Because of Susan Powell and Her Slain Sons' Stories, Women and Children 'Are Safe Today,' Best Friend Says
Charlie Powell was 7 and Braden Powell was 5 when their father Josh Powell killed them and took his own life. Their murders came three years after the disappearance of their mother, Susan Powell, who is presumed to have also been killed by Josh Powell.
The social worker was frantic as she dialed 911. The smell of gasoline was sickening.
Inside a house in Washington state, two little boys were about to die.
Horrified, Elizabeth Griffin-Hall pounded on the front door. She banged on a window. She could hear one of the children crying. The gas smell was so overwhelming, she backed her car out of the driveway and parked it across the street.
"He's got the kids in the house and he won't let me in," she told the emergency operator. "But I think I need help right away. And this is the craziest thing. He looked right at me, and closed the door. I smell gasoline, and he won't let me in."
Saturday marks the 10th anniversary of the horrific murders of Charlie Braden, 7, and his 5-year-old brother, Braden. The killer was their own father, Joshua Powell, the prime suspect in the disappearance of their mother, Susan Powell, who had vanished three years before.
Susan has never been found and is presumed dead. The bizarre and stupefying saga of what happened to a devout Mormon mother living with her husband and two young sons in suburban Salt Lake City has captivated and appalled people around the world.
On Feb. 5, 2012, as Griffin-Hall pleaded with the emergency dispatcher to send help now, Joshua Powell took a hatchet to his sons, bashing them in the head and neck, autopsies would later determine. Then he poured gasoline over them and the inside of his rented house. Then he set the home on fire.
But the boys were still alive. The father and his sons died from carbon monoxide poisoning, a medical examiner said.
A decade later, the tears still come when Kiirsi Branham Hellewell is asked how she learned her best friend's boys were dead.
"Sorry," said Hellewell, as she stops to compose herself. "It still affects me."
It was a Sunday and Hellewell had just walked in the door from church.
"My phone was ringing and I saw that it was a local news station. I had a family member that was moving across states that day and had her family in a moving van," Hellewell recalled. "And my first thought was, 'Oh, please don't tell me that something happened to my family who's traveling.' That my was my first thought.
"The reporter on the other end said, 'Hey, I really hate to tell you this, but there's been an explosion at Josh Powell's house.'''
Hellewell was confused. An explosion as in a fight?
"What do you mean? What are you talking about?" Hellewell asked.
"There's been a fire and they're telling us that they found the body of an adult man and two boys," the reporter said. Hellewell began to scream. Sobbing, she hung up on the journalist.
She immediately called Susan's father. "Is it true?" she blurted when he answered.
Chuck Cox, Susan's dad, said he would call back when he knew something. He was on his way to the house.
A few minutes later, he was back on the line. "It's true," he told her. The boys had been delivered to Josh Powell's house, where they were supposed to have a court-ordered supervised visit with their father. But Powell had slammed the door in the social worker's face.
"He somehow managed to kill them, blow up the house and they're all dead," Cox told Hellewell.
What had already been a living nightmare now became a living hell.
"I think it sank in pretty fast that the worst thing we could imagine had happened," Hellewell said.
Life Before Susan Vanished
Josh and Susan Powell moved from Washington to the Salt Lake City suburb of West Valley in the early 2000s. That is where Hellewell met Susan. They attended the same church. They both had young families.
The two couples became fast friends.
"Susan was really different than me because she was really outgoing and I'm more shy," Hellewell said. "She was very good at makeup and she was a hair stylist, and she absolutely loved making people 'pretty' as she called it."
If you needed something, Susan was there. If you needed to talk, Susan was a good listener.
"We could have really deep talks I could tell her things that I didn't really voice out loud to other people," Hellewell said. "And she felt she could do the same with me. And she really was the best friend that I have ever had outside of my immediate family."
But some of the things that Susan said began to eat away at Hellewell. And the more she got to know Josh, the more she disliked him, and the way he treated his wife.
She also learned that the Powells had left Washington because Josh's dad, Steve Powell, had developed a creepy obsession with his daughter-in-law.
Steve Powell had been spying on Susan, secretly taping her in the bathroom and making her extremely uncomfortable.
Detectives investigating Susan's disappearance would later find videos and journals belonging to Susan in which she wrote of her stormy marriage and her husband's refusal to attend church with her and their two young sons. Josh also appeared to believe his father's claims that Susan had tried to seduce him and flirted with him while the couple lived in his house, she wrote.
By summer 2008, Susan was a prisoner in her marriage and her Utah home, her friend said. Josh dictated what she could buy and where she should buy it. She was banned from buying anything without his approval. He sold their second car. In July, Susan recorded a video, taking stock of all their household belongings and documenting damage done by Josh.
She also penned a secret will that investigators found after she went missing. "I want it documented that there is extreme turmoil in our marriage," she wrote. "If I die, it may not be an accident, even if it looks like one."
Hellewell encouraged her friend to seek the advice of a divorce lawyer. But Susan was afraid Josh would take their sons and she would never see them again.
On Dec. 7, 2009, a Monday, neither Josh nor Susan showed up for work. Charlie, then 4, and Braden, 2, never got dropped at day care.
Jennifer, Josh's sister, called Hellwell at her home. "When was the last time you saw Susan?" the woman asked.
What followed defied logic.
After police broke into the Powell house looking for the missing family, Josh Powell returned home with Charlie and Braden. He taken the boys camping in the middle of the night, he said. His explanation meant he had taken them camping in the middle of a blizzard. Susan had stayed home, he said.
One week later, police named him a person of interest in Susan's disappearance. Despite weeks upon weeks of investigating, phone taps and elaborate law enforcement plans to see Josh say something that would lead to charges, the husband was never arrested.
A month after Susan disappeared, Josh pulled up stakes and moved back in with his father in Washington.
Not long after that, investigators learned of Steve's obsession with Susan. Computers seized from his house showed some 4,500 images of his daughter-in-law taken without her knowledge. They included close-ups of her behind and photos and videos that zoomed in on her legs and chest.
In September 2010, Steve was arrested on child pornography and voyeurism charges after detectives found videotapes of girls and women on his hard drive. Susan's father filed for custody of her sons one day after Steve was arrested, saying the home was unsuitable for his grandsons.
Susan's father and mother were granted temporary custody. Steve was convicted and would serve seven years in prison, dying of natural causes less than a year after his release.
Two years later, as the Cox family and Josh were locked in a bitter custody battle, Josh killed the boys and himself.
Firefighters and sheriff's deputies said what they saw in the smoldering ashes of Josh's house haunted them for years. "It was evil. It was just a terrible thing," West Valley Police Chief Thayne Nielsen told reporters at the time.
Charlie would be 17 today. Braden would be 15.
"One of the things that has come out of Susan's disappearance and this terrible tragedy with her boys is, I can't even tell you how many women have messaged me to tell me, 'Because of your friend Susan, myself and my children are safe today,'" Hellewell said. "That is something that really does give me some comfort."
She thinks of her best friend every day. Losing her and her boys has strengthened Hellewell's relationships with her own family and her church. Her faith was not tested, she said, but rather grew stronger.
Still, her love for Susan, and her pain at losing her, endures. Especially when she catches herself luxuriating in the glow of watching her children grow.
"I love spending some time with my kids and I just think 'Man, it's not fair. Susan should be here. She should be able to do this with her kids.'"
Hellewell long ago established a Facebook page for those who care, and those who may have leads into what happened to her friend. She is also a member of the Susan Cox Powell Foundation's Susan, Charlie and Braden Memorial Committee. The foundation was established in 2010 by Susan’s parents to assist families of missing persons and support domestic violence prevention efforts.
Hellewell doesn't believe in closure. She knows there is no such thing.
But she does believe, if Susan's body is ever found, that there will be some small comfort for those who loved her.
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