This next case isn’t necessarily one that needs more media attention or public pressure. I wanted to discuss the details of this case because I think it highlights an aspect of our justice system that is routinely overlooked, underfunded, and under appreciated: Child Protective Services and similar agencies that work to remove children from dangerous situations.
December 6th, 2009, was a Sunday, and that day, like almost every Sunday, Susan Powell took her two young sons, Charlie and Braden, to church. Susan was a member of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, and her faith was an incredibly important aspect of her life. After the service, Susan and her sons walk back to their home with a neighbor. Another friend from church comes over to the house for a visit, and stays until around 5 PM, when Susan says she’d like to lay down and take a nap. As their friend is leaving, Susan’s husband, Josh Powell, announces that he’s going to take his two sons sledding. The friend left, not knowing that that afternoon would be the last time she would ever see Susan Powell again.
The next day, the morning of December 7th, the owner of the day care the Powell boys attend noticed that Charlie and Braden hadn’t arrived yet. According to her, she wasn’t very concerned—though the boys’ mother always delivered them right on time, the boys’ father was known to drop his sons off at any and all hours of the day. However, when the two boys didn’t arrive at all, the owner called the work places of both Susan and Josh. Both offices told her that neither of them had come to work that day, and neither of them had called in to explain why.
Now starting to worry, the day care owner called one of the boys’ listed emergency contacts: Josh Powell’s sister, who lived with Charlie and Braden’s grandmother. When Josh’s sister and mom hear their son and family are missing, they tell the day care they also have no idea where they are. They call the police and hurry to the house the Powell family owned.
When the police meet Josh’s mother and sister at the house, they receive permission from Josh’s family to break into the home. The fear Josh’s family had was that the family had died in their sleep, perhaps from smoke inhalation or carbon monoxide poisoning. When the police return from searching, the family expects the worst. But the Powells weren’t there. No one was. The house was empty and seemed relatively untouched by outside forces. Everything looked normal, except for the fact that its inhabitants were missing. The only strange thing police noticed were two large box fans in the living room, both turned on and facing two damp stains on the carpet.
The news starts to circulate, and soon both Josh and Susan’s extended families are frantically calling their son and daughter’s cell phones, to no avail. Which makes it all the more stunning when, just a few hours later, around 6 PM, Josh Powell and his sons pull into the driveway of their home. Sorry, he tells his family, I wasn’t looking at my phone.
Josh’s mother tells him to go to the West Valley City, Utah police station right away, to let them know he and his sons are ok. When police ask Josh where he’s been for the past 24 hours, Josh tells a story that seemed strange from the beginning and even stranger today. Josh says that after taking his sons sledding at 5 PM the evening of the 6th, the three returned home and watched a Christmas movie together. Then, around midnight, he says he made a spontaneous decision to take his sons camping. At midnight. In the Utah winter. With two young boys, 2 and 4 years old. He goes on to say that he left without waking his wife up, and drove to Simpson Springs campground—a 2 hour drive from their home. When police ask him why he failed to go into work, or even call in sick, Josh pulls a face of confusion and claims that, until now, he thought the current day was Sunday, not Monday, and that he must have gotten the days mixed up.
Police are immediately suspicious of this, as is probably any sane person reading this. While Josh is still at the station, they send out officers to this Simpson Springs campground to see if they can verify that Josh and the boys were there the night before. They returned empty-handed. There was no evidence of anyone making camp there anytime recently, and no sign of a fire being built (even though Josh had specifically said several times that he had made s’mores for his sons).
When police tell Josh that his wife Susan still hasn’t been seen since yesterday, he doesn’t react with really any emotion at all. After casually suggesting she was probably still at work, he told police he would check in with some of her family members, but that he wasn’t worries about her. Amazingly, and (in my opinion) stupidly, West Valley police label Susan Powell a missing person, and instruct Josh to go home and come back the next day for a formal interview.
The interview that takes place the next day does little to make police less skeptical of Josh. They request a search warrant for the Powell house, which is granted. At the same time, vigils and prayer services are set up for Susan by members of the community. At these events, both Josh and Susan’s parents stand by Josh, supporting him.
A week after Susan is reported missing, West Valley police call Josh back in for a third interview. Josh, though, never attends the meeting, and informs officers he’s hired an attorney.
Now, to fully understand the events in this case, we need to consider the context of Josh and Susan’s marriage. Since 2009, information from friends and neighbors of Susan has brought a sad and scary tale of emotional and psychological abuse to light. Susan met Josh when they were both teenagers, at an event through Susan’s church. They were engaged by the time the two had turned 19. According to friends of Susan, the engagement and the coupling itself was unexpected. From their point of view, it seemed like Susan dated Josh because she felt slightly sorry for him, and also as part of a concept called “missionary dating”, where a devout person dates a non-religious person with the goal to convert them to a specific faith. Even Susan’s family was reportedly not the biggest fan of their daughter’s fiance, but they also saw him as largely harmless. Unfortunately, that wasn’t true. The problems began when they were newlyweds, when Josh went from struggling to hold down a job to being completely without one. To save money, the couple moved in with Josh’s father, who had been divorced from Josh’s mother for decades. Josh’s father repeatedly made unwanted sexual and flirtatious advances towards his daughter-in-law that ranged from creepy to flat-out groping. Apparently, when Susan confronted her husband about it, he brushed the situation off and even implied that Susan had provoked his father with her clothes and makeup. Susan hoped that their move to West Valley City, Utah, would mend the problems they had—but it didn’t. Susan’s friends told reporters that, while the community was drawn to Susan’s sweet personality right away, no one really ever liked her husband Josh. He was rude, loud, and dominated every gathering with stories about himself. As time went on, friends also noticed that Josh controlled almost everything Susan did. She wasn’t allowed to drive the car Josh had bought without his permission. She was required to keep a strict budget (so strict Josh made her knit her own socks, rather than buy them) and had to record every item she bought in a spreadsheet. Josh even restricted what his wife and children were allowed to eat. One day, a friend told reporters, Susan had called her to ask for hotdogs, because she couldn’t buy any food and her sons were so hungry, they were crying.
Susan begged her husband to go with her to counseling, which he did, but only once, before refusing to participate or go again. Although it’s not really known what Susan was thinking in the time before she went missing, some of her friends and family members suspected she might have started seeing an attorney, possibly to consider getting a divorce. A video Susan took in her home about a year and a half before she disappeared is often used as evidence for this. The video, which I posted below, begins with Susan showing her face to the camera and saying “This is me… covering all my bases, making sure if something to me or my family, that our assets are accounted for.” The rest of the video shows Susan walking through her house and pointing out, well, basically all of the things either her or Josh owned. Nearly every expensive item that is shown is verbally attributed by her to be owned by Josh, not herself. There are several times when she comes across a hole in the wall, or a broken item, and says out loud that Josh caused that damage when he was angry. The tone of her voice and many of the things she says seem to indicate that she did not feel comfortable or safe with Josh.
Now, let’s get back to 2010, a few months after Susan is reported missing. In February of that year, a few of Susan’s friends call a press conference, during which they reveal everything they know about Josh’s abusive behavior towards Susan and their children. This is the first time Susan’s parents, the Cox’s, begin to distance themselves from Josh—but not totally. They believed Josh was a monster who had treated their daughter horribly and possibly even hurt her, but their two grandchildren were still in his care. They had to act carefully to make sure they’d be able to see Charlie and Braden.
After Josh skips his third interview with police and hires an attorney, he does, strangely, agree to give police a DNA sample. But after that, the case stalls. Police suspect Josh, but they don’t have any concrete evidence to take him into custody. Josh continues to go about his life, but he can’t escape the impacts of being a person of interest in his wife’s disappearance. After he’s let go from yet another job, Josh decides to move himself and his two sons into his father’s house in Washington state—the same father who sexually harassed Susan when she lived there. From that point on, Josh and his father, Steve, begin a crusade against Susan that shocks the public and the Cox family (Susan’s parents). On the first anniversary of Susan going missing, both Josh and Steve do a televised interview in which they claim Susan had run off with a local journalist, who had also been reported missing the same week as Susan. Josh claimed Susan had been having a long-term affair with this man, and that she had willingly run away to be with him, despite the fact that there was no proof or even indications that the two of them had ever met. The only link between them was that they were both missing persons in the state of Utah.
Shortly after that interview, Josh and Steve launch a website with the title “The Official Website of Susan Powell”, that is nothing more than a total attack of Susan’s character. The site was filled with posts by Josh and Steve that described Susan as being a promiscuous, sexually deviant “seductress” who hated her children and wanted nothing more than to run away and leave her responsibilities behind. Even more disgusting were the excerpts from Susan’s teenage diaries and journals that Josh posted on the site, as “proof” of his wife’s sexual promiscuity.
Luckily, police in both Utah and Washington were still working on this case. Police in both states issued search warrants to investigate the home Josh lived in with his father. When police searched the home, they discovered hard drives, modems, and computer towers throughout the house that were filled with files and files of child pornography—all belonging to Steve. Mixed in with the porn were thousands (yes, thousands) of secretly taken photos of Susan Powell.
Steve Powell was charged with 14 counts of voyeurism and possession of child pornography, and Josh’s two sons Charlie and Braden are taken by the state and eventually released to their maternal grandparents, Susan’s mother and father. When the Cox’s took their grandsons into their home, they were concerned to notice that both boys, who by now were around 4 and 6 years old, had become violent with one another, which they had never seen before. One day, the older son Charlie drew a picture of the minivan Josh had driven before Susan had gone missing. Charlie told his grandmother that he had drawn himself, his little brother, and his father all inside the car, but not his mother. Charlie told his grandmother that “mommy is in the trunk”.
The state of Washington told Josh Powell that he would have to undergo psychological assessments by an expert before he could even begin the process of getting his children back under his custody. During that period of time, police made another suspicious discovery: simulated child porn (videos that are created using drawn renderings of children; basically, cartoon child porn) on Josh’s personal computer. Horrifically enough, because the law does not cover child porn that is created without actual children, Josh managed to escape any charges for this (though he was ordered by the state to complete an additional psychosexual assessment).
Even though Josh was doing all of these horrific things, he was still being allowed by the state to have visits with his children, under the provision that all visits had to be supervised by a social worker.
On February 5th, 2012, a social worker was doing just that: taking Charlie and Braden Powell to a supervised visit with Josh. That day would be the first time the boys would meet their father at his house, instead of a public space.
When the social worker pulled up to the residence, the two boys leapt out of the car and ran to the front door, while she lagged behind to gather her things. By the time the social worker got to the door, the boys had run inside, and their father, Josh, was watching them come in. Then, right as the social worker was about to enter, Josh Powell grinned and shut the front door in her face. When she went to open it, she was shocked to discover it had been locked. Even more shocking, though, was the scent she recognized right before the door closed: gasoline. The social worker ran back to her car and dialed 911 right away.
In the years since this case, there’s been some public blame attributed to this unnamed social worker, with many criticizing how she acted on this day. In my opinion, though, I believe that this woman did all that she was able to do in the moment.
When the 911 operator picked up, the social worker rushed to tell him what she had just experienced. Infuriatingly, the operator she spoke with seemed to be so utterly confused by her statement that precious time was wasted by him repeatedly asking her to explain herself. Below is an audio recording of the 911 call, and below that is a written transcript.
After a call that lasts an excruciating 6 minutes, the 911 operator FINALLY tells the social worker that the next available deputy will be sent to her location, saying that the police will address the “life threatening” calls first before coming to her. The social worker has to, once again, insist that this situation is very possibly life threatening, for her and the two children. And, tragically, she’s completely correct. Just minutes after the social worker hangs up the phone, the home that has Josh and his two sons in it explodes into pieces. 13 minutes after that, emergency responders finally arrive on scene and attempt to put the flames out, but they’re far too late. Josh Powell, Charlie Powell, and Braden Powell are all dead.
The bodies of both Charlie and Braden were not only scorched from the fire, but had marks from a hatchet in their heads and necks. As if this case could not become even more gruesome, it was discovered that both children had died from smoke inhalation from the flames—meaning they were still alive after their father cut them with the weapon. Earlier that day, February 5th, Josh had sent emails to his custody attorney and several family members. The messages simply said that he was sorry for everything that had happened, and that he was saying goodbye.
This is a truly brutal and deranged case, and it’s one that will probably never really see justice. In 2018, West Valley City police told the public that Susan’s case would remain open for one more year in an attempt to find her, but that still hasn’t happened. Her body or remains have never been found, and police had all but thrown out the idea that she would have left her children willingly. They believe, as they have from the beginning, that the perpetrator is Josh, but his own selfishness has ensured that he can’t ever be prosecuted.
Family annihilators, as people like Josh Powell are called, are a rare and terrifying breed of violent criminal. Almost always men, they historically have fallen into three main categories in terms of what motivates their crime: psychosis and/or hallucinations; a desire to “save” their family from embarrassment or shame, such as when the father has bankrupted the family; and a compulsive need to get rid of a family situation they’ve decided they cannot tolerate anymore, such as when there’s an incoming divorce or a chance the children will be removed from the home.
If we look at the circumstances surrounding Josh and his family, it seems that he fell into the final category: that of a man who felt his own desires and needs were above those of his wife and children.