Monday, April 2, 2012

Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda: Evidence of Susan Powell’s Abusive Husband Raises Questions Regarding 2009 Police Investigation

Court documents unsealed last Friday, March 30, revealed previously unreported details regarding the investigation behind Susan Powell’s mysterious disappearance nearly three years ago.  The unsolved case re-entered public consciousness after her husband—the leading suspect in the police’s investigation—killed himself and his two sons in a tragic murder-suicide this past February.  Authorities say Josh Powell snatched the two boys—Braden and Charlie—from a social worker, who was delivering them for a supervised visit.  He then locked the doors and killed them and himself moments before his home exploded. 

Josh Powell’s recent actions have inspired the West Valley City Police Department to re-open their investigation on Susan Powell’s whereabouts.  The Police Chief, Thayle "Buzz" Nielsen told reporters that the department  "is committed to locating Susan and bringing a resolution to this case.  That's why it's still active." 

Although Josh Powell maintained his innocence in his wife’s disappearance until his death, the recently released evidence suggests that the police had it right from the start in their suspicions as Josh as the culprit.  First, when they entered the Powell’s Utah home after Susan Powell was reported missing, police noted that two fans were set up to blow air on the sofa.  Although Josh Powell told investigators that he had just cleaned the sofa at his wife’s request, authorities later discovered Susan Powell’s blood on the tile floor surrounding that area.  Moreover, the police discovered a handwritten letter that Susan Powell had left inside a private safe deposit box.  In the letter titled "Last will and testament for Susan Powell," she wrote that if she were to die, it may not be an accident, even if it looks like one.  She also indicated that her husband had "threatened to destroy her if they get divorced." 

The recent report also indicates that investigators found Susan Powell's cellphone in the center console of her husband’s car.  Although the phone was obviously tampered with—it did not contain a SIM card—Josh Powell claimed that he did not know why the phone was in his car.  A month after his wife’s disappearance, Powell left the state with his children and moved into his father’s house in the state of Washington (his father is also a current suspect in Susan Powell’s disappearance).  Furthermore, one of Powell’s sons, Charlie, told a police investigator that "his mommy went camping with them, although she did not come back with them and he did not know why," the documents said.  Weeks later in Washington, Charlie told a teacher that "[his] mom is dead."

This evidence begs an important question that has been raised in various contexts throughout this blog: why was this man never arrested?  Even though handfuls of evidence suggested that Josh Powell had consistently abused his wife over the course of their marriage and had threatened to kill her on multiple occasions, the police refrained from arresting him.  Members of the criminal justice system in the Washington district where Powell committed the heinous murder-suicide have spoken out about this oversight.  For instance, Pierce County prosecutor Mark Lindquist said last Friday that had the case happened in his jurisdiction, he would have charged Josh Powell with Susan’s murder.  He went on to state, "There is direct evidence.  There is circumstantial evidence.  There is motive.  There is everything but the body."  In addition, Pierce County sheriff's spokesman Ed Troyer said his detectives would have arrested Powell "a long time ago" if this had been their case.  He said a detective in Washington state was aware of the details gathered and local authorities were anticipating that Utah investigators would pursue an arrest.  Unfortunately, they never did. 

Although these statements from members of the Pierce County criminal justice system indicate a proactive approach, domestic violence homicides are frequently overlooked by the criminal justice system.  Hopefully the tragic outcome of the longstanding Powell case will inspire hesitant investigators to use evidence of domestic violence as a basis for taking these dangerous and unstable individuals into custody.  

Amanda Giglio
Blogger, Criminal Law Brief


  1. This is a terrible situation. Although we do have the benefit of hindsight, that Josh's children (or at least Charlie) acknowledged that their mother was dead, and then conveyed this to a teacher is troubling. It is not clear whether Josh's children were ever interviewed after their mother's disappearance (and presumably they were), but for Charlie to say this to a teacher means that at least two people besides Josh knew that something was wrong. All in all, this was a terrible tragedy, not just with Susan's disappearance but the home explosion as well.

    1. I absolutely agree, Ryan. It's awful and I hope that this terrible situation helps inspire the criminal justice system to take evidence of abusive households more seriously when conducting future investigations. It's a fact that women are more likely to be victims of crime in their homes than on the streets. I think that if the criminal justice system were more serious about addressing domestic violence and developing a more systematic approach to addressing domestic violence then horrific incidents like this one could be avoided.