Vanished — The Complex, Bizarre & Tragic Story Of Susan Powell
“I want it documented that there is extreme turmoil in our marriage,” Susan Powell said, and continued, “If I die, it may not be an accident, even if it looks like one.”
WEST CITY VALLEY, UT — On December 6, 2009, 28-year-old Susan Powell vanished from her Utah home.
Over the next few years, the investigation into Susan's disappearance and the shocking deaths of her husband and sons would become a massive murder mystery that captivated the nation.
Earlier that morning, Susan Powell and her two sons, four-year-old Charlie and two-year-old Braden, went to church and then returned home. A neighbor visited them at the house, and left at around 5 P.M.
On December 7, Josh’s mother, Terrica, and sister, Jennifer Graves, went looking for the family after they were told that the children had not been dropped off at daycare that morning. Susan had also not shown up at work.
Worried that the family may have been victims of carbon monoxide poisoning, police broke down the door and went inside the house.
Susan’s purse, wallet, and car were all at the residence — but the house was vacant. Once inside the house, investigators noticed that a section of the carpet was wet, and that two box fans had been set up in an effort to dry the damp area.
“Some believe that it was blowing on the carpet, but the reality was it was blowing on maybe the carpet but also the couch,” Detective Ellis Maxwell told KSL-TV. “It was very obvious that the couch had been cleaned, where the love seat hadn’t.”
Detectives also found blood on the tile floor. Forensic testing later identified one of the blood samples as Susan’s.
Later that afternoon, Joshua returned home with the two boys. When police questioned him, he claimed that he had taken the boys on a camping trip to Simpson Springs shortly after midnight on December 7, even though a snowstorm was approaching.
Josh told police that Susan had not gone camping with them, and that he had left her at home asleep.
Police became alarmed by Josh's bizarre behavior. They went to the area where Josh claimed to have gone camping with the boys, but were unable to locate a campsite. But Charlie told officers that his mom did accompany them on the night she went missing — but did not come home.
Susan's parents claimed that, several months later, Braden drew a picture of a van with three people in it, and told carers that "Mommy was in the trunk” while at daycare. Josh denied his sons’ claims, but detectives were unconvinced. A few days after Susan vanished, police named Josh a person of interest in connection with his wife's disappearance.
At the same time, police were digging deeper into the couple's relationship.
On the surface, Josh and Susan appeared to be living the American Dream. They were married in April 2001 at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Portland, Oregon. The couple relocated to West Valley City in 2004, and Josh worked for a number of different companies while Susan took a job with Wells Fargo investments.
But despite their public face of happiness and normalcy, the couple’s relationship was rocky. The family reportedly had money problems: Josh filed for bankruptcy in 2007, declaring over $200,000 in debts.
Susan recorded a disturbing video in 2008, before her disappearance, in which she recorded property and made a secret will.
It said: "I want it documented that there is extreme turmoil in our marriage" and "If I die, it may not be an accident, even if it looks like one.”
Some suspect that Josh had a serious gambling problem. At the time of her disappearance, police found evidence that Josh had taken several life insurance policies out on his wife. Eventually, they were found to total a reported $2.3 million.
Friends of Susan’s told police that Susan also experienced conflict with Josh's father, Steven Powell. Acting on tips that Steven was “obsessed” with Susan, investigators seized computers from the elder Powell’s house in 2010.
They found 4,500 images of Susan taken without her knowledge, including close-ups of specific body parts, as well as many other photographs of women and young girls apparently taken without their consent.
Relations between the family further deteriorated when Steven bizarrely claimed that he and Susan had been falling in love prior to her disappearance.
The long-term targeting of Susan by Steven is covered in great length in the podcast Cold. Not only did he creepily photograph and video her, but he wrote numerous love songs to her, under the name Steve Chantrey.
The podcast also shares never-before-heard audio of both Josh and Steven, including of the time when Steven professed his love for Susan, and she rebuffed and chastised him.
In 2010, Josh and Susan moved to Washington state, largely to get away from Steven. Shortly after the move, the website SusanPowell.org appeared online. Described as "the official website of Susan Powell," the site's anonymous entries defended Joshua as the victim of a smear campaign. Other posts also alleged that Susan’s disappearance could have been tied to that of missing Salt Lake Tribune journalist Steven Koecher – and that Susan and Steven could have fun away together to Brazil. Susan's family rejected these claims as being "unsupported" by any evidence.
In August 2012, West Valley City police released documents showing that Joshua took actions that were regarded as highly suspicious following his wife's disappearance.
They indicated that Josh liquidated Susan’s retirement accounts, withdrew the children from daycare, and spoke to coworkers about how to hide a body. Allegedly, he claimed that police would never find a body in a vertical mine shaft because it would be too dangerous to investigate
Steven Powell was later arrested on charges of voyeurism and child pornography, and eventually sent to prison. He was paroled in 2017, and died of a heart attack in 2018.
On February 5, 2012 — days after a judge gave custody of the boys to Susan's parents, Chuck and Judy Cox — a social worker called 911 after bringing Charlie and Braden to a supervised visit at Josh's house in Washington.
The social worker, who was supposed to monitor the visit between Joshua and the boys, said Joshua grabbed the children and would not let her inside.
Shortly after she placed the call reporting this, the house exploded, killing Joshua and the two children.
Local authorities treated the case as a double murder-suicide. Inside the home, police found a hatchet and two five-gallon cans of gasoline. The official cause of death for Joshua and the two boys was determined to be carbon monoxide poisoning, though the coroner also noted that both children had significant chopping injuries on the head and neck.
Police said that minutes before the blast, Powell sent emails to his pastor and family members. One read: "'I'm sorry. I can't live without my boys."
This family's story took another tragic turn on February 11, 2013, when Joshua's brother Michael committed suicide by jumping from the roof of a parking garage in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
On May 21, 2013, West Valley City police closed their active investigation into Susan's disappearance. Police stated that they believed Josh had murdered her and that Michael had assisted him in concealing her body, as cadaver dogs had "hit" on the trunk of car he'd sold to a scrapyard.
A long court battle between the families of Josh and Susan was finally settled in 2015. A Washington federal judge awarded the $2.3 million in life insurance to Josh and Susan Powell’s trust, and a related conservatorship under the control of Susan’s father, Charles Cox.
For more on this case, watch Investigation Discovery's Susan Powell: An ID Murder Mystery on ID GO now!
Read more: KSL-TV