Ep 12: Topaz Mountain

Susan Cox Powell felt disoriented.

She, her husband Josh and their two sons Charlie, 4, and Braden, 2, had departed on the afternoon of Saturday, May 30, 2009 for an overnight camping trip in Utah’s West Desert.

Susan Powell Topaz Mountain search human remains
Topaz Mountain is a prominent rockhounding destination in Utah’s West Desert. Several small quarry sites sit in an amphitheater on its southern flank. Photo: Dave Cawley, KSL Newsradio

Josh intended to take his boys to a popular rockhounding site called the Dugway Geode Beds. However, he’d made an error in navigation while on the way there. Instead of turning north after crossing Dugway Pass on the Pony Express Trail, he’d turned south.

Josh then drove the family’s 2005 Chrysler Town and Country minivan up a rocky path.

“We kept climbing/driving up, I felt like at points he van was pointed straight up and gravity would take its course,” Susan later wrote. “We found this white quarry and I found out later that it had real topaz in it.”

Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
Susan Powell uploaded these thumbnail photos to her Facebook page following a family camping trip in Utah’s West Desert on May 30-31, 2009. Many of the images were captured at a mining claim called Solar Wind #1.

Susan’s three-page account of the trip led many people to speculate after her disappearance that the place she’d described was Topaz Mountain, another rockhounding destination well south of the Pony Express Trail.

However, Cold recently confirmed that assumption was incorrect.

The Solar Wind Claim

Dave Stemmons with Topaz Mountain Adventures owns mining claims in the Thomas Range and is familiar with the area. On Jan. 2, 2019, he suggested to Cold that Susan might have instead have been describing a mining claim much closer to the Dugway Geode Beds.

Geographic features in Cold’s photo (right) show Susan Powell’s May 30, 2009 photo (left) had to have been taken from the Solar Wind #1 claim at the northern end of the Thomas Range

Cold used photos Susan had posted to Facebook in 2009 to independently confirm the location was that claim.

Bureau of Land Management records indicate the claim was titled Solar Wind #1. The Solar Wind claim sat just a half-mile south of the Pony Express Trail, on the opposite side of the Thomas Range as Topaz Mountain.

Susan Powell’s photographs reveal she and her family visited a mining claim near the Pony Express Trail called Solar Wind #1 on May 30, 2009. Many people have incorrectly assumed based on her photographs that the Powell family had instead been at Topaz Mountain.

In her typed account, Susan had also described encountering a rattlesnake near the Solar Wind quarry while walking hand-in-hand with Braden. She’d screamed, then brought Josh and Charlie over to the spot.

“The snake started to rattle, and Josh just stood there explaining to the boys, and then it retreated into its huge rock and Josh tossed a rock at it as it continued to rattle.”

Simpson Springs

Josh had taken his boys camping in the West Desert at least once before. Photos later recovered by police from one of Josh Powell’s computers showed he visited Simpson Springs with Charlie and Braden earlier in 2009, without Susan.

Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
West Valley City, Utah police recovered this image from one of Josh Powell’s digital devices. It shows his sons, Charlie and Braden, during an outing to Simpson Springs on the Pony Express Trail in early 2009. Photo: Powell family files

Susan referenced Josh’s earlier desert outing with the boys in an email dated June 29, 2009. She described overhearing a telephone conversation between her husband and his dad, Steve Powell.

“I heard him say ‘no, Susan didn’t go camping with us that time,’” Susan wrote. “Then he said ‘yeah, I just found some people and bummed off their campfire so I didn’t have to build my own.’”

Charlie Powell Interview

West Valley City detective Kim Waelty interviewed Charlie Powell on Dec. 8, 2009, the day after his mother’s disappearance. During the interview, Charlie made several perplexing comments.

Det. Waelty asked Charlie about the camping trip Josh had taken he and his brother Braden on two nights prior. Charlie said he’d flown on an airplane to Dinosaur National Park.

Charlie also said that his mom had stayed where the pretty crystals are, adding that crystals are colorful and grow inside of rocks.

West Valley City police detective Kim Waelty interviewed Charlie Powell, 4, about his Dec. 7, 2009 camping trip with his dad and brother the day after they returned home.

Police later learned that the Powell family had gone on a different camping trip the prior August, to Dinosaur National Monument. It seemed likely that Charlie had blurred several different trips together in his mind.

Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
West Valley City, Utah police recovered this image from one of Josh Powell’s digital devices. It shows his wife, Susan, and their oldest son, Charlie, at Dinosaur National Monument during a family camping trip in August, 2009. Photo: Powell family files

At the time, police supposed Charlie’s talk of crystals might have referred to a mine or to the Dugway Geode Beds. Detectives made their first sweep of the geode beds later that week. They returned for a more thorough check in February 2010.

A West Valley team spent much of that same year visiting hundreds of abandoned mines scattered throughout western Utah.

Rattlesnake Rock

On April 17, 2010, Josh’s father Steve Powell made an entry in his digital journal.

“This afternoon Charlie commented that ‘Mommy is lost in the desert,’” Steve wrote. “Josh and Michael were also present, so we all heard it.”

By that point, Susan had been missing for just over four months. Josh and his sons had been living in Steve’s South Hill, Wash. home for three months, along with Josh’s younger siblings John, Michael and Alina.

“Please, please, please don’t search near Rattlesnake Rock.”

Steve Powell, quoting Michael Powell

At the time, news media were reporting on plans for a large public search for Susan in the Simpson Springs area of Utah’s West Desert.

“Michael has joked that Josh should make a comment like Brer Rabbit, such as ‘search anywhere, in West Valley, in Simpson Springs, in Salt Lake City, but please, please, please don’t search near Rattlesnake Rock,’” Steve wrote.

West Valley City police discovered that journal entry after seizing several computers and hard drives from Steve Powell’s home during a search warrant raid on Aug. 25, 2011.

That raid was a piece of a larger operation code-named “Tsunami.”

Topaz Mountain Search

Detectives had gathered intelligence during Operation Tsunami that suggested Josh might have disposed of Susan’s body near the Dugway Geode Beds or Topaz Mountain.

On Sept. 12, 2011, police launched a major effort to scour the region surrounding Topaz Mountain using cadaver dogs. They began near the geode beds, then moved down to the southeastern side of the Thomas Range.

Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
Officials search in the area of Topaz Mountain, Juab County as they follow up on information regarding the Susan Powell missing person investigation, Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2011. Photo: Ravell Call, Deseret News

Several of the cadaver dogs indicated at a small pile of rocks on the eastern flank of Topaz Mountain on Sept. 14, 2011.

Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
This Sept. 15, 2011 photo shows a possible grave site near Topaz Mountain in Utah’s West Desert. Police excavated the site during their search for the remains of Susan Powell. Photo: West Valley City, Utah police

West Valley police announced that the dogs had located “human remains.”

“When the news reports started about this information, investigators intercepted numerous calls regarding the search,” one detective wrote in a warrant affidavit. “Conversations by Joshua Steven Powell again affirmatively indicated the police would not find Susan Marie Powell at that location.”

Detectives had been monitoring Josh and Steve Powell’s phone calls since Aug. 16, 2011. However, the court order authorizing the wiretap was set to expire as the Topaz Mountain search was unfolding. Police immediately requested and received a 30-day extension from Utah’s Third District Court.

Human Remains​ near Topaz Mountain

Police spent Sept. 15-17, 2011 excavating the supposed gravesite and sifting through the dirt for any sign of human remains. They succeeded in locating only some fragments of charred wood. Once they removed the wood from the pit, the cadaver dogs lost interest in the site.

Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
Charred wood found during a search near Topaz Mountain in the Susan Cox Powell investigation. Photo: Pat Reavy, Deseret News

Police delivered the cinders to the Utah Office of the Medical Examiner for forensic testing. Those tests did not detect any DNA.

The cadaver dog search around Topaz Mountain continued until Sept. 22, 2011. GPS tracks obtained by Cold show that by that point, the dog teams had made a complete circuit around the Thomas Range. They did not locate any other sites of significant interest.

This map shows tracks and waypoints recorded by West Valley City, Utah police and supporting law enforcement agencies during their September, 2011 search of the Topaz Mountain area. Cold has added the Solar Wind #1 claim Josh and Susan Powell visited on May 30, 2009 for reference.

However, the tracks also show only one dog made a pass through the Solar Wind claim during the Topaz Mountain search.

Hear what Susan Cox Powell’s dad, Chuck Cox, carried home from the pit in Episode 12 of Cold: Topaz Mountain

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/topaz-mountain-human-remains-full-transcript
KSL companion story: https://www.ksl.com/article/46479491/cold-fbi-secret-service-failed-to-crack-josh-powells-encryption