Police: A 50-50 chance Susan Cox Powell is in suspected gravesite

Published: Thursday, Sept. 15 2011 11:00 a.m. MDT

Officials search near Topaz Mountain, Thursday, September 15, 2011 in connection with the Susan Powell missing person investigation.

Pat Reavy, Deseret News

DELTA — Although no actual human remains have yet been found — no bones, no flesh nor even clothing — West Valley police believe an apparent shallow grave near Topaz Mountain has a 50-50 chance of containing the body of West Valley mother Susan Cox Powell.

Investigators ended their digging about 5:30 p.m. Thursday and planned to resume about Friday morning. Detectives had dug about 1 ½ to 2 feet deep into the disturbed gravesite, about 2 feet wide and 3 feet long, said West Valley Police Lt. Bill Merritt.

Whatever is in the dirt appears to have been there "fairly recent," an anthropologist with the Fillmore office of the Bureau of Land Management said Thursday. That could mean the remains have been in the Juab County desert anywhere from a few weeks to over a decade.

"This is not going to be an ancient burial site. It's not going to be a cowboy from the West," Merritt said.

The  area where cadaver dogs hit on was in a pile of dirt that had obviously been disturbed. West Valley Police Chief Buzz Nielsen described it as a shallow grave.

They also do not yet know whether the body was male or female, but Merritt said there was a 50-50 chance it is Powell.

"It's something that's going to be interesting," he said.

No bones or clothing or anything of note had yet been spotted, but Merritt said dogs continued to give a "strong indication" that remains are present.

"The dogs are smelling something. It's human decomposition," he said. "The way they are indicating ... it's a very strong indication. It's not a passive indication."

The lieutenant said the trained cadaver dogs dig up the dirt and smell it, but aren't interested in the dirt but what they sense underneath the dirt. That could mean anything from a little blood to bones to actual flesh, he said.

The ground where the dogs hit on looks "recently" disturbed, he added. But he noted that going through all the dirt was a slow, "shovel by shovel, layer by layer" process that may take some time.

The cadaver dogs being used have the ability to sense decomposition up to 12 feet deep.

Merritt said the human remains would not have been easily spotted by a person hiking through the area, and the only real reason they were found is because of the cadaver dogs.

Two cadaver dogs who were not used Wednesday when the remains were found, were taken to the area late Thursday afternoon and the dogs also confirmed there are human remains present.

BLM anthropologist Joelle McCarthy also told police there appeared to be a "disturbance" around the apparent gravesite that was caused by humans and not animals. The Utah State Medical Examiner's Office was expected to be called to the scene Friday.       

Susan Powell's father, Chuck Cox, arrived in Utah about noon Thursday from his home in Washington state. He was not invited, but said he came by his own choice and hoped to convince West Valley police to let him visit the site in Juab County.

Police confirmed that Cox might visit the dig area on Friday.

While his family has experienced the roller coaster ride of up and down emotions before when other remains have been found, he said this time feels a bit different since the remains were found during  a specific police search for his daughter.

“This is a place that the police have identified as a place they wanted to look and things seem to be moving here,” Cox said.

Friends of his daughter told him Wednesday that during the summer of 2009, Susan and Josh Powell had camped in the same general area where the remains were found.

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