Book excerpt: Josh Powell murders his sons, and everyone suffers
Published: May 20, 2014 02:04PM
Updated: May 20, 2014 02:03PM
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Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo Susan Powell's parents, Judy and Chuck Cox, hold a portrait of their daughter Susan at their home in Puyallup, Wash.

The double murder–suicide escalated the animosity between the families.

The Powells saw Josh as a victim. The Coxes knew he was a murderer. The comments that caused the most head-scratching were from Alina. During an interview on “Good Morning America,” she portrayed her brother as a martyr, saying he had been “damaged by the lack of due process” and “harassed, abused and lied about.”

“They were our boys. All three of them,” she said as she fought off tears.

Alina had the support of an aunt and uncle, Maurice and Patti Leach, and their son Nathan, but no one else. Patti Leach (Steve Powell’s sister), praised Josh for the “restraint, patience and dignity” he displayed during the “ordeal.” They blamed religious bias, “the Internet kangaroo courts,” the news media, and “government agencies’ practices” for pushing Josh to the edge. Josh’s cousin, Nathan, called on the FBI to investigate how Josh had been “cyberbullied” on Facebook, possibly contributing to his decision to kill himself and his children.

Alina said she still didn’t believe that Josh had had a role in Susan’s disappearance.

It was a confession. That’s what the Coxes, the police, and Susan’s friends thought. By killing the boys and himself, Josh was admitting that he had killed Susan. One wouldn’t have happened without the other.

Jennifer and Kirk Graves were in shock. They had visited the Coxes at Thanksgiving and had spent time with Charlie and Braden. With the Coxes’ blessing, they hoped one day to adopt the boys. Chuck and Judy wanted to be grandparents again, not parents to two young children.

Not surprisingly, many people felt rage at Josh. Kiirsi’s husband, John Hellewell, who was Josh’s closest friend, said that the murder-suicide showed that “all he ever thought about was himself.”

Kiirsi was blunt. She was furious with Josh. “If he’s going to take such a cowardly and selfish way out of this, I wish he would have left a note to explain what happened [to Susan]. . . . If he wanted to kill himself, he could have done that, but how dare he do something so horrible, so evil as to murder the boys.”

On the morning after Charlie and Braden were killed, Chuck and Judy walked reporters through the new addition to their home, the room they had built for the boys. The bunk beds had the Cars and Spider-Man quilts on them. A stuffed dolphin was at the head of Charlie’s bed. Chuck talked about how Braden loved puzzles, how much he looked like his mother, and how his personality was like hers, “giggly and mischievous.” Charlie was very interested in science, and loved to observe bugs.

Charlie had made a paper snowman and hand-cut paper snowflakes. They were still taped to the window in the bedroom. Judy said that she would keep them, but they would give away some of the toys. They were just too difficult to see.

Most people would pull the curtains and turn off the phone, keeping their grief as private as possible, not invite reporters into their home. But Chuck and Judy had surrendered their privacy two years before in hopes that they would find their daughter. Now they wanted to keep the search for her alive and push for an investigation of Fort Powell.

Chuck almost never heard from the police in Utah. But the day after the fire Chuck got a call from West Valley City Police Chief Buzz Nielsen. He and a couple of detectives were in Puyallup to try to talk to Steve Powell, and to see where Josh had killed the boys. Nielsen had been watching the Super Bowl when he got the call about the fire.

Chief Nielsen wanted to talk to Chuck so they met up at Josh’s storage unit where investigators were looking for clues to the horrific deaths the day before, and to Susan’s disappearance.

The two men were quiet at first, stunned, really, as they looked over the remains of a marriage. The police gave Chuck some of Susan’s personal items, including a sewing kit and a drawing of a dinosaur by Charlie. As the men stood there, it was inescapable. The contents of the storage area held mementos of Josh and Susan’s life together. There were white and red signs proclaiming sold! from Josh’s washed-up real estate career in Utah, and hundreds of pounds of wheat in bags and plastic drums, along with gallons of water from the time Josh insisted that he and Susan make preparations for hard times — or maybe the end of time.

It was where most of the belongings ended up that Susan had documented in the poignant video she made detailing their “assets.”

Near the front of the locker was a white cardboard box. Chuck noticed it right away. It had “Susan’s Things” written on it, but someone had put a large red X through the words.

Susan was gone. Charlie and Braden were gone. And, of course, Josh, too. A large red X through an entire family.

Chief Nielsen and Chuck returned to the squad car. The veteran cop started to tear up as he spoke. “You were right all along,” he said, referring to Chuck’s warnings that Josh would kill the boys and himself.

As the chief tried unsuccessfully to hold back tears, Chuck wanted to scream: “I know I was right. I didn’t want to be right. How does that help? The boys are still dead. They can’t interrogate a corpse. How can this help find my daughter?”

But Chuck didn’t scream anything. Instead, his anger mixed with compassion.

Nielsen said that the police wanted to find out who had helped Josh get rid of Susan. “The investigation is far from over,” he promised.

“I knew he was talking about Steve and the entire group at Fort Powell — Alina, Mike, and Johnny,” Chuck said later. Chief Nielsen said his department was still determined to find Susan.

Publicly, Chief Nielsen said that they had “strong circumstantial evidence” against Josh and had hoped to file charges later in 2012. He said that Josh had not been aware of the progress of the investigation, so fear of arrest could not have been a factor in his killing himself and the kids.

Editor’s note

In their new book, “If I Can’t Have You,” from St. Martin’s Press, authors Gregg Olsen and Rebecca Morris tell the story of Josh and Suan Powell. In this excerpt, Olsen and Morris write about the aftermath of Josh Powell 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)

336 pages

$26.99