Scouring the Desert. I’m Dave Cawley. Right back after this.
Dave Cawley: So Josh had put some serious thought into the value of hiding a body in an abandoned mine. During the party, he explained old mine shafts are unstable and it would be difficult or impossible for anyone to find or retrieve a body from one.
Amber Hardman: That was a year before Susan disappeared. I just thought it was a odd conversation to even have. Like where would you hide a body? I think that’s why it kind of stuck with me because even then I knew Susan and Josh had problems and even then she had even brought things up like “sometimes he scares me, I don’t always feel safe.” Y’know.
Dave Cawley: It didn’t seem Josh understood just how his flippant talk about dead bodies affected other people. In fact, Susan had called attention to his tone-deaf conversation style in a letter just weeks before.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from November, 2008 letter to Josh Powell): You seem physically incapable of having a conversation that doesn’t revolve around your interests. Whether it be politics, the economy, energy crisis, conserving, etcetera. … It’s like you have no ability to notice if your audience doesn’t want to talk about your topic. Or if heaven forbid, they disagree with you.
Dave Cawley: Josh’s habit of dominating conversations was a recurring theme in my interviews with people who knew him, like neighbor Dax Guzman…
Dax Guzman: And he talked a lot. He talked a lot. That guy could talk a lot.
Dave Cawley: …or Kiirsi Hellewell.
Kiirsi Hellewell: He was so talkative, all the time, like over the top, like if you had a conversation with him it would go on for six hours with him doing all the talking and you doing none because he just liked to talk. And he was loud. He talked at the top of his lungs all the time. Always wanted to push his opinion and his views and he didn’t like anyone to disagree with him.
Dave Cawley: Susan could see her marriage wasn’t like her friends’ marriages. She tried to talk Amber into arranging a sort of double-date with their husbands, hoping Scott Hardman’s example might rub off on Josh.
Amber Hardman: She kind of looked up to our marriage and idolized our, Scott and I’s marriage and friendship that we have and our closeness and…
Dave Cawley: But Scott wanted nothing to do with Josh. Amber tried and tried to talk Susan into leaving Josh. Susan wouldn’t do it.
Amber Hardman: I mean, she had at one point, and I don’t remember when it was between then and when she went missing, had said “if I go missing or something happens to me, if I end up dead, no I didn’t commit suicide. No, it wasn’t me. I would never do that.” I mean, she told me that outright and clearly so. I mean, that’s frustrating in and of itself.
Dave Cawley: About three months after that Christmas party, in March of 2009, Josh decided to take Charlie and Braden out for a camping trip in Utah’s West Desert. Susan wasn’t invited. Temperatures that night dropped below freezing. Josh and the boys weren’t equipped for the cold. Susan wrote this about it in an email.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from March 16, 2009 email): Josh took the kids to the desert starting Saturday 5 p.m. to ‘go camping’ and showed up at 2 a.m. because the kids wouldn’t settle down and he was worried about them being cold. All Sunday they had fevers.
Dave Cawley: Susan had not wanted Josh to go, especially with the boys. She was consumed with concern the whole time they were away.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from March 16, 2009 email): I was at a Mary Kay dinner thing until 10 p.m. Saturday night, trying not to worry about the kids and hoping I could politely say “I told you so.”
Dave Cawley: Six weeks later, Susan noted in another email that her tightfisted husband had developed a sudden new interest in the desert.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from March 16, 2009 email): He just bought a $65 car rack, I assume for all the camping that we don’t do, and tells me “we need to stop spending money.”
Dave Cawley: I asked Susan’s friend Amber if perhaps Josh was doing reconnaissance, studying the landscape, looking for mines, a full 10 months before her disappearance.
Amber Hardman: You kind of wonder because he did have a fascination with going out to the West Desert camping all the sudden. And prior to that, they were going to other areas and that was kind of a newer thing for them.
Dave Cawley: Josh decided to try camping again in May, when temperatures were a bit warmer. Unlike in March, he asked Susan to come along as well. In an email, she asked him “do we even have a tent?” She knew the answer was no.
The prior summer, she’d emailed an old friend, saying she and Josh never really went on vacation. In fact, she’d never even visited any of Utah’s five national parks, even after living in the state for five years.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from August 30, 2008 email): I’ve never been to Vegas and Josh and I have some lame gift certificate to stay in a hotel, if gas prices ever got under control we could visit. Or those arch rock things in southern Utah that I’ve never been to.
Dave Cawley: Susan’s friends suggested places she, Josh and the boys could go, including several Forest Service campgrounds in the mountains near Salt Lake City. Most charged a small fee and Susan knew Josh would never pay it. He had different plans, anyway. He didn’t want to go to the mountains. He’d learned about a place where he could play geologist with the boys in the desert.
(Sound of plastic bucket banging)
Dave Cawley: They were going to hunt geodes. Geodes are hollow rocks that, when you crack them open, contain mineral deposits. In Susan’s words, they were “crystal sparkly things.” Utah’s hottest spot for finding geodes is a place called the Dugway Geode Beds. Amateur rockhounds can dig there for free, keeping what they find.
Josh told Susan that’s where they were going. They headed out on Saturday, May 30, 2009. Susan described the drive in a journal entry.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from undated journal entry): At some point you turn right and the road turns into dirt, keep driving, go over some type of mountain… Pass a lot of “Ponytrail Express” monuments, keep driving, if you are lucky and don’t mind the bumps and traveling about 50 mph max on dirt roads. … About 2 or 3 more hours at this point and my cell phone was in a “no service” range but had changed the time zone to an hour earlier.”
Dave Cawley: As you can tell, Susan was more or less lost. But I’ve spent some time in the West Desert myself and can interpret, based on her descriptions and the photos she later posted to Facebook.
Josh drove the Pony Express Trail over Lookout Pass and past Simpson Springs. From there, it’s a pretty straight shot to the geode beds. But he didn’t go to the geode beds. Instead, he turned off the Pony Express Road.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from undated journal entry): We found this little turn off that I really wished we had an SUV for (Josh claims it’s all about the driver not the vehicle) where we were literally on a dirt path of maybe 2 tire tracks if we were lucky and all these huge rocks … Eventually, I told Josh that we weren’t going to make our van drive any more. It wasn’t safe.
Dave Cawley: Josh pressed on, driving south along the flank of the Thomas Range to the vicinity of Topaz Mountain.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from undated journal entry): We found this white quarry and I found out later that it had real topaz in it.
Dave Cawley: It’s not clear if Josh knew where he was going all along, or if he stumbled upon Topaz Mountain by accident. Like the geode beds, it’s a spot where where people can collect crystals.
(Sound of of hammering on geode)
Dave Cawley: He gave the boys hammers, safety glasses and ear plugs. Then, they went looking for sparkly rocks.
I need to make a quick correction here. Since the release of this episode, I’ve have learned that the white quarry Susan described was actually on the northern end of the Thomas Range, not the southern end. It was in a draw just to the west of Dugway Pass, a short distance south of the Pony Express Trail. Thank you to Dave Stemmons for the tip, which I independently verified.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from undated journal entry): There is a small hill of sand with huge black beetles in it that the boys got so excited over. … Since we were in the wrong place, we were very successful in finding other creatures.
Dave Cawley: Susan screamed at the sight and sound of a coiled rattlesnake. She clutched both of her boys. Josh, on the other hand, was fascinated. He talked to the boys about reptiles while casually flinging rocks at the snake. Daylight was fading, so the family returned to their minivan.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from undated journal entry): We drove and found one lone light that was a place called Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters. We read about their visitor signs and by this time it was pitch dark so we decided to come back in the morning and drove about a half hour away and parked in a kind of deserted gravel quarry just to the side of the road.
Dave Cawley: They slept crammed into the back of the van. In the morning, Josh cooked a breakfast of pancakes, sausage and eggs.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from undated journal entry): It was nice to have Josh cook breakfast, just unfortunate that I have to be camping in order to experience it.
Dave Cawley: They spent much of that day exploring Fish Springs before finally finding the geode beds. By then, the boys were getting fussy and dark clouds were gathering on the horizon. Susan said it was time to go home. The rocky desert roads had taken their toll though. One of the rear tires on the minivan went flat. Then, it started to rain. A passer-by stopped to help Josh mount the spare tire.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from undated journal entry): We then had to basically limp home. No faster than 35 mph on dirt roads with pot holes, the entire time, with me worrying that if the spare can’t take it, we were out of service on our cell phones and there were not anymore cars passing us by.
Dave Cawley: Susan attributed her family’s safe return to divine intervention. She called their camping trip “freeing” for Josh. She was putting Charlie and Braden to bed a few weeks later when she overheard Josh in the other room, talking to his dad on the phone.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from June 29, 2009 email): I heard him say “no, Susan didn’t go camping with us that time.” I heard him laugh (I assume at his dad joking that I wouldn’t enjoy it, or prefer church instead or I’m the party pooper or something). Then he said, “yeah, I just found some people and bummed off their campfire so I didn’t have to build my own.”
Dave Cawley: She told a friend in an email that what she heard sounded “suspicious.”
Dave Cawley: Even more suspicious were the words spoken by Charlie, the day after he returned home from the December camping trip with his dad. I’ve touched on this in a previous episode, but it deserves a closer look.
On Tuesday, December 8th, Charlie told Detective Kim Waelty that his mom had gone camping with him but stayed behind at Dinosaur National Park. Waelty asked him where at the park and Charlie said “where the crystals are.” He explained crystals are colorful and grow inside of rocks.
Sounds like he was describing geodes, right? It’s a tricky thing though, interviewing a four-year-old.
Ellis Maxwell: So challenging. I mean, I worked child sex offenses, child abuse cases and those are challenging when they’re that young.
Dave Cawley: Ellis told me kids can be unreliable. They’re too distractible, or too scared, or too easily led to deliver the answer an interviewer wants to hear. Detective Waelty had special training for these kinds of interviews and knew to use a light touch.
Now, the West Valley City police department released a transcript of this interview in 2013. They did not include the audio recording. I tried to get it using an open records request, which West Valley City denied. It turns out, recordings made at Children’s Justice Center locations in Utah are exempted from Utah’s open records law. That makes sense in most cases. Public release could cause additional harm to kids who witness or are victims of horrible crimes. I get that. There are special privacy concerns to consider, too. I get that, as well. But there’s a reason why I believed, and still believe, this audio’s important.
My thinking went like this: in this case, there is no privacy left to protect. Charlie is gone. Transcript is valuable, but it can’t convey all of the nuance of speech, especially from a young child. How Charlie responded to questions might reveal as much about his thinking as the actual words he used.
I appealed West Valley’s denial of my request. It was denied again. I then had some very smart lawyers look at the law and they told me, in so many words, that I couldn’t win. So, I dropped the appeal. Unfortunately, that means I can’t play you the audio of what happened. I’ll describe it instead, going off the transcript.
Detective Waelty asked Charlie what his mommy had said. Charlie replied mommy said she wanted to stay, so she slept where the flowers and the crystals grow. Waelty asked if Charlie saw that place. He said yeah and said there were a “whole bunch of red berries.” Then, he changed his mind and said the berries were blue.
Waelty asked if his mommy had been happy or sad. Charlie said happy. She wanted to stay because the crystals were so pretty. He said he stayed where there were no crystals, but where there were lizards, pythons that weren’t in the wild and snakes that live in Dinosaur National Park.
Charlie’s repeated references to a Dinosaur National Park seemed perplexing. There is no “Dinosaur National Park” in the United States. But there is a Dinosaur National Monument. It sits on the Utah-Colorado border, about a three-hour drive east of Salt Lake City.
The monument protects the spot where, in 1909, a paleontologist discovered the skeletal fossils of a large sauropod called Apatosaurus. Josh, Susan and the boys had visited Dinosaur that August, for the 100-year anniversary of the discovery. They camped near the Green River.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from August 14, 2009 email): My coworker’s saying be very careful with the water in that area. I don’t know that we’d want to go swimming and deal with all that, maybe just wading up to our knees or something while in shorts. … Of course we will have the children glued to us.
Dave Cawley: They again slept in the minivan, just as they had on the Pony Express Trail in May. Around that same time, Josh pushed to get the boys into another dinosaur-themed attraction closer to home. Thanksgiving Point, a destination with flower gardens, museums and restaurants, was running a $2 Tuesday promotion. That meant Josh could take Charlie and Braden to Thanksgiving Point’s Museum of Ancient Life for a fraction of the normal cost.
Memories of these two dinosaur-themed outings were likely blurred in Charlie’s mind, muddled with recollections of the topaz, geodes and rattlesnake from the Pony Express trip.
Ellis Maxwell: You can’t put a lot of credit in the children’s sense of time at that age.
Dave Cawley: Ellis and the rest of the detectives weren’t able to make much sense of what Charlie had told them. His talk of crystals and berries and Dinosaur National Park were just too vague.
(Sound of idling ATV)
Dave Cawley: A cold January wind whipped across the landscape as the four-wheelers rolled over dirt, mud and snow. Louis Amodt and Tony Gallegos were riding with West Valley City police into the heart of the Great Basin, into the rugged recesses of remote mountain ranges. Into the West Desert. They were looking for mines. They were looking for Susan’s body.
Tony Gallegos: We were, y’know, sort of experts in this field. We knew what to do around mines. And Louis’ familiarity with some of the areas. So, “gee, we’ll help you find these mines and we’ll help you safely evaluate them” but then the goal of finding a, a body or clues, that, that was a little somber.
Dave Cawley: To look at the area on a typical street map, you’d see just a big, blank white spot. But Amodt and Gallegos knew the region better than most. At the time, they worked for the Utah Department of Natural Resources. They were the experts when it came to abandoned mines. That’s why police had asked for their help.
Louis Amodt: The area they had was, uh, the West Desert of Utah which could contain 5-10 thousand abandoned shafts, a few of those would be applicable to leaving someone there.
Dave Cawley: West Valley detectives made their first scan of some abandoned mines on December 16th and 17th, just a week and a half after Susan’s disappearance. It was like dipping a toe into the ocean. The task of searching all of those holes in the ground was gargantuan, a fact they were just beginning to grasp.
Detectives David Greco and Max Cook had drawn the assignment. Just after Christmas of 2009, they met with Louis and Tony to see what they were up against.
Tony Gallegos: I was surprised that they contacted us and said “hey, we’re looking at these mine openings, do you guys have any information?”
Louis Amodt: Mmhmm.
Tony Gallegos: That they were kind of open to that and we said “well, as a matter of fact, we do.” Then, once they saw the scope of it, they had to step back and narrow their parameters a little bit and say “ok, what do you know about these areas and what maps” and so on.
Dave Cawley: It was a bit of science and a bit of psychology. Police knew Josh’s minivan wasn’t capable of reaching mines high on canyon walls or at the end of rough, rocky trails, especially considering they’d been blanketed with snow on the day of Susan’s disappearance. They also knew Josh was a bit lazy and lacked the physical strength to carry or drag Susan very far.
Tony Gallegos: I remember that we had this search parameter of, uh, the Pony Express Road, kind of the loop around the back of the mountains and then south coming through the Tintics. So based on that road and access or time, uh, from that they kind of came up with this zone and it went probably from West Valley down to Eureka and to the west a little bit.
Louis Amodt: From the Simpson Springs where they knew where he was, they put a three-hour driving time. And so the radius from, from there was what we looked at was the Tintics, the, the Oquirrh Mountains—
Tony Gallegos: Of course, yeah.
Louis Amodt: Clear out to the perimeter, the edge of it would have been the Gold Hill area—
Dave Cawley: Mmhmm.
Louis Amodt: —out in the Deep Creek Mountains would be the farthest, probably the farthest west. But then I know it also extended down towards Ely.
Dave Cawley: That’s Louis. He retired a few years ago, wrapping up a career that spanned more than 30 years. At the time police approached him in 2009, he was deeply involved with Utah’s abandoned mine reclamation program.
Louis Amodt: That was uh, for me personally, a very, very hard time because we wanted to help to get resolution to, to what was going on, but then uh, I didn’t really want to be there, I didn’t want to find anything. Where, you wanted to find something but you didn’t want to find it. So it, it was not for, for me personally a fun time but it was something I felt I needed to do and wanted to help.
Dave Cawley: They got ahold of a borehole camera.
(Sound of camera being lowered into mine shaft)
Louis Amodt (from January 6, 2010 borehole camera video): We’re almost on the bottom.
Dave Cawley: It’s kind of like the cameras plumbers sometimes use to look for clogs in pipes…
Tony Gallegos (from January 6, 2010 borehole camera video): Still plenty of light?
Louis Amodt (from January 6, 2010 borehole camera video): Yeah.
Tony Gallegos (from January 6, 2010 borehole camera video): Good.
Dave Cawley: …except on steroids.
Tony Gallegos: It has its own cable and lighting and camera system and it can record sound as well. It think it has a 1,000 foot range on it. It’s electric so we, it’s all portable. So we, Louis and I had used it before and then the detectives requested that we bring it so we could look at some of these shafts.
Dave Cawley: That’s Tony, formerly an engineer with the state. Neither Louis nor Tony has ever spoken publicly about their involvement with the effort to search for Susan in the mines of the West Desert.
Louis Amodt: It was never out in the public everywhere we looked and how soon after she disappeared that we spent time looking.
Dave Cawley: Police swore them to secrecy. They signed legally-binding non-disclosure agreements.
Louis Amodt: This is while Josh was still alive so you couldn’t really say anything or say “oh yeah, we’re out looking here, we’re out looking there.” ‘Cause they didn’t want to alert him of what was going on either.
Tony Gallegos: Because of the disclosure agreement, at the end of the day Louis and I could talk to each other about certain things but, yeah, you really couldn’t discuss it with your coworkers or your spouse or anything. So, and most of them were cooperative. “Oh, you guys were out in the field last week?” “Yeah.” They’re like “ok—”
Louis Amodt: Yeah, they understood.
Tony Gallegos: “—how was the weather?” Y’know, this sort of thing. We didn’t talk about the areas, didn’t talk about any of that.
Dave Cawley: Their secret search kicked off on January 4, 2010. They spent two weeks living out of borrowed barrack space at the U.S. Army’s Dugway Proving Ground, right on the edge of the search zone.
Louis Amodt: The day would start at 5:30 in the morning and you’d get up and you’d think “yeah, this could be an exciting day” but you’d work into the evenings, sometimes 10:30 at night trying to plot out things to, to see where you’re going to go next. So, it was very long days and a very difficult time.
Tony Gallegos: Yeah.
Louis Amodt: We expected snow and that our days would start well before daylight and end well after dark. We would still be out on the ground looking until the very last light and then find your way back in the dark.
Tony Gallegos: At least one instance we started out with some ATVs ‘cause we thought—
Louis Amodt: Mmhmm.
Tony Gallegos: —based on the snow conditions and the road access we thought “well, this will work.” And didn’t quite work. I think we ended up getting stuck. We had to dig out a couple of vehicles, shovel, and a couple of the ATVs. And then you needed, uh, extra winter gear, gaiters. Sometime later than that we switched to snow machines, snowmobiles just to get to some of those areas.
(Sound of snowmobile coming to a stop)
Dave Cawley: At each mine, they used high-intensity spotlights to probe the dark. Twice each day, the detectives called home using a satellite phone to report their progress. The work came with a whole host of hazards.
Louis Amodt: You have a, an opening there that’s not like a cave. A cave is stable, where these mines openings are totally unstable. The, the collar — the, the area right around the opening to, to the mine — is very unstable. Rocks fall down. And then also there are animals in there. I’ve had uh, rattlesnakes and cougars and things like that inside but then also a bigger concern is that we always carry an air monitor to monitor oxygen levels because you get back in these workings and there’s no air circulation and there’s a lot of times a lack of oxygen. So you could, y’know, pass out and wake up dead.
Dave Cawley: Tony told me these mines are no place for the public.
Tony Gallegos: They’re workings that were man-made and they haven’t been maintained for years so the rock is going crumble or fall from the roof, the timbers are going to rot, they may fill up with water. When you’re walking in there, you may have a flashlight but you really can’t see and you won’t have a instrument that tells you there’s oxygen or not. And then, there may also be explosives in some these—
Louis Amodt: Yes.
Tony Gallegos: —things like old sweaty dynamite or blasting caps that you wouldn’t even see or be aware of until it was too late.
Dave Cawley: The mines they searched ranged from shallow holes in the ground to complex networks of adits and shafts. An adit is a horizontal passage, a shaft is vertical.
Louis Amodt: Typically in some of these old, old workings you go in 20, 30 feet and there would be a raise which is a, a shaft that goes down and it would be right in the middle of where you’re walking and if there’s water, sometimes there’s a veneer of, of dust on the water and so it looks like it’s solid ground and you step into it and it’s 45-degree water that you’re stepping into that’s in a filled shaft. And if, if you’re alone, everything is, is, is wet and slippery you’d have a really hard time getting out by yourself. Uh, but the main concern would, would be a lack of oxygen in these mines and things falling and timbers in these old mines are very rotten.
Dave Cawley: Under a federal law passed in 1977, the government can take over, clean up and close abandoned mines. Sometimes, they collapse the mine openings on purpose, or plug them up with rocks and dirt. Other times, they build steel grates to cover the openings, so bats can still come and go.
Louis, Tony and the detectives inspected the locks and metal grates, looking for signs of tampering. Police knew the acetylene torch Josh had bought just a couple of weeks before Susan’s disappearance could have cut through rebar.
(Sound of oxyacetylene torch starting)
Dave Cawley: At mine shafts too deep to inspect from the surface, the team broke out the borehole camera.
Detective Max Cook (from January 6, 2010 borehole camera recording): It is Wednesday, the 6th of January, 2010. It is 11:16 a.m.
Tony Gallegos: We’d anchor it off and then uh, start filming.
Tony Gallegos (from January 6, 2010 borehole camera recording): Alright Louis you’re, we’re good to go.
Louis Amodt (from January 6, 2010 borehole camera recording): ‘Kay.
Tony Gallegos (from January 6, 2010 borehole camera recording): So what we need to do is hold and move the pulley across on the rebar.
Louis Amodt (from January 6, 2010 borehole camera recording): Ok. So we need to come out.
Tony Gallegos (from January 6, 2010 borehole camera recording): Yeah. Max, or someone, I’ll need a hand here.
Tony Gallegos: The detectives would watch as we were going down.
Louis Amodt (from January 6, 2010 borehole camera recording): ‘Kay. Can you see it on your display on, on the recorder?
Detective Max Cook (from January 6, 2010 borehole camera recording): Yes.
Tony Gallegos: If we did see something, we were supposed to stop and we could pan the camera around. It had its own lighting system.
Detective Max Cook (from January 6, 2010 borehole camera recording): Is your uh, camera light on?
Tony Gallegos: It was submersible and the camera could angle up and down to a certain degree and then rotate.
Tony Gallegos (from January 6, 2010 borehole camera recording): There you go, yeah. Rotate and then pan up and down on the other side.
Tony Gallegos: So we’d drop down so many feet and then move the camera around and pan around then drop down further.
Louis Amodt (from January 6, 2010 borehole camera recording): 150, actual depth.
Tony Gallegos (from January 6, 2010 borehole camera recording): I think we’re at the, yeah we’re at the bottom. We know we’re at the bottom or we can, we’re panning around. Looking up and down, different angles.
Louis Amodt (from January 6, 2010 borehole camera recording): Let me back up.
(Buzz from borehole camera motor)
Detective Max Cook (from January 6, 2010 borehole camera recording): Was there a side shaft or was this just straight down one?
Louis Amodt (from January 6, 2010 borehole camera recording): I didn’t see anything off to the side, but then…
Tony Gallegos (from January 6, 2010 borehole camera recording): It’s, without the camera turned to the side, you can miss it, some things.
Tony Gallegos: Our instructions were if we actually saw anything we were just going to hold off there and then let the detectives comment on the recording if they wanted to.
Detective David Greco (from January 6, 2010 borehole camera recording): Doesn’t look like there’s a big, large object that’s had dirt kicked over it either.
Detective Max Cook (from January 6, 2010 borehole camera recording): No.
Louis Amodt (from January 6, 2010 borehole camera recording): No.
Detective Max Cook (from January 6, 2010 borehole camera recording): Nope.
Louis Amodt (from January 6, 2010 borehole camera recording): Nope.
Detective David Greco (from January 6, 2010 borehole camera recording): So it’s clear.
Tony Gallegos (from January 6, 2010 borehole camera recording): You actually see the bottom? So what was down there?
Louis Amodt (from January 6, 2010 borehole camera recording): Looks like there’s some branches and things on the bottom. Looks like a rock, a white rock or something.
Tony Gallegos (from January 6, 2010 borehole camera recording): ‘Kay, hang on a minute. Let me turn this light on and it may make it better or worse.
Louis Amodt (from January 6, 2010 borehole camera recording): ‘Kay.
Louis Amodt: With the detectives that we were working with, to them, well and to us also, it was very personal what was going on and they felt, y’know, we all had a stake in it. There was a camaraderie.
Dave Cawley: In those first weeks, they cleared mines in the Oquirrh, Tintic, Dugway, Fish Springs, Lakeside and Deep Creek mountain ranges. Don’t worry if none of that makes sense. You can find an interactive map of the precise locations at thecoldpodcast.com. A word of warning though: these mines are very dangerous.
By February and March, the mine search expanded to the Simpson Mountains, the Thomas Range and Topaz Mountain. As the detectives became more comfortable and gained better knowledge of the land and the risks, Louis and Tony stepped back.
Tony Gallegos: As much work as we did, and the mine openings and the places we dropped the cameras, we did the best we could but even still some of those places, there could have been something in there that we wouldn’t have seen or discovered because it was remote or in the bottom of a shaft. And you still wonder, you still wonder what happened. Where is Susan Powell?”
Dave Cawley: The detectives spent August and September of 2010 hunting down mines in the Silver City zone south of Eureka, Utah. That fall, while working on another project in the same area, Louis stumbled across a .357 magnum handgun. He turned it over to the police, who determined it probably belonged to a hunter and was not connected to the case.
By the one year anniversary of Susan’s disappearance, police had identified and visited hundreds of mines. They’d searched a wastewater treatment plant on the outskirts of West Wendover, Nevada. They’d followed up on a number of tips in the West Desert, even unearthing what turned out to be the remains of somebody’s family pet. The small dog had been wrapped in a blanket and buried in a shallow grave.
It’s important to remember this daunting task of cataloging and searching mines happened out of public view. The police didn’t talk about it. They didn’t go out in marked vehicles or wearing uniforms. They didn’t want Josh to know where they were looking. In the eyes of the public, it seemed the police were ignoring a huge lead.
Paulette Bennett: Most of us have been really glued to the whole thing since we were drawn, from the first news I heard about they were missing. Y’know, I still remember that.
Dave Cawley: That’s Paulette Bennett. More from her in a moment.
In March of 2010 a company called Strategic Tactical Group started making plans for a public search of the area around Simpson Springs. They recruited other organizations, like the Bridgerland Fire Company, and proposed blanketing the area with thousands of volunteers.
West Valley police wanted nothing to do with it, especially since they’d already scoured the area themselves. Besides, there were safety and liability concerns. In the end, the organizers invited only people with prior wilderness search and rescue experience. They told their teams to stay out of and away from mines. Search dogs walked grids, using their sensitive noses to sniff for any whiff of cadaver.
Paulette Bennett: There’s a whole lot of study on the scent and you see movies where they stick a, a bloodhound on a leash and off they go and here we are. Y’know it’s like, “mmm, not usually that cut and dried.” Maybe if you’re changing a runaway prisoner or something, y’know. Yeah, they can follow the scent pretty good that way.
Dave Cawley: Paulette Bennett, who you heard from a moment ago, was with a non-profit group called American Search Dogs. She brought her golden doodle, Murphy. Unfortunately, she didn’t have any way to introduce Murphy to Susan’s scent.
Paulette Bennett: Had we had a scent article of Susan’s they would have looked only for Susan. Because we didn’t have that, we had to rely on the cadaver command so they would be looking for human remains of some sort. And that can be, y’know, that doesn’t have to be a body. It could be fluids, it could be a lot of different things.
Dave Cawley: Paulette kept Murphy pointed into the wind as they worked their way through the low, brushy vegetation. They came across a surprising amount of garbage — a torn and weathered tent, a discarded sock — but none of it caught Murphy’s nose.
Paulette Bennett: They did find, we always found underwear when we were doing searches. It’s amazing the people that dump underwear in the wilderness. (Laughs) But, y’know you find those things and other things that the dogs would look at. The only thing we found was, there was — and my dog did not alert on it — was a, a piece of the spine and I, I did call their attention to it.
Dave Cawley: The bones appeared to have come from a deer, or maybe an antelope. Many of Susan’s friends were there for this search. Josh’s estranged sister Jennifer even made the drive out to Simpson Springs.
Paulette Bennett: ‘Cause everyone was totally intent on wanting to know what happened and finding her. At that point, everybody was, it was still new enough that you still felt like they might be able to find her and pin Josh. I mean, everybody quite frankly knew. You can tell from my notes, I’m pretty biased. But I don’t need to be unbiased, I’m not in the jury. (Laughs)
Dave Cawley: The volunteer search didn’t uncover any evidence. But it did draw a lot of attention. Reporters and TV news cameras were there. Tony Gallegos, the abandoned mine expert, saw the stories.
Tony Gallegos: 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 that were really not safe. And you didn’t want someone being hurt while they’re out searching for someone. And, y’know, it could be families or kids, whoever. 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: Josh and his family were also watching. A week later, Steve Powell wrote this in his journal.
Ken Fall (as Steve Powell from April 17, 2010 journal entry): I heard on the grapevine that cadaver dogs were employed, and some things were found, according to TV news, “not directly related to Susan Powell.” We all wondered what “indirect” relationship the finds had to her, since the comment implied that.
Dave Cawley: Steve and his sons mocked the effort from the safety of their home in South Hill, Washington.
Ken Fall (as Steve Powell from April 17, 2010 journal entry): Michael has joked that Josh should make a comment like Brer Rabbit, such as “search anywhere, in West Valley, in Simpson Springs, in Salt Lake City, but please, please, please don’t search near Rattlesnake Rock.” That is a sample of the morbid humor we indulge in from time to time. My contribution to the dark humor is, “it’s a good thing the Mormon Church did away with polygamy, because otherwise Josh would have had to dig more holes in the frozen-hard desert ground.”
Dave Cawley: Rattlesnake Rock? Where could he possibly have meant? Maybe it was the spot near Topaz Mountain where Susan had shrieked after hearing a rattlesnake in May. Or maybe it was some place far away, in Oregon or Washington. We may never know.
Dave Cawley: Murphy, Paulette’s big goldendoodle, wore a bright orange collar that was all but obscured by his long fur. A chill wind swept across the shallow, murky waters of Utah Lake. Murphy followed a trail toward the lake. Before reaching the water, he peeled away and walked to the decaying remains of a home. It was tucked into the thick wall of trees and bushes growing along the lakeside.
(Sound of breeze blowing through reeds)
Dave Cawley: Paulette could see it was little more than a concrete foundation with some sagging beams, full of shadow and who knew what else.
Paulette Bennett: Yeah, that was really creepy and the dogs were interested in it. I’m sure people have been down there in it. The dogs were showing interest in it.
Dave Cawley: Murphy continued through the brush to the edge of the lake. The ground was littered with garbage — broken office chairs, discarded fishing tackle, empty bottles of Mexican beer, chunks of concrete, the decaying remains of a dead animal — but Murphy didn’t seem to care much about any of that. At the water’s edge, he started to alert. He’d caught the scent he was looking for: cadaver.
Paulette Bennett: My dog walked into the water. The breeze was coming toward us, pawed the water. That’s what he would do when he couldn’t reach a source. He would paw at it. So I know he picked up something.
Dave Cawley: Murphy didn’t like to swim. His decision to wade out into the lake, up to his shaggy belly, was unusual.
Paulette Bennett: It’s really tricky, so even when you get some kind of a positive result from your dog, you still have to analyze the situation unless they’ve got their nose right on what you’re looking for.
Dave Cawley: Murphy was hitting on what Paulette called a “high air” scent. The wind out of the northwest seemed to carry it, maybe from the far side of the lake. Meanwhile, another dog named Lacy showed particular interest in a couch someone had dumped nearby. Paulette wondered if perhaps a fisherman had cut himself on that couch. Or maybe the scent came from the body of Susan Powell.
A man named Tim Oliver had reached out to Paulette’s organization, American Search Dogs, in March of 2010. He explained he was working with a group of psychics in the hopes of finding Susan. They’d received an impression telling them to search the northwestern shoreline of Utah Lake, around the community of Saratoga Springs.
The members of American Search Dogs were all volunteers, but they’d each spent significant time and effort training their dogs. They were well-known and well respected. They were also no strangers to receiving tips from psychics.
Paulette Bennett: For me on the psychics, I’m like, I don’t know. I don’t know if there’s something to it or not but it was just like every other search. I thought “well, it’s a good practice for the dogs, it helps validate for them if they think they’ve found something, so we’ll go ahead and see what we can find.”
Dave Cawley: After that blustery March day on the shoreline, Tim Oliver got in touch with Saratoga Springs police and told them what he’d seen.
(Sound of birds at Utah Lake shoreline)
Dave Cawley: Detective Bruce Champagne visited the site a few days later. He looked around, checking for any sign of blood or a body. He found only garbage and a pile if discarded men’s clothing. Champagne called Paulette, who described what she’d observed with Murphy. She told the detective her dog had caught the odor of cadaver. Of that, she was certain.
Paulette Bennett: Yeah, I’m sure there was something. But I’m not sure what it was.
Dave Cawley: West Valley police also caught wind of what had happened. Paulette shared her log from the search with the West Valley detectives, including the exact GPS coordinates.
The coordinates were right behind a new subdivision. Two of the new homes had been listed for sale on Josh’s real estate website at the time Susan disappeared. What’s more, the subdivision sat just south of the route Josh’d claimed to have driven on his way back from the Pony Express Trail. Detectives reasoned he might have stashed her, alive or dead, in one of those homes.
West Valley sent their own dog team down to search the shoreline, but came up with nothing. They knocked on the doors of the two homes. One was still vacant. A pair of roommates had just barely bought the other. Neither recognized Josh.
The police got permission to bring their cadaver dog into both houses, but the dog didn’t alert. But afterward, the roommates shared a story with the detectives. They said while house shopping in January, their realtor had shown them another house right next to the one they’d ended up buying. That house had reeked of rotten food or a dead animal or some other awful thing.
The smell was so strong, they said, they’d had to leave the house to avoid becoming sick.
(Sound of distant hammers and saws)
Dave Cawley: The property manger for the subdivision told the detectives there’d been several homes in the neighborhood under construction in December. A large dumpster full of building waste had been parked at one of the lots on the day Susan disappeared. Had Josh known that? Might he have left Susan there, hidden beneath scraps of shingle, lumber and drywall?
They dug into the paperwork and learned a waste disposal company had picked up the dumpster a week later, on December 14th. The contents eventually ended up at the Cedar Valley Landfill in the small town of Fairfield.
West Valley police descended on the landfill with a team of cadaver dogs. They’d identified where the waste from December had been dumped. It covered an area about as wide as a football field and as long as two and a half football fields placed end-to-end.
The junk pile was about 10 feet deep. Searching that volume of material, layer by decomposing layer, would take forever. It was just the kind of task where cadaver dogs could prove their worth.
Paulette Bennett: People have like five million scent receptors in their nose. Dogs have about 250 million scent receptors. So it isn’t even just that they can find this stuff, even buried or whatever, but they remember the scent that they are looking for.
Dave Cawley: That’s incredible.
Paulette Bennett: It is incredible.
Dave Cawley: American Search Dogs wasn’t involved in the Cedar Valley Landfill search. West Valley used its own people for that.
The dogs went over the huge pile of trash, alerting at one particular location. A track hoe rumbled over to the spot and began to dig. The police and dog handlers, wearing sweaty t-shirts, jeans and boots, all crowded around. The excavator unearthed a slimy, stinking mass of what might best be described as biological matter. Someone scooped it up with a shovel and put it onto a slab of plywood. Then, using a gloved hand, a detective poked into the mass. It turned out to be animal remains and excrement.
Dave Cawley: Susan’s dad Chuck Cox went for a drive with the West Valley police on March 18, 2010. A captain and lieutenant took him out to the Pony Express Trail, hoping to impress upon him just how difficult a task they faced in scouring hundreds of square miles of desert.
(Sound of tires on Pony Express Trail road)
Dave Cawley: They drove the dusty route from east to west, crossing wide basins full of salt and sage. Their roughly 170-mile trip from Faust, Utah to West Wendover, Nevada took more than four hours. They passed by Simpson Springs and Fish Springs, places Josh and Susan had visited. They drove through the Gold Hill ghost town, where detectives had two weeks earlier inspected a large number of abandoned mines.
Chuck Cox: It all made sense. It was, logically, what they were doing, but the part I don’t know about is what other leads — and it’s always bothered me — what leads? Because we would get calls from people saying ‘I told the police this and they haven’t got back to me’ and it was a, a viable lead.
Dave Cawley: Chuck kept in close contact with the police.
Chuck Cox: Well, they were very cooperative and uh, accommodating to my wild ideas because, frankly, this happened in the middle of the night and uh, they really had no clue where to look.
Dave Cawley: In June of 2010, Chuck saw an online comment on a Salt Lake Tribune story about the case. A person using the screen name of “Lochkeeper” had reported seeing a silver-colored minivan parked by some ponds alongside I-15 south of Salt Lake City on the morning of Susan’s disappearance. The two ponds were on the west side of the freeway in the suburb of Draper. Detectives checked the ponds, but found nothing.
A few months later, in August, Chuck again provided police with the location of an urban pond in the city of West Jordan where he believed Josh might have disposed of Susan. There was no specific reason to think she might be there.
Chuck Cox: And so if I would get a feeling or somebody, no matter if it’s ridiculous, if it was a place that could be searched they were willing to go to search there.
Dave Cawley: West Valley assembled a dive team. They went out to the pond. Its water had the appearance of pea soup. The floor of the pond held a thick bed of silt. When stirred up, it made the water even more opaque. The dive team had to stand shoulder-to-shoulder and walk across each segment of the pond, feeling their way forward. They dredged up some garbage, but no sign of Susan.
Chuck was undeterred. He realized a surplus canal, an offshoot of the Jordan River, also flowed right near Susan’s work. Josh could’ve dumped Susan into the water or along the banks on his way out to the Pony Express Trail the night of his camping trip.
The canal crossed under Interstate 80 just south of Salt Lake City International Airport. Airport police allowed West Valley detectives into the secured perimeter of the airport with cadaver dogs in late September. They walked the dogs along the banks of the canal, all the way from the interstate to the spillway, where the water entered Great Salt Lake wetlands. The dogs showed interest at three locations, all on the south side of the airport.
A month later, in October, police put divers into the canal at each spot. The third location was right at the end of runway 34 L, at the very point where the canal curved around the southwestern tip of the airport grounds. The divers didn’t find anything suspicious there. But after leaving the water, they learned a large road sign, the kind you might see suspended over a freeway, was submerged nearby.
What if, they wondered, Susan’s body had been trapped, submerged, beneath that sign? Could that explain what the cadaver dogs had smelled? They’d have to dive again to find out. But West Valley City police records don’t indicate whether or not they ever did.
Dave Cawley: Paulette Bennett from American Search Dogs kept in touch with many of the people who’d been closest to Susan — friends like Kiirsi Helewell and Debbie Caldwell — as well as with the volunteers and self-described psychics who’d devoted themselves to finding her. Those friendships at last allowed Paulette to introduce her big, fluffy goldendoodle Murphy to an item carrying Susan’s scent. It was the pile of yarn Susan’d asked neighbor JoVanna Owings to help her untangle on December 6th, the last day she was seen alive.
Paulette Bennett: It wasn’t like a personal thing she’d worn where it was, her scent was the strongest, but it was something.
Dave Cawley: Paulette had become friends with many people involved in the search for Susan. She wasn’t alone.
Vickie King: But when you get more of a personal relationship with the families and friends, then you, you have a, a tendency to put even more time into these things.
Dave Cawley: That is Vickie King, another member of American Search Dogs. Vickie and Paulette both went on an outing to the West Desert in mid-October of 2010. They started by driving to Wendover and from there, headed south to pick up the Pony Express Trail. They rumbled eastward on the bumpy dirt road, past the tiny, isolated farming community of Callao, toward Fish Springs.
One of the people they’d befriended, a woman named Linda Osborne, was along for the ride. Linda had spent a lot of time studying Susan’s story. She’d already provided police with several tips. Linda didn’t consider herself a psychic, exactly, but felt “impressions.”
While on the drive across the desert with the American Search Dogs crew, she suggested places where they might stop and search. In one spot, they found some bones scattered across the ground. They gathered them up, to later turn over to the police. West Valley records show forensic anthropologists determined those bones were not human.
The desert environment was always hard on the dogs. Daytime heat dried out their sensitive noses. The dogs would become so focused on their work, they wouldn’t drink enough water. Rattlesnakes, black window spiders and tarantulas were a constant threat.
Tracking scent on the air also proved difficult. Breezes in the early morning and late evening tended to move scent around, which was good for the dogs. But when the air was hot and still in the middle of the day, scent climbed in a straight line.
In spite of this, the dogs showed interest in several possible campsites, places Josh might have been on his December overnighter.
Vickie King: We came across a couple of things that we said to ourselves “he’s been here. This is an area he’s been in.”
Dave Cawley: One of those spots sat just north of the Pony Express Trail, midway between the Dugway Geode Beds and Simpson Springs. All three of the dogs alerted there on a soft mound of earth. Then, they started to dig.
Vickie King: There was this, underground about six inches down, there is this tarp material.
Dave Cawley: Afraid of what they might find, the dog handlers called off their animals. They recorded the coordinates and reported them to West Valley police on the following day. Neither Vickie nor Paulette ever heard a word back from the police about their tip.
Paulette Bennett: I don’t know if anyone ever went back and checked on it. Our dogs all showed a lot of interest right there and they all noted it, but I don’t know if anyone ever really followed up to see if there was anything there.
Dave Cawley: In fact, they did. West Valley police records show the same officers who’d spent much of the prior year searching abandoned mines in the West Desert drove out to that spot on October 19th of 2010. But they didn’t find anything.
(Sound of shovel digging)
Dave Cawley: I even took a shovel out to that spot and poked around, but couldn’t find the buried plastic. Reflecting on the experience with me, Paulette couldn’t shake the sense they’d been looking in the wrong area.
Paulette Bennett: I don’t know. I always doubted that she was out there. Maybe if she was, it was for a short period of time. I don’t even know if he really went camping there. I don’t, never heard that there was any proof that he actually even really went there.
Dave Cawley: But he did. Remember, Detective Ellis Maxwell confirmed that by talking to the sheep herder who spotted Josh’s minivan on the Pony Express Trail on the day of Susan’s disappearance. Still, even Ellis doubts that Susan ended up somewhere near the trail.
Ellis Maxwell: I put a lot of weight that Susan did not go out to the West Desert with him. He did not take her out there. He took her somewhere else. And that’s the question. Where?
Dave Cawley: On the next episode of Cold…
Jennifer Graves: She’s your wife. For crying out loud! What happened?
Josh Powell: I don’t know what happened.