To hear Superior Court Judge Ronald Culpepper tell it, it almost would have been a crime had Pierce County sheriff’s detectives not searched the South Hill home of a missing Utah woman’s father-in-law.
Authorities had more than enough probable cause to enter Steven Powell’s house last summer in search of evidence of Susan Cox Powell’s disappearance and likely murder, Culpepper ruled Tuesday.
Her husband, Josh Powell, was under intense scrutiny in her disappearance even before he moved into his father’s home, Culpepper said, and it was a “very reasonable inference” by law enforcement to think the house might hold evidence, specifically in the missing woman’s journals.
The judge pointed to many pieces of evidence implicating Josh Powell, including the “if not incredible then close to incredible story” he told Utah law enforcement officers about taking his two young sons on a camping trip in near-blizzard conditions the night his wife went missing in December 2009.
“There’s certainly lots of good reasons why he was a suspect,” said Culpepper, who added that the journals were “relevant and potentially very important” to the investigation into Susan Powell’s disappearance.
Culpepper’s ruling paves the way for Steven Powell to proceed to trial on charges of voyeurism and possession of child pornography next month.
In the search of Steven Powell’s house, investigators found about 2,000 images of naked or semi-nude girls and women, including some of Susan Powell. Prosecutors have said it’s clear the subjects of the photographs did not know their pictures were being taken.
The images are the basis of the charges against Steve Powell, 62, who’s pleaded not guilty.
His lawyer had challenged the validity of the search warrant detectives used to search his house for evidence in Susan Powell’s disappearance.
Defense attorney Mark Quigley argued Monday that detectives hadn’t made a good enough case to enter his client’s house. Quigley called the search an unconstitutional “fishing expedition” and said assertions that the journals contained helpful evidence dubious at best.
Deputy prosecutor Grant Blinn countered that detectives were “meticulous and methodical” in preparing for the search and in carrying it out and were within their rights to conduct the search.
Culpepper sided with Blinn.
The judge said it was “very reasonable to infer that Josh and Steve discussed the disappearance” together and might have hatched a plan to “turn the narrative” more to their favor last summer as media and police scrutiny intensified.
Susan Cox Powell’s parents, Chuck and Judy Cox of Puyallup, watched the ruling Tuesday with more than a dozen members of the news media. Outside court, Chuck Cox called the ruling “a relief.”
“We think it’s important to keep Steve off the street,” Chuck Cox told reporters.
He said he still hoped Steve Powell might provide information that leads to the discovery of his daughter, who is presumed dead.
Josh Powell killed his and Susan Cox Powell’s two sons and himself in February, further fueling speculation that he killed his wife.