'The Disappearance of Susan Cox Powell': New Documentary on Utah Mother Who Vanished Without a Trace
Susan Cox Powell disappeared 10 years ago. She has not been seen since.
If she had lived, Susan Cox Powell would now be 38 years old. Her sons, Charlie and Braden, would be 14 and 12.
The Utah mother hasn't been seen in a decade, and her sons were murdered by their father, who blew up himself and his boys rather than see them live with the parents of his missing wife.
The strange saga of Susan and Josh Powell involves one of the more bizarre missing persons cases in recent American history — a 28-year-old Mormon mom disappeared from the face of the earth, leaving her two young sons, an abusive husband and a father-in-law, who was so sexually obsessed with her that he secretly videotaped her everyday life.
Steven Powell, Josh's father, had videotaped himself smelling Susan's underwear and bras, and the secret recordings would only be found out after Susan had gone missing.
"The Disappearance of Susan Cox Powell," a two-part documentary airing Saturday and Sunday on the Oxygen channel, dissects the couple's marriage and debuts the lurid and creepy videos surreptitiously shot by Steve. It also posits a new theory as to what may have happened to Susan.
On May 21, 2013, the West Valley City Police Department officially closed their case into Susan's disappearance, saying they believed, but could not prove, that Josh killed Susan and was helped by his brother, Michael, in hiding her body, which has never been found.
Josh Powell met Susan Cox at a dinner party he hosted at his Washington state home in 2000. Two months later, they were engaged. Both were Mormons, but Josh was said to have lapsed in his faith, while Susan remained a believer.
She was 21 and he was 26, and the young couple were struggling financially. They had to live with Josh's dad to make ends meet. Steve, Josh's 53-year-old dad, became smitten with his daughter-in-law, constantly following her around, taking her photographs and filming video.
What she didn't know at the time was her father-in-law was also secretly taping her in the bathroom and pulling her underwear and bras from the laundry and taping himself fondling and smelling them.
The elder Powell's behavior began to creep out Susan. In part to get away from Steve, Josh and Susan moved to Utah, where they settled in the Salt Lake City suburb of West Valley.
That is where Kiirsi Hellewell met Susan in 2005. They attended the same church. Soon, Hellewell and her husband were frequent guests at the Powell home, and vice versa.
It was easy to like Susan, Hellewell told InsideEdition.com. "Susan was extremely outgoing and friendly and such a fun person to be around," Hellewell said. "Whenever she would see someone new, she would go up to them and introduce herself and say 'Hi!'''
Josh was not easy to like, she said. "Josh was fairly friendly once you got to to know him," she said. "But he was also really loud, really obnoxious, and kind of annoying." Once he got going on a subject, which almost always involved himself, it was nearly impossible to get him to stop, she said.
"All he talked about for the first six months was his drip sprinkler systems and how amazing it was and how amazing he was for putting it in and figuring it out," she said. He sometimes embarrassed Susan, who would try to change the subject, Hellewell said.
The two women became best friends, and after a year or so, Susan began confiding in her neighbor. Josh's dad had begun calling the house and talking to Josh for hours, she said. They had left Washington to put distance between them and Steve, but her father-in-law had renewed contact.
"She did tell me that she caught him trying to peek in on her getting dressed" while the couple lived in his home, Hellewell said. "She caught him taking pictures of her; she really didn't like it."
Detectives would later find videos and journals belonging to Susan in which she wrote of her stormy marriage, her husband's refusal to attend church 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 would say to him so many times, 'Josh, your dad is trying to break us up. Please don't let it work, don't treat me this way,'" Hellewell recalled. But things only got worse.
By the summer 2008, Susan was a prisoner in her marriage and her own 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 wrote a secret will that investigators found after she disappeared. "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 Susan to talk to a lawyer, she said. It was the attorney who suggested Susan film the couple's belongings, in case property issues developed later. "I started to tell her, you know, I don't want to advise somebody to go get a divorce, but I think you need to talk to a divorce lawyer," Hellewell said.
But Susan harbored a deep fear that Josh would kidnap their boys and keep them from her. according to her friend. His parents had gone through a terrible divorce and Steve had so berated his wife and wore her down to the point where she gave up custody of her children.
"She said, 'I'd get a divorce from Josh in a heartbeat, ... except I'm worried that he'll kidnap the kids and I'll never see them again,''' Hellewell recounted.
Over the next year, the couple sank deeper into dire straits. "We argue all the time," Hellewell said Susan told her. "'He's not loving anymore. He never holds my hand or kisses me. He acts like I have germs and doesn't want to touch me.'"
Then came Dec. 7, 2009, which was a Monday — a day when neither Josh nor Susan showed up for work. Charlie, then 4, and Braden, 2, never got dropped at day care.
Hellewell was at home that morning with her children. Her phone rang. It was Jennifer, Josh's sister. "She said to me, 'When was the last time you saw Susan?'
"I got really worried and my heart stood up," Hellewell recalled. She told Jennifer she and Susan had walked home from church the day before.
"And she told me that she was at their house, the police had broken a window to get inside because nobody had gone to work, nobody had taken to the boys to day care and that the entire family was missing," Hellewell said.
Friends and relatives worried the family had been in some kind of horrific car crash, "or slid off a cliff or something," she said.
Hellewell went door to door in their neighborhood, asking if anyone had seen anything out of the ordinary. She called and texted with church friends. Then Josh showed up about 5 p.m., unbeknownst to Hellewell.
"The first I heard of it was when a neighbor called me and said, 'Josh and the boys are back, but Susan is not with them.' And just from that one sentence, I had the most horrible feeling of dread come over me," Hellewell said. "And I just thought, what has been done? Something has been done to her."
Josh's explanation of where he'd been defied logic. He'd gone camping, he said. At midnight, with his toddler sons, in a blizzard. Susan had been sleeping when they left, he told police. He had no idea where she could be.
Why did he go camping on a Monday? He got his days confused, he told police. He thought it was Sunday.
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 trick Josh into slipping up, the husband was never arrested.
Searchers combed caves and mine shafts after Josh allegedly told a co-worker how easy it would be to hide a corpse in one of thousands of caves dotting Utah. Detectives parsed Susan's journals and the prescient video she left behind. Traces of her blood were found on the floor of the family home and investigators also found a $1.5 million life insurance policy in Susan's name.
"Josh didn't really let anybody that was close to Susan or the boys be around the boys at all that first week," Hellewell said. "I was sick to my stomach. I couldn't sleep. I didn't want to eat anything. ... I was so worried and so scared and wondering where she was, what had happened, was she still alive, did he have her stashed somewhere?"
Hellewell started a Facebook page to keep friends and relatives abreast of Susan's case. It exists to this day.
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.
Josh, meanwhile, was under court-ordered supervised visits with sons.
In February 2012, social worker Elizabeth Griffin-Hall arrived at Josh's home in Puyallup with Charlie, now 7, and Braden, 5. The boys ran ahead of her, excited to see their dad, who told them "I have a surprise for you!" As Griffin-Hall reached the door, Josh slammed it in her face.
Stunned, the woman pounded on the door. She banged on a window. Finally, she called 911, as the smell of gasoline permeated the house and front yard. She could hear one of the boys crying.
"He's got the kids on the house and he won't let me in," she tells the operator in a panic. "But I think I need help right away," she says, according to tapes later released by authorities. "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."
The operator, who was later reprimanded, tells the woman officers have to answer "life-threatening" calls first. "This could be life-threatening," she pleads. "I'm afraid for their lives."
After taking down the home's address, the operator states he will send a deputy as soon as one becomes available.
Griffin-Hall hangs up, only to be blown back by a blast that engulfs the entire house in flames. She again calls 911. "He exploded the house! He exploded the house!" she cries. "Ma'am, do you know the exact address?" the dispatcher asks. Griffin-Hall again gives the address, and explains she called before.
"There's two little boys in the house, they're 5 and 7, and there's an adult man. He has supervised visitation and he blew up the house and the kids," the distraught woman explains.
Meanwhile, Josh's sister, Alina Powell, is also on the phone with 911, frantic over a voice mail Josh left her. "This is Josh," his message says. "I'm calling to say goodbye. I'm not able to live without my sons, and I'm not able to go on anymore. I'm sorry to everyone I've hurt. Goodbye."
Alina, who sobs through much of her emergency call, said she had been receiving "weird emails" from her brother. "I'm terrified to drive over there," she says. "I'm not afraid of him, he'd never hurt me. I'm afraid of seeing something I don't want to see."
Firefighters and sheriff's deputies said what they saw in the smoldering ashes of Josh's house haunted them for years. All three bodies were found in the center of the ruins, next to a gasoline container. Josh had first attacked his sons with an ax, then ignited gasoline he had poured throughout his home, authorities said.
"It was evil. It was just a terrible thing," West Valley Police Chief Thayne Nielsen told reporters at the time.
Susan's parents held a private funeral for the boys at a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints meeting house in Puyallup.
One year later, Josh's brother Michael took his own life by jumping from a parking structure in Minneapolis, where he had moved to attend graduate school. Authorities believed Michael helped Josh in murdering Susan, saying he was "evasive" during repeated questioning by detectives.
Susan's parents and the Powell family would battle for years in court over control of Susan's estate, which included the life insurance Josh had purchased. The case was finally settled in 2015, but the details were not made public.
Susan's friends and relatives still hope her body will be found. That would bring the whole, horrific story full circle, they say.
Hellewell still maintains Susan's Facebook page. Ever so often, a tip comes in.
She feels horrible about the loss of Susan's sons. She and the Cox family had long advocated for the boys to be taken from Josh.
"It had been a daily nightmare for us," she said."We had been telling the police for months months and months" that Charlie and Braden were in danger. "I said, 'You need to get the boys away from Josh,''' Hellewell recalled.
"And they said, 'Why? He's such a good dad,''' she said. That was the public Josh, the face he put on for show, she said. The real Josh, the one Susan saw and Hellewell heard about, was narcissistic and controlling, and was incapable of love or empathy, she said..
Hellewell told investigators Josh was far from a good dad. "Susan is missing, which means he is the one who's done it," she said. "And if he can do it to her, he can certainly do it to them."
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