Friday, February 17, 2012

Josh Powell's unforgivable crime

I've written a few times about the case of missing mother, Susan Powell. This post was written shortly after she disappeared.

As the case progressed I updated it. This is the last post I wrote, about Susan's father-in-law, Steve Powell.

After his father was arrested for taking pictures of young girls without their knowledge and having child pornography on his computer, Susan's husband, Josh Powell, then living with his father and his two young sons, lost his boys temporarily to his in-laws in a custody case.

On Sunday, February 5, 2012, the boys showed up at Powell's residence for a supervised visit. Powell locked the door on the social worker escorting the children, who then made a frantic 9-1-1 call that was met with some detached indifference by the dispatcher. In the next few minutes Powell committed a crime so heinous it's taken me two weeks just to be able to write about it. He hacked his sons with a hatchet, then blew up the house. He'd poured five gallons of gasoline on the floor, and turned on the pilot light. The house was destroyed, and what was recovered were three bodies, Powell and his two sons, ages 7 and 5.

I'm not a psychiatrist or a psychologist, but a person who turns to that sort of desperation is probably thinking of his children as possessions, not human beings. If he can't have them no one can. Narcissism? I don't know if Josh Powell ever spoke with a professional. He's been under suspicion for the disappearance of his wife, but has never been arrested. Because of computer generated images of incest found on his personal computer the judge in the custody case said Powell would have to undergo a "psychosexual evaluation," and a lie detector test.

There are stories, which I consider truthful-sounding, that his older boy, Charlie, had begun to talk of his mother. "Mommy was in the trunk of the car." When the car stopped his mother and father went out into the desert, and she was never seen again. The speculation is that perhaps Powell was worried about the lie detector. He'd managed to deflect any kind of exam because he'd refused to speak to police. After his wife's disappearance he moved back to Washington from Utah, making it difficult for local West Valley City, Utah, police. They eventually coordinated their investigation with local police in the Puyallup, Washington area. Police had kept the pressure on Powell, and losing his boys to his in-laws may have been the final straw for him.

The picture of Powell, the day before his final crime, taking money out of his bank account, is of a man who looks committed. He has a definite plan, and this is one step in implementing it.

Since the explosion it's been discovered that the house where the boys were taken for their visits was rented for that purpose. He didn't live there. His neighbors did not know him. That shows that the crime had been planned well in advance, since that appears to have been step one in his plot.

Powell left some text messages saying "I'm sorry," but no suicide note, nor any reference to Susan, what happened to her or where to find her body. So investigators have lost that ability to question the main person of interest. The case is still active, and they are still working on it.

Utah is mostly desert, and can be desolate. Bodies can disappear forever in thousands of different places. Where to even begin the search? The police grasp at anything. Their investigation in Nevada came from an observation that Powell was excited about some rocks at a geology fair, which came from the area where police later searched. If that isn't desperation on the part of police I don't know what is. It's no wonder they can't zero in on her remains if they're using such vague clues.

A few days after the murder-suicide my wife, Sally, met her friends for their monthly coffee klatsch. Two of the women are social workers, who have done supervised visits with non-custodial parents for over 25 years. In Utah those visits are never held in that parent's home, but in a neutral place, like the social worker's office. I imagine Washington will have to look at the situation and change its protocols for supervised visits. But would it have stopped Josh Powell from killing his own children and then himself? I believe if he'd met the children at a neutral location he could have taken a gun and killed everyone, including the social worker. As my wife observed, he could have also gone to his in-law's house and killed everyone there, including himself. A person as desperate as Joshua Powell isn't stopped by a change of locale.


There was a big flap for a few days about Josh Powell being buried next to his two sons. A group bought up the grave plots on either side of the boys to prevent it. Today Powell's family announced he would be interred in another cemetery.

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