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Nine years later: the Susan Powell case revisited

Det. Ellis Maxwell, lead investigator on the Susan Powell case, speaks with KSL Newsradio's Dave Cawley on "Cold". (Photo; West Valley City Police)

WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah — Friday marks nine years to the day since a young wife and mother, her husband and her two young sons were first reported missing from West Valley City – Susan Powell, whose family returned without her.

susan powell candlelight vigil

(left to right) Isabel Vazquez, Crystal Peterson, Carrie Friend and Janette Lazenby and many others gather for a December 10, 2009 candlelight vigil for their friend, Susan Powell, who was reported missing three days before. Photo by Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News.

This week, the KSL podcast series Cold recounts the events of that day — December 7, 2009 — as police first confronted Susan’s husband, Josh Powell.

How it began

Debbie Caldwell, the Powells’ daycare provider, was the first to realize the family was missing when no one showed up to drop off Charlie, 4, and Braden, 2. Because it was a cold and snowy commute, she attributed the tardiness to the weather, at least until time continued to pass.

It was her phone call to the Powells’ emergency contact, Josh Powell’s sister, Jennifer Graves, that prompted the first official report to police. At 9:53 a.m., Graves drove toward Josh and Susan’s home on Sarah Circle in West Valley City while Josh’s mother, Terrica Powell, called 911.

Police broke a window to gain access to the home over concerns about carbon monoxide poisoning. No one was home, but police did find two box fans blowing on what appeared to be a freshly-cleaned couch, and Susan’s purse, undisturbed in the bedroom.

Where is Susan Powell?

At 6:40 p.m., Josh Powell finally arrived home with Charlie and Braden, but without Susan.

Josh Powell Ellis Maxwell Susan Powell anniversary

Josh Powell and Det. Ellis Maxwell, here seen in their second official interview, the day after Powell came home with Charlie and Braden but without his wife, Susan.

At a nearby West Valley City Police Department substation, Det. Ellis Maxwell conducted the first official interview with Josh Powell that night. Powell claimed he’d taken the boys on a camping trip to the desert west of Salt Lake City, on the Pony Express Trail, a washboard dirt road where four-wheel drive is recommended even in good weather.

Records would later reveal no activity on Josh Powell’s cell phone between 12:14 p.m. on December 6 and 3:02 p.m. on December 7. That first call, received from the mother of a boy who sometimes babysat the Powell boys, routed through a tower in West Valley City.

“Did you call Susan?” Maxwell asked Powell on the night of December 7.

“At work, yeah,” Josh Powell answered in that interview. “In fact, I called her when I got back into range.”

“Where’d you get cell service at, when did you pick that up?” Maxwell asked.

“Oh, it seems like I called her when I was getting onto the freeway,” Josh answered.

Phone records confirm Josh Powell did place a call to Susan at 3:36 p.m., with his cell phone routing through a tower at Point of the Mountain, a site south of Salt Lake City. Records show there was another call placed to Susan’s cell phone at 5:43 p.m. from the parking lot of Wells Fargo, where she worked.

Later that night, Maxwell would ask Powell for permission to search the family’s minivan. During that search, Maxwell’s partner discovered, deep in the center console, a pink Motorola cell phone. If Josh had Susan Powell’s cell phone in the minivan with him all along, why did he place those calls?

Episode 5 of Cold, available on Wednesday, December 12, will address those cell phone records and the statements of Josh Powell’s that conflicted with the evidence.

You can catch up on episodes 1 – 4 at https://thecoldpodcast.com as well as Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, Spotify and other podcast providers.

Listen on Apple Podcasts

If you or anyone you know is encountering domestic abuse, violent or otherwise, help is available 24/7. Contact the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition or contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline.