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On December 7, 2009, 28-year-old mother of two Susan Cox Powell vanished from her home in West Valley City, Utah. While suspicion initially fell on her husband, Josh Powell, investigators would later surveil his brother, Michael Powell. Josh’s father, Steve Powell, also became centerstage in the media firestorm, with police learning he had a sexual obsession with his daughter-in-law and often videotaped Susan without her knowledge.
In the years following Susan’s disappearance, Josh killed himself and his two young sons in a fiery explosion, Michael died by suicide and their father went to prison on voyeurism and child pornography charges, according to The News Tribune. What happened to Susan Cox Powell, however, remains unknown.
To this day, no one has been charged in connection with the case, but many members from the Powell and Cox families were drawn into the tragedy. Read about them below before the premiere of “The Disappearance of Susan Cox Powell” airing May 4 and May 5 at 7/6c on Oxygen.
1. Susan Cox Powell
Susan grew up in a family who were devout members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. At the age of 19, she became engaged to 24-year-old Josh Powell, whom she met through a church function in Puyallup, Washington. In 2004, they moved to West Valley City, Utah, where she worked as a 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 grew alarmed when she did not drop off her children at daycare.
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 have said “all leads ... have been exhausted and the case has gone cold," according to The Salt Lake Tribune.
2. Josh Powell
Like his wife, Josh grew up with the LDS Church. His parents' divorce, however, turned his world upside down. In court documents cited by The Seattle Times, his mother Terri Powell claimed his father was a harsh disciplinarian who verbally “pointedly attacked” Josh. As a teenager, he tried to hang himself and once allegedly threatened his mother with a butcher knife.
In 2000, 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.
Josh was reported missing on December 7, 2009 along with his wife and children, but returned home that afternoon 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.
Following his father's arrest on voyeurism and child pornography charges, Josh lost custody of his children, reported the Deseret News. 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,” reported ABC News.
3. Steve Powell
Steve Powell grew up in Portland, Oregon, and joined the LDS Church as an adult. There, he met Terri Martin, whom he married in 1973. They had five children together — Jennifer, Josh, John, Michael and Alina. He left the church in the 1980s, and the couple divorced in the early ‘90s.
After their wedding, Josh and Susan Cox Powell moved into his father's home, and Steve became sexually obsessed with his daughter-in-law. Susan’s friend Kiirsi Hellewell said 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, reported The Salt Lake Tribune.
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, according to ABC 4.
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. 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, reported ABC News. 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, according to The News Tribune.
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 Cox Powell and disposal of her body, reported The Seattle Times.
Michael first caught law enforcement’s attention in 2011, when it was discovered he had paid to have his broken-down car towed to a salvage yard two weeks after Susan vanished. Police recovered the 1997 Ford Taurus from Lindell Auto in Pendleton, Oregon, and conducted forensic testing. A cadaver dog indicated the presence of human decomposition in the trunk, but DNA tests were inconclusive.
Utah investigators visited Michael in Minneapolis, Minnesota, that October to interview him about the car and its possible involvement in the transportation of Susan’s remains. Former Utah detective Ellis Maxwell told KSL’s “Cold” podcast that Michael refused to answer any questions.
Two months after their visit, Michael contacted Apollo Mapping, a satellite imagery provider, to obtain “an aerial photo of Pendleton, Oregon taken in October 2011 or later,” specifying Lindell Auto salvage yard. Apollo Mapping told Michael they were only able to acquire a partial photograph of the yard, which Michael reportedly expressed an interest in purchasing.
On February 11, 2013, roughly one year after the death of his brother and young nephews, Michael died by suicide after jumping off the roof of a seven-story building in downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota.
5. Alina Powell
The youngest of the Powell children, Alina Powell is a fierce defender of her father Steve and brother Josh. Though she said she had her “doubts” about her late sibling, she “never, ever heard anything that was remotely suspicious” about him, reported ABC News. Alina also claimed Josh’s murder-suicide was “the act of somebody who had been so damaged by the lack of due process, so harassed and abused and lied about that he just reached a point of feeling like there was no... I don't know,” according to the outlet.
She believes Josh killed his children because he felt “that there was only one way left for him to protect his sons, from the pain, from all the emotional and physical pain they've been experiencing," reported ABC News.
When her father Steve was found guilty of 14 counts of voyeurism in 2012, she told the press — in a video captured by The Salt Lake Tribune — he was a “great father” and that her family was “automatically convicted two and a half years ago” when Susan disappeared.
6. Jennifer Graves
Born in 1974, Jennifer is the oldest of the Powell children. She recalled her father Steve Powell 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, reported The Salt Lake City Tribune.
She later became close with Susan Cox 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.
7. John Powell
John Powell, one of three surviving children in the Powell family, has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, said sister Jennifer Graves. When Steve was on trial for 14 counts of voyeurism and one count of possessing depictions of minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct, his defense argued anyone in the Powell home could have taken the videos and photographs, including his mentally ill son.
Graves testified that John had been kicked out Steve’s house at that time and that he had been “wandering the streets.” Graves told the court she then helped John find new housing.
In the police report from Steve’s arrest, investigators noted that John “runs around nude in the house and in a diaper,” and that he had a “a hangman's noose and a gallows built in his room,” reported The Salt Lake Tribune.
8. Charles and Judy Cox
Following Susan Cox 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 Cox 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.
9. Terri Powell
The Powell matriarch, Terri, has kept out the media spotlight following Susan’s disappearance and the deaths of Josh, Charlie and Braden. In 2011, she wrote an affidavit in support of Josh regaining custody of his sons. She testified Josh’s home fostered a “supportive and calm” environment and that it was “very apparent that [the boys] love their dad and that he loves them," reported the Deseret News.
Graves told the outlet she believed her mother was in denial about Josh’s involvement in Susan’s disappearance, and that she even asked her to move out of her house after she supported Josh in court, saying, “She wasn't protecting the ones that really needed protecting, and that was Charlie and Braden.”
10. Charlie and Braden Powell
The Powell boys, Charlie 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'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,” reported CBS News.
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.
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