‘Cold’: Bonus episode explores psychology of Josh Powell audio journals

Mar 20, 2019, 8:46 AM
cold, josh powell...
Clinical psychologist Matt Woolley reviewed Josh Powell's audio journals, as heard on "Cold."

West Valley City police found little, if anything, of evidentiary value in the audio journal recordings of Josh Powell. However, those files are providing new insight into Powell’s personality and mindset through the KSL podcast series Cold.

Police, with the assistance of the FBI, recovered the recordings from digital devices seized during the investigation into the Dec. 7, 2009 disappearance of Josh Powell’s wife, Susan Powell, from their home in West Valley City, Utah.

(Clinical psychologist Matt Woolley, Ph.D. discusses Josh Powell’s audio journal recordings for the Cold podcast on March 8, 2018. Photo: Josh Szymanik, KSL 5 TV)

Cold provided a copy of one audio journal recording to clinical psychologist Matt Woolley. Woolley offered his expert opinion for a bonus episode of the podcast.

Anatomy of an audio journal

The nearly hour-and-a-half-long recording began with Josh Powell explaining he was continuing on from an earlier entry which he’d had to stop because a memory card ran out of space. The recording ended with Powell in mid-sentence, suggesting the file was cut off rather than completed.

He spent a significant portion of the time discussing mundane topics, including his financial situation, management of debt, as well as his collection of Disney DVDs.

“Very interesting and tedious,” Woolley said. “Even how he says those things are interesting perhaps to a trained listener like a psychologist because it reflects certain aspects of his personality.”

Woolley said that kind of excessive journaling behavior suggested a narcissistic personality disorder.

“The way he describes a lot of things are sort of literature-like,” Woolley said. “Instead of just casual conversation the way you might efficiently speak about what you did that day, he instead describes things in unnecessary detail.”

Woolley pointed out that the act of journaling itself is not inherently narcissistic. Susan Cox also kept journals as a teenager and an adult.

“This complete cataloging of his life, which is what he did, not what she did. That’s where it kind of crosses over,” Woolley said. “Typically journaling is a mundane activity for the journaler and so people tend to be pretty efficient with it, if they journal at all.”

Josh and Susan

Josh Powell recorded the audio journal in question on Dec. 13, 2000, roughly a month after he began dating Susan Cox. He spoke at length about his difficulties in wooing prior romantic interests, as well as his hesitation at becoming more serious with Cox.

“The other day she said something like ‘Would you let me propose to you?’ I didn’t really know what to say so I didn’t say anything,” Josh Powell said in the recording. “I wouldn’t want a girl to propose to me at all. I would find that probably very uncomfortable. Secondly, I’m not really ready to get engaged with Susan anyway.”

Josh Powell proposed to Susan Cox less than a month later. They were married three months after that. At the time, Josh Powell was 25. Susan Cox was 19.

(This undated still image shows Susan Cox displaying the movie ticket stub from from her first date with Josh Powell in November 2000. Photo: Unknown)

“When I started getting serious with Susan it was mainly her idea,” Josh Powell said in the recording. “I was afraid that Susan would go out with me a time or two and then give me the shaft.”

Powell described falling in love with Cox because of how she treated him and his property. Woolley said it was significant that Powell made note that Susan traveled to visit him, even after long days at work.

“It really is all about her serving him, her doing things for him, her making him feel good and special, respecting his things,” Woolley said. “He’s just, I think, found the ideal, in his mind, person to feed his narcissistic self-perception that he’s special and deserves to be treated that way.”

Steve and Josh Powell

Powell also made brief mention of his relationship with his father, Steve Powell.

(Josh Powell wrote this letter to his father, Steve Powell, at age 16. Josh describes his father grounding him to prevent his attendance at a youth function for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.)

Steve Powell had divorced Terrica Powell, Josh Powell’s mother, when Josh Powell was a teenager. Woolley said that led to the development of a “closed family system” under Steve Powell.

“A closed family system is kind of like circling the wagons,” Woolley said. “The rest of the world is bad or wrong or evil, typically, and we only can trust each other. There’s a lot indoctrination of delusional, paranoid beliefs.”

Steve Powell’s own written journals and public statements later revealed that he had developed a strong, sexually-motivated interest in his son’s wife following their marriage. Woolley said that also indicated narcissism on the part of Steve Powell.

“As soon as his father sees his fiance, and then Susan becoming his wife, he wants to possess what Josh owns,” Woolley said. “Because he’s a sexually deviant narcissist, it’s a sexual obsession that is just remarkable.”

(Steve Powell created and collected images of his daughter-in-law, including this undated still frame from a video clip showing Josh and Susan Powell together. West Valley City, Utah police recovered many similar shots from Steve Powell’s digital devices following a search warrant raid at his Washington home on Aug. 25, 2011. Photo: Unknown)

Following Susan Powell’s disappearance, Steve Powell repeatedly told investigators that she had been in love with him. Steve Powell also claimed his daughter-in-law had run off to Brazil and framed Josh Powell for her murder.

Steve Powell eventually served two terms in prison in Washington on voyeurism and child pornography charges unrelated to Susan Powell.

Generational chaos

Josh Powell was never arrested or charged in connection with his wife’s disappearance. However, he lost custody of their two sons, Charlie and Braden, as a result of his father’s crimes.

Josh Powell killed the boys and himself on Feb. 5, 2012 during a supervised visitation at his rented home in Graham, Washington.

Woolley said had that not happened, the chaos surrounding their family situation would likely have made life difficult for Susan Powell’s children.

“The potential for them having a normal, healthy life was there but Josh and his family’s influence wrecked that,” Woolley said.

Woolley said personality disorders tend to solidify in late adolescence and early adulthood, making early psychological intervention important when troubling behaviors are observed during childhood.

“If you are concerned at all about that, instead of just wondering and worrying, talk with a professional,” Woolley said. “There’s a lot that can be done early in life to help a person grow and develop.”

Bonus episodes of the KSL podcast Cold are available through the subscription service Wondery Plus, along with the entire first season of Cold ad-free. For more information visit: www.wondery.com/plus

Previous episodes of Cold:

Cold: Host Dave Cawley’s theory on what really happened
Cold: Josh’s uncle was person of interest
Cold: Interview casts doubt on claim Josh Powell confessed to a stripper

Cold: Josh Powell’s brother lied under oath
Cold: Forensic psychologist shares impressions of Josh Powell
Cold: FBI warned Steve Powell that Josh might murder sons
Cold: Josh Powell’s ex-girlfriend speaks for the first time
Cold: Secret audio, video recordings of Josh, Steven Powell
Cold: Lead detective on Susan Powell investigation speaks
Cold: Looking into mystery evidence in Susan Powell case
Cold: Josh diagnosed with injury after wife disappeared
Cold: Police plot to introduce Powell to woman undercover
Cold: FBI fails to crack Powell’s computer encryption
Cold: All about “Operation Tsunami”

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‘Cold’: Bonus episode explores psychology of Josh Powell audio journals