Live coverage: Steven Powell trial in Tacoma
Editor's note: Because this story deals with the harmful effects of pornography, some of the subject matter may not be suitable for all readers.
TACOMA, Wash. — Jennifer Graves wanted answers.
It had been six weeks since Susan Cox Powell had gone missing from her West Valley home and speculation was growing that her brother Josh Powell was responsible.
Now Graves was headed to Washington state to confront him herself at the home of her father and get a confession. But Josh remained silent.
Her father Steven Powell did not.
“Oh, it wasn't good. At one point he let out this string of swear words. And my husband was there with me, and holding it together pretty well. And we knew going in that it was probably going to be tense because I went in there for that reason,” Graves said.
It was Jan. 22, 2010, the last time she would speak to her father, who today sits in a Washington jail cell facing voyeurism and child pornography charges. Monday, the tragic family story centers on the family patriarch and enters its final chapter as the trial of Steven Powell begins.
A review of thousands of pages of public records, including divorce documents, social services reports and personal emails, and dozens of interviews with family members and friends reveals the startling impact Steven Powell has had on his ex-wife and five children. It is a legacy of harm that Graves believes would have continued to a third generation if left unchecked.
"There's a whole lot of parallels between my dad and Josh," Graves said. "I mean, it's really actually kind of scary how many lines are drawn between the two of them. And it's very possible if Josh (had been) allowed to keep the kids that the boys would have ended up following in his footsteps.
"I mean, how could you not when you're surrounded by two men who have these twisted, nasty beliefs? So you're going to end up like them, likely."
It wasn't always so.
Steven Powell, born in Portland, Ore., at one time was described by his wife as a loving husband and devout member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He served an LDS mission to Argentina. He married Terrica Martin in the early 1970s and had five children: Jennifer, John, Josh, Michael and Alina.
At times they struggled financially, but Steven was able to maintain a steady job with a California-based furniture company as a delivery driver. But over the course of four decades, there was change.
A distrust of Mormonism developed, pornography was embraced, a hatred of his in-laws festered, and the controlling behavior of Steven Powell grew as the family endured a bitter divorce.
The man once described as a "thoughtful" and "devoted" husband would become obsessed with and sexually attracted to his daughter-in-law. He would allegedly take inappropriate photos of neighborhood children and feed his appetite for pornography.
What remains is a family split apart, siblings at odds, two grandchildren dead, a mother unaccounted for and a public in search of answers.
If the downfall of Steven Powell could be pinpointed to one thing, many believe it was his strong addiction to pornography.
"I think pornography played a big role in tearing our family apart," Graves said. "Because it breaks down your mind, it breaks down families, it breaks down trust. It's going to lead to other things."
The deeper Steven Powell got into porn, the further he strayed from LDS beliefs.
"And then it got worse and the addiction got worse and then he started to have additional things that he was unfaithful to my mom with, like having this obsession with a woman in our ward," Graves recalled. "It just led down this path that he just refused to recognize as wrong."
During Steven and Terri Powell's divorce proceedings, it was suggested that Steven was in love with a woman in his church congregation and wanted her to become his second wife. He allegedly said he was having "fantasies about her all the time," according to Terri's sister, Becky Mulcahy, in divorce documents.
Terri noted herself in divorce papers that while she was pregnant with Alina, she found Steven's diary, which "was a record of two years worth of explicit fantasies he had about a woman we both knew. … His writings were detailed descriptions of what he would like to be doing with her, particularly sexually."
Steven Powell wrote in his own diary that he wanted to marry the woman and raise her children should anything happen to the woman's husband, Terri Powell said in divorce papers.
"He even wrote a song about motherhood that was inspired by her," court papers state. "I was concerned sometimes that he might even have it in his mind to harm her husband to put himself in the position that he desired."
As early as 1984, Terri said her husband asked her, "What would you think if I got another wife?"
Years later, after Susan Powell went missing, reports surfaced that Steven Powell had talked at one point to his son about "sharing" Susan. Chuck Cox, Susan's father, noted in court papers that Steven Powell had once suggested that his daughter-in-law could become a "common wife" to both him and Josh.
Graves said she doesn't know when or how her father's obsession with pornography began.
"My mom told me she started suspecting things just within a couple of years of them getting married," Graves said. Terri believed it was her husband's heavy travel schedule through his work that gave him an outlet to dive deeper into pornography.
"She was suspecting he'd leave and go indulge his fantasies somewhere else," Graves said.
Terri Powell, 57, who lives in Utah, has remained steadfast in staying out of the public eye since her daughter-in-law disappeared, refusing all interviews.
It wasn't until October of 2011 that Terri Powell broke her silence in a letter she wrote for the courts in Washington on Josh's behalf during his custody battle with his in-laws, Chuck and Judy Cox, over his sons.
She said her son was a "loving and very engaged father in the care of his sons" and called the atmosphere at her son's home "supportive and calm." Months later, days after a judge told Josh Powell he would not immediately regain full custody of his two boys, he murdered the children and killed himself in an inferno at a home in Graham. Wash.
By the time Graves was between 10 and 12 years old, she knew pornography was a problem in her parents' marriage. Graves said she remembers traveling on a business trip with her father and stopping for the night at a hotel:
"I remember one of the evenings I was laying on my bed and he was on his bed and he turned on this program that was just total porn. And I was just huddled in my bed like, 'Oh, my gosh!'" she said.
Pornographic magazines were kept in Steven Powell's home office, which he either gave to his sons or they found on their own, Graves said.
"He was bringing it into our home even at that stage. So the fact that he is so into it now and it has led to additional steps of degrading into child porn and that kind of stuff, it's not a surprise to me."
The child pornography allegations are part of the court case facing Steven Powell this week. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges. He has also declined several requests to be interviewed.
Terri Powell documented in divorce papers: "Steve has long kept hard-core porno hidden in our house. Steve also visits adult porno shops." She also claimed that Steven had made comments like, "People are just like animals anyway, we ought to be able to have sex with anyone, anytime we please."
When Alina and Michael were 8 and 6 years old, their father showed them books about sex, Mulcahy said in court documents. Steven also suggested supplying his children with birth control when they ranged in ages from 9 to 12, according to his ex-wife.
Terri suggested then that her husband "totally stripped away all respect in Josh and John for fidelity in marriage," according to court documents. "This attitude Steve has portrayed regarding sexuality has been very troubling. I worry because the kids don't view sex with the kind of respect they ought to," she said.
Graves recalled a business trip where Josh and another boy were swimming in a hotel pool, and a short time later she found them around a corner with a 4-year-old girl who was no longer wearing a swimsuit.
Terri said her son Josh made a comment in 1992 about a girl his brother liked: "All she is good for is her body, right Dad?"
Allegations of taking secret pictures would lead to Steven's public downfall.
On Aug. 25, 2011, West Valley police traveled to Steven and Josh Powell's home in Puyallup, Wash., with a search warrant in hand. The warrant was in connection to the ongoing investigation into the disappearance of Susan Powell.
"It was discovered through the investigation that Steve Powell had a very strong obsession for his daughter-in-law Susan Powell," a recently released search warrant states.
Less than a month later, Steven Powell was arrested and charged with 14 counts of voyeurism and one count of possession of depictions of minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct.
Police said they found about 2,000 photographs of young children, mostly young girls and many in partial states of undress. The charges were based on photographs Steven Powell allegedly took from June 2006 to August 2007 of two neighbor girls, ages 8 and 10, through an open window into their bathroom without their knowledge.
Other pictures of Susan, allegedly taken secretly with her only wearing underwear, were found in her father-in-law's bedroom. VHS and 8mm tapes with Susan's name on them were also seized, according to the search warrant.
When Josh and Susan Powell's children, Charlie and Braden, were subsequently removed from the Puyallup home, state officials expressed concern about a graphic poster of a woman found inside the home with a knife sticking through her.
State welfare officials noted in one report that "pornography was laying out primarily in (Steven's) room" when investigators went through the house.
It was about the same time the Powell home was searched that Steven began delivering a series of troubling comments to the media. He told reporters gathered in front of his house the day after the initial search warrant was served that many of the seized pictures and videos taken would be considered "inappropriate for a married woman and her father-in-law" and suggested there was a flirtatious relationship with Susan in which she was a willing participant. He made comments on national news programs that he was in love with Susan and that she was sexual with him.
Susan's friends and family quickly responded to the claims, saying Steven was obsessed with his daughter-in-law, but she in no way reciprocated the feeling. In fact, she moved to Utah to get away from her father-in-law.
Josh Powell admitted taking photos of people's legs in public without their knowledge. And shortly before he killed his two sons and himself, shocking allegations were revealed about pornographic animated images — some depicting incest — that had been found on his laptop in West Valley City.
There were about 400 "hand drawings, computerized drawings and photographs," according to a report. Some of the images were of well-known cartoon characters, such as the Simpsons, the Flintstones and SpongeBob engaged in pornographic acts. Some of those images depicted incest.
A state-appointed evaluator said the graphic nature of the images was not only "concerning," but also suggested "global approval" of sex between a minor and an adult.
No matter what the conversation was about, Steven Powell always had to be right, family members said.
"I was afraid to bring people home because you never knew what he was going to say. He might just stick to embarrassing me or my friend, but he also might wrap them into some sort of philosophical discussion — and you can't have a different opinion," Graves said.
"If you try to have a different opinion with my dad, you're wrong. So I just couldn't bring my friends home because I didn't want to subject them to that."
In divorce documents filed in 1992, Terri Powell noted, "For those who will listen to Steve, as the older boys have, he seems to have a powerful way of controlling."
"I know that Steve is persuasive in a most harmful, deliberate way," she wrote. "Steve's manipulation of the kids' thoughts and emotions is terribly difficult to deal with."
Josh Powell was 16 when his parents divorced.
The cycle of odd and negative parental influence apparently started with Steven's own childhood. Terri noted in her divorce papers that when Steven was a young boy, "he was a victim of parental kidnapping," making her "fearful that he may try to take our two youngest children."
Steven Powell addressed the parental kidnapping in an odd way on a website he created under the alias of Steve Chantrey, apparently to promote his music. On the website, he posted songs he had composed and recorded — some of them reportedly about Susan.
In his biography on the website, Steven said his mother "made a unilateral and secretive decision to separate from my dad," and took him, his brother and his sister to live in Ohio. A few months later she returned to Steven's father in Portland.
But just a few months after that, when Steven was 7, according to his bio, "my dad made a unilateral and secretive decision to separate from my mom." Steven said he and his siblings were taken to live with his grandparents who had moved to Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, unknown to Steven's mother.
"'Where is Momma?' I asked. Grandma curtly replied, 'You're never going to see your mother again,'" Steven Powell wrote on his website. "My older brother, my sister and I were inconsolable."
Graves said starting when she was about 10 or 12, she doesn't remember being allowed to have much contact with her grandparents. It was around that time period when she also remembers her family starting to unravel.
In the early years, Graves recalled her father reading to her when she was about 6 years old and occasionally having Family Home Evening, the LDS practice of gathering a family together once a week for instruction and activities.
When Steven and Terri were first married, "Steve worked hard, served God and loved me. He was very thoughtful, very devoted towards me," Terri Powell wrote in court papers filed in 1992. "We attended church together."
But a few years after they were married, Steven "began to change in many ways," she wrote. "He is a complete opposite of the man that I married."
As the divorce became uglier, Graves said her father did all he could to drive a wedge between members of the family and was able to "manipulate extremely well." He seemed to have a particularly strong influence over Josh.
"My dad was really good at playing the sides," Graves said. "My dad did work hard to divide the family. He was really pulling for sides and really had the boys wrapped up into his side."
Several times in divorce papers, Terri Powell accused her husband of manipulating the children and turning them against her.
"Steve is deliberately teaching them that I don't love or want them. This is cruel and untrue. What is true is that I cannot live with their interference in my care of the younger children, or their bullying behavior towards me," she said in court documents. "He won't control his mouth. … He won't leave us alone when it is our time together. This has become an unbelievable nightmare."
That influence over Josh continued into his adult years and into his marriage to Susan. Graves said that was especially true in the years leading up to Susan's disappearance. Susan told her that Josh and his father would often talk for hours over the phone several times each week. After the phone calls, Graves said Susan felt that Josh would typically be mean or angry with her.
Steven's influence over his son is one of the reasons the Cox family believes Steven had something to do with Susan's disappearance.
"Josh planned all kinds of stuff and researched lots of stuff, but he never did anything. That was his problem. He very seldom took action without being motivated or directed or coaxed into actually physically taking action on anything," Chuck Cox said.
Graves said the divorce of her parents was particularly difficult on her sister Alina, who was 7 at the time.
"It was so hard on her. She became a fearful child … fearful even of my mother that she had always loved and felt completely safe with, up until that time," Graves said.
Alina has repeatedly refused interview requests and could not be reached in connection with this report. During recent court hearings for Steven Powell in Washington, Alina continued to support her father and brother. She said the evidence against her father in his voyeurism case was fabricated by police.
During the funeral for Charlie and Braden in February, Graves said she tried to approach her sister, Alina, but she still refused to talk to her.
Controlling behavior by Steven Powell was also evident in his son Michael, Terri Powell wrote in divorce documents.
"This is a little boy who was very close to me and LOVED to be with his grandparents or cousins before Steve's brainwashing intensified so out of control," she wrote in 1992.
Years later in 2008, echoes of the father's behavior appeared in Josh. Susan Powell wrote in emails to friends that she was worried about Josh's manipulation over their children.
"My 3 yr old told me for the first time yesterday, 'mommy I can't, I'm too busy working' which is verbatim what his father tells me," she said in her emails.
In his own divorce papers, Steven Powell said he had serious questions about the LDS Church.
"I do not deny that I am quick to correct the misconceptions Mormons have about their religion. This is a habit I gained as a Mormon missionary in Argentina," he said.
Steven considered himself a more "traditional" and "relaxed" Mormon as opposed to his wife whom he called a "religion freak" in court documents. He said he wanted to keep custody of his three sons because they had been severely affected by his wife's "bizarre perversion of religion, both Mormon and religion generally."
Graves said she believes her father's fall from faith was due to his growing porn addiction.
"It's that slow decline where you begin rejecting some of it, then it's harder to come back. And so he began rejecting it and embracing pornography," she said.
Others said Steven's anti-Mormon platform, his ability to manipulate his family, his desire to express strong opinions at any opportunity, and a general belief that he could never be wrong, were a bad mix.
Cox recalled that during Josh and Susan's wedding reception, Steven kept to himself and his own family members. "He was kind of there almost like a media person, on the outside of the event," he said.
"He was openly anti-Mormon, against the church, all that, and clearly was a person who was difficult to talk to without being very opinionated and tell you why you're wrong," Cox said. "He was kind of not capable of normal conversation."
But Cox said he doesn't believe he was necessarily opposed to his son Josh having an LDS wedding. Cox said he believes Steven thought if his son found a Mormon woman to marry, she would be easier to manipulate.
Like his father, Josh and Susan were married in an LDS temple, their ceremony conducted in Portland in April 2001. Friends said they were both active in the LDS Church when they were first married.
After the couple moved to Utah — prompted in part because of Susan's desire to get away from her father-in-law — Josh stopped going to church.
Tim Petersen, a former neighbor of the Powells in West Valley City, told the Deseret News in 2009 that Susan's marriage counselor had told her to set specific goals. Susan's goals included convincing Josh to become active in the church again by the end of 2009 and have his temple recommend renewed by their anniversary in the spring. Otherwise, she was going to divorce him and take the children, he said.
In emails Susan sent to friends in 2008, she expressed her growing frustration with her husband, her desire that they both go to counseling, her thoughts on divorce and her desire to get Josh active in the church again.
"My bottom line/breaking point is HE WILL GO TO COUNSELING FOR HIMSELF AND/OR MEDS to deal with his mental issues and if he refuses I will not ruin mine and my boys' lives further and we will divorce and I hope it's not as ugly as he claims it will be when we've talked about it in the past," Susan wrote in an email on July 11, 2008.
"I want him in counseling, on meds, I want my husband, friend, lover BACK no more crazy, outrageous, outlandish beliefs/opinions."
Despite indications in those emails that Josh may have been bipolar, Josh was never diagnosed with mental illness, Graves said. A psychological evaluation conducted on Josh Powell during his custody battle with the Coxes suggested he "possibly had adjustment disorder with anxiety and traits of narcissistic personality disorder."
The last time Cox ever talked to his daughter Susan was on Dec. 4, 2009, two days before she disappeared. She told him Josh was attending church "and seemed to be headed in the right direction," Cox said in court documents.
But weeks later, after Josh had moved back to Washington with his sons, signs of the contempt for the LDS Church first expressed by Steven Powell and then his son, Josh, began appearing in statements by the grandsons.
"The Mormons killed my brother and my mom," Charlie Powell, 6, told students at Carson Elementary School in 2011. He told another student, "I hate Mormons."
Charlie told a counselor he could not see his mother because her parents "are Mormon and they abuse her," and later told a counselor, "Mormons are trying to steal me."
He also told the counselor that he "wanted to kill (a classmate) because he is Mormon and they kill people; they are ordered to kill people and all scientists who believe in Jesus," according to child welfare documents.
Religion played a key role in the custody battle over Charlie and Braden. After the Coxes gained temporary custody of the children, Josh Powell asked a judge to place restrictions on them, including forbidding the grandparents from taking the children to LDS church services or even stepping foot on church property for any reason.
Years earlier, Steven Powell had made complaints about his son Josh being part of an LDS-organized Boy Scout troop, according to court documents.
The bitter feud between Josh Powell and his wife's parents became increasingly public following the disappearance of Susan. At one point, Josh told Washington state officials the Coxes were "the most dangerous people on the planet to my sons."
Josh claimed in court documents that he was "afraid for my life" because he feared Cox blamed him for the disappearance of Susan and "would attack and try to kill me."
Cox called the claims preposterous. But the deep divide ultimately became a legal divide when in August 2011 a judge ordered Josh and his father-in-law to stay at least 500 feet away from each other.
Josh's negative influence continued to appear in his children.
A family services report dated Oct. 26, 2011, noted that Charlie had made comments such as, "My grandparents are evil," and "I know my grandparents are trying to keep me from seeing my dad."
On another occasion Charlie told a counselor that he could not see his mother because Chuck and Judy Cox "are Mormon and they abuse her."
The feud between Josh and the Coxes was reflective of Steven Powell's apparent disdain for his wife's parents when they were married.
In divorce documents, Steven delivered blistering comments against John and Carol Martin, his in-laws, and other members of the Martin family.
When a member of the Martin family talked about moving to Utah, Steven wrote in court documents: "These people never seem to find green grass under their feet." He said if Terri were to be awarded custody of their children, they "may be subjected to a migratory life."
Steven suggested in court documents that the Martin family was jealous and envious of his own personal successes. He called his sons Josh and John "very creative, something which the Martins, with their narrow lives and minds, somehow find fearful and repulsive."
In divorce documents, Steven said his in-laws had "ignorant and superstitious reactions to the activities of their grandsons," and claimed his in-laws' marriage was more of a "master/servant" relationship, and also alleged "pathological dysfunction" within the family.
At one point, when responding to his father-in-law's perception of his view on religion, Steven wrote that "his ignorance is betrayed by a lack of insight and of a liberal education."
Graves has been subpoenaed to testify against her father during his trial. She said she does not plan to stay in Washington to hear her father's fate. She said she has her own family to think about now.
"I haven't really had contact with my dad for years. It's been really just as much as I need to maintain a relationship with my other siblings. It's been a sad thing to me to have that separation to have them so confused, just wrapping themselves into this whole mess of supporting Josh and supporting my dad in their sins, in their sins against society, sins against their families."
"But I can't condone it. I can't hang out with them and try to reconcile until they come around to understand what really has gone on. And until that point, I'm just going to have to move forward.
"I'm going to be happy either way. I have my family here. I have five beautiful children and a wonderful husband."
Powell trial begins Monday
The trial of Steven Powell on 14 counts of voyeurism and one count of possession of child pornography begins Monday in Tacoma. Jury selection is expected to take two to three days. Opening arguments may be delivered by the end of the week.
Powell is accused of taking pictures of two young neighbor girls in their bathroom through an open window.
Each charge carries a possible sentence of up to five years in prison. If he is convicted of all charges and a judge orders the sentences to run consecutively, Powell could be sent to prison for 75 years.
User discretion advised: Court documents contain sensitive material.
Feb. 10 2012: Focus returns to Powell children today
April 6 2012: Did Steven Powell help plot Susan's disappearance?
Follow @DNewsCrimeTeam on Twitter for updated tweets from the courtroom throughout the trial.
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