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, Wash.
That changed in 2011 when West Valley City police learned Josh Powell’s youngest brother, Michael, 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.
Lindell Auto is well known in eastern Oregon and southeastern Washington. The owner and operator, Dave Lindell, said the business had been in his family since his dad first bought it in 1963.
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.
“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.”
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.
The Taurus Discovery
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, Nev. and served a search warrant at Steve’s home in South Hill, Wash. They were preparing to launch another major desert search at Topaz Mountain, 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.
“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 car might still be in Pendleton.
To his surprise, it was.
“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.”
West Valley dispatched another detective, David Greco, to Pendleton with a cadaver dog.
“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 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.
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.
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.’”