A missing Puyallup woman’s two children, died along with their father after police say he ignited his home in an inferno Sunday.
The fire at a home near Graham killed Josh Powell, the husband of a missing Puyallup woman, Susan Cox Powell, and their two young sons.
The explosion in the 8100 block of 189th Street Court East occurred moments after a social worker brought the two boys, 5-year-old Braden and 7-year-old Charles, to the home for a supervised visit, said Graham Fire and Rescue Chief Gary Franz.
Powell let the boys in the house, then blocked the social worker from entering. The social worker called her supervisors to report that she could smell gas, and the home exploded.
A neighbor says it “felt like an earthquake.”
“The visit supervisor for this particular agency had taken the children to the home. When she does that, she sits through the visit and might take notes on her observations,” said Sherry Hill, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Social and Health Services. “She pulled up in the car, and the kids ran out ahead of her. He closed the door and locked it. She wasn’t able to get in, and that’s when she smelled gas.”
Sgt. Ed Troyer, Pierce County sheriff’s spokesman, said emails Powell sent authorities seemed to confirm Powell planned the deadly blast.
“He intentionally killed his sons in a murder-suicide plot,” Troyer told 97.3 KIRO FM.
Troyer said other visits from DHSH to Powell’s home seemed normal.
A lawyer for Josh Powell says he received a three-word email from his client just minutes before Powell and his two boys died in a house explosion. It said, “I’m sorry, goodbye.”
Attorney Jeffrey Bassett tells 97.3 KIRO FM the email arrived at 12:05 p.m. Sunday, but he didn’t see it until two hours later, when others informed him of the blast. He says he knew Josh was upset after being ordered to undergo a psycho-sexual evaluation recently, but he didn’t see this coming.
“We had talked just on Friday and I told him ‘This is a setback, it’s not the end of the world,'” said Bassett referring to a judges ruling that the children must remain in the custody of her parents, and that they would remain with the grandparents unless their father agreed to undergo psycho-sexual evaluation.
“It’s the most horrifying thing you can imagine happening,” said lawyer Steve Downing, who represented Susan Powell’s parents, Chuck and Judy Cox, in the custody fight. “The Coxes are absolutely devastated. They were always very fearful of him doing something like this, and he did it.”
Powell was under investigation in the disappearance of his 28-year-old wife, Susan Powell, from their West Valley City, Utah, home in December 2009. He claimed he had taken the boys on a midnight excursion in freezing temperatures when she vanished.
On Sunday, the lawyer for Susan Powell’s parents, Chuck and Judy Cox, told the AP the children had started talking to their grandparents about things they remembered from the night their mother vanished.
“They were beginning to verbalize more,” said attorney Steve Downing, whose clients had custody of the children. “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.”
Sgt. Mike Powell of the West Valley City Police Department in Utah, which is handling the investigation into Susan Powell’s disappearance, told KSL.com, it’s too soon to say how Josh Powell’s death may impact their probe.
The case took a bizarre turn last year after Powell’s father, Steve, was arrested for investigation of voyeurism and possessing child pornography. Josh was living at his father’s home at the time, and a judge gave Susan Powell’s parents custody of the boys.
The elder Powell is now jailed and facing child porn and voyeurism charges. He claimed in previous television interviews that he and Susan Powell were falling in love and even implied a sexual relationship had occurred.
“Susan was very sexual with me,” Steven Powell said in one interview at the time. “We interacted in a lot of sexual ways because Susan enjoys doing that.”
Susan’s father denied the allegations and said Steven Powell had been initiating unwanted sexual advances, and that his daughter had no interest in her father-in-law.
Troyer said Steven Powell was put on suicide watch in custody after he was told of the deadly blast.
“Steve Powell didn’t seem very upset by the news, but was angry towards authorities who notified him,” Troyer said.
As the parallel cases were investigated, the children lived with Susan’s parents.
The custody matter got so heated that at one point a court commissioner in Washington state ordered Chuck Cox and Josh Powell to keep 500 feet apart.
Custody hearings continued, with the latest on Wednesday, during which Josh Powell pleaded with a judge to return his children to him.
“For over four months already, my interactions with my sons and many other aspects of my character have been investigated and documented by” social services, he wrote in an affidavit to the court. “I have proven myself as a fit and loving father who provides a stable home even in the face of great adversity. … It is time for my sons to come home.”
But the judge ruled against him, ordering the children to remain with Susan Powell’s parents, at least until Josh Powell underwent a psycho-sexual evaluation, a process more often used as an assessment tool by courts to determine whether a defendant, largely in sex crimes cases, is likely to reoffend. In this case, the judge ordered it in light of the explicit material found on computers inside Steven Powell’s home that led to his arrest.
Sherry Hill, a spokeswoman for the Washington state Department of Social and Health Services, said the social worker who was with the children Sunday was not a Child Protective Services employee but a contract worker with a private agency that supervises visits for the state.
Kirk Graves, 39, of West Jordan, Utah, Josh Powell’s brother-in-law, said he and his wife, Jennifer, were stunned by the news. (Jennifer Powell Graves is Josh Powell’s sister.)
“It’s a shock. A total complete shock,” he said. “We never contemplated the idea he would do something like this. You just don’t expect it from a father.”
Kirk Graves said he and his wife think Josh Powell deliberately set off the explosion to kill him and his sons.
“His world was falling apart around him and he was going to lose his boys and get arrested for Susan’s disappearance,” he said. “He’s a narcissist and he has no love for anyone but himself.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.