Ep 15: Fall of the House of Powell

West Valley police hopped a plane to Minneapolis, Minn. in October of 2011. They were interested in speaking with Josh Powell’s youngest brother, Michael, about his car.

Weeks earlier, detectives had located and seized Michael’s 1997 Ford Taurus from Lindell Auto, a salvage yard in Pendleton, Ore. Michael had sold the car there for $100 on Dec. 23, 2009, just two weeks after the disappearance of Michael’s sister-in-law, Susan Powell.

Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
From left to right: Michael Powell, Steve Powell, Charlie Powell, Josh Powell, Susan Powell. Photo: Powell family

At the time, Michael was living in Minneapolis. He worked at the University of Minnesota and was also studying cognitive science there.

The detective and lieutenant who traveled to meet Michael did not warn him that they were coming. During their ambush interview, the police asked Michael about his scrapped car and if it had been involved in transporting Susan’s body.

Retired detective Ellis Maxwell, who was the lead detective on the Powell case, said Michael refused to talk.

“He wouldn’t answer any questions and he straight told them, like, even if he thought that his brother was involved he wouldn’t tell us anything,” Ellis said.

Apollo Mapping

On Dec. 3, 2011, two months after the unexpected visit with police, Michael went to the website of a Boulder, Colo. company called Apollo Mapping. He entered his personal information into a contact form, along with the message “I am looking for an aerial photo of Pendleton, Oregon taken in October 2011 or later.”

Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
Michael Powell contacted Apollo Mapping on Dec. 3, 2011, hoping to obtain satellite imagery of Pendleton, Ore. Michael had sold his 1997 Ford Taurus to a scrap yard in Pendleton two years earlier.

Katie Nelson, one of the partners and co-owners of Apollo Mapping, responded to Michael’s message by email a few hours later. She said Apollo’s most recent image of the Pendleton, Ore. area dated back to August 2011. She asked if he would like to purchase that image.

Michael responded in the negative, but said he’d be interested if another image taken later than October 2011 became available.

“When he contacted me I just thought he was just a normal guy,” Katie told Cold. “There was nothing weird about our interaction.”

University of Minnesota

Michael’s email exchange with Apollo Mapping took place on his University of Minnesota email account.

On March 6, 2012, U.S. District Court Judge Samuel Alba signed a search warrant authorizing police access to Michael Powell’s digital data at the university. That included all emails sent and received from his university account since Aug. 16, 2011.

By that point, Josh Powell had been dead for a month, having killed himself and his two sons by setting fire to his rented home in Graham, Wash. Police suspected that Josh might have shared information about Susan’s disappearance with Michael, or possibly even enlisted his help with her presumed murder.

The university provided that information to police. While reviewing Michael’s internet sessions, detectives discovered the communication between Michael and Apollo Mapping.

“You pay a lot for the security of knowing that people don’t know your secret.”

Katie Nelson

Detectives had also obtained AAA records that showed Michael’s car actually broke down in Baker City, Ore., not Pendleton. Michael and his younger sister, Alina Powell, had insisted that AAA having the Taurus towed all the way to Pendleton, bypassing several auto shops in Baker City and La Grande, Ore.

“Made him very suspicious, obviously with being super concerned about this vehicle,” Ellis said. “It is interesting that they went 100 miles north to dispose of it and then him being concerned why it wasn’t smashed and looking for satellite imagery.”

Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
West Valley City, Utah police secured a subpoena to recover Alina Powell’s AAA records, which showed her brother Michael Powell’s car had been towed from Baker City, Ore. to Pendleton, Ore.

Detective Darrell Dain contacted Katie Nelson.

“It was kind of surreal, because you don’t really think about yourself being attached to anything like that and I didn’t understand at first sort of the implications of it,” Katie said. “I kind of was like jumped into the middle of something without understanding really what was going on and why it was important and sort of what he was trying to accomplish with this imagery.”

Lindell Auto​

Darrell asked Katie if she would be willing to call Michael, in an attempt to learn what specific area of Pendleton he was attempting to view. She agreed.

Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
Michael Powell hoped to secure satellite imagery of this area in Pendleton, Ore., in an apparent effort to verify if the car he had sold for scrap was still there. Photo: Dave Cawley, KSL Newsradio

“I was like ‘I hope I can help you, I hope I can give you more information and get something out of him’ but also going into it knowing that that might not happen,” Katie said. “It’s like a sort of pressure where you know you’re probably going to fail and it was very cloak-and-dagger.”

Darrell traveled to Boulder to meet with Katie and listen in on her phone call with Michael on Sept. 4, 2012.

“I was surprised he came out and took the time, stayed a night in town to come up for something that was kind of, I mean it was a long shot,” Katie said.

Katie called Michael and told him new imagery of Pendleton had come available. She asked if he was still interested and if he could provide precise coordinates or an address for the spot he wanted to view.

“How about the name of the establishment? I don’t know if you go that way,” Michael said.

Katie told him that would work.

“It should be like Lindell’s. Lindell’s junk, Lindell’s junk yard. Oh, Lindell’s Auto Salvage, I bet,” Michael said.

Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
West Valley police recovered Michael Powell’s 1997 Ford Taurus from the Lindell Auto lot in September, 2011. A cadaver dog indicated the possible presence of human decomposition in the trunk area of the car. Photo: West Valley City, Utah police

Katie told Michael that she would double-check to make sure the new satellite image showed the Lindell Auto lot and would get back in touch later.

Michael’s Desperation​

After Michael hung up the phone, Darrell told Katie that Lindell Auto is where police had located Michael’s car nearly one year prior. A cadaver dog had indicated the presence of decomposition in the trunk.

“It’s just one of those moments where you feel someone’s walked over your grave and you’re like ‘Oh, that’s uncomfortable,’” Katie said.

In a subsequent conversation with Michael, Katie explained the new satellite image only showed part of the Lindell lot. West Valley police records said Michael expressed a desire to purchase a copy of the image.

“So that would have been $437.50,” Katie said. “Rather surprising that someone wants to spend that kind of money but in his desperation, you pay a lot for the security of knowing that people don’t know your secret, which I think is what that was worth to him.”

Hear Michael’s take on Susan Powell’s disappearance in Episode 15 of Cold: Fall of the House of Powell.​