This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
One thing became clear after Josh Powell's first conversation with police: He was a liar.
The first fib came moments after Powell drove up to his West Valley City home in the early evening of Dec. 7, 2009. A detective walked up to Powell's blue minivan and asked why he had not answered his cellphone earlier, as family, friends and police launched a frantic search for him, his wife, Susan Cox Powell, and their two sons. Powell, who rolled down the vehicle's passenger-side window to speak with Detective Ellis Maxwell, responded that he had turned off the device to conserve its battery since he had not brought along a charger when he left home after midnight to go camping in Utah's West Desert. But Maxwell had a clear view of the van's console, where he saw Powell's cellphone plugged into a charger.
In two interviews one that evening, the second a day later Powell was evasive, made disjointed and sometimes-contradictory statements and appeared remarkably unconcerned about where his missing wife might be. Some parts of his story checked out. But thousands of investigative documents, released last month after police closed the case, show that within a month of Susan's disappearance, detectives were highly suspicious of Powell as they noted discrepancies in his story, tracked his strange behavior and cataloged the couple's marital troubles.
"It appears they had probable cause within the first few days, if not the first few weeks," argued Seattle attorney Anne Bremner, who represents Chuck and Judy Cox, Susan's parents.
Not so, said West Valley City Police Sgt. Mike Powell, who points out the initial investigation began as a missing-person case and that it's "not a crime for someone to leave their husband."
"There were possible criminal overtones from the beginning, but you can't put someone in jail on assumptions," said Mike Powell, who is not related to the family. "You have to have solid information to be able to put someone in jail and be able to keep them there."
Conflicting stories • Police found two things to be initially suspicious when they broke into the Powell home on Sarah Circle that Monday morning after family and friends reported they were unable to locate the couple: The stereo was loudly playing a local radio station, and Susan's purse, with her keys, was in the master bedroom.
Neither had shown up at work and calls to the couple's cellphones went straight to voice mail for much of the day.
It was not until that afternoon that a family friend reached Powell on his cellphone and alerted him his wife was missing and police were at his home. Powell sat down with police for his first interview four hours later and gave vague, meandering answers to many questions about the previous day's events and his decision to take the couple's two sons camping in the middle of the night.
Powell said Susan took a nap after he served a pancake brunch and awoke around 6:30 p.m. The family ate a hot dog dinner, he said, watched "Santa Claus 3" and then he read the boys a story and put them to bed.
When Maxwell asked what time he put the children to bed, Powell said, "Well, no wait, no, that's not what happened!"
Powell then said Braden, who was 2, had already gone to sleep, cuddling with his mom, when he took his son Charlie sledding at Whittier Elementary, leaving the house sometime between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m.
That version of events was at odds with what JoVonna Owings, a family friend who had spent Sunday afternoon at the Powell home, had told police earlier on Monday. Owings said she left the home around 5 p.m., after Susan lay down for a nap, and Powell left the home at the same time to take both boys sledding; she told police she watched Powell drive off.
Powell told Maxwell he returned home from sledding about 8:30 p.m., which fits with the account of a neighbor who saw Powell back his van into the garage at that time.
Powell said he read Charlie, who was 4, a story and put him to bed. He cleaned a couch at Susan's request and then they watched the movie.
Afterward, they talked for a couple of minutes, Powell said, about his plan to take the boys camping to test a newly purchased generator and cook "some morning s'mores." Susan, who had a "mad look" on her face, he said, went to bed about 12:30 a.m.
Cell phone messages • Powell said he put his sleeping sons in the minivan and left home between 1:30 a.m. and 2 a.m., driving to Tooele and then heading about 20 miles south on the Pony Express Trail. He said he drove about a mile on a side road and pulled over about 3:30 a.m. or 4 a.m., set up a generator to run a heater and a humidifier and went to sleep inside the van.
Powell told the detective he thought it was Sunday and only realized later either while driving in a snowstorm to the desert or later that morning that it was actually Monday.
Powell said he and the boys woke about 7 a.m. and he "drove them all over the place." At one point, he built a fire, cooked s'mores and then drove around some more. They saw a bunch of deer and also some sheep that were being herded by a dog and had to "wait for those to get off the road, which was pretty cool," Powell said.
That part of Powell's story appeared to check out. On Dec. 9, 2009, investigators flew over the West Desert in a Utah Highway Patrol helicopter, searching for signs of a campfire or other evidence that might validate Powell's story. Some miles northwest of Simpson Springs, they spotted a sheepherder's camp. They landed and spoke to a sheepherder who told them he had seen a minivan in the area twice Monday, traveling to and from Simpson Springs.
Powell told detectives he headed back to the Salt Lake Valley around 2 p.m., driving through Lehi, where he stopped at a self-serve car wash and then a McDonald's to get the boys something to eat. Powell claimed he tried to reach his wife as soon as he got back into cellphone range, "when I was getting onto the freeway."
Powell said he couldn't remember if Susan answered or if the phone rang or went straight to voice mail. He also told Maxwell he had no idea where his wife's cellphone was.
It didn't take police long to solve that mystery, however.
At the end of his interview Monday evening, Powell agreed to let investigators search his minivan. They found Susan's cellphone in the front console; they later discovered the SIM card that holds data was missing.
A startled Powell couldn't immediately explain why it was there, first suggesting that perhaps Susan had left it in the car. In a second interview, on Tuesday, Powell told Maxwell he had looked up a number on the phone Sunday and absent-mindedly put his wife's cellphone in his pocket.
"And once I realized it was there, I wasn't home," he said. "I instinctively just put it in the tray [in the van] but I don't even think about it when I'm camping."
Powell said he received a call from Owings "sometime later" after he left a message for his wife.
But that wasn't true.
Owings had called Powell before he called Susan, telling him that his wife was missing and police were looking for him. Powell had then checked his voice mail, undoubtedly discovering numerous messages from family and police. He then called Susan's phone and left this message:
"Hello, Susan. We are on our way back and I can't believe that somehow my brain missed a day," he said. "I thought today was Sunday. That was really, really stupid. But, anyway, hopefully, you got to work OK. Give me a call. I plan on picking you up unless you have plans after work or whatever. So, anyway, we ran into every conceivable problem and, anyway, it was kind of a nightmare. But, oh well, I mean, there was some fun out of this. Alright, I'll talk to you later, 'K, bye."
About two hours later, Powell received a call from Jennifer Graves, his sister, who also told him Susan had never arrived at work that day. Afterward, Powell, who was parked in the lot outside his wife's office building, left a second message on Susan's cellphone:
"Hello, I'm out here, so I'm just waiting for ya. I am in front. OK, talk to you soon, bye."
"She didn't go with us" • During his first interview, Powell had great difficulty providing any useful information about his wife.
He couldn't recall what Susan was wearing the last time he saw her beyond "just a crappy old shirt." He couldn't come up with names of his wife's best friends. Pressed for ideas on where to search for his wife, Powell insisted Susan would have gone to work that morning.
"Alright, but she didn't go to work, dude!" Maxwell responded.
"I mean, I think she would try to go to work," Powell said.
Powell showed up four hours late Tuesday for his second interview with police and, after lengthy questioning, Maxwell told Powell he was going to read his Miranda rights because he wanted to ask again about Susan's cellphone and "we need to eliminate you as being a person of interest." Maxwell also told Powell that he would not be allowed back into his home or to take his car.
Powell told the detective he wanted to have a few days to ponder being interviewed under oath.
"Your wife is missing, Josh, and you want to think about it for a couple days?" Maxwell asked.
Maxwell stepped out of the room and when he came back, he had news for Powell: He now planned to detain him.
"Your children are telling our detectives that mom went with you guys last night and that she didn't come back," Maxwell said.
"She did not go with us," Powell responded. "They know that she didn't go with us."
A second detective told Powell that police pay attention to what kids say because "they're honest and they never lie. They don't make things up."
"No, she was not with us," Powell said. "I didn't leave her at the Pony Express. I didn't just take her out and drop her off or even do anything."
In the end, Maxwell opted not to detain Powell, who had at that point said he wanted a lawyer. Powell's perplexing behavior continued during the next few days: He rented a car and put 807 miles on it; after reclaiming his van, he drove to Wendover and then spent two hours parked at a gravel pit in Clive.
But what really struck detectives who met with Powell and investigated Susan's disappearance is this: Powell never asked what police were doing to locate his wife.
"Not one time," Maxwell wrote in his case notes.
"It's the one-year anniversary from when Susan became missing," Maxwell wrote Dec. 7, 2010. "Nothing from Susan Powell. Up this point, Josh Powell has never inquired the status of the investigation with any law enforcement."
What Charlie Powell told police
A West Valley City detective interviewed Charlie Powell, then 4, on Dec. 8, 2009.
An affidavit released by Utah's 3rd District Court contains a more complete account of what Charlie said in that interview, which took place as West Valley City Detective Ellis Maxwell was questioning Josh Powell, the boy's father.
Asked what they had done the night before, the boy said the family had gone camping, ate s'mores and visited a dinosaur park.
"When asked what he did while camping, he stated he saw flowers, built a fire, and got to the camping spot by airplane," the court affidavit states. The boy also said they traveled home by airplane.
The investigator then asked who had come back from camping and Charlie said his mom had stayed there, where "the pretty flowers and crystals are." He told the investigator the crystals looked like "red berries," which was also where "the lizards and snakes are."