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Searchers dig up what looks like charred wood during search for Susan Powell

'It's not the hard evidence everyone wanted,' police say

Published: Saturday, Sept. 17 2011 7:19 p.m. MDT

West Valley police Saturday completed their digging at what they originally suspected was a disturbed gravesite and removed about 100 small pieces of what appeared to be charred wood.

Pat Reavy, Deseret News

DELTA — West Valley police Saturday completed their digging at what they originally suspected was a disturbed gravesite and removed about 100 small pieces of what appeared to be charred wood.

Once the pieces were removed from the hole near Topaz Mountain that investigators had been digging since Wednesday, cadaver dogs trained to detect human decomposition stopped indicating there was something still in the hole and reacted to the collected pile of pieces.

"These charred pieces had something to do with decomposition," said West Valley Police Lt. Bill Merritt.

That means at some point, the charred pieces very likely came in contact with either blood or decomposing flesh or clothing that contained some of that material, he said.

As for how human decomposition got on the charred pieces, Merritt said, "There are so many different scenarios of what it could be."

It was unlikely the apparent wood gave the cadaver dogs a "false positive," Merritt stated. The cadaver dogs are trained to detect human decomposition as opposed to flakes of dead skin. He also noted it was interesting that the charred pieces were found buried about 2 ½ feet in the ground.

Merritt said the area was likely a crime scene at some point. Although he noted the charred pieces appeared to have been fairly recent, there was no way to tell how long they had been there.

The discovery ended several days of digging after nearly a dozen cadaver dogs "hit" on an area in a remote part of central Utah near Topaz Mountain outside of Delta. The discovery was made while police were searching for clues in the case of missing West Valley mother Susan Cox Powell.

The search of the area will continue Sunday. Merritt said it was possible additional police agencies would join and there could be a very large search effort.

As for the hole they had been digging in and sifting through for four days, it is now cleared. "There is nothing else that can be brought out of that hole," the lieutenant said.

Saturday evening, a hole about 2 ½ feet deep, 2 feet wide and 3 feet long was all that remained about 50 yards off a dirt and gravel road where the digging occurred. Most of the charred pieces range from about the size of a dime to a golf ball, Merritt said. The pieces will be taken to the Utah State Medical Examiner's Office for analysis.

Although that hole has now been cleared, Merritt said police were as frustrated as everyone else.

"It's not the hard evidence everyone wanted," he said.

Since Wednesday, investigators have been digging and sifting through the dirt. The department's forensics supervisor, Wendy Clark, who has a degree in anthropology, arrived at the scene Saturday to make the sifting process go much quicker.

Before the charred pieces were found and investigators cleared the scene, Associated Press reporter Jennifer Dobner and two photo journalists were escorted by police to the dig site to act as representatives for the media. She said the area where police were digging was about 50 yards over a small hill off a dirt and gravel road and would not have been visible from the road.

She described watching the process of how two teams of sifters were going through four mounds of dirt all marked with pink flags. The dirt is brought to the sifters after being carried over in five-gallon buckets.

The teams used trays that were stacked on top of each other, one to collect bigger chunks of debris and the other smaller pieces. She described the process of shaking the trays back and forth and running hands through the dirt like preparing soil for a garden or sifting flour.

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