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, spent most of that day at police headquarters. He’d arrived around noon for an interview with Detective Ellis Maxwell that was scheduled for 9 a.m.
During their nearly four-hour-long talk, Josh told Ellis 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.
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 Cold 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.”
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.”
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 told Detective 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 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.
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.”
Ellis took Josh’s cell phone. The detectives told Josh he was free to leave, but they 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 was Susan’s.
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 said.
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.
Ellis searched Josh’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.
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 slipped the snare.