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Lawmaker: 'Red flags' were there throughout Josh Powell's life

Published: Thursday, Feb. 9 2012 10:53 p.m. MST

The home of Josh Powell in Graham, Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2012. (Ravell Call, Deseret News) The home of Josh Powell in Graham, Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2012. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — When Josh Powell shut the door on Elizabeth Griffin-Hall the social worker said she heard two things:

"I heard him say, 'Charlie, I've got a real surprise for you!' and that was real normal because he always had surprises for the children," Griffin-Hall told ABC News Thursday.

And then, "I heard Braden cry out and I thought Braden had bumped his foot."

Griffin-Hall said she started calling out: "Let me in!," knocking on the door and ringing the bell. But she was shut out.

The sound of a child in pain and the smell of gasoline were immediate indicators of the irrevocable damage Powell was about to cause. But it was just the final warning sign in a lifetime full of them.

In this bank surveillance photo released by the Pierce Co. Sheriff's Dept., Josh Powell, left, is seen making a withdrawal at a bank in Puyallup, Wash. Saturday, Feb. 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Pierce Co. Sheriff's Dept.) In this bank surveillance photo released by the Pierce Co. Sheriff's Dept., Josh Powell, left, is seen making a withdrawal at a bank in Puyallup, Wash. Saturday, Feb. 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Pierce Co. Sheriff's Dept.)

Court documents reveal Powell had a troubled adolescence filled with tension and violence. Longtime friends cite examples of behavior called both callous and selfish. Interviews and evidence gathered following the disappearance of his wife pointed to bizarre actions. And most recently, an "alert" sent to the Washington courts from authorities in Utah citing pornographic material found in his home have lawmakers and others asking why Powell was allowed near his children.

"Here we have Josh Powell with lots of accusations, lots of red flags and he's fast-tracked to reunification with visits in his own home," Washington state Sen. Pamela Roach, R-Auburn, said. "It should be at a distant location, if it's going to happen at all. In the case of Josh Powell, with all of the things we know, maybe it shouldn't have happened at all."

Sunday, Griffin-Hall said she initially thought the door slamming in front of her was a mistake. There was a second just before the door closed when she saw Powell.

"His eyes caught mine and he had a look in his eyes," she said. "If I were to describe it as a look on his face, it was, kind of … it was friendly enough, it was just kind of sheepish."

She went to her car and called 911 and would spend eight minutes convincing dispatchers that Charlie, 7, and Braden, 5, were in real danger.  

By the time police arrived — reportedly 22 minutes after Griffin-Hall placed the call — the home was a massive blaze. The two boys and their father were later found dead inside.

"It was unreal to me, it was an incredulous thought that Josh Powell had murdered his children and he had murdered his children while they were in my care,” Griffin-Hall said.

Roach said the deaths of the boys have left the people of Washington "up in arms" and wondering how a man who took his children camping in subzero temperatures, allowed them to live in a home where their grandfather was allegedly making and viewing pornography and was under investigation in the disappearance of his wife was allowed to have visits at his home.

"I want to see what the judge was given," Roach said. "Maybe it was the judge. Maybe it was the department (of social and health services), but in some manner the information that was so important that was coming from Utah to our state was not heeded and I think we need an investigation here."

Roach was referring to an alert that she said was sent by the West Valley City Police Department to the court and child protective services in Washington. Roach said the information was pertinent enough to the Powell children's welfare that police sent it in advance of a Feb. 1 custody hearing.

It resulted in Powell being ordered to undergo a a psychosexual exam, a test apparently recommended by West Valley City, Roach said.

"We shouldn't have been treating the case the way they did here in Washington state," Roach said. "The fact of the matter is it's our responsibility as adults and, in this case, an agency, to protect children. They should have been doing just that and they, in my opinion, didn't."

Thomas Shapley of the Washington Department of Social and Health Services said West Valley police sent documents and images that had been recovered from Powell's computer. Only a few people were allowed to view the items, but both a social worker and a psychologist under contract with DSHS were among them.

"Without the introduction of that material, there's a good chance the court could have set about the process to return the children to Mr. Powell," Shapley said. "Senator Roach seems to think we drug our feet or we failed to act on the information out of Utah. We acted on it."

The troubling questions and search for understanding has put the focus on Josh Powell and his father, Steven. Trouble appeared long before Josh ever met Susan Cox.

It was in November 1992, when Powell was 16, that his mother expressed concerns about her sons and what she felt they were learning from her Steven Powell, her husband.

"To see them becoming so hardened toward others and scornful of law and order is very frightening to me," Terrica Powell wrote in a court declaration. "I feel that they are being victimized by Steve's distorted teachings. I am hoping that they will be able to receive the kind of help they need in time to prevent them from destroying their lives, or others' lives around them."

The disturbing details of Josh Powell's adolescence can be found in close to 200 pages of court documents filed as part of a divorce proceeding. They include threats he allegedly made to his mother with a butcher knife,  and his killing of a pet hamster. Terrica Powell wrote numerous times about Josh Powell, who apparently followed his father's lead in harassing and abusing their mother, according to the documents.

"With the kind of disrespect the kids have learned to have regarding laws, I worry about what they will do," Terrica Powell wrote. "It seems like there is a sickness pervading my family and I have been powerless to stop it."

Still, the woman wrote that Josh "has shown moments of thoughtfulness and cooperation" and "sometimes shows a very sweet side." In one declaration, an aunt said Josh Powell, then 14, attempted suicide by hanging.

Terrica Powell said many of her son's issues at the time might have stemmed from a turbulent relationship with his father. Steven Powell would "pointedly attack" Josh Powell, she stated in the documents.

"I think that much of Josh's difficulties through the years has stemmed from not knowing where the boundaries are — what are the limits of acceptable behavior," she said .

Time and time again, the documents and affidavits characterize Steven Powell as controlling, manipulative and verbally abusive. All of these traits have also been used to describe his son. Steven Powell remains in a Washington jail awaiting trial on children pornography and voyeurism charges.

Rachel Marini, who knew Josh Powell before he married Susan Cox, said she and her husband, Tim, became good friends with the couple in Washington. But she eventually started to take issue with the way Josh Powell treated his wife.

"Every restaurant we ate at, Susan could have one thing from the dollar menu, but he could have whatever he wanted," Marini said, recalling a road trip the group took. "He just had to be in control of every situation and the one who called all of the shots."

Marini said she was also concerned about the callousness with which he treated his children. He wouldn't extend his hand to keep a young Charlie from falling down the stairs, instead calling Susan Cox Powell in from another room to help the child. At one point, the boy appeared malnourished because Josh Powell said he wasn't "wasting his table food" on the child.

"Josh has always scared me as a parent," Marini said. "He's never been an attentive or responsible parent."

"We will never forget Susan," Marini said this week. "She was such a wonderful girl. She was so happy and friendly and a friend to everyone we met."

She said Josh Powell's final act was evidence of his guilt.

"If he was capable of doing that to these two children he claimed he loved … of course he could do something similar to Susan," Marini said. "I'm ashamed to have once called him my friend. He and Susan were once one of our best friends. I don't know how I could have known him for 12 years and not known what a maniac he was."

Investigators have vowed to continue seeking answers to the whereabouts of Susan Powell, who disappeared in December 2009. Investigators from the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office searched a recycling center Wednesday in search of possible information deposited there by Josh Powell. Results of the investigation were not available.

E-mail: emorgan@desnews.com Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam

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