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Susan Powell disappearance chronicled in book by famed crime writer

Published November 29, 2012 12:01 pm

Crime • Case remains unresolved.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated.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.

Veteran crime writer Ann Rule provides a fast-read take on the disappearance of West Valley City mom Susan Cox Powell in her newest book Fatal Friends, Deadly Neighbors and Other True Cases.

For those who have closely followed the Powell story, there is little new information beyond some titillating tidbits about Josh Powell and his father Steven. Among them: Josh Powell crashed his future wife's bridal shower dressed as a woman — skirt, makeup, etc.

Guests didn't think it was funny. Judy Cox, Susan's mother, said the incident added to their early concern about their daughter's fiance. But the marriage went ahead as planned.

Another: Steven Powell apparently followed his son and daughter-in-law to a Costco in December 2003, as they prepared to leave for Utah, and surreptitiously filmed Susan, an escapade he later described in detail in his personal journal.

Susan Powell was last seen at her home in West Valley City on Dec. 6, 2009. A day care provider was the first to raise the alarm that something was amiss after the couple's two young sons weren't dropped off as scheduled early the next morning. Initially, the entire family was missing but Josh Powell returned home late the next day and claimed he had taken the boys on an overnight camping trip in Utah's West Desert and said he assumed his wife had gone to work.

Rule, who lives in Washington, devotes 156 pages to the Powell story in the book, which appeared in bookstores Tuesday and also chronicles eight other stories. The Powell section includes a 16-page photo spread, including wedding photos that Susan's father, Chuck Cox, salvaged from the ruins of the Washington rental home that Josh Powell set fire on Feb. 5, killing himself and sons Charlie, 7, and Braden, 5.

In an interview Wednesday, Cox said he was able to retrieve four or five grocery bags of photos that had been stored in a bedroom at the destroyed home. Some were singed and some were water damaged, but many were in remarkably good shape, he said.

He has not yet read Rule's book, but said he expects it will be "a good book for somebody who hasn't heard a lot of the detail. Somebody that has been following it, not so much."

One new disclosure involves Chuck and Judy Cox. Rule writes that in the early evening of Dec. 7, 2009, Jennifer Graves, Josh's sister, was on the phone with the Coxes giving them the latest details in the search for the missing family. Josh happened to finally return Jennifer's call and Jennifer put him on a speaker phone so the Coxes could hear what he had to say.

"From his responses, he was hiding something, he had done something," Cox told The Salt Lake Tribune on Wednesday.

Rule makes several new claims, although the basis for some of them is unclear, including that Susan vomited shortly after being served a pancake dinner by her husband on Dec. 6, 2009. A friend who was there that afternoon has previously said Susan was not sick, just tired after the meal.

Also, apparently relying on information from the Coxes, Rule writes that Washington state fire responders found the two boys "beside each other, with no visible burns at all. They were holding hands."

Chuck Cox said he was told his grandsons' hands were together though it may be that Josh Powell posed the boys that way. The boys were laid to rest in a single casket, but it was kept closed at their funeral.

There are several factual errors in the book, most notably a wrong date for the deadly fire and a caption that misidentifies the Seattle, Wash., LDS Church Temple as being in Salt Lake City's Temple Square.

But Rule's many years as a crime chronicler are evident in the observations she makes about the Powell case, particularly as she assesses Josh Powell's state of mind in the days before he killed himself and his two young sons. She gives West Valley City Police a mixed review. At one point, she sympathizes with the Utah investigators, whom she says weren't initially convinced Susan was dead. Police had circumstantial evidence but without a body, the odds of getting a conviction were long, she writes.

"There have been such convictions, and I have written about them, but out of the two thousand or more cases I have covered, bodyless murder cases are definitely in the minority," Rule writes.

Washington state detectives, on the other hand, would have gone after Josh Powell much more aggressively, she says. Rule is critical of the "tactful" approach taken by the psychologist who interviewed Josh Powell as part of the child custody proceedings involving his sons. She chides Washington's child welfare system for not having more safeguards in place during the boys' supervised visits with their father.

Rule closes on the point that is most aching about the Powell story: "There will never be full closure for the Cox family that has lost so much, but it is desperately important that what is hidden from them will one day be revealed."

brooke@sltrib.com

Twitter: @Brooke4Trib