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Powell family tragedy will carry into 2013

Published: Tuesday, July 7 2015 6:16 a.m. MDT

Photos of Charlie Powell (R) and Braden Powell are displayed during their funeral service February 11, 2012 in Tacoma, Washington. The boys died February 5, 2012, when their father, Josh Powell, set fire to the home he was living in while they were visiting. (Getty Images) Photos of Charlie Powell (R) and Braden Powell are displayed during their funeral service February 11, 2012 in Tacoma, Washington. The boys died February 5, 2012, when their father, Josh Powell, set fire to the home he was living in while they were visiting. (Getty Images)

WEST VALLEY CITY — On Feb. 5, as most residents were returning home from church or making final preparations for their Super Bowl parties, two short tweets sent by the Pierce County Sheriff's Office marked the beginning of what would become the biggest — and among the most tragic — news story of the year in Utah, even though the events happened 850 miles away in Washington state.

"Rescue operation in progress. Head towards Powell residence. Stand by" and "All media please stand by. Will have more in a few" were the consecutive tweets sent by detective Ed Troyer.

The calm Sunday turned into a frantic rush as official reports of an explosion and fire at the home of Josh Powell started coming in. In the days and weeks that followed, horrific details about the deaths of 7-year-old Charlie Powell and his 5-year-old brother Braden were revealed as well as the disturbing dynamics within the Powell family.

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)

By August, thousands of pages of police reports and child welfare documents detailing the negative influence Josh Powell was having on his children had been released. Just a few months earlier, his father, Steven Powell, had been sentenced to prison for surreptitiously taking photographs of young neighbor girls in their home. Graphic and highly troubling pictures, videos and personal diaries outlined his obsession with his missing daughter-in-law. A memorial for Charlie and Braden Powell was constructed in their honor.

Despite the tumultuous year, this tragic family story has not yet ended.

Susan Powell remains missing and presumed dead. Steven Powell, 62, is scheduled to be released from custody in May. Two young girls who were the victims of Powell's voyeuristic habits when they lived next door to his Puyallup, Wash., home have filed a civil lawsuit against him. Trial for that suit is scheduled for 2014.

The Cox family carries the casket to the hearse following a funeral for Charlie and Braden Powell in South Hill, Washington, Saturday, Feb. 11, 2012. (Ravell Call, Deseret News) The Cox family carries the casket to the hearse following a funeral for Charlie and Braden Powell in South Hill, Washington, Saturday, Feb. 11, 2012. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

In yet more legal action, a guardian ad litem for Susan Powell filed a lawsuit on her behalf against the Washington Department of Social and Health Services alleging negligence in the deaths of her sons. A trial is scheduled for June.

Anne Bremner, the Seattle-based attorney for Chuck and Judy Cox, Susan Powell's parents, has threatened to file a civil lawsuit against West Valley City for not releasing all police records connected to the missing person/murder case. The West Valley Police Department has cut back on the number of people working the Susan Powell missing persons investigation but still considers the Powell case to be active.

Meanwhile, the legal wrangling continues over who should get the money from Josh and Susan Powell's life insurance policies: Josh Powell's siblings or Susan Powell's parents.

Family photos of Susan Powell along with Charlie and Braden. (Family Photo) Family photos of Susan Powell along with Charlie and Braden. (Family Photo)

Unimaginable tragedy

On Feb. 1, a bitter and long custody battle between Josh Powell and his missing wife's parents apparently reached a breaking point when a Tacoma, Wash., judge ruled that Powell would not regain full custody of his boys. In addition, the judge ordered Powell to undergo a psychosexual evaluation. He left the courtroom without speaking to reporters and with a look of frustration on his face.

Four days later, just as a social worker with the Washington Department of Social and Health Services was taking Charlie and Braden Powell to their father's new rental house, Powell took his boys inside and locked the social worker out. A few minutes later, the house erupted in an inferno.

Grayson places candles in the water during a vigil for Susan Powell and her sons at McKinley Park in Tacoma, Washington, Monday, Feb. 6, 2012. (Ravell Call, Deseret News) Grayson places candles in the water during a vigil for Susan Powell and her sons at McKinley Park in Tacoma, Washington, Monday, Feb. 6, 2012. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

The next day the grief deepened with the shocking revelation that Powell used a hatchet on this two sons before he ignited his gasoline-soaked home. Questions were immediately raised about whether the tragedy could have been prevented — either by arresting Powell earlier in the suspected death of his wife (he had been and remains the prime suspect) or by not allowing Josh Powell to have access to his sons.

Criticism was further fueled by the release of documents indicating that officials had found hundreds of computer-generated sexual images on Josh Powell's computer involving popular cartoon characters or other animated figures. While the images are not illegal, a psychologist warned that they were "suggestive of global approval of sex between an adult and a minor."

Redonna Gochanour places candles in the water during a vigil for Susan Powell and her sons at McKinley Park in Tacoma, Washington, Monday, Feb. 6, 2012. (Ravell Call, Deseret News) Redonna Gochanour places candles in the water during a vigil for Susan Powell and her sons at McKinley Park in Tacoma, Washington, Monday, Feb. 6, 2012. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

Negative influences

In the subsequent weeks, the Department of Social and Health Services in Washington released additional documents of child welfare records, shedding light on the disturbing and negative influences Josh Powell was having on his young children.

Search warrants were also unsealed in Washington that revealed many details West Valley police had not reported, including information that Susan Powell's blood was found in their West Valley home the night she disappeared on Dec. 6, 2009.

In May, the focus shifted to Steven Powell as his voyeurism trial began in Tacoma. He was accused of taking thousands of pictures of young women and girls in his neighborhood — including two girls who were photographed starting in 2006. Most of the pictures were apparently shot from Powell's bedroom. He used a telephoto lens to shoot into a nearby second-story open window while the girls were in their bathroom. The girls were 8 and 10 at the time.

Josh Powell, the husband of missing Utah woman Susan Powell, speaks during a court hearing regarding the custody of his two sons, Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011, in Tacoma, Wash. Powell's sons  are currently with Susan's parents, but Josh Powell is asking for custody to be returned to him.  (Ted S. Warren, Ted S. Warren, Associated Press) Josh Powell, the husband of missing Utah woman Susan Powell, speaks during a court hearing regarding the custody of his two sons, Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011, in Tacoma, Wash. Powell's sons are currently with Susan's parents, but Josh Powell is asking for custody to be returned to him. (Ted S. Warren, Ted S. Warren, Associated Press)

Though it wasn't allowed as part of the trial, details of Steven Powell's diaries were discussed during pretrial hearings. The diaries outlined his sexually graphic obsession with his daughter-in-law.

In August, after Powell was convicted and sentenced, more than 2,100 pages of his diaries were released, most of them filled with descriptions of his disturbing and compulsive obsession over Susan Powell

In December, thousands of Powell's photos were released to the Associated Press through a public records request, including many of Susan Powell apparently taken without her knowledge.

Also in August, the Washington Department of Social and Health Services' Child Fatality Review Team released a 12-page report regarding the deaths of Charlie and Braden Powell. The report suggested that communication between police and social workers dealing with the Powells could have been better, and recommended more domestic violence training for the state's social workers. But ultimately, it said, "nobody could have anticipated that Joshua Powell would murder his two sons."

Josh Powell, the husband of missing Utah woman Susan Powell, listens during a court hearing regarding the custody of his two sons, Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011, in Tacoma, Wash. Powell's sons  are currently with Susan's parents, but Josh Powell is asking for custody to be returned to him.  (Ted S. Warren, Ted S. Warren, Associated Press) Josh Powell, the husband of missing Utah woman Susan Powell, listens during a court hearing regarding the custody of his two sons, Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011, in Tacoma, Wash. Powell's sons are currently with Susan's parents, but Josh Powell is asking for custody to be returned to him. (Ted S. Warren, Ted S. Warren, Associated Press)

Additionally, a 3rd District Court judge in Utah released heavily redacted search warrants to the public in August regarding the Susan Powell investigation. In them, it's clear that Josh Powell was a suspect almost immediately.

The story retold

Susan Powell's story is expected to be on bookshelves across the nation in 2013. Jennifer Graves, Josh Powell's sister, has been writing a book of her perspective on the Powell family story. Well-known crime writer Ann Rule is also reportedly working on a book that includes the Susan Powell story.

Other authors reportedly considering a book about the Powells include Gregg Olsen, a New York Times best-selling author who has written novels and non-fiction books; and Isabelle Zehnder, an online writer who is familiar with the Powell case.

Chuck and Judy Cox hug at their home in Puyallup, Washington, Monday, Feb. 6, 2012. (Ravell Call, Deseret News) Chuck and Judy Cox hug at their home in Puyallup, Washington, Monday, Feb. 6, 2012. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

But the story remains without its ending.

On the third anniversary of Powell's Dec. 6, 2009, disappearance, West Valley police issued a brief statement, updating the status of its investigation.

"The number of full-time investigators assigned has been reduced. Some investigative tasks remain to be completed as follow-ups are coordinated," the statement read.

"The department remains committed to this investigation. The public is reminded there is a $10,000 reward for information leading to the whereabouts of Susan Cox Powell and encourages anyone with information to call the West Valley City Police Department at 801-840-4000."

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

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