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.
"They had gone out to look for the geode beds, which I believe are the other direction. They made a wrong turn and they ended up in this (Topaz Mountain) area," Cox said.
He explained he is confident investigators are exhausting every lead and leaving no loose ends in their investigation.
“We know that the police are doing everything they can and they tell us the case is progressing — they’re making progress every day,” Cox said. “It’s just a matter of when.”
While the remains were being guarded, a search of the area with cadaver dogs resumed Thursday. "We don't want to be sitting around doing nothing and wasting valuable time," Merritt said.
The Topaz Mountain region is about 25 miles from Simpson Springs, where Josh Powell claimed he took his two young sons camping on a snowy night in December 2009, right before his wife went missing.
Merritt said the region had been on West Valley police's list of places to investigate for quite awhile and they were not led to the area because of information collected from other recent searches in Ely, Nev., and Puyallup, Wash.
The search area is so big Merritt said investigators could spend weeks in the region. He expected the search would continue at least into Friday.
While West Valley police are optimistic this could be the break in the Powell case they have been looking for, at the same time, they are very cautious to point out that the remains could be someone else's. They say they are going to take their time and do everything carefully, which is why they didn't start trying to extract the remains Wednesday night and didn't continue through the evening Thursday.
"We thought, 'Let's be careful, let's be cautious. Let's use the sunlight. We'll have the whole day to our advantage,'" Merritt said.
Investigators are not leaving the site unattended, however.
Utah State Medical Examiner Dr. Todd Grey said a trained eye can confirm whether the remains are human. The next step (which investigators did) would be to determine if they're modern or historic. He said historic remains are often well buried and do not have "distinct" features. Among the distinct clues for modern remains would be modern dental work, Grey said.
The next step is the extraction, with careful digging and collecting of forensic evidence from in and around the remains. That could take hours, according to Grey.
Once any remains are uncovered, the medical examiner and a forensic anthropologist will try to determine the sex, age, stature and race. The medical examiner then will try to estimate how long the remains have been at the location and look for marks on the bones that may indicate how the person died, such as knife marks from a stabbing, bullet holes, etc.
Josh Powell's family released a statement late Wednesday urging police to release more details about the remains.
"With very little information available to the public, we can only hope that additional information is released quickly to minimize heartache to those of us who love Susan. In the meantime, we continue to hope for Susan's safe return," it said.
Susan Powell, a 28-year-old mother of two, has been missing since Dec. 6, 2009. The night before she was reported missing, Josh Powell said he took their two young children camping in single-digit temperatures in a remote part of Tooele County in the middle of the night. When he returned a day and a half later, he said his wife was gone.
Josh Powell has been called a person of interest in the case because West Valley police say he has been very uncooperative.
Topaz Mountain is less than 30 miles from Simpson Springs, the area Josh Powell told investigators he went camping that night with his sons.
This was the third publicly visible search in the case in the past month.
Cox said he hopes investigators will allow him to get close to the site on Friday.46 comments on this story
"I'm hoping maybe I can get a feeling (that) maybe I feel this is a place where she might be," he said. "The only feeling I get is when I come into (Utah), basically Tremonton and south. I feel I'm getting closer and maybe that's because she lived here.
"And when I leave (Utah), I feel I'm leaving her behind. I feel I need to be down in this area right now."
Contributing: Andrew Adams, Sarah Dallof