The disappearance of Susan Cox Powell is, sadly, an all too common tale of a woman trying to escape a reportedly abusive marriage, only to become a suspected victim of the spouse she was trying to flee. Susan was a 28-year-old Utah woman who went missing on December 9, 2009, and her husband Joshua "Josh" Powell was quickly 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, Steven Powell, who maintained he had nothing to do with her disappearance until he died of a heart attack at the age of 68.
Long before his name become linked with Susan Cox Powell, Steven 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.” He would eventually follow in Steven’s footsteps, leaving the church and later claiming he and his father were being scapegoated for Susan’s disappearance for speaking out against the Mormon faith.
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. (While the LDS Church formally banned polygamy in 1904, plural marriages are still a popular, if erroneous, Mormon stereotype.) Graves claims as an 11-year-old, she accompanied her father on a business trip where he watched a pornographic video in front of her. On another occasion, the Powells' 10-year-old Alina 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 Steven Powell replying, "Yeah, that's right."
In 2001, Josh and Susan Powell were married. As young newlyweds, they often lived with Steven Powell in order to save money. In 2002, Steven confided in his friend Sandy Crain Anderson that he was falling in love with his pretty young daughter-in-law.
"He was hung up on her sexually, it seemed," she told The Salt Lake Tribune. "He'd talk about trying to see under her clothing, see her breasts. Even back then, he had this idea she was flirting with him."
Anderson told Powell he was misreading the situation.
In 2003, Steven 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 Steven 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 Powell moved to West Valley City, Utah. Susan’s friend Kiirsi Hellewell told the Salt Lake Tribune that after the move, Steven sent Susan a package that included photographs of naked men.
On December 7, 2009, Susan Powell 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. Steven 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. Steven Powell 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, Steven 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 Steven Powell’s interview aired, police searched the home he shared with his son and grandsons. Police seized journals and computers, which Steven said contained “embarrassing” material. What police found wasn’t just embarrassing — it was illegal.
On September 22, 2011, Utah’s KSL Newsradio reported Steven 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 Powell. 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, Charles, 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 which killed them all and burnt the house to the ground.
In June 2012, Steven Powell was found guilty on 14 counts of voyeurism and sentenced to two and a half years in prison. While in prison, his son Michael would commit suicide, jumping off a 26-story building in downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota. He too was investigated in Susan Powell’s disappearance, with police saying they believe he was “heavily involved.” In 2015, Steven Powell received an additional five-year sentence after being found guilty for possession of child pornography.
Steven 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 Powell 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.
[Photo: Getty Images]
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