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Susan Cox Powell was a 28-year-old Utah woman who went missing on December 7, 2009, and her husband Josh Powell was ultimately named a person of interest in her disappearance, though he was never charged. Josh would go on to kill himself and their two sons, but another member of the Powell family also cast a disturbing shadow over her story — Josh's father, Steve Powell, who maintained he had nothing to do with her disappearance until he died of a heart attack at the age of 68.
The two-night special "The Disappearance of Susan Cox Powell," premiering Saturday, May 4 and Sunday, May 5 at 7/6c on Oxygen, will explore the Susan's mysterious vanishing as well as the tragic events that took place after her disappearance.
Long before his name become linked with Susan Cox Powell, Steve Powell’s personal behavior raised eyebrows. He was born in Oregon, the product of a broken home, and later lived with his paternal grandparents in Idaho, who he claimed “kidnapped him,” according to The Salt Lake Tribune. He joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, where he met future wife Terrica "Terri" Martin, but he left the Church in the 1980s. In his journals, Josh would describe his father as “anti-Mormon,” reported the Deseret News. He would eventually follow in Steve’s footsteps, leaving the church and later claiming he and his father were being scapegoated for Susan’s disappearance for speaking out against the LDS Church.
In the early ‘90s, the Powells' marriage broke apart. According to his daughter Jennifer Graves, her father had become addicted to porn and was obsessed with a woman in their congregation, at one point suggesting she could become a second wife. Graves claimed that as an 11-year-old, she accompanied her father on a business trip where he watched a pornographic video in front of her, reported the Deseret News. On another occasion, the Powells' 10-year-old Alina allegedly came home from her father’s house with a pornographic magazine she found hidden in her bed, according to court documents filed by Terri Powell.
According to Terri Powell, her husband said humans were just animals and that they should be able to have sex with anyone at any time. She also claimed he frequently made demeaning comments about women and sexually objectified them to their three sons. In court documents, she recounted an alleged conversation where their son Josh said of a woman, "All she is good for is her body, right Dad?," with Steve Powell replying, "Yeah, that's right."
In 2001, Josh and Susan were married. As young newlyweds, they lived with Steve Powell in order to save money. In 2003, Steve professed his love to Susan.
“For the last year and a half, you’re about the only thing I can think about,” he says on a recording he made of the encounter, which was obtained by the “Cold” podcast.
“I don’t know where you’re going with this,” Susan replies.
She allegedly didn’t speak to him again for months afterwards.
According to Jennifer Graves, Susan confided in her that Steve Powell also tried to kiss her. He also allegedly made comments that he and his son could "share" Susan. Following these incidents, Josh and Susan moved to West Valley City, Utah. Susan’s friend Kiirsi Hellewell told the Salt Lake Tribune that after the move, Steve sent Susan a package that included photographs of naked men.
On December 7, 2009, Susan was reported missing after her family and friends became alarmed when she didn’t show up to work. Josh and their two young sons were initially thought missing as well. That evening, Josh returned home with the boys, claiming they had went camping in the middle of the night. Within a week, Josh was named as a “person of interest” in his wife’s disappearance. Steve Powell would also soon come under scrutiny since he was the last person Josh called before Susan went missing and had called in sick for two days after she vanished, but he was never charged in connection to Susan's disappearance.
A month after his wife’s disappearance, Josh Powell and his two sons moved back to Washington to live with his father. Using the website SusanPowell.org, Josh Powell would proclaim his innocence, advancing conspiracy theories about what “really happened” to Susan, even claiming she had run off with another man. In the summer of 2011, Steve claimed Susan was “flirtatious” and “very sexual with me” in an interview with ABC News. The Powell family went on to accuse Susan of being sexually promiscuous and mentally unstable. These statements were immediately and adamantly contested by Susan’s family and friends.
The same day Steve Powell’s interview aired, police searched the home he shared with his son and grandsons. Police seized journals and computers, which Steve said contained “embarrassing” material, reported KSL. Some of what police found wasn’t just embarrassing — it was illegal.
On September 22, 2011, KSL reported Steve Powell’s arrest on voyeurism and possession of child pornography charges after police found "thousands of images of females being videotaped without their knowledge" in the materials taken from his home. Some of them were as young as 8 years old. Many of the images were of Susan. In his confiscated journals, Powell wrote extensively of his sexual obsession with his daughter-in-law, saying, "I have never lusted for a woman as I do for Susan."
As a result of his father’s arrest, Josh Powell lost custody of his two sons. The boys, Charlie, 7, and Branden, 5, were sent to live with Susan’s parents, Charles and Judy Cox. During a court monitored visit with his children on February 5, 2012, Josh locked the assigned social worker out of his house, attacked his children with a hatchet, and then ignited cans of gasoline, creating an explosion that killed them all and burnt the house to the ground.
In June 2012, Steve Powell was found guilty on 14 counts of voyeurism and sentenced to two and a half years in prison, reported ABC News. While in prison, his son Michael would die by suicide, jumping off a seven-story building in downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota. He too was investigated in Susan’s disappearance, with police saying they believe he was “heavily involved,” reported The Seattle Times. In 2015, Steve Powell received an additional five-year sentence after being found guilty for possession of child pornography, said The News Tribune.
Steve Powell was released from prison in July 2017 after receiving time off for good behavior.
“We believe a lot of secrets died with him,” Pierce County sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer said at the time of his death. Police closed the active investigation into the disappearance Susan in 2013. Though Susan Cox Powell case is still assigned to a Utah detective, police say “all leads ... have been exhausted and the case has gone cold.” Her ultimate fate and the location of her body remain unknown.
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