Death of Steve Powell removes a lingering hope in Susan Powell case

Jul 24, 2018, 10:29 AM | Updated: Jan 15, 2020, 12:40 pm
In in this undated photo provided by the Pierce County Sheriff's Department, Steven Powell, the father-in-law of missing Utah woman Susan Powell is shown. Powell, 61, is charged with voyeurism and possession of child pornography. He pled not guilty to the charges on Friday, Sept. 29, 2011 in Tacoma, Wash. (AP Photo/Pierce County Sheriff's Department)
(AP Photo/Pierce County Sheriff's Department)

TACOMA, Wash. — The death of Steve Powell, the father of deceased kidnapping and murder suspect Josh Powell, appears to have come as the result of what the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office in Washington described as a heart attack.

His death extinguishes one of the last hopes for information leading to the remains of missing mother Susan Powell.

Connection to missing Utah woman

Powell, 68, played a prominent role in the investigation into Susan Powell’s Dec. 7, 2009 disappearance. Susan Powell vanished from the home she shared with her husband Josh and their two boys, Charlie and Braden, on Sarah Circle in West Valley City, Utah. Police established contact with Josh Powell that afternoon. He told them he had taken his sons out for a late-night camping trip to Utah’s West Desert.

Skeptical, police immediately identified Josh Powell as the prime suspect in Susan’s disappearance. Search warrants filed under seal during the early days of the investigation but since made public revealed detectives were investigating Josh Powell for the crimes of murder, kidnapping and obstruction of justice. However, they never arrested Josh, and he never faced criminal charges.

Obsession with Susan

From day one of the investigation, friends and neighbors of Susan’s were telling investigators that she did not like her father-in-law. Susan Powell told them Steve made a pass at her years earlier, while she and Josh were living in Washington.

On Dec. 17, 2009 — 10 days into the investigation — Steve Powell told West Valley City detectives that confessing his love for Susan in 2003 was the worst thing he ever did. Powell claimed he and Susan shared a mutual infatuation that involved flirty behavior and sexual touching but said she shut him down when he tried to bring it into the open.

“I liked taking pictures of her,” Steve told the detectives. “She was thrilled. She was always thrilled to have me admire her at that time. Even in recent years.”

Steve also wrote and recorded songs about Susan Powell under the pseudonym Steven Chantrey.

The detectives asked Powell for permission to search his home at the conclusion of that interview, fearing that Susan might be there. He agreed. The search did not turn up any sign of Susan.

Later, police obtained telephone records that showed Steve Powell was in Washington on the day of Susan’s disappearance. He requested two days off from his job with Washington Correctional Industries on Dec. 8 and 9, 2009 for a family emergency.

Continued interactions with law enforcement

Josh Powell and his two sons moved into Steve Powell’s Puyallup, Wash. home in January of 2010. Police kept the house under surveillance, tracking the comings and goings of both Josh and Steve.

In February of 2010, Steve asked to meet with FBI agents in Tacoma, Wash. He provided them with a theory he’d developed, claiming Susan had “absconded” to Brazil with another missing person, Steven Koecher. Detectives pursued the lead but determined it was not credible.

In the summer of 2011, Steve Powell invited a national news crew into the house to film Susan’s childhood journals. He claimed the journals proved Susan had been emotionally abused as a child and acted out sexually. The news coverage of the journals provided police with ammunition for a search warrant.

The raid on the Powell home

Detectives and deputies raided Steve Powell’s home on Aug. 25, 2011. While looking for the journals, they came across a large volume of voyeur videos and images in Steve’s bedroom.

Hi8 cassette tapes located by West Valley City police during a warrant search at the Puyallup home of Steven Powell on Aug. 25, 2011. Photo courtesy West Valley City police.

They also located several spiral-bound notebooks containing hundreds of pages of writing about Susan, much of it explicit.

Steven Powell’s journals, seized from his Puyallup, Wash. home during a search warrant raid on Aug. 25, 2011. Photo courtesy West Valley City police.

Some of the videos featured Susan. Many others did not. In particular, investigators identified two minor children, previous neighbors of Powell’s. Police determined Steve used a camcorder with a zoom lens to film the girls in various states of undress through an open window.

The discovery led to the arrest of Steve Powell on Sept. 22, 2011, on suspicion of voyeurism and possession of child pornography. Washington child welfare workers also took Josh’s sons, Charlie and Braden, into protective custody at that time.

The arrest, custody fight and aftermath

Josh Powell spent the next several months attempting to win back custody of his sons. He rented a home in nearby Graham, Wash. and convinced the court to allow supervised visitation there.

Then, on Feb. 5, 2012, Josh Powell killed himself and his sons by locking out a social worker and setting the house on fire.

The FBI visited Steve Powell in jail and presented him with photos of his deceased son and grandsons. Steve refused to speak with the agents. He also served police with a formal notice that he was invoking his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination and would not speak with any law enforcement about Susan Powell.

Steven Powell served police with this notice of his intent not to speak about the Susan Powell investigation while incarcerated in 2012.

A jury convicted Steve on 14 counts of voyeurism on May 16, 2012. The judge sentenced him to 30 months confinement. Powell served most of that time at the Monroe Correctional Complex.

Steve Powell wrote letters frequently while incarcerated, keeping in touch with his youngest children, Michael and Alina. However, Michael Powell came under increasing police scrutiny in connection with Susan Powell’s disappearance. He committed suicide on Feb. 11, 2013 by jumping from the 7th story parking garage at his condo in downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota.

More to the story

Steve Powell left prison in March of 2014. The child pornography possession had been tossed out at the first trial due to a technical problem with the wording of the law. It was later re-filed, leading to a second arrest and trial.

Powell was convicted on that charge in August of 2015 and returned to prison for a second time. He was released from prison again in July of 2017.

One retired detective close to the investigation recently told KSL he did not believe Steve Powell played any active part in Susan’s disappearance.

“He was a huge red herring in this investigation,” the detective said. “I felt that he may have some information and I think for me that’s what I was kind of looking for. I was looking for him to share with us what Josh may have shared with him. But that never happened.”

Steve’s own writings seemed to suggest that he remained convinced that Susan was alive and living in hiding outside of the United States. He sometimes opined that they shared a sort of psychic link.

How Susan Powell felt about her father-in-law

Susan’s own journals and personal correspondence painted a very different picture of her relationship with Steve Powell. She often refused to refer to him by name, instead calling him her “wicked father-in-law.” She described moving from Washington to Utah at the end of 2003 in large part to put physical distance between herself and Steve. She refused to allow Steve to enter her home in West Valley City.

Susan believed Steve brainwashed his children and feared he would try to sabotage her marriage. She often complained about his influence on Josh, especially after they spoke on the telephone.

“Any time he’s talking with his dad I’m irritated,” Susan wrote in one email in 2009. “He ‘accidentally’ swears or slips snide negative comments about me, the church, my family it seems when talking to me.”

In this June 29, 2009 email message, Susan Powell described her frustrations with her father-in-law Steven Powell to a coworker.

Police records showed that Steve Powell’s oldest child, Jennifer Graves, described her father during the investigation as a “slithering snake with a slick tongue.”

“My dad was a very deceitful person,” Graves recently told KSL. “At the same time, he was a very smooth talker. And he could convince anybody for the longest time that he was this wonderful person. And he could smooth over any lie forever.”

The life and death of Steve Powell

Steve Powell was born on Dec. 19, 1949. As a young man, he attended Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. He also served a two-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Argentina.

After his mission, he met and married Terrica Martin. Together they had five children: Jennifer, Josh, John, Michael and Alina. Steve’s writings showed that he soon became disaffected with Mormonism. His attempts to take the older children out of the faith caused a rift in his marriage.

So too did Steve’s infatuation with the wife of another man in his local LDS congregation. Terri Powell filed for divorce from Steve in October of 1992. Subsequent court declarations included claims that Steve wanted to draw that woman into a polygamist relationship.

West Valley City police released a statement following the death of Steve Powell. It said his death does not change the status of their investigation, nor make it any more or less likely to be solved.

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Death of Steve Powell removes a lingering hope in Susan Powell case