Special Reports

Search for Susan Cox Powell turns up human remains

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.
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. AP

Police searching for Susan Cox Powell found human remains Wednesday but do not know whether they belong to the woman who disappeared almost two years ago.

Five cadaver dogs confirmed remains discovered about 1 p.m. were human, said West Valley City police Lt. Bill Merritt. He said he did not know the gender of the remains or how long they had been there. He declined to specify their condition or how they were discovered.

Investigators ended their search of the area for the day about 4 p.m. Merritt said it was getting too late for personnel from the Utah Medical Examiner’s office to travel and they would arrive this morning instead.

Two detectives will camp overnight with the remains to protect the scene and the excavation, and an additional search will proceed today.

Police were treating the site, located in Juab County, as a crime scene in line with standard procedures, Merritt said. The county sheriff’s department had no reports of anyone missing near Topaz Mountain, he said.

In Puyallup, Powell’s father, Chuck Cox, said detectives called his home to alert him of the discovery of a shallow grave, but he was unsure whether the remains in it belonged to his daughter.

“It’s one of those things we’ve done before and we’re doing again,” he said. “We’re going to wait. This is another step.”

He said authorities have come across other human remains while investigating Powell’s disappearance. It also would have been difficult for whoever took his daughter to bury her in the desert the night Powell went missing because blizzard conditions would have frozen the ground, Cox said.

After news of Wednesday’s discovery broke, reporters gathered outside the South Hill house of Powell’s husband, Josh. Police have said he is the only person of interest named in his wife’s disappearance.

Some neighbors shouted profanities at the home, and others took photos, but most paid no attention to the scene.

Josh Powell stayed inside and did not respond to several knocks on the front door, which has a security camera trained on it. The blinds stayed closed.

Wednesday’s discovery came on a third day of a police search of the remote area near Topaz Mountain, about 35 miles northwest of Delta, Utah. The area is popular for gem and rock hunters.

Josh Powell liked to rock hunt, and Topaz Mountain is about 30 miles from where he has said he took his two young sons camping the night his wife disappeared from their home in West Valley City.

On Wednesday, searchers riding all-terrain vehicles traversed dirt trails and sagebrush and checked some abandoned mines.

About six ATV riders spread out and drove slowly across the valley floor in a search pattern. In the other direction, five cadaver dogs and handlers searched underneath trees and in gullies.

“We’re focusing on areas that make sense – close to roads, ravines,” Merritt said.

Speculation about the possible discovery of Susan Powell’s remains has occurred before.

In January 2010, West Valley City police headed to a remote desert valley near West Wendover, Nev., when a body – described as a person about 5 feet 4 – was found wrapped in plastic and duct tape.

The body turned out to be a 46-year-old homicide victim from Lehi, Utah.

On Wednesday, Tony Abbott of Delta and his father drove to the scene of the search to tell investigators about some unusual activity he saw along a road.

After speaking with police, Abbott declined to give specifics of his information to a reporter. But he said he has long been aware of the Powell case, and it wasn’t until this week that he decided the tip might be important.

“I hadn’t seen (police searching) in the area before, particularly this part of the country,” Abbott said.

Susan Powell, 28, disappeared Dec. 6, 2009, from her West Valley City home and was reported missing the next day after she failed to show up to work.

Her 35-year-old husband has said he took his young sons, then ages 2 and 4, on a late-night camping trip to Simpson Springs in Tooele County, and when he returned, his wife was gone.

Last month, police searched several mines in the desert around Ely, Nev. The Police Department has called that search successful, but have not said whether it yielded any useful evidence.

After the Ely search, police traveled to Puyallup to serve a search warrant at the home where Josh Powell lives with his father, Steve Powell. Investigators seized computer towers and several boxes of evidence.

Josh and Steve Powell have said they think Susan Powell ran away and is still alive.

Staff writer Stacia Glenn contributed to this report.