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Searchers dig up what looks like charred wood during search for Susan Powell

'It's not the hard evidence everyone wanted,' police say

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 1 2015 11:01 p.m. MDT

West Valley police Saturday completed their digging at what they originally suspected was a disturbed gravesite and removed about 100 small pieces of what appeared to be charred wood. (Pat Reavy, Deseret News) West Valley police Saturday completed their digging at what they originally suspected was a disturbed gravesite and removed about 100 small pieces of what appeared to be charred wood. (Pat Reavy, Deseret News)

DELTA — West Valley police Saturday completed their digging at what they originally suspected was a disturbed gravesite and removed about 100 small pieces of what appeared to be charred wood.

Once the pieces were removed from the hole near Topaz Mountain that investigators had been digging since Wednesday, cadaver dogs trained to detect human decomposition stopped indicating there was something still in the hole and reacted to the collected pile of pieces.

"These charred pieces had something to do with decomposition," said West Valley Police Lt. Bill Merritt.

That means at some point, the charred pieces very likely came in contact with either blood or decomposing flesh or clothing that contained some of that material, he said.

As for how human decomposition got on the charred pieces, Merritt said, "There are so many different scenarios of what it could be."

West Valley police Saturday completed their digging at what they originally suspected was a disturbed gravesite and removed about 100 small pieces of what appeared to be charred wood. (Pat Reavy, Deseret News) West Valley police Saturday completed their digging at what they originally suspected was a disturbed gravesite and removed about 100 small pieces of what appeared to be charred wood. (Pat Reavy, Deseret News)

It was unlikely the apparent wood gave the cadaver dogs a "false positive," Merritt stated. The cadaver dogs are trained to detect human decomposition as opposed to flakes of dead skin. He also noted it was interesting that the charred pieces were found buried about 2 ½ feet in the ground.

Merritt said the area was likely a crime scene at some point. Although he noted the charred pieces appeared to have been fairly recent, there was no way to tell how long they had been there.

The discovery ended several days of digging after nearly a dozen cadaver dogs "hit" on an area in a remote part of central Utah near Topaz Mountain outside of Delta. The discovery was made while police were searching for clues in the case of missing West Valley mother Susan Cox Powell.

The search of the area will continue Sunday. Merritt said it was possible additional police agencies would join and there could be a very large search effort.

West Valley police Saturday completed their digging at what they originally suspected was a disturbed gravesite and removed about 100 small pieces of what appeared to be charred wood. (Pat Reavy, Deseret News) West Valley police Saturday completed their digging at what they originally suspected was a disturbed gravesite and removed about 100 small pieces of what appeared to be charred wood. (Pat Reavy, Deseret News)

As for the hole they had been digging in and sifting through for four days, it is now cleared. "There is nothing else that can be brought out of that hole," the lieutenant said.

Saturday evening, a hole about 2 ½ feet deep, 2 feet wide and 3 feet long was all that remained about 50 yards off a dirt and gravel road where the digging occurred. Most of the charred pieces range from about the size of a dime to a golf ball, Merritt said. The pieces will be taken to the Utah State Medical Examiner's Office for analysis.

Although that hole has now been cleared, Merritt said police were as frustrated as everyone else.

"It's not the hard evidence everyone wanted," he said.

Since Wednesday, investigators have been digging and sifting through the dirt. The department's forensics supervisor, Wendy Clark, who has a degree in anthropology, arrived at the scene Saturday to make the sifting process go much quicker.

West Valley police Saturday completed their digging at what they originally suspected was a disturbed gravesite and removed about 100 small pieces of what appeared to be charred wood. (Pat Reavy, Deseret News) West Valley police Saturday completed their digging at what they originally suspected was a disturbed gravesite and removed about 100 small pieces of what appeared to be charred wood. (Pat Reavy, Deseret News)

Before the charred pieces were found and investigators cleared the scene, Associated Press reporter Jennifer Dobner and two photo journalists were escorted by police to the dig site to act as representatives for the media. She said the area where police were digging was about 50 yards over a small hill off a dirt and gravel road and would not have been visible from the road.

She described watching the process of how two teams of sifters were going through four mounds of dirt all marked with pink flags. The dirt is brought to the sifters after being carried over in five-gallon buckets.

The teams used trays that were stacked on top of each other, one to collect bigger chunks of debris and the other smaller pieces. She described the process of shaking the trays back and forth and running hands through the dirt like preparing soil for a garden or sifting flour.

A police officer continues to search the Topaz Mountain area for missing Utah mother Susan Powell Thursday, Sept. 15, 2011, 50 miles northwest of Delta, Utah. (George Frey, Associated Press) A police officer continues to search the Topaz Mountain area for missing Utah mother Susan Powell Thursday, Sept. 15, 2011, 50 miles northwest of Delta, Utah. (George Frey, Associated Press)

Two officers who had been searching on ATVs all week were brought to the dig site Saturday to help sift through dirt. Two fresh cadaver dogs were also brought to the site. Both of those dogs hit positively on the dig area — making 11 of 11 cadaver dogs that indicated there was human decomposition in the area.

West Valley police, along with help from several agencies including the Juab and Millard County sheriff's offices, have been searching the central Utah desert since Tuesday. The area is approximately 25 miles away from Simpson Springs in Tooele County where Josh Powell, Susan's husband, said he took their two children camping the night before she disappeared.

Josh Powell is considered a person of interest in the case because police say he has not been cooperative in their investigation.

While officers continued investigating the suspected shallow grave, others continued searching other nearby areas. The search Saturday was about 10 to 15 miles away from the dig site, Merritt said. The Juab County Search and Rescue Team brought seven horses and four additional ATVs to the area, bringing the total number of people both searching and sifting on Saturday to about 40.

West Valley police Saturday completed their digging at what they originally suspected was a disturbed gravesite and removed about 100 small pieces of what appeared to be charred wood. (Pat Reavy, Deseret News) West Valley police Saturday completed their digging at what they originally suspected was a disturbed gravesite and removed about 100 small pieces of what appeared to be charred wood. (Pat Reavy, Deseret News)

Chuck Cox, Susan's father who flew to Utah from his home in Puyallup, Wash., and was allowed to observe the dig site Friday, was not at the scene Saturday. He said, however, he did not plan to leave Utah until West Valley's investigation into the area around Topaz Mountain was completed.

Susan Cox Powell, 28, has been missing since Dec. 6, 2009.

E-mail: preavy@desnews.com, Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam

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