‘Cold’: Newly released wiretap conversations depict Powell family on the brink
Josh Powell loaded up his sons, Charlie and Braden, into his minivan late at night and headed off for a campout.
Editor’s note: This is another episode in a series that highlights a KSL investigative podcast series titled “Cold” that reports new information about the case of missing Utah woman Susan Powell. A new episode can be found at thecoldpodcast.com.
This was not, however, the night of Powell’s infamous December 2009 trip on Utah’s Pony Express Trail, on the same night his wife, Susan Powell, disappeared. Instead it occurred on Aug. 26, 2011, the night after West Valley police and Pierce County, Washington, sheriff’s deputies raided the home of Josh Powell’s father, Steve Powell, with a search warrant.
Josh Powell did not inform his family that he was leaving with the boys, headed south toward Mount St. Helens. When Steve Powell learned of it the following day, he phoned Josh’s younger brother, Michael Powell, and informed him of his brother’s impromptu outing.
“You’re kidding me,” Michael Powell said.
In another phone call as Josh Powell was returning home with his boys on Aug. 28, 2011, Steve Powell told his eldest son he had something to confess: personal journals police had seized belonging to Steve Powell during the raid included potentially incriminating information about his sexual obsession with his son’s missing wife.
“I can’t believe what I’m hearing,” Josh Powell said.
These and hundreds of other conversations between members of the Powell family were captured on a wiretap in August and September of 2011, part of a sprawling law enforcement effort to crack the case of the Susan Powell disappearance.
KSL Newsradio’s “Cold” podcast has gained access to thousands of pages of notes and transcripts made by police who monitored those phone calls. The records, which have never been disclosed by police or released to the public, reveal a family on the brink. They paint the Powells as being in the grips of extreme paranoia and in a state of constant bickering as they attempted to steer media coverage and deflect public criticism.
The various Powells, including Josh, Michael, Steve and his youngest daughter Alina Powell, often told one another to “shut the (expletive) up” or abruptly hung up on one another. They frequently criticized each other’s comments to a wide array of local and national news reporters and producers. Josh Powell especially became furious when his father admitted to the media that he had kept those explicit journals about his daughter-in-law.
“Why do we have such a (expletive) up family,” Josh asked Michael in one call. “It’s the idea that he would even think it’s even remotely a tiny bit acceptable to say that he was interested in Susan on any level. How the (expletive) does he get that idea?”
Wiretap recordings and records are among the most tightly held government secrets. State and federal laws set out stiff penalties against government employees, such as police or prosecutors, who publicly disclose the contents of conversations captured on wiretaps.
“Wiretapping private phone calls you get some very intimate, very serious, very sensitive information,” University of Utah law professor Matthew Tokson said.
The wiretap targeted three specific phone lines: Josh Powell’s cellphone, Steve Powell’s cellphone and the landline phone at the home they shared in South Hill, Washington. The listening occurred from a secretive “wire room” at the Drug Enforcement Agency’s Salt Lake City office. The investigators had legal authority to intercept and surreptitiously monitor the calls under an order signed by 3rd District Judge Judith Atherton in Utah.
“Typically (wiretaps) are confined to cases that are serious, like this investigation was,” Tokson said.
Wiretaps are also subject to strict limits under state and federal laws. Applications for wiretaps must include not only a statement of probable cause, as typical for routine arrest or search warrants, but also additional justifications for the intrusion of privacy and information about how investigators will limit the scope of what they overhear.
“The idea is you have to take reasonable steps basically to minimize what you collect from a wiretap,” Tokson said. “You have to stop listening when it’s clear when part of the conversation is not relevant to your criminal investigation.”
Provisions within the various wiretap laws do allow officers listening in on captured communications to periodically “spot check.” That means they can drop in on a “minimized” conversation after a period of time to determine if it has come back to a topic relevant to the investigation.
The Powell case wiretap records reflect this, with many whole calls blanked due to the listening officers deeming them “nonpertinent.”
A large number of the calls were flagged as pertinent, though, thanks to a flurry of activity that took place in the Powell case during late August 2011. “Cold” previously reported West Valley police coordinated several high-profile actions during the period the wiretap was active, including a search of abandoned mines near Ely, Nevada, and honk-and-wave events featuring Susan Powell’s family members and close friends. These and other “catalysts” were meant to generate conversation between the Powells, in the hopes one of them might disclose the location of Susan Powell’s body.
The wiretap did not result in that critical piece of information coming forward. Josh Powell did make comments that drove the investigation in new directions, though.
On multiple occasions, Josh Powell spoke about the car he had rented the night of Dec. 8, 2009. Investigators were never able to determine where Powell went with that car over the following 18 hours, though they later learned he had clocked 807 miles on the odometer by the time he returned the car.
Josh Powell said it didn’t matter specifically where he gone in the car, adding he might have driven south, north, east or west. In another conversation, he told his family he had gone into a convenience store during that period of time and that he’d been “very memorable” to the clerk.
In a call on Aug. 22, 2011, Josh Powell speculated police might have served a search warrant on the car and located a piece of topaz. He suggested the gemstone might have come from someone who had rented the car prior to him, before telling Michael Powell police might have also found evidence on his computer of internet searches relating to Topaz Mountain.
West Valley City police had located a rock in the trunk of the rental car, though it wasn’t topaz. They quickly organized a massive search of the area surrounding Topaz Mountain in Utah’s West Desert, but that failed to turn up any significant evidence.
The wiretap records do not record a single instance of the Powell family members expressing remorse or sympathy for Susan Powell.
In one call on Aug. 28, 2011, Michael Powell said he did not give a “flying (expletive)” about his missing sister-in-law. Alina Powell then disparaged Susan’s physical appearance. She went on to comment about her father’s sexual obsession with Susan, saying he should “let that (expletive) go” because she was “not worth it.” Steve Powell responded by praising specific parts of his daughter-in-law’s anatomy, while conceding that when he first met her he’d judged her to be “trailer trash” because she had bleached hair.
This and many similar conversations occurred in the presence of Josh and Susan Powell’s sons, Charlie and Braden Powell, who were then 6 and 4 years old, respectively.
The wiretap also captured instances of Josh Powell coaching his young boys to swear. He repeatedly told them their maternal grandparents, Susan Powell’s parents, were lying predators.
“When Chuck Cox is out of our lives,” Josh had said to Charlie in one recording, “you’ll make more friends because Chuck Cox is abusive.”
Josh Powell and Steve Powell went on daily rants about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, often speculating police actions related to the case were actually part of a coordinated campaign of harassment arranged by Chuck Cox and executed by top leaders in the church. They supposed that detectives, FBI agents, judges and other authority figures were all receiving marching orders from church leaders.
The conspiratorial mindset of the Powells sometimes took on almost comical tones. In one call, Josh Powell described seeing fluid dripping from the underside of his minivan. Believing someone had sabotaged his brakes, he took the vehicle to a service station, only to be told the “brake fluid” was actually condensation from the air conditioner.
Other calls were more sinister. In a call on Aug. 22, 2011, Josh Powell told his father and brother that he would not go to prison where he would not be able to kill himself. He had previously considered suicide, he said, but had refrained because he feared taking his own life would lead to his estranged older sister, Jennifer Graves, raising his children as Latter-day Saints.
Josh Powell lost custody of his sons just weeks later, when Pierce County deputies arrested Steve Powell on suspicion of voyeurism and possession of child pornography. He ultimately killed the boys and himself on Feb. 5, 2012, during a court-authorized supervised visitation.
By: Dave Cawley and Keira Farrimond, KSL Podcasts