TACOMA — A jury found Friday that Washington state officials were partially responsible for the deaths of missing Utah woman Susan Cox Powell’s two sons at the hands of their father, and awarded $98 million to the sons’ estates.
In a case that drew national attention for years, Josh Powell was a suspect in the presumed killing of his wife in 2009. He was living in Pierce County in 2012, when he killed their two young sons Charlie and Braden and himself in an explosive house fire. The boys were visiting Josh Powell at his home on a supervised visit with a social worker when they were killed; Powell had locked the social worker outside.
Susan Powell’s parents, Judith and Charles Cox, alleged in a wrongful-death lawsuit that Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services did not do enough to keep their 7- and 5-year-old grandsons safe. The Coxes were in a custody fight for the boys when Josh Powell killed them.
“Nothing can bring back the boys,” said Charles Cox, in a statement Friday, “but this is the end of a nightmare, and it’s gratifying to hear a jury tell the state they were wrong, and to award a verdict that will force them to change the culture at DHS to make sure this doesn’t happen to other children in the future.”
The state issued a brief statement: “Today, a Pierce County jury returned a verdict against the Washington State Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) of $57.5 million for each child in the wrongful death of Charlie and Braden Powell. Following the tragic 2012 murder-suicide of Josh Powell and his two sons, Charlie and Braden DCYF plans to review the jury’s decision and determine next steps.”
The trial started in Pierce County Superior Court in February and was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Jurors had begun deliberating Thursday.
Ted Buck, an attorney for the Coxes, said Wednesday during closing arguments, according to The News Tribune, that state workers weren’t properly trained on policy regarding parental visits in domestic violence situations.
He said “none of this would have happened” had state policies and common sense been followed, pointing to a social worker who recognized Josh Powell as an abduction risk without informing the judge overseeing the custody dispute.
Assistant Attorney General Joseph Diaz said in his closing argument the boys’ deaths were unquestionably tragic, but that experienced state workers took the custody matter very seriously. He said the department tried “to do what’s best for both those boys, at the same time recognizing that Mr. Powell had rights.”
“Mr. Powell is the sole cause of the murder of his sons,” Diaz told the jury. “There was not any negligence by the state of Washington.”
Josh Powell had moved to his father Steven’s home in Puyallup with the boys following his wife’s disappearance. But investigators looking for clues to her whereabouts searched that house and found child pornography, including images that Steven Powell had secretly recorded of neighbor girls.
The boys were then removed from the home and placed with the Coxes. Josh Powell moved to a house in Graham. When the boys arrived for the visit with the social worker, he locked the social worker out, attacked the boys with a hatchet and set the house on fire. Josh Powell also died.
“What happened here was an act of evil,” then-Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor said at the time. “Do not call it a tragedy because that sanitizes it. This was a terrible act of murder involving two young children.”
Powell was long considered a person of interest in the disappearance of his wife when the couple lived in West Valley City, Utah.
Charlie and Braden Powell had begun talking to their grandparents about things they remembered from the night their mother vanished, a lawyer for the grandparents said just after the boys were killed.
“They were beginning to verbalize more,” attorney Steve Downing told The Associated Press.
“The oldest boy talked about that they went camping and that Mommy was in the trunk. Mom and Dad got out of the car and Mom disappeared,” Downing said.
In February 2012, a state contract worker from Foster Care Resource Network, brought the boys for a scheduled visit to Powell’s house. The caseworker had previously brought them to their father without incident, the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department said at the time.
Powell answered the door, pulled the boys inside, slammed the door and locked it.
Denied entry, the caseworker began banging on the doors and windows and called 911. She told police she thought she smelled gasoline.
The caseworker reported the fire started within seconds.
Material from The Seattle Times archives was included in this report.