Josh Powell inferno: Finger-pointing at dispatcher, social worker
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Josh Powell’s decision to kill his young sons and himself in a gasoline-fed inferno after taking a hatchet to the boys has triggered a public outcry that more wasn’t done to protect the children. It’s also led to several questions about the events leading up to the tragedy.
Pierce County Sheriff’s Det. Ed Troyer said Wednesday that he’s displeased at how a 911 dispatcher handled the frantic phone calls from a social worker just before Sunday’s explosion. The worker had taken Charlie, 7, and his brother, Braden, 5, to Powell’s front door; the door was then shut in her face.
The social worker can be heard pleading for help, while the dispatcher at points seems unable to grasp the urgency of the situation.
Troyer told the Associated Press that he, like the media, is awaiting an official ‘call-and-dispatch’ log of the incident. But he said the dispatcher’s etiquette during the phone call, which spanned at least six minutes, does not appear to have interfered with response time. The dispatcher alerted emergency responders early in the conversation, Troyer said.
Meanwhile, law enforcement officers are reviewing the actions of the social worker, who was escorting the childen for court-mandated, supervised visits with Powell; they got into the house without her, however.
The inquiries come amid a public outcry that more should have been done by all the authorities involved to protect the children, with some saying that the tragedy could have been foreseen. Just last week, a court denied Powell’s request to regain full custody of the children and ordered him to submit to a psychosexual evaluation.
The finger-pointing is the latest turn in a tragic drama that began with the still unsolved 2009 disappearance of Powell’s wife, Susan, with allegations of child pornography, religious bias and odd law enforcement tactics along the way.
On Sunday, the social worker from Foster Care Resource Network arrived at Powell’s home in Graham, Wash. The children ‘dashed up the front walk’ and entered their father’s home, and the door was slammed shut and locked on the social worker trailing behind, according to the Tacoma News Tribune.
Authorities say Powell then used a hatchet to attack the boys before setting off a gas-fueled explosion that ripped through the home.
Audio recordings of the increasingly frantic conversations that the social worker had with a 911 operator have been released, starting with her report that she’d been locked out by Powell.
‘I think I need help right away,’ the social worker said. ‘He’s on a very short leash with [the state child supervision agency], and this is the craziest thing. He looked right at me and closed the door.’ She then reports the smell of gasoline, and finally her shock that Powell ‘blew up the house and kids.’
The Pierce County medical examiner said all three died of carbon monoxide poisoning, with the boys suffering chop wounds to the head and neck.
In the wake of the fatal explosion, law enforcement officials are trying to piece together a timeline for the tragedy. Early indications suggest a deliberate course of action by Powell; he reportedly sent goodbye emails to relatives and gave away his children’s toys.
Susan Powell’s parents have said they were in fear for their grandchildren’s safety given that the children, now older and better able to verbalize, had begun talking about the night their mother disappeared. The older boy reportedly even drew a picture depicting his mother in the trunk of the family car.
Deputies seized Powell’s sister’s cellphone to access the emails and phone calls he might have left before Sunday’s conflagration, the News Tribune reported Wednesday.
The Foster Care Resource Network, meanwhile, released a statement expressing its grief and shock. ‘All of us send our condolences to the boys’ family, especially the boys’ maternal grandparents.’
The statement said that the social worker ‘is horrified over what happened to these wonderful children with whom she has worked with for months and has come to love.’
The statement also said that police and the state’s Department of Social and Health Services are investigating the circumstances surrounding the tragedy, and that the network would not address any additional media questions for fear of interfering with that investigation.
The tragedy has outraged residents from Washington to Utah, with many saying that social workers cannot be held to blame, that the blame lies with the court system.
‘Let’s take the big spotlight off [child protective services] and swing it around where it belongs: on the court,’ said one commenter at the New Tribune website. ‘It upsets me that many are laying the blame on’ child protective services, said another, contending that they were simply carrying out a court order. ‘The person ultimately responsible for the children’s safety was Pierce County Superior Court Judge Kathryn Nelson.’
A spokesman for the court was not available for comment by the time this story was posted.
In other developments, the Salt Lake Tribune reports that tips are pouring in about Susan Powell’s disappearance, and an attorney for her parents is offering a glimpse at the unusual police tactics allegedly employed in the search for the missing mother.
-- Rene Lynch
Twitter / renelynch