The home Josh Powell showed to authorities was nothing but a sham.
He did not live there. He did not keep his important things there.
And when he found he could not keep his children there he decided to blow it up.
Pierce County sheriff’s detectives told that to Graham and South Hill residents Monday evening at a public meeting at the Graham Fire & Rescue.
The department hosted the meeting so residents could ask questions of fire and law enforcement officials and get advice from chaplains on how to cope with the disaster in their backyard. On Feb. 5, Powell rigged the house as a bomb and killed himself and his two sons, Charlie, 7, and Braden, 5.
Sheriff’s detectives Gary Sanders and Sgt. Denny Wood briefed the group of about 50 people.
“Ask us anything,” Wood said.
He summed up their cooperation with police in West Valley, Utah, where Powell’s wife, Susan Cox Powell, disappeared.
Josh Powell said she’d run off when he and the boys went on a late-night camping trip in a snowstorm in December 2009. He refused to cooperate with police and moved back to Washington state with the boys to live with his father, Steven Powell, in the Graham area.
When detectives got a search warrant for Steven Powell’s home, they found enough child pornography and evidence of voyeurism to put Steven Powell in jail.
In Josh Powell’s room, they found 15 to 20 boxes of records, down to minor sales receipts, including gasoline purchases.
“He was a very meticulous, thoughtful person. This guy doesn’t work on emotion,” Wood said. “We have been working since that day to get those kids away from him.”
That level of detail and control, combined with other evidence in the case, concerned investigators, and led a judge to take the boys from Josh Powell and place them with their mother’s parents, Chuck and Judy Cox of Puyallup.
Josh Powell would have to move out if he wanted the boys to be with him at his home.
To that end, he rented a house on a cul-de-sac in the Graham area.
But those who live on the same circle said they had no idea anyone lived in the house, which had been empty for some time. People who live across the street, up the street and behind the house’s backyard said Monday they thought the place was abandoned. They had never seen Powell or the boys there.
Detectives didn’t go into detail but said they believe Powell kept living at his father’s house and created a fake home to use for supervised visits with the boys.
“He set it up like a rental place, with pictures of the family,” Wood said. “I think it was staged so when CPS (Child Protective Services) came, it would look like a loving family.”
It would look like a loving home, they said, but it would be a bomb.
Detectives believe that when Powell did not regain custody of the boys at a court hearing Feb. 1, he put a plan to kill them into motion. He had $6,500, and left instructions for his sister to pay bills with it and give the rest to his lawyer. He also told her how to turn off the utilities at the house he would detonate.
“That shows you his mind-set,” Wood said.
After the explosion, detectives searched a Powell family storage unit. In it, they found water and sealed buckets of dried foods, including beans.
“Tons of food,” Sanders said.
“Also gas cans,” Wood said. “We believe he got the gas from the storage shed.”
The two cans found at the house were like the cans in the shed, he said, and there is evidence Powell had researched the explosive properties of gasoline.
“One gallon of gas vaporized is the equivalent of three sticks of dynamite,” Wood said.
On that Sunday, the boys and the woman who supervised the court-ordered visit arrived at noon. The boys were happy, she has said, because their father told them he had something special for them.
Wood outlined the chain of events after Powell shut the door in the supervisor’s face:
“The little boys come in. He takes them to the back and hits them with the hatchet. Josh Powell scatters gas. He walks around the house, tossing it on the walls and floor. He puts the five-gallon gas can by the front door. He sits with the other can between his knees.”
He lit a flame.
“It was an explosion, not a fire,” Wood said.
Powell’s determination was fixed, he said.
“If we had gotten someone there, firefighters or police officers, we’d have dead firefighters or police officers,” Wood said. “If the court had done something different and awarded custody to the grandparents, we’d have dead kids and dead grandparents.”
The residents wanted to know that the boys did not suffer.
There was soot in their windpipes, Wood said, which meant they were still breathing at the time of the explosion. But he believes they were unconscious after their father hit them, and did not suffer.
Powell was fully aware when he triggered the explosion, and died where he sat.
“He committed the most evil act,” Sanders said. “And he gave them the greatest gift, which is to be in their mother’s arms.”
Kathleen Merryman: 253-597-8677