The Details Surrounding Susan Cox Powell's Unsolved Disappearance and the Death of Her Sons Don't Get More Chilling Than This

The Utah woman vanished while her husband said he was taking their little boys on a camping trip in the middle of a freezing December night, and the aftermath was shockingly tragic

By Natalie Finn May 04, 2019 10:00 AMTags
Susan Cox Powell, Charlie and Braden PowellCourtesy of Denise Cox Ernest

"If I die, it may not be an accident, even if it looks like one. Take care of my boys."

So Susan Cox Powell wrote in what she labeled her last will and testament, penned in blue ink on college-rule notebook paper and folded under a top sheet that read, "For family, friends of Susan all except for Josh Powell husband, I don't trust him!"

She dated it June 28, 2008, and about a week later signed up for a safe-deposit box at a nearby Wells Fargo, where she stashed the will, some savings bonds and a few other legal documents.

Susan was last seen alive on Dec. 6, 2009. Investigators opened the box on Dec. 15.

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According to numerous accounts, including the 18-part 2018-'19 KSL NewsRadio podcast Cold, which probed the circumstances leading up to the 28-year-old's disappearance and sifted through everything that has happened since, Susan's marriage had become untenable. 

"I bike to work daily and have been having extreme marital stress for about 3 or 4 yrs now," Powell wrote in the will. "For mine and my children's safety I feel the need to have a paper trail at work which would not be accessible to my husband."

A devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she clashed with Josh and her father-in-law, Steven Powell. Steven had met wife Terri Powell, the mother of his five children, through the LDS Church, but he became a fierce critic of the faith and left the church in the mid-1980s. He and Terri divorced in 1992.

Terri and others swore in statements pertaining to the divorce that, over the years, Steven—once a friendly, fun-loving, basically normal guy—had turned belligerent and paranoid.

West Valley City Police

Josh and Susan met through the LDS Church in Puyallop, Wash., where they both grew up. She was 18.

"I've got to have someone who's strong spiritually, 'cause I get rather, I'm not as good a person, rather depressed, moody, irritable, when I get away from things that I know are right," Powell wrote in a diary entry dated Dec. 13, 2000, part of a trove of written and audio diaries collected during the investigation and obtained via records request by Cold.

On Dec. 30, he wrote, "I am not a standard person and many people find it difficult to remain in my company over extended periods of time. Susan has loved every minute with me. She loves the things that other people cannot tolerate about me."

Josh proposed less than a week later and they got married on April 6, 2001, at the Portland Oregon Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

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Meanwhile, Steven was very controlling and held undue influence over Josh, his eldest son. He also had a bizarre obsession with his daughter-in-law, and would sometimes shoot video of her without her knowledge. He didn't realize his video camera was still on when on July 13, 2003, he confessed to Susan in his truck that he had feelings for her, sharing that he'd become aroused while rubbing her legs months beforehand. Susan didn't speak to Steven for months afterward and was upset when Josh ultimately forgave his dad.

Susan and Josh moved to Utah at the beginning of 2004 and, not long after they relocated, Josh stopped going to church.

In emails from 2008 that were shared with the Salt Lake Tribune after she disappeared, Susan wrote to friends about being uncomfortable around her father-in-law, who had written a creepy song about her, and about how increasingly unhappy she was and how controlling and prone to conspiracy theories Josh had become.

"I want him in counseling, on meds, I want my husband, friend, lover BACK no more crazy, outrageous, outlandish beliefs/opinions," read an email to friends dated July 11, 2008.

Also in 2008, on the advice of an attorney, Susan made a video detailing her assets.

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As relayed on Cold, in June 2008 Susan had her friend take shorthand notes while she talked about a huge fight she and Josh had just had. The friend, Kiirsi Hellewell, wrote: "Josh said the reason he is mean to Susan and hurtful and the reason the marriage is broken is because of the Republicans and economy and environment."

They had argued over her wanting control over her own finances so she could donate to the LDS Church at her own discretion. (She had eventually opened her own bank account because Josh would change the password and otherwise try to shut her out of any joint accounts.)

"He said if you pay tithing when you're not supposed to, you are going to hell," Hellewell's notes continued. Susan threatened to call police, he laughed and she locked herself in the closet.

"He kept trying to open it and said she was acting like a child," Hellewell wrote.

The next day, Susan went to work and wrote out her will.

Oxygen Examines The Disappearance of Susan Cox Powell and Promises New Theories About Shocking Case

With the 10th anniversary of her disappearance coming up and the case still open, Oxygen reexamined the evidence and interviewed investigators, attorneys, friends and family members of for the two-part special The Disappearance of Susan Cox Powell, premiering tonight.

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"I still, to this day, believe they had enough to arrest him," Denise Ernest, Susan's sister, said in an interview for the show. "I know they had enough to convict him."

"Him" being Josh Powell, the only person of interest ever named during the investigation into what happened to Susan. In 2012, with authorities still debating whether or not to charge him, he killed their two sons, Charlie and Braden, and himself.

At around 12:30 p.m. on Feb. 5, 2012, the children arrived at Josh's rental house with a social worker for a supervised visit. The boys ran ahead and Josh, 36, locked the woman out. He then attacked his kids with a hatchet and set fire to the house, using an accelerant to hasten an explosion. 

"I knew that it was possible," Chuck Cox, Susan's father, told reporters afterward. "I knew that he was capable of something if he was pressured and pushed. If he felt there was no hope, he was capable of ending their lives and his life. But to do it in such a manner—by burning your own children—I just couldn't believe that would've happened."

"They were beginning to verbalize more," Cox family attorney Steve Downing told the AP, per Washington's KOMO News, later that day. "The oldest boy talked about that they went camping and that Mommy was in the trunk. Mom and Dad got out of the car and Mom disappeared."

Downing said that 7-year-old Charlie had drawn a picture at school depicting his father driving a van, with him and brother Braden in the backseat, and their mother in the trunk.

The kids had been saying "mommy's in the mine," the attorney said.

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This past January, Jason Jensen, a private investigator and co-founder of the Utah Cold Case Coalition, said that his group had arranged for an additional search of several of the hundreds of mine shafts dotting Utah's West Valley, not all of which had been thoroughly swept during the two-plus years the official search for her was active, he told Salt Lake City's ABC 4 News.

West Valley City police have said they searched and cleared about 400 mines in western Utah and eastern Nevada. A police spokeswoman told ABC 4, "If the mines they intend to search have not been searched and there is a credible reason to search them, we would likely do so. But the credible reason to do so is the key."

Jensen said, "Just because they haven't found her there yet, doesn't mean they can't find her." The spot they planned to search, near Topaz Mountain, was a few miles away from where Josh claimed he took his sons to camp the night his wife went missing.

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The Salt Lake Tribune reported that Josh had once told a friend that "if you knocked a little [wall of a shaft] loose, it would all come tumbling down and no one would really want to travel down it because they are all so unsafe."

Searchers found charred wood near Topaz Mountain in 2011 but investigators couldn't link it to the Powells.

"Winds sometimes expose skeletal remains. It doesn't hurt to try again," Utah Cold Case Coalition co-founder Karra Porter told the Tribune in December. "That applies in every case that we're working. There are still more than 200 unsolved murders and disappearances in Utah. You have to try."

A public search is currently scheduled for May 18. According to the event's Facebook page, 1,200 people have marked themselves as "going."

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Josh told police that he left with Charlie and Braden, then 4 and 2, to go on a camping trip shortly before midnight on Dec. 7, 2008, never mind that it was winter and records show the temperature plunged to 16 degrees that night.

The first thing he did upon his return was seemingly lie to the police, telling the officers awaiting him in his driveway that he had turned his phone off to conserve the battery, having forgotten his charger. Officers could see a charger sitting in the front console of his van. Susan's cell phone was also in the van, and Josh couldn't explain why, according to court documents unsealed in 2012.

There was no visible sign that a crime, or even an altercation, had taken place, but a trace of Susan's blood was found on the floor next to the sofa. Her purse was still in the house and investigators noted a couple of fans set up to blow air at the couch, which was wet. Josh said they had just had the couch cleaned. 


Police didn't find sedatives or anything else that could have been used to drug her in the house, and a lone cooked pancake found in the trash tested normal. (Authorities later dismissed a theory raised in Gregg Olsen and Rebecca Morris' 2014 book about the case, If I Can't Have You, that Josh poisoned her.)

Josh suggested his wife ran off with another man, a fellow churchgoer—a theory seconded by his father. "Susan's very sexually motivated, and she's very financially motivated," Steven Powell later said. "She absconded. We don't believe she was abducted. We don't believe she was murdered."

Police determined that Steven was in Washington on Dec. 6 and 7, 2009, but—as it was later noted—his apparent obsession with Susan would have come in handy as an alternate defense theory if Josh had ever gone on trial for murder.

On Dec. 8, Josh rented a car, which he drove for 800 unexplained miles before returning it to Salt Lake City International Airport two days later. In the meantime, he purchased a new cell phone and activated it in Tremonton, Utah, about 80 miles away from where he and Susan lived.

The week after Susan disappeared, Josh—who had filed for bankruptcy in 2007 claiming $200,000 in debt—withdrew all the money in her IRA.

And then Josh moved with the children back to Puyallop, Wash. Breaking his public silence on his wife's disappearance to the Salt Lake Tribune in November 2010, he told the paper that Susan was "a good person and a good wife and a good mother," but also "extremely unstable." So long as her family was demonizing him and characterizing her as some sort of saint, she wouldn't be able to come back, he said.

"She doesn't have as much strength as they like to think she has," Josh said. He claimed that Susan's father, Chuck Cox, was the controlling one and that her mother, Judy Cox, was excessively emotional and prone to crying jags, and perhaps that's where Susan got it from. 

Meanwhile, Josh's estranged sister Jennifer Graves fully believed that her brother abused his wife and their father had shielded him, telling the paper, "They've basically accused Susan of being a slut, and it's offensive to me. She was not. She was frustrated with her marriage." Moreover, mental illness ran in the Powell family, Graves said, not the Cox family.

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"We have both seen psychiatrists since this started who have told us we are doing very well, except we're mildly depressed," Chuck Cox told the Tribune.

On CBS' Early Show in August 2011, Josh Powell tearfully said about his wife, "I would never even hurt her. People who know me know that I could never hurt Susan."

In 2011, West Valley City Police obtained a warrant to tap Josh's cell phone in hopes he'd incriminate himself in the wake of them announcing new searches near Ely, Nev., and Topaz Mountain in Utah. The warrant was active through that October.

What happened in the meantime, however, was that Josh's father, Steven Powell, whom he and his kids had been living with, started sharing some of Susan's old journals with the press, pointing out entries that he said indicated she was in a fragile frame of mind when she went missing. "They've tried to portray Susan as being offended by me and being afraid of me and that is not the case," he said at the time. "There are just misunderstandings about how Susan felt about me. Susan never let me forget that she was a woman. But she was also a beautiful daughter to me."

Steven being in possession of Susan's diaries was enough for police to get another search warrant for his house, and during that search they turned up files containing photos of underage girls from the neighborhood, taken while they were in the bathroom. (They also found numerous photos of Susan out and about, seemingly unaware she was being photographed, as well as photos that zoomed in on her crotch and backside, and pictures of nude women with Susan's face pasted over them.)

Steven Powell was arrested on charges of voyeurism and child pornography that August. That led to a welfare check from social services and Josh losing custody of his sons, who were sent to live with Susan's parents.

A judge had upheld the custody arrangement and ordered Josh to undergo a psycho-sexual evaluation a few days before he killed the boys.

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"He won't let me in the house," the social worker who brought Braden and Charlie to their dad's place was heard frantically telling a 911 operator in a recording of her first call. "He's got the kids in the house and he won't let me in." It was the middle of the day. She said she could smell gas and hear one of the boys crying.

The call lasted for six minutes, per the Salt Lake Tribune, and at one point the dispatcher said they could only send first responders to "life-threatening situations."

"This could be life-threatening," the social worker replied. "He was in court on Wednesday and he didn't get his kids back and this is really... I'm afraid for their lives." She said she didn't know whether or not he had threatened the children's lives, but the dispatcher agreed to have "the first available deputy" contact her.

When she called back, she informed the dispatcher that the man in question had "exploded the house. He exploded the house."

About 20 minutes before the fire started, Josh Powell had left a voice mail for his family, saying, "Hello, this is Josh. And I'm calling to say goodbye. I am not able to live without my sons. And I'm not able to go on anymore. I'm sorry to everyone I've hurt. Goodbye."

He also emailed his attorney, who didn't get the letter until a few hours later. It read, "I'm sorry. Goodbye."

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"It's a shock. A total complete shock," Jennifer Graves' husband, Kirk Graves, told Washington's KOMO News at the time. "We never contemplated the idea he would do something like this. You just don't expect it from a father." That being said, they fully believed Josh had set the fire intentionally.

"His world was falling apart around him and he was going to lose his boys and get arrested for Susan's disappearance," Kirk added. "He's a narcissist and he has no love for anyone but himself."

West Valley City Police Detective Ellis Maxwell, the lead detective on the case, told the Salt Lake Tribune in 2014 that the D.A. likely would have charged Josh Powell with murder, kidnapping and obstruction of justice in 2012 if he hadn't killed himself.

In several interviews he conducted with Josh, he recalled, his responses were all "'I don't know, I don't remember,'" or he wouldn't say anything.  Josh also refused to take a polygraph test, but that was his right, and there was nothing to legally hold him on, so he was allowed to leave.

Charlie Powell, then 4, told detectives that his mommy had gone camping with them, but didn't come home with them, and he didn't know why. A few weeks later, he told a teacher at church, "My mom is dead."

Lui Kit Wong/Tacoma News Tribune/TNS/

Between four and 15 detectives were assigned to the case on any given day between the end of 2009 and May 2013, and Maxwell said he personally made at least 10 or 15 trips to Washington after Josh moved there. 

Admittedly all they had was circumstantial evidence and nothing physically linking Josh to the alleged murder of his wife, nor did Maxwell think it likely that he killed her and then moved her body during his mysterious two-day trip in the rental car, but the detective was still convinced that Josh did it. Though, in the immediate weeks and months after Susan disappeared, prosecutors still wanted detectives to consider the idea that someone else was involved and duly follow every lead.

"For the District Attorney's Office, for them to move forward on a no-body homicide, they wanted to wait at least 12 months," Maxwell, now retired, recalled in an interview for The Disappearance of Susan Powell. "And that's fine. You know, I get it."

"Did we have circumstantial evidence in the Susan Powell case? Absolutely." However, the former detective, acknowledging the criticism his team and prosecutors faced for never even trying to make charges stick against Josh, continued, "If we would have charged Josh Powell and the District Attorney's Office would have moved forward and I would have been the one sitting on that stand, a defense attorney would have chewed me up."

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"It was never a question of who did it," Sandi Johnson, then Salt Lake County Deputy District Attorney, told the Tribune in 2014. "It was a question of, 'Can we prove beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury that she's dead?'"

Five years later and the search for any trace of Susan continues.

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Steven Powell, who ironically had worked in a civilian capacity for the Washington Department of Corrections when he was arrested, was in jail awaiting trial when his son and grandchildren died. He was convicted of 12 counts of voyeurism in connection with pictures he took of two girls, who were 8 and 9 years old; he was sentenced that June to 30 months in prison and three years' probation, and was ordered to undergo sex offender treatment.

Prosecutors had asked for 10 years, but the judge warned against what felt like a move to punish the father for the alleged sins of the son. He also dismissed two counts of child pornography Powell had been convicted of at sentencing, because, the judge said, the photos of the girls weren't sexually explicit. That ruling was reversed on appeal, and after Powell had been released, he was re-tried on the porn charges, convicted, and sentenced to another five years in prison.

Steven Powell was paroled in 2017 and died in Tacoma, Wash., in 2018 after suffering a heart attack.

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"I hope maybe he left some notes behind about where Susan might be," Chuck Cox, Susan Powell's father, told the Tribune after Steven's death. "And it's a sad thing that his family's destroyed, and now he's gone, too."

Cox, who always felt that the police weren't sharing nearly enough information with him over the course of their investigation, carried on with the search for Susan for years—even though, as he told the Los Angeles Times in 2013, she was probably dead. By then, his family was hoping he would halt his quest and try to find peace.

"If it were up to me, I'd pack up and be gone," Cox said. "I'd buy a camper and stay on the road until I found her. I tell my daughters I love them, but that I'm going to find Susan. I'm not going to give up on her. I can't."

When his grandsons were killed and police contacted him to say that he'd been right, they should have arrested Josh, Cox recalled, "I just sat there thinking, 'I didn't want to be right. I just want to find my daughter.'"

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Josh's sister Alina Powell, the youngest of Steve and Terri's five kids, insists in the new Oxygen special—as she has insisted for years—that her family was unfairly torn apart by the investigation.

Josh had also emailed Alina multiple times, including info about property and utility bills, before he killed himself and his sons. When she called 911 to report that she feared Josh was going to harm himself, she explained, "There's been a lot of abuse against him and he's really upset."

Their brother Michael Powell, whom detectives thought may have aided Josh in the disposal of Susan's body, jumped to his death from a building on Feb. 11, 2013, in Minneapolis. He was 30.

A 2011 search of the car Michael had been driving in 2009, a 1997 Ford Taurus, came up negative for traces of Susan's DNA. Maxwell said that no evidence was ever discovered connecting him to the case, but Michael had exchanged encrypted emails with his brother that authorities hadn't been able to read, and he suspected Michael had at least known something about his sister-in-law's disappearance.

West Valley City Police Department

Between June 30 and Oct. 31, 2008, Susan emailed friends, co-workers and fellow church members confiding in them about her marital troubles. She expressed worry that the toxic environment at home was harming Charlie, who had seen his parents fighting.

And she was determined to get Josh into counseling. 

On July 28, Susan wrote, "I'm sure if he fixes himself, everyone else will see a much closer version of the guy I married. And it will be easy enough to forget the hell and turmoil he's put me through."

The Disappearance of Susan Cox Powell airs on Saturday, May 4, and Sunday, May 5, at 7 p.m. on Oxygen.

(E! and Oxygen are both members of the NBCUniversal family.)