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Analysis: What Josh Powell's murder of his two young sons says about Susan Cox Powell's disappearance

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 1 2015 8:23 a.m. MDT

Josh and Susan Powell with their two sons.  (, Family photo) Josh and Susan Powell with their two sons. (, Family photo)

It's confirmed. Josh Powell is a murderer, but not of the person he has long been suspected of killing.

In a tragic turn of events in the disappearance case of Susan Cox Powell, Sunday afternoon, Powell burned down his Puyallup, Wash., home with his boys Charlie and Braden inside, killing all three.

Authorities say it appears the events were premeditated and that Powell used some kind of accelerant to destroy the house on purpose.

Josh Powell was a person of interest in his wife's disappearance, and had recently lost a court battle to regain custody of his boys after a judge ruled he undergo psychosexual evaluation and a polygraph test first.

Jeffrey Bassett, Powell's attorney, reported that he received a terse suicide note from his client minutes before the house went up in flames that read simply, "I'm sorry, goodbye."

The day after, there are still many questions to be answered -- especially regarding what might have been done to better protect the Powell boys.

Chuck and Judy Cox, the parents of missing Utah mother Susan Cox, talk to reporters at their home in Puyallup, Wash., Monday, Feb. 6, 2012. The Cox's two grandsons, Charlie and Braden, were killed Sunday along with their father, Josh Powell, in what police said appeared to be a deliberately set fire. Susan Cox went mysteriously missing from West Valley City, Utah, home in December 2009.  (Ted S. Warren, Associated Press) Chuck and Judy Cox, the parents of missing Utah mother Susan Cox, talk to reporters at their home in Puyallup, Wash., Monday, Feb. 6, 2012. The Cox's two grandsons, Charlie and Braden, were killed Sunday along with their father, Josh Powell, in what police said appeared to be a deliberately set fire. Susan Cox went mysteriously missing from West Valley City, Utah, home in December 2009. (Ted S. Warren, Associated Press)

There is some hope that Powell provided answers in e-mails and an alleged voice message that he sent to Washington authorities prior to the murder-suicide. But in a press conference today, Pierce County police authorities indicated these messages were not very revealing.

Additionally, Steven Powell, Josh Powell's incarcerated father, may have some answers, though since entering the county jail, he has kept relatively quiet. Authorities noted Sunday that he is on suicide watch.

If these sources don't pan out, it could be a long time before enough pieces of the puzzle are assembled to paint a clear picture of what happened. While Sunday's tragic events bring even more questions, some could be the key to the whole puzzle.

Why did Josh Powell kill his children?

This is the question on everyone's mind may be the most important of the whole case. KSL News reported the children had started talking to their grandparents about what happened the night their mother vanished.

Kiirsi Hellewell, friend of Susan Powell, hugs her father, Kevin Branham, as she talks about the Powell family in Salt Lake County  Sunday, Feb. 5, 2012. Josh Powell and his two sons were killed in an explosion in Washington.  (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Kiirsi Hellewell, friend of Susan Powell, hugs her father, Kevin Branham, as she talks about the Powell family in Salt Lake County Sunday, Feb. 5, 2012. Josh Powell and his two sons were killed in an explosion in Washington. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

"They were beginning to verbalize more," said attorney Steve Downing, whose clients had custody of the children. "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."

The Deseret News' Pat Reavy also reported that at Powell's hearing on Wednesday, when he was ordered to undergo psychosexual evaluation, West Valley City police indicated images were found on Josh Powell's computer that, according to court records, "specifically related to their children's welfare." Did this evidence back Powell into a corner he felt was inescapable?

Studies on filicide — the killing of children by a parent — may show another possible motive: altruism. Regardless of Powell's involvement in the disappearance of Susan Cox Powell, his state of mind could have been such that he feared for his children's well-being.

According to Josh Powell's sister Alina in a recent statement, much of the Powell family felt the boys were in danger in the Cox home.

"Recently, my nephews have been subjected to multiple instances of severe endangerment and physical abuse by the Coxes," the statement said. "Child Protective Services (CPS) has condoned the Coxes’ abuse and endangerment of my nephews, and certain members of CPS are trying their best to smooth it over and cover it up."

In a study of 30 families where filicide-suicide occurred, the Journal of the America Academy of Psychiatry and the Law Online (JAAPL) reported that "The majority (70 percent) of the motives for filicide-suicide were identified as altruistic -- that is, the parents (90 percent of the mothers and 60 percent of the fathers) were motivated by the desire to alleviate real or imagined suffering in their children."

Why by Fire?

Further consideration might lead one to believe the motive was even less intuitive than fear of being discovered or even fear for his children's lives.

In the same JAAPL study, experts say, "The large majority (73 percent) of parents killed their children by shooting, including 7 (70 percent) mothers and 15 (75 percent) fathers. Other methods—sometimes used in combination—included beating (10 percent), drowning in a car (7 percent), suffocation (7 percent), stabbing (7 percent), arson (3 percent), carbon monoxide poisoning (3 percent), and strangulation (3 percent)."

At only 3 percent, filicide-suicide by arson may have served another purpose. It was the evidence found on computers found in the Powell home that were, in part, the reason for Josh Powell's planned psychiatric evaluation.

Perhaps there was more evidence in the house that Powell intended to take with him to the grave, or perhaps it was his way of taking back total control of the situation from everyone — the police, the state, the Cox family or perhaps his father.

In another report by Deseret News reporter Pat Reavy, Powell was said to be controlling. Susan Cox Powell's best friend, Kiirsi Hellewell of West Valley told reporters, "Josh has always been about control. To him, the boys were his possessions. To him it was all about getting control back."

Why was a "person of interest" in a murder case allowed visits with his children?

Josh Powell had custody of the boys for nearly two years after his wife's disappearance, and it was only because his father — with whom he and the boys lived — was arrested that they were taken out of the home. According to the Seattle Times, Sherry Hill, spokeswoman for Child Protective Services, said the children were removed from Josh Powell's custody because of their grandfather, Steven Powell's, charges of alleged voyeurism and child pornography, not because Josh Powell was a person of interest in the Susan Cox Powell criminal case.

"If someone were expressing suicidal thoughts there would have been protocols in place," Hill said. "If there were concerns about the children being harmed we would have taken some action. We wouldn't have taken the children over there."

In another report on MyNorthwest.com, Stephen Downing, The Cox's attorney in the civil case indicated they were satisfied with the State's precautions.

"It was their belief," he said, "Josh had something to do with Susan's disappearance, and that ultimately he could harm the children. But they believed the state had listened to them and had taken appropriate measures to protect them. They don't know what more the state could have done."

Was Wednesday's psychosexual evaluation ruling the final straw?

In an interview between Seattle radio station KIRO and Jeffrey Bassett, Josh Powell's attorney in the civil case against the Coxes, Bassett said regarding the impact of the psychosexual evaluation on Powell, "I wasn't happy about the psychosexual evaluation because I thought there was a midpoint that could have been done that would have been a lot easier and not so intrusive or invasive by doing a polygraph with specific questions to show that these weren't images that he know about which would have put him out of the risk. But the judge ruled otherwise. We discussed appealing the order but I said the better thing to do was to just get started and get it done. I hadn't any inkling this was going to happen. I just don't know how to explain it. We had agreed between the department and me to a specific provider (of the evaluation) and things were being set up."

Was Josh Powell undergoing any prior psychiatric evaluation?

Further into the KIRO interview, Bassett indicated that Josh Powell had agreed to meet with a psychiatric counselor, but he did not elaborate or give names.

"That was something we had agreed upon, just having him see a counselor, just so that he could kind of unload with all the stress that he was going through," Bassett said.

Where is Susan Powell?

There are several theories about what happened to Susan Powell, including new revelations to the LA Times that her oldest son had drawn a picture for a school assignment that depicted his mother in the trunk of the family car.

"Charlie drew a picture at school. You were supposed to draw a picture of something you had done during the summer. And he drew a picture of the family's vehicle, with Dad driving the car, he and Braden in the back seat, and Mom was in the trunk," Tacoma attorney Steve Downing told the Los Angeles Times.

Josh Powell and his father created a website after Susan's disappearance based on the premise that Susan had left the family on her own accord. On it they said, "Susan knows that she cannot return without having people of the same mentality as the Cox 'Friends and Family' turn on her. As difficult as it has been for Josh to cope with this, we believe that in Susan's emotional state she will not be able to face it."

In a 2009 interview with Greta Van Sustern, Kiirsi Hallewell, Susan Powell's best friend, spoke of divorce, but indicated things had gotten better before her disappearance.

"They have had their problems in the past, and some of them were somewhat more severe than some of the other couples I have known," Hallewell said. "But they both told me in the past couple of months that things are getting much better.

Josh's father Steven agrees that Susan was motivated "sexually" and "financially" to leave her family. In an interview with ABC News, he told the reporter that Susan came onto him to the point where he began to "fall in love with her."

Criminal profiler Marcel Elfers believes Steven Powell may have something to do with Susan's disappearance, inferring that events leading up to her disappearance open up the "possibility that Josh left the home with the children to give someone else ample time to clean up the evidence. A person with his own secrets that Josh knows about, a person that is a confidant, a person willing to cooperate, a person like a dad with norms and values that are extended outside acceptable boundaries. Law enforcement will soon figure it out. The charges against the father increase the stress levels on Josh and Steve Powell. One will be played against the other and the one that gives in first is not the murderer."

In the same ABC interview where Steven Powell confessed his attraction to Susan, a reporter asked Josh directly, "Did you kill your wife?" "I would never hurt her," Josh replied.

Elfers gives his professional opinion: "That answer is very telling.

"First, he did not answer the question and did not deny killing her. Secondly, he makes a conditional claim referencing to the future ('would never') and thirdly, he down plays the question by changing 'killing' to just 'hurting.' Such statements are very often deceptive in nature. Lying makes one extremely uncomfortable. They rather make a truthful statement and then leave critical information out. 'I would never hurt her' is such a statement. He avoided a direct answer without lying and that is 'lying by omission.' "

Answers may become available to these and other questions in the coming days and months. However, many may be left unanswered — including what happened to Susan Cox Powell — now that Josh Powell and his little boys are gone.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company