Files show Josh Powell's twisted legacy of hate
Alert to Readers • Be aware that this story contains graphic and violent depictions of a sexual nature, and hate speech.
Among nearly a thousand pages of documents released Friday detailing the child welfare case involving Josh Powell and his sons, one observation stands out.
In a psychological evaluation he prepared for a Feb. 1 custody hearing, psychologist James Manley wrote that Powell had excellent parenting skills but needed to learn to "consistently place his children's need for an emotionally safe and stable environment ahead of his own [needs]."
Powell was oblivious, Manley said, of his "intensity and his overbearing manner toward his sons" and "cannot or will not stay focused on his children's needs enough to leave his apparent suspicions, vigilance, and perceived threats out of his communication." The boys, as shown in documents released by Washington's Department of Social and Health Services, repeated their father's skewed observations, including hatred of Mormons and Jews.
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And after Manley viewed 400 images of cartoon and animated pornography involving incest found on a computer taken from Powell's Utah home in 2009 after his wife Susan disappeared, the psychologist was even more adamant that Charlie, 7, and Braden, 5, not be returned to their father's custody until he received psychological help. Powell, he noted, had denied visiting any pornography sites that involved minors and said he did not have any knowledge of child pornography on his computer.
"If these are Mr. Powell's images, it gives rise to great concern," wrote Manley, who diagnosed Powell as having adjustment disorder with anxiety and narcissistic personality disorder. "Coupled with his general level of defensiveness across the evaluation there seems to be important aspects of Mr. Powell's life he is unwilling to discuss. . . . Until he can overcome his defensiveness and openly discuss himself in all areas of his life including sexuality, family, and healthy boundaries, any additional or change of visit structure is not recommended."
The disturbing nature of those images led Pierce County Superior Judge Kathryn Nelson to accept Manley's recommendation that Powell to undergo a psychosexual evaluation and polygraph test, rejecting Powell's request to have his sons returned to his custody.
Four days later, a caseworker brought the boys to Powell's rental home in Graham, Wash., for a supervised visit. Powell let the boys in the home, but locked out the caseworker. He hit both boys in the head with a hatchet before setting fire to the home, which he had doused with gasoline. The fire killed all three.
The documents, released in response to records requests from The Salt Lake Tribune and other media organizations, detail troubling comments made by the boys and highlight why authorities were concerned about the home they shared with their father and other relatives until late September, when Powell's father Steve was arrested on charges of voyeurism and possessing child pornography. At that time, the state removed the boys and temporarily placed them with Chuck and Judy Cox, their maternal grandparents.
The records state that after Steve Powell's arrest, law enforcement began monitoring phone calls between him and his children, including Josh. The records also show the Coxes expected Josh Powell to be arrested some time between March and July.
Powell's sister, Alina Powell, could not be reached for immediate comment Friday but has previously said her brother acted out of desperation after spending more than two years "being crushed alive by hate, harassment and abuse."
Many of the records detail concerns of day care providers, a school principal and law enforcement about inappropriate statements made by Charlie and Braden which, given their ages, a social worker wrote could not have been "generated of their own mind/opinion." The anti-religious comments, many documented before the boys were placed with the Coxes, included statements about the "Mormons trying to steal them" and about hating Jesus. Most were made by the older boy.
The principal at Carson Elementary in Puyallup, where Charlie was a first-grader, contacted a case worker after the boy began acting out in class. On one occasion, as students discussed siblings, Charlie claimed to not have a brother any more because "the Mormons killed my brother and my mom. Yeah, it's just me and my dad."
A school counselor contacted Powell to discuss the remark, but Powell never returned the counselor's call, the documents state.
The school also filed a report last June after Charlie threatened to kill a classmate and made disparaging comments about Mormons and Jews to other students and staff.
When a little boy sat next to Charlie in class and asked to be his friend, Charlie replied, "No, I do not want you to sit by me. I am going to come to your house at night and kill you," documents state. Charlie then stated, "I hate Mormons."
The outburst led to Charlie being sent to see a school counselor, where he repeated such comments. He also told the counselor he wanted to kill the boy because he was a Mormon and that Mormons "kill people; they are ordered to kill people and all scientists who believe in Jesus," the documents state. He added he "hates Jews and he speaks the truth but no one is listening."
The boy's hateful comments were so frequent his teacher began recording them in a log, the school reported to a case worker.
Another incident report, dated Aug. 20, 2010, detailed how Charlie apparently demonstrated to others at day care how to kill and bury a bear, something he said he'd learned by watching television. The comment would normally have been dismissed but seemed noteworthy, the school officials said, given his missing mother.
Charlie also told people his mother was "hiding from everyone to keep from being abused" by her parents something the case worker said reflected statements the boy had overheard "others make in his presence."
Chuck Cox said Friday night he had not yet reviewed all the released documents, but confirmed the descriptions they contained of the boys' behavior and comments.
"It was difficult to hear, it was inappropriate and they clearly did not know what they were saying," Cox said. "They were repeating what to say and had been coached or brainwashed to say these things."
Cox said they were making progress in undoing the damage caused by the "toxic environment" the boys had been exposed to for two years, while trying to assure through supervised visits it didn't continue.
The documents also describe what Child Protective Services found in the home where the boys lived with their father and other relatives after Steve Powell's arrest, prompting them to take custody of the children. Pornography was "laying out" in Steve Powell's room and it was unclear whether the boys had been exposed to it. The report noted that John Powell, the boys' uncle, "runs around nude in the house and in a diaper."
"He has met the police at the door naked before. Uncle John has a hangman's noose and a gallows built in his room. He has a picture of a woman with a sword coming out of her stomach and into her vagina," the documents state.
A report dated a month after the boys' removal shows they struggled with the change in their lives. Charlie complained to a social worker his grandparents were abusing him and that he missed his pet bird. He "didn't smile once during the visit and appeared sad, even when discussing his favorite toys, foods and activities."
The Coxes also were struggling to instill new rules. They told a case worker that same month the boys wanted to live under their "dad's rules," which included walking around the house naked and having an 11 p.m. bedtime, the documents state. They also made inappropriate "sexualized comments" about their parents and about the Coxes.
A mental health screening determined both boys needed counseling. Charlie was sometimes anti-social and "worries about everything, he can be selfish, he does not realize his own limitations, his reasoning seems to be off," the documents state. Braden was overly physical and aggressive hitting, biting and breaking things for no reason. The Coxes raised concerns about Braden's "clinginess" to strangers and his tendency to hide when he was upset.
A social worker said Powell was "fixated" on what he perceived as his in-laws "unjust vendetta" against him. Before his sons arrived for the joint session, a therapist suggested that Powell let his boys know counseling was a safe place to discuss their feelings, including about their missing mother, and that he offer some explanation about what had happened to his father, offering a script such as "grandpa made bad choices and will be gone for awhile as a consequence."
When the boys arrived for the joint session, Powell told them the "Mormon police had made up bad information about their grandpa and put him in jail and that they are trying to do the same thing to him," the therapist reported.
The therapist tried to redirect Powell, but "his speech was rapid and he was so deep into his rant that she could not get him to stop" and focus on his sons, the documents state.
In an interview with a Child Protective Services case worker, Powell said he had known about his father's obsession with his missing wife for as long as eight years but only became upset about it when he learned his father had images of Susan on computers seized during a search of their Puyallup home in September.
"The department has concerns that Joshua may be loyal enough to his father to not have reported Steve Powell's involvement (alleged) in child pornography given the fact that Joshua continued to reside with and be supportive of his father in light of the circumstances related to Steven Powell's feelings/relationship with Joshua's wife," the social worker wrote in a letter outlining areas the department wanted Manley to explore in his psychological evaluation.
Manley found Powell to be highly intelligent but also "subtly evasive and dodgy" in their sessions, particularly when asked about teenage troubles. Powell denied attempting to commit suicide as a youth, conceding only that he may have considered it and if he put a rope around his neck "it was in an attempt to get attention." When Manley presented him with his parents' divorce documents, which suggested otherwise, Powell said he wasn't familiar with the documents but that things had been blown out of proportion.
He said Powell made several comments about missing his wife, whom he said had been depressed and suicidal in 2009. Susan Powell had seen a counselor and they were in marital counseling when she disappeared, according to Powell's statements to Manley.
Manley said Powell told him that he "used to think she wanted to come home. I can't imagine how she would be away from her sons and I for so long. I think she thought she could not live up to the standards that people set for her and left."
Powell also told Manley that if he had known about the extent of his father's obsession with Susan he would have never let Steve Powell read her journal. "His attraction to Susan is not acceptable," Powell told Manley.
Manley, whose last interview was in early December, said Powell denied having any suicidal or murderous thoughts, but also noted that Powell's test results showed he wasn't answering questions in a "completely forthright manner" and was trying to downplay stress in his life and make himself look good.
The psychologist said Utah authorities provided photographs, hand drawings and computer-generated drawings to review before the Feb. 1 hearing. Among them were cartoon images illustrating sexual themes using well-known characters, such as The Simpsons, Jungle Book, Superman, Cat Woman, Rugrats and Spongebob. Another set of 3-D computer images depicted "mother on son, mother on daughter, father on daughter and family group sex," Manley wrote in a Jan. 31, 2012, letter. "The reviewed images indicate someone's fantasy-laden view of having sex with children," he said, adding that there "appears to be a pattern of poor sexual boundaries between the family members."