GRAHAM, Wash — Josh Powell donated boxes of toys and books to a Goodwill charity over the weekend before he murdered his two children in a fire, police said Monday.
Powell, who died with the boys in the Sunday blaze, also sent multiple emails about what to do with his utilities, his money and other aspects of his life" before he set the fire, said Pierce County sheriff's spokesman Ed Troyer.
"This is definitely a planned out event and this is something he planned on doing no matter who was hurt," he said.
The emails, addressed to a pastor, cousins, his attorney and others, were all sent minutes before his two boys arrived at his Washington home.
"We found two 5-gallon cans of gas. One was found with the bodies, the other we believe was spread throughout the house," he said. "There were accelerants throughout the entire house."
None of the emails contained information about his wife, Susan Cox Powell, who has been missing for more than two years. The content of the emails varied a little, but essentially said, "'I'm sorry. I can't live without my boys,' and that's it," Troyer said.
Family members — and many others who have been following the high-profile case — continued to struggle Monday to understand what went wrong.
"This isn't fair he had to be such a jerk and take them away with him," an emotional Denise Cox said in tears. She was reflective, angry and numb late Sunday as she stood at a candlelight vigil at the elementary school of her two nephews.
Arson investigators returned to the charred home Monday and could be seen bagging evidence and taking measurements. Debris from the fire, mostly insulation, was littered across lawns in the neighborhood.
"Pretty much devastation, not much left," Steve Richards, Graham Fire and Rescue's assistant chief, said of the scene Monday. "We're going to try to put the pieces of the puzzle together."
Autopsies were scheduled to be conducted Monday for Braden and Charlie Powell, ages 5 and 7. Troyer said no weapons were recovered and a preliminary examination of the bodies did not show any signs of gunshot wounds.
Investigators didn't yet know where the fire originated. The first firefighters arrived just three minutes after receiving the call. The nearest fire station is only one block away from Powell's home.
"Upon our arrival, the fire was burning hot," Richards said. "It was heavily involved, fire through the roof."
After Powell's father, Steven Powell, was arrested in September and charged with voyeurism and possession of child pornography, Josh Powell began renting the Graham home in October from owners Patrick and Necia Small.
"My concern was who he was. But I figured they had not convicted the man. He was due a second chance," Necia Small said Monday. "Our main concern (now) is the family."
Sunday night at Charlie's school, Emma L. Carson Elementary, classmates, friends and people who had never met the young boy lit candles, left stuffed toy animals and posted signs like, "Our hearts go out to Charlie and Braden," during a candlelight vigil.
"It's tragic. I can't even imagine killing your own kids," said Miah Dollente, whose 6-year-old daughter, Faith, was one of Charlie's classmates. "Who does that? I don't understand it."
"It's not real yet," Cox said of the boys' deaths.
"Our family is in shock," she said. "Everything in the house reminds you (of the boys). … I'm still thinking I'll see the boys tomorrow."
Cox talked about how Charlie wanted to get a new aquarium for his birthday and how she expected to walk into her father's home and see the boys fighting over a stuffed animal like any other day.
"It's not fair that everybody has been taken away from our family," she said of both the boys and her sister, Susan Cox Powell, who has been missing since 2009.
Three police officers were visible at Emma L. Carson Elementary Monday morning as parents dropped off their children.
"It's very sad here," said Karen Hansen, executive director of communications for the Puyallup School District. "The district feels very bad about this tragedy."
Teachers and staff at the school, where Charlie attended first grade, were offered counseling before school began Monday. They were also given a list of ideas about how best to address the sensitive topic with students.
A handout suggested telling students: "I have sad news to report. Yesterday, Charlie Powell, one of our fist grade students, died in a terrible tragedy. He was a nice friendly young man and our Carson family will miss him."
Hansen said guidance counselors were also present and teachers planned to be "very vigilant" about watching children for any signs that may warrant help.
The fire happened Sunday shortly after the boys were brought over to Josh Powell's house, 8119 189th Street Court East, for one of their bi-weekly supervised three-hour visits. It was the first supervised visit since a judge ruled Wednesday that their maternal grandparents Chuck and Judy Cox would continue to have temporary custody of the boys.
The boys ran toward the home, ahead of the social worker there to oversee the visit. By the time she got to the door, Powell had let his sons in but locked her out, Graham Fire and Rescue Chief Gary Franz said.
"He pushed her out. He blocked her out," Pierce County sheriff's spokesman Ed Troyer said. "The whole thing was planned."
The social worker called her supervisors to report that she could smell gas, and moments later the home erupted in flames.
The fire was intense, but there was no explosion, Troyer said. Windows popped out because of the heat, which some residents may have mistaken for an explosion.
Just minutes before, Josh Powell had sent an email to his attorney, Jeff Bassett, which simply said, "I'm sorry, goodbye." Bassett did not see the email until he was told about the fire.
"It's not a shock that he's capable of doing that, but the fact he actually did it shocks us," Denise Cox said. "That was the shocker."
Cox said the boys on Sunday did not want to go to their father's house, which he reportedly was renting, because they wanted to stay and play with their cousins instead.
Sunday's tragedy came just four days after a hearing in Pierce County Superior Court in which a judge ordered the children to remain in the custody of the Cox family and Powell to undergo a psychosexual evaluation. The evaluation was ordered because of purported images found on one of Powell's computers by West Valley police.
During the hearing, the guardian ad litem reported Branden and Charlie were making great progress and doing well with Chuck and Judy Cox.
Denise Cox said she had watched how the boys had gone from at first being reserved around their grandparents because of what they had been told by their father, to opening up and greeting everyone with hugs.
The bitter feud between Powell and his in-laws has been ongoing for nearly two years and has split Powell's family. Some believe Powell was responsible for Susan's disappearance. He has long been called a person of interest in the case by West Valley police.
When asked Sunday whether she feared the answer of what happened to her sister died with her brother-in-law, Denise Cox admitted she was "totally terrified of it."
Her belief is that Steven Powell, Josh's father, has some information about what happened to Susan. Her hope is that he'll share that information now that his son and the grandsons are gone.
"I'm hoping he tells us where she's at," Cox said. "I think he's our last hope."
Steven Powell remained in the Pierce County Jail Sunday on voyeurism and child pornography charges. He reportedly was placed on a suicide watch.
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff issued a statement calling Josh Powell a coward and expressing sympathy for the Cox family.
"I have witnessed a lot of evil in my 12 years as attorney general, but Josh Powell murdering his two little boys is the most fiendish act yet," Shurtleff said. "Josh Powell's malevolence is a reminder that our legal/criminal system can sometimes be inadequate. Hope lies in family, faith and community. These senseless killings strengthen my resolve to do more to protect all, and especially our vulnerable little ones."
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert also expressed condolences in a statement from him and his wife.
“To have two innocent children taken in such a heart-breaking and horrible manner is a tragedy of the greatest proportions. Our thoughts and prayers are with all those who are suffering as a result of this great loss.”
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