Crime • Documents show police found saw, rake and shovel in the Powells' family van.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
One day after Susan Powell disappeared, police filed documents classifying the case as a kidnapping and murder investigation even as they continued to refer to it publicly as a missing person case and her husband as merely a "person of interest."
West Valley City detectives learned of her marital troubles, her fears that husband Josh Powell might harm her, and of her secretive efforts to make sure close friends would raise an alarm and give police a file she'd prepared in the event she turned up missing, according to newly released investigative documents.
Third District Court Judge Judith Atherton signed an order Tuesday releasing 84 documents filed in the case by West Valley City Police and the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office.
The Salt Lake Tribune worked for more than two years to get the documents disclosed. The pages are likely to add to the questions of why West Valley City police did not arrest, and Salt Lake County prosecutors did not charge, Josh Powell with a crime in his wife's disappearance. Police and prosecutors in Washington have already said there was enough evidence in the case.
The documents show that law officers heard the most telling clue about what might have happened to the young mom from Susan Powell's then 4-year-old son, Charlie. In an interview a day after his mom vanished, Charlie Powell told detectives the family had gone camping but his mother did not come home with them.
Chuck Cox, Susan's father, said there were bits and pieces in the documents that were news to him, including some of the items found in an initial search of the couple's van. The documents state police found a generator, blankets, a gas can, tarps, circular saw, humidifier, utility knife, latex gloves, rake, sleds, and a shovel.
Not exactly camping equipment, Cox noted.
"We always asked them what was in the car and they wouldn't tell us," Cox said. "We always asked them how much blood they found and they wouldn't tell us. It is kind of disappointing they wouldn't give us any details beyond what they were willing to release to the public."
Cox said he and his wife believed "every day an arrest was imminent."
"That is what we lived with for two years until Josh killed himself," he said. Josh Powell killed himself and his sons Charlie, 7, and Braden, 5, on Feb. 5 in a fire at his rented home in Graham, Wash.
Cox continues to hope that in the new documents and those yet to be released "there is something they missed that will maybe lead us to where Susan is. We still want to find our daughter," he said.
Both a West Valley City police spokesman and the Salt Lake County District Attorney had straightforward responses to why Josh Powell wasn't arrested: there wasn't enough evidence, despite what the documents appear to show.
"If we had enough to arrest him, we most certainly would have arrested him," said Sgt. Mike Powell, who is not related. "A lot of people are putting a whole ton of weight on circumstantial evidence. A lot of things are missing, there are a lot of things we don't know."
At the top of the list: "Where's Susan," he said. "That's a huge piece."
He said that by listing the case as a kidnapping and homicide investigation in court documents, investigators were able to treat it at the highest possible level something investigators continue to do.
"There have not been arrests in this case yet," Sgt. Mike Powell said. "The case is still open.
District Attorney Sim Gill, who took office in January 2011, said law enforcement had only circumstantial evidence and didn't know if a murder occurred.
"We didn't have a body. We didn't have a manner of death. We didn't know what transpired," Gill said. That left open questions about what charges prosecutors might file.
And a defense attorney would have easily been able to poke holes in any case brought to trial based on the early evidence, Gill said.
Gill said both police and prosecutors were "working toward bringing a resolution in the case" shortly before Josh Powell killed himself and his sons.
Much of the information in the documents elaborates on what has already been made public since Susan Powell was last seen on Dec. 6, 2009.
In their first search of the missing mom's West Valley City home, investigators found two fans positioned to blow on a living room sofa, which Josh Powell told them he had cleaned before leaving for a midnight camping trip near Cedar Fort. A second search turned up blood evidence not only on the sofa, but on nearby carpet and a tile floor.
In an affidavit filed on Dec. 14, 2009, in support of a search warrant, West Valley City Detective Larry Marx said he "believes someone was injured and lost blood while on the sofa inside the residence."
Forensic tests later showed it was Susan's blood.
From the first day, Josh Powell said things that did not add up. JoVonna Owings, a friend who is believed to be the last non-family member to speak to Susan Powell, was the first to speak to Josh Powell about his missing wife. He told Owings he was driving around West Valley City and was unaware his wife had not shown up for work though friends knew the couple had just one car and Josh Powell usually drove his wife to and from work.
His sister Jennifer Graves reached him next, about 5:27 p.m. on Dec. 7, 2009, and asked where he was; he claimed he was at work and Graves told him she knew that was a lie. Graves told her brother his wife was missing, police were at his home and urged him to return. He then asked how much she knew and when she expressed surprise at the question, Josh Powell hung up.
Police then used Graves' phone to call Josh Powell and he arrived home at 6:40 p.m. Police questioned initially outside his home and later at a West Valley City police substation. In that interview, Josh Powell told the camping story, explaining that when he'd left home Susan was in bed and he did not know she had failed to show up for work. That same evening, Josh Powell allowed police to search his van and to walk through the couple's home, which is when law enforcement saw the fans and located Susan's intact purse.
The next day, Josh Powell showed up four hours late for a second interview. He gave the same chronology of events; police noted he never asked about the investigation into his wife's disappearance. At one point, he cut off the interview, saying he wanted to speak with an attorney. He voluntarily handed over his cell phone but detectives later found the SIM card had been removed.
Josh Powell left the station as investigators conducted a second search of his van and, detectives later learned, went that evening to the Salt Lake City International Airport to rent a car. He kept the car for two days and drove it 800 miles.
Josh Powell subsequently refused to speak with police or to take a lie detector test. Within 10 days of his wife's disappearance, Josh Powell had cancelled Susan Powell's upcoming chiropractic appointments, told their day care provider the children would not be returning and withdrawn all the money in his wife's IRA accounts.
Friends and family continued to tell police the same thing: Susan Powell would never have left without her children.
Law enforcement heard about the strange comments Josh Powell had made at his wife's Christmas work party about "how to kill someone, dispose of the body and not get caught" and how Utah's west desert, riddled with mine shafts and tunnels, was the perfect place to "dispose of someone and no one would ever search for the body," one affidavit states.
By April 2010, investigators knew Josh Powell had been deceitful about numerous issues. They knew that after listening to voice messages left on his cell phone by police concerned about Susan's whereabouts, Josh Powell had called her phone and left a message asking if she needed a ride home.
That April 2010 search warrant also reveals details of an interview investigators had with Steve Powell about Susan Powell's disappearance. Steve Powell told police that he and his daughter-in-law were in love and he claimed she was "very sexual" toward him. He claimed that Susan Powell had once rubbed his crotch with her foot and had given him a back massage.
Steve Powell told investigators that she told him their "flirtatious relationship could never be in the open due to her Mormon religion," the search warrant affidavit states.
Steve Powell denied having anything to do with Susan Powell's disappearance; through others, police learned Steve Powell had wanted the couple to move into his Puyallup, Wash., home and wanted Susan Powell to act as a wife to both of them.
But detectives said that in her private journals Susan Powell repeatedly described Steve Powell as a negative influence, a "pedophile" and wrote about "how hard it is for her to forgive Steve Powell for what [he] has said. Susan states how she does not want Steve Powell involved in her life, her children's life, and how she wishes Josh Powell would eliminate Steve Powell from his life."
That section concludes: "There were no positive writings about Steve Powell in Susan Powell's journal."
In May 2010, Steve Powell allowed police to search the Washington home he then shared with Josh Powell, his grandsons and two other of his adult children. In a locked cabinet in Steve Powell's bedroom, police found numerous images of Susan Powell, including some of her clad only in underwear.
It was then that police also found images of nude women on whom Susan Powell's face had been superimposed, as well as photos of Steve Powell masturbating as an image of Susan Powell was displayed on a television screen.
When asked about the images, Steve Powell admitted taking some himself and claimed he had taken others off of Josh Powell's computer without him knowing.
During a second search at Steve Powell's home in August 2011, police seized Susan Powell's journals, as well as all digital storage devices in the home they believed might have copies of the journals and "additional information, evidence, and or leads to bring closure to this investigation."
In that search warrant, detectives specifically cited songs or writings by Steve Powell about his lust for his daughter-in-law. They seized the surreptitious images Steve Powell had taken of his daughter-in-law. And in the bedroom of John Powell, one of Josh's younger brothers who also lived in the home, detectives found a sandwich bag full of human hair, though there is no indication in the documents whose hair it is.
Much of the search warrants focus on the days immediately after Susan Powell disappeared.
In his affidavit, Marx said during an initial interview Josh Powell said he left the couple's West Valley City home between 12:30 a.m. and 1 a.m. to go camping near Cedar Fort to test a newly purchased generator.
Josh Powell claimed to not know where his wife was and "did not appear to have any concern at this time for her welfare."
In addition to other items found in a search of the couple's Chrysler Town and Country van, police found Susan's cell phone stashed in the vehicle's center console. The SIM card was missing.
"This phone was off and upon finding it Mr. Powell appeared nervous and could not account for the phone being in the vehicle," according to a different affidavit taken from West Valley City Detective Ellis Maxwell.
Josh Powell seemed unresponsive when Maxwell told him that Susan Powell's purse, filled with her credit cards, identification and other personal items, was left in the home. What Maxwell didn't mention in that interview was that investigators also had found a key to Susan's secret safety deposit box.
In the early stages of the investigation, detectives learned Susan Powell planned to leave her husband and that she was deeply uncomfortable with her father-in-law Steve Powell, whom they were told wanted his daughter-in-law to live as his "second wife."
The initial documents filed in court contained numerous errors, listing the date of Susan Powell's disappearance as "November 7, 2009" and referring to her father Chuck as "Richard."
Chuck Cox told investigators that Josh Powell was mentally abusive to his wife and created a controlling environment that limited her social interaction with others.
Court documents filed on Dec. 9, 2009, show that former Salt Lake County Prosecutor Lohra Miller submitted an application and received court approval to conduct an investigation into Susan Powell's potential kidnapping and murder. The approval allowed the DA's office to "subpoena witnesses, compel their attendance and testimony ... and require the production of books, papers, documents, recordings and any other item which constitute evidence or which may be relevant to the investigation."
Atherton's order also included information about Josh Powell's rights if he were to be charged with any crime. The judge ordered the DA's office to maintain an investigative file on the case that included all motions made to the court, all orders signed by the court related to the investigation, copies of all subpoenas and descriptions of documents and evidence produced from those subpoenas.
After receiving approval to conduct an investigation, prosecutors subpoenaed and interviewed West Valley City Detective Darrell Dain, reviewing documents related to Susan Powell's case a sign that prosecutors were considering charges in the case.
But that never happened, and the investigation churned along.
Atherton approved a secrecy order from the DA's office on Dec. 18, 2009, to keep evidence, facts and testimony related to Susan Powell's disappearance under wraps. The request from prosecutor Sandi Johnson stated that shebased on information from Dain believed that disclosing information about the case would possibly impede the investigation.
"There is a reasonable likelihood that releasing the identity of these witnesses or the substance of these witness' testimony would result in a possibility of harm to persons or would impede the investigation, and disclosure would pose a risk of harm to a person's reputation or privacy," Johnson's request states.
On Dec. 31, 2009, Dain filed an affidavit seeking court approval to review Josh and Susan Powell's bank and other records including any documents "indicating spousal abuse, both verbal and physical, journals indicating marital discord, furthermore to include any documents indicating travel, camping sites, family vacations taken in the western desert of Utah." Dain also told the judge he wanted to review transactions made in the couples' bank accounts and an application for a $500,000 life insurance policy in Susan Powell's name.
The detective also sought a subpoena for "uncut or original visual" interviews local television stations had conducted with Josh Powell and other potential witnesses in the case.
By that point, law enforcement had already requested the couple's cell phone records.
The last call on Susan Powell's phone was made at 2:29 p.m. on Dec. 6, 2009, to Owings. Josh Powell called his father at 12:14 p.m. that same day. One affidavit said Steve Powell later said his son had called him for a pancake recipe.
Owings told police she had spent the afternoon with Susan Powell, helping her untangle yarn. Josh Powell prepared them a pancake dinner late that afternoon, and Susan Powell had become tired afterward and gone to take a nap. Owings left the home about 5 p.m., when Josh Powell left to take their sons sledding.
The documents were sealed in December 2009, immediately after Susan Powell disappeared from her West Valley City home. The Tribune filed a motion to have the investigative documents unsealed on Dec. 29, 2009.
In March 2010, Atherton agreed to let lawyers for the newspaper review the documents on an "attorney-eyes only" basis to see whether West Valley City had legitimate reasons to keep them sealed.
"We reviewed them, determined the court had a legitimate basis for its closure order at that time early in the investigation and withdrew our motion to unseal," said Michael O'Brien, the Tribune's attorney.
Atherton then entered an order for the first time explaining publicly why the files were sealed.
The Tribune refiled its motion to unseal some documents in March following the deaths of Josh Powell and the couple's two sons and the release of thousands of pages of documents by Washington's child welfare agency. More negotiations with the city and with the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office ensued.
"Both have now agreed with our arguments that many parts of these sealed records should be unsealed and made public," O'Brien said.
The documents released Monday, which include many redactions, are a majority of the records filed with the court, but O'Brien said "parts of the investigative documents will remained sealed for now."
"We have not agreed that this action is proper, but rather reserved our rights and simply asked that the documents that indisputably should be unsealed be released to the public right now," he said.