7 Key Players In The Disappearance Of Susan Powell And Tragic Murder Of Her Sons

Joshua Powell killed himself and his two sons in a fiery explosion. “Mommy was in the trunk,” one of his son's had said.

By Benjamin H. Smith

At the center of the mystery surrounding Susan Cox Powell’s disappearance is the story of two families, ripped apart by sexual obsession, madness and violence. The Cox and Powell families came together with the union of Susan and her husband Josh, but issues hidden just under the surface were already festering, waiting to ruin their happy home. In the end, the Powells would lose two sons, a father would go to prison in shame, the ultimate fate of Susan would remain a mystery, and the tragic murder of her sons at the hands of their father would unite them all in grief.

These are all the family members drawn into the tragedy:


1. Susan Cox Powell


Susan grew up in a devout Mormon family. At the age of 19, she became engaged to 24-year-old Josh Powell, whom she met through an LDS church in Puyallup, Washington. In 2004, they moved to West Valley City, Utah, where she worked as a stock broker at Wells Fargo Financial. The couple had two sons: Charlie and Braden. On December 6, 2009, Susan and her sons were seen at church. Neighbor JoVonna Owings visited the Powells that afternoon, but left after Susan said she didn’t feel well and wanted to take a nap. The following day, she was reported missing after family and friends became alarmed she didn’t show up to work. She has never been seen again and is still considered a missing person. Police closed the active investigation into her disappearance in 2013, but the case is still assigned to a Utah detective. Police say “all leads ... have been exhausted and the case has gone cold.”


2. Joshua 'Josh' Powell


Like his wife, Josh grew up in a Mormon home. His parents' divorce, however, turned his world upside down. In court documents cited by The Seattle Times, his mother Terri claimed he was abused by his father. As a teenager, he tried to hang himself and once threatened his mother with a butcher knife. In 1998, he dated a woman named Catherine Everett, who later spoke of his controlling behavior, limiting her access to her own family and finances. Within months of them breaking up, he began dating Susan Cox. After he and Susan were married and moved to Utah, Josh struggled to hold a steady job and would eventually declare bankruptcy, with more than $200,000 in debt. He had stopped attending church and had reportedly grown increasingly controlling towards his wife. He was reported missing on December 7, along with his wife and children, but returned home that evening with the boys, claiming they had left in the middle of the night to go camping, despite freezing temperatures. After becoming the primary suspect in his wife’s disappearance, he and his sons moved back to Washington to live with his father, Steve Powell. While being investigated by police, he would use the website SusanPowell.org to proclaim his innocence and advance theories that placed the blame for his wife’s disappearance elsewhere or claim that she was still alive. After his father was arrested on voyeurism and child pornography charges, Josh lost custody of his children. On February 5, 2012, a social worker brought his sons to a rental property in Graham, Washington, for a supervised visit. Powell locked the social worker out of the house and ignited cans of gasoline, creating an explosion that killed himself and his two boys. Minutes earlier, he had sent his attorney an email, saying, “I'm sorry, goodbye.”


3. Steven Powell


Steven Craig Powell grew up in Portland, Oregon and joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as an adult. There, he met Terrica "Terri" Martin, whom he married in 1973. They had five children together — Jennifer, Joshua, Johnny, Michael and Alina. He left the church in the 1980s, and the couple divorced in the early ‘90s.

After their wedding, Josh and Susan Powell moved into his father's home, and he became “obsessed” with his daughter-in-law, according to friend Sandy Crain Anderson, who also said he owned a substantial pornography collection. Susan’s friend Kiirsi Hellewell says on one occasion Steve tried to kiss Susan, precipitating her and Josh’s move to Utah, and that he later sent her photographs of nude men and songs he had written about her. Steve was one of the last people Josh called the night Susan went missing, and he called in sick to work two days after she vanished. After her disappearance, Steve claimed Susan was “flirtatious” and “very sexual with me,” allegations her family and friends vociferously rebuked. During a search of his home, police discovered thousands of images of women taken by him without their knowledge on his computer, including images of Susan, as well as child pornography. He was arrested and eventually found guilty on 14 counts of voyeurism, for which he was sentenced to two and a half years in prison in June 2012. In August 2015, he received an additional five years for possession of child pornography, but was released from prison in July 2017 with time off for good behavior. Many suspected his involvement in Susan’s disappearance, but he maintained his innocence and died from a heart attack this past July at the age of 68. Police never found evidence that he had anything to do with his daughter-in-law's disappearance.


4. Michael Powell


Six years younger than Josh Powell, Michael was one of his brother’s fiercest defenders. Police came to believe he was “heavily involved” in the disappearance of Susan Powell and disposal of her body. Weeks after Susan’s disappearance, Michael took his car to an Oregon junkyard known to crush its inventory. In 2011, police found the car and cadaver dogs “indicated there was an odor of human decomposition.” DNA tests, however, were inconclusive. On February 11, 2013, roughly one year after the death of his brother and young nephews, Michael committed suicide by jumping off the roof of a seven-story building in downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota. Later that year, police searched a property in Oregon that had once belonged to relatives of the Powells, but found nothing.


5. Jennifer Graves


Born in 1974, Jennifer is the oldest of the Powell children. She recalled her father watching pornographic movies in her presence when she was 11 years old, and by the time of her 1994 marriage to Kirk Graves, they were estranged. She later became close with Susan Powell, who confided in her about Steve Powell’s inappropriate behavior. After Susan went missing, she confronted both her brother Josh and their father about their possible role in her disappearance, secretly recording the conversations for police. In 2013, she published a book titled "A Light in Dark Places: A Story of Heartbreak, Survival and Redemption," about her tumultuous family life.  


6. Charles and Judy Cox


Following Susan Powell’s disappearance, her parents became tireless advocates on her behalf. When Josh Powell lost custody of his sons, the boys moved in with their maternal grandparents, where they lived until their murder. Subsequently, Charles Cox assumed control of a trust Josh and Susan Powell set up, with more than $2 million in life insurance proceeds, bringing him into conflict with Josh’s sister Alina and mother Terri. In 2015, the two families settled a lawsuit related to use of the trust, according to Insurance Business.


7. Charles and Braden Powell


The Powell boys, Charles and Braden, were born in 2005 and 2007, respectively, and they were just 2 and 4 years old when their father took them on an impromptu camping trip on a freezing December night. After Susan Cox’s parents gained custody of them, they began slowly revealing what they remembered about the night their mother went missing, allegedly saying, “Mommy was in the trunk.” Following the explosion that killed them and their father, an autopsy revealed the boys had been struck in the head and neck with a hatchet just before their father set fire to the house.

[Photo: Getty Images]

Related Stories

Crime Time is your destination for true crime stories from around the world, breaking crime news, and information about Oxygen's original true crime shows and documentaries. Sign up for our Crime Time Newsletter and subscribe to our true crime podcast Martinis & Murder for all the best true crime content. 

You May Also Like...
Recommended by Zergnet