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Police were watching, listening to Josh and Steven Powell, unsealed warrants show

Published: Sunday, July 5 2015 12:35 p.m. MDT

West Valley police search abandoned mine shafts for Susan Powell near in Ely, Nev., Friday, Aug. 19, 2011. Susan Powell has been missing since Dec. 7, 2009. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) West Valley police search abandoned mine shafts for Susan Powell near in Ely, Nev., Friday, Aug. 19, 2011. Susan Powell has been missing since Dec. 7, 2009. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

WEST VALLEY CITY — Police investigating the disappearance of Susan Powell used wiretaps on phones belonging to Josh Powell and his father, Steven Powell, and attempted to orchestrate ways to get them to talk, newly released search warrants show.

The warrants in the Powell case were unsealed for the first time Thursday after the Deseret News filed a motion in 3rd District Court. West Valley police on Monday also released tens of thousands of pages of police reports and other documents related to their investigation into Susan Cox Powell's disappearance.

In their requests for wiretaps in 2011, West Valley police wrote about the status of their investigation into Josh Powell, who is suspected of killing his wife, and Steven Powell, who was suspected of obstructing justice.

West Valley police search abandoned mine shafts for Susan Powell near in Ely, Nev., Friday, Aug. 19, 2011. Susan Powell has been missing since Dec. 7, 2009. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) West Valley police search abandoned mine shafts for Susan Powell near in Ely, Nev., Friday, Aug. 19, 2011. Susan Powell has been missing since Dec. 7, 2009. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Investigators wrote that they needed the wiretaps because "normal investigative procedures have been tried and failed, have met with limited success, or reasonably appear unlikely to succeed if tried, or are too dangerous to meet the specified objectives of this criminal investigation."

At that time, the focus of the investigation was on both Josh and Steven Powell, according to court documents. Michael Powell, Josh's brother, was not a focus of the wiretaps, but police this week said they believe he had "intimate involvement" in his sister-in-law's disappearance.

Susan Powell disappeared in December of 2009. Almost immediately after she was reported missing, investigators noted that Josh Powell was giving "contradictory and unreasonable" answers to police questions and could not answer any question in detail.

West Valley police search abandoned mine shafts for Susan Powell near in Ely, Nev., Friday, Aug. 19, 2011. Susan Powell has been missing since Dec. 7, 2009. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) West Valley police search abandoned mine shafts for Susan Powell near in Ely, Nev., Friday, Aug. 19, 2011. Susan Powell has been missing since Dec. 7, 2009. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

"For the first 36 hours after his wife has disappeared, J. Powell never inquires about her welfare, never asks what police are doing to locate her, never offers any help or assistance to law enforcement," a search warrant states.

He also had spent the night cleaning the minivan he used to allegedly take his young sons camping the night his wife disappeared, police wrote.

Watching Josh

West Valley police conducted surveillance on Josh Powell shortly after his wife disappeared and even followed him to a strip club in Wendover, Nev., according to an affidavit requesting a wiretap. During the drive, officers observed Powell "perform so many maneuvers designed to detect or thwart surveillance that law enforcement had to use an airplane to continue observing his actions," an affidavit states.

West Valley police search abandoned mine shafts for Susan Powell near in Ely, Nev., Friday, Aug. 19, 2011. Susan Powell has been missing since Dec. 7, 2009. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) West Valley police search abandoned mine shafts for Susan Powell near in Ely, Nev., Friday, Aug. 19, 2011. Susan Powell has been missing since Dec. 7, 2009. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Police noted that both Steven and Josh Powell acted as if they were constantly being watched.

Trash that Josh Powell had thrown away from his West Valley house was found in other trash cans. A check of Josh Powell's computer history showed he spent time looking at weather conditions and maps before allegedly taking his sons on that camping trip to Tooele County during a snowstorm.

In talking about his criminal history, West Valley police noted that Powell had been "involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital" in 2006 following a domestic violence incident at his family's home in Puyallup, Wash.

Officials search in the area of Topaz Mountain, Juab Count,y as they follow up on information regarding the Susan Powell missing person investigation, Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2011. Susan Powell has been missing since Dec. 7, 2009. (Ravell Call, Deseret News) Officials search in the area of Topaz Mountain, Juab Count,y as they follow up on information regarding the Susan Powell missing person investigation, Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2011. Susan Powell has been missing since Dec. 7, 2009. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

According to the wiretap order, detectives were limited to intercepting calls "relating to the kidnapping and/or murder of Susan Marie Powell, or the obstruction of said investigation" and may include calls "pertaining to the solicitation, requesting, commanding, encouraging, arranging, or intentionally aiding" of the crime.

By the time investigators had asked for the wiretaps in August of 2011, "the geographical area searched in this case (was) approximately the size of Switzerland," court records state. Twenty-one search warrants had been served at that time, more than 99 subpoenas had been issued and more than 800 potential witnesses interviewed.

Investigators wrote at the time that they believed the use of a grand jury in the case would not result in "any new information or evidence," an affidavit states.

Josh Powell (Ted S. Warren, Associated Press) Josh Powell (Ted S. Warren, Associated Press)

At one time, police also considered using a female undercover agent to "initiate an acquaintance relationship" with Josh Powell in an attempt to gather information from him. But it was determined that Powell's movements were "unpredictable or nonexistent to the point that a seemingly innocuous meeting is not possible," according to an affidavit.

Investigators noted that there were times after Josh Powell moved back to Washington that he didn't leave his Puyallup residence for days.

Wiretaps

When talking about their "case strategy" for using the wiretap, police focused on three phones — two cellphones used by Josh Powell and one by Steven Powell — even though two of the phones were registered in Alina Powell's name, according to the affidavit.

Steven Powell (Washington Dept. of Corrections) Steven Powell (Washington Dept. of Corrections)

Investigators then came up with ways to try and prompt the Powells to use their cellphones and talk about the case, including using Chuck Cox, Susan Powell's father, and the media.

Cox placed banners and fliers all around his hometown of Puyallup, where Steven Powell also lived.

"(The West Valley detective) believes that this overt display of material within (Steven Powell's) residential area … can incite evidentiary conversations between (Josh and Steven) related to Susan Powell's disappearance," investigators wrote.

West Valley police then planned on "a release of information" to the media that "the investigation has revealed new areas of interest to be searched based on evidence obtained through forensic testing," the court documents state.

Jennifer Graves (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) Jennifer Graves (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

The affidavit for the wiretaps was signed Aug. 9, 2011. On Aug. 18, 2011, West Valley police announced to the media that a search would be taking place in Ely, Nev. At the time, police made a vague reference to the media that the search was based on "information from a prior search warrant."

West Valley police said this week, however, that all of the areas they searched in the case were legitimately chosen based on evidence that was collected and were not wild goose chases.

Police were required to update the court about the use of wiretaps after 10, 20 and 30 days. Information about what was specifically discussed in those intercepted conversations was not revealed in the court documents.

The 30-day report on Steven Powell's cellphone showed that police had intercepted 244 calls and flagged 37 of them as "pertinent." One of Josh Powell's cellphones had 194 intercepted calls with 30 flagged as "pertinent," according to court records. The other had 221 intercepted calls, as of the 30-day report, with 18 flagged as "pertinent."

West Valley police search abandoned mine shafts for Susan Powell near in Ely, Nev., Friday, Aug. 19, 2011. Susan Powell has been missing since Dec. 7, 2009. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) West Valley police search abandoned mine shafts for Susan Powell near in Ely, Nev., Friday, Aug. 19, 2011. Susan Powell has been missing since Dec. 7, 2009. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

After law enforcers filed for a 10-day extension on the wiretap, the number of calls on Steven Powell's phone was recorded at 252, with 61 being called pertinent. Josh Powell's phones on the 10-day extension showed 220 intercepted calls on one phone and 403 on the other, with 42 and 62 being called "pertinent," according to court records.

Operation Puyallup

Another wire was used early in the case in January of 2010, about a month after Susan Powell disappeared. Jennifer Graves and her husband agreed to go to her father Steven Powell's house in Puyallup, where Josh Powell had recently moved. She agreed to wear a hidden microphone and confront her brother, whom she believed was involved in Susan Powell's disappearance. A team of 16 officers was waiting outside the house nearby. The effort was called "Operation Puyallup."

West Valley police search abandoned mine shafts for Susan Powell near in Ely, Nev., Friday, Aug. 19, 2011. Susan Powell has been missing since Dec. 7, 2009. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) West Valley police search abandoned mine shafts for Susan Powell near in Ely, Nev., Friday, Aug. 19, 2011. Susan Powell has been missing since Dec. 7, 2009. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

After entering the house, Graves eventually got Josh Powell alone and encouraged him to take a plea bargain, a police report states.

"Don't be ridiculous, I haven't done anything," he responded. Pressed about an unexplained trip he took in a rental car and about details the day his wife disappeared, Josh Powell told his sister his attorney had advised him not to discuss the case.

Steven Powell then opened the door and in a "very pushy" manner told Josh he needed to go pick up a birthday cake. "It sounded and appeared that Steven had an idea of what Jennifer was doing and he was trying to help Josh get away from the situation," the report states.

"Where did you put her?" Graves then asked her brother.

West Valley police search abandoned mine shafts for Susan Powell near in Ely, Nev., Friday, Aug. 19, 2011. Susan Powell has been missing since Dec. 7, 2009. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) West Valley police search abandoned mine shafts for Susan Powell near in Ely, Nev., Friday, Aug. 19, 2011. Susan Powell has been missing since Dec. 7, 2009. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Josh Powell responded, "I can't believe you're saying that."

Weeping, Graves stated, "You were cleaning the house." Josh Powell didn't answer but remained quiet. He then stated, "I have to go get a cake."

After Josh walked out, Graves told her father she thought it was obvious her brother was responsible for Susan's disappearance. Steven Powell responded that she had "a problem seeing reality." He then implied that a family in Utah had kidnapped Susan.

An argument ensued and Graves and her husband left the home. They returned to police, and a weeping Graves told them: "(Josh Powell) killed her. She's not alive."

Contributing: McKenzie Romero

West Valley police search abandoned mine shafts for Susan Powell near in Ely, Nev., Friday, Aug. 19, 2011. Susan Powell has been missing since Dec. 7, 2009. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) West Valley police search abandoned mine shafts for Susan Powell near in Ely, Nev., Friday, Aug. 19, 2011. Susan Powell has been missing since Dec. 7, 2009. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

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