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Police find charred wood at Susan Powell search site, end dig

Published September 17, 2011 11:51 pm

Justice • Charred wood found, but no remains; grid search to continue Sunday.
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Topaz Mountain • Hopes for an end to the mystery of Susan Cox Powell's disappearance were cut short Saturday when police found what cadaver dogs here had been alerting their handlers to: charred wood that may have been used to burn human remains.

About 100 pieces of wood ranging from dime to golf-ball size were dug out of a site where 11 cadaver dogs had indicated human decomposition, said West Valley City Lt. Bill Merritt. It is believed the wood could have been used to burn human remains, he said.

"There's a very good possibility that this at one point or another was a crime scene," said Merritt. "Whether it's linked to ours, we don't know."

But detectives are confident enough they won't find anything more at the dig site and have stopping excavation, said Merrit. The hole by Saturday was just over 2 feet deep, 3 feet long, and 2 feet wide, he said. A forensic specialist will now examine the wood.

"We are very disappointed, we are frustrated," said Merritt of Saturday's outcome after days of effort at the dig site. "We were hoping that this would be the answer everyone was looking for."

Cadaver dogs have not given any indication dirt already removed from the site —painstakingly sifted by a forensic supervisor, two forensic technicians, a police officer and a firefighter — contains any remains, Merritt said.

Hopes had run high for some that Susan Powell's resting place or other clues to her disappearance might have been found. This remote area is about 30 miles away from where Josh Powell, the only person of interest police have named in his wife's disappearance, says he took his two young sons camping the night his wife disappeared from their West Valley City home.

Police have said Josh Powell liked to gem hunt — and family and friends have confirmed that Josh and Susan Powell had visited the area on previous family excursions.

Susan Powell's father, Chuck Cox, said Saturday he has no doubt there are traces of human remains in the wood because of what the dogs had indicated.

"It could be anything," said Cox, who traveled here earlier this week from his home state of Washington. "We'll wait and see."

Cox said he feels the search has been worthwhile and is a step forward to finding his missing daughter.

"I wanted to come down to thank them for looking and give my support in case they found something," Cox said.

A grid search of the area by West Valley City police, joined by horseback riders from the Juab County Sheriff's search and rescue team, will continue Sunday. A determination will be made Sunday about whether the search will continue, according to Merritt.

Searchers on horseback checked for any evidence in higher areas as others driving all-terrain vehicles focused on spots closer to roads. The dig site was just about 50 yards off of a road, according to an Associated Press reporter allowed to visit the scene.

West Valley City police recently conducted a search in the desert around Ely, Nev., and over the past months have conducted numerous searches in Tooele County. Police serving a search warrant have also recently removed several computer towers and other evidence from the Washington home Josh Powell lives in with his father.

Susan Powell, 28, has been missing since Dec. 6, 2009, when her husband reported her missing from their West Valley City home. Josh Powell has said he had taken the couple's young sons, then ages 2 and 4, on a winter camping trip to Simpson Springs in Tooele County, and returned home to find his wife gone without a trace.

rorellana@sltrib.com

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