SALT LAKE CITY — As a radio news reporter in Salt Lake City, Dave Cawley covered the Susan Powell case as it happened from 2009-2012, first for KNRS and then for KSL. When the West Valley City Police Department declared the case cold and released the case file, Cawley began to comb through the documents looking for additional stories his team at KSL could share.
"I very quickly identified the recording of Josh Powell talking to police the day after Susan disappeared, used a public records request to obtain a copy of that and turned a story out of it," Cawley, KSL's executive producer of digital content and the "Cold" podcast's creator and narrator, told the Deseret News.
However, the story was limited and Cawley found himself wanting to do more. "I was very frustrated, because I had to reduce like four hours of tape to under two minutes for a radio story," he recalled.
At a conference for investigative journalists, he attended a talk by a reporter from another city who told the audience how she turned a print story into a podcast. This was around the time that the first season of the podcast "Serial" had really taken off, and the idea hit Cawley.
"I felt very strongly as a radio reporter that I needed to be telling an audio story (about Susan Powell) in this format because I felt like this was playing to strengths that radio has always done well," Cawley said.
The Powell story
Susan Cox Powell's name hit news headlines in 2009 when she disappeared under suspicious circumstances. Though her body has never been found, from the beginning, police suspected that Josh Powell, her husband, and Steve Powell, her father-in-law, were involved. A comprehensive look at Susan and Josh Powell's relationship laid bare the depth of the emotional, financial and possible physical abuse Susan Powell endured.
Unfortunately, evidence was hard to come by at the beginning of the case, and when Josh Powell killed himself and the couple's two sons, Charlie and Braden, in 2012, the opportunity for Josh's arrest was cut short.
When Cawley started outlining his ideas for the "Cold" podcast, he wanted to do the story justice by bringing light to the abuse that led up to Susan Powell's suspected murder and represent her as a real person, not just a victim.
"Showing Susan for a complete, well-rounded person, showing what she dealt with in her home … would allow a better understanding of why she made the decisions that she made, why she ended up in the situation that she did," Cawley said.
Cawley knew he needed to present this story carefully to avoid further victimizing Susan Powell by exploiting her story. He and his team reached out to the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition, which agreed to give advice on the story and support the podcast's efforts.
Public awareness about domestic violence
Jennifer Oxborrow, the executive director of UDVC, told the Deseret News that their goal in working with Cawley and the "Cold" podcast team was to increase public awareness, stressing the importance of "taking the opportunity to help people understand the complexities of domestic violence and abuse, and then knowing how to recognize it and where to turn if it's happening in their lives," she said.
The UDVC is one of 56 state coalitions funded under the Violence Against Women Act. It works to promote policy that provides support for victims, educate communities and media about domestic abuse and connect abuse victims with vital resources.
One of the UDVC's outreach efforts includes teaching reporters to use a trauma-informed approach in their stories. Oxborrow said reporters and others often ask questions of victims like, "Why did they stay?" or "Why would they put up with that?" without understanding the danger abuse victims face when they try to leave dangerous situations.
According to Oxborrow, trauma-informed reporting focuses on the accountability of the perpetrator of violence rather than highlighting what the abuse victim should or should not have done. Oxborrow said this approach can be very validating to hear.
"(Listeners) might identify with something that they're hearing … and then know that it's appropriate and safe for them to reach out for help and where to turn," she said.
Ultimately, though, Oxborrow stressed the importance of public awareness. "I think talking about it is how we solve this problem. This is a preventable public health issue," she said.
Cawley agreed, emphasizing that abuse is not synonymous with violence, though the two are often connected.
"People who are experiencing financial control, emotional abuse (and) verbal abuse (sometimes) discount their own abuse and (don't) seek help because they don't have bruises," he said.
Awareness of domestic abuse shows victims and survivors thesupport and resources that are available. It also promotes a culture that doesn't tolerate any form of abuse. Oxborrow, who often works with abuse perpetrators in private practice, said they need a strong message that abuse is unacceptable.
"Holding people accountable is one of the most respectful things that we can do because we're saying, 'I believe that you can be a better person, I believe that you can do this peacefully and safely,'" Oxborrow said. "… And that's a message sometimes that people growing up in dangerous family situations don't receive."
Susan Powell's story
Cawley decided early on that his goal with the "Cold" podcast would be to give context to Susan Powell's life and story rather than try to solve the case.
"My hope was to … understand who Susan was better," he said, "because I really didn't feel like I got to know her as more than just a name in the headlines when this was all happening."
And, in part because of his collaboration with UDVC, Cawley approached this story very sensitively.
"My hope is that we are doing a good job of illustrating the situation, revealing the truth of what she experienced, without sensationalizing or presenting her in a way that is exploitative," he said.
In his effort to incorporate a trauma-informed approach to a journalistic adherence to fact, Cawley deliberately didn't use some material. "I was very careful with the podcast to not use material that I felt would victimize Susan again," he recalled, talking specifically about the voyeuristic videos recorded by Steve Powell, Susan's father-in-law.
Cawley has been bolstered by the positive support from Susan Powell's friends and family since the podcast came out — their feedback has been "overwhelmingly positive," he said. Cawley has also been personally contacted by people who listened to his podcast and recognized signs of abuse in their own lives or lives of friends or family.
"I've lost count of how many people have reached out to share their own personal stories, both past and current, of being in abusive relationships and going through the struggle of trying to safely get out," he said. "That was pretty profound for me."
The "Cold" live event
Cawley hopes the May 16 live event at the Eccles Theater will continue to educate the community about the signs of domestic abuse and the resources available to victims.
He remains committed to continuing what he calls "the momentum" of the podcast and supporting domestic violence victims. A portion of the ticket proceeds from the live event will go directly to UDVC.
The event will include exclusive audio and video that didn't make it in to the podcast, as well as interviews with family members and others close to the case. Susan Powell's sister, Mary Estep, who has never spoken publicly about the case, will participate. Additionally, Cawley, Oxborrow and retired detective Ellis Maxwell, who was the lead detective on Susan Powell's case, will hold an audience Q&A.
The UDVC will have additional representatives at the event to connect audience members with information about recognizing domestic abuse and the resources available to victims.
All of which was important to Cawley as he worked to put the event together — for him, this event is about giving resources to those in difficult and even dangerous situations. And beyond helping potential victims, he hopes that the this event and the podcast's popularity will ensure that Susan Powell and her boys are not forgotten.4 comments on this story
"I'm very grateful for having had the opportunity to play a part in keeping her memory alive, and keeping the memories of the boys alive," said Cawley. "I very much view this live event as a great opportunity to celebrate them, even though they're not here any longer."
NOTE: If you are experiencing domestic abuse or notice warning signs in someone else, please contact 1-800-LINK for free, confidential resources from the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition. If you are in an emergency situation, call 911 immediately.
If you go …
What: "Cold: Susan Powell Case Files Live"
When: Thursday, May 16, 4 and 8 p.m.
Where: George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Theater, 131 S. Main
How much: $22-$74