PUYALLUP — Chuck Cox was leaving home again. In early summer, he loaded up his black Dodge Ram truck and headed southeast. This time, one of his three surviving adult daughters rode shotgun to answer nonstop calls on his cellphone, with two volunteer private investigators trailing in a van.
Anything to find Susan Powell.
With the certitude of an old investigator, Cox recently sat inside his living room, recounting his relentless life on the road, part of a four-year quest to find his third-born daughter.
For a week, after reaching northern Oregon on that June trip, the search party leapfrogged along Interstate 84, stopping at every exit on the 485-mile stretch between Pendleton, Ore., and Tremonton, Utah — consulting local police, distributing fliers. They examined roadside ditches and woods, trying to think like criminals looking to get rid of a body.
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Cox looked strangers in the eyes, shook their hands and introduced himself as the father of Susan Powell, the 28-year-old Utah stockbroker and mother of two whose disappearance in December 2009 made national headlines.
The 58-year-old Cox believes his daughter was abducted and says evidence suggests her husband, Joshua Powell, may have disposed of her body somewhere along this stretch of I-84.
The investigator in him surmises that Susan Powell is dead, but the father in him carries on, holding out hope she’s somehow still alive.
Cox was a crash investigator with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) who retired early to assume a new role: that of a tireless inquisitor using his skills to assist police in the most emotionally freighted case of his life.
Along the way, Cox has lost 60 pounds, and the stress has divided his family. His wife, Judith, is weary of the media circus. His daughters want their father back. Two of the remaining three want him to give up the chase.
But Cox isn’t ready.
“If it were up to me, I’d pack up and be gone. I’d buy a camper and stay on the road until I found her,” he said. “I tell my daughters I love them, but that I’m going to find Susan. I’m not going to give up on her. I can’t.”
Cox also remains tormented by the killing of Susan Powell’s two boys.
For years, he implored detectives in West Valley City, just outside Salt Lake City, to arrest his son-in-law in Susan Powell’s disappearance. He said Joshua Powell considered his wife a thing he owned and probably became angered when she said she was considering a divorce.
He pointed to inconsistencies in Joshua Powell’s alibi that he and the couple’s two toddlers went camping in the middle of winter while his wife inexplicably ran off, deserting her family. A day-care provider had reported Susan Powell missing when the children did not show up at the provider’s home.
Lacking sufficient evidence, police said, they couldn’t detain Joshua Powell, their only “person of interest.” Years later, Susan Powell’s sons began to share recollections of the night their mother vanished, stories Cox believed would implicate her husband.
Then in 2012, police say, the son-in-law used an ax to cut the necks of 5-year-old Braden and 7-year-old Charles before killing himself in a fire he set in his Pierce County home.
This year, Michael Powell, who Cox believes helped his brother dispose of Susan Powell’s body, committed suicide, leaping off a Minneapolis parking garage. Steven Powell, Joshua Powell’s father, is serving time in Washington state for voyeurism of young girls. He was sexually obsessed with Susan Powell long before her disappearance, police say.
That obsession prompted Susan Powell to move with her husband and the boys from Washington to Utah. The father-in-law has refused to talk to police.
In May, Utah police announced they had run out of promising leads.
Even now, Cox says, Utah investigators refuse to release case files he wants for his investigation. He’s considering suing the West Valley City police, he says.
From the start, he says, the detectives’ vague answers to any question maddened him. Each tip he tried to pass along was met with “We’re looking into it” or “There’s nothing there.”
Mike Powell, a deputy police chief in West Valley City, acknowledges that police kept their distance from Cox. “Just because he was an FAA investigator doesn’t make him part of this investigation,” he says. “It wasn’t prudent to tell him everything that was going on.”
These days, Cox has turned his Puyallup home into his search headquarters. He also started a website
to field tips.
The father has found people who knew Susan Powell. He drove to Spokane to copy 300 pages of files on Steven Powell’s 1992 divorce to flesh out unsavory aspects of Joshua Powell’s childhood, such as his early violence toward animals. Once in a while, the police would relent and let Cox accompany them when executing search warrants.
After Joshua Powell returned to the Seattle area where his father lived, Cox continued to press police for his arrest. Yet he feared direct confrontation with his son-in-law.
“I once asked him, ‘Where is she?’ But he wouldn’t look me in the eye. To get him to talk, I would have had to use physical violence. That might work for Rambo or on TV, but it’s not real life. He would have lashed out against the boys.”
Cox says he respects the detectives who spent years grappling with the case.
“You’ve got people who tried their hardest, and now some idiot is second-guessing them,” he says. “But I believe some of those investigators took ‘no’ for an answer too easily. They didn’t follow through on things.”
One of the worst moments came after the deaths of his grandsons. That’s when a Utah police official called Cox to say he’d been right: They should have arrested Joshua Powell. The admission filled him with a mixture of justification and profound sadness: “I just sat there thinking, ‘I didn’t want to be right. I just want to find my daughter.’ ”
In an early interview with police, an older grandson, Charles, had talked about an outing he and his brother took with Joshua Powell the weekend his mother vanished.
“Mommy stayed with the dinosaurs,” he told police.
Cox guessed this might have been a reference to Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado, and in July walked the rugged landscape there, searching for Susan Powell’s body. All he found was a woman’s shoe that was not his daughter’s and some animal bones. Nothing more.
These days, Cox still receives tips through his website, on which he blogs about his search and encourages women terrorized by abusive husbands to get help. When he’s not on the road, he thinks about the road — and all those leads yet to be tracked.
Now Cox the investigator is considering a new search tool. He wants to buy a cadaver dog.