The thought of having to submit to an intrusive, embarrassing and potentially damning psychosexual evaluation before he could regain custody of his sons might have been more than a control-obsessed man like Josh Powell could bear, said the Pierce County prosecutor.
The thought of having to submit to an intrusive — and potentially damning — psychosexual evaluation before he could regain custody of his sons might have been more than a control-obsessed man like Josh Powell could bear, said Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Lindquist.
Although no one may ever know exactly what drove Powell to set fire to his own home, killing himself and his two young sons, the court-ordered examination may well have been a factor, Lindquist said Tuesday.
“From his perspective, it was lose-lose-lose,” he said.
“If he refuses to take it, he loses custody of the children,” Lindquist said. “If he flunks it, he loses the children. If he goes into the exam and refuses to fully cooperate, he loses the children.”
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Last Wednesday, a Pierce County judge ordered the examination as part of his ongoing custody battle with the state and his in-laws, Chuck and Judy Cox. Powell had lost custody of Charlie, 7, and Braden, 5, after his father was arrested on voyeurism and child-pornography charges last fall.
Superior Court Judge Kathryn Nelson ordered Powell to undergo the examination after “extreme child porn” was found in the elder Powell’s home, where Josh Powell and his sons lived at the time of the arrest.
Of course, Powell, 36, had other things going on in his life when he ignited the gasoline-fueled inferno that would claim the lives of the boys. He had long been considered a person of interest in the disappearance and presumed death of his wife and the boys’ mother, Susan Powell, which also factored into the ongoing custody battle.
And while Powell had steadfastly insisted on his innocence, even once suggesting that his wife may have run away to Brazil with another man, Utah authorities had for at least six months investigated the disappearance as a murder case, The Associated Press reported Tuesday. But without a body, they publicly held out hope that she would be found alive.
Lindquist believes Powell’s final, horrific act was tantamount to a confession.
“If there was any doubt about who murdered Susan Powell, it’s gone now,” said Lindquist, whose office is prosecuting Powell’s father, Steven Powell.
On Sunday, authorities say, during a court-ordered visitation, Josh Powell attacked his children with a hatchet before setting the fire in his rental home in Graham. An autopsy revealed all three died from smoke inhalation, while the boys also suffered wounds from a hatchet found in the burned-out wreckage of the home.
Sgt. Ed Troyer, spokesman for Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, said there was no doubt the killings and Powell’s suicide were premeditated. In the days and hours leading up to the fire, Powell had dropped off toys and books at a Goodwill store, withdrawn $7,000 in cash from his bank account, obtained 10 gallons of gasoline and sent final emails and voice mails to friends and acquaintances. It’s not clear what happened to the money.
ABC News obtained what it says was a voice mail Powell left for family members. In it, Powell said he couldn’t live without the boys and didn’t want to go on anymore.
“I’m sorry to everyone I’ve hurt,” he is heard saying. “Goodbye.”
As authorities work to determine exactly why Powell committed the killings, investigators said they’re no closer to answering the question they’ve had for more than two years. “We still haven’t identified or found where Susan Powell is,” said West Valley, Utah, Police Chief Buzz Nielsen, who is in charge of the investigation into her disappearance.
Lindquist said the knowledge that Powell faced the intrusive psychosexual examination alone may not have been enough to spark Powell’s final, fatal act. But he says that, along with the ongoing investigation into his wife’s disappearance and the feeling that he was losing control of his children, might have pushed him over the edge.
“This is an extreme example of a dynamic we often see in domestic violence,” Lindquist said. “A controlling person with this selfish, sadistic and evil way of viewing the world says, ‘If I can’t have her, nobody else can either; if I can’t have the children, nobody else is going to either.’ “
A psychosexual evaluation, sometimes referred to as a sexual-deviancy examination, is lengthy and intrusive, said experts in the legal and law-enforcement community who are familiar with the test. The evaluation is often used in criminal cases and in testing sex offenders who have been civilly committed.
But the exam is also sometimes court-ordered in child-custody and divorce proceedings, as in Powell’s case.
Linda Paxton, a licensed mental-health professional in Bellevue, said that the tests could take upward of 30 hours. The exams assess an individual’s personality, sexual history, potential risk factors and other patterns in determining and identifying possible sexual addictions, Paxton said.
“They have to talk about their sexual history and what they have done sexually,” Paxton said.
Paxton, who has been working in the field for more than 20 years, has worked with sex offenders seeking release from the Special Commitment Center, people referred by the state Department of Corrections and private clients who have been court-ordered to take the exam. Paxton has never worked on the Powell case.
The exams often involve a lengthy polygraph test, drug screening, IQ tests and, in some cases, a penile or vaginal plethysmography test — which utilizes a device that measures arousal by measuring blood flow in the sexual organs.
Lindquist said the test Powell was ordered to take would have included the plethysmograph, a polygraph and a personality exam.
While it isn’t known whether the test could involve questions about Powell’s missing wife, Lindquist said any effort to be deceptive would have skewed the results.
“You can’t pass a psychosexual evaluation if you’re holding back information, and what it comes down to is that Josh Powell had a lot to hide.”
Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or email@example.com. On Twitter @SeattleSullivan.
Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Information from Seattle Times archives and The Associated Press is included in this report.