SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — The latest fight with her husband brought a new round of anxiety and confusion for 27-year-old Susan Powell.
It was the summer of 2008, and the mother of two had agonized for months over how to improve her relationship with her spouse of seven years, Josh, as the family built a life in suburban West Valley City.
The Powell family appeared to be a happy one on picnics, bike rides and get-togethers with friends, but those closest to Susan were learning a darker truth about the life of the energetic woman who seemed like the girl next door.
Susan told her friends in dozens of emails the fun-loving, affectionate man she married in her home state of Washington in 2001 had changed into a surly, moody, controlling person she feared could harm her.
“I want him in counseling, on meds, I want my husband, friend, lover BACK no more crazy, outrageous, outlandish beliefs/opinions,” she wrote in an email to friends dated July 11, 2008, as she described stress and depression related to her crumbling marriage.
“I know everyone else will support me in whatever decisions, even if that means I crash anyone’s house in the middle of the night with my boys in tow. (Hope that never happens) or stay with him. But believe me, my bottom line is he WILL DO COUNSELING,” she added in another email, dated July 28, 2008.
“I’m sure if he fixes himself, everyone else will see a much closer version of the guy I married. And it will be easy enough to forget the hell and turmoil he’s put me through.”
The statements are found in nine emails provided to The Salt Lake Tribune that detail Susan’s state of mind about her relationship prior to her mysterious disappearance on Dec. 6, 2009.
The emails were provided to The Tribune a few days after the woman vanished in 2009, but the newspaper agreed not to publish them at the request of the provider, who feared their contents might be an invasion of Susan’s privacy or interfere with the police investigation of her case.
That changed in the wake of Josh’s decision to kill himself and the couple’s two young sons in a gasoline-fueled blaze at a Graham-area rental home in Washington state in February.
Susan emailed several co-workers, friends and members of her ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to pour out frustration with her husband and to seek advice on how to proceed with the relationship, according to the emails, which were sent between June 30, 2008, and Oct. 31, 2008.
She wrote of a trip to Washington state for her sister’s wedding where she described Josh as “being his usually ‘rude, yelling and barking commands at me’ -self” as the couple spent time with family. She wrote of being uncomfortable with a song that her father-in-law, Steven Powell, wrote about her. She also wrote that Steve Powell once tried to console her about her problems with Josh.
“His dad told me the entire family KNOWS how much I put up with,” Susan wrote on June 30, 2008.
In another email, Susan wrote about an argument the couple had where she made a list of things that Josh wanted her to change. She wrote that Josh accused her of having “utter contempt” for him because he wasn’t working a regular job at the time. She also wrote that her husband had criticized her for spending too much money on groceries.
“Josh says Susan needs to: not spend $ on counseling or anything else (his examples: ‘make-up, yarn, or other crap you buy’),” the email from July 5, 2008, states.
The emails show Susan’s disappointment with her husband’s lack of affection, as she wrote to friends about how different their marriage was in its early stages. She wrote about leaving a makeshift will in her desk at work because she worried her husband might hurt her or kidnap her children if she tried to leave him. But she also expressed hope that the two could somehow reconcile.
“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 (of) losing my kids, him kidnapping, divorce or actions worse on his part, if I take a stand on one of his ultimatums like spending $20 on the counseling co-pay or cutting off access to my pay check,” she wrote on July 5, 2008.
Then, on July 28, 2008, she wrote:
“He used to buckle me in and give me a kiss, hold doors open, sincerely worry if I didn’t put on a coat, buy groceries and help me cook/clean and/or cook/clean for himself. Hang out and talk together, watch movies and relaxing TV just for entertainment. Care and make time for being with friends/group dates, etc. GO TO CHURCH! NOT be all radical about the latest huge world problems that all his rantings can’t fix (although he thinks he can). But when we moved to Utah and more specifically when he got interested in being self-employed/working and then we had Charlie, his priorities seemed to have changed.”
Susan described how a then-3-year-old Charlie had once been “stomping around the house acting angry,” which worried her because the two had been fighting in front of him. She wrote of seeking help from her church bishop and other counselors, including professionals who she had spoken with about the possibility that Josh suffered from bipolar disorder, the emails show.
Susan met Josh when she was 18 at a singles ward of the LDS Church in Puyallup. Five months later, the two married at the LDS Portland Temple. After living in Puyallup, Yakima and Olympia, the couple moved to Utah in 2004 in part because Josh’s sister, Jennifer Graves, and his mother, Terrica Powell, lived in the state.
The two wanted to make a life for themselves outside of the influence of Steve Powell, who Susan felt had too much say in his adult son’s life, friends and family of Susan have said. Josh became more distant from his wife the more he talked with his father, they have said, and she sought to reconnect with the husband she dated and fell in love with.
“As I was soundlessly crying myself to sleep last night I told him kind of desperately, ‘now is the time you can say nice things to me’ so he said in a tired/bored (voice) ‘thanks for helping me clean my office and stuff,’ ” she wrote on July 11, 2008. “ then he kind of bumped me and I said as a hopeful suggestion ‘are you trying to hold my hand?’ and he muttered something not audible and then a little bit later I held his hand for awhile until he pulled away.”
Flipping through the emails at her home last week, Susan’s best friend Kiirsi Hellewell sighed quietly while reminiscing about Susan’s tortured words.
Hellewell, who was included on some of the emails provided to The Tribune, has her own stash of messages from Susan, the majority of which she has kept private so far.
She’s considering releasing some emails in the future, to show the difficult situation in which Susan lived and give a glimpse into the joyful side of her friend’s personality, outlined in lighter, humourous notes sent to friends.
Hellewell and others hope the May 7 trial of Susan’s father-in-law, Steve, who is charged with child pornography and voyeurism, may help solve what happened to Susan on the 2009 night she disappeared. Hellewell clings to her friend’s emails, wishing things had turned out differently.
For now, the emails and memories are all she has.
“Had I known what would happen, I would have kept everything she ever sent me,” Hellewell said. “Even the short, funny things.”