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Susan Powell search resumes

Published August 20, 2011 11:23 am

West Valley City police take reporters to an area in the foothills outside of Ely, Nev.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Ely, Nevada • West Valley City police on Saturday resumed searching abandoned mine shafts for Susan Cox Powell, a Utah mother who has been missing for almost two years.

West Valley Police Sgt. Mike Powell called Friday's operations "successful," saying searchers cleared more than a dozen mines and documented each with a photo. No evidence was removed from any of the mines.

Mike Powell said searchers will resume their work Saturday morning.

Police have said little about what led them this week to Ely, which is about 250 miles west of Salt Lake City, other than to say it relates to information gleaned from a search warrant executed when Susan Powell disappeared in December 2009.

"They're here to follow up on information that was a direct result of the search warrant. Since Josh [Susan's husband] didn't offer them information, it's taken them this long" to test evidence and focus on Ely, Mike Powell said.

He again invited Josh Powell to speak with police about the case.

West Valley City police in 2009 executed search warrants on the Powell home and seized and searched the blue minivan Josh Powell drove the night his wife disappeared. They also executed a search warrant to take blood and other biological samples from Josh Powell. Police obtained a court order sealing those warrants — and any others they may have served.

After eight hours of using ropes and lamps to rappel down into mine shafts, four West Valley City detectives stopped at about 6 p.m. Friday with plans to resume 9 a.m. Saturday. The detectives, who used ATVs to move from shaft to shaft in an area west of town near Squaw Peak and accessible only by an old gravel road, were fatigued from the heat and their efforts.

"We don't want to have any accidents at this point," Mike Powell said. "Safety is an issue."

Mike Powell had invited reporters to come along on the search at a Friday morning news conference. When asked why media were invited along, Mike Powell said coverage would make the case "fresh in the minds of individuals again" and jog the memories of Ely residents. He added police wanted people in Utah to know West Valley City officers were in Ely, rather than having to explain it after the fact.

"The people in the community are the eyes and ears of law enforcement," he added. "We very much encourage anyone with information on this case to call West Valley Police Department."

White Pine County Sheriff Dan Watts referred to the search area as "mild terrain" that has been used as a dumping ground for trash and a location where juveniles party. The remains of a man discovered last year in the county are believed to have been there for eight years, Watts said.

Chris Hanefeld, public affairs officer with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Ely office, said the area can be dangerous with so many documented and undocumented mine shafts. Some of the shafts are filled with or masked by dirt and debris.

Melanie Peterson, an environmental protection specialist with the BLM, said there are "thousands of abandoned mine shafts" and adits in the county. A new BLM project aims to secure 209 of the high-priority abandoned mines as a public safety measure and to see if there are any cultural artifacts there.

Hanefeld said some of the shafts are as shallow as 20 feet deep, while others are as deep as 100 feet. That's because miners would simply dig until they found ore and then stop, he said.

Mike Powell had told a crowd of reporters gathered for a 10 a.m. news conference that a total of 40 investigators, including some from the White Pine County Sheriff's Office, would assist in Friday's search.

"This is the first time we have been here to follow up on information that has led us out here," said Mike Powell. "Detectives have made a preemptive drive out here to see what it was that we may be looking at in the event that we did come out here."

Mike Powell invited reporters to accompany officers on their search at that news conference, saying police felt it was "important ... to involve the media in the process" as much as possible. The invitation was the first of its kind in the nearly 2-year-old investigation.

West Valley City Mayor Mike Winder acknowledged the news conference was unusual but said he trusts that officers know what they're doing.

"If in their wisdom it's best to have the press along, I'm for it, as long as it doesn't compromise the investigation," he said.

City officials purposely don't ask for case details to avoid compromising a sensitive investigation, Winder said.

"As far as the details of what brought them to Nevada, we know as much as the general public," he said.

West Valley City police on Thursday issued a statement saying investigators would conduct the search after they developed what Mike Powell called "credible" and "important" new information related to Susan Powell's disappearance.

Susan Powell, 28, was last seen Dec. 6, 2009.

Josh Powell has told police he last saw his wife as he left her at home and took their sons, then ages 2 and 4, on a late-night camping trip to the west desert in the family's blue minivan. Josh Powell has previously said he and the children stayed warm in the freezing temperatures with a generator and heater he had purchased two weeks earlier.

Police have said Josh Powell, 34, rented a car two days later that he put hundreds of miles on. Josh Powell remains the only person of interest publicly named by police in the case.

Josh Powell rented out the couple's West Valley City home and moved to his and his wife's hometown of Puyallup, Wash., after her disappearance. Powell and his father have previously said they believe Susan Powell ran away, possibly with another man.

Mike Powell on Friday reiterated the search has nothing to do with the disappearance of Steven Koecher, a Utah man who went missing about the time Susan Powell disappeared, and that the two cases are not linked.

The Coxes have said their daughter's husband was abusive and that she would never leave her children — Charlie, now 6, and Braden, now 4. Friends of Susan Powell have said she and her husband were also having marital problems and financial strains. Josh Powell's estranged sister, Jennifer Graves, has publicly said she doubts her brother's story and believes he has something to do with his wife's disappearance.

Josh Powell has denied those claims.

Susan Powell's brother-in-law, Kirk Graves, said he watched the news conference and was baffled by the lack of information given by police.

"Wow, what was that," he said.

He and his wife, Jennifer, have no idea what the lead might be. In the past police have notified Chuck Cox, Susan Powell's father, about leads. Cox said Thursday he contacted police himself after hearing about the Ely investigation from reporters. Police declined to give him specific information about the search, he said.

On Friday, Cox expressed disappointment.

"The way the build up was, I was hoping we were going to find something," Cox said. "I was kind of let down."

Yet Cox said he isn't angry with police.

"I am confident they are doing their job and chasing down every lead," Cox said.

Cox and supporters are planning to distribute fliers Saturday at a busy Puyallup intersection to raise awareness about his daughter's disappearance. Volunteers also will be distributing fliers in West Valley City Saturday — among them Kiirsi Hellewell, a friend and neighbor of Susan Powell.

Hellewell said Friday she was hoping for the best.

"Hopefully, they will uncover something at the search site," she said.

csmart@sltrib.com

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Pamela Manson and Nate Carlisle contributed to this report. The name Susan Powell was not well known in this central Nevada town of 5,000 tucked up against the mountains at 6,300 feet. But now, the missing West Valley City mother of two is the talk of the town.

"I hadn't heard of her until yesterday," said inn keeper Rebecca Noel.

On Thursday, West Valley City police announced they would search near Ely after developing new information in the case. They focused their search Friday on mine shafts west of town.

"My husband put a 50-foot rope down one of those shafts and didn't find the bottom," Noel said. "If she's down one of those, you won't find her."

This rough and tumble mining town is no stranger to foul play. As it turns out, a murder trial began here Thursday, said Mayor Jon Hickman. The Penny Bartlett trial has been bigger news in Ely, Hickman said.

"People are talking about it [the Powell case] because it's on the news," he said. "But they're [West Valley police] keeping it so hush-hush, we don't know what to think about it."

Ely Times news editor John Plestina didn't know anything about a Nevada connection to the Powell case, until he was bombarded with telephone messages from Salt Lake City news outlets Thursday.

As far as Plestina knows, nobody in Ely personally knows either Josh or Susan Powell.

The Ely connection is mysterious said longtime resident Mark McNutt, who heard of Susan Powell's disappearance in December 2009, but hasn't thought much about it since. Ely is out of the way and its haunts aren't readily visible to outsiders, he explained.

"If someone brought her here, they would have to have some inside information about the area."

Over at the White Pine County public museum, director Howard Bohrn said he heard about the Powell case from his mother Friday morning.

"I heard someone said that they could make a person disappear by throwing them down a mine shaft," he said. "And there are mine shafts all over the place."

Christopher Smart