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Just as she has many times in the past year, Denise Cox spent part of her day Tuesday driving 10 miles from her Bonney Lake, Wash., home to the quiet grave that is the final resting place for her nephews.
A photo of 5-year-old Braden Powell and his 7-year-old brother Charlie sitting with their mother, Susan, is etched into a charcoal-gray headstone. Pinwheels, toy cars, dinosaurs, flowers and superhero figurines sit nearby: Some new, some left the day the two brothers were lowered into the ground together in a shared casket.
"Already it has been a tough day," said Denise Cox, from her home in Washington of the one year anniversary of her nephews' murder. "I'll be lighting a candle for them," she said of Charlie and Braden. "I'm lighting one for my sister as well."
A year ago Tuesday, Charlie and Braden died after their father, 36-year-old Josh Powell, attacked them with a hatchet and set fire to his Graham-area rental home. All three perished inside. At the time, Powell was locked in a bitter custody dispute with his in-laws and things weren't working out in his favor in court. He wrote in a suicide message that he couldn't live without his boys.
The investigation into Susan Powell's disappearance remains open, but Cox and her family have received little information from West Valley police following last year's deaths.
Tuesday's milestone was a somber reminder that unanswered questions about the missing woman linger, said Cox, who believes her late brother-in-law killed her sister.
"It's hard because I want to bring Susan home. I want a place where I can visit her everyday, like I can visit the boys," she said.
In the year since the boys' death, the Cox family has weathered the trial of Josh Powell's father, Steve Powell, who was convicted last spring on voyeurism charges involving his neighbors. Steve Powell is in prison and the Coxes have maintained he knows what happened to his daughter-in-law.
Cox's parents, Chuck and Judy, also are in a legal battle with Josh Powell's siblings over insurance policies he took out while plotting his suicide.
Those hardships took a backseat Tuesday as the family remembered the boys. Vigils are planned for Tuesday evening in both West Valley City and Washington.
Cox clings to a photo of she and Braden taken at a basketball game shortly before the boys died.
"That day Braden was playing with my kids and bumped his head he wanted his Aunt Denise," she said, referencing the photo, where the young boy is shown in her bear hug. "They had to pry him out of my arms because he didn't want to let go."
In her living room sits a fish tank she'd purchased for Charlie's 7th birthday a month before the boy died.
A snowstorm prevented her from delivering her nephew's present on the day of his birthday party and it wasn't until a few weeks later that she coordinated a time to bring the new fish tank over: the evening of Feb. 5.
The tank is a daily reminder of the boys now, she said. Photos of them sit nearby, along with a "Cars" themed pillow that Braden slept on each night and a giant teddy bear Charlie loved.
She skipped the Super Bowl on Sunday, not able to stomach remembering what happened on game day a year ago.
Life goes on each day because it has to, she said. But there are days when the events surrounding her sisters' disappearance and unresolved questions overwhelm her.
"I have been able to grieve very little for the fact of it's not all over," Cox said. "Until they find Susan, I won't be able to truly grieve."
Vigils in two states Tuesday
A candlelight vigil will be held at 7 p.m. in West View Park, 4100 S. 6000 West in West Valley City
In Puyallup, Wash., a brief candlelight vigil will be held at 6 p.m. (Pacific time) at 8119 189th St. Court E.