Within hours of Susan Powell’s disappearance in Utah in 2009, police began focusing their suspicion on her husband, Josh Powell. But the power of their case didn’t become clear until Friday, with the release of search warrants that detail the astonishing fabric of deception Powell weaved in the hours after his wife went missing.
The documents, unsealed in Pierce County, Wash., reveal that police found Susan Powell’s blood on the floor of the home she shared with Powell, not far from a wet, freshly cleaned sofa. Her purse was undisturbed in the couple’s bedroom and her cellphone was in her husband’s car — a fact, one of many, he couldn’t explain.
Indeed, the documents are replete with evidence that Powell lied to nearly everyone around him about his whereabouts, secretly took the SIM card out of his wife’s cellphone, canceled all her future chiropractor appointments and withdrew the money from her retirement account.
Meanwhile, Susan Powell had placed a will and a note in a safe deposit box, stapled along the edges with instructions that it not be shown to her husband. In it, she said her husband had threatened to “destroy” her if they got divorced and that, if she died, “it may not be an accident.”
The new revelations, contained in warrants obtained to search the house in which Powell was living in Puyallup, Wash., are again raising questions about why police in Utah never filed charges against Powell, who died Feb. 5 after attacking his two young sons with a hatchet and setting his home ablaze.
“Based on the facts we know, we would have charged Josh Powell with Susan Powell’s murder if it had occurred in Pierce County, but it didn’t,” said Mark Lindquist, prosecutor in Pierce County. Powell had returned there after his wife’s disappearance to live with his father, Steven Powell.
Police chief Thayle “Buzz” Nielsen in West Valley City, Utah, where the couple lived, said at a news conference Friday that the investigation remains open. “My department is committed to finding Susan and figuring out what happened to her,” Nielsen said, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.
Lohra Miller, who was the prosecutor in Salt Lake County at the time of Susan Powell’s disappearance, told the Tribune that police never presented the case for full consideration. In any event, she said, the facts laid out in the search warrants were insufficient -- in her mind -- to bring a case without risk of reasonable doubt.
The documents also contain abundant new details about the apparent infatuation Powell’s father had for Susan — a fact he reportedly admitted to police following his arrest in Pierce County on charges of voyeurism and child pornography.
The elder Powell had photos of himself masturbating in front of a video image of Susan Powell, a photo of her in the bathroom in her underwear, apparently taken surreptitiously, and also several images of nude female bodies, their heads replaced with the face of Susan Powell.
Though Steven Powell has said he and his daughter-in-law had a flirtatious relationship, her journals show she thought he was a pedophile and a “negative influence” on her husband. She wrote of how she wished her husband would eliminate his father from his life.
The most compelling revelations center around the days after Susan Powell failed to show up for work on Monday, Dec. 7, 2009 — prompting friends and family members to try to figure out where she was.
Family friend Jovanna Owings, who had visited the couple the evening before, reached Josh Powell on his cellphone at 3:03 p.m. that Monday. He told her he was driving around town with his boys and was not aware that his wife had not shown up for work — though since the couple had only one car, he normally drove his wife to and from work.
Forensic work showed that Powell next drove 20 miles south out of West Valley City and called his own voicemail, followed by a call to his wife’s mobile phone, during which he left a message saying he and their two boys had just returned from a middle-of-the-night camping trip he’d taken them on the night before, and asking if she needed a ride home from work.
The problem with that story, according to the affidavit, is that Susan Powell’s phone was in her husband’s car on the center console, switched off (a fact he couldn’t explain when police asked him about it).
At 5:27 p.m., Josh Powell’s sister, Jennifer Graves, called her brother, asking him where he’d been. When he said he was at work, she accused him of lying, at which point he said he was camping and, not long after, hung up.
When he returned home about an hour later, a police detective asked why he hadn’t answered his phone all day, and Powell answered that he had had to keep the phone off to conserve the battery because he didn’t have a phone charger. “Det. Maxwell clearly saw Joshua Powell’s mobile phone sitting on the center console plugged into a cigarette lighter phone charger,” the affidavit said.
Asked why he hadn’t called in to report he would not be at work that day, Powell told police he had gone on the sudden camping trip to check out his new generator and had thought the next day was Sunday, not Monday. When he realized the mistake, he said, he figured he was going to be fired and so never called his employer.
When police searched Powell’s car, they found a generator, blankets, a gas can, tarps and a shovel, along with his wife’s cellphone — minus the SIM card.
Not long after that, Powell stopped answering questions and wanted a lawyer. But detectives talked with family friends, who said Susan had talked of divorcing her husband, and Powell had made comments to someone “about how to kill someone, dispose of the body and not get caught.” Another said Powell had talked about how the western desert of Utah was full of mine shafts and tunnels “so you could dispose of someone and no one would ever search for the body.”
After leaving the police station Tuesday (with his car still in police custody), Powell rented a car about 10:30 p.m. at Salt Lake International Airport. He also bought a new cellphone, which he activated the next afternoon about 80 miles north of Salt Lake City. He returned the car at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 10, having driven it more than 800 miles.
On Dec. 14, seven days after his wife went missing, Powell contacted the family day-care provider and informed them that the children would not be coming back. A day later, he canceled all of his wife’s future chiropractor appointments. On Dec. 17, he emptied her individual retirement account.
Finally, detectives talked to one of the couple’s two boys, the 7-year-old identified only as C.P. “Mommy went camping with them, although she did not come back home with him,” detectives said he told them in their interview. “He did not know why.”
Later, though, C.P. was warned at Sunday school by an unwitting teacher that she was going to go get his parents if he didn’t stop misbehaving.
“C.P. stated with no emotion and with no hesitation, ‘My mom is dead.’”