Tips led cops far and wide in search for Susan Powell

Published May 26, 2013 7:07 pm

In a fruitless hunt for missing mom, investigators sift through 800+ leads, including claims from an inmate, psychics, an "audio analyst" who says his cat speaks.
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In the days, weeks and months after Susan Cox Powell disappeared, an avalanche of tips about the young mother's deteriorating marriage, what might have happened to her and where she might be poured into the West Valley City Police Department.

The leads came from family and friends, psychics and prisoners, work colleagues, store clerks and casino employees, a pair of sheepherders and a state wildlife biologist. Investigators canvassed the neighborhood where Powell, her husband, Josh, and their two sons lived, gathering dozens of witness statements. They visited picnic areas, motels and truck stops. They searched lake shores, wetlands and ponds, a swamp near the Salt Lake City International Airport, a landfill, a gravel pit and eight rock quarries, a salvage yard, three different sections of the West Desert and looked into or investigated 400 mines.

Police sent bore hole cameras down at least two mines — the Ophir Dry Canyon and Tintic Retribution — that had been breached. They looked at bags of clothes, bits of bone and sections of charred wood, wire and sheetrock. They even traveled to the Orchard Park Senior Living Center in Yakima, Wash., last summer and dug up four sections of its dirt basement floor based on a tip supplied by Chuck Cox, Susan's father.

Police checked out unidentified bodies found in Tooele County, near the University of Utah, in Los Angeles, San Bernadino, Calif., and Colorado.

None turned out to be Susan Cox Powell — who disappeared from her West Valley City home on Dec. 6, 2009 — and police came up empty-handed at the end of every search.

Women and hit men • In all, police received more than 800 tips and interviewed more than 800 people up to this month.

"Each and every tip or lead, as with any call or proposed information given to law enforcement, had to be looked at in its entirety," said Mike Powell, deputy chief of the West Valley City Police Department and no relation.

Investigators assessed the source's credibility, the information's relevance and then determined whether further investigation was warranted, he said, whether that took "days, weeks or months." Some searches may have taken longer to conduct because of weather or the planning and coordination required, he said.

Documents released this week by West Valley City Police do not include information about the tip that led them to search a farm in rural Oregon a week ago. Cox said Tuesday he received a tip about that location in January, from a caller who had relayed it to police but never heard back.

Among tips police pressed as far as they could and discredited: A claim by a prison inmate who first contacted detectives in 2010 and, in a series of subsequent letters, said he'd seen Josh Powell and a woman he knew only as "Summer" kissing and drinking beer at a Fat Cats bowling alley and at other locations. The inmate said the two met through either Livelinks, a chat service, or an escort service on Craigslist; Summer also may have worked once at American Bush, a strip club.

The inmate said he'd learned that Josh Powell killed his wife because she had learned about his infidelities and planned to leave him. The inmate, who describes passing a lie detector test that detectives gave him, said Summer was the only one other than Josh Powell who knew where Susan was buried.

"So from what I'm told she will give you location of body, full story on what happened and testify in court for $500,000 cash and full immunity," the inmate wrote on April 25, 2011. "I think the immunity is reasonable but $500,000 is ridiculous in my opinion but obviously she was involved in the disappearance of Susan."

He also said Summer hung out with members of the Silent Aryan Warriors or "SAW" gang, who planned to carry out a hit on Josh Powell so "other people involved in this case can't be caught if her body is ever found and he is arrested. One of the dudes who was assigned to carry out the whole thing actually just got hit with aggravated kidnapping and attempt murder charges so that's why it hasn't been carried out yet."

The inmate offered to help find Summer once he got out of prison and asked detectives to enlist him as a confidential source so he could help solve other crimes in the city; in one letter, he also asks detectives to get him moved to another facility and then thanks them for "keeping your word and also for the money yall put on my books."

In September 2010, detectives recorded a telephone conversation during which the inmate tries to get Summer's real name from another individual.

"It's worth a lot of money to you if you find her, bro," the man says during the call, adding later, "Solve that case dude and there's a s—-load of money for you right there."

Detectives also tracked down and interviewed a woman who supposedly also knew Summer and recalled seeing Josh Powell at Fat Cats, but was unable to provide Summer's real name.

"We did spend and dedicate a fair amount of time looking at allegations and information provided [about Summer]," Deputy Chief Mike Powell said. "We were not able to corroborate or verify a large portion of the information."

Nor were investigators able to verify her real identity, Deputy Chief Mike Powell said.

Another woman, who initially gave police a false name, contacted police and claimed to have had an affair with Josh Powell — who she said used the name "John Staley" — in April 2009. Police accompanied "Kourtney" to locations in Butterfield and Millcreek canyons where she said they had sex or made out. After further investigation, detectives determined "Kourtney's" story was "not credible," Deputy Chief Mike Powell said.

The subject line in an email about that caller notes: "No interview scheduled. She's playing games."

Josh Powell sightings • Police heard from dozens of people in Utah and from as far away as Hamden, Conn., who claimed to be psychics or to have had dreams or intuitions about where the missing 28-year-old mother might be found — from gravel pits, to "the bottom of a hill with a river nearby" to "a winding road with a lot of switchbacks, one where one hunts cougars," "a fork in the river in the desert," an abandoned mine near Eureka and Suicide Rock in Parley's Canyon. One caller had a vision that Susan was living in Kentucky with a new boyfriend; another said he'd dreamed she was in a "swampy area in some reeds" and then noticed a pond like the one in the dream while golfing at the Copper Club Golf Course in Magna.

A man who described himself as an "audio analyst" said he had reviewed a video interview with Josh Powell posted on YouTube, in which the man claimed he detected Josh Powell state, "I lied" and "I buried her." "During our conversation the complainant also told me [he] has heard his cat say, 'Hello,' " the detective who took the tip reported.

More than one tipster warned police that Josh Powell "will kill those kids." A surprising number of friends and co-workers said they had suggested to Susan, after hearing her complaints about the lack of intimacy in her marriage, that her husband's behavior might be indicative of infidelity or a pornography addiction — the latter, at least, proving prescient.

Some of the most intriguing tips came from people who reported possibly hearing from or seeing Josh Powell in the week leading up to or on the day his wife disappeared.

An employee with the Air Gas Company told police that Josh Powell had come to the store and asked about "steel cutting equipment." He spent $383.89 on an acetylene torch and related equipment on Nov. 25, 2009, according to a receipt the store gave police. Detectives learned from other employees he returned on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 to pick up additional items. Employees described him as very "annoying" as he asked questions about "technical aspects" of the metal-cutting torch.

Josh Powell also reportedly visited a Lowe's store on Thanksgiving evening, arriving at the store just before it closed and asking about parts for an acetylene torch and about a paint sprayer, but left without making a purchase. He apparently stopped by another store on Nov. 27 and bought a 50-foot roll of white tree wrap, despite an employee's warning that it would not work to repair the broken tree branch that Josh Powell described.

Pieces of charred sheetrock and metal were found in Josh Powell's van after Susan disappeared. Detectives determined an accelerant was poured on the sheetrock, and a torch or other form of extreme heat was used to melt the metal. The torch was found in the Powells' garage.

A Utah County sheriff's dispatcher told West Valley City police she'd received a call the weekend of Dec. 4 from a man who asked questions about camping with his two young sons; they discussed the weather forecast and the man said he often camped with his boys in bad weather.

'What happened to my mom?' • Several months after Susan disappeared, an employee at Flying J in Lake Point, Utah — just off State Road 36, which traverses the West Desert — said that she had been working the graveyard shift the night of Dec. 6, when a man she is certain was Josh Powell stopped to buy gas and candy. The man was accompanied by two small children and a woman, whom the clerk believed looked like Susan. The clerk said she heard the older boy talking about camping while the woman had taken the younger boy to the bathroom. She said she asked Josh Powell if they were going camping and he said yes.

A detective asked the woman, who did not contact police until February 2010, why she had waited so long to report the information; the clerk said it had just dawned on her the customer was the same guy she'd seen on the news.

And then there is the tip that came from a woman who worked at the Comfort Inn near 90th South in Sandy, which is in a fairly secluded spot off I-15. Although she is not identified in the documents released by West Valley City Police, The Salt Lake Tribune confirmed she is Robin Huggins Snyder. In an interview, Snyder, who worked in the hotel's breakfast room, says she arrived for her shift at about 6:45 a.m. and found a man and two boys seated at a table eating.

She walked over to say hello and brought a high chair so the man didn't have to hold the youngest child on his lap. The older child, whom she later recognized as Charlie on news reports, looked at her and asked, "Do you know what happened to my mom?"

At that moment, an older man entered the room and told Snyder there was no coffee. Snyder left to make a fresh pot and when she returned to the dining room, the man and children were gone. Snyder relayed her tip to police about five days later, after recognizing Josh Powell on news reports; Snyder told The Tribune she was not interviewed by police until January 2012.

"Every time this comes up about her, I see Charlie looking up at me," Snyder said. "I need to know what he was going to say."

Tribune staffers Janelle Stecklein, Anne Wilson and Stephen Hunt contributed to this story.

brooke@sltrib.com