Ep 13: 4theKidzz

Pendleton, Oregon didn’t figure as a key location in the story of Josh and Susan Powell. It was, at most, a place they would stop for gas during occasional road trips to visit family in Puyallup, Washington.

Pendleton Oregon tow salvage Lindell Auto
Pendleton, Oregon as seen from the Deadman Pass viewing area along Interstate 84. Josh and Susan Powell sometimes stopped for gas in Pendleton during drives between Utah and Washington. Photo: Dave Cawley, KSL Newsradio

That changed in 2011 when West Valley City police learned Josh Powell’s youngest brother, Michael Powell, had sold his 1997 Ford Taurus at an auto salvage lot in Pendleton just two weeks after Susan Powell’s Dec. 7, 2009 disappearance.

Michael stopped at Lindell Auto on Dec. 22, 2009, looking to unload his car. He claimed it had developed a transmission problem.

Michael Powell’s Car at Lindell Auto​

Lindell Auto is well known in eastern Oregon and southeastern Washington. The owner and operator, Dave Lindell, told the Cold podcast his business had been in the family since his dad first bought it in 1963.

Dave Lindell auto car salvage Susan Powell Ford Taurus
Dave Lindell stands at the front desk of his shop, Lindell Auto, on March 13, 2018. Lindell purchased Michael Powell’s car as salvage in December, 2009. Photo: Dave Cawley, KSL Newsradio

Lindell advertises auto wrecking services, but that’s just one part of the operation.

“We run an automotive recycling, auto parts scrapping, towing type business,” Lindell said. “We do a variety of things with cars, and we sell some used cars. We’re in a small town and you might have to do several different things to make it all kind of band together.”

It wasn’t at all unusual for people to show up at the Lindell Auto lot near the Umatilla River looking to unload broken-down vehicles.

Lindell Auto Pendleton Oregon Susan Cox Powell salvage
Michael Powell sold his car to Dave Lindell for $100 at Lindell Auto on Dec. 23, 2009. Photo: Dave Cawley, KSL Newsradio

“We have customers all over on a regional basis somewhat, out of other towns, within a decent distance,” Dave said. “It keeps us pretty busy.”

As a result, Michael Powell didn’t stand out much from the crowd.

“I can remember him being kind of a clean cut, decent looking, normal run of the mill kind of guy,” Dave said. “Maybe a thirty-something, young thirties, something like that. Looked like he had a job. Looked like he probably had some responsibilities and needed to get somewhere in a hurry.”

The Taurus was more than 10 years old at that point and supposedly not in running order. Dave offered Michael $100 for the car. Michael accepted the offer on the spot.

“I bought the car and didn’t think much about it,” Dave said. “Had the title, paid him. Time went by, we sold a few parts off the car.”

Josh Powell brother Michael Powell Susan Powell
Michael Powell carries a bird perch out of Josh and Susan Powell’s West Valley City, Utah home on Dec. 19, 2009. Michael had traveled to Utah on Dec. 12, 2009 to assist his brother after Susan’s disappearance. Photo: KSL 5 TV

Dave didn’t think much about that clean-cut man with the Ford Taurus again until September 2011, when he received a phone call from a detective from West Valley City, Utah.

“All the sudden the West Valley police department showed up from Utah, asking about a car that I got from Michael Powell,” Dave said.

Police Discovery​ of the Car

West Valley police were approaching the two-year anniversary of Susan Powell’s disappearance and still lacked any solid piece of physical evidence to link her husband to her presumed murder.

However, at that time the investigation was by no means cold. Detectives had secured a wiretap on the phones of Josh Powell and his father, Steve Powell.

They had just gone public with a search of mines in Ely, Nevada and served a search warrant at Steve’s home in South Hill, Washington. They were preparing to launch another major desert search at Topaz Mountain, Utah, hoping to find human remains.

“He might have thought he was selling it to somebody who’d just run down and squish it right away.”

Dave Lindell

Dave Lindell knew about the case.

“I was aware of the Powell murder just through the news,” Dave said. “I pay attention to those kind of stories and I’d kind of read pretty much what had happened in Seattle and what had happened with Josh’s dad.”

In the midst of all that, West Valley City police had learned of Michael Powell’s stop at Lindell Auto.

This map shows the location of Lindell Auto in Pendleton, Oregon, in reference to Josh and Susan Powell’s West Valley City, Utah home and Steve Powell’s Puyallup, Washington home.

“An intel analyst of ours at West Valley, phenomenal intel analyst, she came across this information and got it right to us and we followed up on it right away,” Ellis Maxwell said.

Ellis, the now-retired lead detective on the Susan Powell case, figured it was a long shot to hope the Michael Powell car might still be in Pendleton.

To his surprise, it was.

Michael Powell sale salvage Susan Powell evidence
West Valley City police obtained records the day after serving a search warrant at Steve Powell’s home on Aug. 25, 2011 showing Michael Powell had sold his car in Pendleton, Oregon just two weeks after Susan Powell disappeared. Photo: West Valley City, Utah police

“It was a 10-year-old car,” Dave said. “We don’t keep 10-year-old cars very often for very long. But just that one had managed to stick around. In fact, I probably had told my guys at the time, if they’d come probably another three months later, it wouldn’t have been there.”

Cadaver Dog​ Hits on the Ford Taurus

West Valley dispatched another detective, David Greco, to Pendleton with a cadaver dog.

Michael Powell car Ford Taurus cadaver dog Pendleton Susan Powell evidence
This Sept. 20, 2011 photo shows a cadaver dog, named Tug, sniffing the inside of Michael Powell’s 1997 Ford Taurus at the Lindell Auto lot in Pendleton, Oregon. Photo: West Valley City, Utah police

“We dug up the paperwork, which is pretty easy,” Dave said. “They gave me the VIN number. I went back by the VIN number. Pulled the file on the car, and I could see where the paperwork had come from and what it was. And I started to put the picture together in my head that this was to do with that Michael Powell.”

Dave Lindell took the West Valley team out to his lot, pointing out where they could find the Taurus.

The dog’s handler let his animal loose.

“And this dog went directly, didn’t hesitate, didn’t stop at any other vehicles, went directly to Michael Powell’s vehicle,” Ellis said.

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West Valley City police brought a cadaver dog to the Lindell Auto lot on Sept. 20, 2011. The dog, named Tug, showed particular interest in the trunk of Michael Powell’s car. Photo: West Valley City, Utah police

That was a surprising result, considering many of the wrecked vehicles that turn up in salvage yards like Lindell Auto have been involved in injury crashes.

“So you’re gonna have blood and stuff like that in those vehicles,” Ellis said.

The dog, named Tug, sniffed around the rear end of the Taurus and then sat. That’s what Tug was trained to do when he’d detected the odor of cadaver.

Search and Seizure

Detective Greco returned to the Lindell Auto office.

“They said they got a hit on it,” Dave said. “Then they said, ‘Well, we’re gonna load that car up and take it back to Utah.’ And I’m like, ‘What?’ ‘Cause it was like, I was kinda shocked by the whole thing.”

Dave told the police he had already submitted paperwork to the state of Oregon to have the car declared destroyed.

“I had to figure out what was going on,” Dave said. “I called our police chief and says, ‘so, can they just take this car?’ And he said, ‘yeah, you gotta give them that car.’”

The next day, on Sept. 21, 2011, West Valley police returned to Lindell Auto with a flatbed tow truck. They put a sheet of cardboard over the missing front passenger door, wrapped it in place with plastic and drove away.

Michael Powell car Ford Taurus Pendleton salvage
West Valley City police took Michael Powell’s 1997 Ford Taurus from the Lindell Auto lot on Sept. 21, 2011 and drove it back to Utah for forensic testing. Photo: West Valley City, Utah police

Dave Lindell was left wondering if a key piece of evidence in a murder case from two states away had sat on his lot for the better part of two years.

“We had no idea that it was in our possession at all,” Dave said. “It had just been sitting out there. I mean anything could have happened to it in the meantime.”

As for Michael Powell, Dave couldn’t help but question what his motive had been for dumping the car midway between Utah and Washington.

“He might have thought he was selling it to somebody who’d just run it down there and squish it right away,” Dave said. “When we checked the car out, we couldn’t really find that much wrong with the car. … I said, ‘Well, he said there was something major going on but everything I find on this car, I don’t find what he’s talking about.’”

Hear what Michael Powell had to say in his brother’s defense in Episode 13 of Cold: 4theKidzz

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/4thekidzz-josh-powell-custody-battle-full-transcript
KSL companion story: https://www.ksl.com/article/46484497/cold-forensic-psychologist-shares-impressions-of-josh-powell