Judge sentences 'creep of a neighbor' Steven Powell to 30 months

Mother can't forgive him for stealing daughters' sense of security

Published: Friday, June 15 2012 8:04 p.m. MDT

Steve Powell is led from a courtroom shortly after being sentenced to 30 months in prison for voyeurism, Friday, June 15, 2012, in Tacoma, Wash. Powell, the father-in-law of missing mom Susan Powell, was convicted last month based on evidence that was uncovered during the police investigation into the 2009 disappearance of his daughter-in-law, who has never been found.

Ted S. Warren, AP

TACOMA, Wash. — In the end, the sentence Steven Powell received was about two girls. 

Two girls who were "crushed" when they learned they had been filmed in the bathroom of their own home without their knowledge, their mother said. Two girls who experienced "embarrassment and heartache" as a result of Steven Powell's actions.

"They have to carry this forever with them," their mother said Friday. "And while I didn't know you were watching my girls, I do know that somebody was watching you. And you better pray that he forgives you, because I can't."

Pierce County Superior Court Judge Ronald Culpepper said he felt Powell's actions warranted an exceptional sentence and ordered the 62-year-old man to serve 30 months in custody and up to three years on probation. Powell will have to take a psychosexual examination, undergo sexual deviance treatment and pay restitution to his victims, who are now in counseling.

"Here we have two little girls doing nothing but minding their own business and their creep of a neighbor is peering at them, leering at them," Culpepper said. "There's something seriously wrong with Mr. Powell's view of women in the world."

But the judge said he cannot hold Powell accountable for the disappearance of his daughter-in-law Susan Cox Powell and wanted to be careful not to sentence him because of the notoriety of that case.

"I know some people want Mr. Powell to rot in prison for the rest of his life," Culpepper said. "But I don't think that's appropriate. ... As far as I know, there's nothing to indicate he was involved (in the disappearance)."

Powell did not react or show any emotion during the hearing. He did not respond to the sentence or to the harsh words of the victims' mother. When asked if he had anything to say, he responded: "No, sir."

"A lot of people are curious about what you might have to say," Culpepper prodded.

Powell paused for a moment, looked at the judge, and repeated himself.

"No, sir."

Powell was given credit for the 267 days he has already served. With the possibility of a good behavior reduction, the sentence will be closer to 26 months. With the credit, Powell will likely spend just over another 16 months in custody.

"I guess I'm one of those who wants to see him locked away forever," said Chuck Cox, Susan Powell's father. "Thirty months is a slap in the face to the victims."

Anne Bremner, attorney for the girls, said their parents "definitely feel 10 years is too light." They declined to comment after the sentencing. But before the hearing started, Bremner was taken into a back room where she served Powell with a lawsuit for "general wrongful acts, invasion of privacy, outrage and voyeurism."

In court, the victims' mother was full of emotion as she called Powell a "disgusting neighbor" and strongly chastised him. She said while Powell may believe humans are "more like animals and should do as they wish with no regard to others," she believes people "should act like humans and take responsibility for how we choose to behave."

"I have yet to hear you apologize. You've sat there smugly as if it's perfectly normal to commit your crimes," she said to Powell. "Shame on you! Shame on you for not admitting what you did was wrong, and for not admitting it at all."

She struggled to speak through her tears as she told Powell how angry she was and how difficult this has been for her children.

"They did nothing to you, but you've stolen their sense of security," the woman said.

Powell was convicted by a jury on 14 counts of voyeurism in May. But before the sentence was issued Friday, Culpepper dismissed two of those charges.

Defense attorneys argued that many of the voyeurism charges could have stemmed from the same photo session and, thus, constituted a single act of voyeurism.

"(These photos) could have all been taken on one day," attorney Travis Currie said. "When you can't tell, the court should not go out of (its) way to turn one crime into multiple crimes."

Prosecutor Grant Blinn argued that while investigators can't say specifically when all of the many photographs were taken, he believes most were from separate videotaped sequences and warranted separate criminal charges.

The judge and attorneys reviewed photographs taken of the two victims Friday, analyzing similar items seen in the background.

"These look to me very much like they are taken right about the same time," Culpepper said, referring to two photos that appear to depict the same clothing, a pillow and a dog.

Blinn agreed and motioned to have one of the 14 counts of voyeurism against Powell dismissed.

The photos seized by police had been labeled "Taking bath-1," "Taking bath-2" and "Open window in back house." Culpepper wondered if that was evidence that the photos came during separate sessions, assuming Powell wrote those labels.

The judge analyzed shapes, colors and objects, including the position of a water glass in other photos, to try and determine if the photos were taken at different times. At one point, Culpepper asked attorneys if it mattered since the jury had returned 14 guilty verdicts.

"They didn't decide whether these were separate counts," Currie replied.

But the judge seemed uncertain whether he should be second-guessing by reviewing these photos from the bench. 'You want me to decide based on fuzzy pictures," the judge said.

After some discussion, Culpepper agreed to dismiss a second count because two other photos appear to have been taken at the same time. Powell was then facing a total of 12 counts of voyeurism.

Defense attorneys pushed for a one-year sentence or less for Powell. They said they conducted "exhaustive" research on voyeurism cases in Pierce County dating back to 2002 and said a similar case, involving 16 counts of voyeurism, netted a sentence of 261 days.

Blinn said that case involved a defendant who confessed and victims who asked for leniency. "None of those factors are present in this case," he said.

Prosecutors asked the judge for an "exceptional sentence" of 10 years because they felt the nature of the case justified a longer term. In a pre-sentence report, the Department of Corrections sided with prosecutors and recommended the same sentence, citing "aggravating circumstances."

Defense attorney Mark Quigley argued Friday that a 10-year sentence was too harsh because it is on par with a sentence for a child rape or a second-degree murder conviction and reminded the judge that Powell has no criminal history.

"These girls were never physically harmed, physically touched," Quigley said of the victims.

He also asked the judge "not to punish Mr. Powell for the crimes of his son,"  referring to Josh Powell.

Culpepper asked prosecutors if they were aware of anyone receiving a 10-year sentence for voyeurism.

Blinn said no case came to mind, but reiterated that Powell has never shown remorse, never taken responsibility or acknowledged he did something wrong. The two victims in the case will always worry about whether those photos will resurface. Two consecutive 60-month sentences seem "just" and "fair," Blinn said.

Under the state statute in place when the crimes were alleged to have occurred in 2006, the possible sentence on each count was zero to 12 months in jail. Ultimately, the judge determined the case did, in fact, deserve a stronger sentence and ordered Powell to serve 30 months on each count, to be served concurrently.

"I think it's appropriate the judge did ignore the 10-year thing," Powell's daughter, Alina Powell, said after the hearing. "I don't know what to say about 30 months. I don't know what the law says about that."

She said she does not know if she believes her father is guilty and always knew him to be a "wonderful man." Now, her father is doing "just fine considering the circumstances." She also said she was not surprised that he did not speak in court.

"In this case, there's nothing to say," she said. "Nothing he can say because this is too politicized, too publicized."

And in spite of the judge's best efforts, she thinks Susan Powell's disappearance did factor into her father's case.

Photos of Susan Powell taken without her knowledge were also seized during a search of Steven Powell's Puyallup, Wash., home. A pre-sentence report filed Monday referred to Powell's diary entries relating to his daughter-in-law. At one point, the author of the report said he lost count of how many times Powell wrote about fantasies involving Susan, including a hope that his son would break up with her so he could marry her.

Cox said he plans to talk to talk to prosecutors about filing another case against Powell on his missing daughter's behalf.

"She was a victim," he said Friday. "But I understand why they excluded her from the case. It made it a cleaner case."

His wife, Judy Cox, called the entire case "very frustrating," but said every little bit helps them get closure, even as their ultimate goal is to find their daughter and bury her. Friday, there was some comfort in knowing Powell would remain in custody.

"This was about a family with two girls and I wish it had never happened," Judy Cox said. "I feel the pain this family is going through."

The pre-sentence report detailed Powell's penchant for randomly filming or photographing women and girls, primarily focusing on intimate areas. This behavior came to light in the course of an investigation into Susan Powell's disappearance.

Police served a search warrant on Steven Powell's Puyallup, Wash., home and seized thousands of photographs of women and girls.

Among them were numerous pictures of two young girls who were Powell's neighbors starting in 2006. He videotaped and photographed them from his house — just 40 to 50 feet away — by looking into their bathroom through an open door. Most of the photos showed the girls, then 8 and 10 years old, in the nude. They are now 13 and 15.

The girls testified at Powell's trial and said they never gave anyone permission to take pictures of them.

The sentencing was the latest in a long line of events spurred by Susan Powell's disappearance. The 28-year-old mother of two has been missing since Dec. 6, 2009. The night before she was reported missing, Josh Powell, Steven Powell's son, 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 was named a person of interest in the case, but was never arrested. He moved into his father's Puyallup home soon after his wife disappeared and lived there until his father's arrest, when his two sons Charlie, 7, and Braden, 5, were removed from his care and placed with their maternal grandparents.

As part of an ongoing custody battle, Josh Powell rented his own home in Graham, Wash. It was there where that he killed himself and his two sons on Feb. 5 after setting fire to the home.

After Friday's sentencing, defense attorneys officially filed an appeal of Powell's conviction.

E-mail: emorgan@desnews.com

Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam

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