WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah – Police this year conducted public searches for any sign of Susan Cox Powell, using cadaver dogs to search the vast desert around Topaz Mountain in Utah and rappelling into scores of mine shafts near Ely, Nev.
They also served a search warrant on the Puyallup home of the father of Josh Powell, the missing woman’s husband and the only person police have identified as a person of interest in the disappearance.
Finding any remains would end the 2-year-old mystery of Susan Powell’s disappearance, giving her family answers and providing something else: evidence.
But in the absence of discovering a body, putting together a criminal case in connection with Powell’s disappearance is a lot tougher.
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Josh Powell has said he last saw his wife Dec. 6, 2009, as he left her at their West Valley City home and took their sons, then ages 2 and 4, on a late-night camping trip in the family’s blue minivan.
A neighbor reported Susan Powell missing the next day.
Josh Powell has denied any role in his wife’s disappearance. Her parents, Chuck and Judy Cox, have accused him of being involved in her disappearance and pointed to the couple’s rocky marriage.
Police have said little about what evidence exists in the case, but University of Utah law professor Daniel Medwed said the lack of a body would make it difficult, but not impossible, to file a murder charge.
“You basically need to have a mountain of circumstantial evidence,” Medwed said.
That circumstantial evidence would have to show the person is dead, was murdered and who did it. But a murder case with no body creates an obvious counterargument for the defendant.
“I could envision a defense attorney here saying: ‘Well … we don’t have a body. We don’t even know that she’s dead,’” Medwed said.
Police are still waiting for laboratory testing of ashes discovered by cadaver dogs during the Topaz Mountain search that may contain human remains, said West Valley City Police Chief Buzz Nielsen.
They also are continuing to sort through a trailer full of evidence taken from the Puyallup home, he said.
No other searches are planned, but Nielsen said he remains confident the case will be solved.
“We’re going to get there,” he said.
Utah prosecutors have filed murder charges without a body before.
The last was that of victim Joyce Yost and defendant Douglas Lovell. In 1985, Lovell was charged with raping Yost, but she disappeared 10 days before she was to testify at trial.
Prosecutors didn’t charge Lovell with Yost’s murder until 1992. Lovell’s wife testified he hated Yost for accusing him of rape and broke into Yost’s South Ogden home, murdered her and buried her body.
After pleading guilty to murder, Lovell took police to where he said he buried Yost, but her body has never been found.
A judge sentenced Lovell to death, but in 2010 the Utah Supreme Court said Lovell should have been better informed of his rights and allowed Lovell to withdraw his guilty plea. A new trial date has not been scheduled.
Prosecutors in Denver last year charged a man with murdering a business partner even though they didn’t have the victim’s body. Police found a crime scene in which they found evidence of a murder.
A year after the charges were filed, a person walking a dog found the victim’s body along Interstate 70 near Cisco, Utah. A trial is scheduled for February.
There’s no indication West Valley City police have a witness like in the Yost murder or have found a crime scene like that in the Denver case.
Josh Powell, who has not responded to media interview requests since his father was arrested in Pierce County on unrelated voyeurism charges in September, has previously said he had nothing to do with his wife’s disappearance and that she ran away.
Medwed, the Utah law professor, commended police and prosecutors for taking their time with the Powell investigation.
“Even if the public might be anxious for some developments, I think it’s always good for the investigation to proceed as thoroughly and careful as possible,” he said.
Nielsen declined to say what information sent his officers to the desert locations this summer, but detectives continue to investigate tips and leads.
“Every one of those searches, there was a reason we went out there,” he said.