Details of Disappearance
A friend of Susan Powell visited her at her residence in the 6200 block of west Sarah Circle in West Valley City, Utah on the afternoon of Sunday, December 6, 2009. The friend, Susan, and Susan's husband of eight years, Josh, had lunch together. According to her friend, Susan was behaving normally at the time and only said she was tired and wanted to nap before dinner.
The next day, both Susan and Josh didn't show up for work or call their employers to say they would be absent, and they also failed to drop their children off at day care. Authorities issued a missing persons bulletin for Susan, Josh and their two sons, two-year-old Charlie and four-year-old Braden. Photos of Josh, Charlie and Braden are posted with this case summary.
Josh and the children returned home at 5:00 p.m., but Susan has never been heard from again. Josh said he had taken his sons camping in the desert at Simpson Springs, along the Pony Express Trail, late on Sunday night. He returned home to find Susan missing. He said he last saw Susan at their home at 12:30 a.m. on December 7, as he was setting out on the camping trip. Susan didn't go with them because she felt sick. Josh said he didn't go to work on Monday because he got confused about what day of the week it was.
Authorities quickly classified Susan's disappearance as suspicious and executed a search warrant on her home. Her family described her as a devoted mother who would not have abandoned her children, and she left her purse, keys and cellular phone behind at home.
Investigators stated on the day Susan was reported missing, they noticed a large wet spot in her home and fans blowing on it to dry it. They questioned Josh's story, stating they didn't know why he would have taken two toddlers camping in the cold weather. The temperatures during the time of the purported camping trip were well below freezing, with mixed rain and snow.
Police searched the site where Josh said he had set up camp, but they were unable to determine whether anyone had camped there recently. Braden did confirm that the trip had taken place, however.
A week after Susan's disappearance, Josh hired an attorney. Authorities named him as a person of interest in her case, and stated he hadn't cooperated with the investigation. The police briefly impounded the family's minivan and searched it. During the day that the van was in police custody, Josh rented a car to drive. Investigators later determined he'd driven it hundreds of miles before he returned it, but the car didn't have any stored GPS data to indicate where it had been driven.
A neighbor said Josh appeared at his home when it was time to return the rented car and get his van back from the police. The neighbor stated he was acting oddly, his hands were badly windburned and he kept putting lotion on them.
In January 2010, a month after Susan's disappearance, Josh packed his family's belongings, put their house up for rent and moved Puyallup, Washington with the children. Both he and Susan are originally from Washington and have relatives there.
Josh moved in with his father, Steven Powell. A photo of Steven is posted with this case summary. Josh and Steven cut off access to the children from Susan's family, including her parents, Judy and Chuck Cox. In a media interview in November 2010, Josh stated his wife was mentally unstable and he thought she had left of her own accord, possibly to be with another man, and was now afraid to return because of the media attention her disappearance had generated.
Susan's family and Josh's own sister disputed this characterization of her, but Steven supported Josh's statements. He and Josh planned to publish on their website excerpts from the diary Susan kept when she was a teenager, more than a decade before her disappearance, saying the writings were proof that she was a troubled woman and didn't get along with her parents. Susan's family got an injunction to stop the publication.
Some of Susan's neighbors stated she had been unhappy in her marriage and had spoken openly of divorce; one of her acquaintances stated Susan had been saving money for this purpose. The couple met in 2000 and married in 2001, after six months of dating. Susan was nineteen years old and Josh was twenty-five at the time of the wedding.
They had initially been happy together, but their relationship deteriorated after they moved from Washington state to Utah several years before Susan's disappearance. They filed for bankruptcy in 2007, with close than $200,000 in debt. Susan reportedly described Josh as controlling and claimed they argued frequently. She was active in her local ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), but Josh had stopped attending church services.
The couple did attend marriage counseling through their church for about four months; the counseling ended when Susan disappeared. Josh later claimed LDS members tried to alienate Susan against him and pressured her to divorce him, against her wishes, simply because he was no longer active in the church.
For about two months after her disappearance, Susan's family stood by Josh and said they didn't believe he would have harmed her. In February 2010, however, a family friend appointed as spokesperson for Susan's family told the media they'd learned that Josh had been emotionally abusing Susan for years and there was at least one episode of physical abuse as well.
The Coxes stated Josh alienated their children against Susan and limited her access to the family's bank account, even though she was the primary earner. They claimed he often didn't allocate her enough money to buy food for herself and the children, and she had to start a vegetable garden as a result.
Susan had reportedly said she planned to leave Josh on April 6, 2010, the couple's wedding anniversary, if their marriage didn't improve before then. In the aftermath of her disappearance, relations between Josh and her parents became so heated that a judge ordered him and Chuck Cox to keep at least 500 feet apart.
There was speculation that Susan's disappearance was connected to the December 2009 disappearance of 30-year-old Steven Koecher. He left his St. George, Utah home on December 12 and was last seen the next day in Nevada.
Because Koecher was about the same age as Susan and disappeared from the same state at approximately the same time, investigators looked into the possibility that their disappearances were linked. Josh actually suggested the two had run away together, possibly to Brazil, where Koecher had been before on a mission trip. Authorities could find no connection between the disappearances and no evidence that the two knew each other, however.
In September 2011, Steven was charged with voyeurism and possession of child pornography. When they searched his Washington home for evidence in Susan's disappearance in August, authorities found more than one thousand videos of women and girls as young as eight being filmed without their knowledge in various degrees of undress, including completely nude. Some of the images showed the victims taking baths, showering and using the toilet.
Police said it appeared Steven had been making the films for at least a decade. One of the women in the tapes was Susan. Steven also had pictures of other nude female bodies with their heads replaced by an image of Susan's face, and photos of himself masturbating to a video of Susan. In May 2012, Steven was convicted of fifteen charges related to the child sexual abuse images. He was sentenced to two and a half years in prison.
(Interestingly, Steven had earlier claimed Susan was "a very sexual person" and that she had wanted to have an affair with him, but Susan's family said the opposite was true and Susan and Josh had moved to Utah in part to get away from her father-in-law's unwanted sexual advances.
One of Susan's friends said she told him Steven had spied on her while she was dressing and, after she moved to Utah, she told Josh she never wanted to allow Steven inside their home. Josh admitted he was aware of his father's fixation on Susan. In her journals, Susan wrote that she thought Steven was a pedophile and a bad influence on Josh.)
Susan and Josh's children were taken into foster care following Steven's arrest. The Coxes sought, and obtained, temporary custody of them. Josh received supervised visitation twice a week, rented a new home and submitted to a psychological evaluation in his bid to regain custody.
The psychologist who evaluated Josh diagnosed him with a narcissistic personality and noted that, while he was an affectionate and attentive parent, he repeatedly said inappropriate things to Charlie and Braden about Susan's family in spite of being told not to, and believed a "militant faction" of the LDS church wanted to "kidnap" them.
Among other statements, he told the boys that "Mormon police" had put Steven in jail on false charges and were trying to do the same thing to him. He denied any inappropriate interest in pornography and any knowledge of the pornographic images on Steven's computer, but he admitted he might not have turned his father in to the police if he had known about the child sexual abuse materials.
The police in Utah had found about 400 images of cartoon sex and drawings with incestuous themes on Josh's computer in 2009, but the authorities in Washington didn't learn of this until November 2011 and didn't actually see the pictures until January.
In February 2012, the judge ordered Josh to undergo a psychosexual evaluation and polygraph test and said he could not regain custody of his sons until this was done. The next weekend, during his next visit with Charlie and Braden at his home, Josh let the boys in the house but locked the supervisor out. He then attacked the children with a hatchet and set the house on fire, killing himself and his sons almost instantly.
He left messages behind for his family and lawyer, apologizing for his actions and saying he couldn't live without his children. None of the messages mentioned Susan. Authorities stated it appeared as if he had been planning the murder/suicide for some time; he had stockpiled gasoline and given the boys' belongings away.
Josh had apparently exhibited dysfunctional behavior and violent tendencies since childhood. He attempted suicide when he was a teenager, killed his sister's pets, occasionally hit and pushed his mother and once threatened her with a butcher knife.
His parents had a difficult divorce and custody battle. Steven accused Josh's mother, Terrica, of practicing witchcraft, and Terrica stated Steven beat Josh on a regular basis and alienated all of their children against her.
Steven got custody of Josh and his two brothers, while Josh's sister went to live with their mother. Josh and his mother repaired their relationship after he reached adulthood, and she had supported his bid for custody of Braden and Charlie.
In late March 2012, newly unsealed documents revealed additional evidence police had that tied Josh to Susan's disappearance. Her blood had been found on the tile floor next to the couch in the family home and her cellular phone was in Josh's car, something he couldn't explain.
When Josh turned Susan's phone over to the police, it was turned off and missing its SIM card, the portable memory chip that stores information about the device. He later gave his own phone over to authorities and it too was missing the SIM card.
Susan had $1.5 million in insurance on her life. A short time after her disappearance, Josh began drawing on her retirement account, and he canceled all her upcoming chiropractic appointments.
She left a will in a safe deposit box registered in her name only, along with a handwritten letter addressed to her family and friends, saying Josh had threatened to "destroy" her and told her the children "will not have a mother and father" if she divorced him. The letter stated if she died, it "may not be an accident, even if it looks like one."
Charlie told the police that Susan accompanied them on the camping trip the night of her disappearance, but she didn't come back with them and he didn't know why. Weeks after his mother's disappearance, after he had moved to Washington, Charlie told a teacher that his mother was dead.
In February 2013, less than a week after the one-year anniversary of the murder-suicide, Josh's brother Michael Powell took his own life by jumping off the roof of the parking garage at the apartment building where he lived in Minnesota.
Michael had been fighting with Susan's parents over the $2 million in life insurance Josh had taken out on himself and his sons. Josh had designated his brother as the primary beneficiary of the policies, but the Coxes challenged this and the insurance refused to pay until the issue was settled in court.
Michael had been an ardent supporter of his father and brother and stated he believed the police were conspiring to frame them both. There are now three surviving Powell siblings: Alina Powell, John Powell and Jennifer Graves.
After Michael's death, authorities announced they believe Josh was involved in Susan's disappearance and Michael helped him cover it up. Michael sold his car for salvage value at an Oregon junkyard two weeks after Susan's disappearance -- a fact investigators didn't learn for two years -- and never adequately explained why he had done so or how he used the vehicle in the intervening period.
The two brothers communicated using a computer code, most of which police have been unable to crack. In May 2013, authorities stated they were closing the investigation into Susan's disappearance. In July 2018, Steven died of natural causes in a Washington hospital, age 68.
Susan's family has been very critical of the police investigation, particularly after Josh, Charlie and Braden's deaths; the Coxes stated authorities had more than enough evidence to move forward with charges against Josh and if they had, they could have prevented his death and the children's murders.
Before her disappearance, Susan worked as a stockbroker for the Wells Fargo Bank. Foul play is suspected in her case due to the circumstances involved.