The man who gave life to 7-year-old Charlie Powell and his 5-year-old brother Braden apparently took it away Sunday in a fiery blast that left behind only charred walls at a Graham-area home.
For the boys, Sunday was supposed to be an ordinary four-hour visit with their dad, Josh Powell. A social worker drove the boys to Powell’s rental house about noon, and when she stopped the car, the kids ran ahead, according to accounts from state and local officials.
They said Powell let the boys into the house, then quickly shut the door – locking out the social worker who was supposed to supervise the visit.
Minutes later, the house exploded in flames, in what law enforcement officials describe as an intentional act. Three bodies were found together in the same room in the middle of the house.
Pierce County sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer said it was not known whether the children were killed before the explosion, which was started with an accelerant. Neighbors reported hearing popping noises that some said could have been gunshots; others said the sound could have come from the fire.
Troyer said emails from Josh Powell’s email account led officials to believe “this is intentional, this is planned.”
The Associated Press reported that Powell’s attorney received an email moments before the explosion saying, “I’m sorry, goodbye.”
Attorney Jeffrey Bassett said the message arrived at 12:05 p.m. but he didn’t see it until two hours later, when others informed him of the blast.
The Powell family has been engulfed in tragedy since 2009, when the boys’ mother, Susan Cox Powell, disappeared from their Utah home. Police listed Josh Powell as a person of interest in the case. He had denied his involvement in her disappearance.
Kiirsi Hellewell, who lives in the Powell’s former Utah neighborhood, was one of Susan Powell’s best friends.
“I am so angry at Josh,” she said. “If he wanted to take a selfish, cowardly way out, he could have just killed himself – not take two innocent (boys).”
Friends and family members of the boys gathered Sunday evening at Carson Elementary School in Puyallup, where Charlie was a first-grader.
Denise Cox, Susan Powell’s sister, had been at the home of their parents, Chuck and Judy Cox, all day Sunday, but came to the vigil. She said family members were in shock.
Attorney Anne Bremner, who is representing the Cox family, said they have asked for time to grieve before speaking to the media.
Bremner learned about the deaths from a reporter in Salt Lake City. She then called Chuck Cox, who drove to Powell’s house.
“It’s horrific,” Bremner said. “They’ve lost everything. They’ve lost their daughter. They’ve lost their grandkids.”
The boys had been living with the Coxes, while their father was granted supervised visits by a Pierce County judge.
Charlie, who had recently celebrated a birthday, asked his aunt for a fish and fish tank. Denise Cox said she was planning to get him the gift Sunday.
She said that of the two brothers, Charlie was more thoughtful and artistic, while Braden liked to rough-house. She said Braden sounded like his mom when he laughed.
“They were the best – very sweet little boys,” their aunt said. “They made you smile. I miss them.”
School officials said a school district crisis team would be available today to help staff members and students at Carson.
“We will do everything possible to try to help the family of the Powell children and our staff members as they try to cope with this terrible tragedy,” said Puyallup Schools Superintendent Tony Apostle.
Josh Powell and his sons moved to Pierce County in 2010 to live with Powell’s father, Steve Powell. But last year, after a search by law enforcement officers at Steve Powell’s Puyallup home, the elder Powell was arrested on charges of child pornography and voyeurism.
Police said their search had uncovered 2,000 images of girls and women, including Susan Powell, some unclothed.
Steve Powell was still in the Pierce County Jail on Sunday, where officials said he was placed on suicide watch. When notified of the deaths, he cursed deputies and was uncooperative, Troyer said.
After Steve Powell’s arrest, Washington state removed Charlie and Braden from their father’s home, and placed them first in foster care, then with Susan Powell’s parents.
Josh Powell was allowed supervised visits with the boys, but as late as December, he was still trying to win his kids back by filing a request in Superior Court. Last week, Judge Kathryn Nelson had ordered Josh Powell to undergo a mental health examination.
The Coxes’ lawyer, Steve Downing, said they are “absolutely devastated.”
“They were always very fearful of him doing something like this, and he did it,” Downing said.
He said the children had started talking to their grandparents about things they remembered from the night their mother vanished.
“They were beginning to verbalize more,” Downing said. “The oldest boy talked about that they went camping and that Mommy was in the trunk. Mom and Dad got out of the car and Mom disappeared.”
Sheriff’s deputies, fire crews and medical aid workers responded to Powell’s home in the 8100 block of 189th Street Court East. The first call to 911 came in at 12:13 p.m. Graham firefighters arrived within three minutes to find the house in flames and were unable to enter to attempt a rescue.
The social worker who brought the boys to the house is a contractor with the state Children’s Administration, said Sherry Hill, spokeswoman for the state Department of Social and Health Services.
Sunday’s visit was a regularly scheduled one, Hill said, adding the social worker had supervised other court-ordered visitations between the boys and their father.
Hill said the worker got out of her car at Powell’s home, and the boys entered the house first.
After Powell refused her entry, she banged on the doors and windows of the house. She also tried to call Powell’s cellphone but got no answer.
She returned to the car to call her supervisor, Hill said. The woman reported she smelled gas, and as she was making a call, the house exploded.
Troyer said the social worker knew the boys well and that she was traumatized by the event.
Denise Revels Robinson, assistant secretary of the state Children’s Administration, said the Department will conduct a formal child fatality review.
Gary Franz of Graham Fire and Rescue said the home was a crime scene, and the case has become a joint investigation between Graham Fire and the Sheriff’s Department.
Investigators were scheduled to return to the home today.
Troyer said a search warrant was being sought so investigators could go through what’s left of the house. He said investigators suspect a fire accelerant was used in the incident.
Neighbor Jessica Lyon, 18, said she was laying on the couch in her home when the explosion occurred.
“The whole house shook,” Lyon said. “It was like an earthquake.”
Lyon looked outside and saw the insulation from the house raining down.
More than 30 neighbors gathered around the scene before firefighters arrived and reported hearing two more explosions.
Kelli Bood, who lives down the hill from the Powell house, said she and her sister went to the scene after hearing the explosion. By the time she reached a spot where she could see the house through some trees, the fire was under control.
“In between the trees, you could see the roof was gone,” she said. “The house was demolished.”
The Puyallup neighborhood where Susan Powell’s parents live – and where Charlie and Braden resided until their deaths – was quiet on Sunday afternoon. There were no children out playing on the sunny afternoon.
Kathy Schill, who lives down the block from the Coxes and has known them for years, said the situation was tragic. When Susan Powell lived in Puyallup, she babysat Schill’s children.
Schill said she hadn’t seen the boys much lately, but said having them living there was “a way to have a piece of Susan with them.”
Staff writers Sara Schilling, Kathleen Cooper, Adam Lynn, Stacey Mulick, The Salt Lake Tribune and The Associated Press contributed to this report.