Circumstantial case against Josh Powell wasn't ready for charges, investigators say

Published: Monday, Feb. 6 2012 11:00 p.m. MST

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill talks in his office Monday, Feb. 6, 2012 about the Susan Powell case charges.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Just days after Susan Cox Powell first went missing in 2009, neighbors began pointing fingers at her husband.

"When I heard the whole family was missing, I thought it was a murder-suicide," neighbor Stephanie Olson said on that clear day Dec. 10.

She echoed what many others have since recounted: that Josh Powell was "bizarre," "emotionally abusive" and that Susan Powell had been fairly vocal about her plans to leave the marriage if things didn't improve.

While Olson said Josh Powell was "never really nice to Susan," he treated their sons, Charlie and Braden, differently. "He seems to love his kids," she said at the time.

In brief emails sent minutes before he set his house ablaze Sunday, killing himself and murdering his two young sons, Josh Powell apologized and said he couldn't live without his boys.

The devastating homicides have left many questioning how this man, under suspicion month after month, year after year, never faced charges related to his wife's disappearance.

"When you charge on criminal (homicide) cases … without a body, it's just more difficult. So you have to develop a stronger case," West Valley Police Chief Buzz Nielsen said Monday.

"I would have liked to have arrested and charged the suspect two days after it happened," he said as he faced reporters standing outside the burned-out remains of the house Josh Powell called home.

"A tough case requires making sure that you do a thorough investigation — that you have all the materials," said Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill. "A case is filed when it's ready to be filed."

"Based on everything we had, we didn't, at this point, feel comfortable with all the information we had. That's why we continued to pursue those leads with (police) and put together this case," Gill said.

In September, Nielsen said the investigation into Susan Powell's disappearance was in the "fourth quarter" and said most of the evidence points to Josh Powell.

Gill said his office was working with West Valley police and has spent "untold hours" pursuing the investigation. Nielsen said Monday he still has eight detectives assigned to the case and at times has had many more.

Unlike other missing persons cases where police don't get involved for 72 hours, West Valley police began an investigation into Susan's disappearance quickly.

"We were on that case the next day. I committed to the Coxes … that we wouldn't stop," an emotional Nielsen said Monday. "I promised the Coxes I wouldn't give up and I'm still not, because I want some closure here."

Gill would not discuss evidence details, saying Susan's disappearance is still an active and ongoing investigation. But he understands the need for answers. And while news of the deaths was a tragic "kick in the stomach," he said it does not change legal standards.

"The rule of law is objective and independent," Gill said. "That requirement of beyond a reasonable doubt does not alter because we may want to or we are eager to. It's an objective standard."

Veteran defense attorney Susanne Gustin is not connected to the case, but addressed some of the difficulties about making arrests.

"It's a circumstantial case," she said. "You don't have a body. You don't have any physical evidence, it doesn't seem like, so it's a difficult case and I think they're being very careful."

Now that Josh Powell, who had been uncooperative with police, is dead, Gustin questioned what would become of the investigation.

"I think they were hoping that, at some point, he would confess or at some point he would make a mistake," she said. "Then they would have enough evidence to finally arrest him and go forward."

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