Ten years later, search for Susan Cox Powell focuses on Utah mines

This undated picture made available by Hardman Photography shows Susan Powell. The 28-year-old mother from the Salt Lake City area was reported missing on Monday, Dec. 7, 2009.

In the first few days after Susan Cox Powell disappeared, West Valley City detectives traveled to some abandoned mines in Utah’s West Desert.

They lowered cameras into shafts. The images didn’t lead to Powell’s body, but that hasn’t discouraged everyone.

The 10th anniversary of Powell’s disappearance is Friday, and mines remain the most popular place to look for her. Earlier this year, the Utah Cold Case Coalition searched a mine it saw as a candidate for holding Powell’s remains.

Nothing was found, but Jason Jensen, a private investigator who works with the Utah Cold Case Coalition, said more mine searches are a possibility.

“It really just depends on whether the public interest is still high,” he said.

This undated picture made available by Hardman Photography shows Susan Powell. The 28-year-old mother from the Salt Lake City area was reported missing on Monday, Dec. 7, 2009.

Searching mines has never been easy.

First, said Steve Fluke, manager of the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Program at the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining, no one is sure how many mines there are or where they are. Some mining districts can have 100 or more mines, some with multiple openings.

Once you decide to search a mine, hazards abound. Shafts can be 2,000 feet deep. Rocks and timbers can be loose, Fluke warned, the air may be poisonous, snakes or other wildlife may be inside, and unstable explosives may still be there.

"It's pretty dangerous even if you're prepared and skilled,” Fluke said.

West Valley City police said Thursday that the Powell case remains assigned to a detective.

“Although all leads in the case have been exhausted and the case has gone cold,” a news release said, “we stand ready to act on any new information that might provide resolution in this challenging case.”

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Investigators from the West Valley City police department search abandoned mine shafts west of Ely, Nev., on Friday, Aug. 19, 2011, as part of the investigation into the 2009 disappearance of Susan Powell.

As for mines, police spokeswoman Roxeanne Vainuku wrote in an email, “We are happy to cross-reference any mines that are proposed for a search with the list of mines we have already searched.”

Powell was 28 years old when she disappeared Dec. 6, 2009, from her home in West Valley City. Her husband, Josh Powell, told investigators he took his wife and their two sons, then-4-year-old Charlie and 2-year-old Braden, on a late-night camping trip to Simpson Springs in the West Desert.

Besides being a stop along the Pony Express Trail, Simpson Springs is known as an area where mining took place in the 19th and 20th centuries. That’s a reason why abandoned mines remain a popular theory as to how Josh Powell, who came under police suspicion from the first time detectives interviewed him, might have hid his wife’s body.

“He had to have ditched her within that first 24 hours,” Jensen said, “and he was clearly out there. He was spotted out there.”

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Josh Powell in 2011.

There’s other circumstantial evidence pointing to mines. One of Josh Powell’s acquaintances has said that at a Christmas party in December 2008, Josh Powell discussed how a mine would be a good place to dispose of a body.

Charlie and Braden, as late as Christmas 2011, told their maternal grandparents their mother was in a mine, the family and their attorney have said. Josh Powell murdered his sons and then died by suicide in a fiery explosion Feb. 5, 2012, in Graham, Wash.

There have been a few competing theories about where Susan Powell’s remains might be. In 2013, for example, her father, Chuck Cox, traveled along Interstate 84 between Utah and Oregon distributing flyers asking the public for leads.

But the idea of searching Utah mines captured public imagination in the early months of Susan Powell’s disappearance. One YouTube video dated July 2010 depicts searchers repelling into the Ironsides Mine Shaft, in the Dugway Range in Tooele County, trying to find her. One man in a harness lowered a few feet before a meter altered him to high levels of carbon monoxide.

In summer 2011, West Valley City police led public searches of a wide swath of desert — from Topaz Mountain in western Utah to Ely, Nev., 136 miles away. One goal was to spur Josh Powell and his late father, Steve Powell, who also was suspected of having information about what happened to his daughter-in-law, into doing something incriminating, but police still focused on an area where Susan Powell might have been taken.

Josh Powell was driving the family minivan on the night his wife was last seen, and a snowstorm fell on Utah that night. That would appear to limit where he could have gone that first day.

“A lot of [mines] are in pretty rugged terrain that you would need a truck or an ATV to access,” said Fluke, whose agency assisted West Valley City police in searching those mines in the early days of the case.

An alternate theory suggests that Josh Powell disposed of his wife somewhere in the West Desert and later moved her remains. That could expand the list of accessible mines — if Susan Powell is still in the West Desert at all.

(Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune file photo) Ultralight pilots prepare to land near the command post Saturday, April 10, 2010, as searchers scoured Utah's West Desert for signs of Susan Powell.

Jensen said volunteers with the Cold Case Coalition took another trip to the Ironsides Mine Shaft this summer. This time, they were able to lower a camera 150 feet.

As one team operated the camera, about 100 people conducted a ground search in case Josh Powell buried his wife in a shallow grave. Jensen said neither the camera nor the ground search yielded any clues.

“That’s not to say he didn’t ditch her in some other mine shaft,” Jensen said.

Approximate location of the Ironsides Mine Shafts

Jensen said he would like to lower a camera into another mine on the Dugway Range, but the Ironsides search showed how expensive and arduous the process can be. Besides purchasing equipment and paying for transportation, he said, the Cold Case Coalition had to organize volunteers and apply for a permit with the Bureau of Land Management.

At this point, no further searches are planned.

The mystery lives on.