Susan was nineteen when she met 24-year-old Joshua Powell and his buddy Tim Marini at an LDS singles event in Tacoma in 2000.
Josh no longer attended the Mormon church, but he hadn’t turned against the faith yet. Plus, it was a good place to meet single young women. Tim wanted to date Susan but, unfortunately for him, she wasn’t the least bit interested. Susan had the kind of sparkling personality and energy that drew other people to her. She was a magnet. When Josh showed interest, Tim made the introduction and Susan agreed to go out with him.
From the beginning the match was an odd one. Josh came from a troubled family. He talked so much th at the room filled with his words. He could be annoying, but he could also be endearing.
Susan laughed at Josh’s incessant ramblings, his preoccupation with everything from cameras to computers. He had big, grandiose plans for the future, a different plan every week.
Judy and Chuck had some reservations about their daughter’s new boyfriend. They had met him before, when Josh tried asking out their oldest daughter, Mary. Josh had shown up at their house the night of Mary’s prom. She had a date and was at the dance but it didn’t matter to Josh. He planted himself in a living room chair intent on staying to chat with Judy about Mary, the weather, anything at all. Judy felt like she’d been caught in a steel-jawed leg trap. There was no getting rid of the kid.
Finally, Chuck came home. In his typical no-nonsense fashion, he was direct when he told Josh that the visit was over.
“You need to go now,” he said.
Josh didn’t get it. He just sat there, looking blank-eyed. And kept talking.
Chuck had never seen anything like it.
Despite his peculiar nature, Susan fell for Josh. In some ways it was inexplicable. She was stunning, vivacious. His personality swung between stiff and remote, and gregarious and overbearing.
Mary had tried to warn her sister when things turned serious. She thought Josh was just plain weird. So did their parents.
“I have a bad feeling about him,” Judy said as she and Susan sat at the massive family table that filled nearly every square inch of the dining room.
Susan didn’t want to hear a thing about it.
“You need to date lots of people,” Judy said, choosing her words carefully, like she always did. “Kid, you got it made. You’re a pretty girl. You’re smart. You know what you want. You make friends easy. Just enjoy yourself. You can have so much fun.”
Susan appeared to understand what her mother was saying.
“I’m going to have fun,” she said. “I am making lots of friends. Josh just happens to be one of them.”
Judy pondered that for a moment. “Well, that’s fine,” she said, seeing that Susan was not about to abandon her interest in Josh Powell. “You can date him. But date others, too. Don’t get serious with Josh. There’re more guys out there. Take a year and really discover that.”
Judy could have said more. So could Chuck. It passed through Susan’s father’s mind to be straight up about the situation. Chuck wanted to tell his daughter to head for the hills when it came to her suitor, but as the father of four girls, he knew better.
“I knew if I said ‘Stay away from him,’ that’s exactly who she would go for,” Chuck said. “So you knew that wasn’t going to work.”
Even so, Chuck, the FAA investigator, grilled the young man about the kind of life he would offer Susan.
With Josh sitting across from him at the table, Chuck ticked off all the boxes. Yes, the boy had a job. Yes, he had an apartment where they could live. Yes, he was going to further his education by finishing college and getting a business degree.
Josh was alert, convincing, and solicitous. He said all the right things.
Chuck still wasn’t completely convinced, but he gave his blessing.
“That looks pretty good,” he said, a little halfheartedly. “Self- supporting and everything.”
He later told Judy that his first impression of Josh might have been wrong. Maybe there was hope for the couple after all?
“She’s marrying him,” Judy said, “because she feels sorry for him. Susan thinks she can make him happy, she thinks she can help him to change.”
In their engagement photo, which Chuck took in a rambling field near their Puyallup home, Susan sits on Josh’s knee, her head tilted and resting on Josh’s chest. They look very young and very happy, excited to begin their lives together.
Families of the bride and groom often meet before the wedding. They spend a little time together, if only for the sake of their children. Not so with the Powells and the Coxes. Chuck and Judy had met Josh a few times, but there had been no polite or celebratory get-acquainted parties or dinners between the families. Chuck sized up Josh’s family quickly.
They knew Steve was anti-Mormon, wrote anti-Mormon treatises, and considered himself an expert on a lot of things.
“He likes to talk, and Josh likes to talk, and I didn’t really feel like being bombarded by somebody who thinks they know everything when they really don’t know anything,” Chuck said. “I didn’t make an effort to talk with him, and they never made any effort to talk with us.”
On that happy note, the families managed to tolerate each other over lunch at an Old Country Buffet restaurant in a Portland suburb a few hours before Josh and Susan were married. It had been decided in advance that Steve’s contribution to the day was to pick up the tab, but he grumbled about it.
“I heard Steve complaining that he had to pay just a little over a hundred bucks, and how dare he have to pay!” Judy recalled. “And Josh said, ‘Oh, come on Dad, just pay.’ And I was so tempted to go up there and say, ‘Maybe you’d like to help pay for the wedding and we’ll split it. My part is thousands of dollars and yours is a hundred dollars and you’re complaining?’ But I thought, ‘I don’t want to embarrass my daughter,’ and it’s the only thing that stopped me.”
On April 6, 2001, a couple of hours after the old Country Buffet lunch, Josh and Susan’s marriage was sealed for eternity at the commanding LDS temple in Lake Oswego, a few miles outside Portland. Most of Josh’s family couldn’t attend the actual wedding, since Steve had renounced the LDS Church and, except for his eldest daughter Jennifer, his children had stopped attending church.
After a one-night honeymoon in a beautiful and historic hotel overlooking the Columbia River Gorge, the newlyweds celebrated at a reception at the Coxes’ ward in Puyallup. Josh spent most of it taking pictures.
His sister, Alina, a heavyset young woman who acted like a servant to her brothers and father, shadowed the groom as he took photos. Chuck felt sorry for her.
“It’s like she doesn’t have a mind or a life of her own,” he said.
The Coxes took photos, too, of Josh looking very young and gawky in a tuxedo and Susan pretty in her long white wedding dress. The gown was perfect for a temple wedding, with a modest, slightly rounded neck and long, lacey sleeves. Her parents bought the dress at a Tacoma bridal shop for $399 along with her pillbox hat with a trailing veil and the bouquet of white flowers she carried. The reception line included Susan’s sisters as her bridesmaids.
They wore long dresses in Susan’s favorite color, purple. They stood with their parents to Susan’s left. To Josh’s right were his father and mother, his sister Alina, and his brother Mike.
No one asked about Johnny, and Jennifer was absent; she had avoided her father since her parents’ divorce.
Susan overheard a conversation on her wedding day between Josh and his father that she passed along to her mother.
“Steve said, ‘Well, she’s no lawyer or doctor but she’ll do.’” Judy looked confused. “What’s he talking about?” she asked. Susan knew exactly what her father-in-law meant and she spelled it out.
“In other words,” she said, “I’m not going to make big money but I’ll do well enough that Josh won’t have to work.” Judy was appalled by the remark, but it was the next thing the new — and flabbergasted — bride said that really shocked her.
“Steve said, ‘Josh, she’s going to divorce you someday.’ ”
Judy wondered what kind of father would say that to his son on his wedding day.
Who bets against love and marriage while the commitment is being sealed forever?
In this excerpt, the authors Gregg Olsen and Rebecca Morris write about the couple’s courtship and what happened on their wedding day. In a second excerpt, coming Monday, the authors write about the last day anyone saw Susan. The third part, on Tuesday, explores the aftermath of Josh killing his sons, Charlie and Braden, and then himself.
“If I Can’t Have You: Susan Powell, Her Mysterious Disappearance, and the Murder of Her Children”
By Gregg Olsen and Rebecca Morris
St. Martin’s Press
(May 20, 2014)