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What might the Powell boys have known about their mother's disappearance?

Published February 10, 2012 4:28 pm

Expert opinion • Statements from young children not inherently reliable.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated.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.

As the nation continues to grieve for Charlie and Braden Powell, a theory has been offered by family members and attorneys: Josh Powell knew his children were starting to talk more about their mother's disappearance before he killed them.

New information about what exactly the boys have said since their mother, Susan Powell, disappeared has surfaced in recent days.

Chuck Cox said earlier this week that in 2010, the summer after Susan Powell went missing, her then 3-year-old son Braden was drawing pictures at day camp. He drew a picture of a minivan with three people in it. When asked who the people were, he said, "Dad, me, and Charlie," Cox said.

Asked where his mother was, he said "Mommy is in the trunk," and said something about how they stopped and Mommy and Daddy got out and Mommy didn't come back. Chuck Cox said Braden may have been repeating something his older brother had said.

Anne Bremner, an attorney for the Coxes, this week said the Powell boys in the care of the Coxes were verbalizing more about what they may have possibly seen the night their mother disappeared. The boys were removed from their father's custody and temporarily placed with the Coxes in September.

"I know that to be true in this case because as recently as Christmas, the boys told their grandparents, 'Mommy's in the mine. If we go to the mine, we'll find Mommy,' " Bremner said in an email.

But experts say the children's testimony, and memories are problematic.

The Powell boys, ages 2 and 4 the night their mother disappeared and their father said he took them on an overnight camping trip, have been exposed to their mother's story on the news. They've also been interviewed by police about what happened and spoken to relatives —conversations that may have planted ideas in their heads.

That combination is a recipe for ideas to get mixed up in their young minds, suggest professors David B. Battin and Stephen J. Ceci in their essay "Children as Witnesses: What We Hear Them Say May Not Be What They Mean."

The Cornell professors say it can be difficult for adults to accurately reconstruct what a young child means when retelling events.

"From my perspective — that of someone who has spent thirty years studying the suggestibility of young children's statements — I am often leery of statements made under circumstances such as this one," Ceci said in an interview about the Powell case.

Preschoolers could be "influenced by various suggestive forces without their conscious awareness," Ceci said.

Ceci explained the influences can be deliberate if they are asked leading questions such as: "Are you sure you don't remember seeing daddy hit mommy and drag her to a mine? Are you sure, because your brother said you were there and saw it."

Or, Ceci said, the influences can be unintentional such as when a child is "asked repeatedly to think real hard about the night daddy took mommy and them camping in the van: Do you remember seeing mommy's sleepy body wrapped in a blanket in the back of the van? No? Think real hard."

The first time a preschooler is asked those types of questions they might say they have no recollection.

"However, when the same question is asked a week later, some children will become confused; they will introspect into their memory storage and come across an image of their mother wrapped in a blanket in the rear of their van," Ceci said. "This is likely the residue of attempting to retrieve this image a week earlier: the mere effort to recollect something that is not in memory creates a mental image of what is being searched."

"It is possible for young children to initially have no memory of an event and yet over time come to convince themselves and others that they have a vivid memory due to suggestions made earlier."

In Chuck Cox's first extensive interview with The Salt Lake Tribune on Dec. 18, 2009, in the initial days following his daughter's disappearance, he acknowledged that Charlie Powell didn't understand what was going on as the search for his mother intensified.

Then 4-year-old Charlie talked about "Mommy being lost," Chuck Cox said.

"That's all he knows," Chuck Cox said in the 2009 interview. "He's too young to understand."

It may be impossible to know whether the boys truly witnessed the events they spoke about, or whether they may have picked up ideas from seeing news coverage or from talking about the case. But many connected to the case have gone as far to say Josh Powell's murder of his sons and suicide in a fire set at his house is proof he killed his missing wife.

"If there was any doubt about who murdered Susan Powell, it's gone now," Pierce County prosecuting attorney Mark Lindquist has said.

Jennifer Graves, Josh Powell's sister, and her husband, Kirk Graves, have echoed similar statements. Jennifer Graves referred to her brother as a "cold-blooded murderer" in a Wednesday interview.

Said Kirk Graves: "Josh's primary motive for killing Susan was the fear that she was going to leave him and she would get the boys. And he just couldn't tolerate that."

mrogers@sltrib.com

Twitter: @mrogers_trib