Missing mom: Susan Powell's parents cast doubt on husband's story

Worry » Missing mom's parents plead with son-in-law to come forward with any info of woman's whereabouts.
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About 900 miles northwest of where the Utah search for Susan Powell finished its thirteenth unsuccessful day, family and friends of the missing West Valley City mother are shocked that the upbeat girl-next-door they know is at the center of a national news story.

In Susan's hometown of Puyallup, she's remembered as the Rogers High School teenager who spelled out "UR A FLAKE" in Corn Flakes in the front yard of a boy she liked, then ran away from the scene giggling with friends.

She's the young woman who earned a scholarship to beauty school to pursue her philosophy that "people should be pretty" and it was her job to make them that way, said her father, Chuck Cox.

She's considered by friends to be the gregarious life of the party, who, despite her sweet demeanor, never shied from providing a frank opinion about any situation.

Those personality traits, along with her responsible nature and reputation as a devoted mother, is what makes her disappearance puzzling and alarming to those who know her best in Puyallup.

"Susan wasn't one to go off quietly into the night. She isn't some mousy little girl who is off hiding somewhere," Chuck Cox said in an interview at the family's Puyallup home. "If she could contact us, she certainly would. The idea that she was sleeping or getting ready for bed at 12:30 a.m. and [her husband] said 'I'm leaving with the boys to go camping' ... I don't think so. No way."

What isn't perplexing to several in the community of 36,000, located at the base of Mount Rainer about 35 miles south of Seattle, is that Susan's husband, Joshua Powell, is a person of interest in the case that many fear may have a tragic end.

West Valley City police have questioned Joshua Powell, 34, repeatedly for information about how his 28-year-old wife could have abruptly vanished. So far, Powell's vague and odd responses have left investigators and Susan's family with more questions than answers.

Chuck Cox initially expressed his support for his son-in-law, saying suspicion about Joshua Powell's potential involvement overshadowed the need to consider other possibilities surrounding Susan's disappearance.

But as more time passes with no sign of Susan, he and his wife, Judy, have changed their minds about the possibility of Joshua's involvement, pleading with their son-in-law to come forward with any knowledge he has about Susan's whereabouts.

The family is starting to publicly admit frustrations and concerns they've had with their son-in-law's behavior over the years -- reservations they've previously kept to themselves to support their daughter and her family.

"We want to support him, but frankly the story he tells just doesn't come close. Our daughter was not afraid of him. She would stand up to him. If he was taking her children out in that kind of weather, she wouldn't have let him," Chuck Cox said.

"He might tell her he was going to do that, but she would do whatever she needed to do to prevent that."

When asked whether they were happy about their daughter's relationship with Joshua Powell, Chuck and Judy Cox were silent for a moment.

"She was happy," Chuck Cox said about his daughters' decision to marry Powell about a year after graduating from high school. "With daughters, they decide who they're going to get married to and when they're going to get married and you say 'Yes dear, sounds good to me,' because they're going to do it anyway."

Now the Coxes are left wondering: What exactly happened behind closed doors in their daughter's marriage? And is that connected to her inexplicable disappearance?


Life of the party

Chuck and Judy Cox said their daughter made the best out of challenging situations from the time she was a little girl.

The third of four daughters born to the Coxes, Susan as a child was known for her striking looks, energetic personality and playful jokes. She moved with her family from her birthplace in New Mexico to Alaska and Vancouver, Wash., before the Coxes settled in Puyallup in 1991.

As a teenager, Susan loved to sing and participated in high school choir. Known as a "girly girl," she relished having three sisters to share in her enjoyment of clothes, hair and makeup: Mary, 32; Denise, 30; and Marie, 25.

Her spunky personality made her popular among classmates, said Andrea Thomas, who met Susan in an eighth-grade English class and was her friend through high school.

"She knew how to have fun," said Thomas, 27, who last communicated Dec. 6 with her on Facebook.

"We'd hang out on the weekends, we went to slumber parties at her house. We liked to talk about boys and be silly that way."

When Susan neared the end of high school, her father asked her what she would like to do. Beauty school seemed like the right fit. She attended Gene Juarez in nearby Federal Way, Wash., and then secured jobs at Regis and Supercuts salons, where her friendly attitude earned her a steady stream of clients.

Susan met Josh when she was 18 at a singles ward of the LDS Church in Puyallup. A short time later, the two married at the LDS Portland Temple and found an apartment together a few miles away from the Coxes.

Chuck and Judy Cox worked to get to know their new son-in-law, who Chuck Cox said has an "interesting" sense of humor that people don't understand.

He grew frustrated with his son-in-law, who would arrive hours late to family dinners or other functions. Joshua Powell's behavior was an odd departure from the way Chuck and Judy Cox raised Susan, they said.

Some of Susan's friends were also put off by Joshua's seemingly anti-social and awkward behavior.

The Coxes silently wondered if Joshua had a possible mental illness, knowing he had a relative that suffered from bipolar disorder. But Joshua's family summed up the man's eccentric behavior as "Josh is just Josh," Chuck Cox said.

They also had "issues" with Joshua's father, Steven Powell, who could not be reached for comment for this story. A man who answered the door of a Puyallup home believed to belong to Steven Powell refused to speak to a Salt Lake Tribune reporter. The Coxes said Steven Powell isn't actively helping with the search for Susan.


Susan and Joshua Powell moved to Utah about five years ago, after stints working in assisted-living facilities in Yakima and Olympia, Wash., didn't provide them with enough income to start a family.

The couple picked Utah because Joshua's sister, Jennifer Graves, and his mother lived there, Chuck Cox said.

Susan quickly made friends in Utah, including Kiirsi Hellewell, who has been vigilant in organizing grass-roots efforts to find Susan. Kiirsi, along with Jennifer Graves, were the first to inform the Coxes that Susan was missing.

The Coxes worried about Joshua and Susan's move to Utah, knowing the couple's history of financial difficulties. Chuck Cox said his daughter would occasionally ask him to talk to Joshua for her when he seemed to be on the brink of making a questionable financial decision.

His son-in-law was usually receptive to Cox's advice, he said.

After Susan's disappearance, court records revealed that she and Joshua had about $200,000 in debt, including a large amount of credit card debt.

Susan gave up her goal of working as a hairstylist shortly after relocating to Utah to help Joshua with his real estate business. She later worked with Fidelity and got a job at Wells Fargo, working as an assistant stockbroker, where she helped people with transactions over the phone.

Susan tended to fall into the role as the family's main breadwinner as Joshua tried to make his career work, Chuck Cox said. The couple had two boys, Charlie, 4 and Braden, 2.

Chuck Cox visited his daughter and grandchildren every three to six months, when his job as a safety inspector for the government brought him to Salt Lake City.

Aware that his daughter and her husband had "typical" problems, he believed on a recent visit that her relationship with Joshua had taken a turn for the better. The couple underwent marriage counseling, Chuck Cox said, which encouraged his daughter.

"We were constantly asking her, 'How are things?' And she was telling us that they were better," Chuck Cox said. "And now hearing things ... I think she wasn't telling us the whole story."

"I think she just didn't want us to worry," Judy Cox added. "She wanted to make things work."

Still, the family reached out to Susan out of concern that a day might come when she needed their assistance.

Chuck Cox said he bought his daughter a cell phone when she moved to Utah so she could use it for emergencies. Joshua Powell knew about the phone, he said, but he and Judy paid the bill each month to ensure his daughter had a way to call them.

"We wanted her to be able to call us whenever she wanted -- just on the off chance that if something ever got really weird -- we wanted to cover all of our bases so she could call us for help," he said.



Chuck Cox didn't hear about his daughter's disappearance from her husband until two days after she went missing.

Joshua Powell called Chuck Cox the Tuesday after Susan disappeared, a day after "the entire state was already looking for her," Chuck Cox said.

Since then, he has seen his son-in-law once when in Salt Lake City and spoke with him over the phone once. Joshua behaved strangely in both encounters and claimed he doesn't know what happened to Susan, Chuck Cox said.

He said he has spoken with Joshua's mother in West Valley City, who along with Joshua's sister, Jennifer Graves, is committed to finding out the truth about what happened to Susan. Jennifer's husband, Kirk, has said in previous media interviews that he thinks Joshua could be arrested in connection with Susan's disappearance.

Those comments are disturbing to the Coxes, who are concerned about the well-being of their two grandsons, although Chuck Cox has said Joshua has always been a good father.

"They know him better than we do -- for them to say that, it's like, 'Wow,'" Judy Cox said of Graves' comment.

Chuck Cox said he was careful not to point a finger at his son-in-law at first when news about his daughter broke, in part because of the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping case, where the wrong suspects were initially targeted. But he said he had his own suspicions about Joshua from the start, especially after seeing TV interviews in which a seemingly befuddled Joshua speaks of "making s'mores" and hiking on trails somewhere "down south" in the middle of a snowstorm with his two young children.

He said it's excruciating to hear his 4-year-old grandchild, Charlie, talking about "Mommy being lost."

"That's all he knows," Chuck Cox said. "He's too young to understand."


Holding out hope

The Coxes draw inspiration from Ed Smart, Elizabeth Smart's father, who has been in contact with the family and is encouraging them to speak to the media to keep Susan's face in the public spectrum.

"We're hoping Susan will become the next Elizabeth Smart," Judy Cox said, explaining that she hopes her daughter will be found alive and well. She said she vacillates between sustaining hope that Susan will be found OK and preparing herself for the possibility that her daughter won't be returning home.

Chuck Cox has done more than 40 interviews about his missing daughter, including appearances on national shows including "Larry King Live," "Good Morning America" and "The Today Show" -- a pattern he wants to continue so he can "shout Susan's name from the rooftops."

He said Christmas won't be the same without Susan this year. Chuck Cox is instead planning to return to Salt Lake City soon, indefinitely, as the search for his daughter continues.

As word spreads in her hometown about the case, neighbors are reaching out to the Coxes. Carrie Mandt, who lives two doors down from Chuck and Judy Cox, left a candle and card outside the family's nativity scene on Friday evening.

Mandt said everyone in Washington who knows Susan and the Coxes want to help.

"None of us know what to do. We don't feel like we can go down there and find her," Mandt said. "Our prayers are with them."

For Susan's longtime friends, like Andrea Thomas, seeing the missing woman's face on the national news is surreal.

"I think, 'This must be Laci Peterson or some other person,'" Thomas said, referring to the 2002 case of the pregnant California woman murdered by her husband. "I keep thinking, is this really Susan? Is this really happening?"


Susan Powell's disappearance

Afternoon, Dec. 6 » Neighbor JoVonna Owings dropped by the Powells' home Sunday afternoon to visit with Susan Powell. The family had pancakes for dinner. Susan, who was feeling ill, lay down for a nap about 5 p.m. Owings left, as did Joshua Powell, who said he was taking his two sons sledding.

8:30 p.m., Dec. 6 » A neighbor saw Joshua Powell as he returned home and pulled into his garage.

Midnight to 12:30 a.m, Dec. 7 » Joshua Powell says he left home with his two sons to go camping at Simpson Springs in the west desert, while Susan remained at home.

9 to 10 a.m., Dec. 7 » The Powells' day-care provider became alarmed when the couple failed to drop off their sons on schedule and she could not reach either parent by phone. She contacted Joshua Powell's mother and sister, who called police after they could not locate the pair. Police broke into the Powell home but found no one there.

Evening, Dec. 7 » Joshua Powell and his two young sons returned home between 5 and 6 p.m. He was taken to the West Valley City police station for questioning.

11 a.m., Dec. 8 » Charles Cox received a telephone call from Joshua Powell, who informed him Susan was missing and that he was about to be interviewed by police again.

Dec. 9 » Police served a search warrant on the Powell residence and removed boxes, bags and a computer.

Dec. 10 » Law officers searched the Simpson Springs area where Joshua Powell said he camped with his sons but found nothing.

Dec. 14 » Joshua Powell hired defense attorney Scott C. Williams. He skipped a third interview with police.

Dec. 15 » Joshua Powell provided a DNA sample to police.

Dec. 17 » West Valley City police subpoena Salt Lake City television stations for footage of interviews with Joshua Powell taken days after his wife's disappearance.

Dec.17 » Pierce County Sheriff's spokesman Ed Troyer confirms that authorities in the Powells' hometown of Puyallup, Wash., are assisting Utah investigators with the case. Troyer declined to say who Washington sheriff's deputies have interviewed.

Source: Salt Lake Tribune, West Valley City Police Department, Kiirsi Hellewell, Charles Cox, media reports

Vigils set for Susan Powell

Friends and family of Susan Powell are organizing vigils in Utah and her hometown of Puyallup, Wash., on Sunday.

Utah » A vigil is scheduled for 8:30 p.m. behind an LDS Church chapel at 3665 South 6000 West, West Valley City. Participants are asked to bring a candle.

Washington State » A Puyallup, Wash., vigil is scheduled for 7 p.m. at the LDS Church Ridgecrest building, 12407 Military Road East. Participants are asked to bring a candle.