Ep 6: Josh in the Wind

Steve Powell wasn’t keen on having police visit his house.

It was Dec. 17, 2009; 10 days since his daughter-in-law Susan Powell had vanished from the West Valley City, Utah home she shared with her husband, Josh Powell.

Detectives were preparing to speak with Steve face-to-face to see what, if anything, he knew.

Josh Powell was then the prime suspect in his wife’s disappearance and presumed murder. West Valley City police didn’t know it, but Josh was that same day seeing a physical therapist for a shoulder injury.

Steve wanted to make sure his conversation with police took place somewhere other than his home.

Steve’s Library Interview

West Valley City police detectives Gavin Cook and John LeFavor traveled to Washington from Utah specifically for the interview. Steve Powell told detectives he was willing to talk, but requested they meet at Pierce County’s South Hill Library.

They agreed and invited a Pierce County Sheriff’s detective, Gary Sanders, to join them there. When Powell arrived, the investigators set out a digital audio recorder.

“Basically, why we’re here today, Steve, is to just get an idea of your thoughts, your relationship with Josh and your knowledge of Josh and Susan’s relationship and just kind of build this puzzle and put it together just so we have information,” Cook said.

Steve was coy at first, offering only vague descriptions of some past “issues” in Josh and Susan’s marriage. He claimed the trouble had all occurred early on, in 2002 and 2003.

That was false. The detectives didn’t know it then, but Powell had spent years writing detailed accounts of Josh and Susan Powell’s marital strife in his personal journals.

Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
Steve Powell wrote this journal entry about his son and daughter-in-law’s marriage on March 30, 2008

Cook and LeFavor noticed Steve seemed to talk about his daughter-in-law in unusual and sometimes uncomfortable terms.

“When she and Josh and I were together with the boys, it was perfect. I mean it was calm, it was pleasant. She was always nice to me,” Steve said. “She seemed to like me a lot.”

Unrequited Affection

Susan did not like Steve, a lot or even a little, a fact investigators had already learned by speaking to her family and friends.

Steve, though, told the detectives that she had been “very open sexually” when living in his house with Josh in early 2002. In the same breath, he claimed Susan’s membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints led to her repressing a desire to be with him.

When Cook asked Steve if his daughter-in-law had ever physically touched him, he said he would “pass on that question.” Steve later conceded that she had not, but admitted that he had touched her several times under the guise of giving her a massage.

“She’d always sort of wanted me to be the instigator or the aggressor, wanted to think that I was, even though it all started with her as far as I’m concerned.”

Steve Powell

LeFavor asked Steve if there was a chance Susan might have slipped up to Washington to be with him or another man.

“I’d love that,” Steve said. “I loved her dearly as a daughter, I loved her dearly as a woman. I mean, she’s beautiful and yeah, she, I was conflicted about her too, I will admit that.”

Steve then pushed past his earlier hesitation and went on a long monologue about his desire. He explained how he had confessed his love for her in 2003.

“I did not want her to go to Utah and I hoped that there was enough feeling there that she would stay and she got really upset at me,” Steve said. “She would not talk to me for months.”

Steve called the love confession “the worst thing I ever did.” He told the detectives that Josh was at first “clueless” about the supposed chemistry between himself and Susan but learned about it after his 2003 confession.

“I did not think our relationship would ever heal, seriously,” Steve said. “He just said, ‘You’re crazy, you are insane.’”

Consent Search

At the conclusion of their interview, Cook and LeFavor told Steve they wanted consent to search his home.

Steve insisted Susan was not there and, through tears, urged the detectives to come see for themselves.

“I’ll be frank with you,” Cook said, “you’re in love with Susan and I think you have been for awhile. … Those feelings might be able to help us.”

“If they can help you, if there’s something I can do, I will help,” Steve said.

West Valley City police detectives Gavin Cook and John LeFavor answer a question from Steve Powell during a consent search of his Washington home on Dec. 17, 2009

During the search, the detectives met and spoke with Josh’s younger brother John. However, the other Powell siblings who were still living with Steve, Michael and Alina, were not present. They had traveled to Utah the week prior to support Josh.

The detectives did not locate anything inside the house to indicate Susan was being held there.

Josh Powell’s shoulder injury

On the same day Steve was talking to the detectives in Washington, Josh was visiting a physical therapist in Utah.

A driver had hit the back of Josh’s minivan on Sept. 2, 2009, causing minor damage to the van’s tailgate. He did not report the crash to police, but did open a claim with his insurance company.

Josh also went to a clinic that day complaining of neck and back pain. He received a prescription for cyclobenzaprine, a muscle relaxant. He immediately began seeing a chiropractor, though not the same one Susan already frequented.

Susan mentioned the crash in several emails and Facebook messages during September and October of 2009. In one, she described Josh’s injury as “classic whiplash stuff.”

Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
In this Sept. 22, 2009 email, Susan Powell described her husband Josh Powell’s injuries from a car crash on Sept. 2, 2009

Nothing in her messages indicated Josh felt any shoulder pain.

However, an insurance document obtained exclusively by Cold revealed Josh went to Meier and Marsh Professional Therapies on Dec. 17, 2009, just 10 days following Susan’s disappearance. An examination at that time revealed Josh had a rotator cuff strain and likely partial tear of a rotator cuff tendon.

Dr. Peter Chalmers, an orthopedic expert at University of Utah Health, told Cold it would have been very unlikely for a low-speed, rear-end car crash to cause a rotator cuff injury.

“It’s really, really, really uncommon from that mechanism,” Chalmers said. “In a younger individual, it’s way less likely that a minor trauma would cause a rotator cuff tear.”

Dr. Peter Chalmers, an orthopaedic expert and shoulder surgeon at University of Utah Health, discusses rotator cuff injuries

Chalmers also explained it would be very unusual for pain from a rotator cuff strain or tear to suddenly reveal itself more than three months after the initial injury.

“It’s not typically something where there’s a really minor thing and then later on all the sudden it becomes a problem,” Chalmers said. “Typically, the initial injury is associated with a lot of pain and disability and then it gets better.”

Josh billed the physical therapist visit to his auto insurance as part of the ongoing personal injury claim tied to the crash. After moving to Washington in January of 2010, Josh began seeing another chiropractor and continued billing those visits to his auto insurance.

American Family Insurance eventually became skeptical that the ongoing treatments were necessary and ordered an independent medical examination.

Susan Powell Case Files Cold Podcast
Josh Powell’s auto insurance provider commissioned this independent medical evaluation to determine if chiropractic treatments he was receiving were appropriately covered under a personal injury claim

That report, dated March 22, 2010, noted nothing in the records from either chiropractor mentioned Josh complaining of shoulder pain. It also concluded that nothing indicated “how [the shoulder injury] is related to this motor vehicle accident.”

Hear more about Josh’s mysterious injury in Episode 6 of Cold: Josh in the Wind.