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Steve Powell a puzzle to friends, family who watched changes

Published May 7, 2012 7:37 am

The father-in-law of missing Utah woman transformed, they say.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated.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.

Throughout his life, Steven Craig Powell has played convincing roles on the stage of public opinion: the doting husband and father, the songwriter inspired by a rocky childhood, the friendly neighbor ready to lend a hand, the seasoned salesman.

Yet those who have known the 62-year-old father-in-law of missing West Valley City woman Susan Cox Powell best say they also have witnessed a darker spectrum of behavior in a snide antagonist who tells crude jokes in front of his children and relishes both pornography and the opportunity to preach anti-Mormon sentiment.

As Steve goes on trial in Washington state Monday, it's unclear which version of his character jurors will believe.

A staunch group of close family members say Steve will be cleared on charges related to voyeurism and pornography for surreptitiously filming girls as young as 8. Others view the court proceedings as a chance for prosecutors to peel back the onion of Steve's personality to reveal his true core.

"It's a game to him," a former acquaintance of Powell's said about the upcoming trial. "It's a testament to the control he has. He's not broken. You would think he would be an emotional wreck. But he smiled; he smirked in his arrest photos. It's all a game of 'You can't catch me.' "

From difficult childhood to happy marriage •Steve wasn't always the intense, abrasive persona showcased in the media following Susan's disappearance as he professed his lust for her and suggested she ran away with another man.

An amateur musician, Steve wrote of a painful childhood on a website showcasing his songs.

Born in Portland, Ore., Steve wrote that during his early childhood, his mother once packed up her children in a decision to leave his father. The couple reconciled for a time, until Steve's dad took him to his grandparents' home while his mother was visiting a sister. They all then proceeded "north on Highway 1, [and] something seemed amiss to me, even at 7 years old. 'Where is Momma?' I asked. Grandma curtly replied, 'You're never going to see your mother again,' " Steve wrote.

Steve settled in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, with his grandparents. Steve wrote he once told friends his grandparents had kidnapped him. He wrote that his grandmother told him to keep his mouth shut, then poured cayenne pepper on his tongue to emphasize the point.

Steve grew up and joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, serving a two-year mission to Argentina. After returning, he met Terrica "Terri" Martin at church, and the two began dating in 1973.

"He was fun to be around. He was outgoing and people all around were drawn to him. He had a beautiful singing voice and sung on many occasions for weddings, funerals, and church meetings," Terri wrote in court documents.

Steve soon proposed, but Terri's father, John Martin, objected. The two married after a bishop told Terri the decision was hers alone. Steve was 24, Terri 18.

"When Steve married Terri, it was obvious he was crazy about her," said Don Clifton, a neighbor of the couple in Veradale, Wash. "As a young man, we remember Steve as being an enthusiastic, friendly, clean-living person."

The newlyweds seemed especially happy after the arrival of their daughter Jennifer in 1974. The couple toted Jenny around town "always adoring her and happy to show off their big-eyed, beautiful baby," Don Clifton said.

The Cliftons were surprised in 1974 when, after they had shown the Powells the top-of-the-line sewing machine they had bought, Steve bought the same machine for Terri, even though the family had little money for such a splurge.

Clifton said Steve worked in real estate when he first married Terri, before he changed careers to become a furniture salesman. The Powells also seemed ready for a big family, Clifton said.

Their second child, Joshua, was born in 1976. Johnny followed in 1977; Michael in 1982 and the youngest, Alina, in 1985.

'I have seen Steve change' •An end to the couple's happiness seems to have coincided with Steve's decision to leave the LDS Church in the mid-1980s.

It's unclear what prompted the break, but hundreds of pages of court documents chronicle changes in Steve's personality preceding a bitter divorce in the early 1990s.

"Over the past few years I have seen Steve change from a loving and kind person to a person seemingly filled with darkness and hatred, whose respect for others and for basic and social moral values has been abandoned for a path of self-gratification that leads not only himself but his children in a direction that is not only not healthy but does not recognize basic social skills that are needed to function in society," Terri's brother, Jim Martin, wrote in court documents.

Martin, who worked with Steve at Virco Manufacturing at the time, described Steve as increasingly "condescending, belligerent, intolerant and dogmatic."

James Fox, of Veradale, Wash., wrote that he, too, had seen Steve's behavior become extreme over the course of 15 years.

"He told me numerous times that the entire government is totally corrupt and the 'feds,' as he would put it, were deceiving the American public and that they were trying to get him," Fox wrote.

Steve penned letters to a local newspaper to express support for Randy Weaver, the man who drew national headlines in 1992 when his white separatist family became involved in a standoff with the FBI at Ruby Ridge in northern Idaho.

In court, Steve claimed his wife's interest in New Age beliefs had led to friction between them.

"At about the same time she became interested in the New Age thing, she began to have visions of 'evil spirits' and to have 'visitations by spirits' such that she described them by gender, by appearance and really came to believe in them," Steve wrote.

Religion, child support and Steve's tactic of trying to win the children's affection by seemingly turning them against their mother were common themes that played out in court. But perhaps most disturbing in retrospect were Terri's complaints about Steve's interest in pornography and other women.

Terri wrote in a July 1993 declaration that she was concerned for the safety of young Alina Powell, who returned from a Christmas visit to her dad's house with a pornographic magazine in her backpack.

"When I asked Alina about it, this is what she said: 'I laid down on my bed in dad's room and felt something under my pillow. It was that magazine. I was upset when I saw what it was, and I didn't want anyone to see me with it, so I shoved it in my backpack. I hoped I could throw it away before anyone saw it.' "

John Martin recalled his daughter confiding that Steve had asked her how she felt about the possibility of him taking a second wife, and that she'd stumbled across a journal Steve kept filled with sexual fantasies about a woman they both knew.

Terri wrote that her husband spoke openly of sex and made demeaning comments about women in front of his sons. One time, Steve told his boys that women were good only for their bodies.

In the end, attorneys classified the divorce as among the most contentious splits they'd seen. The Powell boys lived with their father, while the girls lived with their mother. The Powells' petition for divorce was filed in October of 1992 and a divorce decree issued in December of 1994, although financial issues continued in the case through 2003.

A father causes problems for a new daughter-in-law •Jennifer Graves sums up the painful and prolonged divorce between her parents simply: "We came away scarred."

Arguments were so constant that Graves kept a journal of them at one point, and in November 1992 wrote of a family brawl in which Steve and the boys ganged up to try to take manila envelopes with court documents from Terri. Graves called 911 as her mother screamed for help.

Graves recounts her father would punish any bed-wetting by forcing his children to lie in a bath of ice-cold water up to their necks. Graves also alleges her father once pulled her hair back and hit her as she became entangled in an argument over a chair Steve tried to take from her mother's house.

Graves married her husband, Kirk, on Aug. 5, 1994, at the LDS temple in Portland. She asked her dad not to attend her wedding reception, but he showed up anyway.

The couple moved to Utah, and Graves became a confidante of Susan after her 2001 marriage to Josh.

Josh and Susan moved to Utah in 2004, in part to distance themselves from Steve, with whom they had lived early in their marriage, said Graves, of West Jordan.

As she grew closer to her sister-in-law, Graves said, she learned her dad pursued Susan romantically and even suggested he and his son "share" her.

Josh became a person of interest named by police when Susan disappeared on Dec. 6, 2009. But Steve quickly faced accusations that he, too, may know what happened to Susan after it was revealed he made sexual remarks about his daughter-in-law. Steve was among the last people Josh called the night his wife went missing. And Steve called in sick to work two days after Susan vanished.

"Steve knows everything by now and has chosen to help cover it up. Whether he was involved before and during the fact, I'm not sure," Kirk Graves said.

Steve has denied knowing anything about what happened to Susan and invoked his Fifth Amendment rights after his September arrest. He maintained his silence even after Josh killed himself and his two young sons in February.

Police say they were searching for Susan's journals from her youth when they found digital materials including explicit photos and videos in Steve's bedroom. Among the items: photos of Steve masturbating to Susan's photo and images of nude women onto which Susan's head had been pasted.

A break in Susan's case? •Steve has maintained he never made inappropriate advances toward Susan.

"Susan and I were very close, and we were very close up to the end," Steve said shortly before his arrest. "They've tried to portray Susan as being offended by me and being afraid of me and that is not the case. There are just misunderstandings about how Susan felt about me. Susan never let me forget that she was a woman. But she was also a beautiful daughter to me."

Steve's children, except Jennifer Graves, have rallied behind him as he prepares for trial.

On a website created in January that since has been taken down, Michael Powell wrote he didn't believe law enforcement had evidence to support voyeurism charges against his father.

Alina Powell claims evidence against her father has been fabricated.

And Steve's niece, Nicki Cardenas, of Nevada, said Steve's sister, Patty Leach, and other relatives stand behind Steve. Cardenas said Alina likely will be the only one in the courtroom supporting her father.

"We are a family of very limited means financially and we would love to rally around Steve, but he understands that none of us can afford to do it," Cardenas said in March. "I have spoken with Steve … and told him I love him and he knows I am hoping for the best outcome so he can get back to his life, whatever is left of it!"

Several other friends and acquaintances contacted by The Salt Lake Tribune declined to be interviewed, saying they want to distance themselves from Steve.

Some say they now wonder whether they ever knew him at all.

"The more information that comes out, the more unbelievable it seems," said a former acquaintance of Powell's. "Did I ever know this person at all? Or was he a total criminal mastermind?"

mrogers@sltrib.com

Twitter: @mrogers_trib —

About the case

Steven Craig Powell, 62, is charged with 14 counts of voyeurism and one count of possessing an image of minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct.

His estimated eight-day trial begins Monday in Pierce County Superior Court in Tacoma, Wash.

Prosecutors claim Powell took images of girls as young as 8 during a 10-year span, although the court case focuses on voyeurism episodes from 2006 and 2007. Powell allegedly filmed two neighbor girls bathing and using the toilet.

If convicted, Powell could face a maximum penalty of five years in prison on each count. If Powell is convicted on all counts, the judge could order him to serve consecutive sentences for a total of 75 years in prison. —

Trial coverage

P Follow live tweets by reporter Melinda Rogers at sltrib.com during the trial. The Salt Lake Tribune will stream video of the proceedings once a jury has been seated.