On February 5, 2012, a social worker in the Tacoma area of Washington state dropped off Charlie Powell, age seven, and his five-year-old brother Braden, at the residence of their father, Josh Powell. The occasion was a supervised visit between the boys and Powell, who had long been a person of interest in the 2009 disappearance of the boys’ mother, Susan Powell.
Immediately, Josh forced the worker out of the home, then struck Charlie and Braden repeatedly with a hatchet, after which he intentionally set off an explosion that blew the house to pieces, killing all three Powells in the process.
In the worst way imaginable, the tragedy ended a custody battle Josh had been waging for months against his missing wife’s parents, Chuck and Judy Cox. Moments before the explosion, Powell emailed his custody lawyer a three-word farewell: “I’m sorry, goodbye.”
Susan Powell had last been seen alive after attending church on Sunday, December 9, 2009. The following day, she neither showed up at work, nor did anyone drop off the boys, then aged four and two, at day care.
Police found Susan’s keys, wallet, and cell phone at the family’s residence in West Valley City, Utah.
Josh claimed he left Susan sleeping at home when he packed up the kids just after midnight and took them camping. It was the wee hours of a Monday morning in December, well after seasonal frost had settled on Utah, so such a claim seemed immediately suspicious.
Detectives soon turned up emails in which Susan wrote to friends about stress at home, largely due to finances and Josh turning increasingly abusive, exerting brutal control over everything his wife did. In July 2008, Susan sent out video messages hoping to document her home life “if anything happens to me or my family.” She also locked a note in a safe-deposit box that stated, “If I die, it may not be an accident, even if it looks like one.”
Over the course of the investigation, little Charlie Powell said that the family had gone camping, but that Susan was with them and never came back, because she was dead. Chillingly young Braden drew a picture of three individuals in a van and told his teacher, “Mommy is in the trunk.”
On top of this, Josh Powell reportedly mentioned to coworkers that he knew how to hide a body in an abandoned mineshaft, all the while steadfastly denying that he’d ever harmed Susan and maintaining he had no idea where she might be.
There was another factor in this already mysterious and complex case: the presence of Steven Powell, Josh’s father. Steven reportedly had become sexually obsessed with his daughter-in-law, collecting more than 4,500 images of Susan on his computer and posting original love songs to her online.
In addition, both Steven Powell’s ex-wife and daughter described the older Powell as being “addicted” to pornography, and claimed that he’d exposed his own children to graphic sexual imagery.
After Susan disappeared, Josh and the two boys moved in with Steven in Washington.
On September 7, 2011, police arrested Steven Powell for voyeurism after he was caught videotaping nearby children through a bathroom window. He was also charged with possessing child pornography. Following Steven’s arrest, a court awarded temporary custody of Charlie and Braden to their maternal grandparents, Chuck and Judy Cox, in Utah.
The Coxes reported that the boys engaged in disturbing behavior and matter-of-factly reported that their father Josh had withheld food, providing just one meal a day, and sexually abused them. Charlie Powell, when he was one, had already been diagnosed with malnutrition.
Josh and Steven Powell retaliated by claiming the Coxes treated the boys badly and violated restraining orders.
This multi-layered tragedy culminated with an intentional detonation of gasoline and carbon monoxide taking place instead of what was supposed to be a parent-and-children encounter overseen by a state professional.
AFTER THE FACT
Although Susan’s body has never been recovered, in May 2013, police closed the investigation into her disappearance. Investigators believe Josh Powell killed his wife, and then killed himself and his sons in an act of murder-suicide.
On February 11, 2013, almost exactly one year after the murder-suicide, Michael Powell, Josh’s brother, killed himself by jumping off the roof of a parking facility. Police had described Michael as “evasive” during initial questions about Susan, and they now believe he acted as his brother’s accomplice.
Steven Powell, the boys’ paternal grandfather, served 30 months for the 2011 voyeurism arrest, and got out in 2014. The following year, prosecutors asked for child-porn charges that had been dropped to be reinstated. A judge agreed, and Steven is presently doing an additional five-year stretch.
Technically, to date, Susan Powell remains a missing person.
Main photo: Powell family portrait [Fair use/Wiki]