Where is Susan Powell? Her disappearance, young sons' horrific death haunts family

JOSEPH DIAZ, SCOTT ENGEL and HALEY YAMADA
·12 min read

Chuck and Judy Cox have spent the past eight years in agony while trying to find some semblance of justice after their son-in-law, Josh Powell, murdered their two young grandsons.

When it finally seemed like they were on the verge of finding some closure earlier this year, the coronavirus pandemic brought everything to a halt.

“I don't know anything else I could have done and they're still dead. My daughter's still missing, and now the children are dead,” said Chuck Cox. “I had them safe... They were in my care.”

His daughter, Josh Powell's wife Susan Powell, was the mother of Braden and Charlie Powell. She disappeared under suspicious circumstances in 2009 and her body has never been found.

In February 2012, Josh Powell killed himself along with Braden, 5, and Charlie, 7, in a house explosion during a supervised visit. Josh Powell locked out the social worker from the home upon their arrival.

“Why take the kids, why? It makes absolutely no sense,” said Cox.

Chuck and Judy Cox are seen here with their grandsons. (The Cox Family)
Chuck and Judy Cox are seen here with their grandsons. (The Cox Family)

After the house explosion, Chuck and Judy Cox sued the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) in civil court, alleging that its negligence contributed to the deaths of their grandsons. The lawsuit was thrown out in 2015 but was appealed and revived in 2019 by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“The fact of the matter is they're the only ones who could have protected the children at that point,” Cox said of the child welfare agency run by DSHS. “They're the ones with responsibility.”

The wrongful death civil trial began in February in Tacoma, Washington, but was interrupted in March as COVID-19 swept through the nation.

“We have been robbed of three precious lives and it’s just devastating to think the same person did it,” Denise Cox-Ernest, Susan Powell's sister, told ABC affiliate KOMO-TV in 2012.

Susan and Josh Powell are seen here with their two sons. (The Cox Family)
Susan and Josh Powell are seen here with their two sons. (The Cox Family)

What happened to Susan Powell remains a mystery to this day.

She was reported missing in December 2009 when the family was living in West Valley City, Utah. That night, Josh Powell claimed he had gone on a camping trip in the middle of the night with their sons. Susan Powell, he said, stayed home because she was tired.

“As soon as I heard that he was back and Susan was not with them, I instantly said to myself, ‘What has he done?’” Kiirsi Hellewell, Susan Powell's friend. “Susan would have never allowed him to ever take the boys out in the winter to the desert, in the middle of the night. Never. I never believed his story at all.”

PHOTO: A flier seeking information on the whereabouts of Susan Powell, who was reported missing in Utah on Dec. 7, 2009, at a press conference in Puyallup, Wash., Dec. 17, 2009. (Ted S. Warren/AP)
PHOTO: A flier seeking information on the whereabouts of Susan Powell, who was reported missing in Utah on Dec. 7, 2009, at a press conference in Puyallup, Wash., Dec. 17, 2009. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

West Valley City Police Det. Ellis Maxwell, who led the investigation into Susan Powell’s disappearance, said that when investigators arrived at the house, there were no signs of a disturbance or physical altercations.

At the bank in which she'd worked, inside a safe deposit box that belonged to her, investigators discovered a handwritten will and testament. In the will, Susan Powell had written about how bad her marriage had become and that Josh Powell had taken out a $1 million life insurance policy on her.

“If I die," her note said, "it may not be an accident."

“That is our biggest piece of evidence," Maxwell said. "It's her last words. There was no doubt that this document was authored by Susan.”

Authorities also determined that Josh Powell had filed paperwork to withdraw money from her retirement account about 10 days after she had disappeared.

At the time of her disappearance, Susan Powell's close friends said her marriage had been in turmoil for years and that she had even seen a divorce lawyer.

PHOTO: Susan Cox Powell is seen here in this undated family photo. (The Cox Family)
PHOTO: Susan Cox Powell is seen here in this undated family photo. (The Cox Family)

“She'd been really happy. He'd been a great husband, and she said that he really changed. He became not affectionate,” said the Cox family attorney, Anne Bremner.

Her friends also said Susan Powell would complain about a lack of intimacy from her husband.

“He kept her at arm's length. He wouldn't kiss her anymore. He wouldn't touch her. He wouldn't hold her hand,” said Hellewell.

“Josh and Susan's marriage reaches rock bottom in the summer of 2008. Josh and Susan are constantly fighting. They're arguing in front of the kids. Josh is exhibiting extreme control over Susan,” said Dave Cawley, the host of "Cold," an investigative podcast on the case.

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Hellewell said Susan Powell would email her a lot, saying she wants "to do everything in my power to save my marriage before I walk away."

Chuck Cox said that after his daughter's will was found, he felt "frustrated" that authorities didn't arrest Josh Powell.

“I felt they had plenty of evidence to arrest him,” Chuck Cox said.

Police publicly declared Josh Powell as a “person of interest” about a week after his wife went missing. However, despite suspicions, Josh Powell was never charged in Susan Powell’s disappearance.

Susan Cox Powell is seen here in this undated family photo. (The Cox Family)
Susan Cox Powell is seen here in this undated family photo. (The Cox Family)

Those close to the family say Josh Powell acted strangely in the wake of his wife’s disappearance. He was observed cleaning his minivan and the garage.

“It was really odd to me because he was running around the house grabbing piles of towels and putting them in the washer And finally, we're like, you've got to go to your interview with the police,” said Jennifer Graves, Josh Powell’s sister.

Friends and close relatives also said that he never participated in search efforts or showed urgency to find his wife.

“There was no point at which Josh ever seemed to even be concerned that Susan was missing," said Hellewell. "He never participated in any of the massive, massive efforts that myself and relatives and friends launched to put out flyers in malls and parking lots."

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When detectives pushed Josh Powell on the details from the night his wife went missing, he said he could not remember the events leading up to her disappearance.

“I just don’t remember what activity we were doing,” he had told Maxwell.

PHOTO: Josh Powell, the husband of missing Utah woman Susan Powell, listens during a court hearing regarding the custody of his two sons in Tacoma, Wash., Sept. 28, 2011. (Ted S. Warren/AP, FILE)
PHOTO: Josh Powell, the husband of missing Utah woman Susan Powell, listens during a court hearing regarding the custody of his two sons in Tacoma, Wash., Sept. 28, 2011. (Ted S. Warren/AP, FILE)

Investigators also questioned then 4-year-old Charlie the day after his mother disappeared.

Charlie confirmed to investigators that he went “camping” the night his mother vanished, saying “my dad and my mom and my little brother” were also there.

“The children said, ‘Mommy was in the van but didn't come back with us,’ a pretty significant thing for a 4-year-old to tell a detective,” said Rebecca Morris, who authored a book about the case titled “If I Can’t Have You.”

“My mom stayed at Dinosaur National Park. My mom stayed where the crystals are,” Charlie had also said.

Many people interpreted Charlie’s statement to mean that his mother was dead. However, the toddler also made comments that were clearly false, including taking an airplane to go camping.

“There's a pile of circumstantial evidence,” said Maxwell. “Is there enough there to arrest him and book him into jail and hold him accountable? Absolutely, there is. Could we? No.”

Maxwell said that the Salt Lake County district attorney refused to file charges without a body until a year had passed.

ABC News reached out to the district attorney at the time, but they declined to respond to this claim and refused to comment on this case.

PHOTO: A makeshift memorial with photographs of Susan Cox Powell and her sons Braden and Charlie, is lit with candles during a vigil at McKinley Park in Tacoma, Wash., Feb. 6, 2012. (Ted S. Warren/AP, FILE)
PHOTO: A makeshift memorial with photographs of Susan Cox Powell and her sons Braden and Charlie, is lit with candles during a vigil at McKinley Park in Tacoma, Wash., Feb. 6, 2012. (Ted S. Warren/AP, FILE)

In January 2010, less than a month after his wife disappeared, Josh Powell said he had sought to get away from media attention and moved with his sons into his father Steven Powell's house in Puyallup, Washington.

In an effort to get more information for authorities, Graves wore a wire and confronted her brother about his wife’s disappearance.

“Suddenly I just shoved Josh into the bathroom and at that point, I was like, ‘Drop all pretense. Just tell me where her body is,’” said Graves.

He continued to deny knowing anything about Susan Powell’s disappearance and the situation escalated. Steven Powell then kicked Graves out of the house.

“I regret not getting the confession, but I don't regret going,” said Graves.

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In 2010, about a year after investigators first spoke to Charlie on the day after his mother’s disappearance, they sat down with the 5-year-old again and asked him about what he remembers from that night.

“We can’t talk about Susan or camping. I always keep things as secrets,” Charlie said in the interview. “I didn’t want to talk to you on this long, I mean this many minutes. Now I’m done.”

“The only thing we got out of [Charlie] that time was that he said that she went camping, but she didn't come home with them. Then, he kinda clammed up after that,” said Det. Sgt. Gary Sanders of the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department.

All the while new details began to emerge about Steven Powell's unusual fixation and inappropriate behavior toward his daughter-in-law, Susan Powell.

In a 2011 interview with ABC News, he alleged that Susan Powell had made sexual advances toward him.

“She told me that part of the reason they moved to Utah was to get away from her father-in-law, Steven Powell. She was like, ‘He is the most filthy, foul, sick, disgusting pervert the world has ever seen. He's in love with me,’” said Hellewell.

“Susan was very, very sexual with me. She was very flirtatious,” Steven Powell told ABC News. “We interacted in a lot of sexual ways because Susan enjoys doing that. I enjoy doing that."

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“Why are you telling everyone that? That's not to your benefit," Graves said of her father. "But somehow in my dad's own twisted mind, he thought that that was the greatest strategy to keep the dogs off Josh or something. I don't know."

Denise Cox-Ernest said her sister, Susan Powell, had complained about her father-in-law's inappropriate advances and that she had told Josh Powell about them, too.

“She was extremely upset about that and disturbed, but even more disturbed when Josh just said that, you know, that's his dad,” said Cox-Ernest.

Shortly after ABC News’ interview, Utah police searched the Powell family home in Puyallup, where Josh Powell and his sons were living at the time. Investigators found home videos taken by Steven Powell that showed secret recordings of his daughter-in-law's body parts and video diaries in which he smelled her underwear and expressed his love and sexual feelings toward her. The search also yielded dozens of computer disks containing images of women and young girls that focused on their private parts, according to prosecutors.

Police arrested Steven Powell in November 2011 and charged him with voyeurism and possession of child pornography. Josh Powell was named as a “subject” in the child pornography investigation.

PHOTO: Charles and Judy Cox, the parents of Susan Powell, enter a courtroom in Salt Lake City, July 8, 2014. (Ted S. Warren/AP, FILE)
PHOTO: Charles and Judy Cox, the parents of Susan Powell, enter a courtroom in Salt Lake City, July 8, 2014. (Ted S. Warren/AP, FILE)

Following Steven Powell's arrest, Josh Powell lost custody of his two sons. Chuck and Judy Cox were awarded temporary custody of the children in which they acted essentially as foster parents -- the state had official custody -- and Josh Powell was given weekly supervised visitation.

“Because of all the things that the police encountered in the search of the Steven Powell home, it became apparent, eventually, these boys were at imminent risk of harm,” Ted Buck, another attorney for the Cox family.

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In February 2012, new evidence emerged that a laptop from Josh Powell’s Utah home contained images of cartoon pornography. A judge then ordered Josh Powell to undergo a psychosexual evaluation and take a polygraph test.

But before Josh Powell could take the evaluation or polygraph test, he killed himself and the two boys. On Feb. 5, 2012, a state caseworker brought the boys to Powell’s home for a supervised visit. He locked the official out, incapacitated the 5- and 7-year-old children with a hatchet, poured gasoline on them and around the house and then caused an explosion, according to authorities.

A few months later, in June 2012, Steven Powell was convicted on the voyeurism charges and sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison. The trial court had initially dismissed the charge for possession of child pornography in 2012, but the state's court of appeals reinstated the charge in 2014. He was convicted of possession of child pornography in 2015 and spent another two years in prison.

PHOTO: Chuck Cox, father of missing Utah mother Susan Powell, is comforted by his wife Judy, right, before speaking to reporters, June 15, 2012, in Tacoma, Wash. (Ted S. Warren/AP, FILE)
PHOTO: Chuck Cox, father of missing Utah mother Susan Powell, is comforted by his wife Judy, right, before speaking to reporters, June 15, 2012, in Tacoma, Wash. (Ted S. Warren/AP, FILE)

Steven Powell served a total of seven years in prison before being released in July 2017. He died of heart problems a year later.

Maxwell believes that Josh Powell’s murder-suicide was “definitely an admission of guilt” for Susan Powell’s murder.

“She was going to divorce him. If he can't have her, nobody will,” he said. “So he essentially kidnaps Susan and most likely murders her and disposes of her body. Where? I have no idea. Nobody knows.”

The Cox family civil case reconvened at the end of July this year. In August, the jury awarded the family a record $98.5 million award against the State Department of Social and Health Services.

Chuck Cox said he is going to use the reward money to honor his late grandchildren.

“I intend to ... use the award to try and help other people, [so] that we can save more children,” said Chuck Cox.

The judge presiding over the case has since reduced the reward to $32 million -- $16 million for Charlie and $16 million for their other grandson Braden. The Cox family will appeal the court’s decision to reduce the jury’s verdict, their attorney said.

Graves said Susan Powell's story "will continue to live on and inspire others to move in the right direction. To move towards good relationships and get out of bad situations -- abusive situations."

Where is Susan Powell? Her disappearance, young sons' horrific death haunts family originally appeared on abcnews.go.com