If you feel unsafe or at risk in your home, please do not wait until it’s too late. Call the U.S. National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233, visit https://www.thehotline.org/ or text LOVEIS to 22522
Susan Cox was born October 16th, 1981 in New Mexico to her parents Charles, also known as Chuck, and Judy Cox. She was the third daughter for the family, who moved from New Mexico to Alaska before settling into life in Washington State. Her family describes her here, for the Susan Cox Powell Foundation:
“Susan is an outgoing, optimistic person with a servant’s heart and boundless energy. She is characterized by her faith in her Heavenly Father, her determination to provide for her children and her belief that families are forever.”
Susan was raised Mormon, and was very devoted to her faith, regularly attending services at her Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. She also sought out relationships and friendships in that community as well. In November of 2000, when Susan was 19, she was taking a course at the LDS Institute of Religion, and she attended a little dinner party with her classmates where she met Joshua Powell. Josh was a little bit older than Susan, 24, but he had a decent job, a good head on his shoulders, and Susan was very drawn to him right away.
Josh’s upbringing was not quite as loving and faithful as Susan’s. Though he was also raised in the LDS church, by the time he met Susan his faith was really shaken. His parents Steven and Terrica had a total of five children, and what was known as a very tumultuous marriage. When Josh was 16, they finally divorced after years of arguments and tension. Terrica said in court documents that Steven was really pressuring her to add a second wife to their relationship- plural marriage- but that she was not interested. She alleged that he must have cheated though, regardless, because she claims he gave her an STI. The court documents also show that Terrica alleged some pretty dark things about Steven’s parenting, to boot. She claimed he watched pornography around the boys, and even pitted them against eachother and encouraged them to fight. All of this really contributed to some major mental health issues for Josh who tried to take his own life at least once as a teenager.
Still, despite their differences, Susan believed that if anyone could bring Josh back to his faith, it was her, and she was also very eager to settle down and fulfill her dream of becoming a mother.
By April of 2001, just five months after they’d met, Susan and Josh married at the Portland Oregon Temple. After their wedding, they lived for a time with Josh’s father Steven, but eventually relocated to West Valley City, Utah where they settled in and went on to have two little boys- Charlie in 2005, and Braden in 2007.
December 6, 2009 was a Sunday that started like any other for the Powell family at their West Valley City home. Susan began by taking the kids to church, something she rarely missed. That afternoon back at the house, a neighbor stopped by for a visit. She says that Josh offered to make dinner for them all, which was a nice treat for Susan since she usually did most of the cooking and cleaning, and they all went to town on a really typical dad-feast of pancakes- breakfast for dinner!
Throughout the meal, Susan began to say that she wasn’t feeling very well. Around 5pm, Susan said she was feeling so off that she decided to try to take a little nap. She went to bed, and Josh said he was going to take the boys sledding, presumably to get out of mom’s hair so she could rest. The neighbor said her farewells, and that is the last time anyone would see the Powell family before everything changed forever.
The next morning, Charlie and Braden’s daycare provider grew concerned when the boys didn’t arrive at their normal drop off time. If it was Josh’s day to drop the boys off, she might not have reacted so strongly- he was prone to showing up at any odd time, but not Susan. On Mondays, Susan always dropped the boys off early. When the daycare provider couldn’t reach either Susan or Josh by phone by 9am, she grew worried and called the emergency contacts- Josh’s mom Terrica, and Josh’s sister Jennifer Graves. They also called their jobs only to find that neither parent had shown up for work that day, so Terrica and Jennifer rushed over to the Powell home to check on them. When they found no one there, they feared a carbon monoxide leak or some other emergency and called the police.
Officers met them at the home, and with Josh’s mom’s permission they broke in only to find no sign at all of the family. There were a couple points of note that really stood out to the responding officers though:
1) Susan’s purse was still there, something her family said she’d not have left behind of course
2) The carpet and/or the couch were all wet as if maybe they’d just been deep cleaned, with two box fans set up blowing them dry.
While everyone in the Powell family’s circle feverishly searched for them, Josh casually pulled into the family driveway around 5pm that evening. He and the boys piled out, and for a second everyone was thrilled to see them all a-ok, but that excitement quickly faded when they noticed Susan wasn’t with them. When they wanted to know where Susan was, he just said “I don’t know, I guess she went to work.” Of course everyone was immediately wondering where on earth they’d been all day, and he told them that he’d taken the boys camping.
This immediately raised some questions for investigators, because the previous night had actually been very cold and snowy. Remember, this was December in Utah. They asked Josh to meet them the next day for a formal and official interview. But that appointment time came and went with no Josh, and his family found him there at the house deep cleaning when he was supposed to be at the station. Eventually he strolled in, four hours late, and they carried on with their questioning.
This is only the beginning of the red flags we find coming from the Powell family in the disappearance of Josh’s wife Susan- there’s so many, I know I’ll miss some tonight for the sake of brevity- there were a couple answers Josh gave early on that really seemed to stand out to everyone as not making a lot of sense. For starters, Josh stated that he wasn’t answering his phone the day of Susan’s disappearance because it was dying and he needed to conserve battery, but one of the investigators who saw him arrive on scene says it was plugged into a charger cable. Also, Josh says Susan must’ve gone to work and even left a voicemail for her saying he went by to pick her up, but someone during the day actually had gotten ahold of him and claims he knew she wasn’t there and everyone was looking for her. Furthermore, Josh claimed that he was confused on his days, and he thought it was Saturday night when he left for camping, not Sunday, and that’s why he didn’t show up for work on Monday- but if that’s the case, then why was he so convinced that Susan was at work? Josh also had some cuts on his hands that he had no explanation for.
And let’s talk about the camping: Who takes a two year old and a five year old camping in the middle of the night in a snowstorm? Josh claims he did this because the boys wanted s’mores.
Detectives were not buying that anymore than you or I are right now, and they actually sent investigators to the campground to have a look around. There was absolutely no sign that anyone had been to that particular campground in some time, let alone built a fire and had s’mores. In fact, police even had trouble conducting the search because the snow was so heavy.
During Josh’s interview, the police seized the family van as evidence, and so when the interview concluded he rented a car, and took off for two days. No one knows where, no one knows what he did, and no one admits they spoke to him during that time, but there were 800 miles more on the car when he returned it.
While the Cox family initially showed support for Josh, it wasn’t long before the investigation revealed some startling indications that Susan was not happy in her marriage. Though everyone in Susan’s life agreed they weren’t ever all that crazy about Josh, Susan had done a good job of only sharing bits and pieces of their problems, so it wasn’t until they all began comparing notes about things she’d said to them that they realized there’d been some cries for help.
Josh had been extremely controlling toward both Susan and the boys. He controlled what their family ate, even only allowing the boys to split a hot dog because they were only going to “poop it out anyway”. Susan wasn’t allowed to use the car without his permission, and he almost always took it with him so she had to bike 7 miles to and from work. He kept a strict budget and made Susan DIY as much as possible, including knit the family’s socks. One of the sources we used even says that Josh made Susan call and get a ride to the hospital when she was in labor with Charlie. He missed Charlie’s birth entirely because he was backing up his computer.
While the investigation continued, police found even more suspicious evidence in the Powell family home. Susan had been keeping journals her whole life, and had many entries showing she was not at all happy in her marriage and might be seeking a way out. She had contacted a divorce attorney, and at his encouragement she’d made videos of their belongings to catalog their assets. On the video she says she hopes they live happily ever after, but just in case she was doing the film.
Perhaps the most alarming thing investigators found wasn’t in the Powell family home at all. It was hidden in a safe deposit box that Susan kept at the bank where she worked- a hand-written makeshift last will and testament. In this she detailed how bad her marriage had become, and the fact that Josh had taken out a $1million dollar life insurance policy on her. In her own words, she wrote “If I die… it may not be an accident”
Police also discovered that prior to Susan’s disappearance, Josh had attempted to move some money out of her retirement account, and even tried to cancel other important policies she had in place. At this point, they declared him an official person of interest in his wife’s disappearance, and Susan’s family could now see him for who they felt he really was, and they were devastated that he wasn’t arrested, but authorities simply didn’t feel they had enough without a body.
Josh’s family fiercely defended him, and they didn’t take this announcement lying down. The only outlier in this was Josh’s sister Jennifer. Jennifer even offered to wear a wire tap to family dinner at one point, but no one confessed to anything, and her questioning only seemed to alienate her from her siblings and father even more. Josh and his dad Steven started what could only be called a smear campaign against Susan, basically announcing to the world that she’s a whore and a liar. They even started a website made to discredit her reputation, and they publicly stated that she was having an affair with a local reporter who went missing around the same time. To be clear, there’s never been any connection between the reporter and Susan, and I do believe the reporter was eventually found.
What’s really interesting here, is that this seems to be a major change of opinion coming from Josh’s dad Steven. Susan’s journal entries and the interviews with her friends and family revealed that Steven actually had a bit of a fixation on Susan that made her kind of uncomfortable. They even say that the reason Susan and Josh relocated to Utah in the first place was because when they were staying with Steven in Washington, he had suggested that they SHARE her, and Susan was rightfully pretty horrified.
After Susan disappeared, Josh had moved in with his Dad again, and as part of their smear campaign against his missing wife, Josh claimed that he had seen her childhood diaries which would “prove” she had run away because she was a “sexual deviant” of some sort. The problem was authorities couldn’t prove that these diaries were really in their possession, so they had no probable cause to search Steven Powell’s home. So they brilliantly set up a public scene in an attempt to bait Steven into admitting something that would get a judge to sign the search warrant. At this point in the investigation, Susan’s dad Chuck and Josh’s dad Steven had built up a very public feud, so authorities set Susan’s family up with what’s called a honk and wave at a grocery store parking lot.
The plan worked, and before long Steven showed up to rant and rave and was fully getting in the grieving family’s face. He was yelling horrible things about Susan, and just as investigators suspected he gleefully announced that they had evidence at home that would prove Susan was a liar. That was all that was needed, and a warrant was soon signed, sealed and delivered. The unexpected revelations they found in Steven’s home continue to shock the nation 13 years later.
In a somewhat unrelated twist, Steven was found to be in possession of child pornography and actual voyueristic photographs he’d taken of neighborhood children, young girls!! He was swiftly arrested, thankfully, and as they continued to comb through the evidence they discovered that his infatuation with his daughter in law was far beyond what they could have even imagined.
Steven had kept logs of Susan’s behavior, along with tons of video and photo evidence to show that he’d been watching her for years. Despite the fact that these photos were taken from a distance, and it did not look at all like she knew she was being followed or watched, you can hear Steven’s voice in the background as he convinces himself that she’s doing it for him, and that she desperately and secretly loves and wants him just as much as he wants her. As if the stalking wasn’t creepy enough, the investigation also uncovered a ton of little baggies labeled “Susan” filled with her personal things like cotton swabs, nail clippings, and hair. He’d also written at least one incredible skeevy love song about their secret love. One which, according to everyone in Susan’s life, was completely uninvited and unrequited.
When Steven was arrested, this prompted another man to come forward saying that in late December of 2009, just a few weeks after Susan’s disappearance, Michael Powell- Josh’s brother- had sold him a car for scrap for only $100. He had thought it was very odd on it’s own without even recognizing the connection to Susan, but when he heard of Steven’s arrest two years later, his spidey senses started tingling- “wait a minute, that powell family??” and he called authorities. Though they’d gotten rid of much of the car by then, what was left was searched by a cadaver dog named Tug. Tug blew right past all the other cars and went straight to Michael’s, indicating that there had been human remains in the vehicle. Investigators waited with baited breath, hoping that this was a break in the case they needed, but no DNA linking the car to Susan could be recovered, and they returned their focus back to Steven and Josh.
Despite the vile, nauseating behavior that Steven Powell was arrested for, there was still nothing concrete that could connect him to the disappearance of Susan. Police also focused their attentions on Josh’s belongings, and they did discover some disturbing content, what they called simulated child pornography- basically animated cartoon kiddie porn. Unfortunately, because it wasn’t “real” it wasn’t illegal, and rather than arresting Josh they had to let him go. It did lead to the boys being removed temporarily from his custody though, and they were sent to live with Susan’s parents Chuck and Judy while Josh was waiting for a full psycho- sexual evaluation. As part of this parental competency evaluation, police were excited because it meant he could be given a full polygraph exam that he couldn’t decline, and they could ask him anything they wanted, so everyone was hopeful this could lead to some answers.
Little Charlie, who was 5 when his mom went missing, was also interviewed by a forensic child psychologist during the investigation. While it’s tricky to take the memory of a small child into account, he did make some statements that everyone involved found alarming at best. Over the course of his two meetings, he told the interviewer that they went camping with mommy but she stayed where the crystals are. He also said that he’s not allowed to talk about Susan or camping. He said “I have to keep a lot of secrets.” Similarly, while Charlie was in the Cox’s custody, he drew a family photo of his dad, and his brother, and himself- then he pointed to the trunk and said that’s where mommy was. Chuck and Judy also say that when the boys came to live with them, their behavior was completely out of control- it was as if they’d had no discipline, no guidance, and no love in the Powell home after their mom went missing.
While everyone waited for the state to complete their investigation into Josh’s fitness as a parent, he was permitted to have supervised visitations with the boys and a licensed social worker. Normally this would be something that’s done in a public office setting, but since there was such a massive amount of media attention on the case, the state allowed the visitations to be held in Josh’s new home, one he was renting near his father’s residence that had been part of that separate criminal investigation.
On Sunday, February 5th 2012, Social Worker Elizabeth Griffin arrived at Josh’s residence with Charlie and Braden for their supervised visitation. She knocked on the door and Josh answered, and the boys gleefully ran inside. Before Elizabeth was able to follow, Josh slammed the door on her. As the front door wafted the air into her face, Elizabeth noticed the unmistakable smell of gasoline and ran to call 911.
911 dispatcher David Lovrack’s cold response to Elizabeth’s cry for help was one that has since led to pleas for reform in the training of emergency dispatchers. It was very evident right off the bat that he was not taking her seriously. He went around and around with her for 8 whole minutes while she tried to explain to him what a supervised visit is, who’s doing the supervising, and why this man isn’t allowed to be alone with his own children. He came across as flippant and dismissive as he repeatedly tells her for 8 whole minutes that 911 is for emergency life threatening issues, and that they’ll send someone when they can. She cried and begged for him to understand for 8 whole minutes that this IS life threatening. She told him that inside she could hear the boys crying and screaming, and after 8 whole minutes, David Lovrack finally, reluctantly, agreed to send someone out to have a look.
A terrified Elizabeth hung up the phone to wait for officers to arrive, and Josh Powell’s home exploded behind her. It took another 13 minutes for anyone to arrive on scene. 7 year old Charlie Powell, and 5 year old Braden Powell had died in a murder-suicide at the hands of their father. Evidence recovered at the scene indicated that all three had died of carbon monoxide poisoning and smoke inhalation, but only Charlie and Braden had multiple stab wounds determined to be from a hatchet or an ax. The boys’ bodies were recovered together, curled up on the floor, holding hands.
Though no one has ever been charged in the disappearance of Susan Cox Powell, most people seem to operate under the belief that Josh was responsible for the death of his wife, and possibly was helped to cover it up by his father Steven and brother Michael. Tragically, we may never know because all three men are now dead. Michael took his own life in 2013 by jumping from the roof of a large building in downtown Minneapolis in front of several witnesses. Steven died of a heart attack shortly after his release from prison in 2017. No one has ever confessed, no evidence has ever been recovered that could connect them to Susan’s murder, and even sister Jennifer believes there never will be.
In February of 2022 the world got a pinch of renewed hope with skeletal remains found in a mine near where Josh says he took the boys camping that December night in 2009. Unfortunately for Susan’s family, it was another dead end. Charlie and Braden would be 17 and 15 today. Chuck and Judy Cox do their best to live every day in honor of their daughter and grandsons. Let’s share with you a little bit about some of the action steps the Cox family has been taking to effect change on behalf of their loved ones:
The Susan Cox Powell Foundation was established in 2010 by Susan’s Parents with the help of friends, and after an overwhelming response from people around the world. Their email, letters, and Facebook messages of support and sharing of other parents with missing children, questions of parents concerned about their children in potentially similar situations but without the support we felt, moved us to create this Foundation.
The mission of the Foundation is:
-To assist families of missing persons by providing no-cost strategic media consulting services to ensure that their loved one’s face and name remain in the public eye as long as possible;
-To research and catalog resources across the United States that may be helpful to families of missing persons in an effort to create a resource clearinghouse for other families to use in their time of crisis, and;
-To support domestic violence prevention efforts and to participate in community and school-based education about domestic violence prevention with a special emphasis on recognizing the early signs of abuse.
The Susan Cox Powell Foundation has an even stronger desire to reach out and provide assistance to other families as a legacy to our daughter Susan, and our Grandsons Charlie and Braden Powell.
We have partnered with the Tears Foundation, who have established “the Charlie and Braden Project”. They now accept donations and provide assistance in Washington State to parents of families losing a child between the ages of 1-12, by helping to pay some of the cost of burial. A burden faced by parents already trying to deal with such a powerful loss.
The local Sheriff deputy and his partner were moved by a drawing by Charlie of a Dinosaur, the tragedy of the boy’s death, and their experience with other children who through no fault of their own enter Foster Care and have their lives forever impacted. They established the “Charlie’s Dinosaur” project, with the help of “Crime Stoppers”. This organization provides new clothing, backpacks to help with foster care moves, school supplies and other necessities.– Susan Cox Powell Foundation
Call to Action:
Tonight I will leave you with the Susan Cox Powell Foundations own calls to action by sharing the How to Help link in our show notes and sources. The non profit organization accepts general financial donations, but also donations of time and skills- if you’ve got qualifications which could help families of the missing, please do reach out and connect with them.
The website is also full of useful links and phone numbers for anyone who may be suffering from Domestic Violence. If you feel unsafe or at risk in your home, please do not wait until its too late. Call the U.S. National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233, visit https://www.thehotline.org/ or text LOVEIS to 22522
As Susan’s family says “The only way evil can win is; If good people do nothing.” so please do your best to get involved and help out on behalf of this mother who was taken far to soon from the world.