APNewsBreak: Susan Powell Case Called A Murder

Published February 8, 2012 1:09AM (EST)

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — Utah authorities have for at least six months investigated the disappearance of Susan Powell as a murder case. But without a body, they publicly held out hope that she would be found alive.

So what evidence did they have that the mother of two was dead? And was there anything to identify her killer?

There was the damp spot on the floor in their Utah home and a curious late-night camping trip described by her husband. There were also the recollections of their young son Braden about a camping trip and his mother being "in the trunk."

That could strike some as a clue, or the ramblings of a boy who was then just 2.

For authorities in Utah, none of it was enough to bring charges.

The man identified by investigators as a "person of interest" — Powell's husband Josh — had already moved from Utah to Washington state, taking with him their two young sons. On Sunday, he torched his house, killing himself and the boys.

Now, as authorities try to determine what led him to take such a drastic measure, many questions remain about the status of the investigation into Susan Powell's 2009 disappearance and how close they were to bringing charges.

A Washington state search warrant obtained by The Associated Press through a public records request Tuesday showed that police were investigating three felonies in Utah: first-degree murder, kidnapping and obstructing a public servant.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill acknowledged for the first time that they believe Powell is likely dead, but said in an interview with the AP that the case remains a missing persons probe for now.

Gill wouldn't discuss the evidence, but said authorities don't have enough information to file charges.

"I think when I talk about it as a missing persons case, that's because we haven't located the body of Susan Powell," Gill said. "Do we think that she may have met harm? Sure. I think that's been an ongoing assumption with law enforcement."

Josh Powell claimed that on the night she vanished he took sons Charlie and Braden from their home in West Valley City, Utah, on a late-night camping trip. Authorities searched the central Utah desert, but found nothing.

When Utah authorities traveled to Washington following the fatal Sunday blaze that killed 7-year-old Charlie and 5-year-old Braden, they didn't specifically address what may have been said by the boys.

West Valley, Utah, Police Chief Buzz Nielsen said authorities needed concrete evidence to move forward.

"When you charge on criminal cases, especially if it ends up being a homicide ... without a body, it's just more difficult. You have to have a stronger case to make those arguments in court," Nielsen said Monday.

"We have circumstantial evidence that I'm not allowed to talk about it," he said. "On a criminal case of this nature you've got one shot, beyond a reasonable doubt in court."

Last September, authorities got a warrant to search the home of Josh Powell's father, Steve. Josh Powell and his sons were living there at the time. The documents obtained by the AP did not specify a suspect.

In addition to the charges, the warrant listed Steve Powell's work laptop computer as well as cars that he used.

Authorities found explicit images on his computers during the search, and he was jailed on voyeurism and child porn charges. The boys were later sent to live with Susan Powell's parents.

Speaking to reporters Monday after the boys' deaths, their grandfather Charles Cox said the boys were emotionally distant when they first arrived at their home, but recently had begun to open up.

That gave Charles Cox hope that someday they would be able say what happened to their mom.

"They were like little robots. If you asked them about mommy, they would run away," he said. But "in the last week, I could not sit down without them climbing up on my lap."

The boys had not recently made more comments about what may have happened to their mother, Charles Cox said, though he related what Braden said nearly two years ago.

Cox said: "The four ladies that were supervising that activity said, 'well, what's this?' 'That's us going camping.' 'Who's in the car?' And Braden said, 'that's Daddy, that's Charlie, that's me'. Then he said, 'well mommy's in the trunk.'

"Well if Mommy's in the trunk, why is she in the trunk?' He didn't know, he didn't say, I guess. Then, he said we stopped somewhere and mommy and daddy got out and mommy didn't come back," Cox said.

Nielsen said despite the death of the young boys and Josh Powell, the probe would continue.

"Our case is not closed," the police chief said.

Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist, who is overseeing the voyeurism prosecution of Steve Powell but is not directly involved in the Susan Powell case, said it's clear to him that it's a homicide case.

"I don't think at this point I'm going to call this a missing person case," he said. "It's reasonable to call Josh Powell's decision to kill himself and his kids a confession to the murder of Susan Powell."


Associted Press writers Brian Skoloff in Salt Lake City and Gene Johnson in Seattle contributed to this report.

By Salon Staff

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