Ep 8: Wearing a Wire

Josh Powell’s estranged older sister, Jennifer Graves, suspected from the very day of Susan Powell’s disappearance that Josh had killed his wife.

Her suspicion only grew in the weeks that followed, as Josh made a hasty retreat from the West Valley City, Utah home the couple had shared for five years. He all but abandoned the house, in favor of living with his father, Steve Powell, in the community of South Hill on the outskirts of Puyallup, Washington.

Jennifer Graves Josh Powell missing mom Susan Cox Powell
This Jan. 27, 2010 photo shows Jennifer Graves hugging JoVanna Owings, the last person to see Susan Powell alive, outside Josh and Susan Powell’s West Valley City home. Photo: Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Jennifer Graves remained in contact with West Valley City police, sharing her impressions and feelings about her brother.

“I kept reaching out trying to reassure them that I was on their side because I knew that they were looking for the truth, and I felt like Josh wasn’t being forthcoming with the truth,” Jennifer said in an interview for the Cold podcast.

Kirk Graves’ Business Trip

On Jan. 13, 2010, Jennifer Graves learned that her husband Kirk Graves would be traveling to the Seattle area on business at the end of the following week.

“I suddenly had this idea that I needed to go, too. And that we needed to go and confront Josh, and see if we could get him to confess,” Jennifer said.

She called Ellis Maxwell, the lead detective on the Susan Cox Powell missing persons case, and asked if confronting her brother would interfere with the investigation. Ellis told Jennifer he couldn’t stop her, but it was a risky proposition.

“That right there tells me there is no doubt, there is no doubt in this sister’s mind that her brother’s responsible.”

Ellis Maxwell

The idea continued to circulate in Jennifer’s mind. She talked the idea over with her cousin.

“We’re just bouncing some ideas off and I’m like, ‘What if I got wired? What if the police were like behind this and actually wired me and we got, like, evidence,’” Jennifer said.

Jennifer called Ellis again.

“It was great,” Ellis said. “I’ll never forget when Jennifer came to me with that proposal. I’m not going to lie, I kind of got a smile on my face and I was like ‘I like this.’”

Josh Powell police interview interrogation missing wife
Josh Powell underwent an hours-long interview with West Valley City police on Dec. 8, 2009, the day after his wife Susan Cox Powell vanished. Image: West Valley City, Utah police

Josh had not cracked under the pressure of two police interviews on Dec. 7 and 8, 2009, the day of and the day after his wife’s disappearance. Ellis believed Josh might react differently when confronted by his own sister.

“She’s a strong person and determined, focused but I think more importantly for me is she knows Josh and she knows Josh better than any of us,” Ellis said, “probably better than Susan did.”

Two-Party Consent

In order for police to wire Jennifer Graves, they needed to secure a warrant that would allow them to break what’s known as the two-party consent rule. Washington law requires all people involved in a recording be informed of and consent to their being recorded.

“Because of that, you really got to jump through a lot of hoops and your warrant’s got to have the right language,” Ellis said.

Ellis pitched the idea of sending Jennifer in wearing a wire to his superiors. They met with the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office, as well as the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office in Washington. The agencies coordinated to secure the warrant and plan the operation.

“We had all the different contingency plans in place and the ‘What if this, what if that,’ so it took some time to work through all of that,” Ellis said.

“If those words are said, they’ll be rushing in. Okay, good to know.”

Jennifer Graves

When Kirk and Jennifer arrived in Washington, police briefed them on the plan. Both signed consent forms before police placed two recording devices on Jennifer. They placed a GPS tracker in the trunk of Jennifer and Kirk’s rental car.

They also provided Jennifer with code words to use in case the situation became violent.

When Jennifer and Kirk headed to her father’s house on the afternoon of Jan. 22, 2010, Pierce County deputies staged nearby, ready to swoop in at the first sign of danger. A police helicopter orbited above.

Jennifer Graves Wire Recording

Jennifer and Kirk Graves arrived at the Steve Powell house around 5:25 p.m. All of Jennifer’s siblings — Josh, John, Michael and Alina — were there. So where Josh and Susan’s sons, Charlie and Braden.

“Relations between my family and I were already strained,” Jennifer said. “So the fact that I would show up is probably a big red flag to them already.”

Still, the situation remained civil as Jennifer played with the boys. Steve Powell invited Jennifer and Kirk to stay for dinner. Josh joined them and spent time talking about his financial troubles and his recent move away from Utah.

Josh did not mention his wife’s disappearance or seem in any way distraught about the events of the prior month.

“It’s the elephant in the room that you completely avoid. Except you have to skirt around it because it’s taking up so much room,” Jennifer said.

After dinner, Jennifer pulled Josh into Steve’s office and began telling her brother that rumors were circulating he’d soon be arrested for Susan’s murder. She advised him to take a plea bargain, to reduce any potential prison sentence.

“No, no. Don’t be ridiculous,” Josh can be heard saying on the wire recording. “I haven’t done anything and there is no plea bargain.”

In this Jan. 22, 2010 wire recording, Jennifer Graves presses her brother Josh Powell for answers about the disappearance of Susan Powell.

Jennifer questioned Josh about where he had gone with a rental car on the night of Dec. 8 through the afternoon of Dec. 9, 2010. Josh responded “nowhere.”

Jennifer then asked what had happened at Josh and Susan’s house on Dec. 6, 2009, the last day Susan was seen alive.

“My attorney has told me just don’t talk about it, about specifics,” Josh said on the recording.

“Josh’s responses and his behavior and his actions when Jennifer approaches him kind of similar to like the interview and interrogations that we conducted with him, like ‘I can’t talk about it, I’ve gotta go through my attorney,’” Ellis said. “I mean, dude you’re not talking to a cop. You’re talking to your sister.”

Jennifer continued to press Josh for answers, but he did not budge. She blasted him for refusing to help in the search for his missing wife. Josh said he was working on a website and handing out fliers about Susan’s disappearance.

In this Jan. 22, 2010 wire recording, Jennifer Graves tells her brother Josh Powell that he will be separated from his sons for a long time if arrested for the murder of his wife, Susan.

Josh and Jennifer’s dad, Steve, then interrupted their conversation. He told Josh that he needed to go and pick up a cake for Charlie and Braden, who had both recently celebrated birthdays. To police, it sounded as though Steve was attempting to help his son escape a compromising situation.

Soon after, Josh left the house with his brothers, John and Michael.

“They were all just trying to play it cool. Pretend like nothing was happening and that they had nothing to do with it,” Jennifer said later.

Steve Powell Disowns His Daughter

After the Powell brothers left the house, Steve told Jennifer and Kirk it was time for them to leave. On her way out of the house, Jennifer told her father that Josh would “have to enjoy it while he can.”

Steve asked Jennifer what she meant. She responded that it was obvious what Josh had done.

“Excuse me? It’s not obvious to me,” Steve could be heard saying on the recording. “It may be obvious to you, but you might be imagining things Jenny. You’ve always had a hard time with reality.”

Steve Powell home Puyallup Jennifer Graves wire recording
Steve Powell ordered his estranged daughter Jennifer Graves to leave this house following a heated argument on Jan. 22, 2010 and never return. Photo: Sean Estes, KSL 5 TV

The conversation became heated as Jennifer remarked that Josh’s story about taking his sons camping in the middle of the night at the same time Susan disappeared didn’t make sense.

“You are a goddamn f—ing b— is what you are to talk about your brother and my son that way, to make things up,” Steve said.

The youngest of the Powell siblings, Alina, then jumped in to defend Josh. She and Steve both seemed to become upset when Jennifer mentioned that Susan had hated Steve for confessing his love for her.

“Did she tell you that,” Alina shouted, “because she’s a lying b— if she said that.”

The argument ended with Steve ordering Jennifer and Kirk to get off of his property.

“I’m rejecting you out of my family,” Steve said on the recording. “I’ve given up on you Jenny. Just leave. Don’t even bother. Don’t even bother coming back.”

Hear what Jennifer Graves took away from her confrontation with Josh in Episode 8 of Cold: Wearing a Wire

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/jennifer-graves-wearing-a-wire-full-transcript
KSL companion story: https://www.ksl.com/article/46459734/cold-federal-law-enforcement-officer-helped-josh-powell-move