Missing mom’s diary foreshadows family tragedy
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Susan Powell had been married about a year when she started writing a journal. She was a love-struck, 20-year-old newlywed, dreaming of the future she would build with her husband.
“I just feel incredibly lucky to have Josh,” she wrote in 2002.
Before long, however, she found herself torn. A growing sense of danger was telling her to grab her kids and flee, but her strong religious faith led her to believe she could save her young family. The journal entries turned grim.
“If I die, it may not be an accident even if it looks like one,” she wrote in 2008. “Take care of my boys.”
She went missing the following year and hasn’t been seen since. Her husband later killed their sons and himself. No one was ever charged in her disappearance, and the people at the center of the police investigation — her husband, his brother and their father — are all either dead or in prison.
As leads have gone cold, the chief agency in the investigation, the West Valley City Police Department, has closed the case saying for the first time they believe Josh Powell played a role in killing his wife and that his brother Michael Powell helped get rid of her body. Both men denied involvement in her disappearance before committing suicide about a year apart.
With the investigation over, police released thousands of pages of documents, providing new details about a scandal that made national headlines with each development.
Susan Powell’s story first gained attention when she vanished from her suburban Salt Lake City home in the middle of the night in December 2009. The documents released May 20 show that police focused on her husband, doubting his alibi from the outset.
Josh Powell said his wife went missing shortly after he left to go camping in the high desert with their sons, who were 2 and 4 years old at the time, despite a snowstorm that blanketed the area.
The police investigation led to searches of abandoned mines in Utah and neighboring Nevada, and authorities kept their attention on Josh Powell even as he moved from West Valley City, Utah, to Puyallup, Wash., where he ultimately attacked his boys with a hatchet last year after saying he “had a big surprise” for them. He then set his home on fire, causing an explosion that killed them all as a social worker watched in horror.
It was the sum of the missing woman’s fears, and her journal entries show the downward spiral.
Susan Cox and Josh Powell married in spring 2001 at a Mormon temple in Portland, Ore., about four months after meeting at a Latter-day Saints singles dance. They didn’t have much money. But they had their faith and each other.
They were regulars at church and sang together in the choir. One Sunday morning they overslept and missed service, so instead they walked together in the fresh snow.
“Some kids with a snow fort threw some snow balls at us and Josh did the same,” she wrote in 2002. “He’s just a big kid.”
The newlyweds bounced from job to job and from apartment to apartment, sometimes living with Josh’s father, Steve Powell. Susan Powell wrote that her husband was “computer smart,” but she worried that he couldn’t keep a regular job.
Money was a constant problem. They disagreed over whether to tithe 10 percent of their income to the church, with Josh Powell considering it a waste of money, according to the journal. He also wanted to spend as little as possible on food, proclaiming, she wrote, “The food we eat will only be from our garden and if we don’t grow it, we will not eat it. We will only buy dairy products and meat.”
Eventually, Susan Powell found steady work at a call center to support the family financially. Her husband’s behavior, meanwhile, grew increasingly controlling, according to both the handwritten journal and police records.
Josh Powell tried to cut his wife off from the world, limiting her computer and phone access. He had calls to their home forwarded to his cell and would decide which messages she received. He refused to let her have a cellphone of her own.
According to a police interview, Susan Powell’s sister, who is not identified by name, stated, “He wouldn’t let me talk to Susan a lot, and he monitored my conversations with her.” The sister said she began calling Susan Powell at work so Josh Powell couldn’t eavesdrop.
Things weren’t going well, and Susan Powell knew it.
“I can’t believe our marriage deteriorated so quickly. I feel so blind and naive and foolish,” she wrote in 2008.
She also came to see her father-in-law as a meddlesome and negative influence on her husband.
Josh Powell began to distance himself from the Mormon church, as Steve Powell had done years earlier. Father and son took countless family photographs, which she wasn’t allowed to see. And the men talked on the phone for hours each week, conversations that often triggered fits of anger in the younger man, according to documents.
Steve Powell is behind bars on voyeurism charges after being convicted of taking photos of young neighbor girls without their knowledge, a crime that emerged after police seized computer hard-drives from his Puyallup, Wash., home while investigating Susan Powell’s disappearance. He has denied involvement, but Steve Powell became a public figure in the case after going on national television and saying he and his daughter-in-law had been falling in love.
Documents show Susan Powell was uncomfortable with Steve Powell’s feelings, which she considered a one-sided sexual obsession.
She sent notes to friends in 2009 from a work email address, saying she needed to “take a shower” after reading lyrics to songs her father-in-law posted on his website. She wrote that his song “I’m Missing You,” is directed toward her: “I can love you in a secret way. I can love you each and every day.”
“Glance over the lyrics — they are creepy,” she writes. “Especially when you know the background.”
She wrote that she felt betrayed by her husband when he blamed her for “sending mixed signals” and encouraging his father’s infatuation.
Her writings also suggest she saw something terrible coming.
She believed Josh had bipolar disorder, and wrote about his violent temper. She worried about saying things that would set him off and told her sister in the fall of 2007 that Josh Powell said he would kill her before agreeing to a divorce.
“Will he do something irrational? Do I need to pack up kids and run,” she wrote in 2008. “Will he hurt me and/or take the kids, hurt them?”
Terrica Powell, who hasn’t spoken publicly about her sons or ex-husband, said in a police transcript that Josh Powell was headstrong, impulsive and self-centered. Yet, she defended him, and she adored her daughter-in-law, according to the transcript. She said they both had “strong personalities.”
“I would hear them yelling at each other,” Terrica Powell told police. “Susan would yell at him, and he would yell at her. I never saw any violence or anything physical between them.”
Others, however, described Josh Powell as abnormal and disturbing.
During their investigation, authorities circulated a questionnaire about him to neighbors in West Valley City.
“He had such odd behavior that we just started calling them ‘JP Stories,’” said one neighbor, whose name was redacted.
Another told police: “I know Josh because he weirds me out! He is just weird!”
One woman said he made her uneasy, standing “right behind me” on a sidewalk without speaking. She called the encounter “creepy,” according to police files.
Yet, Susan Powell’s faith continued to provide her with hope that things would improve. She saw her husband’s withdrawal from the Latter-day Saints as the root of their problems. She urged him to attend services, tithe and read the gospel.
“I’m hoping going to church and such will soften him back and let the Lord back in,” she wrote just months before she disappeared.
She was encouraged they had started counseling and prayed for more children, maybe a girl or even twins. Her penultimate journal entry included a list of names: Adeline and Jadeline or Aubrey and Andrey.
It wasn’t to be. Josh Powell had started an affair with a woman he met online, documents reveal. He called his wife a religious fanatic and said the church was brainwashing her, an opinion that mirrored his father’s. This deeply troubled her, and she began to assert her independence.
According to police files she took the family car on her days off, and opened her own bank account so he couldn’t control her spending. She got computer and a cellphone.
“I think he thought I would always be docile and do whatever he says,” she wrote in an email to a friend in the fall of 2009. “Now I’ve learned the mother bear protection/survival mode so I’m stronger than I think he ever thought would happen.”
She disappeared months later. Her husband killed their sons and himself in February 2012. Her father-in-law was convicted three months later. Within a year Michael Powell killed himself by jumping from a Minneapolis parking garage in February.
As for their sons, a dark granite gravestone in Susan Powell’s hometown of Puyallup marks their short lives. It reads “Powell” at the top and has a picture of Susan with the young boys.
“Charlie J., Jan. 19, 2005, to Feb. 5, 2012.”
“Braden T., Jan. 2, 2007, to Feb. 5, 2012.”
Beneath the boys’ names the marker mentions their mother.
“Susan, Oct. 16, 1981, Missing Dec. 6, 2009.”
The bottom of the stone reads, “United In Heaven.”
Associated Press writers Paul Foy and Michelle L. Price contributed to this report.
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