Susan Powell loved to talk.
In her early 20s, Susan learned how to chat with strangers while studying and practicing cosmetology. But as she grew older and experienced deepening dissatisfaction with her marriage, the topics of her conversations became much more personal.
“She was very open, she was like an open book,” coworker Linda Bagley said. “It felt like she really liked me because she would tell me things that you would think that you would only tell someone that you’re close friends [with].”
Seeds of Discontent
Susan and her husband, Josh, were both active members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when they met in October of 2000. They’d married in one of the church’s temples the following April, making vows “for time and all eternity.”
Josh didn’t stick with the religion for long. Within a few years of their marriage, he quit attending Sunday services and pressured Susan to do the same.
She remained committed, both to her faith and to her marriage vows. Susan believed Josh was her eternal companion.
Josh took advantage of his wife’s devotion by exerting tight-fisted control over the family’s finances. He became furious any time Susan spent more than he thought she should on necessities, including food for herself or their two young sons.
She dealt with it by growing a garden.
Josh would not even spend on gifts for Susan. He gave her a cheap whiteboard calendar for her birthday in October of 2008. When she unwrapped the gift, she noticed it was damaged.
“The lining was white discolored to yellow in parts, plastic. Which he immediately noticed and said he would fix,” Susan wrote in an Oct. 18, 2008 Facebook message. “I’m wondering if I should do tit for tat and give him a white board ‘to do list’ or something lame like that for Christmas.”
Susan saw a counselor and encouraged Josh to join her, an offer he most often refused.
On one occasion, Susan’s father Chuck Cox attended a session. The counselor observed that Susan was being abused. Chuck told his daughter he agreed.
Susan’s parents bought her a cell phone, in case she ever needed to make a quick escape. They paid the monthly bill, to prevent Josh from seeing who she called or texted.
Susan Powell opened up to neighbors, relatives and even the occasional stranger about her troubles. She vented about her husband, how poorly he treated her and how much she yearned for him to act more like the man she’d married.
“She did want to make it work,” Bagley said. “Her first part of the married life she said was nice and good and they worked together and he was different. But he started changing and being more strict and just being harder to live with.”
On Friday, June 27, 2008, Susan asked her close friend and neighbor, Kiirsi Hellewell, to come over to the Powell family’s home. Susan handed Kiirsi a stenographer’s notepad. Kiirsi knew how to write quickly using a form of shorthand.
Susan then began to recount the worst argument of her marriage to date. She and Josh had just gone through a shouting match over faith and finances.
“She was just pacing up and down, and really angry,” Hellewell said. “So angry she couldn’t sit still.”
Susan said the argument rocked her so deeply, she felt she needed to document it as evidence.
The next day, Susan drafted a handwritten will while at work. In it, she spelled out a fear for her life.
“If I die, it may not be an accident, even if it looks like one,” she wrote. “Take care of my boys.”
Susan’s messages to her friends soon displayed hints of that same fear.
Josh had purchased a million-dollar term life insurance policy for her. Susan recognized the purchase made little sense, unless he expected something horrible to happen.
Susan resolved to make a change.
She began diverting part of her paycheck into a personal account. Against Josh’s wishes, she paid tithing to her church. She bought her own computer, because he wouldn’t let her use his. Susan insisted on spending time with her female friends. Many of those friends encouraged her to leave Josh.
To Susan, it seemed a risky move.
Coworker Amber Hardman offered to help her escape with the couple’s two boys, Charlie and Braden.
“She was so worried he would track her down no matter what she did,” Hardman said. “It was like she had no way out and I was like ‘He doesn’t know where we live. What if you came to our house and we found somewhere for you to go in another state? He would not know.’ She was like ‘No, he will figure it out. He will find me.’”
Money is control and I’m his asset to be controlled and abused and I’m not allowing that any longer.Susan Powell
Susan’s emerging independence set her on a collision course with Josh.
“I’m just letting him decide if he’s going to deal with me or not,” Susan wrote in a Sept. 20, 2008 Facebook message to a brother-in-law. “Money is control and I’m his asset to be controlled and abused and I’m not allowing that any longer.”
As 2009 drew to a close, Susan told friends she had set a date. If Josh refused to get back into church and into marriage counseling by the time of their wedding anniversary in April, 2010, she would move forward with divorce.
Then, Susan disappeared.
Police in West Valley City, Utah used a series of search warrants and subpoenas to obtain copies of Susan’s emails and Facebook messages in the weeks following her December 2009 disappearance. The correspondence provided investigators valuable insight into her state of mind.
Police included redacted versions of those messages when they publicly released their case file in 2013.
The thousands of pages of messages revealed just how isolated, frustrated and trapped Susan felt in the years leading up to her disappearance.
In the time since, many of Susan’s friends came to see lessons in the conversations they once shared with her.
“As much as we all tried to help her get out and talk to her, keep pushing. Keep doing more,” Hardman said. “If you know someone that’s in a bad situation, use Susan as an example. Bad things can happen. You don’t want this to happen to anybody.”