(Sound of office building lobby)
Dave Cawley: You could walk into the lobby of the downtown Salt Lake City office building that houses the Intermountain West RCFL without ever realizing what goes on three floors above.
(Sound of elevator doors)
Dave Cawley: Step onto the elevator and ride it up to the third floor though and you’ll come a locked door at Suite 300. A piece of laminated paper taped to the door instructs you to push the button to the right and wait for a response. Be patient, it says. It may take some time to get an answer.
Getting into the RCFL requires going through a series of key-coded doors and a metal detector. The people who work there aren’t your typical office staff. They’re federal law enforcement.
Cheney Eng-Tow: So, we’re essentially a digital forensic task force. The FBI in the, in the early-to-mid-90s started seeing the need for doing digital forensics because obviously computers, phones were starting to become more prevalent. And so they started training agents to become these digital forensic examiners.
Dave Cawley: That’s Cheney Eng-Tow, FBI Supervisory Special Agent and head of the Intermountain West RCFL. He says there are currently 16 other RCFLs like this one spread out across the country. The FBI pays for them and staffs them, but the agents assigned to RCFLs work not just on federal cases. They also help with investigations from state-level agencies and even small town police departments.
Cheney Eng-Tow: So any law enforcement agency can bring us items. They just come here, they submit it to us. We have a group of certified, uh, forensic examiners. They’re certified by the FBI. They go through extensive training. It takes about two years to become a certified examiner.”
Dave Cawley: Pretty much all of the digital data seized by police during the Susan Powell investigation ended up here at some point, in this unassuming third floor office suite.
Cheney Eng-Tow: When you have a case of the, y’know, the magnitude of the Powell case, they really needed to look at every single document, right? And it’s just time-consuming.
Dave Cawley: Some of those documents remain locked away from view behind a wall encryption, even to this day. Still, clues uncovered at the RCFL did help steer the investigation in unexpected directions.
This is Cold, episode 12: Topaz Mountain. I’m Dave Cawley. Back after this.
Dave Cawley: During the first 10 days of the search for Susan, West Valley detectives served three search warrants at Josh and Susan’s home on Sarah Circle. They also served a warrant on his minivan. Each time, they came away with digital devices. By my count, that included at least seven computers, seven hard drives, five flash drives, three SD cards, two cell phones, a digital camera and a camcorder.
Here’s how the RCFL handled that kind of stuff: an investigator brought in a piece of evidence, a computer, cell phone, flash drive or whatever. The RCFL then paired up that outside investigator with one of its FBI-trained examiners.
Cheney Eng-Tow: We work with the case agent because while it’s their case, they bring it to us, we’re assisting them but we don’t know the full background of the case.
Dave Cawley: With a computer hard drive or flash drive, they made a bit-for-bit copy, called a mirror. Then, they used a hash, that’s an algorithm that provides something akin to a unique fingerprint for a device or file, to make sure the mirror exactly matched the original.
Cheney Eng-Tow: We never touch the original item, which is different than, y’know, if you have blood evidence. You, to do DNA on blood, you have to take some of that sample in order to get the DNA, umm, results. We don’t have to do that with digital evidence. We can make a verified copy, so to speak.
Dave Cawley: At the time, RCFLs used a number of different software utilities to extract information from the mirrors. In the Powell case, that usually meant a program called “Forensic Tool Kit” produced by the company AccessData. FTK, as it’s also known, examined every sector of the mirror, even the blank space.
Cheney Eng-Tow: Y’know, when you delete a file say in Windows, you’re not really deleting the file. You’re just telling the computer that that space that it took on the hard drive is now available to use again. So until that information is written over, those files could be retrieved.
Dave Cawley: And even when parts of the file were overwritten, these forensic software programs could sometimes reconstruct the rest by finding the remaining segments.
Cheney Eng-Tow: Typically when you save a file, it’s not saving it to just one sector on the hard drive. It’s gonna, it could save it in like 20 pieces. So, sometimes you could have several pieces overwritten but the majority of the other pieces remain. So you might still be able to retrieve the majority of the file.
Dave Cawley: In the end, FTK generated a report with hyperlinks, like the links you’d find on a website, that pointed to specific files. That way, the investigators could sift out anything that wasn’t not relevant to their case.
Cheney Eng-Tow: And it will actually break it out into types. Y’know like, it could be jpegs, word documents, emails, whatever types of files they are. And then after you’ve done that, you then can go through and review the files that are on there.
Dave Cawley: As you might imagine, this work required a lot time.
Cheney Eng-Tow: You can search terms with our software but in the end, that’s just going to find those terms. There may be stuff in the document that unless you look at the document, you’re not going to know whether it was really relevant or not.
Dave Cawley: The investigators had to locate the signal amidst the noise. The more noise and the quieter the signal, the harder that job became. West Valley’s records show it took months to review the computers and devices seized during those first 10 days. The most important stuff from an evidence point of view turned out to be two of Josh’s computers: an HP laptop and a Dell desktop.
As you heard in the last episode, the internet search history on the laptop was very telling. The RCFL found pictures that appeared to have been taken inside of a mine or a cave. There were images of spelunkers and news photos of a deadly caving accident that’d happened at a place in Utah called Nutty Putty Cave just a couple of weeks before Susan disappeared. Sheriff’s deputies had sealed the opening of the cave, leaving the body of a deceased man entombed inside.
The forensic software uncovered pornography on the laptop as well. It appeared to be relatively simple striptease stuff downloaded from commercial websites, nothing illegal. The images were tucked away in a temporary folder under Josh’s user account, not a likely place for anyone to look.
It’s not like Susan could have looked anyway. Here’s what she wrote in 2009, about the family’s February trip to Washington.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell from undated notes about 2009 vacation to Washington state): With Josh’s dad we drove to Port Angeles one day. … Anything involving Josh and/or his dad, were well documented via digital video and photos. … I’ve never really had access to all of our digital memorabilia.
Dave Cawley: Josh’s desktop computer was another story. The pornography found there was of an altogether different type. The RCFL found cartoon images showing characters from The Simpsons, Pokemon, The Last Airbender and other animated shows engaged in sexual acts. There were internet search strings relating to incest and to stories involving the rape of Harry Potter characters.
They discovered all of that relatively early on in the investigation. Ellis Maxwell told me West Valley tried to develop criminal charges against Josh on two of those images, which were morphed pictures of teen celebrities Emma Watson and Miley Cyrus.
Ellis Maxwell: Y’know they’re like “oh yeah, yeah, yeah we can do that” and we presented it to them and they’re like “oh, no.” So it’s like “ok, so you just basically wanted to see what we had.” And it was really frustrating.
Dave Cawley: Ellis didn’t want to tell me which prosecutors were involved, but files I’ve obtained show West Valley and the FBI presented their case to federal prosecutors. They declined to file charges because there was no way to definitively say who’d downloaded or created those pictures.
The RCFL also found internet search strings about erectile disfunction during heterosexual intercourse. One of the external hard drives contained male-on-male pornography.
The web history on Josh’s laptop included visits to news stories about the conviction of Amanda Knox. She’d been accused of killing her roommate Meredith Kercher in Italy two years earlier. An Italian jury had convicted her on December 5th, two days before Susan’s disappearance.
Dave Cawley: Josh Powell understood the vulnerabilities presented by his digital devices. As noted in prior episodes, he’d removed the SIM cards from both his and Susan’s cell phones before West Valley police could take them.
Cheney Eng-Tow: SIM cards these days don’t really contain a whole lot of data. In the old days they used to but not anymore.
Dave Cawley: At the RCFL, investigators also discovered that Josh had used a program called Eraser. It could securely delete files and not leave behind the traces that forensic software like FTK was designed to find. Even worse, they realized Josh had been using a program called TrueCrypt to encrypt some of his files and devices. One of the external hard drives seized from his basement office on December 17th of 2009, was completely inaccessible due to encryption.
Cheney Eng-Tow: Really what it comes down to is how long or sophisticated the password is. Because to break encryption typically you’re just doing so-called like brute force. You’re just trying combinations from dictionary, combinations of letters, alpha-numeric characters, and so the longer that password is, the longer it’s going to be before you can break it.
Dave Cawley: Josh did not use a weak password, at least not on the encrypted Western Digital hard drive taken from his basement. RCFL attempted to crack it, without any luck.
West Valley police asked the makers of the FTK toolkit software to take a stab at it as well. They even sent a mirror of that encrypted drive to the Secret Service — experts in cryptography — in June of 2010, but they fared no better than the RCFL. By May of 2011, West Valley police had determined the encryption could not be cracked.
They then turned to a private vendor, a Utah company called Decipher Forensics, and asked for their help. As of October of 2017, Decipher had not been able to get past the encryption.
Cluster computing, where a series of computers are linked together and set at a single task, can speed up the process of brute forcing a password. RCFLs use that technique sometimes, but even that doesn’t always do the job.
Cheney Eng-Tow: We’ve also had ones where we’ve been using our cluster to try and break these encryption and run it for months and it’s tried billions and billions of combinations and never broke it.
Dave Cawley: The search warrant that authorized the raid of Steve Powell’s home on August 25th of 2011 made specific note of the ongoing problem posed by Josh’s use of encryption. It said more than a terabyte of Josh’s data remained locked. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s one terabyte of unseen evidence in the Powell case.
Cheney Eng-Tow: But who knows. Is there something on there that is incriminating or not? You’ll never know until you actually get into it and see it.
Dave Cawley: And people encrypt files for any number of legitimate reasons: protecting bank records, personal data or private messages. Still, many people believe that cracking Josh’s encryption holds the last, best hope for finding Susan.
Cheney Eng-Tow: It’s good maybe to be optimistic like that, but in the end there could be nothing on it of value.
Dave Cawley: On the same September day that Pierce County deputies seized Josh’s back-up hard drive from his safe deposit box, a judge in Utah signed a warrant that gave West Valley police permission to start tearing into the mountain of digital data they’d taken out of Steve Powell’s home during that search warrant raid on August 25th.
In a decidedly analog twist, the detectives also took every single sticky note and scrap of paper they found in the house that might hold a password. They looked for strings of letters and numbers, or even names — kid’s names, pet names, birthdates — the things people often use as password material. And there’s a good reason for that. Strong, complex passwords are difficult to remember.
Cheney Eng-Tow: So what do people do? They have to write it down somewhere. Y’know, maybe they use some kind of password-keeping program. Maybe they just put it in a little notes in their phone. Whatever it happens to be. Y’know, some people still put it on a sticky note and put it under their keyboard, right?
Dave Cawley: The detectives realized none of the computers they’d found were from Steve Powell’s work, so they went back several days later to seize his work-issued laptop. It, like the backup hard drive Josh’d tucked away in a safe deposit box, ended up at the RCFL.
The forensic review of the computers and devices seized in Washington began in mid-September of 2011. It didn’t finish until the following summer. That timeline speaks to the huge task of sifting through thousands upon thousands of files.
Computer security experts have told me one way criminals try to hide their tracks is by creating a large number of irrelevant files.
Cheney Eng-Tow: It could be either they’ve created all this digital evidence or, or it’s just that they have, y’know, like 20 computers in their house and they just have so many items. Y’know, when you have that it, it makes it much more difficult because it’s much more, it’s more time consuming. While software does a lot of the processing and stuff, it still takes that human element to go through the things and determine what’s, what’s relevant and what’s not.
Dave Cawley: Josh was a digital packrat. He’d kept scanned copies of almost every piece of paperwork in his life. You might remember he even made scanning his receipts one of Susan’s household chores. Here’s what Josh told his sister Jennifer about scanning in a February, 1999 email.
Eric Openshaw (as Josh Powell from February 9, 2009 email to Jennifer Graves): I plan to make many copies of my data and spread them around with family and friends. A lot of stuff will be encrypted for privacy, but I may leave other things useable. That way people don’t feel like it is just a chore to save my CDs.
Dave Cawley: The files on his computers included letters he’d written to and received from friends all the way back to his teenage years. There were scanned copies of birthday, Christmas and Valentines Day cards, wedding announcements, programs from weekly church meetings, high school essays, job applications and resumes, long outdated lists of phone numbers: none of these having to do with Susan’s disappearance.
Eric Openshaw (as Josh Powell from February 9, 2009 email to Jennifer Graves): I am scanning everything right now. Once I am on top of it, it will be easy to keep it up to date. I find things easily now. And when I need to move, I don’t have to lug so much paperwork. It makes a nice journal too. Maybe my descendants (or myself) will want to see what my bank statements looked like back in 1996. … A lifetime of files could possibly fit on a few CDs, if you do it right.
Dave Cawley: While conducting research for this podcast, I requested police turn over a small selection of files the RCFL recovered from Josh’s devices. Their notes indicated the files included text and audio journals produced by Josh. I wanted to know what those journals said.
West Valley police provided me with a DVD that held more than 3,500 files. Many were duplicates and irrelevant to what I wanted to learn, but finding that out meant personally reviewing and cataloging each file. You’ve already heard the fruit of much of the result of that work in earlier episodes, like Josh’s old audio journals.
Josh Powell (from March 6, 2001 audio journal): Then I got here and Susan was sitting on the couch which is kind of unusual. She usually meets me at the door. She had a blanket on her. Turns out, she’d just waxed her legs. She was waiting for me to get home so she could show me, discretely of course. We cuddled a little bit and then I ate. I just had chips with salsa and English muffin. After a little while longer of just being together, Susan did a little cleaning and I brushed my teeth.
Dave Cawley: What you didn’t hear were the hours of pointless recordings Josh made of his own voicemails.
Josh Powell (from March 29, 2001 audio recording): Thursday, March 29th, 2001. These are messages from my home phone over the last couple days.
Voicemail (from March 29, 2001 audio recording): Monday, 9:29 p.m.
Steve Powell (from March 29, 2001 audio recording): Josh, there’s a payroll check here for you.
Voicemail (from March 29, 2001 audio recording): Thursday, 1:00 a.m.
Susan Cox (from March 29, 2001 audio recording): I love you.
Voicemail (from March 29, 2001 audio recording): Thursday, 1:03 a.m.
Susan Cox (from March 29, 2001 audio recording): I love you honey. Why aren’t you answering? Bye.
Dave Cawley: That’s just a small piece of what the detectives had to review. Although it took months, new leads did arise out of that work.
Dave Cawley: They found Steve Powell’s digital journal, where he referenced Josh and Michael talking about a place called “Rattlesnake Rock.” I mentioned that back in episode 7. Detectives immediately went to work, pouring over maps and looking for any place with “rattlesnake” in the name. At the start of October, they went out to examine mine shafts on the fringe of the West Desert, near a place called Rattlesnake Pass. But just like with every other search, they returned empty-handed.
A little less than a month after the launch of Operation Tsunami, and shortly before that search around Rattlesnake Pass, West Valley police kicked off their biggest desert search of all at Topaz Mountain.
Ellis Maxwell: It was a reference I believe that we found in his writings, referencing that area.
Dave Cawley: And of course, police had Susan’s pictures from the family’s May, 2009 overnighter on the Pony Express Trail and Charlie’s comments from December 8th of 2009 about his mom staying with the pretty crystals, a possible reference to the Dugway Geode Beds or Topaz Mountain.
Charlie Powell (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): My mom stayed where a crystals are.
Kim Waelty (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): Where what are?
Charlie Powell (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): Where a crystals are.
Kim Waelty (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): The crisals?
Charlie Powell (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): Yeah.
Kim Waelty (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): Crystals?
Charlie Powell (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): Yeah.
Kim Waelty (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): Is that what you’re saying? Crystals?
Charlie Powell (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): Yeah.
Kim Waelty (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): Your mom stayed where the crystals are?
Charlie Powell (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): Yeah.
Kim Waelty (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): Is that what you said?
Charlie Powell (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): Yeah.
Kim Waelty (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): Ok.
Dave Cawley: I mentioned this interview with Charlie in episode 7. At the time, I didn’t have access to it. That’s obviously changed.
Kim Waelty (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): So, so why did mommy stay?
Charlie Powell (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): ‘Cause there was flowers and crystals that was colorful.
Kim Waelty (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): That was what?
Charlie Powell (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): That was colorful.
Kim Waelty (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): Colorful?
Charlie Powell (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): Yeah.
Kim Waelty (from December 8, 2009 police interview recording): Yeah?
Dave Cawley: Police had scoured the area multiple times before, but on September 12th, 2011 they came back in full force, with aircraft, ATVs and horseback riders.
Mike Powell (from September 13, 2011 KSL TV archive): They’re also utilizing the assistance of some specialized dogs from the Carbon County Sheriff’s Office. And those are dogs that are specialized in searching for people.
Dave Cawley: The searchers quickly cleared the geode beds and moved down the eastern side of the Thomas Range. Lieutenant Bill Merritt met with reporters near Topaz Mountain.
Bill Merritt (from September 13, 2011 KSL TV archive): Just doing a general search of this particular area. We are, uh, just following up on a couple things on our task list that need to be done and need to be completed and we’re at that point where we can actually get to it now. And we want to make sure we take care of it before the weather turns bad.
Dave Cawley: There was one other, better reason he didn’t mention: information gleaned from the wiretap.
The original plan was to wrap up the operation by September 15th, right as the wiretap from Operation Tsunami was expiring.
Bill Merritt (from September 13, 2011 KSL TV archive): There’s a possibility that we might find something out here. Now we’re not coming out here with an absolute saying that we will. Uh, but we’re just hoping, we’re fairly confident that uh, there may be something of value out here. Uh, we don’t know for sure. We may leave empty-handed.
Dave Cawley: But on September 14th, the dogs caught a scent near a road on the eastern flank of Topaz Mountain. Several of them all gave the same indication, at the same spot. A pile of rocks. It appeared to possibly be a gravesite.
Bill Merritt (from September 14, 2011 KSL TV archive): We have confirmed with several of the dogs who have indicated positively several times that it is human remains.
Dave Cawley: Back in West Valley, detectives scrambled to get a 30-day extension for the wiretap from a judge. Meantime, at Topaz Mountain, police hey started to dig. The work crept along, with detectives shoveling dirt into buckets. Forensic specialists sifted each bucket of dirt through a mesh screen, looking for any bone fragments or tissue. Each night, an officer kept a solitary vigil over the site, beneath a clear desert sky filled with stars.
Chuck Cox bought a one-way plane ticket from Seattle to Salt Lake City, then drove the bumpy dirt road out to the site.
Chuck Cox (from September 15, 2011 KSL TV archive): Yeah I’d like to, I’d like to know they found something. Uh, I haven’t heard that yet. So, they haven’t called me or anything.
Dave Cawley: It didn’t take long for police to hedge their bets. They soon downgraded their assessment to 50-50 that they’d found Susan’s gravesite. The dogs though continued to indicate on the growing pit.
Bill Merritt (from September 15, 2011 KSL TV archive): They are still indicating on human decomposition but there has been nothing that has been found thus far.
Dave Cawley: A reporter in Washington confronted Josh with word that police had found human remains at Topaz Mountain. He offered a simple “no comment.” On the wiretap, he again, seemed unconcerned.
Police allowed Chuck Cox to see the work first-hand.
Chuck Cox (from September 16, 2011 KSL TV archive): I was able to see where they’re uh, excavating and uh, that work’s going on. … They explained to me how they’re processing the scene and it’s, it, it’s very logical and it’s what needs to be done so I have every confidence in what they’re doing.
Dave Cawley: Mid-September became late September.
Chuck Cox (from September 16, 2011 KSL TV archive): I don’t know how long it will take. And I just feel that, y’know, this is a, a worthwhile investigation and a good place to be looking and I need to stay ’til we find out, y’know, what we have found here.
Dave Cawley: Finally, the excavation unearthed a number of small pieces of charred wood. No body, no bones. Police removed those cinders and when they did, the dogs lost interest. Detectives supposed someone might have burned bloody clothing or evidence on that wood. They sent the fragments in for forensic testing, but those tests came back negative. There was no DNA.
Ellis Maxwell: Y’know, we come across something that we think is gonna be beneficial for the case, it’s our big break and at the end of the day it ends up being nothing, just another swift kick in the gut.
Dave Cawley: A kick in the gut not just for police, but for Susan’s family. To this day, Chuck Cox wonders what to make of it.
Chuck Cox: I think that pit had something to do with Susan but I don’t know what if, if anything. Y’know, I, maybe it’s just me imagining it.
Dave Cawley: While at Topaz Mountain, Chuck spotted a small rock among the excavated debris. It looked different than the others, so he picked it up.
Chuck Cox: Maybe she was there at one time or they had been there at one time or something. I don’t know. So, I brought it back.
Dave Cawley: Chuck still has stone today. It sits on a small shelf in his home.
Chuck Cox: When I flew home with this in my suitcase, I just felt like, one time, this is one time I come down here and I’m taking home something that might have something to do with Susan. Versus just “yeah, we didn’t find her, go back home.”
Dave Cawley: Back to the aftermath of the Washington warrant. The West Valley team also had to review Steve Powell’s VHS and Hi-8 video tape collection. Detectives had to sit and watch every single minute of video.
Ellis Maxwell: My peers that had to view the material, read the material, uh, bless their hearts ‘cause, umm, y’know, he was, he was a filthy man.
Dave Cawley: The tapes ran the gamut, from boring home movie footage of family get-togethers and vacations…
Steve Powell (from 2003 home video recording): Yeah but I’ll let you, here let me just get a picture of you two. But let me get it—
Josh Powell (from 2003 home video recording): It don’t matter (unintelligible).
Steve Powell (from 2003 home video recording): —in the sun.
Susan Cox Powell (from 2003 home video recording): (Yawns) So someone just felt the need to decorate their yard?
Dave Cawley: …to voyeur clips where Steve filmed women and girls in public without their knowledge.
Steve Powell (from undated home video recording): (Breathing heavily)
Gary Sanders: He loved video taping women. Uh, he’d go to the mall and just video tape ‘em and then loop ‘em. And uh, he loved video taping himself masturbating and what he masturbated to.
Dave Cawley: Pierce County Detective Sergeant Gary Sanders spent eight years working special assault, which included child abuse and sex crimes. He told me Steve Powell’s fetishes were among the most bizarre he’d ever observed. And of course, no one figured more prominently in Steve’s fantasies than Susan.
Steve Powell (from February 1, 2003 home video recording): Anyway, just wanted to get you in that dress. That’s uh—
Susan Cox Powell (from February 1, 2003 home video recording): Yep, yep.
Steve Powell (from February 1, 2003 home video recording): —sitting at your desk.
Susan Cox Powell (from February 1, 2003 home video recording): And they always want our hair up.
Steve Powell (from February 1, 2003 home video recording): Uh huh.
Susan Cox Powell (from February 1, 2003 home video recording): So at dinner time…
Gary Sanders: In the videos that he did, he would, y’know, video, take videos of her and play ‘em on one screen and then masturbate and video tape himself masturbating to that. So, I mean, just stuff normal people don’t do. … And he’d loop a lot. He did a lot of looping where he’d play it over and over again just for his own pleasure and stuff. So he, yeah, he had some fetishes. Some crazy weird fetishes.
Dave Cawley: The detectives who did this work endured a lot. They also found something completely unexpected: images of two pre-pubescent children. Girls who’d been filmed while naked or partially clothed. The images were screen grabs from videos that had been saved onto a CD. They were contained in a folder titled “neighbors,” which held subfolders with the titles like “taking bath-1,” “taking bath-2” and “open window in back house.” They’d been captured on various days and times, as the detectives could see based on changes in lighting and what the girls were wearing.
Detectives guessed their ages as somewhere between seven and 12. They would later come to learn the girls had actually been eight and 10 at the time of the filming. It soon became clear that Steve’d shot the video with his camcorder from his bedroom on the 2nd floor of his house, looking through the open bathroom window of the house next door.
Gary Sanders: Luckily he never, or at least we don’t know of any times he actually followed through on some of his desires with young girls and stuff like that.
Dave Cawley: West Valley detectives cataloged every video that appeared to hold evidence of voyeurism or child porn, setting them aside to later provide to Pierce County. The West Valley team also started to review Susan’s journals, the ones Josh and Steve had planned to post online. The RCFL flagged hundreds of scanned pages, along with annotations and spreadsheet indexes, that Josh and his dad had created. There were drafts for future posts to Josh’s susanpowell.org website.
Anne Bremner: They basically were trying to like, just malign her.
Dave Cawley: Chuck and Judy Cox had retained high-profile Seattle attorney Anne Bremner and filed a civil lawsuit against Josh, Steve, Michael and Alina Powell the day after the search warrant raid. The cause of action was invasion of privacy.
Anne Bremner: Y’know, as a prosecutor, you would use that as evidence of guilt, right? Y’know, concocting these stories and maligning the victim. I mean, what person in their right mind maligns their wife, y’know, who’s missing, except for Josh Powell.
Dave Cawley: The Pierce County Superior Court blocked any further publication of Susan’s journals while the case was ongoing.
Anne Bremner: We got a restraining order against him too on the journals. (Laughs) Went and got a TRO.
Dave Cawley: Josh struck back. In a September 21st, 2011 court declaration, he wrote Susan was emotionally fragile because of a “troubled childhood” and said publishing her journals was the best way to understand her state of mind.
Eric Openshaw (as Josh Powell from September 21, 2011 declaration): By denying this reality, I believe the Coxes are actually hindering a legitimate search effort and harming Susan’s emotional state since being misunderstood and manipulated by her parents are at the core of her emotional issues.
Dave Cawley: As Josh fought in court over Susan’s journals, West Valley police were reading Steve’s journals. In the very earliest entry he wrote not about Susan, but instead a woman named Lydia. Steve had briefly interacted with her at a work conference and daydreamed about what his life would be like if they were to marry. If Lydia’s name sounds familiar, it’s probably because Steve wrote songs about her.
Then, there was a huge gap. Time jumped forward to January of 2003, where Susan made her first appearance.
Ken Fall (as Steve Powell from January 5, 2003 journal entry): In many ways my life has seemed out of control. My biggest problem as well as my greatest pleasure lies in the fact that for over a year I have been madly in love with my daughter-in-law, Susan.
Dave Cawley: Most of the rest of the more than two-thousand pages contained in those journals dealt with Susan in one way or another. He wrote openly about many of the disturbing behaviors we’ve already talked about.
Ken Fall (as Steve Powell from May 7, 2003 journal entry): I imagine my obsession with her, my accumulation of her pictures and underwear, will seem nasty or perverted to some future reader, perhaps a descendent of mine and of Susan’s, but I am not inclined to hide the depth and power of the desire I feel for her.
Dave Cawley: He went so far as to describe in detail how he’d stalked Susan.
Ken Fall (as Steve Powell from June 25, 2003 journal entry): Susan got off work at 9:00, and I was waiting, “concealed” near her car. When she was about 100 yards away I started filming, and got her walking all that way, with closeups of her legs, etc. … I was kind of making a pretense of hiding, but I knew she knew I was stalking her, and I knew she liked it.
Dave Cawley: Steve expressed agony when Susan moved away to Utah. He showed anger that she could lead him on and then just abandon him. Always in his mind, it seemed, Susan was the instigator. She, he felt, was responsible for his thoughts and actions.
Steve often reflected in his journals about the poor state of Josh and Susan’s relationship.
Ken Fall (as Steve Powell from December 12, 2003 journal entry): Theirs is truly a marriage made in hell. It’s hard to believe that two people could be so nasty to each other before they have even celebrated their third anniversary … In public they look like the loveliest couple, but in private they have no respect for each other, and little love.
Dave Cawley: Steve rooted for an all-out collapse and divorce, on the assumption it would open a path for he and Susan to live together.
Ken Fall (as Steve Powell from October 2, 2003 journal entry): At best, Josh is indifferent about her. At worst, he dislikes her intensely, but tolerates her because she is a good piece of ass, and she keeps money coming in.
Dave Cawley: I’ve read all of these journal entries and a reader comes away from Steve’s journals with the impression that he didn’t much care for Josh. Privately, Steve mocked his son’s inability to hold a job and complained about the way Josh took advantage of people, including his own siblings, to achieve his financial ends. Steve also recognized, at least in some form, that his thoughts and feelings were abnormal. He even said they were akin to alcoholism.
Ken Fall (as Steve Powell from May 18, 2005 journal entry): I feel like I am letting my entire life slide, my bills, my job, my personal life. I am not responding to customers in a timely way, I am getting phone calls about bills I have not paid, I have not done my taxes for two years.
Dave Cawley: Steve’s pursuit of Susan had derailed every ambition in his life, with the exception of his music. He spent thousands of dollars on a keyboard and recording console, in the belief that his songs held the power to win Susan’s heart. He fancied himself a maestro.
(Sound of Steve Powell’s music)
Steve Powell (from song recording): The sun didn’t shine in Seattle this morning. What did you expect? Hey, what’s new? But I saw a new light…
Ken Fall (as Steve Powell from April 24, 2005 journal entry): I think my “Light of Seattle” has a good chance of being in the common repertory, along with “New York, New York” and “Chicago is My Kind of Town,” as the song about Seattle.
Steve Powell (from song recording): The light of Seattle is you.
Dave Cawley: The entries grew increasingly bizarre as detectives continued to read. Steve spelled out his belief that he and Susan shared a psychic link. In his mind, this meant they became aroused at the same time, regardless of where the other person was. His body, he explained, could be poisoned by a build-up of testosterone if he didn’t act out his sexual fantasies.
Some of the most deeply disturbing journal entries though dealt not with Susan, but with Steve’s oldest child, Jennifer. He made veiled references to an “experience” he’d had with Jennifer when she was a young girl. He wondered if Susan gave her own father similar “thrills.”
In her book “A Light in Dark Places,” Jennifer shared a story about Steve exposing her to pornography when she was still a child. He’d taken Jennifer on a road trip and punched up the video while they were alone together in a motel room.
Jennifer told me her co-writer, Emily Clawson, for helping her work through those traumatic memories.
Jennifer Graves: And just face those, uh, situations that I’d had in childhood, honestly, that I had not, I’d just walked away from. I tried to just block them out. But honestly, if you’re just trying to block ‘em out, they’re still there. You gotta go through it and work through it and face it eventually. And that was, that was one of the things that was so good about writing the book was for me personally to be able to go through that and face those things. And that was very, it was very therapeutic.
Dave Cawley: As Josh and Susan’s marriage bottomed out in 2008, Steve cheered on the failure.
Ken Fall (as Steve Powell from June 26, 2008 journal entry): It is painful to me to be so in love with her and to want her so badly while she says she is committed to a marriage to someone who despises her. … I am also vain enough to think that she stays with Josh partly because she is in love with me.
Dave Cawley: Yet, he also worried about what Josh might do.
Ken Fall (as Steve Powell from July 1, 2008 journal entry): Josh hates her so much he even wishes she were dead. He even talks about it occasionally, fantasizing that she might have an accident. That worries me too, since couples who die in murder-suicide are not that rare.
Dave Cawley: After Susan’s disappearance at the end of 2009, Steve’s journal entries shifted to focus on his theory that she “absconded” — his word — with a secret lover. His tone became angry, especially during rants against the media, the church and the Cox family.
Ken Fall (as Steve Powell from August 4, 2011 journal entry): Chuck Cox comes across as a violent man in Susan’s journals. He may have seemed calm, but that is the psychotic-calm act all Mormons put on.
Dave Cawley: That last bit came from an entry on August 4th of 2011, just three weeks before police raided Steve’s home and seized the journals.
Dave Cawley: Steve Powell had told reporters much of what police had taken from his house could be considered “inappropriate” and “embarrassing.” Steve told the news crews he wished that he’d moved those embarrassing things out of the house, so they wouldn’t have been taken. But he didn’t say he was sorry for creating them.
Ellis Maxwell hand-delivered Steve’s voyeur videos to Gary Sanders in Tacoma on September 18th.
Ellis Maxwell: Y’know, we delivered all that evidence up there. I did it in person with some of my peers and supervisors. Sat with the attorneys, went over everything and the detectives up there.
Dave Cawley: In all, West Valley handed over 7 VHS tapes, 14 Hi-8 cassettes and 5 CDs to Pierce County. West Valley’s team had identified more than 1,600 individual images of those young neighbor girls.
Gary Sanders: Luckily they were really good to us and they’d kind of categorized what they thought was important and once we started looking through it, that’s where we started developing probable cause for Steven’s arrest on the, y’know, photographing the neighbors and creating the child pornography.
Dave Cawley: Metadata on the files showed that they’d been created with a Sony Handycam camcorder, model number DCR-TRV 460. That’s the same model as the camcorder detectives had found in Steve’s bedroom the day of the search warrant raid.
The metadata also revealed dates. At least some of the images had been created on April 8th of 2007. The investigators figured out who’d been living in the house next door at the time. Detective Gary Sanders made contact with the mother of the girls. She’d been Steve’s neighbor between June of 2006 and August of 2007.
Gary showed the woman some of the images. She confirmed the girls in the pictures were her daughters. Gary explained how he’d come into possession of the pictures. Then, the mother of the girls started to cry. She was shocked, never having thought that someone would have been peeping on her daughters through her second floor bathroom window.
On September 22nd of 2011, prosecutors filed criminal charges of felony voyeurism and possession of depictions of a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct. Gary knew Steve was not home, so he went to the neighborhood and waited.
Gary Sanders: Had some, somebody sitting on surveillance near the house, saw him come home so as he comes home, uh, we swoop in, kind of arrive at the same time as he’s getting out of his vehicle and just walked up to him and say “hey Steven” — and he knew who I was, he recognized me — and I said “you’re under arrest for the child pornography and the voyeurism.” Put him in handcuffs.
Dave Cawley: Two of the Powell children, John and Alina, came out of the house to see what was happening. Gary and Ellis told them that not only were they there to arrest Steve, they were also taking Charlie and Braden.
Ellis Maxwell: The State of Washington made a decision that they were gonna take the kids into protective custody because they were living in Steve’s home.
Dave Cawley: The investigators weren’t sure if Josh had helped his dad make the still frame images of the neighbor girls. They also knew that Josh’s brother John had at least once greeted police at the door while wearing a diaper and he was rumored to walk around the house naked. It was not a place for young kids.
It was late, around 9:30 at night, and both boys were in their pajamas. They saw detective Theresa Berg, who they’d interacted with multiple times in the past.
Gary Sanders: The boys ran to her and she’s like “hey you want to go?” And they’re like “yep, let’s go.”
Dave Cawley: They grabbed the boys some shoes, then Theresa took them over to a social worker, who noted both Charlie and Braden seemed bright, energetic and unconcerned. The social worker drove them away, taking care not to be followed, for a secret rendezvous with a foster family. As far as the boys knew, they were just heading off for a sleepover.
Ellis Maxwell: That’s what was nice for me is to see them being taken away, but then I, I felt bad for them too because they don’t understand and they’re young and they’re confused and they don’t understand what’s going on.
Dave Cawley: But where was Josh?
Gary Sanders: Josh wouldn’t come out. If something like that’s going on, you’ve got police outside, your dad’s getting arrested, people are taking your kids and stuff like that, you’d think you’d come out. But, and he knew we were there. And so finally I said, I told Josh, I said “John, go get your brother. Tell him to get out here.” And so he went inside, into the house and Josh came walking out and was like “what’s going on?” And I’m 100%, or 99.999% sure that he thought he was getting arrested that night too, for the murder and that’s why he didn’t come out.
Dave Cawley: Gary told Josh he wasn’t there to arrest him, only Steve, but that child protective services were taking the boys.
Gary Sanders: The weird thing was, he never put up a fight. Never, y’know, never asked to hug the kids, kiss the kids, y’know, stuff like that. And it goes back to that whole non-emotional, non-loving relationship, y’know? You, you come to my house, try to take my kids, there’s going to be a fight. Umm, but, and he was just “oh, ok.” And we drove off, y’know.
Dave Cawley: Deputies took Steve to Pierce County’s South Hill Precinct for questioning.
Gary Sanders: Read him Miranda and sat him down in an interview room and he played the “I’m too stupid to understand what Miranda is” and “I don’t know if I need an attorney” and he just played games.
Dave Cawley: Gary already had a pretty good idea of how Steve had made the images of the young neighbor girls, but asked him to explain it.
Gary Sanders: We afforded him an opportunity to tell his side of the story and explain to us why all those things were in there but he didn’t want to do that.
Dave Cawley: Ellis was there, too, and took the opportunity to press Steve for information about Susan. He wanted to know about conversations Steve and Josh had had in the wake of her disappearance.
Ellis Maxwell: Even at that time I didn’t feel that, y’know, Steve was involved. Umm, and obviously my primary focus is Josh and trying to locate some sort of evidence to give us direction as to where Susan, uh, was.
Dave Cawley: But Steve, who for years hadn’t been able to stop thinking, writing or singing about Susan, refused to say a word.
Looking back now, the night of Steve’s arrest seemed like a perfect opportunity for West Valley City police to have also arrested Josh. As you heard Gary describe, it seemed as though even Josh expected it. So why didn’t they? Ellis told me they were close, but in his mind, but there were still too many loose ends.
Ellis Maxwell: We’re coming to the end and, y’know, we’re not at a point where we could screen charges quite yet because if they were to file ‘em, there was still quite a bit of work to do so that in the event that I’m up on the stand and a defense attorney’s like “why didn’t you do this, why didn’t you do that?” Umm, I want to be able to answer.
Dave Cawley: Removing the kids had taken them out harms way and also put fresh pressure on Josh.
Ellis Maxwell: It left Josh kind of in a vulnerable state and it allowed us to kind of, umm, I guess press him a little bit more to see, y’know, if he would disclose anything or revisit where he disposed Susan.
Dave Cawley: As the Pierce County Sheriff’s chief liaison on the Powell investigation, Gary Sanders had almost as much information about the case as anyone outside of the West Valley City major crimes unit.
Gary Sanders: There was only one suspect … just the evidence, his story, y’know, and just totality of circumstances led the spotlight right on one guy.
Dave Cawley: Gary told me though the decision of whether or not to arrest Josh that night wasn’t his to make.
Gary Sanders: We respected that. Y’know, I understand, y’know, it’s easy to Monday-morning quarterback. But you had to think about their thought process and their prosecutor, if they didn’t want to do a no-body prosecution. But sometimes you’ve just got to pull the trigger and do it.
Dave Cawley: Susan’s dad, Chuck Cox, called his attorney Anne Bremner as soon as he found out about Steve’s arrest.
Anne Bremner: He kept telling me that Steve had been arrested and I kept thinking he said Josh. I kept thinking, because he was not on my radar. Y’know it was like “Josh, no, it’s Steve.”
Dave Cawley: Both she and Chuck saw it as a major miss by the police.
Chuck Cox: There was enough circumstantial evidence to say stuff happened right there that night in that place that with or without a body, to say that he got rid of his wife. And I think they could have made that case but the uh, prosecuting attorney didn’t want to do it. But I, I do think with him in jail, looking at that, he would have, without being to talk to his daddy or plan some elaborate thing, he would’ve said “ok, I dumped her here or I did this.” Whatever he did, I think we would have known. But uh, they didn’t do it.
Dave Cawley: Not arresting Josh that night would come to have catastrophic consequences.
Dave Cawley: The next day — Friday, September 23rd of 2011 — proved to be a very busy one for Josh. He had two court hearings in the morning, over his feud with the Coxes and the matter of publishing Susan’s journals. A horde of reporters chased him through the hallways.
Vicki Hogan (from September 23, 2011 KSL TV archive): Number seven on our docket, Cox versus Powell.
Bruce Lindsay (from September 23, 2011 KSL TV archive): Judge Vicki Hogan presided over the diary case this morning in Pierce County, Washington. Authorities for the Powell family argued for the release of Susan’s childhood writings. Her husband Josh’s reasoning, according to a filed statement, helping her be understood is the best means of bringing her home.
Chuck Cox (from September 23, 2011 KSL TV archive): We do not believe that they have the right to publish her private diaries. We don’t believe they’ll, they prove anything, uh, about her state of mind as a 28-year-old woman.
Bruce Lindsay (from September 23, 2011 KSL TV archive): Judge Hogan ruled with the Cox family and said Susan’s journals cannot be released, there is no legitimate public interest and they are not a public record.
Dave Cawley: Judge Hogan even went so far as to say the publication of Susan’s journals was “highly offensive to a reasonable person.” The injunction demanded the removal of the already published journal entries from the susanpowell.org website. It also prohibited any new entries from going online and blocked Josh and his family from even talking about the contents of Susan’s journals.
Steve made an initial court appearance that day as well, pleading not guilty to all 15 counts. He and Josh talked through things over the phone, as Steve sat in the Pierce County Jail.
Gary Sanders: There’s one phone call I think where Josh actually says “dad, this is a recorded line,” y’know, which it tells you when you make phone calls and kind of puts him in check, kinda, which was weird.
Dave Cawley: Josh told Steve to be careful about what he said and to sit tight, because the family would get him a good lawyer.
After the hearings, Susan’s sister Denise spoke through tears, begging Josh and Steve to come clean.
Denise Cox (from September 23, 2011 KSL TV archive): It’s hard and I just want this all to come to a close and whether she’s alive or dead just let me know where she’s at so our family can get over this. … I just want him to talk to the police and I want Josh to talk to the police and just, if you’re so innocent as you claim, why aren’t you talking? And I, I know she didn’t run away with somebody. That’s just unbelievable that they’re continuing to say that. Those boys are her life.
Dave Cawley: Chuck Cox told reporters that in spite of Steve’s arrest, they were no closer to knowing what had actually happened to Susan.
Chuck Cox (from September 23, 2011 KSL TV archive): We still don’t know where she is. So we’re still concerned about that. But we’re also very concerned for the, the welfare of our grandchildren and we want what’s best for them.
Reporter (from September 23, 2011 KSL TV archive): Will you be able, will you be able to get custody of the grandchildren or at least take care of them, or are they in the hands of the state?
Chuck Cox (from September 23, 2011 KSL TV archive): We’re doing everything legally that we can.
Dave Cawley: Josh still had some fight left in him. That afternoon, he headed to the Washington State Children’s Administration office in Tacoma for an FTDM, or “family team decision-making” meeting. It was his chance to explain where he wanted his sons to end up in the immediate future.
Tears gathered in the corners of Josh’s eyes as he said his boys needed to be protected from the Coxes. Their home was the last place he wanted his sons to live. In paperwork filed along with that meeting, Josh listed his religion as “not Mormon.”
That same afternoon, social worker Rocky Stephenson sat down with Josh for an interview. They chatted about Josh’s parenting style and how he disciplined the kids before getting to the matter of Steve’s arrest. Josh said he was only somewhat aware of the charges and that he hadn’t watched the TV news coverage because he found it “depressing.”
Stephenson told Josh police had found voyeur videos and images showing prepubescent girls in the nude in Steve’s bedroom. Josh said he didn’t know anything about that and had never seen his dad recording kids. He did admit though Steve was obsessed with Susan. Josh said he’d erupted at his dad after the search warrant raid in August. Steve had come clean to his son about what he’d written in his journals and apologized. Josh didn’t let it go. He said they’d fought for two straight weeks, with Josh telling Steve he might have to move out of his own home, in order to protect Charlie and Braden.
Josh even told Stephenson about the time in 2003 when Steve had confessed his love to Susan. He explained Susan had been partly responsible. He said she’d invited Steve to feel her freshly shaved legs, after all, but that was all in the past. Josh wasn’t going to let what’d happened so long ago get in the way of his love for his father.
Josh’s willingness to forgive his father had long bothered Susan. In an email on March 3rd of 2004, she wrote about the negative emotions she felt following Steve’s love confession the prior summer.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Cox Powell from March 3, 2004 email): What level of forgiveness do I need to attain for my own spiritual health? I avoid any interaction and any time he is discussed it is definitely with negative emotion and I really see no reason for my husband to continue a relationship let alone any interaction with him.
Dave Cawley: Five years later, in August of 2009, she wrote another email in which she noted how being around Steve had changed Josh.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Cox Powell from August 24, 2009 email): Which is crazy because he’s rationalized now that that whole issue was my fault! Back then he was willing to almost cut his dad out of his life — and wasn’t expecting me to ever have to interact with him again, but once we moved away and the kids came, that all changed. Now I feel like his dad and brothers are out to sabotage our marriage.
Dave Cawley: Stephenson authored a report that described Josh as stoic and cautious. It seemed obvious from his answers that he was downplaying Steve’s crimes and intended to defend his father. That was a cause for concern.
Charlie and Braden remained with the foster family through the weekend. The foster parents were impressed with Charlie’s inquisitive mind, calling him gifted. He used words most six-year-olds wouldn’t know, like noticeable and hilarious. Braden often replied to anything Charlie said by saying “me too!”
Charlie’s vocabulary wasn’t the only thing that surprised the foster family. He talked about about hating Jesus and about Mormons trying to steal him. Charlie said his dad had told him Jesus was bad. Braden said the police were bad too, but not as bad as God. At that Charlie interjected, telling his younger brother that their foster family attended a good church. They were not Mormon.
On Monday, the boys went through physical exams, which showed they were both generally in good health. There were no clear indications that either had been the victims of sexual abuse. Rocky Stephenson, the social worker, attempted to interview both Charlie and Braden but neither was willing to talk about their family life.
That afternoon, the Children’s Administration allowed Josh to have supervised visitation with his sons. Afterward, he cornered Stephenson with a pile of news clippings, fliers and court declarations. He sniffled and became teary-eyed as he described how the Coxes had branded him as a murderer.
He told Stephenson that he’d never hurt Susan, not intentionally. Josh wanted the state to intervene on his behalf in court, arguing against the Cox’s request for custody of the boys. He didn’t get that wish. The next day, Washington placed the boys with Chuck and Judy Cox. When they arrived at the Cox home, the boys ran ahead of the social worker and were greeted at the door by their grandpa, the one who wasn’t in jail.
To Chuck, it seemed obvious that Josh had already tried to turn the boys against him.
Chuck Cox: When we first got here, the, the boys came in, say “are they going to abuse us now?” So where’d they get that from, y’know? And obviously the social workers knew that, ok, somebody’s told them that and so they had, they had tried. But we could also say “no, your mother didn’t leave you. She loves you.” And they knew that.
Dave Cawley: Braden went into the living room where he saw a picture of Susan. He pointed it out, saying that was his mom and she was a good mom.
In an email a little over a year before she died, Susan wrote about her love for the boys.
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Cox Powell from August 19, 2008 email): I try so hard to at least about 10 times a day tell my children “I love you, you are my favorite Charlie, I’m so lucky to have you! You are a special boy, you are so smart…” All this for a three-year-old old. And now he at random says “mommy, I love you.” Which is probably the only reason I’ve been able to survive with no affection from my husband for so long.
Dave Cawley: Legally speaking, the boys were still in protective custody. That status was only temporary and would expire, unless the Children’s Administration could make a compelling case to keep the kids out of the Powell home.
Josh, the Coxes and the state social workers all met before a judge early on the morning of Tuesday, September 28. Josh said he wanted the boys back. Failing that, he wanted them back in a foster home, anywhere but with his in-laws. The judge disagreed on both counts, saying Charlie and Braden would stay with the Coxes. Josh said he didn’t want his sons attending any religious services, so the court allowed Josh a three-hour supervised visitation window on Sundays while the Coxes were at church.
This would have broken Susan’s heart. In a letter to Josh a year before she disappeared, she wrote:
Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Cox Powell from November, 2008 letter to Josh Powell): I want my husband back, want to know that I can talk openly about religion in my own home without worry that my husband, their father, is going to make me feel about two inches tall for believing that there is a higher being, a bigger purpose. … If you don’t want to believe anymore, that is your choice. But you don’t need to bring others down with you.
Dave Cawley: On the next episode of Cold.
Dave Lindell: They said “well, we’re gonna load that car up and take it back to Utah.” And I’m like “what?” So I called our police chief and says “so can they just take this car?” And he says “yep they, yeah, you’ve gotta give ‘em that car.”