Analysis: What Josh Powell's murder of his two young sons says about Susan Cox Powell's disappearance

Published: Monday, Feb. 6 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

Josh and Susan Powell with their two sons.

, Family photo

It's confirmed. Josh Powell is a murderer, but not of the person he has long been suspected of killing.

In a tragic turn of events in the disappearance case of Susan Cox Powell, Sunday afternoon, Powell burned down his Puyallup, Wash., home with his boys Charlie and Braden inside, killing all three.

Authorities say it appears the events were premeditated and that Powell used some kind of accelerant to destroy the house on purpose.

Josh Powell was a person of interest in his wife's disappearance, and had recently lost a court battle to regain custody of his boys after a judge ruled he undergo psychosexual evaluation and a polygraph test first.

Jeffrey Bassett, Powell's attorney, reported that he received a terse suicide note from his client minutes before the house went up in flames that read simply, "I'm sorry, goodbye."

The day after, there are still many questions to be answered -- especially regarding what might have been done to better protect the Powell boys.

There is some hope that Powell provided answers in e-mails and an alleged voice message that he sent to Washington authorities prior to the murder-suicide. But in a press conference today, Pierce County police authorities indicated these messages were not very revealing.

Additionally, Steven Powell, Josh Powell's incarcerated father, may have some answers, though since entering the county jail, he has kept relatively quiet. Authorities noted Sunday that he is on suicide watch.

If these sources don't pan out, it could be a long time before enough pieces of the puzzle are assembled to paint a clear picture of what happened. While Sunday's tragic events bring even more questions, some could be the key to the whole puzzle.

Why did Josh Powell kill his children?

This is the question on everyone's mind may be the most important of the whole case. KSL News reported the children had started talking to their grandparents about what happened 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."

The Deseret News' Pat Reavy also reported that at Powell's hearing on Wednesday, when he was ordered to undergo psychosexual evaluation, West Valley City police indicated images were found on Josh Powell's computer that, according to court records, "specifically related to their children's welfare." Did this evidence back Powell into a corner he felt was inescapable?

Studies on filicide — the killing of children by a parent — may show another possible motive: altruism. Regardless of Powell's involvement in the disappearance of Susan Cox Powell, his state of mind could have been such that he feared for his children's well-being.

According to Josh Powell's sister Alina in a recent statement, much of the Powell family felt the boys were in danger in the Cox home.

"Recently, my nephews have been subjected to multiple instances of severe endangerment and physical abuse by the Coxes," the statement said. "Child Protective Services (CPS) has condoned the Coxes abuse and endangerment of my nephews, and certain members of CPS are trying their best to smooth it over and cover it up."

In a study of 30 families where filicide-suicide occurred, the Journal of the America Academy of Psychiatry and the Law Online (JAAPL) reported that "The majority (70 percent) of the motives for filicide-suicide were identified as altruistic -- that is, the parents (90 percent of the mothers and 60 percent of the fathers) were motivated by the desire to alleviate real or imagined suffering in their children."

Why by Fire?

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