Josh and Susan Powell’s first child, Charlie, was a bright and curious boy.
Even at the young age of five, Charlie had a fascination with the natural world. He collected bugs, memorized facts about reptiles and dinosaurs.
Tammy Forman taught Charlie in kindergarten at Carson Elementary School.
“He was really interested in rocks,” Tammy said. “He was kind of obsessed about worms and wanted to name every worm he’d ever run over with his bike, for some reason.”
Yet, there were also signs that Charlie Powell was haunted by the loss of his mother.
How to Kill a Bear
Josh Powell moved with his boys from West Valley City, Utah to the outskirts of Puyallup, Wash. in early January of 2010, just weeks following the disappearance of his wife, Susan Powell.
That summer, he enrolled Charlie in summer camp programs at the Mel Korum Family YMCA.
It didn’t take long before staff members learned who Charlie was and about the troubling circumstances of his home life. Their concern for his wellbeing grew throughout the summer, as he made a series of odd statements.
On Aug. 19, 2010, Charlie told a pair of counselors about the best way to kill a bear.
Just shy of a week later, on Aug. 24, 2010, Charlie explained during a campfire activity that it was important to kill Mormons.
Charlie wasn’t alone in raising eyebrows at the YMCA.
On Aug. 4, 2010, Josh Powell told one of the YMCA managers that he wanted to make sure his missing wife, Susan, would not be able to pick up their boys. The statement baffled the manager, who spoke to Cold but asked that she not be publicly identified.
West Valley City, Utah police, who were investigating Susan Powell’s disappearance as a likely murder, later collected statements from all of the YMCA staff members who had interacted with Josh or Charlie.
At the end of that same summer, Charlie enrolled in kindergarten at Carson Elementary School. His father, Josh, harangued the faculty to make sure they would not allow Susan Powell or her family anywhere near his son.
The command seemed strange to Charlie’s teacher, Tammy Forman.
“I was certain that Josh had killed Susan and it was really creepy to me that one of the first things he had said to me was ‘Their mom is not allowed to see them,’” Tammy said. “Once I found out who he was, I thought ‘If you killed her, why would you even be saying that? Why would that be an issue for you?’”
Tammy appreciated Charlie for his inquisitive mind and love of science. He didn’t seem to make friends easily, but neither did he seem depressed or mopey.
“Even in the classroom, he could be sitting by other kids but he was completely engrossed in whatever he was doing and not paying attention to the kids around him,” Tammy said.
One day during free time, Tammy noticed Charlie coloring with a crayon. She asked what he was drawing. Charlie told her it was a gun.
“He drew it kind of upside down so when I first saw it, it looked like people on a mountain or something,” Tammy said. “I right away felt very uncomfortable. Sent him off to the counselor. That poor counselor.”
Another day, Charlie overheard a classmate say that his mom was dead. Charlie marched over to the other boy’s table and shouted that his mom wasn’t dead, she was just away from her parents because they had abused her.
Tammy went to try and comfort Charlie after he had calmed down a bit.
“I asked if he was feeling better.’ He said ‘I’m feeling a little better because I’m really smart and I can figure out a way for liars like this student to go to jail for fourteen years,’” Tammy said.
West Valley City police gathered statements from Tammy, just as they had from the YMCA staff.
Puyallup Gem and Mineral Club
Josh Powell began taking both Charlie and his younger brother Braden to meetings of the Puyallup Gem and Mineral Club after encountering their booth at the Washington State Fair in September of 2010.
The club’s vice president, Nancy, noticed the new arrivals.
“Originally he was this nice guy. And he just seemed like a nice young man.”Nancy, on meeting Josh Powell
“I didn’t even know who he was. And I would look at the little boys and I would think, ‘Where’s your mommy?’” Nancy said. “Then I’d just put it like ‘Well maybe they’re separated and he’s got custody every other week and this is where they go because it’s something to do, rather than just stay home on a Friday.’”
It didn’t take long before another club member set Nancy straight.
“Then I went home and I watched the TV, or you know I pulled it up on the internet and there his face is,” Nancy said. “I literally cried because, first off, that’s where’s your mommy. That was answered.”
Nancy asked that her last name not be used in Cold, out of concern for her privacy.
“I got frightened,” Nancy said. “I sent an email out to the board members and I said, ‘Don’t ever leave me alone with him again.’”
Josh brought his boys to every meeting and several field trips, even though he was advised the trips were not safe for young children. He allowed the boys to use potentially dangerous tools, like rock tumblers, without supervision.
Nancy crafted new rules requiring young children to have an adult with them to take part in any hands-on activities.
“He went to the back where the kids would meet once a month — the kids had a special meeting spot — and I guess he came unglued with a gal that ran the kids group at the time,” Nancy said. “Just angry and saying ‘That’s not fair!’”
Nancy drafted a letter to Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services as a result of these and other experiences. She suggested Josh be required to take “extensive parenting classes.”
“I am doing this for Susan,” Nancy wrote.