Deadly Delay | Opinion | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly
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News » Opinion

Deadly Delay

WVC Police bungled the Susan Powell mystery



Chuck and Judy Cox have been giving West Valley City Police the benefit of the doubt for two years.

Since the night when their daughter Susan vanished while her husband, Josh, took their two small boys on a midnight camping trip in frigid weather, the Coxes have been careful not to question a police force that has yet to name Powell a suspect in his wife’s disappearance and has never officially called the case a murder.

But that’s about to change.

“I am thoroughly disgusted with West Valley City Police,” says Steve Downing, the Coxes’ attorney. “They’ve been so concerned about crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s, they’ve allowed two little boys to be murdered.”

Downing has always been more skeptical of the police, more free to speak his mind. The Coxes, grieving and worried grandparents, were understandably more reluctant to criticize the investigators searching for their daughter, afraid to offend. Now, there’s nothing left to lose.

The Shakespearean tragedy of the young West Valley City family came to what now seems a fateful end Feb. 5: Josh Powell hacked 7-year-old Charlie and 5-year-old Braden into submission, doused the carpet of his rented house with gasoline and lit an inferno, killing all three of them.

“I believe [West Valley City Police] are partially responsible,” says Downing from his office in Tacoma, Wash. He has persuaded the Coxes that West Valley detectives will have to continue looking for Susan, whether or not her parents are critical of the investigation. Downing says their public statements are about to change.

Until now, the Coxes have reserved their scrutiny for Josh Powell, some of his family members and Washington State Child Protective Services. They openly question how the state could contemplate reuniting the boys with their father.

“It just flies in the face of reason,” Chuck Cox told the Associated Press two weeks ago.

He’s right. It does. But for all the Coxes’ frustration with the grinding due process of taking away parental rights, they should be equally frustrated with the plodding pace of West Valley City’s “missing person” investigation.

From the moment Susan Powell disappeared Dec. 9, 2009, and officers found her purse still in the family home, with fans furiously whirring over a wet carpet patch, the police have tiptoed around the case.

At first, an abundance of caution seemed wise. Josh Powell returned from his campout and was spectacularly unhelpful. He was unusually dry-eyed and wooden. He refused to talk to police. A few months later, he packed up his kids and retreated to his father’s house in Washington.

The case only became more surreal as Steve and Josh Powell launched a character assassination. The father-in-law implied he and Susan had a sexual connection. The son threatened to release his wife’s teenage diaries to prove her promiscuity.

In turn, West Valley City Police asked the Coxes to stage a bizarre honk-and-wave outside a grocery store to rattle the Powells. And detectives searched the foothills above Ely, Nev., in August 2011. Then in September, Steve Powell was arrested with child pornography, and Josh Powell lost custody of the boys.

Through it all, West Valley City police have repeated their tired mantra about an “open investigation.” They revealed a detail of their investigation only at the 11th hour, when it became clear Josh Powell might regain custody of his sons. In January, they shared animated incest porn found on his computer with Washington authorities, setting in motion a series of setbacks that seems to have sent the father on his final murderous rage.

Still, they don’t want to talk about it. Interviewing West Valley City Police Sgt. Mike Powell is a bit like playing a 19th-century parlor game—parsing and winking all the while. Police have become masters at saying a bunch of nothing about this case.

“We have not had a lot of cooperation from the beginning. That has made things more difficult,” Mike Powell says. “There is a perception that things can move more quickly than they can.”

But Downing believes the latest scene in this family tragedy could have been avoided if the police had simply acted on the “incredibly good circumstantial evidence” they had against Josh Powell. If they couldn’t make the case for murder, the attorney says, at least they could have made the case for taking the boys away from their father.

Instead, he says, the police bungled every step. An employee of the Comfort Inn hotel in Sandy saw Josh Powell and his boys the morning Susan Cox Powell was reported missing. She called a city tip line, but detectives didn’t get back to her until two years later.

There’s more, Downing says—the $500,000 life-insurance policy Josh took out on Susan, Josh talking to acquaintances about how to dispose of a body, various reports from neighbors of suspicious activity the night of the camping trip.

But most damning is that simulated porn. It was found on computers taken from the Powells’ West Valley City home two years ago. Why did it take police so long to mention it? That alone could have been enough to challenge Josh Powell’s custody, Downing says.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, whose prosecutors are advising the police, says the case is still very active. It will not go cold, he says, even with the prime suspect now dead. “Everybody who’s been involved is trying to find the answers and close out this case,” Gill says. “It’s going to require some patience.”

Two years seems long enough to wait.

Rebecca Walsh is a longtime Utah reporter and columnist. She is currently working in Palm Springs, Calif.