Josh Powell: Probable Murder Ends with Enormous Fire

Last week’s case was the death of L.A. mobster Johnny Stompanato. When he threatened his movie-star girlfriend, Lana Turner, Turner’s daughter, Cheryl Crane fatally stabbed him. This week, we look at the tragic case of the Powell family. In December 2009, Susan Powell, the mother of two small boys disappeared. A little over two years later, in February 2012, her husband, Josh Powell, blew up a rented house. He and his two young sons died in the explosion and the blaze that followed.

Josh Powell

Born in 1976, Josh Powell grew up in a dysfunctional household in Puyallup, Washington. His mother, Terrica, blamed that on his father, Steven’s, disaffection with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS Church). In her divorce, Terrica alleged that Steven shared pornography with his three sons and refused to enforce limits on their behavior.

Josh Powell listens as Kirk Graves, his brother in law, (not pictured) speaks during a press conference at West View Park Saturday December 12, 2009. (Chris Detrick, The Salt Lake Tribune)
Josh Powell listens as Kirk Graves, his brother in law, (not pictured) speaks during a press conference at West View Park Saturday December 12, 2009. (Chris Detrick, The Salt Lake Tribune)

Later, as a student at the University of Washington in Seattle, Josh began a relationship with Catherine Everett. He met her at the local LDS Church. It was after they moved into an apartment together that Catherine noticed Josh’s controlling behavior. He wouldn’t let her see family or friends without his permission and often insisted on going with her. She did visit a friend back in Utah without Josh, which is when she decided not to return to Seattle. She broke up with Josh over the phone.

Catherine Everett with her husband Dennis in 2018 (Deseret News)
Catherine Everett with her husband Dennis in 2018 (Deseret News)

Josh Powell and Susan Cox

Josh met Susan Cox at a dinner party at his Tacoma apartment in November 2000. They married in the Portland, Oregon LDS temple in April 2001. For a brief period after their marriage, Josh and Susan lived with his father, Steven, in Puyallup. Steven developed a creepy infatuation with Susan. He followed her around with a camcorder, spied on her, and stole underwear from her drawer. He confessed his infatuation to Susan in 2003. Stunned, she rejected him, an interaction caught by Steven’s camcorder microphone. Josh and Susan soon moved out.

Wedding picture, Josh Powell and Susan Cox Powell
Wedding picture, Josh Powell and Susan Cox Powell

By then, Josh had a bachelor’s degree in business. He worked for several companies over the next few years. Susan had trained as a cosmetologist, but she took a job with Wells Fargo Investments after the family moved to West Valley City, Utah. They had two sons, Charles in 2005 and Braden in 2007.

Susan’s journals and emails indicated that the Powell marriage had its problems. For one thing, Josh refused to attend church with his family. Susan also noted his “extremely controlling” behavior and his extravagant spending. His spending was so out of control Josh had to file for bankruptcy in 2007, listing over $200,000 in debts.

Susan Powell Disappears

The passage of time did not improve conditions in the Powell marriage. In July 2008, Susan recorded a video of property damage in their home she attributed to Josh. She also wrote a secret will. It included the statements, “I want it documented that there is extreme turmoil in our marriage” and, “If I die, it may not be an accident, even if it looks like one.”

On the morning of December 6, 2009, Susan and the boys attended church services. Later, about 5:00 p.m., a neighbor visited them in their home. That was the last time anyone saw Susan Powell.

The Powell family in happier times
The Powell family in happier times

Initially, Josh’s mother and sister reported the entire Powell family missing. The boys were not at daycare Monday morning and Susan failed to show up for work. Police found her purse and wallet in the house. Later, her cell phone turned up in the family’s only vehicle, a Chrysler minivan.

Josh Powell returned home with his sons around 5:00 p.m. on December 7. He claimed he’d left Susan sleeping in the house shortly after midnight and taken the boys camping. This was odd. Why would Josh go camping in near-blizzard conditions and when he had to work hours later? Investigator searched Simpson Springs in western Utah where Josh said he’d been but were unable to find evidence of a campsite.

Josh Powell, Person of Interest

Josh took Charles and Braden to Puyallup to stay with his father over the Christmas holidays. By Christmas Eve, police considered him a person of interest in their investigation into Susan’s disappearance. On January 6, 2010, Josh and his brother Michael returned to West Valley City to pack up the family’s belongings. He said he was moving permanently to Puyallup.

Josh Powell
Josh Powell

Over the next two years, investigators dug up information that pointed to foul play and to Josh’s involvement. They also looked at Steven, whose infatuation with Susan never waned. Ultimately, Steven went to prison for child pornography and voyeurism.

Following Steven’s arrest in September 2011, Susan’s father, Chuck Cox filed for custody of his grandsons. The court awarded him temporary custody. It also ruled that Josh would have to move out of Steven’s house before he could regain custody himself. Josh rented a house in in South Hill, but authorities contended he never lived there. The rented house was, they said, to provide the appearance of complying with the court’s instructions.

The Final Tragedy

Late in 2011, Josh submitted to a series of court-ordered evaluations. The evaluations, conducted by James Manley, had mixed results. Manly found Josh had positive parenting skills. But he also noted that Josh was overbearing, paranoid, and had underlying narcissistic personality traits. He recommended that Josh have visitation with his sons several times a week but that a social worker supervise the visits.

The rented house in South Hill burns after an explosion on February 5, 2012.
The rented house in South Hill burns after an explosion on February 5, 2012.

On February 5, 2012, social worker Elizabeth Hall took the boys for a visit with Josh at the rented South Hill house. She was supposed to supervise the visit, but Josh grabbed the boys and would not let Hall inside. She called 911. Shortly after that, the house exploded. Josh, Charles, and Braden all died in the subsequent fire.

The aftermath of the South Hills house fire
The aftermath of the South Hills house fire

Epilogue

Police considered the deaths of Josh and his sons to be a double murder-suicide. It is also widely believed, but not proven, that Josh murdered Susan and disposed of her body.

On February 11, 2013, Josh’s brother committed suicide by jumping from a parking garage roof in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Utah authorities said they believe Michael was Josh’s accomplice in Susan’s murder.

On May 21, 2013, West Valley City police announced that they had closed their active investigation into Susan’s disappearance. Susan Powell officially remains a missing person.

Susan Powell, missing person and probable homicide victim
Susan Powell, missing person and probable homicide victim

Steven Powell left prison on July 11, 2017, after serving seven years. He died of natural causes a year later, on July 23, 2018.

You can read more about this case in a book by Gregg Olsen and Rebecca Morris, If I Can’t Have You: Susan Powell, Her Mysterious Disappearance, and the Murder of Her Children.

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