GRAHAM, Wash. (AP) — The long, bizarre case of a Utah woman missing for two years took a horrific turn Sunday when a powerful house explosion killed the woman's husband and his two young sons, moments after the boys arrived for a visit that was supposed to be supervised by a social worker.
Authorities say it appears the husband, Josh Powell, blew the house up on purpose.
The Child Protective Services worker brought the two boys to Powell's home, and Powell let his sons inside — but then blocked the social worker from entering, Graham Fire and Rescue Chief Gary Franz told The Associated Press.
The social worker called her supervisors to report that she could smell gas, and moments later the home exploded. What's left of the house was still smoking Sunday afternoon, and fire crews were mopping up the scene.
Sgt. Ed Troyer, Pierce County sheriff's spokesman, said emails Powell sent authorities seemed to confirm the Powell planned the deadly blast. Troyer didn't elaborate on the contents of the emails.
Jeffrey Bassett, who represented Powell in the custody case, said he received a three-word email from his client just minutes before Powell and the two boys died. It said, "I'm sorry, goodbye."
The email arrived at 12:05 p.m. Sunday, about 10 minutes before the explosion, but he didn't see it until two hours later, when others told him Josh and the boys had been killed. He said he knew Josh was upset after being ordered to undergo a psycho-sexual evaluation recently, but he didn't see this coming.
Powell was under investigation in the disappearance of his 28-year-old wife Susan from their West Valley City, Utah, home in December 2009. He claimed he had taken the boys on a midnight excursion in freezing temperatures when she vanished.
The children, 5 and 7, had been living with Susan Powell's parents since Josh Powell's father Steven was arrested on child porn and voyeurism charges last fall. On Wednesday, a judge had denied an attempt by Josh Powell to regain custody, saying she wouldn't consider returning the two boys to their father until he underwent a psycho-sexual evaluation.
"It's the most horrifying thing you can imagine happening," said lawyer Steve Downing, who represented Susan Powell's parents, Chuck and Judy Cox, in the custody fight. "The Coxes are absolutely devastated. They were always very fearful of him doing something like this, and he did it."
Bassett said he represented Powell free of charge because "every parent deserves the right to an attorney." Powell called or emailed him at least once a day, and often more than that, and in their conversations "he never once admitted doing anything regarding Susan. In fact, he denied it."
Sgt. Mike Powell of the West Valley City Police Department in Utah, which is handling the investigation into Susan Powell's disappearance, said it was too soon to say how Josh Powell's death may impact their probe.
"Quite frankly, this has obviously quickly unfolded up in Washington and we're obviously just working through the details ourselves here," Powell said Sunday.
"We are in contact with authorities," Powell added. "It's obviously an ongoing situation in Washington at this point."
Kirk Graves, 39, of West Jordan, Utah, Josh Powell's brother-in-law, said he and his wife, Jennifer, were stunned by the news. (Jennifer Powell Graves is Josh Powell's sister.)
"It's a shock. A total complete shock," he said. "We never contemplated the idea he would do something like this. You just don't expect it from a father."
Kirk Graves said he and his wife think Josh Powell deliberately set off the explosion to kill him and his sons.
"His world was falling apart around him and he was going to lose his boys and get arrested for Susan's disappearance," he said. "He's a narcissist and he has no love for anyone but himself.
Associated Press writers Brian Skoloff in Utah and Martin Griffith in Nevada contributed to this report.