Reporters on Friday morning were watching police search abandoned mine shafts based on a new lead in the case of missing Utah mother Susan Cox Powell.
Four West Valley City detectives were using ATVs to move from shaft to shaft near Squaw Peak in an area west of town, accessible by a gravel road. They were clad in hard hats with head lamps and used ropes to rappel down into the shafts.
"We're in this for the long haul, it's going to be a long day for us," said West Valley Police Sgt. Mike Powell, no relation to Susan Powell.
Information in a prior search warrant in the case and a recent tip led police to Ely, he said, declining to elaborate. West Valley City police in 2009 executed search warrants on the Powell home and seized and searched the blue minivan Susan Powell's husband, Josh, drove the night his wife disappeared. Both of those warrants remain sealed.
Mike Powell estimated the search he invited reporters to come on at a news conference hours earlier could last into Saturday. When asked about why media were invited along, Mike Powell said coverage would make the case "fresh in the minds of individuals again." He added he wanted people in Utah to know West Valley City police were in Ely, rather than having explain it after the fact. Police also want to jog the memories of Ely residents.
"The people in the community are the eyes and ears of law enforcement," he added. "We very much encourage anyone with information on this case to call West Valley Police Department."
White Pine County Sheriff Dan Watts referred to the search area as "mild terrain" that has been used as a dumping ground for trash and a location where juveniles party. The body of a man was discovered last year in the county that is believed to have been there for eight years, Watts said.
Chris Hanefeld, public affairs officer with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Ely office, said the area can be dangerous for those who don't know where they are going with so many documented and undocumented mine shafts.
Melanie Peterson, an environmental protection specialist with the BLM, said there are "thousands of abandoned mine shafts" and adits in the county. A new BLM project aims to secure 209 of the high-priority abandoned mines as a public safety measure and to see if there are any cultural artifacts there.
Hanefeld said some of the shafts are as shallow as 20 feet deep, while others are as deep as 100 feet. That's because miners would simply dig until they found ore and then stop, he said.
Mike Powell told a crowd of reporters gathered for a 10 a.m. news conference a total of 40 investigators, including some from the White Pines County Sheriff's Office, would assist in Friday's search.
"This is the first time we have been here to follow up on information that has led us out here," said Mike Powell. "Detectives have made a preemptive drive out here to see what it was that we may be looking at in the event that we did come out here."
Mike Powell invited reporters to accompany officers on their search at the news conference, saying police felt it was "important...to involve the media in the process" as much as possible. The highly unusual invitation was the first of its kind in the two-year-old investigation.
"We will be able to allow the media to follow detectives as they are out conducting their follow up," Mike Powell said. "Part of that follow up is going to include searches and those detectives are actively conducting those searches at this point."
West Valley City Mayor Mike Winder acknowledged that the press conference was unusual but trusts that officers know what they're doing.
"If in their wisdom it's best to have the press along, I'm for it, as long as it doesn't compromise the investigation," he said.
City officials purposely don't ask for case details to avoid compromising a sensitive investigation, Winder said.
"As far as the details of what brought them to Nevada, we know as much as the general public," he said.
West Valley City police on Thursday issued a statement saying investigators would conduct the search after investigators developed what Mike Powell called "credible" and "important" new information related to Susan Powell's December 2009 disappearance.
Susan Powell was last seen Dec. 6. Josh Powell, has told police he last saw his wife as he left her at home and took their sons, then ages 2 and 4, on a late-night camping trip to the west desert in the family's blue minivan. Josh Powell has previously said he and the children stayed warm in the freezing temperatures with a generator and heater he had purchased two weeks earlier.
Police have said Josh Powell, 34, rented a car two days later that he put hundreds of miles on. Ely is almost due west of the search area and about 250 miles from Salt Lake City. Josh Powell remains the only person of interest publicly named by police in the case.
Josh Powell rented out the couple's West Valley City home and moved to his and his wife's hometown of Puyallup, Wash. after the disappearance. Powell and his father have said they believe Susan Powell ran away, possibly with another man.
The Coxes have said their daughter's husband was abusive and that she would never leave her children – Charlie, now 6, and Braden, now 4. Friends of Susan Powell have said she and her husband were also having marital problems and financial strains. Josh Powell's estranged sister, Jennifer Graves, also has publicly said she doubts her brother's story and believes he has something to do with his wife's disappearance.
Josh Powell has previously denied those claims.
Susan Powell's brother-in-law, Kirk Graves, said he watched the news conference and was baffled by the lack of information given by police.
"Wow, what was that," he said.
He and his wife, Jennifer, have no idea what the lead might be. In the past police have notified Chuck Cox, Susan Powell's father, about leads. Cox has then told other family members.
Cox said Thursday he contacted police himself after hearing about the Ely investigation from reporters. Police declined to give him specific information about the search, he said.
Kiirsi Hellewell, a friend and neighbor of Susan Powell, said Friday she was "really surprised" police hadn't told anyone in the family about the search.
"Hopefully, they will uncover something at the search site," she said.
Hellewell and other friends of Susan Powell had already been planning to hand out fliers with Powell's image from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday in West Valley City. They will still do so, she said.
Asked about reports that police have a new lead in connection with his wife's disappearance, Josh Powell told KING TV in Seattle, "It's frankly the best news that I've heard in two years, almost."
The Salt Lake Tribune – This story appears at http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/news/52413989-78/powell-police-search-susan.html.csp