If I Can't Have You by veteran true-crime authors Gregg Olson and Rebecca Morris recounts the 2009 disappearance of a Salt Lake City woman, Susan Powell, and the trail of devastation and death left in its wake (available May 20, 2014).
Every once in a great while a genuine murder mystery unfolds before the eyes of the American public. The tragic story of Susan Powell and her murdered boys, Charlie and Braden, is the only case that rivals the Jon Benet Ramsey saga in the annals of true crime. When the pretty, blonde Utah mother went missing in December of 2009 the media was swept up in the story – with lenses and microphones trained on Susan’s husband, Josh. He said he had no idea what happened to his young wife, and that he and the boys had been camping in the middle of a snowstorm.
Over the next three years bombshell by bombshell, the story would reveal more shocking secrets. Josh’s father, Steve, who was sexually obsessed with Susan, would ultimately be convicted of unspeakable perversion. Josh’s brother, Michael, would commit suicide. And in the most stunning event of them all, Josh Powell would murder his two little boys and kill himself with brutality beyond belief.
Every moment I step back and take stock of what I’m dealing with, it feels like a never ending cycle but I’m too afraid of the consequences, losing my kids, him kidnapping [them], divorce or actions worse on his part …
—SUSAN POWELL E-MAIL JULY 5, 2008
Debbie Caldwell pulled up in her Ford Club Wagon—the one with fifteen seats to carry all the children who attended her day care—and observed how quiet her friend and neighbor Susan’s house seemed. It was 9:00 A.M. on Monday, December 7, 2009, and West Valley City, a suburb of Salt Lake City, was in the middle of a three-day winter storm. Freezing temperatures and four inches of new snowfall made the roads so icy that the local news described the streets as “mayhem.”
Susan, twenty-eight, and Josh, thirty-three, usually dropped Braden and Charlie at Daydreams & Fun Things Child Care as early as 6:00 A.M. When they didn’t appear that morning, Debbie started trying to reach the young parents. Susan was always prompt and conscientious. Josh was another story. He tested Debbie’s patience regularly, bringing the children late—which complicated the morning, since Debbie needed to know how many children needed breakfast. He also neglected to pick up the boys in the evening, cutting into Debbie’s time with her own family.
The other day-care parents avoided Josh because he talked incessantly and he thought he was an expert on anything and everything. They had a nickname they called Josh behind his back: Rocks for Brains. One day, when Josh had given Debbie a hard time because Braden had lost his socks, one of the mothers said, “That idiot must have rocks for brains.” It stuck.
Charlie and Braden, ages four and two, respectively, had been attending Debbie’s day care for a year and a half, and like many women who had met the outgoing Susan, Debbie had become a confidant. Susan and her circle of friends were all young, committed Mormon wives. Their children and their marriages came first. Everyone knew, because Susan told them, that Josh wouldn’t give her money to buy groceries and diapers, wouldn’t have sex with her, and wouldn’t go to counseling. One of their friends joked that Josh treated his pet parrot better than his wife and sons. Susan also complained that he was spending too many hours on the phone talking with his father, who had left the Mormon church. Steve Powell, Susan told her friends, had been inappropriate with her—disgustingly so. Susan was so open with her complaints that her friends were feeling a bit apathetic. They’d heard it all so many times.
That morning, Debbie, forty-seven and the mother of four daughters, was on her way home from dropping the older children at school. She still had three toddlers in the car, and as she parked the van in front of 6254 W. Sarah Circle she told them she would just be a minute. She knocked on the front door several times. No answer. She expected to find Josh, harried anytime he had the slightest responsibility, getting the boys dressed, or more likely sequestered on his computer in the basement where he liked to hide. In any case, Susan would have phoned Debbie if there had been a change in plans.
By the time Debbie was at the Powells’ front door Monday morning, she had already called Susan on her cell phone. When there was no answer, she tried Susan’s work phone at Wells Fargo Investments and, finally, their home landline.
Again, no answer.
Debbie dialed Josh’s employer, Aspen Distribution, a trucking and shipping firm where he did computer programming. They said that Josh hadn’t shown up for work. When no one answered the front door of their house, she phoned the name listed as Josh and Susan’s emergency contact, his sister, Jennifer Graves.
“Hi Jennifer, this is Debbie Caldwell, Josh and Susan’s day-care person,” she said when she got Jennifer’s voice mail. “It’s nine o’clock. I’m at Josh and Susan’s house. No one is home, and they didn’t drop Charlie and Braden off this morning. Do you know what’s going on?”
A few minutes later, Josh’s mother, Terrica (Terri) Powell, heard the message. A quiet woman who never really got back on her feet after the divorce from her husband Steve, she lived with her daughter Jennifer, her son-in-law Kirk Graves, and the couple’s five children fifteen minutes south in West Jordan, Utah.
Terri immediately phoned the West Valley City police to report the family missing.
The Powell residence looked like hundreds of others in West Valley City; maybe thousands. It was a white tract home with blue trim and blue shutters, and some stonework in the front. There was a tiny porch, a bay window, and a two-car garage. In the front yard was a wooden swing Josh had built for their two little boys. In back was playground equipment a neighbor had lent the family and a dormant vegetable garden. The garden wasn’t a mere hobby for Susan, it was a necessity. Occasionally its produce was the only thing Josh allowed his family to eat. Susan sometimes called friends to ask if she could borrow some hot dogs.
“The boys are hungry,” she’d say.
Within minutes of Debbie’s call of concern, Josh’s sister Jennifer met the police at the Powell house. The police logged it as a “welfare check” call. Jennifer, a soft-spoken woman with long, brown hair and her father’s blue eyes, was shaken. There was fresh snow on the driveway and the steps to the door. After accounting for Debbie’s tracks, it was clear that no one had been in or out of the house for at least several hours. When police knocked and got no answer, she gave them permission to break a window. They all braced themselves. Salt Lake City had just had several deaths attributed to carbon monoxide poisoning caused by faulty furnaces and that was on their minds as they entered the house. There was loud music blaring from a stereo and two box fans were angled to blow air on a damp spot on the carpet and a love seat near the front window.
At first there was a sense of relief: Josh and Susan and the boys were not dead in their beds. But something was wrong.
They weren’t home at all. Where were they?
Jennifer went into the master bedroom. Despite the clutter, she noticed Susan’s blue leather purse on a table by the foot of the bed. It contained her wallet, credit cards, and keys. There was no cell phone. The house was messy, but that was normal. There was no sign of forced entry or a robbery, home invasion, or struggle. Susan’s red nylon snow boots, which she wore whenever she left the house, were in the living room.
West Valley City police issued a statewide attempt-to-locate bulletin so that law enforcement in other jurisdictions would be on the lookout for the Powell’s 2005 light blue Chrysler Town & Country minivan. The police sent Jennifer home so they could search the house.
Jennifer called Susan’s father, Chuck Cox, in Puyallup, Washington, nine hundred miles to the northwest, to ask if he had heard from Susan or Josh. He hadn’t, but he wasn’t alarmed. Josh was known to make impulsive, last-minute decisions and the family liked to go rock hunting or camping. Yet, Chuck agreed it was odd that neither Susan nor Josh had called their places of employment or day-care provider to say that they’d be away.
Jennifer phoned her father’s house, also in Puyallup, and talked to her younger sister, Alina. Jennifer believed that Susan had moved to get away from her father, Steve, because Susan said he had made sexual advances toward her. In the background, Jennifer could hear her father talking while she asked Alina if they had heard from Josh and Susan. Alina asked everyone in the house, but no one had heard from Josh or Susan.
Jennifer called Kiirsi Hellewell, Susan’s best friend, who lived down the street from the Powells. Kiirsi hadn’t talked to Susan since Sunday, when they had walked home from church together.
“Susan didn’t say they were going anywhere,” Kiirsi told Jennifer.
When they got off the phone, Kiirsi phoned the Relief Society president—the head of their ward’s women’s group—and the two of them joined Jennifer at the Powell house and talked to the police.
“I was still thinking at that time that maybe they went for a drive because Susan had posted on her Facebook page that they had gone to a work party on Saturday night and Josh had won a camera,” Kiirsi remembered some time later. “I thought, ‘Well, it would be just like them to drive up in the mountains and take pictures.’” Then she began to imagine a different kind of threat than the carbon monoxide poisoning Jennifer and the police had feared. “Maybe they slid off a cliff and they’re all dead at the bottom of it or stuck on some back road. Because knowing Josh, he’d drive on some back road in fresh snow.”
Word spread among friends and church members that the Powell family was missing. In the early afternoon Kiirsi sent a text message to JoVonna Owings, who knew Susan from the church choir but was just getting to know Josh.
Susan, Josh and the boys are missing. We don’t know where they are. They haven’t been seen since church.
But Jovonna Owings had seen the family. She’d been with them Sunday afternoon and would be critical to piecing together Susan’s last hours.
If our lives can be read in our faces, JoVonna’s said she had lived a tough life. Although she was about the same age as Susan’s mother, JoVonna was thin and wizened and appeared older. She had a huge heart and wore big glasses that nearly gobbled her face. After church on Sunday she had helped Susan with some crocheting and had supper with the family. Josh had even cooked—an unheard of event. JoVonna was the last person to have contact with Josh and Susan on Sunday—and would be the first to have contact with Josh on Monday.
At about 3:00 P.M. on Monday JoVonna phoned Josh. There was no answer. Her son Alex, who occasionally babysat for Charlie and Braden, punched in Josh’s number on his phone. Josh answered, but Alex panicked and hung up without speaking. JoVonna grabbed her son’s phone and redialed. He answered again.
“Josh, where are you?” JoVonna asked. “What are you doing? The police are looking for you.”
Josh, who could be an absolute motor mouth, was silent for a moment.
“We’re driving around.”
JoVonna felt her heart race. “Where’s Susan?”
Josh paused a beat. “She’s at work.” He went on to stammer out that he and the boys had gone camping overnight without Susan.
JoVonna was frustrated. “No, she’s not at work. We’re really worried, Josh. You didn’t go to work.”
“I got confused,” he said. “I thought it was Sunday.”
JoVonna knew he was lying and pressed him.
“No, you didn’t,” she said. “You knew it was Monday. Don’t you tell me that. You need to get home, Josh, right now.”
Immediately after getting off the phone with JoVonna, Josh checked his voice mail. Two minutes later he left Susan a message on her phone, which was on the seat beside him.
For the next two hours he answered no calls and drove nearly twenty miles around West Valley City, stalling. He washed his van at a do-it-yourself place where he could soap and scrub the car over and over, far more thoroughly than a drive-through car wash would.
At 5:27 P.M. Jennifer tried to call Josh but got no answer.
At 5:36 P.M. Josh left Susan a message on her phone—still on the seat beside him.
At 5:43 P.M. Josh called Susan’s phone again to say he was in the parking lot of the Wells Fargo building where she worked and asked if she needed a ride home.
At 5:48 P.M. Jennifer finally heard from her brother. She was home, talking to Chuck Cox at the moment, and she told him to listen in and stay quiet while she put the call on speaker phone.
“Where are you, Josh?” she asked.
“I’m at work,” he said.
“You’re lying,” she said, knowing he hadn’t gone to work. “Where are the boys?”
“They’re safe,” he said.
“Where’s Susan?” Jennifer continued.
“I don’t know. Work, I guess.”
“No, Josh,” Jennifer said. “We know that’s not true.”
“How much do you know?” Josh asked.
Now she felt real fear.
“Why would you ask that? Josh, what have you done? What did you do to her?” Jennifer asked.
Josh hung up.
Just then Chuck, whose job with the FAA had taught him to question much of what he saw and heard, went into full-on investigative mode.
“Write down whatever you heard,” he said to Jennifer. “I’ll write down what I heard and we’ve got our notes because we have to document this.”
Jennifer drove back to Josh’s house in West Valley City, hoping to confront him as soon as he arrived.
Chuck immediately started to log notes about what he had overheard. He thought Josh’s end of the conversation was peculiar.
The boys were safe? What kind of answer was that to where he’d been?
Chuck and Judy Cox, parents of four daughters, grandparents of nine children, married thirty-five years and no fans of Josh or his father Steve, were alarmed. Something bad had happened.
Maybe Josh and Susan had a fight, he hurt her accidentally, Chuck thought. Maybe he stashed her somewhere and someone is going to find her. She’ll come home and we’ll deal with it then.
As soon as Jennifer arrived at the house and told West Valley City Police Department Detective Ellis Maxwell of her conversation with Josh, he borrowed her phone. Josh answered, and Maxwell told him to come home. Josh said that he needed to stop and get his children something to eat first.
At 6:40 P.M. Josh finally pulled his minivan into the driveway. The police kept father and sons in the vehicle while they questioned him. Josh said he and Charlie and Braden had left just after midnight to go camping and Susan was in bed. He had no idea where she might be now. He repeated that he had been confused and thought it was Sunday. Once he realized it was Monday, he hadn’t called his employer because he was afraid he would lose his job if he admitted he had mixed up the days.
When asked why he hadn’t answered his cell phone during the day, Josh said he had kept it off to preserve the battery. He said he didn’t have a cell charger. Plus they were out in the desert where there was no service. Detective Maxwell, a solidly built man with a dark crew cut, moustache, and ruddy complexion, had fifteen years on the force but this would be the most complicated and trying case of his career. Maxwell leaned through the window of the minivan and saw one phone on the center consul plugged into a charger. He also noted a second cell phone—later determined to be Susan’s—in the van. Josh didn’t have an answer as to why his wife’s phone was in the car.
Jennifer called Chuck to tell him that Josh and the boys had returned from a “late night camping trip.” And, Jennifer told Chuck, Josh didn’t know where Susan was.
After being trapped by the police in his driveway, Josh followed Detective Maxwell to the West Valley City Police Department to tell his story once more. The police wanted Charlie and Braden to come to the station, too.
The recorded interview began at 7:15 P.M. with Detective Maxwell, Josh, Charlie, and Braden in a room. During the two-hour interview, Braden and Charlie can be heard in the background wanting a soda, which Josh forbids. Finally, a victim advocate takes the boys out of the room to watch them and keep them occupied.
Asked to relate the events of Sunday, a nervous Josh couldn’t remember what Susan was wearing, and explained again how she had been tired and had laid down. Later she had gotten out of bed and they had hot dogs and watched The Santa Clause 2. Or maybe it was The Santa Clause 3. Braden had fallen asleep, so Josh took just Charlie sledding at a park near Whittier Elementary School, although in one version of his story both boys went sledding. When they got home, Susan was watching TV. Josh read the boys a story, then he began to clean the couch with his new Rug Doctor, a vacuum cleaning system he had spent several hundred dollars on a couple of weeks before.
Then Josh had decided to take the boys camping. Susan didn’t want to go. He’d “gotten a late start” and left after midnight. Despite the warnings of cold, snow, and ice, Josh said he, Charlie, and Braden had gone to Simpson Springs, about two hours southwest of Salt Lake City, elevation 5,100 feet. They had slept in the car, tried out a new electric generator for heat, and taken firewood with them so they could make s’mores. They made them, but without the chocolate. He’d forgotten that ingredient.
Ellis Maxwell: So where do you think she’s at?
Jash Powell: I don’t know.
EM: Has she ever done anything like this before?
JP: Not, not missing work.
EM: Has she ever left like this, left you and abandoned the kids?
JP: I mean, you know for, for the day but not, not when it’s a work day.
EM: Um, huh, okay … why would you, why did you miss work?
JP: Um … Somehow I was thinking I didn’t go to church therefore tomorrow would be Sunday and therefore I didn’t find at that time I realized it I was already stuck in a snowstorm so …
Detective Maxwell is alternatingly friendly and incredulous of Josh’s story.
EM: Did you guys have any arguments, any fighting the day before, the night before?
JP: No …
EM: Explain your relationship to me, then?
JP: Really, um …
EM: Explain to me how … what about your guys’ relationship … what it consists of and stuff like that.
JP: I mean, you know it’s pretty good. I mean, we sometimes have disagreements but …
EM: Yeah, everybody has disagreements, right?
JP: I think so.
EM: So nothing.
JP: It’s not like, it’s not like we get into screaming fights or anything.
JP: Well, not usually … it’s happened a couple of times.
JP: But you know it’s very, very rare.…
EM: Do you think she’s in danger right now, do you think she’s hurt?
JP: Don’t know … I don’t think she would do that.
EM: You don’t think she’d do what?
JP: I don’t think she would miss work.
Maxwell, who more than once mistakenly refers to Susan as “Sarah,” tries to get Josh to tell him who Susan’s friends are. But Josh can’t seem to think of anybody.
EM: Let me tell ya something. You’re, I mean, you’re kind of being helpful but you’re not helpful, ’cause I mean I’ve been married and I know who … I can tell you who my wife’s closest friends are.
JP: Ah, she talked to …
EM: You know what I’m saying? And I actually know who her closest friends are and you’re telling me that you can’t tell me.
JP: Okay, she talks to [redacted] a lot.
Maxwell asks Josh more pointedly if he is worried about Susan. For years to come, the West Valley City police would say that Josh never acted concerned about Susan, didn’t ask about the investigation into her disappearance, and never helped look for her.
EM:… If you last seen her at midnight that’s the last time you’ve seen her, um, nobody else has seen her or talked to her since, so she’s basically been missing for about twenty hours.
EM: So where would you think she would be at? Does that concern you at all? I mean, just ’cause …
JP: It, it does.
EM: It does concern you?
EM: Okay, so help me try to figure out. I don’t live with you. I don’t live with her, okay. You guys have been together for what, seven years?
JP: Um … it seems like maybe eight.
EM: Okay, eight years. You know her a hell of a lot better than I do. First we’re taking a report at ten o’clock [in the morning].
JP: Well, I think she would go to work.
EM: All right, but she didn’t go to work, dude!
Josh was like a broken record. No doubt he’d been taken by surprise that he, Charlie, Braden and Susan were discovered to be missing early that morning by Debbie Caldwell. He probably planned to arrive home before anyone knew he was gone, maybe dispose of Susan’s purse to make it look like she had left voluntarily, and later he would report her missing. He would have time to come up with a story. He’d lost that advantage.
EM: What do you think? I mean we’ve talked quite a bit. What are you thinking? You thinking, where do you think she’s … you think she’s at a friend’s house, think she’s okay?
JP: I don’t even know what to think …
EM: Hum, I don’t know either … you didn’t take her out to Pony Express with you guys?
Josh finally signed a consent form authorizing a search of his van. In the vehicle they found the electric generator, blankets, a gas can, tarps, and a shovel. They also recovered a circular saw, a humidifier, at least two knives, a tripod, a newly opened box of latex gloves, and a rake, but did not disclose the existence of those items for more than three years.
Except for the generator, there was no camping equipment. No sleeping bags, no provisions such as diapers or food—except for a few snacks—for a father taking his two young sons camping in a snowstorm.
At 9:00 P.M. on December 7, twenty-eight hours after JoVonna Owings last saw Susan, the police let Josh and the boys leave the police department, take the minivan, and return to the house on W. Sarah Circle. When he arrived home Josh backed the van up to the garage door. Neighbors reported that he spent all night and early the next morning cleaning the vehicle and made dozens of trips from the van to the garage.
Down the street from the Powells’, Kiirsi Hellewell sat at her computer in a downstairs playroom filled with crafts and toys that shouted to the world she was a mother—and a busy one at that. Surrounded by her children’s photos, she went onto Facebook to see what, if anything, anyone had reported about the Powell’s.
Something did come, however, a little later that evening in the form of a phone call. It made her heart beat faster, her stomach turn somersaults.
“Josh is back,” a neighbor said.
“Are they okay? Are they okay?”
There was an uneasy pause.
“Susan is not with them,” the neighbor said.
Kiirsi felt a horrible, heart-sinking dread take over.
“Oh no,” she said, her voice shaking. “What has he done?”
It was a question that would be asked over and over for years.
Far away in Puyallup, Washington, framed photographs of Salt Lake City’s Temple Square adorned the Coxes’ split-level house, panoramic reminders of their faith. On Monday night, Susan’s parents, in addition to keeping in touch with Jennifer Graves, were also working the phones and the Internet. They knew that Josh had returned home with the boys, but had no idea of Susan’s whereabouts. The police told Chuck that they weren’t sure if a crime had been committed. If he thought the worst, even in that moment, Chuck didn’t tell Judy.
Susan’s father had faith that things would be all right. His daughter would be found safe and sound. He promised Judy. He believed it. He prayed for it.
Three miles southeast of the Coxes’ home, in Steve Powell’s two-story house in a modest, gated community called Country Hollow, Josh’s father, his youngest sister, Alina, middle brother, Johnny, and youngest brother, Mike, must have heard about the call that morning from their oldest sibling, Jennifer. How they reacted is unknown. Maybe they weren’t concerned at all? Josh, it was true, could be impulsive and disorganized. It was part of who he was. He’d always been the kind of person who would come up with some grand scheme and then try to conjure a way to make it work—even though his track record was less than stellar.
Upstairs in thirty-year-old Johnny Powell’s bedroom, a carefully coiled rope noose hung on the wall along with disturbing renderings of a woman with a knife running through her vagina and exiting her stomach. Johnny, whom his father and sister Alina considered an artist, had a history of mental troubles.
That wasn’t all that was upstairs. In Steve’s bedroom down the hall from Johnny’s was part of a cache of more than a dozen computers. Inside those computers, and also in scores of notebooks and stacks of homemade music CDs, was incontrovertible documentation of an obsession the likes of which had seldom been seen by even the most experienced police investigator. In image after image, in song after song, diary entries that went on for reams of pages at a time, was the object of Steve’s obsession: a blue-eyed beauty, now the missing mother of two, Susan Cox Powell.
MOMENTS AFTER LOGGING JOSH’S AND SUSAN’S cell phones into evidence, investigators discovered that both phones were missing the SIM cards—the data recorder of calls made and received.
If Josh Powell had thought he could thwart the detectives and the investigation with this obvious deception, he was wrong. It would take some effort to gather billing records from the service providers, but it could be done.
Unconcerned about his wife’s fate?
Josh Powell didn’t know it, but he’d just nailed the trifecta, the traits of those who kill their spouses. It was so obvious.
But apparently it was not obvious to the West Valley City police.
That night, Jennifer Graves woke up in a panic. The phone was ringing. She knew it was Susan. Jennifer groped wildly for the phone by the bed, struggling to get to it in time to talk to Susan, find out where she was, and get her home. As she became more awake, Jennifer realized that the phone hadn’t rung. It was a dream.
She stayed up for hours, reliving the vivid scene over and over and wondering what her brother had done to his wife.
Copyright © 2014 by Gregg Olson and Rebecca Morris.
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A New York Times and USA Today bestselling author, Gregg Olson has written nine nonfiction books, ten novels, a novella, and contributed a short story to a collection edited by Lee Child.
Rebecca Morris is an award-winning journalist who has worked in broadcast and print journalism in New York City; Portland, Oregon; and Seattle, Washington.