Ep 11: Operation Tsunami

Steve Powell’s public flaunting of his missing daughter-in-law Susan Powell’s childhood journals proved to be a major miscalculation on his part.

He went on NBC’s “Today” show on July 14, 2011 to share his theory that Susan had “absconded” to Brazil with another missing person, Steven Koecher. He showed the TV camera crew the journals, which he and his son Josh Powell had scanned, transcribed, annotated and started to publish online.

Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
This Aug. 25, 2011 image shows one of several volumes of Susan Powell’s childhood journals which police seized during a search warrant raid at the home of Steve Powell. Photo: West Valley City, Utah police

“Them coming forth with the media and letting the media into Steven Powell’s home was great,” retired West Valley City, Utah police detective Ellis Maxwell said in an interview for the Cold podcast. “I was like ‘right on’ because that’s what I needed to get inside Steve’s house.”

A Multi-State Operation

Ellis Maxwell had developed a close relationship with Pierce County Sheriff’s detective Gary Sanders in the year-and-a-half since Josh Powell had relocated from West Valley City, Utah to his father’s home in South Hill, Wash. The two detectives had collaborated on several prior operations connected to the disappearance of Josh’s wife, Susan, on Dec. 7, 2009.

“West Valley was calling the shots,” Gary said. “We were just the auxiliary team, I guess you might call it, assisting them.”

However, in August of 2011, Ellis provided Gary with the even more inside information about his investigation.

“Yes, we wanted Josh to see this on the news and see what he had to say about it.”

Ellis Maxwell

Police planning documents obtained exclusively by Cold revealed West Valley police had conceived of a major multi-state operation they code-named “Operation Tsunami.” It hinged on the use of a court-authorized wiretap to monitor phone calls made and received on three phone lines: Josh Powell’s mobile, Steve Powell’s mobile and the landline at the Powell family home.

Ellis Maxwell declined to discuss specifics of the Operation Tsunami plan when interviewed for Cold, citing a need to protect police tactics.

[Editor’s note: Cold independently gained access to many of the wiretap records. Details of what they contained are included in the bonus episode Justice Delayed.]

West Valley Police press conference Ely Nevada Susan Powell
West Valley Police Sgt. Mike Powell leaves a press conference about new developments in the Susan Powell case in Ely, Nev. on Aug. 19, 2011. Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Operation Tsunami was to include a series of coordinated events that would prompt discussion between Josh and Steve Powell, including a public search of abandoned mines near Ely, Nev. and a “Remember Me” honk-and-wave event in the area of Puyallup, Wash.

West Valley needed Pierce County’s assistance with perhaps the biggest piece of the Operation Tsunami plan: a search warrant raid at the Powell house.

Probable Cause for Operation Tsunami

Gary’s search warrant affidavit spelled out why police believed Josh Powell had committed the crimes of murder, kidnapping and obstruction. It explained that Susan’s journals held potential evidence of those crimes, as they likely included her first-hand perspective on her relationship with Josh.

West Valley police had asked Josh and Steve Powell to voluntarily turn over the journals in November of 2010, a request which the father and son had refused.

Operation Tsunami probable cause search warrant Susan Cox Powell wiretap
Pierce County Sheriff’s detective Gary Sanders authored this affidavit supporting a search warrant for Steve Powell’s house in August, 2011. The primary target of the search warrant was Susan Powell’s childhood journals.

“With the lack of cooperation and criminally obstructive behavior from Steven and Joshua Powell refusing to provide the journals to law enforcement,” Gary wrote, “a search warrant must be executed to recover this evidence and in addition, any and all digital copies.”

Susan Cox Powell’s journals were not the only target of the warrant affidavit. It also sought digital media, images or papers that might contain passwords for Josh’s encrypted files, photographs or videos, trace evidence and “any items determined to be evidence of the crimes listed” that would help detectives complete their investigation.

A Pierce County Superior Court judge issued the warrant on Aug. 24, 2011. West Valley police, with the assistance of Pierce County deputies, U.S. Marshals and FBI agents, served it the following day.

The Puyallup Raid

Ellis and Gary led the service of the warrant together. They and a team of more than 20 law enforcement officers swarmed the house at 18615 94th Ave. Court East in the early afternoon.

“Hot day,” Gary said. “I remember because the house didn’t have A/C and it was a huge house.”

Josh Powell was at home with his sons, Charlie and Braden, as well as two of his younger siblings, John and Alina Powell. The police ordered them all out of the house.

Steve Powell was not at home, having traveled to the Tri-Cities area of Washington to investigate a business opportunity.

West Valley City, Utah police helped arrange a business meeting for Steve Powell in Kennewick, Wash. on the same day detectives were serving a search warrant at Powell’s house in South Hill. This was part of a strategy aimed at getting Powell and his son, Josh, talking on their cell phones.

Ellis declined to confirm if that business meeting was arranged by police, again refusing to discuss operational details.

“Maybe, maybe not,” Ellis said. “I don’t know if it was valid or not. I wasn’t there for that business meeting.”

However, the documents obtained by Cold revealed that business meeting was, in fact, part of the Operation Tsunami plan.

The detectives told Josh he was free to leave, but they would not be able to release his minivan until they’d searched it. Josh, John, Alina and the boys waited in the yard.

“We were hoping to get some more information from Josh but he just, he wouldn’t talk to us,” Ellis said.

Josh Powell computer password encryption
Josh Powell provided police with a USB key “token” required to boot his desktop computer, as well as a user name and password needed to access his laptop on Aug. 25, 2011. Photo: West Valley City, Utah police

Josh also handed over a USB device, a “token” without which his desktop computer would not boot.

As soon as police completed a search of Josh’s minivan, he left the house.

Steve Powell’s House of Horrors

The detectives made a methodical, room-by-room search of the Powell family home.

Many of the rooms and hallways were clogged with clutter. Shelves of Steve Powell’s books lined the walls in many of the rooms.

Steve Powell house books hoarder search warrant Susan Powell
Clutter, boxes and bookshelves made service of a search warrant at Steve Powell’s Washington home on Aug. 25, 2011 difficult. Police were looking for evidence related to the disappearance of Susan Powell, as well as any possible passwords for her husband Josh Powell’s digital devices. Photo: West Valley City, Utah police

“A hoarder is your biggest nightmare on a search warrant, just because you know you have to go through every item,” Gary Sanders said. “If you’re not being thorough, you’re not doing a good investigation.”

The main floor of the house held the kitchen, dining space, Steve’s office or music room, a back office space and the garage. All of the bedrooms in the house were on the upper level.

Josh’s bedroom was among the neatest in the house. Police found several interesting items there, including a multi-camera security system, draft documents for the susanpowell.org website and a banker’s box containing nine volumes of Susan’s childhood journals.

Josh Powell security camera surveillance Susan Powell case files
Josh Powell set up this multi-camera security camera system at his father Steve Powell’s home. It was active on Aug. 25, 2011, when police raided the home with a search warrant. Photo: West Valley City, Utah police

The camera system showed views of the front porch, the driveway and the side yard of the house. Its screen was positioned so that Josh could have monitored all of the live feeds simultaneously from his bed.

“I think he was starting to, he was getting worried,” Gary said. “They knew something was coming.”

Charlie and Braden shared a bedroom. It held a single futon, a children’s play table and a few toys. Steve Powell’s book collection took up most of the space in the boys’ room.

Steve Powell house search warrant books hoarder bedroom Charlie Braden
Three large bookshelves occupied much of the space in the bedroom used by Charlie and Braden Powell. Police noted while serving a search warrant on Aug. 25, 2011 that it didn’t look like a typical child’s bedroom. Photo: West Valley City, Utah police

Alina’s bedroom held few items of interest, aside from her computers. Detectives observed that one of her laptops was powered on and logged in and appeared to be running file eraser and encryption software.

West Valley police detective Brad Hardinger located a wireless router in Alina’s bedroom and disconnected it to ensure no one could remotely log in to any of the machines on the network.

John Powell’s bedroom presented police a significant challenge. Stacks of boxes filled the floor. Clothing was scattered about, along with piles of used tissues. John’s art projects also caught the attention of detectives.

John Powell hangman's noose art project Steve Powell house search warrant operation tsunami
Police located this art project in the bedroom of John Powell while serving a search warrant at his father Steve Powell’s home on Aug. 25, 2011. It included a paper creature and what appeared to be a hangman’s noose. Photo: West Valley City, Utah police

“It had a noose, had a giant paper pterodactyl that was hanging,” Gary said. “His drawings of swords through women’s vaginas, just weird depictions and stuff.”

Even more bizarre were collections of what appeared to be toenail clippings and a bag of hair.

John Powell hair search warrant house of horrors Steve Powell Susan Cox
This bag of hair was one of several perplexing items located in the bedroom of John Powell when police served a search warrant at his father Steve Powell’s home on Aug. 25, 2011. Photo: West Valley City, Utah police

“It was a house of horrors when we went through there,” Gary said.

They hadn’t even started going through Steve Powell’s bedroom.

Hear what Steve Powell had to say about the raid in Episode 11 of Cold: Operation Tsunami

Episode credits
Research, writing, hosting and production: Dave Cawley
Production assistance: Danielle Prager, Adam Mason
Additional voices: Kristen Sorensen (as Susan Powell), Eric Openshaw (as Josh Powell), Ken Fall (as Steve Powell)
Cold main score composition: Michael Bahnmiller
Cold main score mixing: Dan Blanck
Supplemental music: Dave Cawley
KSL executive producers: Sheryl Worsley, Keira Farrimond
Episode transcript: https://thecoldpodcast.com/season-1-transcript/operation-tsunami-full-transcript
KSL companion story: https://www.ksl.com/article/46474140/cold-police-coordinated-2011-events-in-susan-powell-case-as-operation-tsunami