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."
Nielsen said as his detectives continued to piece together the evidence, he was optimistic charges could have been filed against Josh this summer. Now that will not happen.
Here's a look at the suspicious behavior and evidence gathered and reported during the past two years:
• The suspicions from many who knew Josh — and even those who didn't — were raised almost as soon as Susan went missing the night of Dec. 6, 2009. Josh reported that he and his sons, then 2 and 4, were camping near Simpson Springs in Tooele County. He said it was around midnight when he last saw his wife as he left for the overnight trip, where the trio apparently braved sub-zero temperatures in the family van.
When the boys didn't arrive for day care the next day, concerned family members went to the Powell family home at 6254 Sarah Circle. When knocks on the door yielded no reply, police were called.
Josh and the boys returned around 5 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 7. Susan has not been seen since.
• Neighbor Tim Petersen later told the Deseret News that when he saw Josh Powell on Dec. 9, the man's hands were "just absolutely windburned."
• Police confirmed that officers found a wet spot on the living room floor with two fans aimed in its direction when they entered the family's home on Dec. 7.
• Police twice seized the family van and questioned the high number of miles on a rental car Josh used, while the van was in police custody.
• On Sunday, an attorney for Susan's parents said the two boys had started talking to their grandparents about things they remembered from the night their mother went missing.
"They were beginning to verbalize more," said Steve Downing, who represents Chuck and Judy Cox. "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."
Josh Powelll submitted to two police interviews, but whatever evidence police had gathered, it wasn't enough to compel Josh Powell to submit to a third interview. In January 2010, he packed up his sons and the family home and left Utah for Washington.
• In 2011, West Valley police conducted two separate searches in Ely, Nev., and the Topaz Mountain area near Delta. Investigators said it was "solid evidence" that led them to those areas, but they would not elaborate on the nature of that evidence.
• Powell maintained custody of his boys without incident until his father, Steven Powell, was arrested and charged with child pornography and voyeurism in September 2011. The evidence for the charges came from an search warrant that was served the month before at the Washington home where Josh and Steven Powell and the boys were living. Nielsen said officers seized a trailer full of evidence.
Steven Powell said police collected every computer in the home, journals, photos and "embarrassing videos." After Steven Powell's arrest, the two boys were placed in the care of Susan Cox Powell's parents.
At a hearing Feb. 1, despite Josh Powell's efforts to have the children returned to his care, a judge ruled that the boys would remain with the Coxes and she set another hearing for July. The judge did say that the court's goal was to eventually return the boys to their father's custody.
She also ordered Powell to undergo a psychosexual exam and polygraph test. The decision was apparently prompted by unspecified images, presumably pornographic, found on Josh's computer.
Gustin said she believes Josh Powell would have been arrested had the images involved children. Still, she said the judge must have had cause for concern to order a psychosexual exam.
"It was probably pretty hardcore that it raised some concerns in the investigator's mind and the judge's mind," she said, adding that a polygraph test would have been limited to questions relating to the exam. "Polygraph is inadmissible in court as evidence, so the judge wouldn't be able to turn that over to police, anyway."1 comment on this story
The death of Josh Powell does not mean a loss of hope for the missing person investigation, authorities said.
"Josh wasn't going to talk to us anyway," Nielsen said. "He hasn't in two years."
The police chief said the investigation into Susan's disappearance will have to take a back seat for the time being.
"It's about this whole family and those boys. This is our job and it's difficult for us, but it pales in comparison to what's happening to that family," Nielsen said.
"But we're committed to try and resolve this."
Contributing: Peter Samore, Tonya Papanikolas