Special Reports

Judge's complex task: Unraveling claims in Powell custody case

For at least one more day, the sons of Susan Cox Powell will live in limbo.

The two boys, ages 4 and 6, can’t stay at their new home or their old one until Pierce County Superior Court Judge Kathryn Nelson unravels claims and counterclaims tied to the strange saga of a missing mother, a father labeled as a person of interest in her disappearance and a father-in-law charged with voyeurism and possession of child pornography.

She’ll announce her decision when a child-custody hearing resumes at 9:30 a.m. today.

The state Attorney General’s office recommended that the children stay with their grandparents on a temporary basis, pending Nelson’s decision.

An attorney for the grandparents confirmed Tuesday evening that the boys are currently in their care.

Powell, a Puyallup native, was last seen in December 2009 at her home in West Valley City, Utah. Her husband, Josh Powell, has been called a person of interest in her disappearance. He has not been charged with a crime.He has said he took the couple’s two young sons camping one night and returned home to find his wife gone. Josh Powell has denied involvement in his wife’s disappearance.

He and their sons have been living with his father, Steven Powell.

The elder Powell was charged last week with voyeurism and possession of child pornography. Detectives searching his South Hill home found thousands of explicit images of young girls and adults stored on videotapes, CDs and computers.

The charges prompted state child-protection workers to remove the boys from the home last week, adding a new layer of legal complexity. About the same time, Susan Powell’s parents, Charles and Judith Cox, filed for custody of their grandsons. Tuesday, Nelson granted temporary custody to the Cox family - a legal finesse that gave her jurisdiction to make a final ruling later.

At the hearing, both Charles Cox and Josh Powell argued for permanent custody. Josh Powell represented himself. Cox sat next to his attorney, Steve Downing.

Inevitably, the surrounding circumstances crept into the debate: the missing daughter, the homicide investigation, the illegal images and the bitter family feud.

Downing accused Josh Powell of indifference to his wife’s disappearance and of refusing to cooperate with law enforcement. He said Powell and his father had gone on TV to attack Susan’s character.

“He’s never done one thing to look for Susan,” Downing said. “My clients have never stopped looking for Susan.”

The boys were living with a man charged with collecting illegal pornography. Their mother had been missing for almost two years. The boys hadn’t received counseling, Downing said.

“He sure as the dickens doesn’t want these kids talking to anybody,” Downing said. “These children have been and continue to be at risk.”

Downing finished with a crusher.

“My clients believe that Josh Powell is directly responsible for their daughter’s disappearance,” he said.

Josh Powell, sitting alone, his words recorded by a bevy of television cameras, took his turn.

He said he had no knowledge of wrongdoing by his father. He said his children weren’t at risk. He said his father’s property was taken out of the house.

He called his wife’s disappearance “another matter,” and said he had nothing to do with it.

“I did not harm her,” Powell said. “I did not have anything to do with her disappearance. I love her.”

He accused his wife’s parents of orchestrating “a finger-pointing campaign,” of trying him in the tabloids. He said they’d harassed him. He said he released information about her because he believed knowing her was the key to finding her.

He said he supported the search for his wife – but not if it was based on the supposition that he killed her. He said he asked state workers to “facilitate” counseling for the boys.

“I believe that they do need it, but obviously not for the reasons Mr. Downing’s clients claim,” he said.He said his sons were healthy and happy and needed to be home with their father.

“There is no clear and present danger to my sons,” he said, adding the real harm was taking them away. He spoke of his latest visitation with them, supervised by state officials. His boys played and rolled around he said, and the oldest one asked a question.

Powell’s voice quavered as he described it: “When do I get to come home?”

Nelson weighed the arguments. She asked Powell what would happen if she allowed the boys to return, and Powell’s father was released on bail.

Powell said he and the boys would move to a hotel.

Downing said Josh Powell was also a subject of the continuing investigation into the voyeurism and pornography charges.

Assistant Attorney General John Long said that was true. He was representing state Child Protective Services at the hearing.

Powell said he had nothing to do with illegal pornography. He said he hadn’t been charged with a crime, which was also true.

(Sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer said Tuesday that everyone who lives in Steve Powell’s house is a person of interest in the investigation.

“My sons are safe with me,” Powell told the judge. “They’re safe in my home.”

Nelson paused for a long time.

The case records related to the voyeurism charges weren’t in the family court file. Other records related to restraining orders against the Coxes, filed by Josh Powell, weren’t in the file, either. Nelson wanted to review all of it.

“I cannot make a decision which isn’t based on all the information I need to review,” she said.

She asked both sides if they wanted to submit anything else. Both did.

Long pointed out that child-protection workers had interviewed Josh Powell and the boys as part of their own investigation. That material was still being developed, and it was typically confidential, but if Josh Powell was willing to release it, the judge could review it.

Nelson looked at Powell, who hesitated. He said he didn’t know what was in the file. He wondered if he could review it first. No one said he could.

Nelson said she’d let Powell think about it and inform her later, via email. She ended the hearing and told the parties to return the next day.

Powell left the courtroom, walking swiftly, trailed by a herd of cameras. Reporters shouted questions in his wake. He ignored them.

KIRO-TV contributed to this report.

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486