Sunday morning, there were more than a few people who suspected that Josh Powell was a murderer. Sunday evening, there was no longer any doubt.
In between, Powell ushered his two young sons into his home in Graham, Wash., locked out the social worker who had brought them for what was supposed to be a supervised visit, and started a fire that rapidly consumed the house, himself and his two sons.
Family, friends and public servants will spend the rest of their lives agonizing over how it all could have happened. How a man who was being investigated in the 2009 disappearance of his wife, Susan, from the family's West Valley City home, and who fought in every forum available to keep custody of the couple's two young sons despite that indelible suspicion, could have been placed in a position where he could have committed such a heinous act.
Hindsight will be brutally clear. Foresight will be a little more difficult. And putting the ultimate blame on anyone other than Josh Powell will be unfair.
Even the maternal grandparents of 7-year-old Charlie and 5-year-old Braden, who had custody of the children and had every reason to mistrust their son-in-law, did not expect that Powell would do something so horrific. Our legal system does not, and should not, allow prosecutors to file murder charges without sufficient evidence, or encourage family courts to exclude an apparently loving father from the lives of his own children absent any compelling evidence.
There was, though, reason to believe that such evidence might be on the horizon. Powell had been ordered to undergo psychological tests regarding sexually explicit images found in his Utah home. The obvious conclusion is that Powell feared his relationship with his sons was near an end, and that he saw a fiery murder-suicide as the only way out.
The only way out, that is, for a sick individual who viewed his own children as possessions, who did not love them but loved the idea that he had control of their lives. A little less attention to parental rights, and a lot more attention to parental responsibilities, might have helped.
But ferreting out the next Josh Powell will be just as difficult as preventing the acts of this one. Trying too hard will mean innocent children losing honest and loving parents just so no judge or social worker will have to go through what those involved in the Powell case are suffering today.
Clearly, an intensive examination of the entire tale is necessary. There may be lessons to be learned. But one law officer noted that Sunday's tragedy was "just evil," and our ability to combat that will always, sadly, be limited.