Detective Ellis Maxwell was getting tired of waiting.
When Josh Powell returned home with his two sons on the afternoon of Monday, Dec. 7, 2009, he found the West Valley City police department awaiting him.
“He clearly can’t get into his driveway with all the cop cars and everything,” Ellis said. “I approach the passenger side of the vehicle and he rolls down the window and I ask him, ‘where the hell have you been?’”
Josh told Ellis he’d gone for an impromptu camping trip in Utah’s West Desert with the boys, ages 2 and 4, even as a significant winter storm swept across the region.
He expressed surprise over hearing his wife, Susan was nowhere to be found.
Debbie Caldwell, the Powell family’s daycare provider, sounded the alarm that morning when the boys, Charlie and Braden, failed to arrive at her home as scheduled.
Police learned neither Josh nor Susan had showed up for their shifts at work. Calls to both of their cell phones went straight to voicemail.
Officers feared the whole family might have been overcome by carbon monoxide gas. They broke a window to gain access to their home.
The house, on a quiet cul-de-sac called Sarah Circle, was empty.
There was no sign of a struggle but officers noticed family’s minivan was missing from the garage. When Ellis walked through the house, he found Susan’s purse sitting on the bedroom dresser.
“Her wallet’s in there, her ID’s in there, her keys are in there,” Ellis said. “You could tell there’s no credit cards missing or anything like that. No cash is missing. She had jewelry in the bathroom and the bedroom. None of that appeared to be missing.”
In the living room, Ellis noticed two box fans blowing air at a damp spot on the couch. It appeared as though the couch had recently been cleaned.
An Unlikely Outing
Josh’s return with the boys should have come as a relief. There was a problem though. Susan was still missing. Josh said he had no idea where she was.
Ellis asked Josh to accompany him to the department’s west side substation for an interview that evening.
Ellis pressed Josh for details about the camping trip. Josh said he’d left his home between 1:30 and 2 a.m. that morning, driving his minivan down the Pony Express Trail.
“How far down the Pony Express did you go?” Ellis asked.
“Not very far. Maybe 20 miles. I don’t know,” Josh said.
Josh said he’d pulled off to the south side of the dirt road and made camp at about 4 a.m. He’d slept until about 7 a.m., then woke up and started a fire to make s’mores with Charlie and Braden.
That’s when he said he realized it was Monday, not Sunday, and that he’d missed work. Instead of rushing home to beg forgiveness, he wandered “all over the place” with the boys.
“We drove further out the Pony Express to that campground and we turned around. When it got old, we drove back,” Josh said.
Recreating the Route
Josh’s story seemed a poor alibi. After all, what father takes his 2 and 4-year-old children out of bed at 2 a.m., to go camping in subfreezing cold?
Surely, Susan would have protested.
In order to test the timeline provided by Josh, I attempted to recreate his trip in early December, 2017.
I departed from Sarah Circle at around 2 a.m., just as Josh said he had. I drove north on 5600 West until I reached I-80, then headed west on the freeway. At Lake Point, I exited the freeway and headed south through the Tooele and Rush Valleys.
A cold wind howled as I turned off Utah State Route 36 onto the dusty, washboarded Pony Express Road. I drove about 20 miles down the dark trail, with only the lights from the nearby Dugway Proving Ground, an Army base, on the horizon.
About a mile or so shy of Simpson Springs, I left the Pony Express Trail on a rocky two-track path and parked near a well-used campfire ring. The 85-mile trek took just shy of two hours.
Like Josh, I went to sleep in the back of my car at about 4 a.m. I awoke about three hours later, bleary-eyed.
The trip proved that Josh’s timeline did work.
On his drive home, Josh said he stopped to wash his minivan at a carwash on the north side of Main Street in Lehi. Only one carwash matches his vague description — at the corner of Main Street and 100 East.
Josh cleaning his minivan in Lehi, 30 miles south of his home in West Valley City, didn’t make much sense. Slush, salt and grime still covered the roads from the morning’s snowstorm.
However, it would have been a wise move if he feared the mud splattered on the wheel wells and body panels might give away exactly where he’d stopped in the West Desert.
At the conclusion of their interview, Detective Maxwell asked Josh if he could search his minivan. Josh agreed.
The minivan was packed with supplies. Those included a shovel, rake, broom, electrical circular saw, folding hand saw, box cutter, gas-powered generator, plastic gas can, space heaters, humidifier, tarps, sled, fire extinguisher and more.
In particular, Maxwell noticed a plastic tote containing camping supplies.
“Just ridiculous amounts of unopened camping equipment that you would find in Kmart or Walmart,” Maxwell said. “This guy has all kinds of stuff back there.”
The most interesting discovery, though, came from the center console.
Maxwell’s partner found a pink Motorola cell phone buried deep in the storage area between the driver and front passenger seats.
“Then I say to him, I’m like, ‘Josh, why do you have Susan’s cell phone?’” Maxwell asked.