Since the early days of Susan Powell’s disappearance in 2009, a group of supporters has followed the twists, the turns, the tragedies and the theories of the baffling case.
At first, these folks simply followed news coverage and shared it online. Then they organized and consolidated into a Facebook group. The past few years, most of the posts have been about female bodies police in Utah and the surrounding states have found and not immediately identified. So far, none has been Powell.
The posters also have shared ideas on how to make a break in Powell’s case and offered support for her family. Since Monday night, they have been discussing a man almost as synonymous with case as the missing woman and her deceased suspect husband.
Steve Powell, Susan’s father-in-law, died. When he did, followers placed his death in the context of helping to solve — or not — his daughter-in-law’s disappearance.
“After hearing the news this morning that Steven Powell died,” Clearfield resident Jackie Charlene Harmon wrote on Facebook, “I have mixed feelings as well. Now we will never know what really happened to Susan because I feel like he had all of the answers but at the same time he would have never talked.”
Steve Powell’s death Monday in Tacoma, Wash., from a heart attack at age 68 has ignited new rounds of grief and frustration for those wanting to find Susan Powell. Those emotions are counterintuitive, in a sense.
To the internet’s cybersleuths, Steve Powell’s infatuation with his daughter-in-law — he acknowledged on multiple occasions to having been in love with her — made him a suspect in Susan Powell’s disappearance. And court records from his divorce in the 1990s show the dysfunction he passed on to some of his own children, including his son and Susan’s husband, Josh.
Though there were no signs Steve Powell would ever change his contention that Susan ran away, he was still viewed by Susan Powell’s father and her other supporters as being the last, best person who could solve the case. Josh Powell lived with his father in Puyallup, Wash., from shortly after his wife’s disappearance in December 2009 until Steve Powell’s arrest on suspicion of voyeurism and manufacturing child pornography in September 2011.
Kiirsi Hellewell, a Susan Powell friend who has helped with efforts to find her online and off, doubted Steve Powell would begin to cooperate. Instead, she thought he might say something, do something or go somewhere that would turn into a clue for investigators.
“I just always had the hope that maybe he would slip up,” Hellewell said in an interview Wednesday.
Hellewell acknowledged feeling less confident about solving her friend’s disappearance without Steve Powell. If her optimism had been at a 10 as recently as Sunday, it’s plummeted to a 4 or 5, she said.
Some posters on the Facebook group shared the sentiment.
“Wish her family could find her remains and have closure,” wrote Taylorsville resident Amber Krauss. "My heart breaks for them, first their daughter, then their grandkids.”
Even police who investigated the Powells through the years seemed to believe that Steve Powell knew something.
“We believe a lot of secrets died with him,” Pierce County sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer told the Tacoma News Tribune on Tuesday.
There are two survivors of the household Steve and Josh Powell kept in Puyallup, Wash. Steve’s son John and his daughter Alina Powell also lived with him there. And there are still efforts underway to find Susan Powell.
Hellewell said a private investigator continues to assist Susan’s parents and other supporters. They work to “think like Josh” and try to figure out where he took his wife and disposed of her, she said. She also hopes someone finds a clue — somebody remembers something one of the Powells said or did, an internet surfer finds something relevant someone wrote on a message board, or a hiker stumbles on something in Utah’s West Desert. That’s where Josh Powell said he went camping with his sons and that he left his wife at home on the day she was last seen.
When asked how she keeps what optimism she still has, Hellewell recalled how days after Susan Powell’s disappearance, she asked her Mormon stake president, who oversees a number of regional LDS congregations, for a priesthood blessing. The blessing called for Susan Powell to be found and said that Hellewell needed patience.
“I still hold onto that hope and don’t give up,” Hellewell said. “I guess I would tell everybody, ‘Don’t give up, and we will never give up.’”