Charlie and Braden Powell's grandparents said Monday the boys hadn't wanted to go visit their father, and described an ominous drawing the younger boy had made.
Josh Powell’s final, horrific act — killing his sons and himself in a fiery inferno — was tantamount to a confession to his wife’s disappearance and presumed death, according to the Pierce County prosecuting attorney.
“If there was any doubt about who murdered Susan Powell, it’s gone now,” Mark Lindquist said.
On Sunday, when Powell attacked his two sons with a hatchet and then set fire to his Graham rental home, he had long been considered by Utah police to be a person of interest in his wife’s December 2009 disappearance. But charges had never been brought against him despite questions over his claims that his wife went missing after he took his two sons camping in the middle of the night in freezing temperatures.
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Despite Powell’s death, police in West Valley City, Utah, say the investigation into Susan Powell’s disappearance will continue.
Lindquist’s reference to Susan Powell’s presumed slaying isn’t the first time authorities indicated they believe the missing mother of two was the victim of homicide. A search warrant obtained by The Associated Press through a public records request Tuesday shows that police in Utah were investigating three felonies in connection with the case: first-degree murder, kidnapping and obstructing a public servant.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill acknowledged for the first time that they believe Powell is likely dead, but said the case remains a missing persons probe for now.
Gill wouldn’t discuss the evidence, but said authorities don’t have enough information to file charges in the case.
“I think when I talk about it as a missing persons case, that’s because we haven’t located the body of Susan Powell,” Gill said in an interview with the AP. “Do we think that she may have met harm? Sure.”
Investigators are now reassessing the case after her husband, Josh Powell, killed their sons Charlie, 7, and Braden, 5, during a court-ordered visit Sunday at his Graham home. The boys’ grandparents, Chuck and Judy Cox, say the boys were reluctant to go on the visit.
But the visits were court-ordered after Josh Powell lost custody of the boys in the fall, and the Coxes insisted they go.
“They liked seeing their dad,” Chuck Cox said. “But the last time they didn’t want to go.”
It was during Sunday’s visit that the sheriff’s office says Josh Powell set fire to the rental home in Graham, killing both boys and himself moments after a state-contracted caseworker brought them for the supervised visitation.
Sheriff’s officials said Monday they believed Josh Powell had planned the deadly fire for some time. They said he dropped off toys and books at Goodwill over the weekend and sent final emails to friends and acquaintances shortly before the blaze.
Detectives found evidence of 10 gallons of gasoline inside the home, said sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Ed Troyer. Gasoline from a 5-gallon can was spread throughout the house and used as an accelerant for the huge blaze. Another 5-gallon can was found near the bodies, he said
Troyer called the deadly fire “a deliberate, planned-out event.”
Chillingly, Powell may have first incapacitated his sons by attacking them with a hatchet.
The Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office on Monday said all three died from smoke inhalation. But both boys also suffered “chop injuries,” Braden to his head and neck, and Charlie to his neck.
Troyer said a hatchet was recovered near the bodies.
“Just when you thought it couldn’t get any grimmer, you learn he had assaulted his kids with an ax,” Lindquist said.
In the emails sent before the fire, Powell wrote his lawyer, pastor, friends and relatives, telling some, “I’m sorry. I can’t live without my boys.” He also left instructions on how to take care of his “final business,” according to Troyer.
He said none of the emails mentioned Powell’s wife and the mother of the boys, Susan Powell, 28, who has been missing since December 2009. Powell had long been considered a person of interest in her disappearance from their home in West Valley City, Utah.
On Monday, a tearful Chuck and Judy Cox spoke of their family’s pain over the boys’ deaths, compounded by the disappearance of their daughter.
Powell, 36, told police he last saw Susan around midnight Dec. 7, 2009, when he put their sons in a minivan and took them on a late-night camping trip in Utah’s west desert in freezing temperatures.
But police, almost from the start, questioned Powell’s story. Powell later moved back to the Puyallup area, where both his father and Susan Powell’s parents live.
The Coxes on Monday also spoke about a drawing Braden had made showing the family of three riding in their minivan. Braden said the drawing was of the two boys and their father.
When asked why their mother wasn’t in the drawing, Braden said she was in the trunk, Chuck Cox said.
Cox recalled that the boy said, “Mommy and Daddy got out but Mommy didn’t come back.”
At the time of their mother’s disappearance, Braden was 2 and Charles was 4.
Anne Bremner, an attorney for the Coxes, said as recently as Christmas the boys told their grandparents “mommy’s in the mine.” Police in Utah had searched abandoned mine shafts in Nevada last summer, but found no sign of Susan Powell.
The Coxes said the drawing of the minivan was given to police in West Valley City, who are investigating the disappearance of Susan Powell.
Buzz Nielsen, chief of the West Valley Police Department, declined to comment Monday on the drawing or any other specific evidence in the Susan Powell case.
Nielsen, who flew to Washington on Monday, said that investigators have been working on building a case against Powell with “strong circumstantial evidence.” He said he had hoped to see charges filed later this year.
Nielsen said Powell was not aware of the progress of the investigation. He speculated that Powell’s decision to take his life and kill his children was not sparked by fear of arrest.
He said Powell’s death will not stop investigators from trying to piece together what happened to Susan Powell.
Nielsen said his detectives will try to speak with Josh’s father, Steven Powell, whose arrest last September on child-pornography and voyeurism charges prompted the state to take custody of Charlie and Braden. The boys and their father had lived with Steven Powell, who remains in custody in Pierce County Jail.
He described Steve Powell as another “person of interest,” but noted the elder Powell is “not in our sights” in terms of any potentially imminent arrest.
About noon Sunday, a state contract worker from Foster Care Resource Network brought the boys for a scheduled visit to Powell’s Graham house. The caseworker was assigned to the children and had previously brought them to their father without incident, Troyer said.
Powell answered the door, pulled the boys inside, slammed the door and locked it, Troyer said. Denied entry, the caseworker immediately began banging on the home’s doors and windows and called 911. She told police she thought she smelled gasoline.
The caseworker reported the fire started within seconds, Troyer said.
On Monday, the Coxes took reporters into an addition they had built on their Puyallup home to make room for their grandchildren. The room had two small beds with handmade quilts, one decorated with characters from the movie “Cars” and the other with Spider-Man. Toys were stacked in a nearby room.
They talked about how the boys had been emotionally distant when they arrived in September.
They’d been shunned by other children, Chuck Cox said, because people disliked or mistrusted their father.
“They said that in their old school, the other kids walked 10 feet in front of them or 10 behind them,” he said.
When they talked about their mother initially, they called her “Susan,” Cox said.
But Cox said he knew they were making progress when Charlie pointed to a smiling picture of his mother in the living room and asked his grandpa to take a picture of him next to the photo.
“He said, ‘I’m sitting with my mommy.’ “
Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Seattle Times staff reporters Jennifer Sullivan, Katherine Long and Steve Miletich contributed to this report, which includes information from The Associated Press.