Watching the Susan Powell case on ‘Dateline NBC’? The tragedies unfolded before our eyes

There’s a lot to unpack in the Susan Cox Powell case.

She disappeared from the family’s Utah home in 2009 when she was 28. Husband Josh Powell was named as the sole suspect. Her father-in-law was found to be obsessed with her. Josh Powell killed the couple’s two young sons in a planned explosion in 2012.

The saga has transfixed the nation for the past decade with everybody wanting to know what happened to Susan Powell.

Dateline NBC says it can shed new light on the mystery in a two-hour special set to air Friday at 9 p.m.

The show will present video of one of the Powell boys speaking with a detective the day after his mother went missing, journals, emails and home videos.

Making appearances will be Susan Powell’s dad, Chuck Cox; Josh Powell’s sister, Jennifer Graves; and lead detective Ellis Maxwell, who has been outspoken about his theory on Susan’s disappearance since he retired from the West Valley City force in 2016.

Read about the case and the people involved below.

Who was Susan Cox Powell?

She moved from New Mexico to Puyallup with her family when she was 10. As a teenager, she sang in choir and was active with her church.

She graduated from Rogers High School in 2000 and married Josh Powell at a Mormon temple nine months later.

She studied hairstyling in Federal Way but gave it up when the family moved to Utah in 2004. She tried out several careers and eventually settled on working in finance for Wells Fargo.

She was a loving, devoted mother to her two sons, Charlie and Braden.

Susan Powell is the subject of a new two-part series on the Oxygen network. The 28-year-old mother from the Salt Lake City area was reported missing on Monday, Dec. 7, 2009. Amber Hardman AP

The Disappearance

Susan Cox Powell vanished Dec. 7, 2009. She was reported missing the next day when she didn’t show up for work and her sons were not dropped off at day care.

Her purse and cell phone were found at home, and police found two fans drying a wet sofa. Traces of blood were found feet away.

Josh Powell told police he took their two young sons on a midnight camping trip in subfreezing temperatures that night and accused his wife of running off with another man.

Police searched the desert and mine shafts throughout Utah and Nevada but have found no trace of Susan Powell.


Why did we report this story?

Susan Cox Powell’s disappearance from her Utah home has been featured on many television shows and podcasts. On Friday, Dateline NBC is airing a two-hour special so we decided to revisit the case and give you more information about the family and the crimes committed.

Where does the information in this story come from?

We’ve written more than 100 articles about the Powell family so a lot of information comes from the newspaper’s archives. Details on why police named Josh Powell as a suspect and his father’s voyeurism case come from court documents and affidavits. I’ve read Steve Powell’s journals myself.

My interest in the story:

I first wrote about Susan Powell in December 2010, a year after she vanished. Over the years, I met her parents, sons and friends and firsthand saw their heartbreak. I sat outside Steve Powell’s house trying to talk to his family after sexually explicit images of children were seized from his house. I responded the day Josh Powell blew up the Graham-area home with himself and the boys inside. It’s a story that still haunts me.

Why Police Suspected Josh Powell

Many were dubious why Josh Powell would take his two sons, then 2 and 4, camping in the desert in subfreezing temperatures at 12:30 a.m. on a Monday.

He later told police he had mixed up the days and believed it was Sunday, then was too fearful of being fired to call his work.

Cellular data shows Josh Powell spoke with a neighbor around 3 p.m. and told him he was driving around town with his sons and didn’t know his wife hadn’t gone to work that day. He then drove 20 miles out of town, called his voicemail and left a message on Susan Powell’s voicemail saying he was back from a camping trip.

When his sister called, Josh Powell lied and said he was at work. He told police he didn’t answer their calls because he turned his phone off due to a low battery and lack of charger.

Officers found the phone plugged into a charger in the center console of Josh Powell’s vehicle.

A generator, blanket, gas can, tarps, shovel and his wife’s cell phone were also found in the car.

Two family acquaintances said Susan Powell had been considering divorcing her husband.

A safe deposit box kept only by Susan Powell contained a letter dated June 28. 2008, addressed to family and friends. It spoke of how her husband threatened to “destroy her” if they got divorced and how if she dies “it may not be an accident, even if it looks like one.”

The couple’s oldest son, who was 5 then, told police the day after his mother’s disappearance “his mommy went camping with them although she did not come back home with them and he did not know why,” according to an affidavit.

Custody Battle

Shortly after Susan Powell went missing, her husband took their sons and moved in with his father in South Hill.

When Josh Powell’s father was arrested on suspicion of voyeurism, Susan Powell’s parents filed for custody of Charlie and Braden.

The boys were placed in foster care for five days and then placed in the home of Chuck and Judy Cox.

Things got ugly — Josh Powell claimed the grandparents were turning his sons away from him, a restraining order was put in place between Chuck Cox and Josh Powell, and a judge ordered Josh Powell undergo a psychosexual examination.

He was allowed supervised visits with his son with the possibility of reunification.

Steve Powell Charged in Voyeurism/Child Porn Case

Steven Craig Powell enters Pierce County Superior for an arraignment on charges of possessing child pornography, October 28, 2014. Peter Haley Staff file, 2014

In a search for evidence in Susan Powell’s case, police served a search warrant at the South Hill home of Steve Powell in 2011.

More than 2,000 sexual images of girls and women were found in the house. Police said many of the victims were unaware they were being watched, and the photographs were taken in public or through windows with a telephoto lens.

The voyeurism, which involved two young neighbor girls, took place from June 2006 to August 2007.

A jury convicted him of 12 counts of voyeurism in 2012; two related child-pornography counts were tossed out after a judge ruled the photos and videos of the girls’ bathroom acts were not “sexually explicit.”

The Washington State Court of Appeals reversed the finding in 2014.

Steven Powell was arrested again and stood trial on child-pornography charges. He was convicted in 2015 and sentenced to five years in prison.

With good behavior, he was released from prison in July 2017. He died in 2018.

Father-in-law’s Obsession with Susan Powell

A search of Steve Powell’s home in 2011 uncovered his journals — more than 2,330 pages in 17 spiral notebooks.

They focused mainly on his love and desire for his daughter-in-law.

He recorded instances where he secretly recorded her and then masturbated to the video clips, spied on her beneath a bathroom door with a hand-held mirror and wrote song lyrics about her.

In 2003, he told Susan Powell that he was in love with her. She responded by not speaking to him for five months and asking her husband to cut off contact with Steve Powell.

A drawer in Steve Powell’s house was dedicated to items he stole from his daughter-in-law, including used leg waxing papers and underwear.

He also kept a folder of nearly 4,500 images of Susan Powell, many of which show her bending over.

Josh Powell Kills His Sons

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In February 2012, a Pierce County Sheriff’s deputy and Graham Firefighters work around the smoldering remains of the house near Fredrickson where Josh Powell killed his sons Charlie, 7, and Braden, 5 before setting the house on fire and killing himself. Peter Haley Staff file

On Feb. 5, 2012, Josh Powell had a scheduled supervised visit with Charlie and Braden.

When a social worker arrived with the children at his Graham-area home, he pulled the boys inside and shut the door on her.

She pounded on the windows and doors until she smelled gas.

Moments later, the house exploded.

Josh Powell and his sons died of carbon monoxide poisoning. Autopsies determined “chopping injuries” were a secondary cause for the boys.

Investigators said he attacked his sons with a hatchet before the fire.

In the 24 hours leading up to the blaze, Josh Powell gave away his sons’ books and toys, filled two 5-gallon cans with gasoline and sent emails to family, friends and his pastor saying goodbye.

A voicemail to his sister said, “This is Josh. I’m calling to say goodbye. I am not able to live without my sons, and I’m not able to go on anymore. I’m sorry to everyone I’ve hurt. Goodbye.”

When his family tried to bury him in the same cemetery as Charlie and Braden, Tacoma-Pierce County Crimestoppers bought plots on either side to prevent the move.

Josh Powell was eventually buried elsewhere.

Charlie and Braden are buried in Woodbine Cemetery. A 10,000-pound bronze statue of an angel keeps watch over their resting place.

Books About Susan Cox Powell’s Case

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True crime author Ann Rule included the case of missing Susan Cox Powell in one of her books, “Fatal Friends, Deadly Neighbors and Other True Cases.” Courtesy

Ann Rule included Susan Cox Powell’s disappearance in “Fatal Friends, Deadly Neighbors and Other True Cases.” Published in 2012, there are nine stories chronicled inside and 156 pages are dedicated to Powell.

In 2014, Gregg Olsen and Rebecca Morris released a book called “If I Can’t have You: Susan Powell, Her Mysterious Disappearance, and the Murder of Her Children.”

Josh Powell’s sister, Jennifer Graves, helped write a book about her own life and Susan Powell’s titled “A Light In Dark Places.” Co-authored with Emily Clawson, the book delves into the abuses with the Powell family.

In “Killer Dads,” released in 2013, author Mary Papenfuss highlights Josh Powell killing his two young sons.

Stories from the Powell saga

Follow more of our reporting on The disappearance of Susan Powell and the murder of her sons

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Stacia Glenn covers crime and breaking news in Pierce County. She started with The News Tribune in 2010. Before that, she spent six years writing about crime in Southern California for another newspaper.