Yet another documentary about the disappearance of Susan Cox Powell is headed to TV, and there’s absolutely nothing new in it. Except, perhaps, for the way it spins the story.
The West Valley City Police Department, the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s office and the state of Washington’s Department of Social and Health Sciences come off looking incompetent in a two-hour installment of “How It Really Happened with Hill Harper” on Sunday at 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. MDT on HLN.
We clearly don’t need another TV show about Susan Powell. We’ve seen it on “48 Hours,” “Dateline” and “20/20.” Just two years ago, Oxygen aired a two-hour documentary covering the same territory.
Although a cottage industry of sorts has sprung up around her case, with multiple reports/documentaries/podcasts, there isn’t going to be any actual news about Susan Powell unless somebody finds her body. And, no, that hasn’t happened.
So why do return to it? “We really go back five, 10, 15 years because people have forgotten,” said executive producer Nancy Duffy. “They remember the protagonist of the story, but they don’t really remember why it resonated and how exactly it was resolved.”
That’s more likely to be true if you don’t live in Utah, or if you haven’t lived here long.
There is a certain slant to the report, however. Members of Susan Powell’s family and their lawyer are interviewed, but there are no contemporary interviews with the authorities. They’re not given the opportunity to explain or defend themselves — although, honestly, they’ve not been able to do that convincingly in the past.
What we’ve known for years is recounted in “How It Really Happened.” In December 2009, 28-year-old Susan Powell disappeared. Her husband, Josh Powell, claimed that he took their two young sons camping in a blizzard and insisted he didn’t know where Susan had gone, although he later suggested (without evidence) that she ran off with another man.
Josh’s story was beyond fishy. He was soon named as a person of interest in Susan’s disappearance, but he was never charged. In February 2012, he murdered his two young sons and killed himself, burning down a house in the process.
It’s not hard to understand why the crime continues to hold such fascination. Or why Susan Powell’s family continues to harbor resentment against WVCPD and the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s office for failing to arrest or charge Josh Powell.
“I believe they had enough evidence,” says Susan Powell’s sister, Denise Ernest.
The Cox family attorney, Anne Bremner rather condescendingly points out, “West Valley City police is not the Seattle police or the New York police.” And, she adds, Susan’s parents “were really relying on the West Valley City, Utah, authorities that Josh’s arrest was imminent,” and had been “led to believe” that was true. “Frankly, if there had been an arrest and he was in custody … I mean, all of this would be so different,” Bremner says.
In other words, if Josh was in custody he wouldn’t have been allowed visitation with his sons, and he wouldn’t have been able to kill them. It’s hard to argue with that.
And she laid part of the blame on the prosecutor. “I think they had a D.A. that was very cautious,” Bremner said.
(She didn’t specify, but Lohra Miller was the Salt Lake County district attorney when Susan Powell disappeared in December 2009. She left office in January 2011 after losing to Sim Gill, who’s been the D.A. since then.)
“In my opinion, they had plenty to charge Josh Powell with murder,” Bremner says. “And I was an old prosecutor and tried murder cases. You don’t need a body.
“I didn’t see the weakness of that case. I saw the strengths of that case. Susan wrote a last will and testament, it’s a safe-deposit box, saying, ‘If anything happens to me, Josh did it.”
Washington authorities are also lambasted for allowing Josh Powell to meet with his children at a house he’d rented (instead of a Department of Social and Health Services building) without informing the judge. And just days after the judge had ordered Josh to undergo a psychosexual evaluation and submit to a lie-detector test, with questions about Susan’s disappearance looming.
“How could Washington State let those kids go like a lamb to slaughter to a murderer?” Bremner asks.
Jennifer Graves, Josh Powell’s sister, says decisions made by Washington were “a little bit crazy.” Susan’s father, Chuck Cox says the decision was made “without concern for the children’s safety. The boys were delivered to Josh, where he could do whatever he wanted to do.” He blamed “the whole DSHS system and the individuals” for the boys’ death.
“If the state had done their job and actually followed their own guidelines, my nephews would still be around,” says Ernest.
It was a “catastrophic failure,” Bremner says. “They’ve got excuses, but none of them carry water, obviously, when you’ve got two dead little boys,” she says.
Again, there are no contemporary interviews with anyone from DSHS. Again … what could they have said?
If you don’t know much about the Susan Cox Powell case, “How It Really Happened” is a perfectly good telling of the tale. But it’s a retelling that’s really unnecessary.