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In late 2009, Josh became the primary suspect in the disappearance of his wife, Susan Cox Powell. The son of Steve Powell and Terri Powell, Josh grew up in a turbulent household with four siblings — Jennifer, John, Michael and Alina. “The Disappearance of Susan Cox Powell,” premiering May 4 and May 5 at 7/6c on Oxygen, revisits Josh’s troubled marriage and complicated family background.
His parents divorced in 1992 after nearly 20 years of marriage, and a bitter court battle dragged Josh to the center of their separation. In documents cited by The Seattle Times, Terri claimed her husband was a harsh disciplinarian who verbally “pointedly attacked” Josh. As a teenager, Josh allegedly tried to hang himself and threatened his mother with a butcher knife.
In 2000, Josh met Susan Cox Powell at a church function in Puyallup, Washington. The two married the following year, and Susan’s sister Denise Ernest told ABC’s “20/20,” “At the very beginning they were, you know, happy, holding hands, hugging, kissing each other. You thought [they were] a perfect couple, a very happy couple."
The couple moved to West Valley City, Utah, outside Salt Lake City, in 2004, partly to get away from Steve Powell, who had made unwanted sexual advances toward 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.
While Susan worked as broker for Wells Fargo Financial, Josh struggled to hold a steady job. He would eventually declare bankruptcy, with more than $200,000 in debt. He stopped attending church and had reportedly grown increasingly controlling of his wife.
In 2008, Susan shot a video, saying: “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 wanted to take a nap. Josh, who rarely cooked, had prepared pancakes and served them to Susan before she began to feel ill.
The following morning, Josh was reported missing, along with his wife and children, after Charlie and Braden were not dropped off at daycare and Josh and Susan failed to show up to work. Josh returned home that afternoon with the boys, claiming they had left in the middle of the night to go camping, despite a snowstorm that brought below freezing temperatures. Josh called and left Susan two voicemails during the day, even though it was later discovered that her cell phone was in his car. The next day, police seized the family’s van, and Josh rented a car, on which he put 807 miles. He also purchased a new cell phone that was activated 80 miles north of Salt Lake City, reported The Salt Lake Tribune.
A little over a week after Susan was last seen alive, Josh was named a person of interest by investigators. He and his sons then moved back to Washington to move in with his father, Steve. Investigators learned both Josh and Susan had taken out $1 million life insurance policies on themselves, with $250,000 riders on each of their children, and that Josh had told co-workers at a Christmas party that "to get away with murder, he would hide a body in a mineshaft in the west desert of Utah,” reported KSL.
While being investigated by police, Josh used the website SusanPowell.org to proclaim his innocence and advance theories that placed the blame for his wife’s disappearance elsewhere or claimed that she was still alive. In 2011, Steve Powell was charged in an unrelated case with 14 counts of voyeurism and one count of possessing an image of minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct, reported The Salt Lake Tribune. Following his father's arrest, Josh temporarily lost custody of his sons, who were sent to live with Susan’s parents, Charles and Judy Cox. Josh was still allowed to have supervised visitations with them several times a week.
On February 5, 2012, a social worker brought Charles, 7, and Braden, 5, 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 had locked her out of the house. She smelled gasoline and called 911. Josh sent his attorney an email, which said, “I'm sorry, goodbye,” reported ABC News. Moments later, the house exploded, killing the three inside.
Authorities discovered Josh 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 determined Josh had struck his two boys with a hatchet in the head and neck before igniting cans of gasoline, causing the explosion that burned the house to the ground. He was 36 years old at the time of his death.
Josh was never charged in connection with his wife’s disappearance, and to this day, Susan remains missing. Though her 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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