A case whose sad twists and turns perplexed authorities for more than two years took a last, tragic turn Sunday when what was left of missing Utah stockbroker Susan Powell's family died in a powerful and apparently murderous fire.
Her two young sons had just arrived for a supervised visit with her husband, Josh Powell, when an explosive fire ripped through his home near Graham, Wash., killing him, 5-year-old Braden and 7-year-old Charles.
Authorities said Josh Powell, who has been a person of interest in his wife's 2009 disappearance from their Utah home during a snowstorm, is believed to have set the fast-moving blaze.
"This is pure evil. This was not a tragedy. This is the murder of two young children," Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor told reporters.
A state Child Protective Services worker had dropped off the boys for what was to have been a supervised court-ordered visit. She was about to follow the children into the house when Powell blocked her entrance and locked the door, said Sherry Hill, spokeswoman for the Washington Department of Social and Health Services.
The worker called her supervisor from her car, reported that she had smelled gas in the house, and was ordered to call 911. She did.
"And then the house blew up," Hill said in an interview.
Gary Franz of Graham Fire and Rescue said the house was "fully involved" in a scorching blaze by the time firefighters arrived. There were no other victims, he said.
Powell's lawyer, Jeffrey Bassett, had received an email from his client only moments before, although he didn't find it until two hours later. It read: "I'm sorry, goodbye."
The story of the Powell family has unfolded in increasingly improbable details since the night Josh Powell, then living with his wife in West Valley City, Utah, packed his two boys into the car in the middle of the night — in the midst of a heavy snowstorm — purportedly to take them camping.
Susan Powell, 28 at the time, has not been seen since.
Josh Powell told authorities his wife may have decided to disappear, or perhaps committed suicide.
Now, it appears that the two boys, who have been living since September with Susan's parents, Charles and Judith Cox of Puyallup, Wash., were starting to share recollections of the night their mother disappeared.
Steve Downing, the Cox family's lawyer, told the Associated Press on Sunday that the boys "were beginning to verbalize more."
"The oldest boy talked about that they went camping and that Mommy was in the trunk. Mom and Dad got out of the car and Mom disappeared," he said.
Josh Powell initially had custody of his boys and moved with them to his father's house in Washington state not long after his wife's disappearance. But last September, police executing a search there discovered thousands of pornographic pictures and videos — including furtively taken shots of neighbor children in various states of undress — on a computer belonging to Powell's father, Steven Powell, then 61.
Authorities said the pictures included images of Susan Powell, with whom the elder Powell has said he had a flirtatious relationship. Her parents have vigorously denied that claim.
Josh Powell rented a home of his own after his father's arrest and returned to court last week in a bid to regain custody. "I have proven myself as a fit and loving father who provides a stable home even in the face of great adversity," he wrote in an affidavit.
But a Washington state judge ruled that in light of the computer images found in the home, Powell would have to undergo a psycho-sexual evaluation before she would consider returning custody to him.
Hill, the social services spokeswoman, said Powell was entitled to visit with the boys every Sunday from noon to 4 p.m.
"This was a regularly scheduled, supervised visit, and the court had ordered those," she said.
"We had no indication that there was going to be any harm to the children, or a suicide. And had we suspected any of those things, we would have gone immediately to the court and addressed those concerns."
Ed Troyer, a spokesman for the Pierce County Sheriff's Department, said the social worker pounded on the door and windows after the fire broke out, but she couldn't help. She is being treated for "grave emotional trauma," a department statement said.
The email to Powell's lawyer arrived 10 minutes before the fire, but Bassett told the Associated Press that he didn't see it until two hours later, after he had been notified of the conflagration.
That anyone could have helped is doubtful — police say the fire appeared to have been set with the aid of an accelerant that resulted in a hot, fast-moving blaze that swept through the house and killed all three occupants in the same room.
"The whole thing went up really, really fast in large flames, and burned really hot and really quick," Troyer said in an interview.
Although neighbors reported an explosion, he said that was probably the sound of windows popping and breaking in the blistering heat.
"There's no doubt about what happened here," he said, asserting that the fire leaves little doubt about Susan Powell's fate either.
"This is a guy who murdered his two kids and probably murdered his wife. I don't know what Utah police think, but as far as we're concerned, this is pretty close to a confession to the crime," Troyer said.
Police in West Valley City have said it is too early to draw any conclusions, but they were scheduled to fly to Washington state for new consultations. In a statement Sunday night, they said the case would remain open as they tried to find Susan Powell.
Downing told the Associated Press that the Cox family was "devastated by this horrific event."
"They were always very fearful of him doing something like this," Downing said. "And he did it."