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Washington writers detail haunting, true-crime story of Susan Cox Powell

It’s a spellbinding story that uncovers and brings to life the emotions behind a Utah woman’s disappearance.

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The book from Olsen and Morris is the third, and most thorough, account exploring the Powell tragedy. It follows a chapter in the Ann Rule crime anthology, "Fatal Friends, Deadly Neighbors and Other True Cases," published in December 2012, and a self-published book, "A Light in Dark Places," by Josh Powell’s sister, Jennifer Graves, and co-writer Emily Clawson, released in June 2013.

New material in Olsen and Morris’ book includes speculation about psychological damage — and possible sexual abuse — the young Powell boys may have suffered in the year and a half they lived with their father at their grandfather Steve Powell’s home.

At a glance

‘If I Can’t Have You’

Susan Powell, Her Mysterious Disappearance and the Murder of Her Children

Authors » Gregg Olsen and Rebecca Morris

About » A Trib Talk live video chat on Monday, May 19, at 12:15 p.m. at sltrib.com will feature the case and the book. Morris and The Tribune’s Sheena McFarland will participate with moderator Jennifer Napier-Pearce. In addition, the book will be the focus of The Tribune’s Utah Lit book club discussion Wednesday, June 25, at 7 p.m. at the Viridian Event Center, 8030 S. 1825 West, West Jordan.

Also » The authors will launch the book at a panel discussion with Susan Powell’s family and family attorney Anne Bremner at the Pioneer Park Pavilion, 330 S. Meridian, Puyallup, Wash., at 7 p.m. Friday, May 30.

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Steve Powell, 64, was released from a Washington prison in March after serving a nearly two-year sentence for voyeurism; he was convicted on 14 counts of taking secret photos of two young neighbor girls.

Olsen and Morris also explicate the legacy of emotional damage inflicted on Josh Powell and his siblings in the 1990s after Steve and Terrica Powell’s divorce and messy custody battle. "I think he knows a lot more than he’s said," says Olsen of Steve Powell. "He is the patriarch in this dysfunctional band."

"If I Can’t Have You" details Steve Powell’s sexual obsession with his daughter-in-law. During the years of his son’s marriage, Powell wrote thousands upon thousands of journal entries about his explicit daydreams and fantasies. "When did he sleep?" Olsen asks. "I don’t think we could even imagine that level of obsession."

"If I Can’t Have You" also chronicles how the lack of communication between police jurisdictions and social-welfare agencies might have led to the deaths of Charlie and Braden Powell.

"The ultimate tragedy here is that we have all these jurisdictions and nobody talking to each other, and these two little boys are dead because of it," Olsen says. "It didn’t have to happen that way."

A haunting story » St. Martin’s Press is betting the Susan Cox Powell story will have resonance that reaches far beyond her Utah neighborhood or even readers of true-crime genre books. Unusual for contemporary books in the genre, "If I Can’t Have You" is being published in hardback, not paperback, with a first press run of 15,000 to 20,000 copies.

"The story is haunting," says St. Martin’s executive editor Charles Spicer. "She did nothing wrong, except trust that things would work out. She was trying to make her marriage work, trying to be a good mother."

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Beyond the mystery at its center, why does Susan Powell’s story remain so compelling?

There’s the fact that her name has a familiar ring, since she shares it with a 1981 Miss America, Gregg Olsen says. Then there are those haunting and beautiful family photos, taken by friend Amber Hardman not long before Susan’s disappearance. "It looks like a gorgeous image of an American family," the writer says. "When we look past that, there was deception, there was evil-doing going on."



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