SEATTLE -- Steven Powell, the father-in-law of missing Utah mother Susan Powell, was sentenced Friday to 30 months in prison for secretly photographing two young neighbor children in various stages of undress through the window of their home.
The sentencing in Tacoma, Wash., concluded a bizarre family epic of murder, lust and mystery that spanned three generations and two states. But Pierce County District Court Judge Ronald E. Culpepper made it clear he was sentencing Powell on the voyeurism charges before the court -- not for what he may have known about his daughter-in-law’s disappearance.
Susan Powell, with whom Steven Powell had reportedly been sexually obsessed, was living in another state with Powell’s son, Josh, when she disappeared in late 2009. Josh Powell, who was a person of interest in the case, returned with the couple’s two children to be near his father in Washington state but killed both the boys and himself in an explosive house fire in February.
“There’s of course very good reason to think that Josh Powell caused the death personally of his wife. And people want someone to be punished for that. Mr. Steven Powell, so far as I know, there’s no indication that he was involved in that, and I think it’s appropriate that he be punished for what he did,” the judge said.
The voyeurism case involved large numbers of images Powell, 62, allegedly shot from the window of his home into a neighboring home, depicting two young girls, then 8 and 10 years old, taking a bath and using the toilet.
Though they were largely not entered into evidence in the case, a large number of images of Susan Powell in partial undress were also found by police -- apparently taken surreptitiously -- as well as photos of naked women upon which Susan Powell’s face had been imposed.
A pre-sentence report, obtained by the Salt Lake Tribune newspaper, said Steven Powell’s journals had a large number of entries in which he discussed his romantic love for his daughter-in-law and said he believed the feeling was becoming mutual. Her family, however, has said she was repulsed by her father-in-law and tried to get away from him.
“He noted how much he loved her and wanted to be with her, and he penned on many different entries that he wished she and her husband Joshua would split up so that Mr. Powell could marry Susan,” the pre-sentence investigator wrote.
It said Steven Powell wrote about taking his daughter-in-law’s underwear and used tampons. Susan Powell confided to a family member that Steven Powell had suggested at one point that he and his son “share Susan sexually.” She was “creeped … out” by the idea, she told the relative.
Prosecutors had urged the judge to imprison Powell for at least 10 years. “He has never even acknowledged that his actions were wrong,” deputy Pierce County prosecutor Grant Blinn argued.
The neighbor girls’ mother, who has not been identified to protect the family’s privacy, also urged a substantial sentence.
“You’ve sat there smugly and acted as though it’s perfectly normal to have committed your crimes,” she said.
But defense attorney attorney Mark Quigley argued for a year in the county jail, which he noted as the top end of the standard-range sentence for such a crime.
“Not to diminish the crime, and I appreciate the victims’ mother speaking today. I know this is obviously difficult for their family,” he said. “[But] these girls were never physically harmed, physically touched. Their privacy was invaded upon, there’s no question about that, but there’s no evidence that these pictures were going to be disseminated on the Internet. There’s no evidence that Mr. Powell ever stepped foot on their property. He clearly committed this within his own home.”
Powell himself elected not to speak, despite some prompting by the judge.
“A lot of people are curious what you might have to say,” Culpepper said.
Powell scrunched his face and shook his head. “No sir,” he replied.
In imposing the three-year term, Culpepper also ordered Powell, at least for now, to stay off the Internet and refrain from owning cameras and camcorders. He said he was taking into consideration the serious nature of the crime and Powell’s long history in a family that “had a great schism in it.”
“Mr. Powell … has obviously a longstanding sexual deviance involving voyeurism -- self-gratification, he calls it -- with voyeuristic photos. He’s been doing that for a long time. It’s been addressed, it’s led to lots of problems,” Culpepper said, adding that “we don’t know what effect” Powell’s preferences had on his late son.
“There’s something seriously wrong with Mr. Powell’s view of women in the world,” the judge said.