Ep 5: 10 Minutes

West Valley City police missed their best chance to find Susan Powell — alive or dead — by just 10 minutes.

Those crucial minutes came on the night of Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2009, the day after Susan’s disappearance.

Her husband, Josh Powell, had spent most of that day at police headquarters. He’d arrived around noon for an interview with detective Ellis Maxwell that had been scheduled to begin at 9 a.m.

The Josh Powell Police Interview

During their nearly four-hour-long talk, Josh Powell told Ellis Maxwell about his overnight trip to Utah’s West Desert. He described taking his boys, Charlie and Braden, out in their minivan between 1 and 2 a.m. the day prior, Monday, Dec. 7, 2009.

A recording of the Dec. 8, 2009 Josh Powell police interview included his description of the camping trip he’d taken on the Pony Express Trail. Video: West Valley City, Utah police

Josh repeatedly expressed concern that he might need a lawyer. Ellis reassured Josh he was free to leave at any time.

“In the beginning no, I don’t care,” Ellis said during an interview for the Cold podcast years later. “You willingly came in. At this point, we’re not going to put handcuffs on you, we’re not going to take you to jail. We don’t have the probable cause.”

“Well, okay, but I do want the lawyer. Because at this point, I definitely want the lawyer.”

Josh Powell

Josh seemed spooked by attention Ellis had placed on his hands the night before. The detective had photographed some small nicks in the skin of Josh’s hands.

“You’ve implied that my hands have some kind of defensive wounds on them just because they’re all cut up,” Josh said. “That’s just the way they are.”

Josh Powell police interview hands skin dry flaky defensive wounds windburn
Detective Ellis Maxwell took these photos of small nicks in the skin of on Josh Powell’s hands on the night of Dec. 7, 2009. Photo: West Valley City, Utah police

Ellis began to ask more pointed questions. In order to make sure Josh’s answers could be used in court, he needed to read Josh his Miranda rights.

“Obviously, I felt he was responsible,” Ellis said. “The last thing I wanted to do was to get some information and then later be in court and it be all redacted because I illegally obtained this information and I violated his civil rights.”

Detective Ellis Maxwell’s Gambit

While Josh and Ellis were speaking, another detective had Josh’s boys, Charlie and Braden, at the South Valley Children’s Justice Center.

During a forensic interview, Charlie Powell told another detective named Kim Waelty that his mom had gone camping with them but stayed behind in the place with the flowers and pretty crystals.

“That night my mom stayed… sleep where the flowers and the crystals grow.”

Charlie Powell

Ellis, learning of this, decided to confront Josh Powell with the information. It was a gamble, as he had no way of knowing whether or not 4-year-old Charlie’s account was reliable.

“Is it the information we need that’s going to get us what we want? No. But I take advantage of it,” Ellis said.

During the Josh Powell police interview, West Valley City police detectives Ellis Maxwell and Tony Martell confronted him with information provided by 4-year-old Charlie Powell. Video: West Valley City, Utah police

Josh told Ellis that wasn’t true, that his son must have lied.

“She was not with us,” Josh said. “I didn’t leave her at the Pony Express. I didn’t just take her out and drop her off or even do anything.”

Search Warrants Following the Josh Powell Police Interview

Detective Ellis Maxwell took Josh Powell’s cell phone. Ellis told Josh he was free to leave, but police were taking his minivan and his home in order to serve search warrants.

A team of West Valley City detectives and forensic specialists headed to the Powell family home on Sarah Circle. Police seized computers, hard drives and cameras. They took the vacuum cleaner and the Rug Doctor, which Josh said he used to clean his couch two nights prior.

Then, they sprayed a product called Bluestar Forensic on the couch. Bluestar can reveal the presence of blood stains, even many that are not visible to the naked eye, by making them glow blue.

A small swipe mark glowed blue on the headrest of the couch. DNA testing later confirmed the blood had come from Susan Cox Powell.

That wasn’t the only bit of Susan’s blood police discovered in the area Josh had cleaned with the Rug Doctor.

The investigators noticed small droplets on a bit of tile flooring next to the couch, each roughly the size of a ballpoint pen tip.

“I would describe it as if you were to lean over to your left and cough or sneeze and you had some sort of blood in your nasal cavity or in your throat or mouth,” Ellis told the Cold podcast.

Susan Powell blood Josh Powell police interview
This Dec. 8, 2009 police photo shows a series of very small blood spots on the tile floor between the front door of the Powell family home and the living room couch. Detectives located the blood following the Josh Powell police interview. Photo: West Valley City, Utah police

The presence of blood in the house wasn’t a smoking gun. The amount of blood was small and at that point, police did not know whose blood it was. They could also not tell how long the blood had been there.

Josh Powell’s Minivan

Ellis Maxwell searched Josh Powell’s minivan as his colleagues were going through the house.

West Valley City’s major crimes unit had crafted a plan. They received permission from a judge to hide a GPS beacon on the minivan.

“We want him to stick around and get back in his minivan and we want to see where he goes,” Ellis said. “Hopefully he returns to the location — wherever he disposed of her.”

Drafting the warrants, having them signed, executing the searches and placing the GPS tracker all took time. Josh waited at the West Valley City police headquarters lobby for several hours.

Josh Powell police interview van search warrant
West Valley City police Sgt. Robert Bobrowski wrote this report describing Josh Powell’s actions on the night of Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2009.

Police records revealed that Josh left without explanation at about 9:30 p.m.

Ten minutes later, at about 9:40 p.m., Maxwell walked into the lobby of the police station to return Josh’s keys and, hopefully, spring the trap.

Josh Powell police interview van search warrant
West Valley City police detective Ellis Maxwell wrote this report showing Josh Powell left police headquarters on the night of Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2009, about 10 minutes before he was to receive the keys to his minivan.

Josh Powell had slipped the snare.

Hear what police found in Josh Powell’s minivan in Episode 5 of Cold: 10 Minutes

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/10-minutes-josh-powell-police-interview-full-transcript
KSL companion story: https://www.ksl.com/article/46446336/cold-experiment-rules-out-possible-origins-of-mystery-evidence-in-susan-powell-case