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The last day Susan Powell was seen alive: Book excerpt part 2

Published May 19, 2014 8:59 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

At 2:29 p.m. on Sunday, Susan called JoVonna. She had finished crocheting a blanket for Charlie and was partway through one for Braden when she found herself in a literal web of yarn.

"I've got the yarn horribly tangled up," she said. "Can you come and help me?"

JoVonna, who had a bit of a reputation for sorting out the most hopeless yarn tangles, happily agreed.

Before hanging up, JoVonna heard Josh in the background saying he would cook something and she could stay and eat with them.

"But I'm not making much," he added, which JoVonna took to be his way of saying, "She can come over but her kids can't."

Fifteen minutes later, JoVonna arrived at the Powells'. Susan met her at the door, then the two women planted themselves on the love seat by the front window and proceeded to tackle the knotted yarn for more than two hours. JoVonna's goal was to unknot the orange, yellow and turquoise strands without cutting a single piece of it.

She remarked on the color combination — not something she would select.

"Braden's favorite colors," Susan said.

JoVonna smiled at Braden; he and his brother were taking turns playing in the living room and going in and out of the kitchen, "helping" Josh make dinner—a meal of cream cheese pancakes and scrambled eggs.

There was an artificial Christmas tree in a corner, half decorated. Susan had asked Josh again and again to get the rest of the ornaments down from a high shelf in the garage. He hadn't done it yet and Susan would probably end up doing it herself. The presents her parents had mailed for Charlie and Braden were under the tree.

HEAR FROM THE AUTHOR: Join co-author Rebecca Morris and Tribune reporter Nate Carlisle for a live chat on Trib Talk at 12:15.

In a voice loud enough for her husband to hear over the din of his dinner preparation, Susan told JoVonna that she had recently been able to return to the temple. Josh was opposed to tithing, but Susan had started to keep some of the money she earned, and had resumed the practice, a requirement to enter the temple. She also said that she and Josh were having marriage counseling with an LDS Family Services counselor and had an appointment scheduled for the coming week. She was hopeful but a little skeptical at the same time. Josh had stopped attending the sessions and wasn't reading their homework, a book on marriage by a Mormon author.

This was a pattern of Josh and Susan's that longtime friends knew well. JoVonna was just beginning to see it. Josh would publicly berate Susan and sometimes she would respond by being quiet or by standing up to him, as she had about the six Thanksgiving pies. She could get in her digs at Josh by making sure he overheard her complaining to friends.

"How are you feeling?" JoVonna asked. Susan had endured an ear infection for nearly three weeks, but there was something else there, too. Susan lowered her voice and talked about a miscarriage — but not so low that Josh couldn't hear her. It was also possible that Susan didn't want the children to overhear. JoVonna, who had suffered her own miscarriages, knew she would see Susan on Tuesday at a Relief Society dinner.

"I didn't want to go into it that night because I felt that this should be a private conversation where I could talk with her and not have him butt in," she recalled later. "He had a tendency to butt in."

At one point, Susan indicated that she was chilly. Josh stopped what he was doing and brought her a blanket.

No matter what she'd heard — from Susan or Susan's friends — JoVonna was charmed by the gesture.

Oh, how sweet that he would do that, she thought at the time.

Josh took forever making his special version of "breakfast for dinner" — a hit among kids in every American home, especially when a dad dons the cook's apron. It was true he had two little boys underfoot and little claim to knowing his way around a kitchen. The kitchen was small and tidy. The refrigerator was bare except for a couple of drawings Charlie had made for his mother and promotional magnets left over from Josh's brief career in real estate. Susan loved wolves, and frequently wore an old wolf T-shirt, and a wolf plaque hung on a wall. There was plenty of stopping and starting, the sound of the mixer interrupting the conversation across the living room on the floral printed love seat that Susan had saved her money to purchase. Susan let Josh struggle in the kitchen, something that JoVonna admired. A husband didn't need to cook every night, but he should be able to fill in when his wife was ill or too tired to make a meal. First the blanket, then the meal . . . Josh was really on his best behavior.

After a couple of hours of banging around in the kitchen, Josh served dinner. He put two pancakes on each plate and smothered them with canned apple pie filling. A spatula of scrambled eggs nested on top . . . and dinner was served. The women remained on the love seat to eat. Josh prepared the plates separately. He fixed one and took it to JoVonna, then returned to the kitchen to prepare Susan's. He and the boys took the three chairs at the table.

"It was nice because the last time I had been there, he had to dominate the conversation. He had to be the center of everything," JoVonna said later. "When he came into a room it was all about Josh, what Josh had to say. This time it wasn't like that, and I thought, 'That's really nice.' "

Between 4:30 and 5:00 p.m., Susan said she was tired and retreated to the bedroom. JoVonna attributed Susan's fatigue to the miscarriage and recent ear infection. She stayed until about 5:30 p.m. working on the yarn. Josh busied himself cleaning the kitchen and washing the dishes. He instructed Charlie and Braden to go to the bathroom and get dressed for sledding in the freezing December air. When it became obvious that Josh and the boys were going outside, JoVonna knew it was her signal to leave.

When JoVonna left that evening the house was pristine.

Around 8:30 p.m. a neighbor saw Josh return home and pull into the garage. Three hours later, Marco Bastidas, who lived one house away from Josh and Susan's, was locking up his car when he heard an alarm sounding inside the closed garage at the Powell home. He couldn't see any lights on in the house. After listening to the alarm for at least two minutes, Marco's sister suggested he alert the neighbors. He was reluctant to bother Josh or Susan, and eventually the alarm stopped.

Another neighbor, ill in bed, later heard what sounded like a man and a woman arguing. She told the police her story, and regretted not getting up and looking out her window at the time to see who was yelling.

Was it Josh and Susan?

Sometime later, the Powells' garage door opened and the family's light blue minivan pulled out. There were no neighbors awake to see it. —

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 Susan Powell. In this excerpt, Olsen and Morris write about the last day anyone saw Susan Powell — Dec. 6, 2009. In an excerpt coming Tuesday, they explore 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)

336 pages

$26.99