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Jennifer Graves, left, Josh Powell's sister, and co-author Emily Clawson talk about their new book, "A Light In Dark Places," on Monday, June 24, 2013, in South Jordan, Utah. (Courtesy Tom Smart, Deseret News)

Growing up Powell among abuse, threats, isolation, suspicions of murder

Two brothers dead, both to suicide. Two nephews murdered. A sister-in-law missing. And a father in jail. The last four years have been hell for Josh Powell's sister, Jennifer Graves.

But it wasn't just the last few years that were difficult. Growing up in the Powell house was no picnic either. Graves reveals life in the Powell family and dealing with the disappearance of her sister-in-law, Susan Cox Powell, in her new book, "A Light in Dark Places: A Story of Heartbreak, Survival and Redemption".

Intense emotional abuse and the occasional belt beating. That's how Jennifer Graves remembers her childhood in Steven Powell's home. Control. Manipulation. Isolation. Those took the place of love, compassion and nurturing.

Graves told KIRO Radio she wrote the book to help people understand the signs of abusive relationships and how to try and escape them. "So that they could go through my story, and Susan's story, and see patterns - perhaps in their own lives or in the lives of their friends," she said.

Graves hopes the stories of manipulation and control she tells about her life will help others recognize the situations they're in or others are in. "It's easy to see when there are bruises and things, but what about the words, the threatening and the isolation?" she said.

Graves said writing this book also gave her an outlet for her grief. It was very therapeutic.

One of her biggest emotional hurdles since the disappearance of her sister-in-law Susan was realizing that her brother Josh was a killer. She realized he must be involved, but she couldn't bring herself to believe it. She didn't buy the story he told, like most of the public. An impromptu camping trip with two little boys in a December snow storm just didn't seem to make sense.

"I had a really hard time in the beginning," Graves said. "It took me some time, just going back and forth, like arguing with myself."

But her brother's moves after Susan's disappearance made the answer quite clear, especially after he packed up and moved to Washington with Susan still missing. But feeling a family member is guilty of an unspeakable crime is not knowing. Graves had to know for sure.

So she hopped a plane from Utah and went to confront her brother in their father Steven's home in Puyallup. "I think any and all last doubts were just wiped from my mind when I finally went to Washington and confronted Josh," she said.

But what Josh and the rest of the family didn't realize was that Jennifer Graves was wearing a wire that night, and detectives were listening in real time. She didn't want to be the only one to hear a confession so she approached the police and asked if she could put on a wireless microphone. "It was very scary," she said. Detectives were nearby, listening to every word, but that didn't keep Graves from being petrified. Not only was Josh in the house. So was her father Steven, her other brother Michael and sister Alina. All four were outraged that she would even ask the question about Josh's involvement in Susan's disappearance.

The situation unraveled quickly, and Graves was sure they would find the wire she was wearing. The house erupted in angry voices and shouting, and her father Steven threw her out. "My dad just let out this super long string of swear words and said 'never come back' and 'you're not welcome anymore,'" Graves recounted.

"I walked away not having any more doubts," she said.

What about her father's involvement or the rest of the family? She's confident her brother Michael helped Josh dispose of Susan's body. He committed suicide recently in Minnesota. She believes her father is involved, and he might be the reason for Susan's disappearance in the first place.

"I believe that he probably was told afterwards, for sure," she said. "Whether he knew ahead of time, whether he helped plan ahead of time I don't know."

Graves said her father Steven secretly wanted his daughter-in-law for himself. "He just drove a wedge between them, and it seemed like it was intentional," she said. "He had a really strong obsession with Susan, and I think that really drove him to drive them apart. Somehow he thought if he could get them separated he would have a chance with Susan."

But was her father involved in the murder, the dumping of Susan's body, or the cover-up? Graves still isn't sure, and she'll likely never get an answer from him. She never expects to see him again.

Steven Powell is still in prison after being convicted of taking pictures of young girls in his neighborhood. He is due to be released this summer, but the state has not approved his supervision plan.

As for Jennifer Graves, she's still trying to put the last four years behind her and dealing with the trauma of growing up Powell.


Chris Sullivan, KIRO Radio Reporter
Chris loves the rush of covering breaking news and works hard to try to make sense of it all while telling stories about real people in extraordinary circumstances.
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