Dave Cawley: Susan Powell’s 27th birthday was, by most any estimation, a disaster. She arrived home from a long day at work at 10:30 p.m. to find her house a mess. Toys and clothes belonging to her two young sons were scattered about the living room. Dirty dishes — measuring spoons and sippy cups — decked the kitchen counter. The cake her husband had baked sat unfrosted next to them. Batter splattered onto the vinyl floor was slowly drying into a crust.
Josh Powell sat at his computer watching Saturday Night Live clips on the internet. The 2008 presidential election loomed in less than a month. He loved the sketches that lampooned GOP running mates John McCain and Sarah Palin. He took pride being blue in the red state of Utah and often started political arguments with his conservative neighbors.
When his wife came through the door, exhausted from a 10-and-a-half hour shift on the phones at Wells Fargo Investments, he suggested she go into the kitchen and finish frosting her cake. Instead, Susan cleaned. She wiped up the spills. She put away the toys. At least, she reasoned to herself as she plunged her hands into soapy dishwater, her good-for-nothing husband had managed to put the kids down to bed.
The next morning, Susan took three-year-old Charlie and one-year-old Braden to a small neighborhood carnival put on by her church. She returned home to find the cake, at last, frosted. Josh presented her with the gifts he’d purchased. He handed one to Charlie to give to Susan, and mumbled “you better not complain because I spent money on this.”
She opened the present and was instantly disappointed. It was a small white board calendar, the kind of thing you hang on the refrigerator and fill in with appointments and reminders using a dry-erase marker. It had a lavender background, emblazoned with flower graphics. The edges were finished with a plastic that’d yellowed to the color of custard, as if it had sat for months in a bargain bin.
Deflated, Susan handed her toddler a $25 gift card she’d won at work and told him to give it to Josh. Instead of receiving gifts on her birthday, she was giving them.
“Happy birthday, from mommy to daddy and the house,” Charlie said.
Resentment festered in Susan. Her husband never hesitated to spend money on himself but he nitpicked every dollar she spent. He’d even locked her out of their joint bank account.
Linda Bagley: If she went to the store and bought some yogurt and he’s like “oh it’s $.50 less here or $.05 less here,” he’d chew her out and be upset and then he’d change the passwords so she couldn’t get back in there. Just things like that. And so she did things behind his back.
Dave Cawley: That’s Linda Bagley, one of Susan’s closest work friends. She’s never shared her story publicly before now.
Linda Bagley: They had bought this case of chili because it was such a good price but she was so tired of eating chili for lunch. So, I came in and I had the, the little $.33, $.50 cup of noodles. She had taken one out of my drawer and put a can of chili in there. It says “trade.” The can of chili was probably more expensive of the little cup of noodles but she was just so tired of the chili because they got a good deal on it and they had so much, they had to eat it, y’know? (Laughs)
Dave Cawley: Two days after Susan’s letdown of a birthday, she and Josh paid a visit to the home of Josh’s sister, Jennifer Graves. Josh’s mom, Terrica, gave Susan a bath robe, of which she already owned three. Josh handed her another small present as well, raising her hopes. Maybe, just maybe, he’d secretly held something back to make it a surprise.
She tore off the gift wrap and found a pair of DVDs. They were religious videos, available for next to nothing through their church. A few days later, Susan vented to a friend about the letdown in a Facebook message. Here’s what she wrote.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from October 20, 2008 Facebook message): Cheap white board and the DVDs probably cost a buck each! I actually asked him why he liked to torment me by acting like it’s not important and dragging things out – HUGE letdown.
Dave Cawley: Over the years of their marriage, Susan had become quite used to receiving underwhelming gifts.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from October 18, 2008 Facebook message): He’s given me chocolate, stuffed animals, a glass vase with fake flowers… a peridot necklace for Christmas 2006 (I know it must have been on clearance/cheap – who buys that unless you have an August birthstone)… I think the cake mix/frosting cost the same as my actual present. … Wow, I’m bitter.
Dave Cawley: She had good reason to be. Yet, she swallowed her hurt and mounted the white board calendar on the side of the refrigerator. Susan excelled at making the best of a bad situation.
Susan Powell (from February, 2001 audio journal recording): Josh is mean to me but only because I was mean to him and then he was mean back to me so I was mean to him more. And now he’s being mean to be again. But I still love him, even though he won’t kiss me. Maybe I’ll be nice and make dinner. Maybe. Maybe I’ll let him take pictures of me with his new Maxxum 7 he’s getting. Maybe. And maybe he’ll deserve and earn and actually get his Valentine’s Day gift. Maybe. Depends what he does for me. (Pause) I love him.
Dave Cawley: This is Cold, Episode 3: Faith and Finances I’m Dave Cawley.
Dave Cawley: Bubbling bitterness in Josh and Susan’s marriage went from a slow simmer to a full, roiling boil during 2008. Case in point, this October entry in Susan’s journal.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from October 5, 2008 journal entry): I feel like a prisoner in my own family, fighting to practice my own religion and beliefs in my own home. … I can’t believe our marriage deteriorated so quickly! I feel so blind and naive and foolish. I cherish my boys but realize they’ll grow up and move on.
Dave Cawley: Josh found a part-time job doing web development for a trucking company called Aspen Logistics. Though he had no formal training in the field, he’d taught himself enough to do the work. He dabbled in web design in his free time as well, even forming a company: Polished Marketing, LLC. When his younger brother Michael ran for a seat in the Washington State legislature in 2008, it was Polished Marketing that built the campaign website. Mike ran as a Democrat and actually made it through the primary before losing in the general election.
Josh’s company didn’t do much business. The only item listed on the Polished Marketing website’s portfolio was a site Josh’d built for a community Cinco de Mayo celebration. In other words, his side hustle was a flop.
Susan brought home the lion’s share of their income. Josh insisted her paycheck be deposited into a joint account, to which he alone controlled access. She’d gone along with this approach throughout their marriage, but started to push back in 2008. She set up a personal account in secret and started diverting small portions of her check there. She used that money to pay tithing, to buy food for her boys and to pay down a debt owed her parents.
Josh and Susan frequently fought over faith and finances. She had a quick temper and often sniped at Josh. She urged him to help care for their two boys or to help clean up around the house. She nagged him about not living up to his religious vows. Josh and Susan were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Josh had quit attending church meetings three years earlier. Susan had kept on, only to have her husband mock her faith.
He called her names, chastised her for spending money and refused to touch her for months at a time. Susan complained about Josh to anyone who would listen. Here’s what she said in one Facebook message to a friend.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from August 15, 2008 Facebook message): He is mainly emotionally, verbally, and financially abusive… Basically, I’m a single mother with this guy that lives with me and dictates to me what I can do in my spare time and takes my paycheck and spends the money.
Dave Cawley: Susan wondered if she was going crazy. At times, she thought Josh might be bipolar, like his brother John. Johnny was at that time living in a group home in Washington State. Other times, Susan questioned if she might be experiencing a clinical depression. She sought counseling, but felt it wouldn’t do much good if Josh wouldn’t agree to take part as well. He went once or twice and then gave up.
They argued about everything, like which kind peanut butter to buy because of a price difference of a few pennies per ounce. Their disagreements tended to explode into shouting matches. They fought in public, in front of friends or even the babysitter. Susan sometimes coped by walking away. She’d go to a friend’s house and spend a few hours cooling off, but that approach didn’t always work.
During one argument, she slapped Josh. He didn’t strike her back, but warned it would be the only time he’d restrain himself. Susan told a friend in a Facebook message that she took the threat of violence seriously.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from August 15, 2008 Facebook message): He’s justified that if I’m yelling in his face or hitting him that he thinks no matter what other men of authority say, that it’s okay to hit me back, so yes, that’s always in the back of my mind. But lately I’ve even picked up the phone and said, “I’m calling 911” and he takes the phone out of my hands, or immediately backs away and then tries to make me look like the crazy, irrational one.
Dave Cawley: During another fight, Susan locked herself inside a closet and refused to respond to anything Josh said. It was the same coping strategy Josh’s ex-girlfriend Catherine had used when she’d experienced his rage a decade a before.
Dave Cawley: To look at Susan then, you wouldn’t have labeled her a victim of abuse. She didn’t wear tell-tale bruises on her skin that would have branded her as a battered wife. Her parents knew better. During a trip to Washington in June, Chuck and Judy Cox gave their daughter a cell phone, one she could keep secret from her husband. They told her to use it if she ever needed to escape in the middle of the night with the boys.
Chuck Cox: I was there, was able to attend one of the sessions with her counselor. … And she said “well, yeah you are abused.” And said “dad, is that right?” I said “yes it is, I believe so, I think she’s right on.”
Dave Cawley: Chuck told Susan she should never have married Josh.
Chuck Cox: It was clear that she was abused, being abused, emotionally and verbally. Physically, in the extent of not providing the food, the needed food, ‘cause she wouldn’t eat so the kids could eat. ‘Cause it was a choice she had to make.
Dave Cawley: Susan told friends in emails and Facebook messages that she was bracing for a divorce. Here’s just one example, from August of 2008
Kriststen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from August 21, 2008 Facebook message): I am so tempted to just find a lawyer, write up some papers and change the locks and have a police officer with me when he comes home from work. … Either he is that scared of counseling and I need to deliver the unspoken “counseling or divorce” or he thinks he can weasel his way out and I’ll stupidly endure this miserable marriage. Well he is wrong.
Dave Cawley: Susan did contact a divorce attorney, in secret, for advice. But she worried Josh would turn a divorce against her, leaving her with no home, no car and no access to her boys. Friends offered to shelter Susan if she needed to disappear. Susan knew that for all his faults, Josh was very clever and very calculating. She said he would find her, no matter where she went. She also feared he might run off with Charlie and Braden, taking them to live with the father-in-law she despised or even skipping the country with them.
Worse yet, she thought he might try to have her killed. Josh’d maxed out Susan’s credit cards before declaring bankruptcy in 2007. He’d bought toys and tools, then used the court to wipe away the debt. Afterward, he ran up her credit again, figuring he could just declare bankruptcy again if needed.
Josh’d bought a car for Susan to drive, but financed it in his name alone, using the excuse of needing to rebuild his credit.
Kiirsi Hellewell: They had two cars but he got rid of the second car, supposedly claiming that is was going to save on gas but I think now it was very much a way to control where she went and who she did anything with.
Dave Cawley: Susan’s friend Kiirsi Hellewell said that meant Susan had to make her 15-mile round-trip commute by bicycle. Her daily ride ran along 5600 West, a busy road that cuts through an industrial park. For long stretches of the route, Susan had to ride in the narrow space between the fog line and the edge of the pavement, with semi-trucks blowing past her at 50 miles per hour.
(Sound of highway traffic)
Dave Cawley: Though they had almost no assets to speak of, Josh pushed Susan to obtain five-year term life insurance. He first purchased her a half-million dollar policy with New York Life in June of 2007. In March of 2008, he bumped it up to a full million. He was, of course, the sole beneficiary.
Josh also took out a million dollar policy on himself and added a quarter-million for each of his boys. Susan later confided to a coworker in an email she feared for her safety.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from September 22, 2009 email): I was worth a million dollars dead and biking to work. You tell me how easy it would be to have an “accident.” I guess our main problem is I feel like I’m just an asset to be controlled. I make money, I take care of the house and kids and put up with his crap, he could easily take me out. So yeah, I was worried.
Dave Cawley: With both Josh and Susan working, they needed to put the boys in daycare. Josh searched online and found Debbie Caldwell, a woman who ran an in-home daycare in their area.
Debbie Caldwell: Oddly enough, I had taken a week off and I was up at LDS girls camp with the girls and when I came back down I had something like 30 messages on my phone from this Josh Powell on my phone.
Dave Cawley: Josh wanted to meet Debbie.
Debbie Caldwell: We did schedule an interview, to which he showed up an hour and a half late.
Dave Cawley: Susan came along as well.
Debbie Caldwell: She asked me, specifically, if she had to change her work schedule, would that be a problem and I said no, when I take children in, the slot’s there … she said she may have to change her schedule because they were not doing well in their marriage and she was talking to an attorney and looking at getting a divorce. So she even told me that straight upfront the first day I met her and I assured her that the spot would be hers, no matter what her schedule was, that I would provide the care for the boys.
Dave Cawley: Susan took out a blue pen and started writing on a sheet of college-rule lined paper while at work on a Saturday in late June. Across the top margin she wrote the words “Last will and testament for Susan.” What then followed was an indictment of her domestic situation.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from June 28, 2008 last will and testament): I bike to work daily and have been having extreme marital stress for about three or four years now. For mine and my children’s safety I feel the need to have a paper trail at work which would not be accessible to my husband. … I want it documented somewhere that there is extreme turmoil in our marriage, he has threatened to “skip the country” and told me straight out “if we divorce, there will be no lawyers, only a mediator, and I will ruin you. … Your life would be over and the boys will not grow up with a mom and dad.”
If something happens to me, please talk to my sister-in-law Jenny Graves, my friend Kiirsi Hellewell, check my blogs on Myspace… check my work desk, talk to my friends, co-workers, and family. It is an open fact that we have life insurance policies of over a million if we die in the next four years. Co-workers, family and friends hear me say this occasionally.
If I die, it may not be an accident, even if it looks like one. Take care of my boys. I want my parents Judy and Chuck Cox very involved and in charge of their lives. … I love my boys, I live for them and I choose not to cheat or do drugs because I wouldn’t want to risk losing them.
Dave Cawley: Susan added her signature at the bottom and then, in the margin, added a note to her boys.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from June 28, 2008 last will and testament): I love you Charlie and Braden and I’m sorry you’ve seen how wrong and messed up our marriage is. I would never leave you!
Dave Cawley: Susan folded the page in thirds and slid it into a makeshift envelope formed out of another sheet of lined paper. She stapled the whole thing closed, then spelled out a special set of instructions on the outer face.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from June 28, 2008 last will and testament): For family, friends of Susan, all except for Josh Powell, husband, I don’t trust him! Josh Powell is not allowed to possess this.
Dave Cawley: The night before, Josh and Susan had gone through the worst fight of their marriage to date. It was a doozy. It’d rocked Susan so badly, she dictated the blow-by-blow to her friend Kiirsi.
The result was a document titled “The Deposition.” It said Josh complained because Susan sometimes spent more on groceries than promised. He ordered her to memorize the weekly supermarket ads and only buy the cheapest items. She asked why he was able to spend money freely when she could not. He told her it was none of her business what he spent.
Kiirsi wrote that Josh had called Susan a religious freak for wanting to pay tithing and sing in the church choir. When she pushed back, he offered to give her a $50 monthly allowance out of her own paycheck, from which she could make a $5 tithe.
Susan kept both the deposition and her last will and testament in a drawer at her work. About a month later, she added something else.
Susan Cox Powell (from July 29, 2008 home video): I am documenting all our assets just in case of any emergencies, fire, flood, damage, disputes.
Dave Cawley: While Josh was away from home one day in July, Susan took a camcorder and walked through their house.
Susan Cox Powell (from July 29, 2008 home video): So, we’ve got this treadmill…
Dave Cawley: What you’re hearing is Susan’s actual voice.
Susan Cox Powell (from July 29, 2008 home video): Charlie, say “hi.”
Dave Cawley: She documented Josh’s extensive collection of power tools.
Susan Cox Powell (from July 29, 2008 home video): This is all stuff bought in a year or less through Home Depot on my credit. Josh bought a lot of stuff and then he had to bankrupt it. And then he bought a little bit more on my credit.
Dave Cawley: She catalogued his toys.
Susan Cox Powell (from July 29, 2008 home video): Alright, Hover Storm. He bought a stupid hovercraft remote controlled toy. … Oh there’s his RC car. It’s pretty pimped out, you can see that stuff. I think he’s got probably three-thousand worth of supplies in the RC car world.
Dave Cawley: She walked through the garden, showing obvious pride in the variety of food growing there.
Susan Cox Powell (from July 29, 2008 home video): Our peach tree, our cherry tree. Smaller one’s a pluat tree. Apple, pear. We got pumpkin and watermelon and cantaloupe. Squash and zucchini. Eggplant, cucumbers, ochre, peppers, radishes, the peas I planted didn’t grow. Those two rows are empty. It’s being watered right now. More peppers, tomatoes, corn, raspberries out in the back. All of those, the tomatoes. Those are weeds or some type of plant that transplanted.
Dave Cawley: Through much of the recording, Susan’s voice carried a defeated, almost ominous tone.
Susan Cox Powell (from July 29, 2008 home video): And tools galore, more tools galore. (Sound of drawers opening and closing) These are all the paperwork for all the tools he bought. (Heavy sigh)
Dave Cawley: But she never mentioned the word divorce.
Susan Cox Powell (from July 29, 2008 home video): Uh, this is me. July 29th, 2008. It is 12:33 Mountain Time. Umm, covering all my bases, making sure that if something happens to me or my family or all of us that our assets are documented. Hope everything works out and we’re all happy and live happily ever after as much as that’s possible.
Dave Cawley: A week later, Susan obtained a safe deposit box at a Wells Fargo bank branch down the street from her work. She made sure Josh wasn’t allowed to access it. Into the box, she placed copies of social security cards and birth certificates for herself and her boys, U.S. savings bonds, receipts showing bank account balances and other documents that could prove critical in the case of a divorce.
Susan’s nightmare birthday, the one with the unfrosted cake and underwhelming gifts, came and went in October. Still, she dreamed of expanding their family, adding a baby girl. Here’s what she wrote about it in a Facebook message.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from October 18, 2008 Facebook message): When Josh bought the cake/frosting there was pink and I asked “oh! Is this for when I have a baby girl?” Still feel like I’m dreaming in that aspect but I am starting to play my cards and get my way so I’m not so celibate anymore at least.
Dave Cawley: Josh’s older sister Jennifer couldn’t understand why her brother seemed so fixated on controlling Susan.
Jennifer Graves: I mean they were married for quite a while and he didn’t ever come to that realization that she could be a strong, wonderful, independent woman and still be a wonderful, loving wife and mother. … She was so amazing. They would have gone far if he had embraced that. But he wouldn’t recognize that.
Dave Cawley: That November, Susan spent an entire day at a temple praying for guidance. Latter-day Saints believe their temples are sacred spaces where individuals who are worthy can receive inspiration directly from heaven. They are also where the faith’s most sacred rites are performed, like the marriage “for time and all eternity” into which Josh and Susan had entered in April, 2001.
But Josh no longer had a temple recommend. That’s a card that grants Latter-day Saints access to their temples. They’re only issued to members who affirm they’re obeying church doctrine. So, Susan went to the temple alone. While there, she had chance interactions with two single men. She later wrote to a friend, saying those episodes had left her with a peaceful feeling.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from November 17, 2008 Facebook message): I think the Lord was telling me there are other righteous men out there for me if my husband chooses not to be.
Dave Cawley: But she also had the impression that Josh remained her eternal companion. She told another friend on Facebook that she felt it was her duty to guide him back to the light.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from November 4, 2008 Facebook message): My parents are just gung-ho ready to help pay for a divorce attorney and everyone thinks its so easy to leave and magically start from scratch… I fear everyone will be disappointed in me if I stay.
Dave Cawley: While sitting in the temple, Susan pulled out a pen and a small notebook. She started to write.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Cox Powell from November, 2008 letter to Josh Powell): I am not threatening a divorce, but what you ask of me is too great to bear. You must understand that my religion is a part of me. You can’t ask me to pick and choose only certain parts of it to live and expect me to be happy. … When we got married the gospel was the center of our marriage and our family. … I have to ask myself now, was this an act? Were you just pretending? In my heart I think this answer is no. But you’ve chosen to forget all of this and have been influenced to a negative outlook in life.
Dave Cawley: When she arrived home, Susan typed the message into the computer. It was about 2,000 words — the equivalent of three typed paged. She printed out the letter and handed it to Josh. In a Facebook message, she told a friend he didn’t take it well.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from November 14, 2008 Facebook message): We had a two-hour screaming fight last night. I got him to see some of my perspectives and he said he might be willing to start going to church but it really seems like he’s digging in his heels on not paying tithing.
Dave Cawley: Obviously, Josh did not intend to change. Susan no longer intended to compromise. But she couldn’t bring herself to file divorce papers. In early 2009, Josh told Susan they needed to make sure the boys would be covered if something bad were to happen. Instead of divorce papers, they signed paperwork establishing the Joshua S. Powell and Susan M. Powell Revocable Trust on February 4th. It’s a day that sticks in the minds of Susan’s friends Kiirsi and Debbie.
Kiirsi Hellewell: The day that I met Debbie [Susan] called me and she said “We’re at a lawyers setting up this life insurance thing in a trust for the boys and I need you to go pick them up at Debbie’s house because Josh is taking forever arguing about every detail and trying to put illegal things into this agreement and the lawyer keeps telling him ‘No you can’t, no you can’t—’”
Debbie Caldwell: It’s not legal.
Kiirsi Hellewell: “‘—you can’t do that, no you can’t say that.’ So can please go get ‘em for me and keep them until I get back.” And that was the day I met Debbie.
Dave Cawley: If Susan were to die, the trust gave control of her assets to Josh. If they were both killed, Susan’s dad and Josh’s brother Michael would co-manage the trust on behalf of their boys, Charlie and Braden. But in the case of Susan’s death alone, Josh would receive the power to erase Chuck Cox as a trustee.
Josh also had Susan sign forms granting him power of attorney for her retirement accounts. He gained full authority to buy or sell investments in her name, or cash them out, without needing her permission. Debbie couldn’t believe it.
Debbie Caldwell: I said “Susan, that’s ridiculous. You guys do not need that kind of life insurance. Why are you doing that?” And she says “well, because Josh wants to.”
Kiirsi Hellewell: And you looked at her and you said “Susan, you’re worth more dead than alive.”
Debbie Caldwell: I did. I did say that to her.
Dave Cawley: Susan told a coworker in an email that Josh could “pull the plug” if she were ever on life support. Her work friends like Linda Bagley were aghast.
Linda Bagley: She mentioned one time about him having, insisting that they open the accounts, IRA accounts, and fund them fully, borrowing against their credit cards and umm, that he have full power of attorney and he wanted to make sure that that full power of attorney meant that he could take money out without her signing anything. That he had the authorization to do that. And so that’s what he had.
Dave Cawley: The legal framework for Josh’s life post-Susan was falling in place. Still, she held on to that handwritten last will and testament, hidden in a drawer at work. She later told a coworker in an email that their family trust obviously overrode her old will.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from September 22, 2009 email): Now I feel like I should/could get rid of this stuff but [I’m] reluctant to do it because I guess I don’t feel totally in the clear yet.
Dave Cawley: Coworker Linda Bagley told me there was good reason for that.
Linda Bagley: She came to me and she told me at one point at least six to ten months before she disappeared — it was probably sometime in 2009 — she said “if Josh, if something ever happens to me, make sure they look at Josh,” basically. And I said “what do you mean?” (Nervous laugh) Y’know, “has he threatened you,” or whatever. And she said “no, it’s just the way he talks.”
Dave Cawley: One time, Linda went to visit Susan at home and found Josh in the living room. A news report about a recent murder was on TV. Josh made a comment about how he’d be able to get away with murder. All he’d have to do is make sure police couldn’t find the body.
Linda Bagley: The next day she came to me and she said “see, see he makes these kinds of comments and that,” y’know, “and that kind of,” so she was concerned that maybe he would do something and she had a folder at work and a journal at work that she kept some of these suspicions — and she wanted to make sure that I knew that it was there and she told a couple of other coworkers about it.
Dave Cawley: Two days after signing the trust paperwork, Josh, Susan and the boys headed out for a nearly month-long trip to Washington. They’d been on the road for about nine hours and had just braved a snow squall on I-84 when they stopped for gas in the town of Pendleton, Oregon. The station attendant told them their tire was flat and called for a tow. Thankfully, they were able to patch the tire and continue on through a thick fog, arriving safely in Puyallup a few hours later.
The drive home at the end of February proved even more eventful. They spent one night at a motel in the Tri-Cities area of eastern Washington, sharing the room with Josh’s dad. Susan didn’t want to be anywhere near Steve, so she later wrote that she spent the night alone in the minivan.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from 2009 vacation to Washington document): It wasn’t too bad, but about the last four hours I awoke every hour to check my watch and had weird dreams that people were outside my van window (like police or Josh’s brother) and I know that didn’t happen; so I finally went in at 5:30 a.m.
Dave Cawley: Steve Powell wrote in his own journal that he believed Susan remained outside that night because she was afraid of her overwhelming sexual attraction for him.
The Washington trip seemed to recharge Susan, in spite of that bad night of sleep. She’d reached a grudging deal with Josh: he would attend church meetings one Sunday a month, while she would miss church once a month.
She did damage control with her friends and family after getting back to Utah, telling them in emails and Facebook messages that her marital situation had improved.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from April 6, 2009 Facebook message): Today is our 8 year anniversary. In my soul and heart I know that Josh and I will stay married. He’s putting forth efforts to change when I push him and even when I don’t.
Dave Cawley: Josh also re-engaged with his wife physically, sort of.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from April 6, 2009 Facebook message): We are getting a bit better as far as affection goes, but unfortunately it’s only in the bedroom, he’s still too afraid to ever kiss and hug me or hold hands so that’s still annoying.
Dave Cawley: That hint of physical intimacy kept Susan’s dreams of having a daughter alive.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from April 6, 2009 Facebook message): I want to have that third pregnancy. Notice I didn’t say 3rd child because I’m still holding out that I’ll have twins. … I feel like I’m being selfish to put off another just because I don’t have the perfect marriage yet but I know overall, it’s good, it’ll work.
Dave Cawley: She expanded on that in an email a week later.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from April 14, 2009 Facebook message): Things really are better than before, but just about every time I say or thing that, my husband says or does something that still manages to blow me out of the water and I question if I want to add another child to this.
Dave Cawley: In fact, Susan’s messages show she suspected several times through 2009 that she might be pregnant. She made no secret of it with work friends like Linda Bagley.
Linda Bagley: She was also talking about maybe trying for another child and I think maybe she thought that would make a little bit of a difference in keeping together the marriage as well. And umm, but Josh was always super against the idea and so finally one day she came to me and said “he said, okay let’s try.”
Dave Cawley: Josh’s little concessions were bait that kept Susan on the hook. There were ample signs throughout 2009 that he hadn’t made any significant personal changes. He reneged on the go-one-week, skip-one-week church agreement within just a couple of months.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from April 14, 2009 email): We used to go to the temple weekly in Washington and now he’s annoyed if I want to say prayer for dinner… and it’s not all religious stuff, his character and personality has really swung to an extreme to I’m constantly reminding him to reign it back.
Dave Cawley: Josh continued to show little regard for his wife. When weather kept Susan from riding her bike to work, he would drop her off or make her carpool with coworkers. Rarely was Susan allowed to take the minivan herself. Josh frequently failed to pick her up from work in the afternoon, or get the boys from Debbie Caldwell’s daycare.
Debbie Caldwell: When umm, Josh wouldn’t show up to pick up the kids, she’d phone and I would load the kids up after all the other kids were gone. Course, ‘cause I wanted to get on with my day and my night, so I’d go get her from work and bring her and the boys home. … And that was quite a normal occurrence.
Dave Cawley: Coworkers like Linda also gave Susan rides home. Sometimes, they’d stop at Deseret Industries, a thrift store chain operated by their church.
Linda Bagley: I’d look for knick knacks and she’d look for things she could use around the house, potty training stuff, stuff for the kids, toys for the kids, book for the kids, she’d look for stuff like that.
Dave Cawley: Donated items, used stuff, was the bulk of what was on the shelves at the Deseret Industries store. They were sold at just a fraction of retail prices. Still, Susan joked about not being able to afford the trips. She and Josh were spending money elsewhere, though. Josh had made full-time at his work, giving them a bit more disposable income.
In September, she told a coworker in an email that she wished Josh would cheat on her to make ending their marriage easier.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from September 22, 2009 email): We keep making major purchases andimprovements like we will stay married. I don’t think he’d ever leave me (he’s spoiled) and the other woman thing is practically impossible for him so I doubt I’d be motivated to actually leave him.
Dave Cawley: Together, they dropped $4,500 on a vacation subscription deal, which Susan insisted was not a timeshare scam. It soured almost immediately. The subscription was supposed to provide huge discounts on travel and lodging, but a promised “free” seven-day cruise never materialized. Feeling angry and cheated, they took their dispute to the Better Business Bureau. That got them nowhere.
Josh sent an email to Susan in October, suggesting they threaten the company with bad publicity.
Eric Openshaw (as Josh Powell from October 23, 2009 email to Susan Powell): I also could easily throw together a website to slam them. Even if I don’t make it live yet (I could even host it on the web, but on a temporary domain), they may start to get the picture.
Dave Cawley: Susan normally enjoyed reading Mary Higgins Clark murder mysteries, but found herself instead focused on titles from the self-help category. She became enamored with “The Color Code” by Taylor Hartman. The book’s general premise is that personalities can be categorized by one of four colors — red, blue, white or yellow — using a multiple-choice test. She scored herself as blue, a loyal, long-suffering creative type driven by emotion who also felt insecure and moody. She thought Josh was red, a confident, logical thinker who had a strong need to be right and who put work ahead of relationships. Susan made Josh read the book too, calling it the only form of counseling he’d tolerate.
More and more, she exerted her independence. She started to organize “girl’s nights” with friends and coworkers like Amber Hardman. This is the first time Amber has told her story publicly.
Amber Hardman: So it worked out good. We would just go right after work.
Dave Cawley: They’d go to movies, usually at the dollar theater, or out to eat. Susan made Josh stay home and watch the boys.
Amber Hardman: She kind of didn’t give him much choice. She started standing up for herself a little more, which is good. She said “they’re your kids, you can take care of them for a couple hours while I go out.” She would try to lay it out and just go.
Dave Cawley: She also started buying Mary Kay products and lying to Josh about it. She froze their Capital One credit card to prevent him from running up more debt. She wrote this in an email.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from April 14, 2009 email): He doesn’t know I spend $50 to my parents every paycheck and $25 to my team member account that he doesn’t know is still open. I make sure I hang out with girl friends and force the occasional date on him.
Dave Cawley: So, what qualified as a date in their fractured relationship? On a Friday night in May of 2009, Josh took Susan to a bargain Mexican food joint, then drove her out to a spot on the muddy south shore of the Great Salt Lake.
(Sound of waves at Great Salt Lake shoreline)
Dave Cawley: She emailed her friend Amber about the date the following day.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from May 16, 2009 email to Amber Hardman): [He] literally parked near all the graffiti junk to “watch the sunset” and asked if this was good. Maybe I was too harsh, I said “to be honest, there are bug guts to look through the window and I’m afraid we’ll get stuck in the mud or cops will come thinking we are connected to vandals.” We had left-overs that he wanted to put in the fridge so we were home by 9:30.
Dave Cawley: Susan had worksheets from a self-help book they were supposed to fill out prior to these dates. She told her sister-in-law Jennifer in an email that Josh refused to complete them.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from July 27, 2009 email to Jennifer Graves): It’s an obligation to him that he seems to hate, [he] wants to go as cheap as possible. I’m talking $5 pizza, grabs pop from our house, parks at the local park, we eat, he barely answers on the questions and discussions we were supposed to have on our date book and rushes home so as not to have to pay the babysitter anymore.
Dave Cawley: Their dates sometimes led to what Susan described as “frisky” activity. In June, she believed she might have conceived. She used some of the money she’d set aside in a personal account to buy a pregnancy test. It came back negative. Friends like Amber Hardman couldn’t understand why Susan seemed so set on having another child.
Amber Hardman: I’m like, “why do you want a baby so bad if you’re having such a hard time in your marriage?” She’s like “oh, things are getting better.” That was always her answer, especially around that time. And no, I knew things weren’t getting better because we’d have a conversation a week prior about another fight her and Josh had had. So…
Dave Cawley: Through the summer, Susan pressed Josh to rebuild the deck on the back of their house. He qualified their time together digging post holes in the yard as a “date.” He’d made little progress by the end of September, only getting the framing in place. The lumber sat stacked in their garage, preventing them from parking the minivan there.
Susan told a friend by email that a driver had rear-ended Josh around Labor Day. He had whiplash and couldn’t do physical labor.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from September 22, 2009 email): So instead he was on muscle relaxers. … We probably acted a little stupid and bought a massage chair. … I think this will motivate Josh to finish the deck and move on on to the basement.
Dave Cawley: Josh hired out much of the deck-building work to his neighbor, Dax Guzman.
Dax Guzman: My 11-year-old daughter could lift more than he could. He’s just physically useless.
Dave Cawley: Dax thought he and Josh would be working together, side by side.
Dax Guzman: Like a simple 6 or 8×2, whatever we were using, even a 12-footer, he couldn’t lift. So, we’d have to use braces and jacks to hold things up on one end because I was working on the other ‘cause he couldn’t hold them up and “just get out of the way man, just let me do this. I can do it by myself easier.”
Dave Cawley: Dax and his wife Mindy lived one street over from Josh and Susan. They’d become friends with Susan through church. Josh paid Dax for his work on the deck, but it was hardly worth Dax’s time.
Dax Guzman: Took longer than it should have just because, I mean I’m okay with measuring twice, cutting once but he just would go over the plans and over and over and I’m like “dude, I’m the one doing this, I’m the one doing the work. … Just let me do it.” And we would have to stop so that he could plan stuff.
Dave Cawley: That wasn’t the only annoyance.
Dax Guzman: He’d sit there and want to chat with you about something. I’m sitting there either laying wood down or putting up one of the walls or, y’know, chiseling rocks out of the ground … and he’d just sit there and try to chat. And like, “stop.”
Dave Cawley: Dax couldn’t help but notice the extent of Josh’s tool collection.
Dax Guzman: He had like, DeWalt everything. His compressor, his saws, his screwdriver set. Everything that he had was just top of the line. It was nice.
Dave Cawley: Josh told Dax he’d obtained most of his tools before declaring bankruptcy, essentially getting them for free.
The summer ended. Susan and Mindy watched the kids play in the yard one Friday in mid-October, as Josh and Dax worked on the deck late into the afternoon.
Dax Guzman: We were gonna leave. They, y’know, Josh asked if we wanted to stay for dinner and umm, then it came up that it was Susan’s birthday. And so we, my wife and I, my wife initially, she offered to take care of the boys that night if they wanted to go out to dinner or something and he said “no,” like, “no, she’ll cook.” And we’re like “wow.” I mean like, we insisted, we’re like “really, we’ll watch the boys and,” y’know, “you guys can go out on a date” and he just wouldn’t have it. I thought that was kind of messed up.
Dave Cawley: Susan confided in Mindy, as she had so many others, that her marriage was in trouble. She and Josh continued to argue, often telling one another to “shut up” in front of the boys. Hearing this, Charlie would tell them “hush.”
Susan told a coworker in an email she worried her sons might turn out like her husband or, worse yet, grandpa Steve.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from July 6, 2009 email): I’m already watching my kids for warning signs because of Josh, his brother, his dad, his grandmother because all of this didn’t come out until a couple years into the marriage.”
Josh spent much of his free time either reading technical manuals or on the phone, talking to his family back in Washington. Susan told her friends she hated the way he acted after those phone calls. Here’s just one of those emails.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from June 29, 2009 email): If he has them on the phone (often speaker), he has to warn them if I (or I hope the kids) walk into the room because they will be swearing or talking inappropriately… and it’s always an hour-plus conversation. … He basically has the phone on so they can be included in the room but they may not speak for minutes at a time.
Dave Cawley: Susan said she saw a significant change in Josh’s behavior, for the worse, when Steve was on the phone.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from June 29, 2009 email): Any time he’s talking with his dad I’m irritated. Even if it isn’t his dad, I assume it is and I’ve caught myself trying not to get angry and assume he’s talking to him again. He “accidentally” swears or slips snide negative comments about me, the church, my family it seems when talking to me. … I think a lot because he’s talking to his dad so often, who truly thrives on negative and seems to encourage it with Josh.
Dave Cawley: Her friend and coworker Amber Hardman remembered one particular conversation. Susan overheard Josh talking to his dad, while Charlie and Braden were sitting on his lap.
Amber Hardman: And she walked in on him and he’d been telling how mommy was evil for making them go to church and she was just an evil person and they didn’t need to listen to her and they didn’t need to go to church and that all these things are happening with Josh’s dad on the phone. So it almost seemed like Josh’s dad was directing the conversation.
Dave Cawley: Susan was furious.
Amber Hardman: She quickly got mad and took the boys out and said “how dare you talk to our kids this way about me and with your father on the phone. This is just not an okay situation.” And she actually took them on a drive and left for an hour to calm down because she was so upset and didn’t know what else to do. And she told me she felt worried about just leaving for that hour, that she was afraid what Josh would do for her just leaving to cool off and calm down. I said “Susan, it’s your vehicle. It’s your children. You’re trying to better a situation which was obviously not a good one. It’s ok to do those things. You’re not taking the kids.” But that was her concern, that Josh would call the cops on her, that she was kidnapping the children and leaving without him when she was just going to cool off and she clearly had told him that. But she was still worried that he would twist the story.
Dave Cawley: During the fall of 2009, Susan at last succeeded in getting Josh to join her in marriage counseling. His condition: it had to be free. No copays and no insurance. He said any paper trail could impact their credit rating.
Their bishop referred them to LDS Family Services, a nonprofit counseling service administered by their church. They made it through several sessions before the exasperated counselor threw up her hands. She told them to take a month off from counseling. During that time, Josh was to focus on living his religion with a good attitude. She told Susan to keep her temper in check.
In her head, Susan set a date. She would give Josh until their anniversary in April. She told a friend by email that the clock was ticking.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from September 18, 2009 email): At this point, I feel like he’s had eight years of marriage, about four years goofing off religiously and marital … I don’t expect an overnight change but I also don’t think I should waste another couple of years or until the kids grow up to wake up one day and he is saying never mind, and we’ve got nothing left in common.
Dave Cawley: There weren’t many customers in the West Valley City Lowe’s hardware store. Most were at home, spending time with family or preparing for the turkey feast to come. It was November 25, 2009, the night before Thanksgiving. Staff were setting up displays for the upcoming Black Friday sales. Less than half an hour remained before closing time. That’s when Josh Powell walked through the door.
(Sound of sliding doors)
Dave Cawley: He was alone — no Susan, no Charlie or Braden — and in no hurry. He clutched a paper ad in one hand, along with a length of hose for an acetylene torch. Josh had bought the torch earlier that afternoon from a welding supply company called Airgas. He’d told the salesman at Airgas he wanted a torch capable of cutting through steel, but didn’t know much about the mechanics or chemistry. He’d peppered the salesman with questions.
Airgas had been closed for half an hour by the time Josh swiped his credit card to buy the torch. He spent about $400, getting the torch, two lengths of hose, a brass regulator and two gas tanks: one containing oxygen and the other acetylene. The kit, he was assured, would cut through metal up to half an inch thick.
Josh tried to put it all together after leaving Airgas, but couldn’t get the hoses to attach to the tanks. He couldn’t take it back because Airgas was closed. So that’s why he went to Lowe’s. The staff at Lowe’s asked Josh what he intended to do with the torch. He said it wasn’t for any job in particular, he just wanted to play around with it and see what it could do.
The workers took a look at what he had and told him the hose was the right one. There wasn’t really anything they could do about his problem. Announcements on the store’s overhead speakers counted down to closing time. He looked at paint sprayers and grabbed some batteries. Lowe’s had been closed for a half an hour before he wandered up to the checkout stand. He bought a bucket with a pour spout, which he figured would help him more easily fill the Rug Doctor he’d convinced Susan they needed to buy a couple of weeks earlier.
Josh took his torch back to Airgas after Thanksgiving. An employee told him the hoses wouldn’t work because Josh’s tanks had the wrong fittings. But he could get used tanks with the right fittings and have them refilled. That’s what Josh did. By the start of December, he had a working steel-cutting set-up that could fit in the back of his van.
(Sound of oxyacetylene torch starting)
Dave Cawley: The people who helped Josh at both Lowe’s and Airgas would later tell police the encounters were odd. They weren’t alone. A couple of days before buying the acetylene torch, Josh had gone to Western Gardens. That’s a nursery just up the street from his home in West Valley City. Late November is not typically a busy time for gardeners in Utah, not much grows outside in the depths of winter, but Josh said wanted to mend a broken tree branch.
He grabbed a roll of Dewitt-brand tree wrap. A Western Gardens worker told him it wouldn’t do the job because the branch he wanted to mend was dead. It couldn’t be brought back to life just by wrapping it in place with a $3 sheet of plastic. Josh insisted, even becoming emotional about the broken bough. He ended up buying a 50-foot roll of the tree wrap.
Josh’d always liked hardware stores. He’d even briefly worked at a Home Depot in Puyallup about a year after marrying Susan. He’d started taking Charlie and Braden to the free workshops on Saturdays at both the Lowe’s and Home Depot stores in their neighborhood.
Other parents were not so thrilled. Josh usually showed up late. He had a tendency to yell at his boys and be overbearing, making them recite instructions for the projects out loud. He frightened the other kids. At the same time, Josh wouldn’t step in if the boys misbehaved. Store staff had to scramble after Charlie and Braden as they ran wild with scissors or nails.
As Josh was on this shopping spree through November, Susan was dealing with more personal matters. She suspected again she’d at last become pregnant. In a November 9th email with the subject line “what the heck is going on with me?”, she described a bout of nausea lasting from Friday to Monday. She had no other symptoms to suggest a viral or bacterial bug and figured it had lasted too long to be food poisoning.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from November 9, 2009 email): I’ve also read that when you are pregnant, your stomach may not handle foods as well. But I’m not ever puking or dehydrated or anything and I’m still hungry and having cravings despite being nauseous.
Dave Cawley: She’d also felt body changes like milk letdown and ligament stretching, familiar indications of pregnancy. On the other hand, she’d recently experienced menstrual-like bleeding, which would seem to rule out pregnancy. So what the heck was going on? The problem persisted on Tuesday, November 10th.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from November 10, 2009 email): Last night I had some leftover pizza Josh brought from a computer geek thing and I felt fine until about 9:30 or so and I just snacked a little on nuts and went to bed. Got up a couple times in the middle of the night with a hurt tummy and nausea.
Dave Cawley: On Wednesday, Susan went to a clinic for a blood test.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from November 12, 2009 Facebook message): I’m to the point that I won’t believe them if they say it’s negative. I’m still nauseous, can almost set my watch to it. If it’s been about three hours and I haven’t eaten a huge meal or had a bunch of snacks, I’m nauseous and moody. How does a solid seven day stretch be pinned to anything but? I just hope it’s a girl!
Dave Cawley: She was disappointed again. The results came back negative, though with some confusion.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from November 17, 2009 email): Yesterday the doctor’s office left me a message asking to call back about the results. I called back and a nurse wasn’t available to speak to me, but I told them I already got the results on Friday unless they told me wrong. They were all confused and said they’d try to have someone call me back and suggested I should blood test again. … I just hope nothing is wrong if I’m bleeding and pregnant.
Dave Cawley: Something was seriously off with her body. She wondered if a spider bite could be to blame. Her coworker Linda Bagley suggested she get another blood test and have the lab check for conditions other than pregnancy.
Linda Bagley: She asked me for a recommendation for a doctor so I gave her one that was where I went and I said “tell ‘em this is, this is not normal and they should check your blood for other things that might be going wrong because this is like the second time, and y’know, so if it’s negative ask them to check your blood, too.” But she didn’t. They just did the pregnancy and said “nope” and sent her on her way. And they didn’t do any blood test as I understand later.
Dave Cawley: Another of Susan’s work friends, Amber Hardman, gave her similar advice.
Amber Hardman: She’d asked me about it and she thought she was pregnant and she’d do a test and it’d say it’s negative. And I told her several times, “if you feel that way, go get a blood test.” But I told her not just for pregnancy. And I kept telling her that. I said “don’t just get a blood pregnancy test. Have them run your blood and see if something else is going on if they can. Might as well while they’re drawing blood, because if you’re not pregnant, something is going on. You shouldn’t feel sick and nauseous.” Like, “something is triggering this. If you’re feeling this way and you’re not pregnant, it’s something else.” And she’s like “no, no, I’m pregnant.” She was like determined she was pregnant. She wasn’t pregnant.
Dave Cawley: Susan conceded she’d not conceived the day after Thanksgiving.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from November 27, 2009 email): Period started, I think I miscarried so early it looked like a normal period. No more nausea (still craving food but that could be PMS related), no more milk letdown and ligaments stretching etcetera and good thing too, that’s why I felt it was ok to get drugs.
Dave Cawley: Josh did something very unexpected right in the middle of Susan’s unexplained illness. He told her he loved her while dropping her off at work on November 16th. Coming from him, the words were so unusual, so unexpected, that Susan emailed several of her friends to tell them about it.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from November 16, 2009 email): He said it as I was out the door, I almost missed it. I smiled and said it back and he had a cute, childish smile about him. I think it was because of everything yesterday.
Dave Cawley: The day before, Josh’d actually gone to church. Susan rewarded him by slaving through the afternoon staining wood for their long-overdue deck, doing a mountain of laundry and working on a crochet project Josh was eager to have done.
In fact through November, Josh attended church on three consecutive Sundays. It was the most time he’d spent at church in years. His sudden reappearance at church caught neighbors like Dax Guzman by surprise, especially because he showed up in a polo shirt and black leather jacket.
Dax Guzman: He’d go to church and he’d still be wearing that jacket. (Laughs) Still be wearing the jacket. Oh my goodness.
Dave Cawley: Latter-day Saint men typically dress for church in a suit or at least slacks, a white shirt and tie. Susan kept counting down to their wedding anniversary, hoping for a sustained change in her husband’s attitude. That single uttered “I love you” made her think maybe he’d really change.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from November 16, 2009 email): He’d pretty much have to beat me or cheat on me, or beat the children or something I think everything else can be worked out.
Dave Cawley: On the other hand, Josh continued being Josh. After blowing hundreds of dollars on a massage chair in September, then the carpet cleaner and gas torch in November, he started December by telling Susan to stop spending their money. Here’s the email Susan sent.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from December 1, 2009 email to Josh Powell): As far as not spending money, I guess assume our ‘Christmas presents’ to each other will be in the form of watching the joy on our kid’s faces as they open and play with the toys.
Dave Cawley: And Josh’s response?
Eric Openshaw (as Josh Powell from December 1, 2009 email to Susan Cox Powell): May as well be.
Dave Cawley: On the next episode of Cold.
Phone call: Hi Susan, it’s Jessica calling… I did have you scheduled with the boys today at 8:40. We haven’t seen or heard from you. So we were just concerned. Hope nothing tragic has happened.