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Operation Tsunami launched to trap Josh Powell, “Cold” reveals

KSL Chopper 5 file photo: West Valley Police investigate an abandoned mine shaft for Susan Powell near in Ely, Nevada Friday, Aug. 19, 2011.

SALT LAKE CITY — New information obtained by the Cold podcast shows police launched a multi-state, coordinated operation in 2011 known as Operation Tsunami, a year and a half after the disappearance of Susan Powell, aimed at getting her husband, Josh, to incriminate himself or lead investigators to her body. 

Documents obtained by investigative reporter Dave Cawley show that by the summer of 2011, West Valley City investigators were running out of options and looking to try something new to help move the case forward.

“We had pretty much wrapped up everything that we could traditionally, and now we were kind of going a non-traditional direction,” said Ellis Maxwell, the now-retired detective who headed up the investigation for West Valley City. “We had to be creative and try to get Josh to disclose and give us some information.” 

Operation Tsunami

Details of a court-authorized wiretap are coming to light for the first time as part of the Cold podcast, through secret police planning documents and warrant affidavits. Maxwell declined to discuss the specifics of a wiretap with Cawley, but Cawley was able to confirm independently that a wiretap was not only authorized, but it was the linchpin of a much larger coordinated push in multiple states called Operation Tsunami.

A Utah district court judge signed a warrant authorizing that wiretap on Aug. 11, 2011. On Aug. 16, police began monitoring the cell phones of Josh Powell and his father, Steve, as well as a landline going to Steve’s home, where Josh lived with his two boys and two of his siblings.

Back to the desert

Records uncovered by the Cold podcast show Josh Powell Googled information about the town of Ely, Nevada, just before 5:30 pm on the afternoon of Dec. 6, 2009, the last day anyone saw his wife, Susan, alive. However, it was much later before police knew about the Internet search, and even longer after that before its full extent was understood.

Once the puzzle pieces came together, Maxwell says, they had to act on the information.

“We could not ignore it. I mean, it came directly off of Josh’s computers,” Maxwell said. 

The media circus around the Ely search was the cheese on an elaborate police mousetrap. Two days after officers started actively monitoring the Powells’ phone lines through the wiretap, they announced they would be holding a news conference in Ely, Nevada to offer more information about a potential “new lead” in the case. 

Baiting the media

Past searches had been conducted out of the eye of the media. This time, West Valley City invited reporters to observe.

“Yes, we wanted Josh to see this on the news, you know, to see what he had to say about it. And see if it would give us, you know, some direction,” he said. 

operation tsunami susan powell

Media swarm around West Valley Police as they search abandoned mine shafts for Susan Powell near in Ely, Nevada Friday, Aug. 19, 2011. (KSL File)

News outlets scrambled to get satellite trucks, reporters and other resources to Ely, a mining town near the Utah state line, on the promise of that new lead.

They were disappointed.

operation tsunami susan powell

Sgt. Mike Powell, who is not related to Josh Powell, spoke to reporters in Ely, Nevada, Friday, Aug. 19, 2011. (KSL File)

Police never disclosed to the reporters gathered there that Josh Powell had conducted Internet searches for Ely, instead holding a news conference at which very little information was released.

“The information is very limited that I’m able to disseminate to the public, as you are very well aware,” Sgt. Mike Powell, a then-spokesman for the West Valley City Police Department who is not related to Josh Powell, told reporters in the desert that day.

For his part, Josh Powell granted a rare phone interview to KSL Newsradio, sounding skeptical about the search.

“It just didn’t seem like they said anything. Honestly, that’s kind of what went through my mind,” Powell said, adding he couldn’t understand why police weren’t looking in hotels and motels for a living Susan.

A multi-state approach

There was more. A honk-and-wave event in Washington state featuring Susan Powell’s father, Chuck Cox, turned into a shouting match with Josh’s father, Steve. The timing was no accident, the Operation Tsunami documents reveal.

“I was ‘assisted’ in the best place to put that honk-and-wave and I didn’t understand exactly why,” Cox recalled later. “They gave me a kind of ‘Getting warmer, getting colder’ approach to where I should set up.”

The reason for the specific location, just outside a grocery store around the corner from the Powell family home, became evident to Cox when Steve Powell showed up.

“And he came over here, and I says, ‘So, I’m the bait,'” Cox said. “That’s fine with me, you know. I’m willing to help [police]. They could have just told me what they wanted to do. I would’ve done it.”

In spite of the public shouting match with TV cameras rolling, Cox says he knew he needed to get Steve Powell to say certain things so police would have what they needed to get a warrant and recover Susan’s childhood journals, something Steve had been bragging about having in media reports.

“I knew what kind of words I needed out of Steve,” Cox said later. “I needed him to say that he had the journals, say that they were important. I needed to give the police a reason to give a judge that they needed to get those journals back.”

It worked. A few days later, a judge signed a warrant authorizing police to search Steve Powell’s home.

Springing the trap

Police believed they would not be able to capture an incriminating phone conversation between Josh Powell and his father if both men were home when they served the warrant.

operation tsunami susan powell

This photo from West Valley City police shows Steve Powell’s home on Aug. 25, 2011, as investigators executed a search warrant during Operation Tsunami.

Operation Tsunami included a plot to provide a Utah TV station, Fox 13, with “inflammatory information” so they could secure an interview with Josh Powell. Detectives offered the station advance notice of a police operation in addition to that information. In exchange, a Fox 13 news editor agreed to send a reporter to Washington to confront Josh Powell with that inside information.

Under the agreement, Fox 13 promised to publish the complete, unedited video of any interviews with Josh or Steve Powell online, thereby allowing police access to them. The documents show a Fox 13 reporter and videographer attended the honk-and-wave on Aug. 20, 2011.

Afterward, the station published a story on its website with the headline “Raw videos: Josh Powell interviews, confrontation between Cox, Powell families.” The story is no longer online.

When COLD asked about the police plan involving the station, Fox 13 President and General Manager Tim Ermish released this statement:

In August of 2011, Fox 13 News sent a reporter to Washington State to interview Josh Powell and also cover a “honk and wave” organized by Chuck Cox.  We made the editorial decision to share the unedited video of both newsworthy events with our audience online.

At the same time, Steve Powell was invited to discuss a business opportunity over lunch at a Red Lobster restaurant in Kennewick, Washington, more than three hours away from Puyallup.

A last-minute change of plans meant police needed to go in while Josh Powell was still at the home, but Steve was indeed in Kennewick.

“I’m pretty sure he was in communication with his father, quite a bit,” Gary Sanders, a detective sergeant with the Pierce Co. Sheriff’s Department, said.

In at least one intercepted phone call, Steve Powell told his son he didn’t want to put his laptop in one of the vehicles named in the search warrant because he did not want that computer to be seized.

The house of horrors

The primary goal of the well-publicized Operation Tsunami raid on House Powell on Aug. 25, 2011, was to recover Susan Powell’s childhood journals. Police found those journals — and a lot more they weren’t expecting.

operation tsunami susan powell

“A hoarder is your biggest nightmare on a search warrant just because you know you have to go through every item. You want to make sure that there’s no evidence tucked away,” Det. Sgt. Gary Sanders said. (West Valley City Police photo)

“To be thorough and efficient, we’re documenting, photographing things in place, marking ’em, and then they were basically all transferred over to West Valley right there,” Sanders said.

Sanders, who served as the top police liaison for the Powell case in Washington, wrote the warrant and went in with officers from Pierce County, the U.S. Marshals, the FBI and West Valley City. He described what they found in the bedrooms of Steve Powell and that of Josh’s brother, John, as the stuff of nightmares.

operation tsunami susan powell

Among other items, police found a camera belonging to Steve Powell, with a tape inside ready to record. (West Valley City police)

In John Powell’s room, police found a hangman’s noose hanging from a wooden frame on the wall, a giant paper pterodactyl dinosaur and some disconcerting images and items.

“Bags of – like, hair and toenail clippings that just… yeah, it was a house of horrors when we went through there,” Sanders said.

Steve Powell’s room was similarly disturbing.

“It was 20 to 25 detectives there, and we all went, ‘Wow.’ We were like, ‘That’s crazy,'” Sanders recalled.

Cold has already reported on some of what investigators found – personal hygiene items used by Susan Powell and items of her clothing. Police also found journals, pornography, videos of Susan and other women and more — all to be reviewed at a later date.

Cold: Episode 11

Hear the entire story about Operation Tsunami and what else police discovered at the home of Steve and Josh Powell in the latest episode of the Cold podcast.

Listen to Cold on the KSL Newsradio website or on Apple Podcasts. Look for additional information and resources at https://thecoldpodcast.com

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