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Do these clues help explain what happened to Utah mom Susan Powell?

Published April 30, 2012 8:09 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

UPDATED APRIL 30, 2012

Nearly 2 1/2 years since Susan Powell disappeared from her West Valley City home, police have released little information about their investigation into the missing woman's case other than to say as recently as mid-April that their work was "progressing."

Some insights into what police know came after a Washington state judge ordered the release of search warrants used to collect evidence last summer at Steve Powell's Puyallup, Wash., home, where Josh Powell moved with his sons shortly after Susan disappeared. Other possible clues have come from people who knew or encountered Josh Powell or his sons after Susan was declared missing.

No doubt, key pieces of the puzzle are still missing.

For example, why did police take a zip-lock baggie of hair from a bedroom closet at Steve Powell's home during an Aug. 25, 2011, search? What, if anything, does a pair of blue/green winter gloves found in a mudroom under the stairs at the home during the search have to do with the case? Perhaps in time the pieces will complete a picture. In the meantime, do these clues help answer what happened to Susan Powell?

Mine shaft comment: At a Christmas party in 2008, Josh Powell and a couple other men were discussing television crime shows. As opinions were shared about the best way to get rid of a body, Powell offered that a mine shaft was the best option. Scott Hardman, whose wife worked with Susan, recalled Powell saying that "if you knocked a little [of a shaft] loose, it would all come tumbling down and no one would really want to travel down it because they are all so unsafe." Powell also said that abandoned mine shafts were all over Utah's West Desert.

Members of Mojave Underground, who explore historic mines, conducted three searches of every known and open mine in the Tintic mountains, West Tintics and the Dugway Range but found nothing. Only one mine left a question in the mind of Stuart Burgess, co-founder. The group publicly announced it would search the Iron Sides mine the weekend of June 25-26, 2010. When volunteers arrived, they discovered someone had poured gasoline down the 300-foot-deep shaft and also set fire to the wooden supports at the surface. It was still smoldering and they had to call off the exploration. Months later, Burgess returned and rappeled down the shaft; the bottom was unreachable, buried under 30 feet to 50 feet of debris.

Car alarm: At approximately 11:45 p.m. on Dec. 6, 2009, a neighbor heard a car alarm sounding from inside the closed garage at Josh and Susan Powell's home in West Valley City, Utah. The neighbor said all the lights appeared to be off inside the home.

Midnight camping trip: Josh Powell told police he left his home with his two young sons somewhere around 12:30 a.m. to go camping in Utah's West Desert near Simpson Springs to check out a new generator. Powell never showed police where he camped and several searches, by police and volunteers, have turned up no sign of the missing woman.

Comfort Inn sighting: A woman who worked at the Comfort Inn in Sandy, Utah, said that she arrived for her shift at 6:30 a.m. on Dec. 7, 2009, and saw a man and two boys sitting at a table in the dining area. She conversed briefly with one of the boys and then left to help other guests. When she returned to the table, the group was gone. The worker later identified the man as Josh Powell and the boys as Charlie, then 4, and Braden, then 2.

Newly cleaned sofa: When police entered the Powell's West Valley City home on Dec. 7, 2009, they found two fans positioned to blow air on a living room sofa that appeared to have been just cleaned. Josh Powell told police he had cleaned the sofa just before going camping.

Items in Powell's minivan: Police searched Josh Powell's light blue Chrysler Town and Country minivan on Dec. 7, 2009, after he returned home and, according to a search warrant, found the following items: a generator, blankets, a gas can, tarps and a shovel.

Susan's cell phone: During the first search of Josh Powell's minivan on Dec. 7, 2009, police found Susan's cell phone in the center front console. It was turned off. Josh Powell voluntarily gave police the phone; according to a search warrant, Josh Powell could not explain why the phone was in the van. Detectives later discovered Susan's phone was missing its digital SIM card, the smart card that digitally stores such data as calls made and received, phone numbers and messages. Police subsequently subpoenaed Josh and Susan Powell's cell phone billing records and were able to determine that the last call made from Susan's phone occurred at 2:29 p.m., when she called friend JoVonna Owings. The records also showed that at 3:34 p.m. on Dec. 7, 2009, Josh Powell, then already aware police were at his home and his wife was missing, called Susan's cell phone and left a voice message stating he had returned from camping and asking if she needed a ride home from work.

Blood in Powell home: During a second search of the Powell's West Valley City home on Dec. 8, 2009, police found "blood evidence" on a tile floor next to carpet and close to the newly cleaned sofa. Police have not said how much blood was found. However, tests later showed it was Susan Powell's blood.

800 miles on rental car: As police searched his van a second time on Dec. 8, 2009, Josh Powell left the police station. At 10:30 p.m. that evening, Josh Powell went to the Hertz Rental Car office at the Salt Lake International Airport and rented a Ford Focus. By the time he returned the car at 7 p.m. on Dec. 10, 2009, Josh Powell had put more than 800 miles on it.

Josh's new cell phone: On Dec. 8, 2009, Josh Powell voluntarily gave police his cell phone for "forensic review," according to a search warrant document. Police said that prior to handing over his phone, Josh Powell "removed the digital sim card without detectives knowing." Josh Powell bought a new cell phone and, on Dec. 9 at 4:20 p.m., activated it in Tremonton, Utah, which is 80 miles north of Salt Lake City and close to the Idaho border. (ADDED APRIL 30, 2012)

Charlie and Braden Powell's comments: When the Comfort Inn employee greeted Josh Powell and his sons at their table on Dec. 7, 2009, Charlie Powell, then 4, looked at her and said, "Do you know what happened to my mom?" The employee was called away before hearing what else he had to say.

Police interviewed Charlie Powell on Dec. 8, 2009, at the West Valley City Police Department. According to a search warrant, Charlie told a detective that "his mommy went camping with them although she did not come back home with them and he did not know why."

By early January 2009, Josh Powell had relocated his sons to Puyallup, Wash. On Jan. 3, 2009, a Sunday school teacher there told Charlie that if he did not stop misbehaving, she would have to go get his mom or dad. Charlie told the teacher, who did not know his mother was missing, said with no hesitation or emotion: "My mom is dead."

Braden Powell, who was 2, when his mother disappeared, drew a picture while attending day camp that showed a car with three people in it. When asked who the people were, he identified himself, his brother and his father. Asked where his mom was, Braden said, "Mommy is in the trunk."

On Aug. 20, 2010, a daycare worker at the YMCA in Puyallup, Wash., called Child Protective Services about comments made by Charlie, then 5. Charlie was asked why he didn't want to play with other children. During the exchange, Charlie responded that, "My little brother Braden tried to kill me, so he's in Utah now living with my grandparents" — something that wasn't true. Charlie also had described to other children how to kill and bury a bear, something he said he learned from a television program.

Safe deposit box letter: Police retrieved a hand-written letter from Susan Powell's safe deposit box at Wells Fargo Bank, 5580 West Amelia Earhart Drive in Salt Lake City. Susan had accessed to box just twice, police say. The letter, dated June 28, 2008, was addressed to Susan's family and friends. It was folded and stapled around the edges. In the letter, Susan said it should not be shown or given to her husband because she did not trust him. In the letter, Susan Powell described the couple's ongoing marital problems. She wrote that Josh Powell had threatened to destroy her if she tried to divorce him. Susan also wrote that if she happened to die it might not be an accident, even if it looked like one.

Steve Koecher: Josh Powell and his father Steve advanced the theory that Susan "absconded" with someone. They publicly said they believed Susan might have run off with Steve Koecher, 30, a St. George, Utah, man who was last seen on Dec. 13, 2009, in Henderson, Nev. The Powells pointed out that Susan Powell and Koecher were about the same age, members of the LDS Church and both were in West Valley City during the week of their disappearances in December 2009. On their website, the Powells alleged that Susan Powell and Koecher absconded to Brazil, where they potentially married and started a new life.

Family members of both Susan Powell and Koecher say there is no truth to the story.

Images of Susan: Steve Powell admittedly publicly that he had an inappropriate, sexually-charged interest in his daughter-in-law. During an Aug. 25, 2011, search at Steve Powell's Puyallup, Wash., home, police found images of naked women on whom Susan's face had been pasted. They also found images taken surreptitiously of Susan, including one in which she is fixing her hair while clad only in underwear.

Charred wood: During a September 2011 search near Topaz Mountain in Utah's West Desert, cadaver dogs indicated they'd found human remains. Investigators retrieved fragments of charred wood at the site that were sent to a crime lab for further analysis. West Valley City Police received results of the additional tests on the wood fragments in December 2011, but have not publicly disclosed what they learned.

Blood-stained comforter: After Josh Powell killed himself and his two sons on Feb. 5, 2012, police searched a storage unit he'd rented at Western Self Storage in Sumner, Wash. They found a comforter with a blood stain on it. Investigators have never revealed results from additional tests of the stain, such as whether they've been able to determine whose blood it was.

Police also removed a comforter from Josh and Susan Powell's West Valley City, Utah, home during initial searches there in 2009.

Life insurance policies: According to court documents, Josh and Susan Powell took out insurance policies in the summer of 2007, a little more than two years before Susan disappeared from their West Valley City home. Powell had a five-year term life insurance policy worth $1 million; he also had riders worth $250,000 on each of their sons. Susan had a $500,000 five-year term policy and a $500,000 rider. Susan initially was listed at the sole beneficiary of her husband's policy. The couple were equal beneficiaries of the policies for their sons, Charlie and Braden. Josh Powell removed Susan as a primary beneficiary on the policies in October 2011 and made his three siblings beneficiaries instead. A legal fight is now underway over those policies. Editor's note: The following is part of a collection of information available at The Salt Lake Tribune's newly created "Where is Susan?" page: http://www.sltrib.com/findsusan. —

Share a tip

Susan Powell was 28 years old when she disappeared from her home at 6254 W. Sarah Circle, West Valley City, Utah, 84128. She is described as 5 feet 4 inches tall, 130 lbs., with long, brown hair and blue eyes. If you have information related to her disappearance, contact West Valley City police at 801-840-4000. If you have information that should be considered for inclusion on the "Where is Susan?" page or a tip that might help answer what happened to her, email it to "findsusantips@sltrib.com." If verified, information may be added to this page at the discretion of The Salt Lake Tribune.