Powell Family: Father Stabs 2 Sons With Hatchet, Blows Up House After Wife Goes Missing

When 28-year-old Susan Cox Powell went missing the night of December 6, 2009, it set off a gruesome chain of events that claimed multiple family members' lives.

By Benjamin H. Smith
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The Disappearance of Susan Cox Powell: A Young Mother Vanishes From Utah

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When 28-year-old Susan Cox Powell went missing on the night of December 6, 2009, it would set off a chain of events that would consume many more lives before it was all said and done. Suspicion immediately turned to her husband Josh, and police would eventually surveil his brother Michael. It was discovered that Josh’s father, Steve Powell, was sexually infatuated with his daughter-in-law. A little over two years later, Josh killed himself and his two young sons, Michael died by suicide a year later and their father went to prison on voyeurism charges in 2012, according to The News Tribune. What happened to Susan Cox Powell, however, remains unknown to this day.

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 young mother's mysterious vanishing as well as the tragic events that took place after her disappearance.

Josh Powell and Susan Cox met in 2000 at a church singles ward in Puyallup, Washington, about 40 miles south of Seattle. Singles wards are congregational bodies set up for single members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints between the ages of 18 and 30, so they might meet and eventually marry. While Susan came from a devout, tight-knit family, Josh’s background was fraught with turmoil.

Josh was born into an LDS family, but his father Steve Powell left the church in the mid-‘80s and began disparaging it publicly. He and his wife Terri filed for divorce in 1992, after nearly 20 years of marriage and several children. In court documents cited by The Salt Lake Tribune, Steve accused his wife of practicing New Age “witch craft and devil worship,” while Terri claimed Steve exposed his children, perhaps inadvertently, to pornography, after their youngest daughter Alina allegedly found a pornography magazine in her bed, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. As a teenager, Josh Powell reportedly tried to hang himself and threatened his mother with a kitchen knife, according to court documents obtained by ABC News.

Josh and Susan Cox Powell were married in 2001, and Susan’s sister Denise Cox Ernest said that in the beginning, “You thought [they were] a perfect couple, a very happy couple."

Susan Cox Powell sitting with her two sons, Charlie and Braden, and husband Josh Powell.

In 2004, they moved to West Valley City, Utah, outside Salt Lake City, in part to get away from Steve Powell, who had allegedly made unwanted advances towards his daughter-in-law, according to KSL. They had two sons: Charlie, born in 2005, and Braden, born in 2007. By 2008, however, the Powells' marriage was starting to come apart.

In Utah, Susan worked for Wells Fargo while Josh went from one job to another. He would eventually declare bankruptcy, with more than $200,000 in debt. He had stopped attending church with the family and grew increasingly controlling. In 2008, Susan shot a video, in the case that, “If something happens to me, or my family or all of us, that our assets are documented.” A handwritten will from the same time period says, “If I die, it may not be an accident even if it looks like one," according to ABC News.

On the morning of December 6, 2009, Susan and her sons went to church, and she visited with a friend that afternoon before complaining she wasn’t feeling well and going to bed. The entire family was reported missing the following day, after family and friends became alarmed when the children weren’t dropped off at daycare. Police broke into the Powell’s home, but found it empty, with two fans set up to dry a damp sofa in the living room. Forensic tests would later find traces of Susan’s blood on a tile floor near the sofa. 

On the afternoon of December 7, Josh Powell returned home with his two sons, then ages 2 and 4, and said he had decided to take them on a camping trip the night before, despite not leaving until 12:30 AM and temperatures being below freezing. He claimed Susan was home when he left and that he didn’t know her whereabouts. Within a week, police declared him a “person of interest" in his wife’s disappearance, reported CBS News.

In January 2010, Josh and his boys moved back to Puyallup, claiming he could no longer afford to live in Utah after being fired from his job. Investigators later learned that both Josh and Susan had taken out $1 million life insurance policies on themselves, and that he had told co-workers at a Christmas party how "to get away with murder, he would hide a body in a mineshaft in the west desert of Utah." Josh moved in with his father Steve, whom police also investigated as part of Susan’s disappearance. Steve maintained his innocence.

Writing anonymously on the website SusanPowell.org, Josh and Steve claimed they were being scapegoated for speaking out against the LDS church, and they later put forth the theory that Susan had run off to Brazil with Steven Koecher, a 30-year-old Utah man who disappeared several days after she went missing. Later, Steve Powell went public, saying Susan was “very sexual with me. She was very flirtatious.” These allegations were contradicted by his daughter Jennifer Graves, who said Susan was “creeped out” after the elder Powell had tried to kiss her and suggested he and his son “share” her, reported The Salt Lake Tribune

Susan Cox Powell with Powell family.

In September 2011, Steve Powell was arrested after police discovered in his home "thousands of images of females being videotaped without their knowledge," according to the Pierce County Prosecutor's Office. Some of those filmed were as young as 8 years old. One of those filmed was Susan. Following his father's arrest, Josh temporarily lost custody of his children, who were sent to live with Susan’s parents, Charles and Judy Cox. Josh could still have supervised visitations with them several times a week.

On February 5, 2012, a social worker brought Charles, now 7, and 5-year-old Braden to their supervised visit with their father at a rental property in Graham, Washington. The boys ran ahead, and by the time the social worker got to the front door, Josh Powell had locked her out of the house. She smelled gasoline and called 911. Moments later the house exploded, killing the three inside. Minutes earlier, Powell had sent his attorney an email, which said, “I'm sorry, goodbye,” reported CBS News.

Authorities would later learn Powell had meticulously planned his murder-suicide. In the days leading up to it, he gave his children’s toys to Goodwill, put aside money for his siblings to pay his bills, and left a voicemail message for his loved ones that morning, saying, “I'm sorry to everyone I've hurt, Goodbye.” An autopsy would determine Powell had struck his two boys with a hatchet in the head and neck before igniting two 5-gallon cans of gasoline, causing the explosion that burned the house to the ground. Josh Powell was 36 years old at the time of his death.

Almost exactly a year after Josh Powell murdered his sons and killed himself, his 30-year-old brother Michael died by suicide, jumping off the roof of a seven-story building in downtown Minneapolis. A vociferous supporter of his brother, police later said they believed Michael was “heavily involved” in the alleged disposal of Susan's body, using his car, which he sold to a junkyard when it broke down weeks after her disappearance, reported The Seattle Times. Police discovered the car and said cadaver dogs “indicated there was an odor of human decomposition,” but DNA tests were inconclusive. 

Josh’s father Steve Powell was found guilty on 14 counts of voyeurism and sentenced to two and a half years in prison in June 2012, reported ABC News. In August 2015, while still in custody, he received an additional five years for possession of child pornography, said The News Tribune. He was released from prison in July 2017, having received time off for good behavior. He died from a heart attack this past July at the age of 68.

To date, the ultimate fate of Susan Cox Powell and the location of her body remain a mystery. Police officially closed their active investigation into her disappearance in 2013 following the suicide of Michael Powell. Search efforts for her remains in the Utah desert and Powell family property in Oregon have turned up nothing. She is still classified as a missing person and has yet to be declared dead. 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.”

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