SALT LAKE CITY — Susan Powell had been married about a year when she started writing a journal. She was a love-struck, 20-year-old newlywed, dreaming of the future she would build with her husband.
“I just feel incredibly lucky to have Josh,” she wrote in 2002.
Before long, however, she found herself torn. A growing sense of danger was telling her to grab her kids and flee, but her strong religious faith led her to believe she could save her young family. The journal entries turned grim.
“If I die, it may not be an accident even if it looks like one,” she wrote in 2008. “Take care of my boys.”
She went missing in 2009 and hasn’t been seen since. Her husband later killed their sons and himself. No one was ever charged in her disappearance; the people at the center of the police investigation — her husband, his brother and their father — are either dead or in prison.
As leads have gone cold, the chief agency in the investigation, the West Valley City Police Department, has closed the case saying for the first time they believe Josh Powell played a role in killing his wife and that his brother Michael Powell helped get rid of her body. Both men denied involvement in her disappearance before committing suicide about a year apart.
With the investigation over, police released thousands of pages of documents, providing new details about a scandal that made national headlines with each development.
Susan Powell’s story first gained attention when she vanished from her suburban Salt Lake City home in the middle of the night in December 2009. The documents released May 20 show that police focused on her husband, doubting his alibi from the outset.
Josh Powell said his wife vanished shortly after he went camping in the high desert with their sons, who were 2 and 4 years old at the time, while a snowstorm blanketed the area.
The police investigation led to searches of abandoned mines in Utah and neighboring Nevada, and authorities kept their attention on Josh Powell even as he moved from West Valley City, Utah, to Puyallup, where he ultimately attacked his boys with a hatchet after saying he “had a big surprise” for them. He then set his home on fire, causing an explosion that killed them all as a social worker watched in horror.
It was the sum of his wife’s fears, as her journal shows.
Their faith and each other
Susan Cox and Josh Powell married in 2001, about four months after meeting at a Latter-day Saints singles dance. They had no money. But they had their faith and each other.
They were regulars at church and sang together in the choir. One Sunday morning they overslept and missed service, so instead they walked together in the fresh snow.
“Some kids with a snow fort threw some snow balls at us and Josh did the same,” she wrote in 2002. “He’s just a big kid.”
The newlyweds bounced from job to job and from apartment to apartment, sometimes living with Josh’s father, Steve Powell. Susan Powell wrote that her husband was “computer smart,” but she worried that he couldn’t keep a regular job.
Money was a constant problem. They disagreed over whether to tithe the normal 10 percent of their income to the church, with Josh Powell considering it a waste of money, according to the journal. He also wanted to spend as little as possible on food, proclaiming, she wrote, “The food we eat will only be from our garden and if we don’t grow it, we will not eat it. We will only buy dairy products and meat.”
Eventually, Susan Powell found steady work at a call center to support the family financially. Her husband’s behavior, meanwhile, grew increasingly controlling, according to both the handwritten journal and police records.
Josh Powell limited her computer and phone access. He had calls to their home forwarded to his cell and decided which messages she received.
In a police interview, Susan Powell’s sister said she began calling Susan Powell at work so he couldn’t eavesdrop.
Things weren’t going well, and Susan Powell knew it.
“I can’t believe our marriage deteriorated so quickly. I feel so blind and naive and foolish,” she wrote in 2008.
She also came to see her father-in-law as a meddlesome and negative influence on her husband.
Josh Powell began to distance himself from the Mormon church, as Steve Powell had done years earlier. Father and son took countless family photographs, which she wasn’t allowed to see. And the men talked on the phone for hours each week.
Steve Powell is behind bars on voyeurism charges after being convicted of taking photos of young neighbor girls without their knowledge, a crime that emerged after police seized computer hard-drives from his Puyallup home while investigating Susan Powell’s disappearance.
Her writings suggest she saw something terrible coming.
She believed Josh had bipolar disorder, and wrote about his violent temper. She worried about saying things that would set him off and told her sister in the fall of 2007 that Josh Powell said he would kill her before agreeing to a divorce.
“Will he do something irrational? Do I need to pack up kids and run,” she wrote in 2008. “Will he hurt me and/or take the kids, hurt them?”
She disappeared months later.
During their investigation, authorities circulated a questionnaire about Josh Powell to neighbors in West Valley City.
“He had such odd behavior that we just started calling them ‘JP Stories,”‘ said one.
Another told police: “I know Josh because he weirds me out! He is just weird!”
Her husband killed their sons and himself in February 2012. Her father-in-law was convicted three months later. Within a year Michael Powell killed himself by jumping from a Minneapolis parking garage in February.