Should West Valley City have arrested Josh Powell?
Search warrants unsealed Friday by a Washington judge detail the evidence West Valley City police have in the case of Susan Powell, including her blood on floor tile near a wet carpet and sofa in her home the day after her 2009 disappearance and a safe deposit box note in which she warned her death may not be an accident.
But the 29 pages of documents, released as part of the voyeurism case against Susan Powell's father-in-law, have raised a new question: Was there enough evidence to arrest her husband on suspicion of his wife's murder?
Kirk Graves, brother-in-law of Susan Powell, said Friday he was taken aback by some of the details in the documents and that anyone reading them would be convinced Josh Powell killed his wife.
"For two plus years I've always felt that whatever they [police] think is best for the outcome of the case, I supported," Graves said. "After reading all this information, I do have to wonder what they didn't feel like they could arrest [Josh Powell]. What was still holding them back? I realize 20/20 hindsight is crystal clear and easy to use, but I would like to hear a good legal reason why they weren't arresting him way back then."
West Valley City Police Chief Thayle "Buzz" Nielsen said at a Friday afternoon news conference his department can't comment because the search for Susan Powell continues.
"My department is committed to finding Susan and figuring out what happened to her," Nielsen said.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill and his predecessor, Lohra Miller, both confirmed Friday that West Valley City police never presented prosecutors a case to be screened. Screenings are required to file charges, Miller explained, so the district attorney and other prosecutors in the office can confirm the work of the prosecutor assigned to the case and ensure there is enough evidence to obtain a conviction.
"We had a prosecutor that was working with West Valley police monitoring the case as it progressed," Miller said. "To my knowledge, it never actually progressed to where it reached a formal screening."
However, Miller said, the prosecutor assigned to the Powell case kept her apprised. Miller said she knew of the evidence disclosed Friday and never believed it was enough to charge Josh Powell with a crime as it "would not rise to a level of reasonable doubt to convict a person."
Police and prosecutors in Washington disagreed.
"There is direct evidence. There is circumstantial evidence. There is motive," said Pierce County prosecutor Mark Lindquist, who told The Associated Press he would have charged Josh Powell with murder. "There is everything but the body."
Pierce County Sheriff's Office spokesman Ed Troyer told Seattle television station KIRO 7: "Somebody [in Utah] dropped the ball."
An emotional Denise Cox, sister of Susan Powell, also criticized police and cited how Josh Powell murdered his two sons, Charlie and Braden, and committed suicide in a gasoline-fueled blaze he set at a Washington rental home earlier this year.
"I am so upset right now with the West Valley policeâ¦ They should have to answer to Charlie, [Braden] and Susan's deaths," Denise Cox wrote on her Facebook page.
A judge ordered the search warrants unsealed during a Friday hearing in the case of Steve Powell, 61, who is charged with 14 counts of voyeurism and one count of possessing an image of minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct.
The Pierce County Sheriff's Office obtained the warrant in an effort to retrieve the childhood journals of Susan Powell as investigators looked for more insight into the woman's relationship with her husband. During an Aug. 25 search, investigators seized materials that built their case against Steve Powell.
The search warrants reveal new information about the disappearance of Susan Powell and the behavior of her husband afterward. They also give further details of Steve Powell's obsession with his daughter-in-law, including a folder with pictures of nude women that he had pasted the head of his daughter-in-law onto and footage he filmed by sneaking a camera under Susan Powell's dress while she was sitting at a table.
The documents provide detailed encounters of the people police interviewed, including the initial one given by Josh Powell's sister, Jennifer Graves.
Graves told investigators she called her brother at 5:27 p.m. on Dec. 7 and asked where he had been. Josh Powell told his sister that he had been at work, the search warrants state. Graves, who had been in contact with police already, told her brother that she knew he was lying. Josh Powell then changed his story and told his sister he went camping with Charlie and Braden, then ages 2 and 4.
Graves told her brother that his wife was missing and that he needed to return home. Josh Powell then asked Graves "how much she knew," the search warrant states. Graves questioned why her brother would ask her that, and then Josh Powell hung up, the warrant states.
The warrant indicates Josh Powell left a message on his wife's cellphone at 3:34 p.m., informing her that he and the children were back from their camping trip. He also asked her if she needed him to pick her up from work.
Josh Powell told the media the wet spot found by investigators was probably red juice spilled by one of his sons. The search warrants reveal Josh Powell told police he had washed the couch on instructions from his wife. His final call before allegedly taking his boys camping was made to his father, Steve Powell, at 12:14 p.m. on Dec. 6, the search warrants state.
Josh Powell rented a car from the Salt Lake City International Airport on Dec. 8, after police seized the Powell family's blue minivan to search for potential evidence. He drove more than 800 miles before returning the vehicle on Dec. 10. He purchased a new cellphone, which he activated 80 miles north of Salt Lake City in Tremonton, the search warrants state.
Friends of Susan and Josh Powell immediately told police of the couple's marital problems and comments Josh Powell had made prior to her disappearance, warrants state. Scott Hardman told police that Josh Powell made comments about how to dispose a body in a mine shaft and not get caught, the warrants state.
Police also uncovered a safe deposit box that Susan Powell had opened at a Wells Fargo bank that included a will and a letter dated June 28, 2008, stating that if anything happened to her, people should contact Jennifer Graves. Susan Powell wrote that if she died "it may not be an accident, even if it looks like one," the warrants state.
Police also discovered Josh Powell was the beneficiary of several life insurance policies taken out for his wife totaling $1.5 million, the warrants state.
West Valley City police Detective Ellis Maxwell spoke to Josh Powell on Dec. 7, approaching him on the passenger side of the minivan when Josh Powell arrived at his West Valley City home around 6:40 p.m. Josh Powell said he hadn't been answering his cellphone as he'd kept it off to preserve the battery because he didn't own a charger. Maxwell, however, observed a charger plugged into Josh Powell's cigarette lighter.
Police interviewed Charlie Powell, 4, on Dec. 8, 2009, who told police that his mommy went camping with the family, but "didn't come back home with them," the warrants state.
The warrants indicate police have interviewed more than 300 people in their investigation over the past two years. Steve Downing, an attorney who represents Susan Powell's parents, said West Valley City never shared any of the evidence with them but they had a sense of it based on questions they were asked by Washington law enforcement.
Downing said more than one Washington investigator asked: "What the hell are they waiting for?"
"Our response was, 'We don't have a clue,' " Downing said. "We think that it proves that West Valley has, for quite some time, had more than enough information to arrest Josh Powell. And, of course, had they done so, we would not have had the tragedy that we did."
Other search warrants remain sealed
More than two years ago, The Salt Lake Tribune asked a judge to unseal investigative documents in Susan Powell's disappearance, including search warrants served on Josh and Susan Powell's West Valley City home.
The Tribune recently renewed the motion, arguing it is unlikely any concerns remain about privacy, individual safety or security, or investigation integrity since Josh Powell has killed himself and his sons.
The newspaper is in discussions with prosecutors and West Valley City attorneys in an attempt to resolve the dispute outside of court.